Massacre: Forensic Analysis Supports
Tribe's Claim of Passive Role
Sunday, January 21, 2001
BY CHRISTOPHER SMITH
(c) 2001, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
A new forensic study lends credence to Paiute Indian claims that the
tribe did not participate in the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre of
1857 to the extent history has recorded.
The analysis of bones from some of the 120 emigrants in a
Californiabound wagon train who were slaughtered at Mountain
Meadows also shows some of the remains have distinct American Indian
characteristics. Those traits may be attributed to the mixed Cherokee
ancestry of many of the emigrants from northwestern Arkansas who were
The conclusion could trigger various state and
federal laws requiring the exhumation of the
remains to determine which tribes should be given
the nonCaucasian remains for repatriation. The
remains were uncovered inadvertently during
construction of a monument over the mass grave
and subsequently reburied in a 1999 ceremony led by LDS Church
President Gordon B. Hinckley.
Utah American Indian officials say they plan to study the report to
determine what steps might be taken, but were pleased with implications
of the new evidence for the Paiute Tribe.
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Prepared by researchers at the University of Utah Department of
Anthropology, the 200page skeletaltrauma analysis was delivered in
July to Brigham Young University's Office of Public Archaeology for
inclusion in a final report to state history officials.
That report was due last August under the customary
oneyearfromexcavation deadline of a state archaeological permit, but it
has yet to be submitted to the Antiquities Section of the Utah Division of
History. The Salt Lake Tribune recently obtained a draft copy of the
University of Utah portion of the study, in which skeletal biologists used
forensic anthropology techniques to assess age, sex and approximate
cause of death of the massacre victims.
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The report represents the first scientific analysis of a crime of civil
terrorism that has few parallels in modern American history. Generally
accepted versions of the massacre hold that members of the wagon train
from Arkansas were slaughtered by Mormon militiamen and their Paiute
Indian confederates in early September 1857 as the emigrants were
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After initially repelling the first assault, the emigrants endured a
fourday siege. With food and water running low, local Mormon officials
convinced the emigrants on Sept. 11 to surrender their arms in exchange
for safe passage to Cedar City. Instead, at a prearranged command, the
emigrant men were executed by their Mormon escorts while Paiute
Indians lying in wait murdered the women and children. Or so the story
has been told.
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First Findings: The Tribune reported Novak's preliminary findings
from the massacre remains last March. Her research was prematurely
terminated when Gov. Mike Leavitt asked state officials to order
immediate return of the bones to BYU for the reburial ceremony when
Hinckley dedicated a new monument to the victims. In an email sent to
state history officials, the governor whose ancestor Dudley Leavitt was
one of the participants in the slaughter wrote he did not want
controversy to highlight "the rather goodspirited attempt to put [the
massacre] behind us."
Novak's final study, which was presented in October to the Midwest
Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology Association conference in
Missouri, upholds most of those preliminary findings. At least 28 victims
were discerned from the 2,605 pieces of bone, most of which were
broken by a backhoe digging a foundation for the new monument. The
skulls of 18 victims were partially reconstructed for trauma analysis.
Those findings, in some points, differ with the generally accepted
historical version of the massacre.
"All accounts agree that it was quickly over," wrote Mormon historian
Juanita Brooks in her landmark 1950 study, The Mountain Meadows
Massacre. "Most of the emigrant men fell at the first volley, and those
who started to run were quickly shot down by Mormons or by Indians.
The savages, far outnumbering the women and children, leaped from the
brush on both sides of the road at once and, stimulated by the shrieks
and screams, fell upon their victims with knives and hatchets and soon
No Knives: Novak's study of the bones, however, found no evidence
of sharpforce trauma, such as that caused by a blow from a knife or
hatchet. The researcher notes that "skeletal trauma only records lesions
that penetrate to the bone."
The majority of gunshot wounds were in the heads of young adult
males, although one child, aged 1015, also was shot in the head. That
gunshot victim "suggests the killing of women and children may have been
more complicated than accounts described in the diaries," wrote Novak,
who has since joined the faculty of Indiana State University.
Another indication of women and children being executed is the
fractured palate of a female, aged 1822. The pattern of the bone
fracture, along with the blackened and burned crowns of the woman's
teeth, is consistent with a gunshot wound.
Suggestions that most emigrant men were shot in the back of the head
and from the rear while fleeing also are questioned by bullet trajectories
through the skulls. Six individuals were shot in the head from behind,
while five were shot in frontal assaults.
Recognizing the new scientific evidence is bound to prompt a
reassessment of longheld views of Paiute Indian involvement in the
massacre, Novak cautioned: "Obviously, skeletal trauma cannot
corroborate ethnically who was responsible for the shooting and whom
for the beating."
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The tribe's oral account of the massacre, "stressed there were no
Paiutes involved in the killings," Holt and Tom write. "Paiute involvement
was limited to hearing and watching from a distance the killing of the
emigrants and some of their animals, and the robbing of the possessions
of the dead."
One Paiute elder, Will Rogers, related a story told by an ancestor that
the killing "took about three [or] four hours, I think he said, you know to
shoot them people all. Some of them were halfdead, some of them
weren't even dead."
***** ***** *****
However, the journal of Francis Lyman, who died in 1903 after
serving as president of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles,
recounts a different version of the story from a conversation he had with
"Bro[ther]s Dudly Leavitt and Nephi Johnson were in the meeting. I
talked with those two about the Mountain Meadows Massacre," Lyman
wrote in a Sept. 21, 1895, entry at Bunkerville, Nev. "The first gave me
but little information. Bro[ther] Johnson was the man who gave the word
to the Indians to fire at the last general killing. . . . He says white men
most of the killing."