by Christopher Smith ("The Salt Lake Tribune", March 14, 2000)
Editor's Note: Mountain Meadows, southwest of Cedar City, is the site of the worst slaughter of white civilians in the history of the frontier West. Last summer, LDS Church officials and descendants of the victims sought to finally close the 142-year-old wound. Together they were to build and dedicate a new monument to the 120 Arkansas emigrants who perished in unimaginable violence at the hands of Mormon settlers and Indian accomplices.
The new memorial stands, but the wound still festers. In constructing the monument, workers uncovered remains of 29 victims, a vivid and horrific reminder of that September day in 1857. The story of those bones, and what happened to them last summer, adds another excruciating chapter to the history of a crime that many of Utah's pioneer descendants can neither confront nor explain.
MOUNTAIN MEADOWS -- After burying dozens of men, women and children murdered in a bizarre frontier conspiracy, an Army major ordered his soldiers to erect a rockpile and a carved wooden cross swearing vengeance on the perpetrators. Brevet Maj. James H. Carleton then wrote to Congress: "Perhaps the future may be judged by the past."
They were fated words. When a backhoe operator last summer accidentally dug up the bones buried here in 1859 by Carleton's troops, it set into motion a series of cover-ups, accusations and recriminations that continue today. It also caused a good-faith effort by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- to reconcile one of the ugliest chapters of U.S. history -- to backfire. The Aug. 3, 1999, excavation of the remains of at least 29 of the 120 emigrants slaughtered in the Mountain Meadows massacre eventually prompted Gov. Mike Leavitt to intercede. He encouraged state officials to quickly rebury the remains, even though the basic scientific analysis required by state law was unfinished.
"It would be unfortunate if this sad moment in our state's history, and the rather good-spirited attempt to put it behind us, was highlighted by controversy," Leavitt wrote in an e-mail message to state antiquities officials shortly before LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley presided over a ceremony at Mountain Meadows.
The widely publicized occasion was to dedicate a newly rebuilt rock cairn monument, crafted with the same stones Carleton's troops had piled defiantly in 1859. They also were the same rocks that were torn down from the grave site by one of Leavitt's own ancestors. Dudley Leavitt, himself a participant in the Sept. 11, 1857, murders, visited the cairn with LDS prophet Brigham Young a year after Carleton's troops left.
After ridiculing the pledge of vengeance, Young lifted his right arm toward the rock pile and "in five minutes there wasn't one stone left upon another," Dudley Leavitt would recall. "He didn't have to tell us what he wanted done. We understood."
The governor's intercession was one of many dramas played out last summer, all serving to underscore Mountain Meadows' place as the Bermuda Triangle of Utah's historical and theological landscape. The end result may be another sad chapter in the massacre's legacy of bitterness, denial and suspicion.
In retracing the latest episode, The Salt Lake Tribune conducted numerous interviews and researched documents obtained under Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act to find:
-- Co-sponsors of the monument project -- the LDS Church and the Mountain Meadows Association -- initially hoped to cover up the excavation, with the MMA demanding any documentation be "kept out of public view permanently." The president of the association, Ron Loving, wrote in an Aug. 9 e-mail to the director of the Utah Division of History: "The families [descended from victims] and the LDS church will work out what we want to become public knowledge on this accidental finding."
-- The vain effort to hide the truth gave rise to wild conspiracy theories among some descendants. They suspected Loving was working with the LDS Church to rewrite history by having church-owned Brigham Young University determine the exhumed victims died of disease, not murder. "I call it 'sanitizing' a foul deed," Burr Fancher wrote to other descendants Aug. 24.
-- Utah Division of History Director Max Evans, over the objections of state Archaeologist Kevin Jones, personally rewrote BYU's state archaeological permit to require immediate reburial of the bones after receiving the governor's e-mail. Jones raised numerous questions over the political power play, including a concern it was "eth- nocentric and racist" to rebury the bones of white emigrants without basic scientific study when similar American Indian remains are routinely subjected to such analysis before repatriation. -- News of the excavation triggered written requests to BYU from people around the nation, seeking to determine if their ancestors were among the recovered victims. Some offered to submit to DNA testing and desired to reinter the remains in family burial plots outside of Utah. Although the Utah Attorney General's Office had advised state officials that "any and all lineal descendants of the Mountain Meadows massacre would appear to have a voice in determining the disposition of the bodies," there is little documented evidence any of the people seeking information about family members were consulted.
