Frank Kirkman's Mountain Meadows Massacre Site
"Unearthing Mountain Meadows Secrets: Backhoe at a S. Utah killing field rips open 142-year-old wound"
(Part 1)
(by Christopher Smith ("The Salt Lake Tribune", March 14, 2000)
Editor's Note: Mountain Meadows, southwest of Cedar City, is the site of the worst slaughter of white civilians in the history of the frontier West. Last summer, LDS Church officials and descendants of the victims sought to finally close the 142-year-old wound. Together they were to build and dedicate a new monument to the 120 Arkansas emigrants who perished in unimaginable violence at the hands of Mormon settlers and Indian accomplices.
Shannon Novak
The new memorial stands, but the wound still festers. In constructing the monument, workers uncovered remains of 29 victims, a vivid and horrific reminder of that September day in 1857. The story of those bones, and what happened to them last summer, adds another excruciating chapter to the history of a crime that many of Utah's pioneer descendants can neither confront nor explain.
MOUNTAIN MEADOWS -- After burying dozens of men, women and children murdered in a bizarre frontier conspiracy, an Army major ordered his soldiers to erect a rockpile and a carved wooden cross swearing vengeance on the perpetrators. Brevet Maj. James H. Carleton then wrote to Congress: "Perhaps the future may be judged by the past."
They were fated words. When a backhoe operator last summer accidentally dug up the bones buried here in 1859 by Carleton's troops, it set into motiona series of cover-ups, accusations and recriminations that continue today.
It also caused a good-faith effort by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- to reconcile one of the ugliest chapters of U.S. history -- to backfire. The Aug. 3, 1999, excavation of the remains of at least 29 of the 120 emigrants slaughtered in the
Mountain Meadows massacre eventually prompted Gov. Mike Leavitt to intercede.He encouraged state officials to quickly rebury the remains, even though the basic scientific analysis required by state law was unfinished.
"It would be unfortunate if this sad moment in our state's history, and the rather good-spirited attempt to put it behind us, was highlighted by controversy," Leavitt wrote in an e-mail message to state antiquities officials shortly before LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley presided over a ceremony at Mountain Meadows.
The widely publicized occasion was to dedicate a newly rebuilt rock cairn monument, crafted with the same stones Carleton's troops had piled defiantly in 1859. They also were the same rocks that were torn down from the grave site by one of Leavitt's own ancestors. Dudley Leavitt, himself a participant in the Sept. 11, 1857, murders, visited the cairn with LDS prophet Brigham Young a year after Carleton's troops left.
After ridiculing the pledge of vengeance, Young lifted his right arm toward the rock pile and "in five minutes there wasn't one stone left upon another," Dudley Leavitt would recall. "He didn't have to tell us what he wanted done. We understood."
The governor's intercession was one of many dramas played out last summer, all serving to underscore Mountain Meadows' place as the Bermuda Triangle of Utah's historical and theological landscape. The end result may be another sad chapter in the massacre's legacy of bitterness, denial and suspicion.
In retracing the latest episode, The Salt Lake Tribune conducted numerous interviews and researched documents obtained under Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act to find:
-- Co-sponsors of the monument project -- the LDS Church and the Mountain Meadows Association -- initially hoped to cover up the excavation, with the MMA demanding any documentation be "kept out of public view permanently." The president of the association, Ron Loving, wrote in an Aug. 9 e-mail to the director of the Utah Division of History: "The families [descended from victims] and the LDS church will work out what we want to become public knowledge on this accidental finding."
-- The vain effort to hide the truth gave rise to wild conspiracy theories among some descendants. They suspected Loving was working with the LDS Church to rewrite history by having church-owned Brigham Young University determine the exhumed victims died of disease, not murder. "I call it 'sanitizing' a foul deed," Burr Fancher wrote to other descendants Aug. 24.
-- Utah Division of History Director Max Evans, over the objections of state Archaeologist Kevin Jones, personally rewrote BYU's state archaeological permit to require immediate reburial of the bones after receiving the governor's e-mail. Jones raised numerous questions over the political power play, including a concern it was "eth-nocentric and racist" to rebury the bones of white emigrants without basic scientific study when similar American Indian remains are routinely subjected to such analysis before repatriation. -- News of the excavation triggered written requests to BYU from people around the nation, seeking to determine if their ancestors were among the recovered victims. Some offered to submit to DNA testing and desired to reinter the remains in family burial plots outside of Utah. Although the Utah Attorney General's Office had advised state officials that "any and all lineal descendants of the Mountain Meadows massacre would appear to have a voice in determining the disposition of the bodies," there is little documented evidence any of the people seeking information about family members were consulted.
