Bones Found at Utah Site of Massacre 142 Years Ago

The New York Times, August 15, 1999

SALT LAKE CITY -- The bones of 10 men, women and children believed to have been among 120 California-bound pioneers killed by Mormon militiamen and their Indian allies in 1857 have been unexpectedly unearthed at the site of the massacre in southwest Utah.

The bones, discovered Aug. 3 by workers restoring a monument at the site, were shipped to Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City for an archeological evaluation.

It was an unfortunate discovery for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which had been trying to avoid disturbing human remains while demolishing and replacing a memorial at a primitive rock-cairn grave 40 miles north of St. George, Utah.

"The discovery was accidental," said Shane Baker, an archeologist for the church-owned Brigham Young University.

"We have the partial remains of a number of individuals. All evidence substantiates they were victims of the Mountain Meadows massacre," Mr. Baker said.

The pioneers, from Arkansas, were tricked into laying down their arms with a promise of safe passage and slain for reasons still not fully understood. It was a time when Utah Mormons feared an invasion by the Army and recalled their persecution by non-Mormons in Arkansas.

The only person ever held accountable for the attack was a Mormon convert, John D. Lee, a major in the Iron County Militia. He was tried, convicted and executed 20 years after the killings.

A church spokesman, Dale Bills, said on Friday that the church is "restoring the Mountain Meadows grave site as a dignified, lasting memorial to the victims of the 1857 massacre."

The pioneers's bones were exposed last week by a backhoe removing the last of a crude masonry wall that had encircled the grave site.

Working by hand, Brigham Young archeologists spent two days recovering the bones.

"It was a very humbling, spiritual experience," said Kirk Smith, Sheriff of Washington County, who was on hand for the excavation. "It just really touched me deeply. I saw buttons, some pottery and bones of adults and children. But the children -- that was what really hit me hard."

Brigham Young archeologists are examining the fragile bones for sex and age of pioneers and evidence of disease or trauma.

A private ceremony is planned for the reburial of the bones.

A contractor working for the church has resumed building a memorial wall 4 feet wide and 2 feet tall, and a dedication ceremony is scheduled for Sept. 11.

This monument will follow a series of reburials, ceremonies and makeshift monuments for the slain pioneers, who were originally buried in shallow graves. Those graves were exposed by animals, erosion and flash floods.

In 1859, Federal troops led by an Army officer, Maj. James H. Carleton of California, retrieved the exposed remains of 36 of the pioneers and reburied them under a pile of rocks.

A masonry wall, built in 1932 to encircle that cairn, is now being replaced. It was under that wall that the bones were found.

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