-- Resentment over the discovery and of the remains has caused a schism in the descendant families, with at least one organized group asking why civil or criminal penalties were not brought against the LDS Church or the MMA for desecrating the grave. There also is confusion over who is now in charge of the MMA. While new president Gene Sessions of Weber State University says Loving was voted out of office in November in the wake of the controversy, Loving says he's still the boss: "I wasn't voted out of a damn thing. I was moved up. It was my methods and my way of doing business that got that monument done."
Other descendants have enlisted the support of Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in calling for federal stewardship of the emigrant mass graves scattered in Mountain Meadows, instead of having the Mormon Church own the land.
"We're doubtful with the church in control this will ever be completely put to rest," says Scott Fancher, president of the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation in Arkansas. "There's a sense among some of our members it's like having Lee Harvey Oswald in charge of JFK's tomb."
Glen M. Leonard, director of the Museum of Church History and Art and Hinckley's personal representative in the process, said the church endeavored with the MMA to gather comment from all descendants through the association's Web page and newsletter.
"While this was not a perfect method for reaching all members of all branches of all families, it was a practical means for the church and the association to inform most of them with interest in the grave site restoration project," Leonard says. "We are sorry if some descendants of the emigrant families feel left out."
Marian Jacklin, an archaeologist with the Dixie National Forest in Cedar City who has spent years trying to navigate the emotional minefield of Mountain Meadows, says the events of last summer did not yield the desired consequences.
"This whole episode didn't answer anything," she says. "It just asked more questions."
And the question that burns in the minds of many angry descendants is: Why was a backhoe digging at a known, well-marked grave site?
"What we understood in every correspondence, and we thought we had made perfectly clear to the church, was that under no circumstances would the remains be disturbed," says Scott Fancher, whose organization is considering legal action over the excavation. "Never in my wildest imagination did we expect them to set a backhoe on this grave and start digging."
Hinckley had personally launched the effort to stabilize the decaying rock cairn -- rebuilt at least 11 times since Carleton's troops placed the stones -- after a visit to the site in October 1998. The 2.5 acres was deeded to the church in the 1970s after the landowner reportedly tried in vain to find descendants in Arkansas to accept the donation of land.
Partnering with the MMA -- a group of emigrant descendants, historians and interested southwestern Utah residents -- LDS Church architects designed a monument with a thigh-high stone wall around the old cairn, perched on a steep stream bank.
There are conflicting accounts of whether descendants understood the wall would require digging a trench around the grave for a concrete footing. Some MMA members, including the contractor, interpreted the "do not disturb" edict to cover the pre-construction archaeological investigation. Once the archaeologists said all clear, crews could dig the footing, they believed.
But Scott Fancher says his branch of the family understood the wall would be "surface-mounted," in keeping with the church's pledge not to disturb the burial ground in any way.
Before beginning, the LDS Church had hired BYU's Office of Public Archaeology to conduct a non-invasive archaeological survey. Using ground-penetrating radar, aerial photos, metal detectors and hundreds of soil-sample tests to search for signs of bones or artifacts, a team of professionals scoured the area.
"The archaeological evidence was 100 percent negative," says Shane Baker, the BYU staff archaeologist who directed the study. "I went to our client, the church, and said either this is not the spot or every last shred of evidence has been erased."
There was speculation that bones buried beneath the cairn had been exposed to the elements and deteriorated. Or, they had been washed down the ravine, the cairn was in the wrong place or the cairn was directly on top of the bones.
But today, Baker admits the archaeological examination at the location where the bones were eventually disturbed was not as complete as it was in other areas. The narrow spot between the cairn and streambank was not probed with radar because the trailer-like unit could not be towed near the precarious edge. Instead, Baker took soil core samples, using a bucket auger, which strained against the impacted earth.
He again found nothing. Witnesses would later draw an analogy to a magician thrusting swords into a box containing an assistant and somehow missing the mark.
"Shane came within inches of the remains and it is amazing that no evidence was determined," says Kent Bylund of St. George, an association board member and adjacent Mountain Meadows landowner who served as project contractor. "I sincerely believe everything was done to ensure the area to be excavated was core sampled and thoroughly examined before excavation was permitted."
BYU's Baker blames the accidental discovery of bones on the restrictions placed on the investigation by the LDS Church.
