September Dawn

Reviewed by Bill McKeever and Aaron Shafovaloff

The Mormon Church called it a “distortion of history,” but such a vague condemnation failed to explain exactly what that means. To be sure, director Christopher Cain used artistic license in the filming of September Dawn, a controversial film that recounts the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre that took the lives of 120 men, women, and children traveling to California from Arkansas. September Dawn gets its name from the date of the event, September 11, 1857. To give the impression that the film ignored actual facts is far from the truth.

Sadly, the film was given an R-rating, an almost sure guarantee that many Mormons would not view it since viewing movies with an R-rating is frowned upon in LDS circles. Such a rating no doubt limited Christians from seeing it as well. Had they just eliminated a couple of short, unnecessary scenes, I am sure the rating could have been lowered to a PG-13. The violence of the massacre was not any more intense than that in many PG-13 films and certainly not any more intense than that in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Given the fact that forensic examination of some of the skulls that were accidentally unearthed in the 1990s shows that several of the emigrants were shot at close range in the head, it could be said that the massacre scene was not nearly as graphic as it could have been.

Trying to tell a very complex story within a 2-hour period is not an easy task, and if anything, this is one of the strongest criticisms we have when it comes to September Dawn. Neither of us couldn’t help but think that most of the people in the theater (what few there were) who had not done any initial research into the MMM, would probably leave having several questions that the film failed to answer. Given its limited budget ($11,000,000) we weren’t expecting an elaborate production. While many reviewers tended to focus on the screenplay and acting, of greater concern to us was the historical accuracy of the film regarding the actual event of the tragedy itself.

We begin with Brigham Young (Terrence Stamp) being deposed for the first of two trials of John D. Lee, the only participant in the massacre that was actually found guilty by jury. Young explains that he cannot travel to Beaver (UT) to testify in person due to the fact that he has been “for some time, an invalid.” Later in the film Young claims, under oath, that he only learned about the destruction of the Arkansas company “some time after it occurred – then only by floating rumor.” His words are recorded accurately in the film, but the accuracy of this statement is highly suspect. (Mormonism Unveiled: or Life and Confession of John D. Lee, pp. 257, 310).

In the following scenes we see the Fancher/Baker wagon train being greeted by a party of Mormons led by Bishop Samuel Jacobson (Jon Voight) and his two sons, Jonathan (Trent Ford) and Micah (Taylor Handley). Others in the party include John D. Lee (John Gries). Though Voight’s role is fictional, his character seems to be modeled after Mormon leader Isaac C. Haight, the stake president of Cedar City. Haight’s name is mentioned in the film but no one specifically plays that part.

Captains Alexander Fancher and John T. Baker explain to the bishop that they need to re-supply the train before crossing the desert into California. They are told by the Mormons that there will be no supplies, but Samuelson states that they can stay at a place called Mountain Meadow for a period of no more than two weeks, at which time they will have to move on. The refusal to sell the train supplies is accurate given the fact that the Mormons were expecting the arrival of over 2,000 soldiers led by General Albert Sidney Johnston. President Buchanan was under the impression that a rebellion against the US government was underway in Utah and he wanted Young removed as territorial governor. Expecting a siege, the Mormons were instructed not to sell supplies to any emigrants passing through the territory.

The film gives the impression that the emigrants were fairly ignorant regarding Mormon teaching (outside of polygamy) and their founder Joseph Smith. The travelers are portrayed as a very thankful and pious group, but it is not hard to imagine that several of them probably viewed the Mormons with contempt, if for nothing more than their refusal to sell them material needed to continue their journey. Rumors have persisted among Mormons that the emigrants purposely poisoned a spring and an ox, leading to the death of some of the local Indians, but Mormon historian Richard E. Turley, in an article in the September, 2007 Ensign, concedes, “Historical research shows that these stories are not accurate.” Bear in mind that many of these accusations, meant to portray the emigrants in a bad light, came from the lips of the perpetrators themselves. Emigrant journals and diaries that could have shed a lot of light on this matter were allegedly destroyed after the massacre. If they do still exist in the LDS Church archives, no one seems to be talking. Turley correctly notes that, “nothing that any of the emigrants purportedly did or said, even if all of it were true, came close to justifying their deaths.”

