Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Mountain Meadows Massacre: The Search for Truth

The route of the Fancher-Baker wagon train.
On September 11, 1857, approximately 120 members of the Fancher-Baker wagon train traveling from Arkansas to California were killed in Mountain Meadows, Utah, by residents of the local area. Although the emigrants surrendered to their attackers after a five-day siege, the victims were brutally attacked, hastily and shoddily buried, and their remains left to the elements. The only survivors were seventeen children, all young in age, too young to accurately recall the events of that day, who were subsequently adopted by local families.

In 1859, a monument was built over the site where 34 of the victims were buried. During a restoration of the monument, the remains of 29 massacre victims were discovered by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). A survey of the area revealed three other areas of interest near the mass grave, however, further excavation or testing on those areas was not allowed by the Church.

The marker that stands where the burials were uncovered and, later, reburied.

Dr. Shannon Novak and several of her colleagues were allowed to examine and analyze the remains. The hope in studying these remains was to determine the events in a scientific manner, which would be more accurate than the biased historical accounts on the subject. During the examination and analysis, evidence of gunshot wounds and blunt force trauma were found. The results of this analysis highlighted the inconsistencies in the historical accounts and opened a floodgate of emotions within the community. Five weeks after the work had begun, the governor ordered that the analysis be cut short, so that the remains could be reburied in time for the anniversary of the massacre.

A fragment of frontal bone (skull) with a gunshot entrance wound.

Many competing theories and debates stull surround this event, even though more than 150 years have since passed. The events of the massacre were, historically, controversial and the discovery of the remains followed by the results of the analysis further complicated the issue. There is no consensus as to what actually happened that day, there are many interpretations and few clues (other than the remains) to distinguish truth from myth. Some claim that a group of Native Americans was responsible for the deaths, while others blame a group of radical religious followers dressed as Native Americans, and a third group blames a mixture of the two.

In 1859, the adopted children were recovered by government officials and returned to relatives in Arkansas. As details of the massacre emerged over time, the extent of local involvement was slowly revealed. Prominent members of the LDS Church in Cedar City, John Lee and Isaac Haight (accused of spearheading the massacre), were excommunicated in 1870. Nine local men, including Lee, were indicted by a territorial grand jury in 1874. Lee was the only one of them who had a trial, was convicted, and was executed for the role he played.

The refusal to excavate the three other areas and conduct a further, and more thorough, analysis of the remains indicates a number of things. Firstly, it may indicate that the local community does not wish to open old wounds by uncovering a painful part of their past. Secondly, it may indicate an urge to suppress the truth. Lastly, it may not mean anything at all. However, without a thorough and all-encompassing analysis of all of the physical remains, making a determination of the truth may not be possible.

Further reading:

Novak, Shannon. "House of Mourning". The University of Utah Press: Salt Lake City. 2008.

Turley, Richard. "The Mountain Meadows Massacre". Ensign. September 2007.


  1. Why do you say the accounts are biased? Who has provided the accounts? What records are you working from? Would love to hear in more detail how it highlighted inconsistencies.

    It would be so amazing if you could find any records of the children who were adopted. I think it would be a fascinating angle. I am not sure why, but I feel it could be tied in the to project at large.

    I would shy away from the term "truth." Especially in light of all our conversations surrounding Hacking's work. perhaps it would be more the fear surrounding the rise of a competing history that is based not upon the written record but upon the physical record as revealed by science as opposed to histories sanctified by (who has provided the current theories--the church, locals...?).

    Can you access any of the historical records and newspaper articles?

    This is a really interesting project--looking forward to hearing more about it!


  2. I would be interested in hearing more about the history of the attack and as Natasha suggested, it would be interesting to follow the children who were adopted.

    I would also be curious to know when the last article was published regarding this event. Is this something that is widely known in the community?

  3. I'm a fan of historical archaeology, so I'm already partial to your topic. With that said, I think this is a good opportunity to explore how memory (or the lack if) can inform history. I'm also interested in why there exists a refusal to excavate, particularly why the refusal persists after 150 years. Also interested to see who these parties are that are wary of investigation. This surely is somehow affecting the excavation and narration of an accurate history?

    Great topic