"We were not allowed to do the kind of testing we would do normally, and I was concerned the whole time we were going to hit bone," he says. "The very fact they wouldn't let me dig with a shovel and a trowel is why a backhoe found those bones."
It was on the second or third scoop that more than 30 pounds of human skeletal remains clattered out of the backhoe bucket as it dug the footing trench on Aug. 3. Bylund looked on in disbelief, his heart in his throat.
His first inclination was to put the remains back in the ground and swear the backhoe operator to secrecy. But it was impossible to unring the bell.
"Once they were uncovered, for this new monument to go in, you really had no choice but to remove them because they were dead center in the middle of the new wall," Baker says.
As Baker delicately removed hundreds of pieces of bone from the exposed trench, Loving and Leonard debated what to do and who to tell.
"My plan was to have them reburied within 48 hours of their discovery," says Loving. The Arizona man, whose ancestor was a brother of a massacre victim, took charge, he says, "because the LDS Church considered me as the spokesman for the families in my capacity as president of the Mountain Meadows Association."
But other descendants more directly related to the victims are outraged the church gave Loving such authority.
"It's offensive to a lot of people to hear Mr. Loving say this is what the family thinks because we put the church on notice repeatedly that Mr. Loving does not speak for the family and never has," says Scott Fancher. "We are very disappointed we did not have a voice in how the remains were treated after they were disturbed."
Church officials and BYU put Loving in charge and agreed with his plan to rebury within 48 hours. But that plan was foiled on Aug. 5 when Jones, the state archaeologist, informed them Utah law required a basic scientific analysis when human remains are discovered on private property. Failure to comply was a felony.
BYU needed a state permit to legally remove the remains. And, by law, such permits require "the reporting of archaeological information at current standards of scientific rigor."
Although LDS officials knew the descendants would be uncomfortable with the required analysis, they agreed it was necessary, says Leonard.
Jones issued BYU's permit Aug. 6, requiring scientists to determine as best possible, age, sex, race, stature, health condition, cause of death and, because the remains were commingled, to segregate the largest bones and skulls of each individual for proper reburial.
Baker immediately began sorting bones with an assistant in his St. George hotel room, then transferred the remains to BYU's Provo lab and to the University of Utah's forensic anthropology lab in Salt Lake City, which BYU had subcontracted to do the required "osteological" analysis.
Throughout, Loving demanded not a word be said to anyone about the discovery. On Aug. 9, he threatened to sue the state Division of History if Evans did not guarantee in writing the state would adhere to several conditions of secrecy, including "none of the contents of the report, in part or in whole, is released to anyone."
Baker of BYU maintains the secrecy was to allow time to notify family members who did not know of the accidental discovery. "To the credit of the church, they always told me they wanted everything to be open and aboveboard," he says.
Yet many descendants involved in the monument project didn't learn of the discovery until the St. George Spectrum newspaper broke the story Aug. 13, 10 days after the backhoe unearthed the remains. Failing to get answers from state officials whom Loving had told not to talk, many descendants bitterly wondered what was really going on.
Burr Fancher, who had supported the monument reconstruction, was incensed. In an e-mail message circulated to several other descendants, he said Loving was a "lackey in the employ of the Mormon Church and caters to Hinckley's every whim."
The news also triggered a flood of requests to BYU and the state from people wanting to know if their family roots could be traced to Mountain Meadows. On Aug. 22, the Utah Attorney General's Office informed state antiquities officials: "Generally, next of kin is privileged in advancing the burial rights of the deceased absent a compelling state interest."
Loving was telling BYU and state officials the families wanted the remains buried Sept. 10 in a private ceremony at Mountain Meadows. But new claims of affiliation complicated matters.
"I went into this blindly and naively assuming the Mountain Meadows Association spoke as a unified voice on behalf of all the descendants and that turned out to be wrong," Baker says today. "On one hand I had descendants demanding I test for DNA, and on the other I had descendants saying they were going to sue my pants off if I did."
By now it was clear scientists would not be able to complete even the baseline scientific analysis in time for the scheduled Sept. 10 reburial ceremony. After a tense meeting with Loving, Jones agreed to a compromise. The examination and segregation of the "long bones" would probably be finished by Sept. 10, and those bones would be placed in the ground at the ceremony. The skulls would require more time, but once that analysis was complete, the cranial material would then be reburied.
