A Sight Which Can Never Be Forgotten: Introduction - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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A Sight Which Can Never Be Forgotten September 16, 2003
by Alyssa Fisher

For better or worse, archaeology is opening the lid on American massacres

Battlefield sites are considered noble places in the landscape of American history. Gettysburg, Bunker Hill, and Normandy stand as monuments honoring the people who fought and died there. Massacre sites, no less a part of our history, are often hidden. Vaguely worded road signs might give some indication of the tragedy, but visitors are not greeted by museums as they are at battlefield sites, and there are no official cemeteries in which the victims lie. Because they are shameful episodes in our past, massacres are not commemorated and the innocent dead are not honored. The Mountain Meadows Massacre, Sand Creek Massacre, and Tulsa Race Riot do not usually come up in history class, but over 500 people were brutally killed in these events. Although they took place long ago, they exemplify the impact--emotional, legal, and political--that the past can have on our own society today.

Archaeology can fill gaps in the incomplete oral and written histories of these atrocities, resolve discrepancies among various accounts, and help people to better understand what happened. This better understanding can lead to closure for many people, but archaeology can also cause controversy. These events all raise different issues and debates on the place of archaeology, and its helpful or damaging effect.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre
   In 1857, Alexander Fancher and John T. Baker loaded 140 men, women, and children into 40 wagons at Caravan Springs in northwest Arkansas and headed west. They were more than halfway through their journey to California on September 7, when they set up camp for the night in Mountain Meadows in the southwestern corner of Utah. Then the emigrants were brutally attacked, and all but 17 children were killed. Who attacked the group is an ongoing debate, but historical accounts tell of a combined force of local Mormon militia and Paiute Indians. Executed in 1877, Mormon Bishop John D. Lee was the only person punished for the crime. A photograph taken at the time shows him sitting on his own coffin. [FULL STORY...]


Anonymous engraving of the Mountain Meadows massacre from T. B. H. Stenhouse, The Rocky Mountain Saints (New York: D. Appleton, 1873) [LARGER IMAGE]

The Sand Creek Massacre
   Not long after the massacre at Mountain Meadows came another savage attack, this time against a peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians living under Chief Black Kettle in southeastern Colorado Territory. Methodist preacher and Civil War hero Colonel John M. Chivington led approximately 700 volunteer soldiers almost 40 miles in harsh winter conditions from Fort Lyon to attack the community along Sand Creek. At dawn on November 29, 1864, Chivington's men approached the camp and opened fire. The soldiers chased the unarmed families up the dry streambed where they frantically dug into the sandy banks of the creek, seeking shelter. It was in these pits that most of them were slaughtered, unable to escape the militia's small arms fire and exploding howitzer shells. Despite Black Kettle's display of a white surrender flag and an American flag, the soldiers killed more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho, mostly women, children, and elders. The attackers then dismembered many of the bodies and paraded limbs and scalps around Colorado. The surviving Native Americans fled north and northwest, many joining up with other tribes including Sioux. [FULL STORY...]


Metal detectors were used in a systematic survey technique to locate and define the boundaries of the site of the Cheyenne and Arapaho camp attacked by the Colorado Volunteer Cavalry in 1864. (Courtesy William Lees, Oklahoma Historical Society) [LARGER IMAGE]

The Tulsa Race Riot
   In Tulsa, Oklahoma a black man named Dick Rowland was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a white elevator operator. Although Page later dropped all charges, this event sparked one of the worst race riots in American history. On May 31, 1921, the Tulsa Tribune allegedly ran an article with the headline "To Lynch Negro Tonight," gathering an angry mob of white men downtown. Not long after, a crowd of blacks, mostly World War I veterans, gathered around the courthouse to ensure Rowland's safety. At 10:30 pm a fight broke out, a shot was fired, and the riot began. For nine and one-half hours the riot raged, and the black business district and community of Greenwood went up in flames. An estimated 1,256 buildings were damaged or destroyed including homes, businesses, hotels, churches, and schools. Reports claim that public officials provided white residents with firearms, and witnesses tell of bodies "stacked like cordwood" and buried in mass graves. The Oklahoma National Guard was called in and arrested many residents of Greenwood, detaining them in locations around the city. Insurance companies never paid for the $1.8 million in claims filed because of clauses excluding damage caused by riots. Greenwood never recovered. [FULL STORY...]


Buildings on fire during the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot (Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa) [LARGER IMAGE]

After witnessing the aftermath of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Major Carleton stated, "the question of how this crime, that for hellish atrocity has no parallel in our history, can be adequately punished often comes up and seeks in vain for an answer." However, the Sand Creek Massacre and the Tulsa Race Riot are two of many examples that prove Major Carleton was wrong--there are parallels in American history. These three events are not as isolated as one might think, and archaeology is being used to investigate others. The French establishment of Fort de la Caroline in Florida in 1564, threatened Spanish rule in the region. The Spanish attacked the fort 15 months later, killing 140 defenders and later slaughtering 350 members of an expedition, sent to reinforce the garrison, that was shipwrecked on the coast nearby. The fort's exact location remains unknown, but the NPS has established a memorial on the Timucuan Preserve, where it is believed to have been. In 1757, during the French and Indian War, Fort William Henry in New York was the site of the tragedy popularized by the book and film The Last of the Mohicans. After the British surrendered, the French were unable to control their Native American allies, who killed at least 69 and as many as 184 of their unarmed and wounded adversaries and camp followers (I. Steele, Betrayals [1990]). The fort was reconstructed in 1953, and archaeologists have been working at the scene to learn about the fort before, during, and after the massacre (see "American Scene: Beneath the Bubblegum," January/February 2001). State militiamen in Ludlow, Colorado, opened fire on a camp of coal miners on strike and their families on April 20, 1914. During the attack, the camp became engulfed in flames. Nineteen people were killed, including two women and 12 children. A forthcoming article in ARCHAEOLOGY will describe how current research is revealing details about life in the miners' camp and the attack.

Archaeology has the potential to open up these and other "lost" pages of American history, sometimes raising painful issues, as the controversy at Mountain Meadows shows. But the Sand Creek Massacre shows how archaeology can better explain historical events, and the stories of the Tulsa Race Riot show how a more complete understanding can bring peace to some people. In shedding light on these tragic events, archaeology can help commemorate them, bringing them out of the shadows and into the mainstream of American history and honoring those who perished by telling their stories.

Alyssa Fisher, a senior majoring in anthropology at the University of Chicago, was a Metcalf Fellows Intern at ARCHAEOLOGY.

* See also "Letter From Ludlow: Colorado Coalfield Massacre," November/December 2004.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America