Some felt that the scene depicting the emigrants thanking God for the Mormons’ hospitality (for letting them stay at the Meadows), while simultaneously showing Samuelson praying curses on them (as he prays before a meal) was unfair. Samuelson prays, “These people are cursed beyond hope of redemption…curse the Gentile dogs who allow abominations… curse all people from Missouri who drove us from our land…may these children of Satan, go to hell.” While it is less certain that Mormon laymen or bishops used such rhetoric, can it really be said that such animosity was not generally felt by Latter-day Saints during this time, especially given the words of their leaders? On July 2, 1857, Heber C. Kimball preached:

Drummond, and those miserable scoundrels, and some that are now in our midst–how do I feel towards them? Pray for them? Yes, I pray that God Almighty would send them to hell. Some say cross lots; but I would like to have them take a round about road, and be as long as they can be in going there… And may God Almighty curse our enemies. [Voices: ‘Amen’] I feel to curse my enemies: and when God won’t bless them, I do not think he will ask me to bless them. If I did, it would be to put the poor curses to death who have brought death and destruction on me and my brethren–upon my wives and my children that I buried on the road between the States and this place.” (Journal of Discourses 5:89, 95)

Brigham Young, less than two months prior to the massacre, stated in public,

“But woe, woe to that man who comes here to unlawfully interfere with my affairs. Woe, woe to those men who come here to unlawfully meddle with me and this people. I swore in Nauvoo, when my enemies were looking me in the face, that I would send them to hell across lots, if they meddled with me; and I ask no more odds of all hell to-day. If they kill me, it is all right; but they will not until the time comes; and I think that I shall die a natural death; at least I expect to” (July 26, 1857, Journal of Discourses 5:78).

In light of these comments (and many others) can such a prayer seem all that far-fetched?

The Love-story Sub Plot

The film included a Romeo and Juliet love story that, in our opinion, seemed to detract from the story. Samuelson’s son Jonathan impresses Emily Hudson (Tamara Hope), the daughter of “Reverend Hudson” (Daniel Libman), after he spends several precious film-minutes breaking (AKA whispering) an unrideable horse. Within a very short period they are madly in love. Without giving away the story, let us say that Jonathan does not like what he sees among those of his Mormon faith and does not take part in the attack. There is one scene during a lull in the attack where Emily explains her love for Jonathan and asks her father to perform the wedding ceremony should they be fortunate enough to live through the ordeal. Her father smiles and says he would be proud to marry her. “It has always been my dream to do so.” This was especially troubling. We would think a minister with just a minimum amount of understanding regarding the Mormon religion would be more protective of his daughter.

Actual Quotations

Throughout the film Brigham Young is either giving speeches dealing with blood atonement or speaking on the subject. Reviewers who were not familiar with Young’s sermons during that time-period probably felt that such comments were extremely over the top. Perhaps that is why some felt the film unfairly portrayed the Mormons as blood thirsty villains. However, many of the statements made by Young in the film were taken from actual sermons he and others gave, though not all of them were given prior to the massacre. For example, Samuelson tries to emphasize the necessity for his son Jonathan to obey the LDS leadership. He then paraphrases Heber C. Kimball who said, “But if you are told by your leader to do a thing, do it. None of your business whether it is right or wrong.” Kimball did make such a statement (see Journal of Discourses 6:32), but it was said on November 8, 1857, nearly two months after the massacre had taken place. John M. Higbee’s speech to John D. Lee prior to the massacre is taken practically word for word. Some of the statements made by Young are conflated, that is, they are taken from various sermons and made to appear as if it was all one message.

Statements either quoted verbatim or alluded to in the film include:

