|Pawnshop find: Skull could have link to 1857 Utah wagon train massacre by
By JENNIFER DOBNER - May 20, 2009
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ For decades it sat on a shelf in a brown cardboard
box _ a skull pierced in the back with an apparent bullet hole and linked by
a typewritten note to a dark and violent chapter in Mormon church history.
Found in a pawnshop 27 years ago, the specimen is now in the hands of
the Idaho state archaeologist. Ken Reid is supervising tests to determine
whether the skull belongs to a victim of the Mountain Meadows massacre of
1857, when 120 men, women and children from an Arkansas-based wagon train
were killed by Mormon settlers in southern Utah .
Descendants of the 17 surviving children from the Baker-Fancher party
are anxious for those results.
"I was a little bit shocked when I first heard about it," said Patty
Norris of Omaha , Ark. , president of Mountain Meadows Descendants, one of
three descendant organizations. "At this point we're working on the
assumption that it is a victim of the massacre, but all we really know is
that they haven't disproven it yet."
The skull's existence became known to descendants, officials of The
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Reid in February.
Jeff Webb first discovered the skull on the shelves of a Salt Lake City
pawnshop in 1982. A note in the box said the skull was from a female "victim
of the famed Mountain Meadows massacre."
He lingered over it, his interest fueled by having served a church
mission in Arkansas , where the massacre's events had created a legacy of
resentment of the Mormon church.
Webb took the skull home _ free of charge _ to Logan , where he ran his
own pawnshop, but never offered it for sale. Instead it sat in its box on a
food pantry shelf or in storage as the Webbs moved to Arizona , Idaho , and
overseas. Often before a move, Webb and his wife would discuss burying the
skull in their own backyard, but he says they never felt quite right about
leaving it behind.
"I think she is just sort of part of the family," said Jeff Webb, 53,
who now lives in Sugar City , Idaho .
Prepping for another move last fall, Jeff Webb asked his 80-year-old
father to keep it for him.
Loren Webb, lives in Idaho Falls, Idaho , but spends winters in St.
George, Utah , about 35 miles southeast of the massacre site, a lush, rolling
valley that was once a popular stopover for California-bound wagon train
parties on the Old Spanish Trail .
"We talked about going out there to the massacre site and just burying
it," Loren Webb said, adding that he nixed the idea fearing he'd end up in
Instead he called a local church leader , who contacted Mormon church
headquarters in Salt Lake City .
"My immediate thought was these are sacred remains and they need to be
treated in an appropriate ethical and legal manner," Assistant Church
Historian Richard Turley said.
Mountains Meadows marks a dark moment in the history of the Mormon
church _ one that has often been left out of history books.
On Sept. 11, 1857 , the Baker-Fancher party was attacked by area church
and militia leaders disguised as a local Indian tribe. After a five-day
siege, the Arkansans forged what turned out to be a false truce with a local
Mormon church leader, laid down their weapons and were slaughtered as they
were being led out of the meadow on foot.
The church had historically denied or downplayed its role in the
killings, but in 2007 expressed its regret. Today, two monuments in the
meadows memorialize the victims and the church is seeking National Historic
Landmark status for the site.
The author of a book about the massacre, Turley isn't surprised by the
possibility that an artifact from the massacre might surface this way.
"In the 19th century, people routinely took bones when they were lying
on the ground as souvenirs," Turley said.
Historical accounts show that after the killings, the bodies of the
victims were strewn across the 2,500 acre meadow and left unburied. Then in
1859, U.S. military contingents were sent to bury the dead. Among them was a
doctor from Utah 's Camp Floyd , who is known to have removed at least two
skulls and possibly other bones from the site, Turley said.
It's not known what happened to the doctor's souvenirs and there's no
way to know how many other bones or artifacts may have been removed from the
massacre site, Turley said.
Reid, the archaeologist, said he has "many reservations" about the
skull's origins. Aside from an address inked on its cardboard box, not much
is known about who had the skull before Webb's pawnshop discovery. Webb said
the pawnshop owner had acquired the skull through an estate sale.
"There's just a big gap between 1857 and 1982," Reid said. "I'm trained
to worry about things like that."
According to Loren Webb _ who named the skull Mary and whose grandchild
once took it to school for show-and-tell _ an initial evaluation of the
skull by an Idaho Falls forensic anthropologist identified it as belonging
to a 19th century woman.
Reid is getting a second opinion from a Boise State University
scientists. Dr. Margaret Streeter is working to determine the skull's
possible origins, race, sex and age. Other tests look for damage from
weather and animals, in addition to things like gun shot wounds or other
signs of trauma.
Depending on Streeter's findings, DNA testing _ including samples taken
from remaining teeth _ could be recommended as the next step, Reid said.
Members of Norris's descendant group are willing to give DNA samples for
comparison, as are members of two other descendant organizations, the
Mountain Meadows Association and the Mountain Meadows Massacre Foundation.
On the Net:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: www.lds.org
Mountain Meadows Descendants:
Mountain Meadows Association: http://www.mtn-meadows-assoc.com/
Mountain Meadows Massacre Foundation: http://1857massacre.com/