The Mountain Meadows Massacre: A Sight Which Can Never Be Forgotten - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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The Mountain Meadows Massacre "A Sight Which Can Never Be Forgotten"
September 16, 2003

U.S. Army Brevet Major James H. Carleton surveyed and investigated the site in 1859, and reported to Congress that the Mormons were "painted and disguised as Indians." According to Carleton, Lee led the disguised group of Mormons and local Paiute Indians to the emigrants' camp and attacked. As the emigrants fought back, the attackers utilized a new strategy. They withdrew, then the Mormons removed their disguises and returned as a group of white men, telling the emigrants they would protect them from the attackers. The Mormons gained the trust of the emigrants, convincing them the Indians would not hurt them if they gave up their arms. Lee's testimony supports Carleton's report, but Lee offers more gruesome details. He explains that "the troops were to shoot down the men; the Indians were to kill all of the women and larger children." In both Carleton's and Lee's accounts the Paiutes and Mormons share the responsibility of the murders, but the Paiutes have long denied involvement.

[image]Rock cairn similar to the one built by Maj. Carleton in 1859 that stands today where the mass grave was unearthed and the remains later re-interred. (Courtesy of Shannon Novak) [LARGER IMAGE]

Since its beginning, the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS) was at odds with the federal government, its members persecuted for their unorthodox beliefs. Mormonism began in the early nineteenth century with the prophecy of Joseph Smith who wrote the Book of Mormon derived from golden plates he found near a family farm in 1827. From New York, Smith and his followers were continually forced west, their radical theology shunned by each town in which they settled. In 1844, Joseph Smith was killed by an anti-Mormon mob in Illinois, and Brigham Young became the new Prophet. The Mormons finally settled in the Utah territory where they enjoyed autonomous political and religious power. Young was not only in charge of the church, but also of the state when President Millard Fillmore named him territorial governor of Utah in 1850. In the fragile pre-Civil War era, Young openly flaunted secessionist tendencies. In its attempt to develop its own theocratic government, the church often clashed with the federal government, creating a mutual feeling of distrust.

Maj. Carleton, in his report to Congress, describes the scene at Mountain Meadows: women's hair caught in sage bushes, children's bones found in their mothers' arms, and wolves picking at the bones. It was, he wrote, "a sight which can never be forgotten." Carleton buried the remains and piled rocks into a monument topped by a wooden cross on which he inscribed "Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord." Soon after, Brigham Young and his men tore down the monument. Over the next century, it would be rebuilt and destroyed several times, standing in the nearly inaccessible and otherwise unmarked massacre site. As time passed, the descendants of the victims demanded a permanent monument to honor their ancestors, and Brigham Young's descendants wanted to clear his name. In an attempt to keep both parties happy, the state finally built a permanent monument in 1990, an ambiguous inscription engraved in a granite wall: "In Memoriam: In the valley below, between September 7 and 11, 1857, a company of more than 120 Arkansas emigrants led by Capt. John T. Baker and Capt. Alexander Fancher was attacked while en route to California. This event is known in history as the Mountain Meadows Massacre."

Once again the monument fell to disrepair, this time because of weather and poor construction. The descendants made it clear to the government that the monument needed to be repaired or replaced. The LDS Church hired Shane Baker, an archaeologist from Brigham Young University, to survey the land before a new monument could be built. Baker reportedly found nothing relating to the massacre, clearing the way for the construction of the new monument. On August 3, 1999, a backhoe began digging the foundation. To everyone's surprise, it scooped up the bones of 28 massacre victims, and with it unearthed a new controversy (see "Mountain Meadows Massacre," November 30, 1999).