  • “[The Prophet inculcates the notion, and it is believed by every true Mormon, that Smith’s prophecies are superior to the laws of the land. I have heard the Prophet say that he would yet tread down his enemies, and walk over their dead bodies; and if he was not let alone, he would be a second Mohammed to this generation, and that he would] make it one gore of blood from the Rocky mountains to the Atlantic ocean; that like Mohammed, whose motto in treating for peace was, ‘the Alcoran or the Sword.’ So should it be eventually with us, ‘Joseph Smith or the Sword.’ (Thomas Marsh testimony, Documentary History of the Church 3:167)
  • “[Suppose you found your brother in bed with your wife, and put a javelin through both of them, you would be justified, and they would atone for their sins, and be received into the kingdom of God. I would at once do so in such a case; and under such circumstances,] I have no wife whom I love so well that I would not put a javelin through her heart, and I would do it with clean hands” (Brigham Young, March 16, 1856, Journal of Discourses 3:247).
  • There are sins that men commit for which they cannot receive forgiveness in this world, or in that which is to come, and if they had their eyes open to see their true condition, they would be perfectly willing to have their blood spilt upon the ground…” (Brigham Young, September 21, 1856, Journal of Discourses 4:53).
  • “[Now take a person in this congregation who has knowledge with regard to being saved in the kingdom of our God and our Father, and being exalted, one who knows and understands the principles of eternal life, and sees the beauty and excellency of the eternities before him compared with the vain and foolish things of the world, and suppose that he is overtaken in a gross fault, that he has] committed a sin that he knows will deprive him of that exaltation which he desires, and that he cannot attain to it without the shedding of his blood, and also knows that by having his blood shed he will atone for that sin, and be saved and exalted with the Gods, is there a man of woman in this house but what would say, ‘shed my blood that I may be saved and exalted with the Gods?'” (Brigham Young, February 8, 1857, Journal of Discourses 4:219).
  • “[But my faith is that they will not succeed in taking my life just yet. They have not as good a man to deal with as they had when they had Joseph Smith. I do not profess to be very good.] I will try to take care of number one, and if it is wicked for me to try to preserve myself, I shall persist in it; for I am intending to take care of myself” (Brigham Young, July 26, 1857, Journal of Discourses 5:76-77).
  • “[President Pierce and] all hell could not remove me [from office]” (Cited in Eugene Campbell, Establishing Zion, p.224).

In one scene Brigham Young is quoted as saying, “I am the voice of God, and anyone who doesn’t like it will be hewn down. God has revealed to me that I have the right and the power to call down curses on anyone who tries to invade our lands. Therefore, I curse the gentiles.” We are not aware of Young saying this about himself, but several LDS leaders have certainly said that Brigham Young was the “voice of God.” These include George A. Smith (JOD 1:192), John Taylor (JOD 5:192), and Orson Hyde (JOD 8:234).

The phrase “hewn down,” is an expression often used within the context of judgment. It can be found in the Bible, as well as in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants. Several LDS leaders have used this phrase, including Young. For example, on March 2, 1856, in a message given in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, he said, “The time is coming when justice will be laid to the line and righteousness to the plummet; when we shall take the old broad sword and ask, “Are you for God?” and if you are not heartily on the Lord’s side, you will be hewn down” (Journal of Discourses 3:226). Seven months prior to the massacre Young declared,

“And I will say that the time will come, and is now nigh at hand, when those who profess our faith, if they are guilty of what some of this people are guilty of, will find the axe laid at the root of the tree, and they will be hewn down. What has been must be again, for the Lord is coming to restore all things. The time has been in Israel under the law of God, the celestial law, or that which pertains to the celestial law, for it is one of the laws of that kingdom where our Father dwells, that if a man was found guilty of adultery, he must have his blood shed, and that is near at hand. But now I say, in the name of the Lord, that if this people will sin no more, but faithfully live their religion, their sins will be forgiven them without taking life” (Journal of Discourses 4:219).

Young states in the film, “until this moment I have protected emigrants who have passed through this territory, now I will loose the Indians upon them, and if any miserable scoundrel comes here to our Zion, cut his throat.” The italicized portion is a direct quote made by Young on July 8, 1855 (Journal of Discourses 2:311). However, Young also stated he would no longer restrain the Indians from attacking wagon trains passing through Utah territory. Will Bagley, in his excellent book, Blood of the Prophets, notes that on August 16, 1857 (one month prior to the massacre) Young declared,

“If the United States send their army here and war commences, the travel must stop; your trains must not cross this continent back and forth. To accomplish this I need only say a word to the [tribes,] for the Indians will use them up unless I continually strive to restrain them. I will say no more to the Indians, let them alone, but do as you please. And what is that? It is to use them up, and they will do it” (Blood of the Prophets, p. 91. Citing Dimick Huntington’s Journal).