Loving says he was "forced to accept" the compromise, but immediately launched an end run. He contacted Dixie Leavitt, the governor's father and a former state senator who played a leading role in the 1990 dedication of another monument overlooking the killing field. Loving warned Dixie Leavitt that unless all the bones were reburied on Sept. 10, there would be an uproar during Hinckley's dedication ceremony.
"I don't recall exactly what I said, but 'disturbance' sounds like a pretty good word," Loving says today.
"I received a call today from my Father (sic) who has been rather involved with the people from Arkansas who are planning to hold a burial and memorial service," Gov. Leavitt wrote in a Sept. 6 e-mail to Wilson Martin, the division's director of cultural preservation and Jones' boss. "Apparently, the State Archaeologist is insisting that some portion of the remains be held from the burial for study. It is apparently causing a lot of angst amongst the family members."
Gov. Leavitt responded to The Tribune's questions about his intercession through his press secretary, Vicki Varela. She said the governor "did not feel that it was appropriate for the bones to be dissected and studied in a manner that would prolong the discomfort."
Leavitt did not speak to any descendants or family members "other than being notified by his father that there was some risk a respectful event may turn into something of a discomfort for the participants," said Varela.
Asked if Leavitt understood there was a state law requiring such study, Varela answered: "I don't think he was knowledgeable of all the details." She said as the CEO of the state, the governor believed "we should find a way to create minimal interference."
Church History Museum director Leonard says it was the decision of the MMA, not the church, to seek an executive exception to the scientific study requirements.
"We were aware of the political implications and the emotional implications of this issue," says Leonard. "In hindsight, it is fair to say that the governor's directive to bury those remains not completely analyzed was a humane response to conflicting needs."
Evans drew up a new state antiquities permit for BYU, removing the previous requirement of analysis "in toto" and replacing it with a new requirement that BYU "shall reinter, by Sept. 10, 1999, all human remains into the prepared burial vaults, near the place of discovery."
Jones, in a memo to the division files Sept. 9, noted his professional objections.
"To rebury the remains at this point would constitute, in the opinion of the Antiquities Section, a violation of professional, scientific and ethical responsibilities," Jones wrote. "It also might indeed be seen as demonstrating disrespect for the victims, to bury them once again with bones of many individuals mixed and jumbled, as they were originally disrespectfully interred, in a mass grave of murder victims."
But Evans also included a notation on the new permit that could lead to another re-opening of the massacre grave.
"Since the remains have been interred in a concrete vault, it is possible that further evaluation can take place if all the parties agree, or if a court so orders at some future date," Evans says today. "This is a matter for the family members and the landowner to address, not one the Division of State History expects to be involved in."
Early on the morning of Sept. 10, Baker picked up the remains from the U. and drove them to a St. George mortuary. There, the unsegregated bones and skulls of at least 29 people were placed inside four wooden ossuaries and later reburied at the rebuilt monument.
On Sept. 29, Baker sent letters of thanks to Division of History officials explaining how many family members at the memorial service appreciated that all the remains were reinterred. "This certainly represents the positive side of Governor Leavitt's action to intercede on the reburial issue," he wrote.
At the same time, Baker said he was professionally conflicted by the precedent set with the political decisions.
"The state and its people benefited from this absolutely unique opportunity to, in some small way, try and make amends for the tragic events that transpired there so long ago," Baker wrote in a letter to Jones. "That certainly counts for something. I just hope that some of the other consequences we were all concerned about in connection with the action to rebury do not come back to cause us grief in the future."
Again, those would prove fateful words.
by Christopher Smith ("The Salt Lake Tribune", March 13, 2000)
Like a grim jigsaw puzzle, University of Utah forensic anthropologist Shannon Novak has pieced together the results of crime and warfare, meticulously re-assembling the bones of people who met violent ends.
Her expertise has taken her to the mass graves of Croatia, where she joined a team of other experts in gathering evidence for prosecution of Serbian war crimes. She recently deciphered the bones of soldiers found on the bloodiest battlefield of Britain's Wars of Roses in 1461, questioning the romantic views of chivalry in medieval battle.
The situations are frequently tense, the work is tedious and the results are never pretty. But always, the truth ends up in sharper focus.
"Typically with history, the winning side writes the story," Novak says.. "This is giving the dead a chance to speak."
She took that same sense of purpose into a Utah polemic that began last summer. While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was working to rebuild a monument to victims of the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre, the skeletal remains of at least 29 slain emigrants were accidentally dug up by a church contractor on Aug. 3.