-- Resentment over the discovery and of the remains has caused a schism in the descendant families, with at least one organized group asking why civil or criminal penalties were not brought against the LDS Church or the MMA for desecrating the grave. There also is confusion over who is now in charge of the MMA. While new president Gene Sessions of Weber State University says Loving was voted out of office in November in the wake of the controversy, Loving says he's still the boss: "I wasn't voted out of a damn thing. I was moved up. It was my methods and my way of doing business that got that monument done."
Other descendants have enlisted the support of Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in calling for federal stewardship of the emigrant mass graves scattered in Mountain Meadows, instead of having the Mormon Church own the land.
"We're doubtful with the church in control this will ever be completely put to rest," says Scott Fancher, president of the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation in Arkansas. "There's a sense among some of our members it's like having Lee Harvey Oswald in charge of JFK's tomb."
Glen M. Leonard, director of the Museum of Church History and Art and Hinckley's personal representative in the process, said the church endeavored with the MMA to gather comment from all descendants through the association's Web page and newsletter.
"While this was not a perfect method for reaching all members of all branches of all families, it was a practical means for the church and the association to inform most of them with interest in the grave site restoration project," Leonard says. "We are sorry if some descendants of the emigrant families feel left out."
Marian Jacklin, an archaeologist with the Dixie National Forest in Cedar City who has spent years trying to navigate the emotional minefield of Mountain Meadows, says the events of last summer did not yield the desired consequences.
"This whole episode didn't answer anything," she says. "It just asked more questions."
And the question that burns in the minds of many angry descendants is: Why was a backhoe digging at a known, well-marked grave site?
"What we understood in every correspondence, and we thought we had made perfectly clear to the church, was that under no circumstances would the remains be disturbed," says Scott Fancher, whose organization is considering legal action over the excavation. "Never in my wildest imagination did we expect them to set a backhoe on this grave and start digging."
Hinckley had personally launched the effort to stabilize the decaying rock cairn -- rebuilt at least 11 times since Carleton's troops placed the stones -- after a visit to the site in October 1998. The 2.5 acres was deeded to the church in the 1970s after the landowner reportedly tried in vain to find descendants in Arkansas to accept the donation of land.
Partnering with the MMA -- a group of emigrant descendants, historians and interested southwestern Utah residents -- LDS Church architects designed a monument with a thigh-high stone wall around the old cairn, perched on a steep stream bank.
There are conflicting accounts of whether descendants understood the wall would require digging a trench around the grave for a concrete footing. Some MMA members, including the contractor, interpreted the "do not disturb" edict to cover the pre-construction archaeological investigation. Once the archaeologists said all clear, crews could dig the footing, they believed.
But Scott Fancher says his branch of the family understood the wall would be "surface-mounted," in keeping with the church's pledge not to disturb the burial ground in any way.
Before beginning, the LDS Church had hired BYU's Office of Public Archaeology to conduct a non-invasive archaeological survey. Using ground-penetrating radar, aerial photos, metal detectors and hundreds of soil-sample tests to search for signs of bones or artifacts, a team of professionals scoured the area.
"The archaeological evidence was 100 percent negative," says Shane Baker, the BYU staff archaeologist who directed the study. "I went to our client, the church, and said either this is not the spot or every last shred of evidence has been erased."
There was speculation that bones buried beneath the cairn had been exposed to the elements and deteriorated. Or, they had been washed down the ravine, the cairn was in the wrong place or the cairn was directly on top of the bones.
But today, Baker admits the archaeological examination at the location where the bones were eventually disturbed was not as complete as it was in other areas. The narrow spot between the cairn and streambank was not probed with radar because the trailer-like unit could not be towed near the precarious edge. Instead, Baker took soil core samples, using a bucket auger, which strained against the impacted earth.
He again found nothing. Witnesses would later draw an analogy to a magician thrusting swords into a box containing an assistant and somehow missing the mark.
