- Historic Sites
What Happened At Mountain Meadows?
The truth is still emerging about the mass murder of more than 100 California-bound emigrants in Utah in 1857, and about the role of leaders of the Mormon Church in the atrocity.
October 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 7
Reconstructing some 18 different skulls from 2,605 pieces of bone from 28 victims, including women and children, the scientists produced the first physical evidence in a long and disputed history. The investigation “suggests the killing of women and children may have been more complicated than [in previous] accounts,” Dr. Novak wrote in her final study, presented last October to the Midwest Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology Association. Among other revelations, the examinations disclosed that some of the victims, including several women and at least one child, had been killed while facing their executioners head-on, by point-blank gunshots between their eyes, rather than by being shot in the back while fleeing, as earlier accounts had claimed.
Further, it became evident that the murders had been committed by white men rather than by the Paiute Indians commonly blamed for all the attacks on the women and children. And it was especially clear that John D. Lee, the one man ever held accountable for the crime, could not possibly have acted alone in a mass murder of this magnitude. Paiute leaders say the new forensic evidence supports their own oral histories that the tribe has been wrongfully blamed.
Novak’s examination was still not completed in crucial aspects, including DNA testing, when the bones were reburied, under orders from Governor Leavitt. Marian Jacklin, a U.S. Forest Service archeologist, was one of the many who fought the state’s decision to halt the inquiry. “Those bones could tell the story and this was their one opportunity,” she said. “I would allow my own mother’s bones to be studied in a respectful way if it would benefit medicine or history.”
The brief episode of revelation and suppression sparked heated charges and countercharges. Hundreds of victims’ relatives around the country petitioned the state of Utah to retrieve the remains of their ancestors; some demanded DNA testing. More than 28,000 hits were recorded on a once obscure Internet Web site about the massacre. The governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, speaking for descendants living in his state, requested federal stewardship of the site, which would remove it from church control. “It’s like having Lee Harvey Oswald in charge of JFK’s tomb,” said Scott Fancher, a descendant of one of the leaders of the wagon train.
The contemporary conflict is only the latest episode in the often stormy 144-year aftermath of the massacre. It all comes down to a still-unfinished search for meaning and responsibility. Bvt. Maj. James H. Carleton summed up the problem in a special report to Congress in 1859: “In pursuing the bloody thread which runs throughout this picture of sad realities, the question how this crime, that for hellish atrocity has no parallel in our history, can be adequately punished often comes up and seeks in vain for an answer.”
Carleton, commanding a troop of U.S. dragoons from California, had been among the first federal officers to investigate the incident, two years after it happened. According to his official report, his men found 34 exposed skeletons and buried them in a grave marked with a rough stone cairn. They placed a 24-foot cedar cross on top with the defiant inscription “Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord.”
Neither Novak nor her colleagues were prepared for the evidence of brutality they’d find—or for the political tug-of-war that would follow.
Carleton’s epithet set off a checkered history of monuments. When the Mormon Church leader Brigham Young visited the site two years later, he pronounced his own imprecation: “Vengeance is mine, and I have taken a little.” He then lifted his right arm, according to Mormon histories of the event, and a band of Mormon men, including Governor Leavitt’s ancestor, destroyed the cairn and the cross and scattered the rocks. U.S. Army soldiers rebuilt the monument a year later, and once more Mormons tore it down. In 1932. the Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association erected a nearly inaccessible stone marker two miles off the highway and atop a steep climb; it survived until 1990, though the church removed every road sign indicating it.
In the late 1980s, a group of John D. Lee’s descendants, including former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, began working to clear their ancestor’s name. Simultaneously, descendants of the Fanchers and Bakers—two of the families on the wagon train—began pressing the federal government for a new memorial. Responding to the descendants of both the victims and the perpetrators, the state of Utah built a granite wall on Dan Sill Hill, overlooking the site and bearing the etched names of 120 of the slaughtered pioneers and an inscription that read: “In Memoriam: In the valley below, between September 7 and 11, 1857, a company of more than 120 Arkansas emigrants led by Capt. John T. Baker and Capt. Alexander Fancher was attacked while en route to California. This event is known in history as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.”