That scientists were required to study the bones of the massacre victims before they could be returned to their resting-place became the flash point in a five-week struggle that ended with a private reburial ceremony Sept. 10. The studies, normally required by state law of all accidentally discovered human remains, were terminated prematurely after Gov. Mike Leavitt personally intervened.
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."
Novak, along with a handful of other scientists, archaeologists and state antiquities officials, got caught in a political tug-of-war that pitted the need for scientific inquiry against the desire to respect the wishes of some descendants, who viewed the analysis as adding insult to injury.
"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."
Yet at the same time, there is little widespread public knowledge of a crime of civil terrorism that pales in modern U.S. history only to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The slaughter of an estimated 120 white civilians by a cabal of Mormon zealots and Indians is never mentioned in school history textbooks and is not even listed as a "point of interest" on Utah's official highway map. Until recent additions, the interpretive signs at Mountain Meadows were so vague as to how the Arkansas emigrants died that they became a source of national ridicule.
"All across the United States, when the dominant group has committed wicked deeds, historical markers either omit the acts or write of them in the passive voice," James W. Loewen writes in his new book, Lies Across America, which devotes a chapter to Mountain Meadows. "Thus, the landscape does what it can to help the dominant stay dominant and the rest of us stay ignorant about who actually did what in American history."
When the serene landscape at Mountain Meadows suddenly yielded hard evidence of one of the most gruesome crimes of western settlement, debate erupted over the need to delve further.
"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. "There's nothing those bones could show us that we don't already know from the documentary evidence."
But others disagree.
"Those bones could tell the story and this was their one opportunity," says Marian Jacklin, a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist in Cedar City. "I have worked with many of these descedants 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, state 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 says. "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."
Before the bones were placed back into the earth in the wake of the abrupt change in a state antiquities permit, they had started to reveal their secrets. In a 30-hour, round-the-clock forensic marathon, Novak and her students at the U. managed to reassemble several of the skulls before BYU officials arrived early on the morning of Sept. 10 to take the bones away.
Her results, which are still being compiled for future publication in a scientific journal, confirm much of the documentary record. But they also provide chilling new evidence that contradicts some conventional beliefs about what happened during the massacre.
For instance, 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. However, Novak's partial reconstruction of approximately 20 different skulls of Mountain Meadows victims show:
-- At least five adults had gunshot exit wounds in the posterior area of the cranium -- a clear indication some were shot while facing their killers.. One victim's skull displays a close-range bullet entrance wound to the forehead;
-- Women also were shot in the head at close range. A palate of a female victim exhibits possible evidence of gunshot trauma to the face, based on a preliminary examination of broken teeth;
-- At least one youngster, believed to be about 10 to 12 years old, was killed by a gunshot to the top of the head.
Other findings by Novak from the commingled partial remains of at least 29 individuals -- a count based on the number of right femurs in the hundreds of pieces of bone recovered from the gravesite -- back up the historical record;
-- Five skulls with gunshot entrance wounds in the back of the cranium have no "beveling," or flaking of bone, on the exterior of the skull. This indicates the victims were executed with the gun barrel pointing directly into the head, not at an angle, and at very close range;
-- Two young adults and three children -- one believed to be about 3 years old judging by tooth development -- were killed by blunt-force trauma to the head. Although written records recount that children under the age of 8 were spared, historians believe some babes-in-arms were murdered along with their mothers;
-- Virtually all of the "post-cranial" (from the head down) bones displayed extensive carnivore damage, confirming written accounts that bodies were left on the killing field to be gnawed by wolves and coyotes.
Assisted by graduate student Derinna Kopp and other U. Department of Anthropology volunteers, Novak's team took photographs, made measurements, wrote notes and drew diagrams of the bones, all part of the standard data collection required by law.
"I treated this as if it were a recent homicide, conducting the analysis scientifically but with great respect," says Novak. "I'm always extremely conservative in my conclusions. I will only present what I can verify in a court of law."
Beyond the cause of death, Novak was able to discern something about the constitution of the emigrants.
"These were big, strong, robust men, very heavy boned," she says. "We found tobacco staining on teeth, which is helpful in indicating males, and lots of cavities, indicating they had a diet heavy on carbohydrates."
