Nothing comes at you fast in Godless, the new Netflix drama set in the wild, wild, slow-burning west. It takes 10 hour-long episodes to for the "main event" to finally happen. While Godless is never in a hurry to get where it's going, events moved at particularly glacial pace during one of the show's most disturbing scenes. At the middle of episode 2, Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and his outlaws toyed with a group of Norwegian pioneers, for no other reason than they are utter and complete terrors.
Initially, Griffin and his "boys" stop by the Norwegian pioneers' campfire to discern whether they know anything about the whereabouts of a Mr. Roy Goode (Jack O'Connell). But since Godless is, as we said, a slow-moving show, they decide to stick around — and that's when the terrifying, uncomfortably long power play begins. Balancing a little Norwegian boy on his knee, Frank delves into a gruesome story time, and describes the traumatic incident that occurred at Mountain Meadows in Utah, back he was a boy traveling with his family by covered wagon from Arkansas to California.
"Trip was going just fine till we came to a little knot in the road in Utah. Place called Mountain Meadows. See, my mammy and pappy and most everybody else were all killed by Indians, it looked like," Frank says. "Except when these Indians washed their faces their skin was white. Turns out they all came from the Great Salt Lake. Men of religion, they said...they killed over 100 people that day."
As Frank continues with his story, he incorporates more historical specifics — especially about the people who orchestrated this massacre. "One of the men, Mr. Isaac Haight, was all the time preaching to the men doing the killing about how all things are purified with blood. How without the shedding of blood there is no remission. He said that they was giving us all eternal salvation, spilling our gentile blood," Frank continues, describing the religious terminology used to justify the act of terror.
Even though the vast majority of Godless is only "inspired" by an amalgamation of Wild West culture and history, as creator Scott Frank said, what Frank describes is something that really happened. The Mountain Meadows massacre occurred on September 11, 1857, and resulted in the deaths of 120 pioneers on their way to California. As Frank implies in his story, only very small children were spared — 17 kids under the age of 7 were the massacre's only survivors. Isaac Haight, who comes up in Griffin's story, was the Mormon leader who ordered the massacre.
In early 1857, the Baker-Francher pioneer party crossed over into Utah on its way to California. At the time, the Utah Territory was governed by Brigham Young, the second head of the Church of Ladder Day Saints. That summer, tension between the Mormon leadership and the federal government had grown so intense that President James Buchanan sent an army to Utah to quell what was — in his words — the "rebellion." Young responded by declaring martial law.
Meanwhile, during this time of great tension the Baker-Francher party had set up camp in Mountain Meadows, a grassy expanse located in Southern Utah. Leaders from Southern Utah discussed how to enact Young's martial law, and deal with the Baker-Francher party. During the meeting, Haight said that it was in "the will of all in authority" to kill the pioneers. "There will not be one drop of innocent blood shed, if every one in the damned pack are killed, for they are the worse lot of outlaws and ruffians that I ever saw in my life," Haight told John Lee, who was ultimately executed for his involvement in the massacre.
On September 7, a group of Mormon militiamen and Paiute American Indians led the first attack, which resulted in the deaths of seven emigrants. Following the initial attack, Haight ordered a courier to travel 600 miles to Salt Lake City and obtain Young's guidance about how to proceed with the Baker-Francher party. In the six days it took the courier to travel to Young, more and more Utah forces gathered at Mountain Meadows, and cut the emigrants off from fresh water and game.
The courier finally arrived to Salt Lake City on September 10, and obtained an answer from Young. Young reasoned that if the Baker-Francher party had been planning on leaving Utah, the Mormons militia should "let them go in peace." The message was never received, and the massacre occurred the following day.
The order to kill all remaining emigrants was carried out on September 11, 1857, by way of a deceptive plan. Holding a white flag, John D. Lee and William Bateman went into the Mountain Meadows encampment offering false truce terms: In exchange for their arms, wagon, and cattle, the emigrants could hike back to Cedar City, and leave Utah, without harm. After assenting to the terms, the Baker-Francher party's children were loaded onto a wagon, and the older members walked behind.
On their way out of Mountain Meadows, the emigrant men were each escorted by a member of the Mormon militia. At the sound of an order, the militia men turned and shot the emigrant standing next to them; the women and children further up the road were killed, too. The remaining children, who had been in the covered wagon, were all placed in Mormon homes.
"The Mountain Meadows massacre is the worst event in Latter-day Saint history," Richard Turley, assistant historian of the LDS Church, told NPR. John D. Lee was the only individual tried and executed for his crimes at Mountain Meadows, where a memorial now stands.
Though it occurred many years before the events of Godless, the Mountain Meadows massacre is responsible for the show's driving narrative force; namely, why Frank Griffin seeks retribution on Roy Goode.
After his entire family was murdered, Frank was taken in by Isaac Haight, and one of his 14 wives. "I learned to love Mr. Haight. He taught me with a stick and a bullwhip how to love. Same as I love Roy Goode, for he is my son. I chose him. That is a more powerful bond and a more powerful love than being born into it," Frank says. All of Frank's twisted familial philosophies stem back to that horror of a historical event.