UMC Links

U of U Prof’s Film on Mountain Meadows Massacre Examines Descendants’ Responses–146 Years Later

February 11, 2003 — A new 98-minute documentary by University of Utah Film Studies Professor Brian Patrick explores how descendants of the victims and perpetrators of one of Utah’s most heinous and unresolved crimes, are choosing to deal with wounds that span generations and were inflicted 146 years ago.

The Utah premiere of Burying the Past, the story of the legacy of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, will be Friday and Saturday, Feb. 21 and 22, at 7:30 p.m. in the Dumke Auditorium in the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, located next to the David Eccles School of Business. Tickets for the film, which took more than four years to produce, are $10 and may be obtained in advance by calling 801-585-6961 or 801-581-5127.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre took place on Sept. 11, 1857, about 40 miles southwest of Cedar City, Utah. Local Mormon settlers and their Paiute allies slaughtered 120 men, women and children, from northwest Arkansas, who comprised what was known as the Fancher-Baker wagon train, bound for California.

Although Burying the Past reviews the events and contextualizes them, the film is structured around the Sept. 10 and 11, 1999, memorial service to bury the Mountain Meadows Massacre victims’ remains and the dedication of the new monument by L.D.S. Church President Gordon B. Hinckley. The real intent of the film, according to Patrick, is to explore the present-day controversies and difficulties the descendants-and organizations related to the events-have had in reconciling the past. The film, which will be shown at the Denver Film Festival in the fall, does not shy away from the controversies surrounding the event and modern-day disagreements in memorializing the victims. Interviews with descendants who have reservations about the L.D.S. Church’s ownership and management of the new monument site are juxtaposed against those who proclaim: “We don’t know what really happened!”

Says Patrick, “I’m not a historical film maker so I was more interested in the sociological, political and anthropological aspects of recent events-the discovery of the victims’ bones and their burial; the question of the Mormon Church’s involvement; the rebuilding, dedication and maintenance of the monument; and the complexities and struggles of everybody on all sides of the issue.

“Never-ending cycles of vengeance are turning the world upside down. So this unique coming together-albeit imperfectly-of the descendants, some of whom formed the Mountain Meadows Association, was fascinating to me,” Patrick notes. “The descendants who met, however, weren’t totally unanimous in their forgiving. Some were going to forgive-but not forget. Some of the Arkansas descendants weren’t able to forgive at all. And the L.D.S. Church’s rebuilding of the monument was, in a way, an attempt to put the past behind it-yet the site still lacks any kind of explanatory marker.”

Patrick combines the interviews with numerous historical accounts, photographs and the only known reenactment of the tragic events, which he filmed in grainy black and white. Included are interviews with Weber State University Historian Gene Sessions, L.D.S. Church Historian Glen Leonard and Western Historian Will Bagley, author of the recent book Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. In addition, the film incorporates expert opinions from archeologists and forensic anthropologists. The film shows never-before-seen video of the victims’ skulls and bones, accidentally unearthed by a backhoe.

“When the old, decrepit 1932 monument was torn down to build a new monument and the backhoe unearthed some of the victim’s bones, everything was turned upside down,” notes Patrick, an Ohio native with no connection to the 1857 events. “All of a sudden the story leapt out of the history books and into reality because no one had ever actually seen the remains of these victims. And there had been a lot of disinformation and naysayers.”

Burying the Past visits and contrasts the family reunions of both the victims’ and perpetrators’ descendants. According to Patrick, “The Arkansan descendants have a good time and help other family members learn about the story. John D. Lee was the only one eventually convicted and executed for the massacre. The John D. Lee family reunions show people who have had this horrible burden of guilt for over a century-and how they are now trying to feel good about their ancestry.”

Part of the film includes a first-person account of the slaughter, witnessed by four-and-a-half-year-old Nancy Saphrona Huff, one of 17 children under age six spared because they were thought to be too young to remember the events. Her testimony, published in a newspaper 18 years later, details the horrific scene and the children’s dispersion among Mormon homes. One of the most poignant accounts is her description of seeing her murdered mother’s dress in the home where she stayed.

“I worked very hard to be balanced and fair. But I wanted the film to have some bite, too. I didn’t want to avoid issues,” Patrick says. ” I like to take a humanistic approach in my films. I like to show people to other people because it breaks down personal stereotypes and prejudices that we all have.”

Burying the Past acknowledges the many mysteries that still surround the massacre, draws comparisons to more current, worldwide instances of intolerance and concludes by listing the 120 names of those killed during the Mountain Meadows Massacre.