There came a point in the reconstruction where the disparate pieces of bones slowly began to morph into individuals, each with distinct characteristics. One victim had broken an arm and clavicle that had healed improperly. One male had likely been in a brawl that left a healed blunt wound on the back of his head. One youngster's remains all had a distinctive reddish tint; as scientists inventoried the bones they would note another part of "red boy."
"We were at the stage when we were distinguishing them as people, where you were getting to know each one," says Novak. "We could have started to match people up. You would never have gotten complete individuals, but given a little more time, we could have done a lot more."
But time was up. Novak had concentrated her initial work on the "long bones," as part of an agreement reached between the Division of History, Mountain Meadows Association and Brigham Young University. Those post-cranial remains would be re-interred during a Sept. 10 memorial. Because the reconstruction of the skulls would not be finished by then, the agreement allowed Novak until spring -- about six months -- to do the studies required by state law.
It was late on Sept. 8 that she learned that Division of History Director Max Evans had overruled Jones and re-wrote BYU's antiquities permit, changing the standard requirement for analysis "in toto" to require reburial of all remains on Sept. 10. When BYU asked to pick up the cranial bones on Sept. 9, Novak deferred, saying she had until the next day according to the amended permit.
"It was the only stand I could make because they had changed the rules in the middle of the process with no notice whatsoever," she says. "We worked through the night to get as much done as we could. This data had to be gathered."
BYU archaeologist Shane Baker picked up the remains from Novak early on the morning of Sept. 10, drove them to a St. George mortuary where they were placed in four small wooden ossuaries and then reburied later that day at the newly finished monument.
The dead would say no more. Their remains should never have been queried in the first place, says Weber State historian Sessions.
"This idea of Shannon Novak needing six months to mess around with the cranial stuff, well, I know something about that science and that's a fraud," says the Mountain Meadows Association president, who adds he consulted his WSU colleagues about the time needed for such studies. "I really disagree with anyone who says we should have kept the bones out of the ground longer to determine what happened at Mountain Meadows. The documentary evidence is overwhelming. Whether or not little kids were shot in the head or mashed with rocks makes no difference. They were killed."
But other historians, searching for more information about an event cloaked in secrecy for generations, see value in the empirical evidence that forensic anthropology can offer. On Feb. 15, BYU's Baker made an informal presentation of his own photographs and research on the Mountain Meadows remains to the Westerners, an exclusive group of professional and amateur historians who meet monthly. As Baker flashed color slides of the bones on the screen, the men were visibly moved.
"I've dealt with this awful tale on a daily basis for five years, but I found seeing the photos of the remains of the victims profoundly disturbing," says Will Bagley, whose forthcoming book on the massacre, Blood of the Prophets, won the Utah Arts Council publication prize. "It drove home the horror."
But would it convince those who still believe the killing was done solely by Indians, or was part of an anti-Mormon conspiracy or the work of a single, renegade apostate?
"My own father believed John D. Lee was the one behind it all and if you think you were going to convince him any differently with empirical proof, forget it," says David Bigler, author of Forgotten Kingdom and former member of the Utah Board of State History. "People want to have the truth, they want it with a capital T and they don't like to have people upset that truth. True believers don't want to think the truth has changed."
And according to the leader of the modern Mormon church, the truth has already been told about Mountain Meadows.
by Christopher Smith ("The Salt Lake Tribune", March 14, 2000)
MOUNTAIN MEADOWS -- As LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley delivered words of reconciliation at the Sept. 11, 1999, dedication of a rebuilt monument to emigrants slaughtered by Mormon militiamen and their Indian allies 142 years earlier, he added a legal disclaimer.
"That which we have done here must never be construed as an acknowledgment of the part of the church of any complicity in the occurrences of that fateful day," Hinckley said. The line was inserted into his speech on the advice of attorneys for the Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The statement, seemingly out of sync with Hinckley's desire to bring healing to nearly 150 years of bitterness, caused some in attendance to wonder if any progress had really been made at all. If the Mormon Church leadership of 1857 was not at least partially to blame for an estimated 120 people slain at Mountain Meadows, then whom should history hold responsible?
"Well, I would place blame on the local people," Hinckley told The Salt Lake Tribune in a subsequent interview Feb. 23. "I've never thought for one minute -- and I've read the history of that tragic episode -- that Brigham Young had anything to do with it. It was a local decision and it was tragic.. We can't understand it in this time."
