Understanding the Mountain Meadow Massacre: Historical Insight from Richard E. Turley, Jr. vs. the Deception of September Dawn

The trailer of September Dawn shows that a truly deceptive and hostile film is being unleashed to stir up anger and fear about the Mormons. I think Latter-day Saints need to be prepared to discuss what actually happened, including the fact that the evidence shows Brigham Young absolutely did not authorize the massacre and actually insisted that there should be no meddling with the immigrants, who should be allowed to pass through in peace. While I anxiously await a new book to be published by Richard Turley and others, we do have a new advance article from him, “Remembering the Mountain Meadows Massacre.” It will be in the September Ensign but is available online now at LDS.org (a copy is also available at LDSMag.com (Meridian Magazine)). Here’s one excerpt:

President Young’s express message of reply to Haight, dated September 10, arrived in Cedar City two days after the massacre. His letter reported recent news that no U.S. troops would be able to reach the territory before winter.

“So you see that the Lord has answered our prayers and again averted the blow designed for our heads,” he wrote.

“In regard to emigration trains passing through our settlements,” Young continued, “we must not interfere with them untill they are first notified to keep away. You must not meddle with them. The Indians we expect will do as they please but you should try and preserve good feelings with them. There are no other trains going south that I know of[.] [I]f those who are there will leave let them go in peace. While we should be on the alert, on hand and always ready we should also possess ourselves in patience, preserving ourselves and property ever remembering that God rules.”

When Haight read Young’s words, he sobbed like a child and could manage only the words, “Too late, too late.”

Turley’s research provides important insights into the mistakes of Isaac Haight and the conditions that allowed other local people to be drawn into the tragedy. There are lessons that we must never forget: the dangers of deception, the dangers of “just following orders”, and the insidious evil of violence for anything other than self-defense.

Today, some massacre victims’ descendants and collateral relatives are Latter-day Saints. These individuals are in an uncommon position because they know how it feels to be both a Church member and a relative of a victim.

James Sanders is the great-great-grandson of Nancy Saphrona Huff, one of the children who survived the massacre. “I still feel pain, I still feel anger and sadness that the massacre happened,” said Brother Sanders. “But I know that the people who did this will be accountable before the Lord, and that brings me peace.”

Brother Sanders, who serves as a family history consultant in the Snowflake Fifth Ward, Snowflake Arizona Stake, said that learning his ancestor had been killed in the massacre “didn’t affect my faith because it’s based on Jesus Christ, not on any person in the Church.”

Sharon Chambers of the 18th Ward, Ensign Salt Lake City Utah Stake, is the great- granddaughter of child survivor Rebecca Dunlap. “The people who did this had lost their way. I don’t know what was in their minds or in their hearts,” she said. “I feel sorrow that this happened to my ancestors. I also feel sorrow that people have blamed the acts of some on an entire group, or on an entire religion.”

The Mountain Meadows Massacre has continued to cause pain and controversy for 150 years. During the past two decades, descendants and other relatives of the emigrants and the perpetrators have at times worked together to memorialize the victims. These efforts have had the support of President Gordon B. Hinckley, officials of the state of Utah, and other institutions and individuals.

Among the products of this cooperation have been the construction of two memorials at the massacre site and the placing of plaques commemorating the Arkansas emigrants. Descendant groups, Church leaders and members, and civic officials continue to work toward reconciliation and will participate in various memorial services this September at the Mountain Meadows.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

8 thoughts on “Understanding the Mountain Meadow Massacre: Historical Insight from Richard E. Turley, Jr. vs. the Deception of September Dawn

  1. Thanks for the write-up. I thought the Ensign article was excellent.

    With regard to the trailer of September Dawn, I think that one of the most astounding things is that the film apparently makes no mention of the letter that Brigham Young sent ordering the local militia to let the wagon train pass unmolested. Actor Jon Voight who features in September Dawn has acknowledged that the movie does not mention this historical fact. It is puzzling.

    You might be interested in one of my own posts about September Dawn at Mormon Mentality. In that post, I quote from Voight’s interview but also list links to numerous posts from Justin at the Mormon Wasp comparing the movie to historical sources.

  2. what’s funny is that this evidence has been cited by my father since I was a boy. In all of the anti-Mormon vitriol, I have yet to hear it addressed by ANYBODY–any scholar, any writer. This letter makes for MMM’s version of “an inconvenient truth.”

  3. russell,
    I’m not sure what you mean by “this evidence,” but if you mean Brigham Young’s letter, Juanita Brooks addresses it. (I know you’re talking about “anti-Mormon vitriol,” but you suggest that nobody–no scholar or writer–mentions it.) I’d be surprised if Will Bagley didn’t also address the letter, although I haven’t read his book yet.

  4. Yes, I do realize that I spoke a bit rashly. I really was referring more to the common discourse amongst chatrooms and news media. That said, my understanding is that while Bagley mentions it, he dismisses it out of hand, doesn’t even take it seriously.
    And to me, Brooks does not qualify under the term, “vitriol.” Everyone tries to wrap themselves in Brooks’ mantle–Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

  5. I would like to say that I was one of the “Lucky” or “Unlucky” (depends on how you look at it,) few that was able to see an advance screening of the film, “SEPTEMBER DAWN”.

    Although the lead character in the film is in fact a good-guy Mormon, most of the other roles are portraid as paranoid zealots.

    The letter is actually addressed in the film and literally represented word for word in the deposition of Brigham Young, played by Terence Stamp and not Jon Voight.

    Although Young does not directly order the extermination of the “Gentiles” he is represented as condoning their death and does not appear to feel any loss for these people.

    I do agree that we should do our reading of the events that occured to be able to intelligently speak of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Rest assured, outsiders will have questions…

  6. Jeff, I am always so impressed with your writings. You and your family were great examples when we lived near you in Provo. Keep up the good work.

  7. Wasn’t it Jesus who said anyone without sin can cast the first stone? The Hollywood version of the Mountain Meadow makes hypocrites out of its smug viewers. I’m not condoning the macabre massacre. However, the nation has forgotten their ancestors’ role in driving the saints to Salt Lake in the first place. The raping of wives and daughters as slews of protestant men ravished quiet, mormon communities. And let’s not forget the killing and lynching of saints in the south. And what about Nauvoo? The Saints drained a swamp that no one wanted to live near, and made it their home only to be burned out of their homes with violence and murder caused by good old baptist boys, catholics, methodists, and etc… and we won’t even go to Carthedge jail where Jospeph Smith (young father and husband) was gunned down along with his brother by these same religious zealots of other faiths that make up our great nation. And we won’t even bring up the fact that the KKK was started by Baptist preachers in the South. The film is irresponsible, as it will cause people to fear and some loon will perhaps go to drastic measures in the name of protection (just as those men at Mountain Meadow did). The film teaches religious intolerance in a nation that was ideally founded on the sacred principle freedom of religion. It seems that the nation will only grant that freedom if the religion is protestant. God speed.

  8. I don’t know how much the letter by Brigham Young suggests his innocence. His comment to the effect that the Indians will do as they may is damning considering that the Latter-Day Saints had first incited them to act against the settlers. To stir up the native Americans and then make a statement that that the LDS should passively let the Indians do what they will is a real blemish on Brigham Young’s reputation here.

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