What Happened At Mountain Meadows?


On August 3, 1999, a backhoe operator powered his shovel into a hard-packed mound of earth at a remote site in the southwestern corner of Utah, and to the shock of those watching, the bucket emerged with more than 30 pounds of human skeletons. The excavation, part of a renovation of a crumbling monument, had not only uncovered an old burial site but also exposed anew one of the enduring controversies in American history.


Nearly a century and a half before in that spot, as many as 140 men, women, and children, traveling in one of the richest California-bound wagon trains ever assembled, had been attacked, besieged for five days, persuaded to surrender under a flag of truce and a pledge of safe passage, and then murdered. According to contemporaneous accounts, including the evidence presented at the trial of the one figure held legally responsible for the murders, John Doyle Lee, the attack on the train and the ensuing killings were carried out by a combined force of Paiute Indians and members of a local militia of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons. Lee was an adopted son and longtime intimate and military commander of the Mormons’ leader, Brigham Young, and the atrocity he was part of, known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre after the pastoral valley where the murders took place, was the worst in the annals of the West. Now, as then, however, the full story of what happened on September 11,1857—who was responsible, and why, how the tragedy unfolded, and, not least, its restless legacy embroiling one of the richest and fastestgrowing religious movements in the world—has remained one of history’s most stubborn mysteries.

Before the backhoe incident took place, the Mountain Meadows Association, a group the Salt Lake Tribune has described as “an unusual mix of historians and descendants of massacre victims and perpetrators,” had expressed concern about “the deplorable condition of the site” and appealed to the owners of the land, the Mormon Church, to rebuild an old memorial rock cairn. LDS officials had agreed in 1998 to restore the gravesite. The church hired Shane Baker, an archeologist from Brigham Young University, to examine the area before any earthmoving equipment was sent in. “There are a million different stories about how many victims there were and where their bodies are buried,” Christopher Smith, a Tribune journalist, later explained, “and the last thing the church wanted was to dig up any bones and set off a public controversy.” Most experts believe the cairn marked the burial site of only some of the victims; the remains of the rest have never been located, nor, strangely, has any physical evidence of the event itself, such as bullets or wagon parts.

In 1999 scientists working on behalf of the church used aerial photographs, metal detectors, core soil sampling, and ground-penetrating radar for a noninvasive study of the location. Forensic geologists and geophysicists searched for anomalies in the soil pattern: chemical concentrations of calcium, for instance, that would indicate where burials had taken place. All the while, church leaders went to great lengths to keep the renovation secret from public and press. Then, on August 3, church officials announced that the digging could go ahead without disturbance. Baker had found that “the archaeological evidence was 100 percent negative,” as he told a reporter, so the excavation began.

On making their grim discovery, the men at the backhoe that August morning were first inclined, one of them admitted later, to dump the shovel’s load right back in the hole and swear one another to secrecy. But discovering that there were specific state laws about handling excavated remains, they eventually decided to call Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith, who drove out to the cairn. “It was a very humbling, spiritual experience,” Sheriff Smith recalled. “I saw buttons, some pottery, and bones of adults and children. But the children—that was what really hit me hard.”

After a flurry of meetings, discussions, and phone conversations, the Utah state archeologist, Kevin Jones, explained that state law required that any unidentified human remains found on private property be forensically examined and that failure to comply would be a criminal felony. Jones issued a permit to allow scientists to determine the age, sex, race, stature, health condition, and cause of death of those whose remains had been found, and to segregate them for individual and proper reburial. Utah’s governor, Mike Leavitt, who happened to be a descendant of a participant in the massacre, was in the discussions and asked that the bones be quickly reburied, ordering state officials to find administrative or other means to do so.

Teams of anthropologists, archeologists, and other scientists around Utah began working long hours poring over the remains as fast as possible. They were intrigued by the discovery and well aware of what one newspaper editor called Utah’s “unique church-state tango.” “This [kind of work] is giving the dead a chance to speak,” said Shannon Novak, a University of Utah forensic anthropologist whose analysis of a mass grave in Croatia had helped lead to the prosecution of Serbian war criminals. But neither Novak nor her colleagues were prepared for what they would find among the victims at Mountain Meadows.