For families of the slain emigrants and descendants of LDS pioneer John D. Lee -- the one participant convicted and executed for the crime -- Hinckley's delineation of the church's position on Mountain Meadows compounded many of the misgivings they had about the entire chain of events during the summer.
First, a church contractor's backhoe accidentally exhumed the bones of at least 29 victims Aug. 3 while digging at the grave, even though the church had pledged not to disturb the ground. That was followed by a failed attempt at secrecy, leading to wild speculation and a schism among descendants.
There was a heated debate over whether a state law requiring forensic analysis of the bones should be obeyed, with Gov. Mike Leavitt finally intervening to prematurely terminate the study and ensure that all bones be reburied before the dedication. New forensic anthropology studies done on the bones before reinterment provided the first graphic evidence of the brutality, and a new, unwanted reminder of the horror.
Now, those who had hoped to hear some sort of apology on behalf of the modern Mormon Church from the man who had done more than any of his predecessors to salve the wounds, were left feeling they had come up short.
"What we've felt would put this resentment to rest would be an official apology from the church," says Scott Fancher of the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation in Arkansas, a group of direct descendants of the victims. "Not an admission of guilt, but an acknowledgement of neglect and of intentional obscuring of the truth."
Others closely involved in Hinckley's participation in the new monument project believe the LDS Church went as far as it's ever going to go in addressing the uncomfortable details of the massacre.
"You're not going to get an apology for several reasons, one of which is that as soon as you say you're sorry, here come the wrongful-death lawsuits," says Gene Sessions, president of the Mountain Meadows Association, the organization that partnered with Hinckley on the project.
"If President Hinckley ever contemplated he was going to open this can of worms he never would have bothered to do this, because it asks embarrassing questions. It raises the old question of whether Brigham Young ordered the massacre and whether Mormons do terrible things because they think their leaders want them to do terrible things."
Noted Mormon writer Levi Peterson has tried to explain the difficulty that Mormons and their church face in confronting the atrocity of Mountain Meadows.
"If good Mormons committed the massacre, if prayerful leaders ordered it, if apostles and a prophet knew about it and later sacrificed John D. Lee, then the sainthood of even the modern church seems tainted," he has written.. "Where is the moral superiority of Mormonism, where is the assurance that God has made Mormons his new chosen people?"
Mormons are certainly not alone in trying to square the shedding of innocent blood in the name of God. In the 13th century, the Roman Catholic Church established courts of the Spanish Inquisition, gaining confessions of heresy through torture and punishment by death. In 1692, Puritans in Massachusetts executed 20 people for allegedly practicing witchcraft.
But acknowledging any complicity in Mountain Meadows' macabre past is fundamentally problematic for the modern church.
"The massacre has left the Mormon Church on the horns of a dilemma," says Utah historian Will Bagley, author of a forthcoming book on Mountain Meadows.. "It can't acknowledge its historic involvement in a mass murder, and if it can't accept its accountability, it can't repent."
The massacre also shows a darker side to Mormonism's proud pioneer heritage, an element used today to shape the faith's worldwide image.
"The problem is that Mormons then were not simply old-fashioned versions of Mormons today," says historian David Bigler, author of Forgotten Kingdom.. "Then, they were very zealous believers; it was a faith that put great emphasis on the Old Testament and the Blood of Israel."
Brigham Young's theocratic rule of the Utah Territory -- he wore the hats of governor, federal Indian agent and LDS prophet -- was at its zenith in 1857 when the mass murders at Mountain Meadows occurred. Reformation of the LDS Church was in full swing, with members' loyalty challenged by church leaders. Young taught that in a complete theocracy, God required the spilling of a sinner's blood on the ground to properly atone for grievous sins. It was the Mormon doctrine of "blood atonement."
The modern church contends blood atonement was mainly a "rhetorical device" used by Young and other leaders to teach Saints the wages of sin. Yet some scholars see its influence even today, pointing to such signs as Utah being the only state left in the nation that allows execution by firing squad. There is widespread disagreement, but some historians have concluded that blood atonement is central to understanding why faithful Mormons would conspire to commit mass murder.
Alternate explanations have included speculation that Indians threatened to prey on local inhabitants if Mormon settlers did not help them raid emigrant wagon trains. There also are the oft-repeated "evil emigrant" stories, accounts that the Arkansas wagon train antagonized Mormon settlers with epithets, poisoned watering holes that resulted in the deaths of Mormon children and Indians, and boastful claims of one contingent called the "Missouri Wildcats" that they were with the Illinois mob that killed LDS founder Joseph Smith.
