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For week ended March 12, 2000 Posted 24 Feb 2001
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Sent on Mormon-News: 14Mar00

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 erased."

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 the horror."

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."

See also:


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Lies Across America More about "Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong" at

More about Juanita Brooks' "The Mountain Meadows Massacre" at

John Doyle Lee: Zealot, Pioneer Builder, Scapegoat More about Juanita Brooks' "John Doyle Lee: Zealot, Pioneer Builder, Scapegoat" at

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Kent Larsen · Privacy Information