Burying the Hatchet 

Documentary filmmaker looks for human angle of Mountain Meadows Massacre.

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Brian Patrick knew that the Mountain Meadows Massacre was a significant—and controversial—part of Utah history. But if he was going to make a film about it, he also knew that it couldn’t just be history. It would have to be human.


Less than five years ago—before launching the documentary project that would become Burying the Past: Legacy of the Mountain Meadows Massacre—the University of Utah film-studies professor only knew about the event what he had gleaned from hiking-guide books and newspaper stories. The Fancher-Baker wagon train, traveling from Arkansas to California in 1857, had passed through Utah in September of that year. Most of them—121 men, women and children—were killed in an ambush southwest of Cedar City. The attackers included Mormon settlers and Native Americans. Culpability for the event—including the view that Brigham Young himself may have approved the massacre—remains a source of contention and bitterness to this day between descendents of the survivors and contemporary Mormons.


Then, in 1999, Patrick read about an effort to bridge that gap. Representatives from both sides, united as the Mountain Meadows Association, had come together in a spirit of reconciliation to lobby the LDS Church for a restoration of the small monument that had been erected to the victims in 1932. Ron Loving and Verne Lee—who a couple of generations ago might as well have been named Hatfield and McCoy—dedicated themselves to remembering the dead rather than nurturing grudges. For Patrick, that was the place to begin an exploration of Mountain Meadows.


“Even four and a half years ago,” Patrick recalls, “there was all this bitterness—much of it related to religion—and now here was this positive story about this issue.


“I’m not a historian, and I’ve never done a historical documentary before,” he continues. “I didn’t feel like I could really do justice to it as a Ken Burns (The Civil War) type of film. I guess I knew that if I was going to do this, I would have to rely on what was going on in the present.”


Even in telling the story of the present, however, Patrick realized he was going to have to establish the events of the past. Burying the Past employed historians Will Bagley—author of the controversial book Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadow—and Gene Sessions, a Weber State University history professor, to relate many of those events.


Patrick also chose another risky tactic for bringing them even more fully to life. Rather than depend entirely on “talking heads” to tell the story of Mountain Meadows, he filmed a re-creation of the massacre based largely on the recorded testimony of Nancy Safrona Huff, a Mountain Meadows survivor who was four years old at the time of the attack.


Patrick tells his students to “show it, don’t say it,” so it was an easy decision for him. Even still, in this decision, he came to understand the lingering suspicions on both sides of the event. When Patrick discovered that a group of people was traveling through Utah on a wagon train as part of a summer project, he asked to travel with them for background and eventually to use the wagon train as the basis for the filmed re-creation.


“But a lot of them were Mormons,” Patrick recalls, “and they had to be convinced that what I was doing was honest. I had to explain to everybody … that I wasn’t going to point fingers.”


The suspicion certainly wasn’t limited to the Mormon side of the issue. When Patrick discovered the existence of Nancy Safrona Huff’s testimony, he sought approval from one of her descendents in Arkansas for use of a photo. “One of the first things this great-granddaughter [of Huff] said was, ‘You’re not a Mormon, are you?’ That tells me there still is a resentment that lives there.”


Indeed, Burying the Past ultimately proves to be less about the still-in-dispute “facts” about Mountain Meadows than about the ripple effect of those events on subsequent generations. Patrick captures reunions of Fancher-Baker survivor descendents but also spends time with descendents of John D. Lee, the Mormon pioneer who was the only individual tried and executed for his involvement in the massacre, becoming what many believe was a scapegoat.


Patrick addresses the discovery of human remains at the excavation site for the monument and the controversy over having those remains examined at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University. And he explores the hard feelings when—even as the monument is being dedicated—LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinkley uses the occasion to carefully deny any official church responsibility for the massacre.


Patrick could have made a film that attempts to answer that question of responsibility, but in Burying the Past he shows himself more concerned with how people attempt to move on when the truth can never be fully known. He acknowledges the film’s title may not convey the reaction the event inspires to this day.


“I think for quite a few of the families the past was buried,” Patrick says of the new memorial’s dedication. “But there are people back there in Arkansas who will never really forgive this. Let’s put it this way—‘buried’ would not be the word I would use. Forgiven, but not forgotten.”

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