Retold as fact in many accounts and in the National Register of Historic Places nomination for Mountain Meadows, the veracity of those stories has been called into question since the earliest investigations of the massacre..
Historian Juanita Brooks, in her seminal book, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, believed the emigrants met their doom in part through their own provocative behavior and because they came from the Arkansas county adjacent to the county where beloved LDS Apostle Parley P. Pratt had recently been murdered.
In his forthcoming Blood of the Prophets, Bagley points to new evidence that seems to blunt this one point of Brooks' landmark research.
"[Noted historian] Dale Morgan alerted Brooks in 1941 to the likelihood that the emigrant atrocity stories had been 'set afloat by Mormons to further their alibi of the massacre's having been perpetrated by Indians,' " Bagley writes, quoting from Morgan's letter to Brooks. "Even then it was well-established that the Fancher party came from Arkansas, and Morgan had never been satisfied with tales that the company included a large contingent of maniacal Missourians."
That a wagon train mainly of women and children would be slaughtered for belligerence and taunting seems too farfetched to many historians today.
"When you have 50 to perhaps more than 70 men participate in an event like this, you can't just say they got upset," says Bigler, a Utah native. "We have to believe they did not want to do what they did any more than you or I would. We have to recognize they thought what they were doing is what authority required of them. The only question to be resolved is did that authority reach all the way to Salt Lake City?"
Fifty years ago, when Brooks broached the question of Young's role and blood atonement in her book, she was labeled an apostate by some and "one of the Lord's lie detectors" by others, such as the late philanthropist O.C. Tanner. Brooks noted her own LDS temple endowment blessing was to "avenge the blood of the prophet," a reference to Smith's 1844 murder. References to vengeance on behalf of slain church leaders eventually were removed from endowment ceremonies.
The journals kept by Mormon pioneers, who considered maintaining diaries a religious duty, continue to shed more light on the questions Brooks raised.. Among key developments in the historical record:
-- The Sept. 1, 1857, journal of Young's Indian interpreter, Dimick Huntington, recounts Young's negotiations with the Paiute Indians, who were offered a gift of the emigrant wagon train's cattle. When Paiute leaders noted Young had told them not to steal, Huntington translated Young's reply: "So I have, but now they have come to fight us and you, for when they kill us they will kill you."
-- Young, as superintendent of Indian Affairs in the Utah Territory, ordered the distribution of more than $3,500 in goods to the natives "near Mountain Meadows" less than three weeks after the massacre.
-- The patriarchal blessing given to the commander of the Mormon militia in Beaver, Iron and Washington counties called on Col. William Dame to "act at the head of a portion of thy brethren and of the Lamanites [Indians] in the redemption of Zion and the avenging of the blood of the prophets upon them that dwell on the earth."
There is also additional support for Brooks' original premise: That Young wanted to stage a violent incident to demonstrate to the U.S. government -- which was taking up arms against his theocracy -- that he could persuade the Indians to interrupt travel over the important overland trails, thwarting all emigration. She was the first to note a frequently censored phrase from Young's Aug. 4, 1857, letter to Mormon "Indian missionary" Jacob Hamblin to obtain the tribe's trust, "for they must learn that they have either got to help us or the United States will kill us both."
Hinckley has declared, "Let the book of the past be closed" at Mountain Meadows and believes it is pointless to continually speculate on why it happened.
"None of us can place ourselves in the moccasins of those who lived there at the time," he said in an interview. "The feelings that were aroused, somehow, that I cannot understand. But it occurred. Now, we're trying to do something that we can to honorably and reverently and respectfully remember those who lost their lives there."
Sessions, the Weber State University historian who serves as president of the Mountain Meadows Association, says Hinckley's efforts at reconciliation this past summer "may be the most significant event to happen in Mountain Meadows since John D. Lee was executed."
Attitudes are changing, he says, pointing to the church's acceptance of interpretive signs at the meadows that better explain who did the killing. As to who ultimately is to blame, perhaps that's not for anyone to judge.
"Somebody made a terrible decision that this has got to be done," says Sessions. "I don't justify it in any way. But I do believe it would have taken more guts to stay home in Cedar City on those days in 1857 than it would to go out there to the meadows and take part.
"You couldn't stay away. You would have been out there killing people."
Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack contributed to this story.
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