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A remote valley's soil yields secrets of a famed 1857 massacre some aren't ready to hear
Drawn in the 1870s, this sketch by T.B.H. Stenhouse depicts the horrors at Mountain Meadows. Some blame Indians; others say Mormons led the attack.
By Kevin Vaughan, News Staff Writer
SALT LAKE CITY -- On a blue-sky day in August 1999, in a lush, lonely valley in Utah's southwestern corner, a backhoe's claw tore open a mass grave, exposing a jumble of bones.
That one sweep through hard-packed soil crushed the latest effort to put one of the state's most painful episodes behind it, just as full-bore preparations were under way for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Instead, it aggravated a long-festering wound over the 1857 killings of roughly 120 Arkansas immigrants in a bloody episode that was given a bloody name -- the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
It sparked a legal and political controversy that stretched to the palatial offices of the world's fastest-growing religion and reached to the governor's office in the copper-domed state Capitol looming on a hill above Salt Lake City.
It ignited a debate that still rages:
About what really happened in that valley a century and a half ago.
About who writes history and who gets to challenge it.
And about what can -- or should -- be done to atone for the sins of the past.
When Shannon Novak got her first look at the remains in a laboratory at Brigham Young University, in Provo, she saw an incredible scattering of fragments -- 2,602 chunks of skull and thighbone, ribs and vertebra.
Novak is a skeletal biologist and assistant professor at the University of Utah and its medical school. She had been brought in to examine the bones pulled out of the ground by the backhoe. It wasn't her first experience with a mass grave -- she'd helped document war crimes in Croatia.
A Utah native, she'd heard little about the massacre. But she started seeking the answers the bones could supply.
For despite their fractures, damage inflicted by wolves and coyotes, and nearly 150 years of decomposition, the bones might tell her how these people lived. And how they died.
But they would never be able to answer the questions of history: Who killed them, and why did they do it?
"I can't put a gun in anyone's hand," she said.
Novak and a research assistant sorted the fragments. By the time they finished, she concluded the bones in front of her represented at least 28 people who died at Mountain Meadows.
MISSING LINK TO MASSACRE?
A clue found last month in southern Utah could link Mormon leader Brigham Young to the Mountain Meadows Massacre of some 120 Arkansas immigrants in 1857. FULL STORY