Summarized by Kent Larsen
Backhoe Accident Ruined LDS Church's Attempt To Bury Mountain Meadows
Salt Lake Tribune 12Mar00 N1
By Christopher Smith: Salt Lake Tribune
Voices of the Dead
Salt Lake Tribune 13Mar00 N6
By Christopher Smith: Salt Lake Tribune
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH -- Calling the Mountain Meadows Massacre the
"worst slaughter of white civilians in the history of the frontier
West," the Salt Lake Tribune launched a three-part article on the
background of last year's dedication of a restored monument at
Mountain Meadows and the controversial way that remains of 29
victims, accidentally uncovered by a backhoe during construction of
the monument, were handled. Instead of finally putting to rest the
massacre, the Tribune says that the Church's efforts may have
accidentally opened "another sad chapter in the massacre's legacy of
bitterness, denial and suspicion."
In October 1998, President Gordon B. Hinckley visited the site of the
Massacre, located southwest of Cedar City, Utah, and personally
launched an effort to rebuild, in a more permanent way, the monument
on the site. Since 1859 when U.S. troops investigating the massacre
had piled stones on the site, the monument had been rebuilt at least
11 times. The land under the site is owned by the LDS Church, since
the 1970 landowner, unable to find descendants of the victims to whom
he could give the property, instead gave it to the Church.
Along with the new monument, the MMA and the LDS Church prepared a
new plaque, describing the tragedy. Previous plaques gave accounts of
the massacre that don't agree with the historical record, blaming the
attack on Indians. As a result, the previous plaque was included in
the recent book, "Lies Across America," by James W. Loewen, who
devoted an entire chapter to the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
President Hinckley sought out the Mountain Meadows Association, a
group of descendants of the victims and those interested in the
tragedy, and had Church architects, working with the MMA, design a
new monument for the site. The MMA participated with the
understanding that none of the remains of the victims would be
disturbed, and at least some association members understood that the
new monument would be 'surface-mounted' to avoid disturbing remains.
However, architects had not designed a surface-mounted monument, and
brought in BYU's Office of Public Archaeology to examine the site and
locate the remains, without disturbing them. The BYU Archaeologists
used ground-penetrating radar, aerial photos, metal detectors and
hundreds of soil-sample tests to try and find the remains. However,
their efforts were unsuccessful. "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
But as soon as the contractor's backhoe operator began work on August
3rd of last year, on the second or third scoop of the backhoe, came
up 30 pounds of human remains. "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 the 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." The remains were discovered in an area
where Baker couldn't use ground-penetrating radar, and instead relied
on core sampling.
The remains were located right in the middle of where a new wall
surrounding the monument was to be placed, requiring that they be
removed. And Utah state law requires that any human remains
discovered be examined scientifically to discover, if possible, the
race, age, sex, stature, health condition and cause of death. To
facilitate this analysis, the state issued a permit to BYU allowing
its archaeologists to remove the remains for study. BYU released some
of the remains to the University of Utah's Shannon Novak, who, acting
as a subcontractor, led a team of scientists.
The LDS Church relied on its negotiations at this point with Ron
Loving, president of the Mountain Meadows Association, who claimed to
speak for all the descendants of the victims. Loving told the Church
and the state of Utah that the discovery of remains must remain
private, that no word could be released to newspapers and that both
the Church and the state could not comment to anyone on the remains.
Loving reportedly even threatened to sue the state Division of
History if the state didn't keep even the results of its report
secret. BYU's Baker says he understood the secrecy was to allow
Loving time to contact the other descendants of the victims.
However, many descendants didn't know about the accidental uncovering
of remains when the St. George Spectrum broke the story on August
13th, 10 days after the remains had been uncovered. The secrecy kept
these descendants in the dark, as state officials refused to comment
on the remains, leading descendants to suspect the worst. Burr
Fancher, one of the descendants, was particularly incensed, calling
Loving a "lackey in the employ of the Mormon Church and caters to
Hinckley's every whim."
As descendants sought more information, Loving scheduled reburial of
the remains for a private ceremony on September 10th. But BYU told
him they wouldn't be able to complete examining the remains by that
point. Upset, Loving contacted Dixie Leavitt, father of Utah Governor
Mike Leavitt and a former state senator who had played a role in
building the previous monument on the site in 1990, telling him that
there would be an uproar at the monument's dedication if the remains
were not reburied on September 10th. After Dixie Leavitt contacted
his son, the Governor, issued an executive exception, allowing the
remains to be interred without the scientific examination.
The scientists and some historians weren't happy with the decision,
feeling that to not complete the work was a violation of ethics. But
other historians thought that burying the remains was proper. Weber
State University historian Gene Sessions said, "There's nothing those
bones could show us that we don't already know from the documentary
evidence." Some descendants agreed, including Burr Fancher, who wrote
to BYU's Office of Public Archaeology saying, "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."
Others believe that the remains could tell a lot about what happened
during the massacre, "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
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."
And Novak's preliminary results bear out this result. Working quickly
before the September 10th reburial, Novak and her graduate students
managed to reassemble about 20 skulls, learning:
* At least five adults were shoot while facing their killers,
contradicting historical accounts.
* Women were also shot in the head at close range, instead of
bludgeoned to death as the historical account claims.
* A 10 to 12 year old child was killed by a gunshot, again instead
of bludgeoned as the accounts claim.
* Three children, including one about 3 years old, were killed,
contrary to accounts that children under age 8 were spared.
* Virtually all bones below the skull showed damage from
carnivores, confirming accounts that the bodies were left on the
massacre site and gnawed at by wolves and coyotes.
Novak is preparing her research for publication.
BYU's Baker also has prepared the results of his research, and
presented them informally to a group of professional and amateur
historians known as the Westerners on February 15th. The historians
present were shocked at what they saw, "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
But the research still doesn't answer the basic questions that have
haunted historians in the 142 years since the massacre, was the
massacre a conspiracy or the work of a single, 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."
But the way that the discovery and reburial of the victims' remains
was handled has now left some descendants even more uncomfortable
with the situation. "We're doubtful with the church in control this
will ever be completely put to rest," says Scott Fancher, president
of the Arkansas-based Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation (a
separate organization from the Mountain Meadows Association),
"There's a sense among some of our members it's like having Lee
Harvey Oswald in charge of JFK's tomb."