Utah state law required that the bones be studied, a job that went to forensic anthropologist Shannon Novak from the University of Utah. Novak and her colleagues found entrance and exit holes in the skulls of men that could only have come from gunshots fired at close range, while most women and children found died of blunt force. In her analysis of more than 2,600 bone fragments, Novak found no evidence of knives used to scalp, behead, or cut the throats, as well as no evidence of trauma from arrows. Although the study cannot determine what weapons Paiutes might have used in the massacre (if they were involved), it brings up the possibility that white men murdered all of the victims, contradicting John D. Lee's testimony accusing Native Americans of slaughtering the women and children. To Shannon Novak, the bones could provide information that incomplete or biased histories could not. "Prior to this analysis, what was known about the massacre was often based on second-hand information, polemical newspaper accounts, and the testimony of known killers," said Novak. "Furthermore, what had come to be merely an abstract historical event, the 'tragedy at Mountain Meadows,' now became a mass murder of specific men, women, and children with proper names an histories." The analysis of the remains questioned the accuracy of the historical accounts and stirred up many emotions. After five weeks, Novak's analysis was cut short by an order from the governor of Utah, Mike Leavitt, that the bones be re-interred in time for the September anniversary.

[image]A partially reconstructed frontal bone with a gunshot entrance wound. (Courtesy of Shannon Novak) [LARGER IMAGE]

Gene Sessions, historian and president of the Mountain Meadows Association (an organization for descendants of the victims), says that the descendants, anxious to leave this issue buried in the ground, appealed to the governor. Leavitt, whose grandfather participated in the massacre, circumvented the law and ordered that the bones be re-interred before the minimum required study was finished because he "did not feel that it was appropriate for the bones to be dissected and studied in a manner that would prolong the discomfort" (Salt Lake Tribune, March 2000). Despite efforts of the Mormon Church to work with descendants in building the monument, Baker's fruitless survey and the early re-interment of remains sparked allegations that the LDS Church intentionally kept information from the public to coverup their involvement in the massacre. Sessions insists that "there was never any attempt to hurry the bones back into the ground to 'hide' anything," and the descendants strongly opposed any further disturbance of the bones. He argues that "the bones reveal nothing that historians have not known since 1859 when Major Carleton reported that 'nearly every skull I saw had been shot through with pistol or rifle bullets.' As a scholar, I naturally believe that a further study of the bones would certainly reveal much detail, but I do not believe that they would reveal anything I do not already know from the historical record abut how the emigrants were killed and who did it."

Shannon Novak, who has interviewed victims' descendants as part of a two-year oral history project, says she has heard a wide range of opinions on the story of the massacre and the treatment of the site. Some want the bones left untouched, without reminders of the event. Some would like to see the bones returned to Arkansas for a mass burial. Others want to see the bones examined with DNA testing to identify and properly bury their ancestors, allowing a sense of closure. While some have reconciled with the LDS Church, Novak claims that "many or most would like an apology from the church before they would be prepared to put the event behind them." For now, the bones remain behind a plaque at the memorial.

The discovery of the bones complicated an already controversial issue. There is no consensus by descendants, researchers, and the LDS church on what should happen to the remains. The tragedy stirs up deep emotions in the descendants of both the victims and the attackers, and causes one to question whether or not the remains provide insight into the Mountain Meadows Massacre that the historical record does not. In her forthcoming book, however, Shannon Novak addresses her osteological analysis in relation to historical records and recent controversies. Novak found that "The material evidence from the grave appears to have offered some groups and individuals their first opportunity to express their views of the massacre, views that often were in conflict with the traditional accounts touted in state history textbooks and on local monuments."

A bizarre twist to the Mountain Meadows story came in January 2002, when a volunteer found an inscribed lead sheet while cleaning out John D. Lee's fort just across the Utah border in Arizona. The writing, purportedly by Lee, indicated Brigham Young's role in ordering the massacre. Examiners agree that the lead comes from a time and place historically correct to be the document, and contains oxidation on the inscription itself. After investigating the metal and oxidation using isotopic measurements, Thomas Brunty of Arizona State University told the Salt Lake Tribune on March 7, 2003 that "It would take a hoaxer a lot of resourcefulness to have found the right lead from the right place." William Flynn, president of Affiliated Forensic Laboratory in Phoenix gave the document much less credit. He said that the age and the amount of oxidation on the document is inconsequential, the certain stone can be found with some research, and the process of oxidation can be accelerated using certain chemicals. "The evidence is overwhelming," concluded Flynn, "that John D. Lee did not inscribe the lead plate."

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America