by Sally Denton
Visit American Heritage Magazine Homepage
The truth is still emerging about the mass murder of more than 100 California-bound emigrants in Utah in 1857, and about the role of the leaders of the Mormon Church in the atrocity.
Nearly a century and a half before in that spot, as many as 140 men, women, and children, traveling in one of the richest California bound wagon trains ever assembled, had been attacked, besieged for five days, persuaded to surrender under a flag of truce and a pledge of safe passage, and then murdered. According to contemporaneous accounts, including the evidence presented at the trial of the one figure held legally responsible for the murders, John Doyle Lee, the attack on the train and the ensuing killings were carried out by a combined force of Paiute Indians and members of a local militia of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons. Lee was an adopted son and longtime intimate arid military commander of the Mormons' leader, Brigham Young, and the atrocity he was part of, known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre after the pastoral valley where the murders took place, was the worst in the annals of the West, Now, as then, however, the full story of what happened on September 11, 1857who was responsible, and why, how the tragedy unfolded, and, not least, its restless legacy embroiling one of the richest and fastest-growing religious movements in the worldhas remained one of history's most stubborn mysteries.
Before the backhoe incident took place, the Mountain Meadows Association, a group the Salt Lake Tribune has described as "an unusual mix of historians and descendants of massacre victims and perpetrators," had expressed concern about "the deplorable condition of the site" and appealed to the owners of the land, the Mormon Church, to rebuild an old memorial rock cairn, LDS officials had agreed in 1998 to restore the gravesite. The church hired Shane Baker; an archeologist from Brigham Young University, to examine the area before any earthmoving equipment was sent in, "There are a million different stories about how many victims there were and where their bodies are buried," Christopher Smith, a Tribune journalist, later explained, "and the last thing the church wanted was to dig up any bones and set off a public controversy." Most experts believe the cairn marked the burial site of only some of the victims; the remains of the rest have never been located, nor strangely, has any physical evidence of the event itself, such as bullets or wagon parts. next page