St. George, Utah – On the eve of the 150th anniversary of a massacre that took the lives of 120 members of an Arkansas wagon train, the descendants of some victims continue to push The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to loosen its hold on the burial grounds.
The Arkansas-based Mountain Meadows Massacre Foundation sent Mormon church leaders letters and petitions signed by more than 1,200 last month asking the church to consider seeking national landmark status for the 2,500 acre massacre site.
The foundation believes the church should not own the four known gravesites, because the massacre of Sept. 11, 1857 was perpetrated by church members. A memorial service is planned for Tuesday to mark the anniversary. Earlier this year, the foundation asked the church, which owns and maintains the gravesite 35 miles northwest of St. George, to donate the land to the U.S. Department of Interior.
That request was rejected in June, although the church said it plans to continue to maintain the site in a manner that appropriately honors the deceased.
In a cover letter, the foundation's president asked Mormon church President Gordon B. Hinckley to consider a compromise to seek national landmark status for the land, which would place some federal oversight rules on the gravesites.
"Given its historical significance, the Meadows certainly deserves to be protected and honored as a National Monument," foundation leader Phil Bolinger wrote.
The letters and petitions include members of Arkansas' congressional delegation, the state's governor, 55 members of the state legislature and nearly 400 direct descendants of the 17 massacre survivors and other relatives. Copies of the letters and petitions were also provided to The Associated Press.
"We will till our dying breath always be trying to honor the victims at the meadows in the highest way possible," Bolinger told the AP Saturday. "We have the majority of the closest descendants asking for this and that's what it's going to take for closure."
Church spokeswoman Kim Farah said she knew the petitions had been presented to Mormon elder Marlin Jensen, but she did not know if the information had been forwarded to Hinckley and other top leaders.
The massacre story has often left out of history books. The wagon train led by Capt. Alexander Fancher and John Baker was bound for California. After a stop in Salt Lake City, the party headed south along the Old Spanish Trail to the meadow where men, women and children were shot at close range, beaten or stabbed to death. None were buried.
Seventeen children survived the attack, all of them 6 years or younger. They were first adopted into Mormon families and later returned to their relatives in Arkansas.
History lays the blame for the attack on about 60 local Mormon militiamen and a small band of Paiute Indians, but falls short of saying whether the killings were ordered by specific church leaders, including then-President Brigham Young.
Only one man, John D. Lee, a church elder and an adopted son of Young, was ever held responsible.
Bolinger's petitions do not include signatures from the Mountain Meadows Association or the Mountain Meadows Descendants, two other descendant organizations.
Terry Fancher, president of the Mountain Meadows Association, comprised of descendants of perpetrators and victims, favors letting the church keep the land rather than leave it subject to federal funding.
"I believe (the church) is the way to go. I believe that is where the money will be to take care of it," said Fancher, of Braintree, Mass.
Fancher suggests a group of trustees should be selected to help oversee the site and provide input to the church. That's particularly needed now, he said, because recent land acquisitions by the church give it control over a northern gravesite that is not currently marked with a memorial.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants remain undecided about how to manage the site, president Patty Norris of Omaha, Ark., said, adding that a vote of the membership is expected at a meeting Monday.
Norris said what she wants more, is an apology.
"Justice has never been done to the people out there," she said. "That's why this dispute lingers and nobody can move on."