"Shane came within inches of the remains and it is amazing that no evidence was determined," says Kent Bylund of St. George, an association board member and adjacent Mountain Meadows landowner who served as project contractor. "I sincerely believe everything was done to ensure the area to be excavated was core sampled and thoroughly examined before excavation was permitted."
BYU's Baker blames the accidental discovery of bones on the restrictions placed on the investigation by the LDS Church.
"We were not allowed to do the kind of testing we would do normally, and I was concerned the whole time we were going to hit bone," he says. "The very fact they wouldn't let me dig with a shovel and a trowel is why a backhoe found those bones."
It was on the second or third scoop that more than 30 pounds of human skeletal remains clattered out of the backhoe bucket as it dug the footing trench on Aug. 3. Bylund looked on in disbelief, his heart in his throat.
His first inclination was to put the remains back in the ground and swear the backhoe operator to secrecy. But it was impossible to unring the bell.
"Once they were uncovered, for this new monument to go in, you really had no choice but to remove them because they were dead center in the middle of the new wall," Baker says.
As Baker delicately removed hundreds of pieces of bone from the exposed trench, Loving and Leonard debated what to do and who to tell.
"My plan was to have them reburied within 48 hours of their discovery," says Loving. The Arizona man, whose ancestor was a brother of a massacre victim, took charge, he says, "because the LDS Church considered me as the spokesman for the families in my capacity as president of the Mountain Meadows Association."
But other descendants more directly related to the victims are outraged the church gave Loving such authority.
"It's offensive to a lot of people to hear Mr. Loving say this is what the family thinks because we put the church on notice repeatedly that Mr. Loving does not speak for the family and never has," says Scott Fancher. "We are very disappointed we did not have a voice in how the remains were treated after they were disturbed."
Church officials and BYU put Loving in charge and agreed with his plan to rebury within 48 hours. But that plan was foiled on Aug. 5 when Jones, the state archaeologist, informed them Utah law required a basic scientific analysis when human remains are discovered on private property. Failure to comply was a felony.
BYU needed a state permit to legally remove the remains. And, by law, such permits require "the reporting of archaeological information at current standards of scientific rigor."
Although LDS officials knew the descendants would be uncomfortable with the required analysis, they agreed it was necessary, says Leonard.
Jones issued BYU's permit Aug. 6, requiring scientists to determine as best possible, age, sex, race, stature, health condition, cause of death and, because the remains were commingled, to segregate the largest bones and skulls of each individual for proper reburial.
Baker immediately began sorting bones with an assistant in his St. George hotel room, then transferred the remains to BYU's Provo lab and to the University of Utah's forensic anthropology lab in Salt Lake City, which BYU had subcontracted to do the required "osteological" analysis.
Throughout, Loving demanded not a word be said to anyone about the discovery. On Aug. 9, he threatened to sue the state Division of History if Evans did not guarantee in writing the state would adhere to several conditions of secrecy, including "none of the contents of the report, in part or in whole, is released to anyone."
Baker of BYU maintains the secrecy was to allow time to notify family members who did not know of the accidental discovery. "To the credit of the church, they always told me they wanted everything to be open and aboveboard," he says.
Yet many descendants involved in the monument project didn't learn of the discovery until the St. George Spectrum newspaper broke the story Aug. 13, 10 days after the backhoe unearthed the remains. Failing to get answers from state officials whom Loving had told not to talk, many descendants bitterly wondered what was really going on.
Burr Fancher, who had supported the monument reconstruction, was incensed. In an e-mail message circulated to several other descendants, he said Loving was a "lackey in the employ of the Mormon Church and caters to Hinckley's every whim."
The news also triggered a flood of requests to BYU and the state from people wanting to know if their family roots could be traced to Mountain Meadows. On Aug. 22, the Utah Attorney General's Office informed state antiquities officials: "Generally, next of kin is privileged in advancing the burial rights of the deceased absent a compelling state interest."
Loving was telling BYU and state officials the families wanted the remains buried Sept. 10 in a private ceremony at Mountain Meadows. But new claims of affiliation complicated matters.
"I went into this blindly and naively assuming the Mountain Meadows Association spoke as a unified voice on behalf of all the descendants and that turned out to be wrong," Baker says today. "On one hand I had descendants demanding I test for DNA, and on the other I had descendants saying they were going to sue my pants off if I did."
