Salt Lake City - Descendants of massacre victims at a Utah site say the elevation of the Mountain Meadows area to national landmark status brings some healing.
The 760-acre site marks the spot where 120 members of an Arkansas wagon train were shot and killed on Sept. 11, 1857, by a Mormon militia. The Baker-Fancher wagon train was on a stop-over in the meadows on their way to California when it was attacked.
Seventeen young children survived and were taken into Mormon homes. The children were later returned to relatives in the southeast.
The meadows site, which sits 30 miles north of St. George, was elevated to a National Historic Landmark on Thursday by the U.S. Interior Department.
"There's not a lot you can do for folks that's been gone 150 years but remember them and honor them in the highest possible way and tell their story in a historically correct way," said Phil Bolinger, the Hindsville, Ark., president of the Mountain Meadows Massacre Foundation. "For me personally, it's closure because we've all come together for this one goal and there's been a lot of healing."
The foundation, along with the Mountain Meadows Association and the Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants has individually worked for national recognition and protections for the site for more than decade.
They'd also fought for years to wrestle an apology for the massacre from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which for decades denied or downplayed the faith's role in the massacre, with explanations that church leaders did not have any advance knowledge of the attack.
No apology has ever come, but in 2008 - a year after a church official expressed "regret" for the Mountain Meadows event - the church joined forced with the descendant groups to pursue the landmark status designation.
For association president Terry Fancher, those efforts speak louder than any words.
"Words wouldn't be as strong as the actions they've taken and I think will continue to take in the future" said Fancher, of Braintree, Mass., whose father and grandfather had talked about national recognition for the meadows as far back as the 1950s.
Fancher said he finds evidence of healing in the unanimous decision to ask the church's assistant historian, Richard Turley, to lead a dedication ceremony of the bronze national landmark plaques that is planned for September.
"That wouldn't have been possible years ago," Fancher said.
Turley called the designation "great news" and expressed gratitude for the collaboration with the descendant groups and federal agencies that worked on the landmark project.
"People will still have and should have their own version of the Mountain Meadows story, but this designation is a general recognition of the importance of the event in history," said Turley.
The Mountain Meadows site has long been on the National Register of Historic Places, but landmark status will elevate the massacre story, which has often been left out of histories of the western migration of pioneers, to a new place in American history.
"This is part of a larger story that had to do with the relationship between the church and the dominant society. That relationship was frequently violent and had been played out from New York all the way across the U.S. into Utah," said Lysa Wegman-French, a U.S. Forest Service historian based in Denver.
"Recent scholarship has brought new information to this very complex story," she added. "What the nomination does is draw on that scholarship to say, this is important."
The landmark site includes a rock cairn monument at the site where the five-day siege began, a hillside memorial inscribed with the names of the known dead and an area known as the upper graves to the north. The site is part of a 2,500-acre rolling green valley, which includes several known mass grave sites.
Much of the land is privately owned by the church and some is held by the U.S. Forest Service.
Patty Norris, the president of the Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants, said the landmark designation cements a new, and hard-won partnership between the descendant groups and the church that will preserve the massacre story far into the future.
"People need to know what happened here and some of the reasons behind it," said Norris, of Omaha, Ark "It's not about pointing a finger. It's about the truth. That's what history is about."