Historical Inaccuracies

  1. The Mountain Meadows is depicted as a lush area complete with aspen and pine trees and a rather large lake and river. One critical reviewer even said that the Utah landscape was the film’s one redeeming factor. However, the film was shot in Canada, not Utah. The countryside of the Mountain Meadows is actually not at all spectacular. It is in an area of rolling hills and there is no lake in the immediate area. The only water supply is a small creek. Trees of any size are extremely scarce in that area.
  2. A flashback to Joseph Smith’s death at Carthage Jail in 1844 correctly shows Mormons destroying a print shop that printed a critical newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor. The next scene shows a mob attacking Smith, Samuelson, and others in a jail cell (correctly detailed to look like a bedroom). At this particular time Smith was actually accompanied only by his brother Hyrum, Willard Richards, and John Taylor. Joseph Smith (Dean Cain, also known for having played Superman in Lois & Clark) is seen shooting into the attacking mob with a single shot pistol. Actually, Smith had a six-shot Ethan Allen Pepper-Box revolver that he used to shoot three of the attackers. Eyewitness John Taylor states that two of those Smith shot later died from their wounds. Credit should be given to director Cain for including the gun. That’s an important aspect in Smith’s death that Mormon films (like Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration) always seem to leave out.
  3. The film gives the impression that death in the Mormon Church by “blood atonement” was rather common. Evidence does not support this. There is also no evidence of a woman being killed in this manner.
  4. Samuelson forces his son Jonathan to go to the temple to get his endowments. There was no temple in Utah in 1857. The “temple scene” gives the impression that men and women are together when they are being “washed and anointed.” They are not. However, the scene depicting Mormons dressed in temple garments has them accurately reciting the early penalty of the Second Token of the Aaronic Priesthood, “We, and each of us, covenant and promise that we will not reveal any of the secrets of this, the Second Token of the Aaronic Priesthood, with its accompanying name, sign, or penalty. Should we do so, we agree to have our breasts cut open and our hearts and vitals torn out from our bodies and given to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field.”
  5. An emigrant by the name of Nancy Dunlap (Lolita Davidovich), wife of Lorenzo Dow Dunlap, is found floating dead in the river. There was an actual person in the train by that name, but it is highly doubtful that she was killed prior to the massacre.
  6. The council at Cedar City depicts the participants as reacting positively to the proposal to kill the emigrants. There were in fact, several who resisted the plan; one of whom was William Dame, the stake president and militia commander in nearby Parowan. Dame later relented after being given more details by Isaac Haight.
  7. John D. Lee is seen approaching the fatigued wagon train with a white flag. However, Lee stated that the white flag was carried by William Bateman and that it was Bateman who first approached the Emigrants. When Bateman returned, John M. Higbee told Lee to enter the emigrant fortification and “arrange the terms of the surrender” (Mormonism Unveiled, p.242, 245.)
  8. The film shows John D. Lee giving the order, “Mormons, do your duty.” Most historians agree it was John M. Higbee who was told to give the command (“Do your duty!”).
  9. The film shows several of the Mormon militiamen on horseback. According to Lee, most of the Mormon men were on foot walking along the right side of the unarmed emigrants. Two men were mounted on horses should any of the men manage to escape the initial volley. Lee stated that three or four men did get away “some distance, but the men on horses soon overtook them and cut their throats” (Mormonism Unveiled, p.251).

Should This Story Be Forgotten?

If Mormon blog sites are any indication, many Mormons would be happy if the Mountain Meadows Massacre was soon forgotten. Some claim that this happened too long ago and that only bigotry and hatred keeps its memory alive. However, there are several reasons why this issue needs continued discussion. For one, Mormon historians admit that evidence that could shed light on this tragedy has been destroyed. This fact alone compels researchers to continue to look for clues that might solve the many mysteries that remain. Contrary to the hopes of the LDS faithful, such an act tends to indict, rather than exonerate men like Brigham Young. Furthermore, the handling of this tragedy by the LDS Church hasn’t helped descendants of the victims reach closure. While many Mormons publicly rejoiced when on April 7, 2004, Illinois officials apologized to LDS leaders for the murder of Joseph Smith and the expulsion of Mormons from Illinois, the families of the deceased Fancher/Baker train have yet to receive an apology from the LDS Church. Instead, at the dedication of the new rock cairn memorial in 1999, LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley read a carefully prepared speech that made it clear that the church was not responsible. It also stopped short of offering an apology. Hinckley’s statement ignored the fact that, outside of the Indian participants, all of the white men involved were Mormons and that most of the emigrants died at the hands of Mormons, not Indians.

Blind Obedience and Religious Fanaticism

In a number of interviews, Christopher Cain stated that the purpose of the film was to highlight the dangers of religious fanaticism. Having listened to and read several interviews with both Cain and Voight, it was emphasized that the film was not meant to condemn the modern LDS Church. Voight often made it clear that he felt the Mormon Church of today is not at all like it was back in 1857. In fact, he often had positive things to say about the Mormon people. Still, this did not prevent many Mormons from venting their vitriol against those who would dare offer a critical view of Mormon history. When the LDS Church came out with a statement calling the film a “a serious distortion of history,” Mormons immediately took to the blog sites to parrot this denunciation. Bear in mind that this was going on before the film even opened. When the film finally did open, charges of bigotry and hatred once again were put to use to excoriate any and all who might not say only “faith-promoting” things about Mormonism, and more specifically, Brigham Young. Even some non-Mormon critics of the film seemed to imply that much of the behavior and dialogue in September Dawn was a complete fabrication. Could it be that these reviewers had no idea that Young actually made these comments?

