SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Mormon church said Friday it will seek National Historic Landmark status for Mountain Meadows, the southern Utah site where 120 people were massacred on their way to California in 1857.
The disclosure came during a meeting of descendants and representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Carrollton, Ark.
"It just sort of guarantees that the site at Mountain Meadows ... will be a sacred place," Elder Marlin K. Jensen, church historian, said in a telephone interview from Arkansas.
In December, the Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants, the Mountain Meadows Association and the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation had asked the church to pursue landmark status for the site, 35 miles northwest of St. George, Utah.
The announcement was a major shift after church leaders had rejected similar appeals in 1999 and 2007.
"This is a huge step forward," Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation President Phil Bolinger said.
Last fall, Bolinger presented letters and petitions from more than 1,200 descendants asking for landmark status.
Jensen said it had become obvious that the church needed to do something to ensure that those who died would be appropriately remembered. He said church President Gordon B. Hinckley endorsed the plan before his death Jan. 27.
"I think I can say that we wish the massacre had never happened but it did and we can't undo it," Jensen said. "But we can live for the present moment and plan for a better future."
Mountain Meadows is already on the National Register of Historic Places. Landmark status from the U.S. Interior Department would guarantee public access and require public input before construction or development on the site.
Arkansas members of the Fancher-Baker wagon train were headed for California when they were attacked during a stop at the meadow. After a weeklong gun battle, the group was tricked into a fake truce by a local church leader and killed by a Mormon militia on Sept. 11, 1857.
Descendants have been at odds with the church for decades over the meadows. They dispute the church's control of the gravesites and have accused it of largely keeping the massacre story out of its official history.
"It just seems like now everyone is in a congenial spirit and a compassionate spirit. We all seem to want the same thing," said Patty Norris, a descendant who has worked on the issue for 10 years.
The site is a 2,500-acres parcel in a rolling valley that is a patchwork of private land and federal forest land. Over the last year, the church, which already owned some of the valley, acquired additional land through purchases and gifts from area Mormons.
There are four known mass gravesites in the meadow and two monuments. A rock cairn marks the spot where the siege erupted, and a memorial wall inscribed with the names of the dead overlooks the valley.
Included in the discussions Friday were plans for a second memorial marking a mass gravesite at the north end, Norris said. Getting the area designated as a cemetery is also a possibility.
The three descendant groups and the church will work together to secure the landmark designation from the U.S. Interior Department. The process requires a review of the site's historic significance by the National Park Service and experts. The public can also comment.
"If anyone can make it happen in a quick time, it would be the (Mormon) church," Bolinger said.
Mountain Meadows was a frequent stop for wagon trains traveling to California on the old Spanish Trail.
Led by Capt. Alexander Fancher and John Baker, the Arkansas travelers were attacked and engaged in a week of gun skirmishes before a local church elder, John D. Lee, negotiated a truce between the pioneers and a band of Paiute Indians said to be the assailants.
But Lee's truce was a ruse. Wagon train members were beaten, shot at close range or had their throats slit as they marched single-file and unarmed across the meadow.
Seventeen children all under age 7 survived and were taken into Mormon homes. Two years later, they were returned to relatives in Arkansas.
Lee, the only person held responsible, was sentenced to death for the slaughter.
At memorial services marking the 150th anniversary last fall, high-ranking Mormon church official Henry B. Eyring expressed "profound regret" for the events at the meadows. The statement was seen by many as an apology.
Eyring also said the church regretted allowing the Paiute Indian tribe to shoulder much of the blame for the ambush.
A forthcoming book by church historians is expected to lay blame on rogue southern Utah church leaders who worked with Paiute Indians. Church officials maintain there is no evidence connecting then-church president Brigham Young directly to the massacre.