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Mountain Meadows Massacre November 30, 1999
by Luscinia Brown-Hovelt and Elizabeth J. Himelfarb

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints made a distressing discovery while restoring a monument to the victims of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre in southwest Utah: the bones of at least 29 of the 120 pioneer men, women, and children killed in the bloodbath. Ground-penetrating radar revealed three other anomalies, perhaps graves, not threatened by the restoration work. The Church, at the request of descendant families, did not allow the testing of those sites or any further excavation of the site in question.

Despite the church's discomfort at churning up the very remains it had hoped to lay to rest with the renewed monument, this turn of events has provided the opportunity to properly rebury remains hastily interred a year-and-a-half after the massacre by federal troops sent by congress. The bones, together with buttons and various ceramics, emerged when a backhoe took down a wall erected by the troops around the grave site so that a new one might be built.

"The whole United States rang with its horrors," Mark Twain wrote of the massacre in Roughing It:

A large party of Mormons, painted and tricked out as Indians, overtook the train of emigrent wagons some three hundred miles south of Salt Lake City, and made an attack. But the emigrants threw up earthworks, made fortresses of their wagons, and defended themselves gallantly and successfully for five days! Your Missouri or Arkansas gentleman is not much afraid of the sort of scurvy apologies for "Indians" which the southern part of Utah affords. He would stand up and fight five hundred of them. At the end of the five days the Mormons tried military strategy. They retired to the upper end of the 'Meadows,' resumed civilized apparel, washed off their paint, and then, heavily armed, drove down in wagons to the beleagured emigrants, bearing a flag of truce! When the emigrants saw white men coming they threw down their guns and welcomed them with cheer after cheer...."

The militia, according to Twain, then convinced the pioneers that the Indians would cease attack if they marched out, leaving behind all their belongings and even their guns. The militia, perhaps in a generalized mood of revenge after persecution of Mormons in Arkansas and elsewhere, convinced these California-bound Arkansans to lay down their weapons with promises of friendship, then attacked.

Not everyone is in full accord with Twain's account. "I honestly think the initial attack was carried out by Indians goaded on by Mormons," said Shane Baker, an archaeologist on the project. "Then the Mormons did become involved. One militiaman said the Indians threatened the Mormons. But it's hard to tease out what may have been revisionist thinking after this massacre."

The archaeologists, from church-run Brigham Young University, attribute these bodies to the massacre because of their location along the Spanish Trail, the route the pioneers were taking, and because of the skeletal evidence. "The remains themselves are a general confirmation of past reports," said Baker. "These people were brought out and gunned down at close range."

The remains also offer an interesting glimpse of the human skeletal remains of cross country overland immigrants. Physical anthropologists noted that these robust pioneers had more than a few healed broken arms and skull fractures consistent with falling off horses and that the children showed signs of mild rickets and dental hypoplasia, indicative of malnutrition.

A September reburial of the bodies was attended by hundreds of descendants of victims and survivors of the massacre as well as descendants of the Mormon militia. "There was a mood of reconciliation," Baker said. "It happened 140 years ago, but deep feelings had lingered."

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America