The 2002 American Heritage coverage of Mountain Meadows

Victims’ bones tell grim story

Even after 150 years,
Utah massacre
still controversial

Idaho Statesman, Mar 14, 2000, 5B

The Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY – A forensic scientist who spent two days examining remains from an 1857 massacre in southern Utah says there is evidence that woman and children were shot, apparently by Mormons, and not bludgeoned by Indians.

It’s a conclusion that contradicts the historical record of the Mountain Meadow Massacre, which says Mormons shot the men and Indians beat the women and children to death. As many as 120 Arkansas emigrants traveling to California were killed near present-day Cedar City.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported Monday that University of Utah forensic anthropologist Shannon Novak determined that massacre victims included women and at least one child who were shot in the head.

Written accounts generally claim the women and older children were beaten or bludgeoned to death by Indians using crude weapons, while Mormon militiamen killed adult males by shooting them in the back of the head.

The massacre occurred in a climate of war hysteria as Utah Mormons prepared for an invasion by federal troops sent to deal with a defiant Mormon theocracy under Brigham Young.

The only person ever held accountable for the assault was John D. Lee, a major in the Iron County Militia. He was tried, convicted and executed 20 years after the slaughter.

Novak’s partial reconstruction of approximately 20 different skulls of Mountain Meadows victims show that some were shot while facing their killers.

The skull of at least one female victim exhibits possible evidence of a gunshot to the face, based on a preliminary examination of broken teeth, Novak said.

"Typically with history, the winning side writes the story," Novak says. "This is giving the dead a chance to speak."

How much of a chance to speak is a contentious point, however.

Novak and others complain that Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt ordered the remains quickly reburied, before the examinations were completed, in an effort to avoid further embarrassment to the state.

The remains were accidentally uncovered by a contractor hired by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon Church was rebuilding a monument to the massacre victims at the time.

In a message to state antiquities officials, Leavitt wrote that he did not want controversy to highlight "this sad moment in our state’s history and the rather good-spirited attempt to put it behind us."

Some of the descendants of the massacre victims also objected to the remains being studied.

"Arkansas people have two virtues–caring for the sick and respecting the dead," Burr Fancher, a direct descendant of the massacre victims, wrote Aug. 24 to Brigham Young University’s Office of Public Archaeology, which subcontracted with Novak to conduct the forensic analysis.

"One of our fundamental beliefs has been grossly violated so that a few people could play with bones and for what reason? Everyone knows who was buried there and every serious student of history knows why it happened."

At least one Utah historian agrees.

"It is not important we know exactly how these people were murdered; we already know they were killed," says Weber State University history professor Gene Sessions, a Mountain Meadows scholar who serves as the president of the Mountain Meadows Association.

But others think the bones should have been more exhaustively examined.

"Those bones could tell the story and this was their one opportunity, said Marian Jacklin, a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist in Cedar City. "I have worked with many of these descendants for years and understand their feelings. But as a scientist, I would allow my own mother’s bones to be studied in a respectful way if it would benefit medicine or history."

Kevin Jones, the state’s archaeologist, was overruled in his efforts to adhere to the state law requiring a basic analysis of the remains.

"The truth has never been fully told by anyone and there’s plenty of information we could have learned here," he told the newspaper.

"We know they were murdered, but we don’t know the details. And none of these people today can speak for every one of those people buried there."