By now it was clear scientists would not be able to complete even the baseline scientific analysis in time for the scheduled Sept. 10 reburial ceremony. After a tense meeting with Loving, Jones agreed to a compromise. The examination and segregation of the "long bones" would probably be finished by Sept. 10, and those bones would be placed in the ground at the ceremony. The skulls would require more time, but once that analysis was complete, the cranial material would then be reburied.
Loving says he was "forced to accept" the compromise, but immediately launched an end run. He contacted Dixie Leavitt, the governor's father and a former state senator who played a leading role in the 1990 dedication of another monument overlooking the killing field. Loving warned Dixie Leavitt that unless all the bones were reburied on Sept. 10, there would be an uproar during Hinckley's dedication ceremony.
"I don't recall exactly what I said, but 'disturbance' sounds like a pretty good word," Loving says today.
"I received a call today from my Father (sic) who has been rather involved with the people from Arkansas who are planning to hold a burial and memorial service," Gov. Leavitt wrote in a Sept. 6 e-mail to Wilson Martin, the division's director of cultural preservation and Jones' boss. "Apparently, the State Archaeologist is insisting that some portion of the remains be held from the burial for study. It is apparently causing a lot of angst amongst the family members."
Gov. Leavitt responded to The Tribune's questions about his intercession through his press secretary, Vicki Varela. She said the governor "did not feel that it was appropriate for the bones to be dissected and studied in a manner that would prolong the discomfort."
Leavitt did not speak to any descendants or family members "other than being notified by his father that there was some risk a respectful event may turn into something of a discomfort for the participants," said Varela.
Asked if Leavitt understood there was a state law requiring such study, Varela answered: "I don't think he was knowledgeable of all the details." She said as the CEO of the state, the governor believed "we should find a way to create minimal interference."
Church History Museum director Leonard says it was the decision of the MMA, not the church, to seek an executive exception to the scientific study requirements. "We were aware of the political implications and the emotional implications of this issue," says Leonard. "In hindsight, it is fair to say that the governor's directive to bury those remains not completely analyzed was a humane response to conflicting needs."
Evans drew up a new state antiquities permit for BYU, removing the previous requirement of analysis "in toto" and replacing it with a new requirement that BYU "shall reinter, by Sept. 10, 1999, all human remains into the prepared burial vaults, near the place of discovery."
Jones, in a memo to the division files Sept. 9, noted his professional objections. "To rebury the remains at this point would constitute, in the opinion of the Antiquities Section, a violation of professional, scientific and ethical responsibilities," Jones wrote. "It also might indeed be seen as demonstrating disrespect for the victims, to bury them once again with bones of many individuals mixed and jumbled, as they were originally disrespectfully interred, in a mass grave of murder victims." But Evans also included a notation on the new permit that could lead to another re-opening of the massacre grave.
"Since the remains have been interred in a concrete vault, it is possible that further evaluation can take place if all the parties agree, or if a court so orders at some future date," Evans says today. "This is a matter for the family members and the landowner to address, not one the Division of State History expects to be involved in."
Early on the morning of Sept. 10, Baker picked up the remains from the U. and drove them to a St. George mortuary. There, the unsegregated bones and skulls of at least 29 people were placed inside four wooden ossuaries and later reburied at the rebuilt monument.
On Sept. 29, Baker sent letters of thanks to Division of History officials explaining how many family members at the memorial service appreciated that all the remains were reinterred. "This certainly represents the positive side of Governor Leavitt's action to intercede on the reburial issue," he wrote. At the same time, Baker said he was professionally conflicted by the precedent set with the political decisions.

"The state and its people benefited from this absolutely unique opportunity to, in some small way, try and make amends for the tragic events that transpired there so long ago," Baker wrote in a letter to Jones. "That certainly counts for something. I just hope that some of the other consequences we were all concerned about in connection with the action to rebury do not come back to cause us grief in the future."
Again, those would prove fateful words. (Recovery of Victims Bones) (Part 2)

| Home | MMMF | Shannon Novak | House of Mourning | Newspaper Index | Site Index |
Read how the Mormon Killers got paid by the US Government for caring for the orphan children after they had killed their parents.