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“September Dawn”

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The controversial film opens Friday.  Yesterday I spent two hours talking about it with Jon Voight and director Chris Cain yesterday.  The first part of the transcript is here and the audio for hour one here and hour two here.  The balance of the transcript will be posted when time permits.

UPDATE: A reader replies:

Dear Mr. Hewitt,

I just read part of the transcript of your interview with Christopher Cain , the director of the soon-to-be-released film, September Dawn. 

Mr. Cain made a rather egregious misstatement of fact here (emphases added):[# More #]

HH: Let me read to you what they say about communication too late. President Brigham Young’s express message of reply to hate, who’s the guy in charge on the scenes, dated September 10th. 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 your settlements, Young continued, we must not interfere with them until 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. If 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 in property, ever remembering that God rules. Chris Cain, what do you make of that letter? Was it an intentional manipulation of the record?

CC: Nobody’s really ever found that letter. In Brigham Young’s deposition, they asked him about the letter, and asked him if he had it, and he said he searched for it, but was unable to find it, unable to locate it.  So it’s one of those things where nobody’s ever seen the letter. It’s never surfaced. Or the guy that supposedly took it.

HH: Oh, that’s interesting. I didn’t know that.

Mr. Cain is simply wrong here. A copy of the letter from Brigham Young (the one where he said “In regard to emigration trains passing through our settlements, we must not interfere with them untill they are first notified to keep away. You must not meddle with them…let them go in peace”) exists.  It’s referenced in footnote #6 in the article by Richard Turley you quoted to Mr. Cain .  The footnote states:

Brigham Young to Isaac C. Haight, Sept. 10, 1857, Letterpress Copybook 3:827-28, Brigham Young Office Files, Church Archives.

I didn’t expect you to know about this detail.  You were in a radio interview and responded to Mr. Cain’s remark on the fly.  However, Mr. Cain is supposedly well-versed in the history of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  To my knowledge, no reputable historian has suggested that Brigham Young’s letter has “never surfaced.”

Mr. Cain (and, for that matter, Mr. Voigt) go on to play fast and loose with the fact with this statement:

HH: Jon Voight, and so you don’t consider that as dispositive either?

JV: Well, there is controversy about the letter, so that is one thing. And then in his testimony from the government, he said something about the first time he heard about it was from floating rumor, something like that, didn’t he?

CC: Yeah, they asked him when he had first heard about it, and he said they asked him if he’d heard about it, and he says only through floating rumor, so the idea being if he’d only heard about it through floating rumor after the fact, why would he have sent a letter before the fact?

The letter Brigham Young received supposedly said : “The Indians have gotten the emigrants coralled at Mountain Meadows and Lee wants to know what to do.”  It seems that Brigham Young knew that the immigrants needed to be left alone, and that the local Mormons needed to be told to leave them alone.  But all of this happened before the massacre. His deposition testimony was about when he learned about the massacre after it happened.

Here’s the deposition testimony of Brigham Young that Chris Cain is referencing:

Eighth — When did you first hear of the attack and destruction of this Arkansas company at Mountain Meadows, in September 1857?

Answer — I did not learn anything of the attack or destruction of the Arkansas company until some time after it occurred — then only by floating rumor.

Brigham Young learned that the immigrants were in danger a few days before the actual massacre.  He took immediate steps to prevent any harm coming to them.  Here’s a summary of what happened:

Isaac Haight, a stake president in Cedar City, dispatched James Haslam to Brigham Young for instructions about the Fancher train. It is not contested that Brigham Young received Haight’s message and sent Haslam back to tell Haight not to meddle with the Fancher train and to “spare no horseflesh” about it. As Haslam describes it, when he arrived in Salt Lake City, he found President Young in council with several others. Young read the message from Haight and told Haslam to rest and return to Brigham Young’s office at 1:00 p.m. “He asked if I could stand the trip back; he said the Indians must be kept from the emigrants at all cost, if it took all of Iron County to protect them.” When Haslam returned to Young’s office at the appointed time, President Young “told me to start and not to spare horseflesh, but to go down there just as quick as possible.” When Haight received the message, Haight said: “Too late, too late.” Haight “cried like a child.”24 Haslam was never impeached as to his story, and it remained consistent throughout his lifetime.25

