From the time I was a little girl until I was 18, I went with my family every year across the mountains from western Washington to eastern Washington on Memorial Day weekend. We'd have a family reunion of sorts, and spend part of the weekend going to the cemetary to take flowers to the final resting places of my long-gone relatives. One of the places we often went to while in Walla Walla, is the Whitman Mission National Historic site. In a nutshell, in 1847, Dr. Marcus Whitman (a Presbyterian doctor) and his wife Narcissa, along with 11 others were massacred on the site, when the Cayuse Indians became convinced the measles outbreak among them was the result of the missionaries poisoning them. There are conflicting reports of how many were taken hostage (some say 60 men women and children) and how many survived and escaped but the story still touches my heart today the same way it did when I was a little girl.
One of the old stories that really captured my attention as a little girl, was the account of one of the surviving children. Just a little girl herself, she scooped up one of the babies at the main house and as the slaughter was going on, she ran with the baby down to the river and hid in the reeds to try and escape the same fate. One story says she escaped but the baby drowned, while other stories have various endings of her being caught and sold as a slave to the Cayuse, or her and the baby both being rescued by farmers. I still don't know which version of this story is true, or if any of them are true at all. As a little girl hearing the story, and even now as a mother I like to believe and hope that the version that was true, is that both her and the baby were found by local farmers and taken to safety.
When we'd visit the Whitman Memorial site, we'd walk up the hill where the mission used to be, to the memorial up at the top, and just read each plaque along the way, all over again. I can still remember when I was too young to read, and mom would read them outloud to us kids. Knowing that I was standing in the very place where those children once played, connected deep in me somewhere. When you'd walk the hill to the memorial site, you can see the path to the river where one of the children is said to have run to hide with the baby. I remember more than once having a brief wave of sadness rush over me while I was there seeing the pathway, and even now as I think about it so many years later, I feel the same. I can't even begin to truly imagine what life was like for them in that day, or what fear they faced on that fateful day in 1847. The families came to teach and to share the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and many of the children never made it out, and many of the others who did, made it out of the mission as orphans.
What brought all this to mind today, was watching September Dawn recently. Sometimes I feel like I have my head unintentionally in the sand when it comes to US History. Its not that I'm not interested in it (I am, in fact I'm rather fascinated by it), its just that my own life and family and home take up so much of my time that I often just don't have the time to investigate things outside my little circle that is my world.
Oddly enough, I'd never heard of the movie, and only vaguely recall hearing (at some point in my life) about what I remembered as "the Mormon massacre" back in the 1800's. Like the missionaries at the Whitman Mission in Washington state just ten years prior, the emigrants that travelled by wagon train through Utah in 1857 were pioneers in the West, looking for hope in a new land. Instead what they found was a nightmarish scenario that they could have never expected, at the hands of religious zealots. The early pioneers expected and often experienced battles with the Indians in those days, but a group of emigrants from Arkansas and Missouri couldn't have anticipated being slaughtered in the Utah territory by a militia of white men, decieved by a cultish religion.
If you haven't seen this movie, I would recommend that you do so. I would not recommend it for children under the age of 12, only because it contains some pretty graphic violent scenes that may be too much for a child to handle well. Truth be told, it contains scenes that a 43 year old mom didn't handle well, but from all I've read on it, were quite accurate, historically. We watched the movie with our 17 yr old and had to pause it several times to address some questions or topics of notable things that came up in the dialog in the movie.
When we read in Scripture about the brutal wars between believers and unbelievers, it often seems almost surreal, and so far removed from our own circumstances. I think the same sense of detachment comes even when we read of cases of persecution and brutal attacks on Christians in our own day, but in countries with names we can't pronounce, will never visit... let alone be able to find on a map. In both the case of the Whitman Mission and the Mountain Meadows tragedy, these were people that lived just prior to (for most of us) our grandparents being born - and for many of us - who lived and died in places we live as well. We shouldn't forget these people. As American Christians, some of us are related by blood to these people, but all of us are related by faith, among the household of God.
In addition, I would recommend that you visit Chris Arnzen's blog and listen to the interview he has available with Carole Whang Schutter, the Christian author of the screenplay for the controversial motion picture and the novel of the same title, as well as the interviews he has with William Norman Grigg, a former high priest in the Mormon church, now an evangelical Christian who shares his thoughts on the Mountain Meadows tragedy.