Bones whisper grisly secret

1853 Indian deaths may be executions by LDS

The Salt Lake Tribune/June 8, 2007
By Jason Bergreen

An extensive analysis of seven American Indian skeletons unearthed in a mass grave in Nephi last year shows that the men and boys did not die in a skirmish with Mormon settlers, as most historical records suggest, but were killed execution-style.

That is the conclusion of state archaeologists who spent nearly nine months examining the roughly 1,800 bones and bone fragments that were found in a shallow grave in downtown Nephi in August 2006.

Of the seven skeletons belonging to men and boys aged about 12 to 35, six showed evidence of gunshot wounds, said Utah assistant state archaeologist Ronald Rood. Three had bullet wounds near the top of their skulls.

"It's a situation where you see people down on the ground, with their heads lowered and then shot in the back of the head," Rood said.

The killings appear to be connected to a larger conflict between Mormon pioneers and American Indians during the summer and fall of 1853 known as the Walker War, Rood said.

On Sept. 30, 1853, four men driving a pair of oxen-drawn wagons to Salt Lake City from Manti were attacked and killed during an overnight raid at Uintah Springs, according to Springville historian D. Robert Carter. The killings outraged settlers as the men's bodies were returned to Nephi for burial.

Two days later, it appears Mormon pioneers sought retaliation for the slayings by executing the American Indian men and boys, who are believed not to have been involved in the attack on the wagons.

"I think it's unlikely they were involved in that," Rood said.

Official accounts written by militia leaders of the time referred to the killings as a "skirmish," Rood said. But the archaeological data and forensic study, as well as two journal entries written by two women who witnessed the men die, now suggest the slayings were committed execution-style.

"These people were seated and shot at close range," Rood said.

Three of the skeletons have defensive marks on their arm bones suggesting they were trying to defend themselves.

The child who was around 12 years old had a gunshot wound through his right leg, Rood said. It is also clear that one of the men killed was bound because his skeleton was found buried face down with one arm behind his back and a leather strap with a buckle was still attached to his wrist.

Forensic science was unable to determined the cause of death for a boy about 16 to 18, Rood said, because gunshot wounds or another cause of death were not apparent on his bones.

After they were killed, the bodies of the men and boys were dumped in a shallow grave in Nephi. Last summer, 153 years later, a landowner who dug into a ravine to pour foundation for a new home unearthed the skeletons. The bodies were lying on top or next to each other in the 3-foot-wide grave.

Rood said it took him about six days to excavate the site. Then he and University of Utah forensic anthropologist Derinna Kopp spent two weeks sorting out the bones and matching them up.

From that point, Kopp spent several months analyzing, measuring and recording each bone.

The reason for the extensive analysis was not to rewrite history but to add to it and give the men and boys who were silenced a voice, Rood said.

"I think it's important that the voices of the seven dead people can be a part of the record," he said.

It is still unclear whether the American Indians are members of the Ute or Goshute tribe, but it was probably one or the other, Rood said.

Their remains will not be shipped to a museum, but hopefully be returned to their families or tribes. Rood said a process will start in a few months allowing American Indian groups to make claims on the remains and help determine their final resting place.

Rood will present his findings today in Orem at a Utah Statewide Archeological Society gathering.

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