Lee Benson, a columnist for the LDS Church-owned Deseret News, actually wrote that the descendants of Brigham Young should sue the makers of September Dawn for “everything they own.” Perhaps Mr. Benson could also lead the charge in getting back the tens of thousands of dollars worth of wagon train property that mysteriously disappeared after the massacre. Certainly he doesn’t want us to believe that the Indians confiscated it all. Benson’s unjustifiably harsh column was probably one of the worst we’ve read (with exception perhaps to Bob Lonsberry’s ), In his piece Benson implied that somehow the emigrants may have deserved what they got, “The massacre’s latest re-telling — the movie ‘September Dawn’ that was released nationally this week — follows a predictable script: The dead are innocent and the killers are not.” The fact is, Mr. Benson, the dead were innocent, and the killers were not. Benson displayed an incredible amount of ignorance when he went on to write, Not to mention the fact that nothing Brigham Young did in 33 years leading the church suggested so much as an inkling toward such action.” Deseret News journalist Carrie A. Moore also concluded that September Dawn “erroneously portrayed Young as the one who ordered the massacre.” It is amazing how these journalists can be so sure about an aspect of the massacre that expert historians still debate to this day.

A reader who concurred with Benson’s piece stated, “The FACT that Brigham Young did NOT order the ‘incident,’ did not want it to occur, was angry and heartsick afterward, just doesn’t make any difference to the usual suspects.” As mentioned earlier, evidence does not at all clear Young from complicity in the massacre. Such comments tend to completely ignore the many fiery sermons given by Young and his associates during this same time period (some of which we cite above). Are we really expected to believe that such language was to be embraced by Mormon followers as merely playful banter, meant only to cause good will and harmony between Mormons and their Gentile neighbors? Historians are well aware that Young met with several Indian chiefs prior to the massacre and promised them that they could take the emigrant’s cattle (A fact completely overlooked by Turley in his September, 2007 Ensign article). Only the most naive would conclude that this act did not have the potential for violence. Brigham Young did claim he was sick when he heard of the slaughter, but his later actions tend to show that this was just good theater. On May 25, 1861 Brigham Young finally visited the scene of the massacre. Upon seeing the cross atop the rock cairn memorial placed there in 1859 by Brevet Major James H. Carleton, Brigham Young raised his hand to the square and stated, “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord, and I have taken a little!” Within five minutes the entire rock monument was torn completely down. Does this really sound like the action of a heartsick man? A heartsick man would want justice; Young did all within his power to prevent that from happening. His primary goal was to protect himself, protect the murderers, and protect his church.

Having read numerous blog comments by Latter-day Saints, it is probably safe to say that many of Christopher Cain’s critics have never bothered to crack open even one book on the subject. The vehemence (and ignorance) expressed by some Mormons tend to show that blind obedience and loyalty to the leadership of the LDS Church exhibited in 1857 is still very much alive today. With this in mind, we will close with a portion of a letter sent by a Mormon to the editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought back in the 1970s:

A young girl recently arose in our ward and said, ‘I don’t care if what Spencer W. Kimball does is contrary to scripture or the words of previous prophets. When he speaks it is truth. He is the prophet.’ She was quite worked up and wept as she said those words. I wept too. She has decided on one side of the conundrum, I on the other. But regardless of what side I or she has taken, it is a solid theological question. Do we have testimonies of doctrine, history, reality, philosophy, or the positions and qualifications of men? Does it really matter what the man in the position says, as long as he holds the position that allows him the privilege of saying it ? Does our faith in the system of Mormon religion overarch true doctrine? I have heard tearful testimonies in my thirty-nine years of many things. Some testify that the shadow-leadership program a few years ago was a direct revelation from the Lord. I have heard testimonies of the divine origin of the Constitution, the Boy Scouts of America, the Adam- God doctrine, the anti-Adam-God doctrine, and godly support for various individuals touted as being called the infallible. Did the hundreds of dead in Guyana not bear terrible testimony with their own lives and the lives of their children that they believed the words of a man as being the words of their God? And it couldn’t happen in Mormonism? Let’s ask the Fancher party” (vol.15, No.3, p.4).

Further Reading