24. “Testimony of James Holt Haslam: Taken at Wellsville, Cache County, Utah, December 4, 1884,” supplement to Charles W. Penrose, The Mountain Meadows Massacre: Who Were Guilty of the Crime? (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1884), in L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

25. John A Widtsoe recounted his boyhood encounter with Haslam in his diary, as republished in Alan K. Parrish, John A. Widtsoe: A Biography (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), 46-47.

Mr. Cain’s comment makes no sense.  Brigham Young received word prior to the massacre that the immigrants might be in danger.  He sent a letter telling the local Mormons to leave the immigrants alone.  By the time the messenger (Haslam) returned to Cedar City with Brigham Young’s letter, the massacre had already occurred, after which Brigham Young heard about it via “floating rumor.” 

There’s no contradiction between Brigham Young sending a letter before the massacre and then hearing about the massacre via rumor after it happened .

By way of full disclosure, I am a member of the LDS Church.  In fact, my wife is a direct descendant of John D. Lee (the only man tried and executed for the massacre).  So I have a rather vested interest in understanding the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  It was a horrific event, and I join Richard Turley in describing it as an evil act.

I have no interest in justifying or rationalizing the massacre of innocents.  But I do have an interest in making sure the events are described accurately.  Mr. Cain’s film seriously distorts the historical record.


Spencer Macdonald

I wrote Mr. Macdonald for permission to post his e-mail, and he gave it in this reply along with one other point:

Dear Mr. Hewitt,

Certainly you may post it.  I also wanted to raise one other point of clarification.  I believe Mr. Cain’s representation about Brigham Young’s letter having “never surfaced” may be derived from a book by Jon Krakauer entitled Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (New York: Doubleday, 2003).

In this book, Mr. Krakauer asserts the following:

The actual text of Brigham’s letter remains in some doubt, because the original has disappeared (along with almost every other official document pertaining to the Mountain Meadows massacre). The excerpt quoted above is from a purported draft of the letter that didn’t surface until 1884, when an LDS functionary came upon it in the pages of a “Church Letter Book.”

Richard Turley (the author of the Ensign article you quoted to Messrs. Cain and Voigt), in a review he wrote about Krakauer’s book, rebuts this false statement:

Like other recent writers, Krakauer must somehow confront the fact that when Brigham Young learned about a possible attack on the train, he sent a letter ordering the southern Utahns not to meddle with the emigrants. The letter is clear on its face, though some writers, anxious to prove a circumstantial case against Brigham Young, try to make no mean yes by asserting that the order not to attack the train was really just the opposite. To further undermine the letter, Krakauer asserts:

The actual text of Brigham’s letter remains in some doubt, because the original has disappeared (along with almost every other official document pertaining to the Mountain Meadows massacre). The excerpt quoted above is from a purported draft of the letter that didn’t surface until 1884, when an LDS functionary came upon it in the pages of a “Church Letter Book.”

Although the letter was indeed cited in 1884, it did not first surface then, and its “actual text” does not remain “in some doubt.” Most correspondence from Brigham Young was copied immediately after it was produced and before being sent. The copies–equivalents of today’s photocopies–were made by pressing the original inked letters between wetted pages of a bound book of onionskin. The moisture caused fresh ink from the originals to seep into the onionskin, creating mirror images of the letters. A perfect mirror image of Young’s famous letter is right where it should be in Brigham’s 1857 letterpress copybook. It is a contemporaneous copy and was available to and used by the prosecution in the trial that led to John D. Lee’s conviction and subsequent execution in the 1870s.

Mr. Cain was, it seems, deliberately selective about which historical resources he used.


Spencer Macdonald



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