Mountain Meadows mystery: Have mass gravesites been found?

SOUTHERN UTAH — Standing in a field along state Route 18 just north of Central, the afternoon sun shines golden light on the sagebrush that covers the landscape creating an idyllic scene that belies the dark history of the area known as Mountain Meadows.

The now peaceful high-desert land was once littered with the bodies of a westbound emigrant party who were massacred while they were encamped in the area. Exactly where those bodies were buried has been shrouded in mystery for over a century-and-a-half … maybe until now.

A monument dedicated to the men and boys that were killed in the Mountain Meadows Massacre sits on the site where the Sept. 11, 1857 massacre is said to have taken place, Mountain Meadows, Nov. 7, 2011
A monument dedicated to the men and boys that were killed in the Mountain Meadows Massacre sits on the site where the Sept. 11, 1857 massacre is said to have taken place, Mountain Meadows, Nov. 7, 2011

Background

The controversial events leading up to the Sept. 11, 1857, massacre that left approximately 120 people from the Baker-Fancher emigrant wagon train dead have long been a stain in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ history because of the perpetrators’ affiliation with the church.

The wagon train, comprised mostly of families from Arkansas, was heading west toward California but as they entered Utah territory they started to run into some trouble.

More specifically, according to the Mountain Meadows Massacre website, the wagon party was denied the opportunity to purchase needed supplies for their journey from the Mormons in Utah.

The account states:

Cedar City was the last stop before California. In Cedar City, the Fancher party attempted to buy grain and supplies but was refused by the local Mormons due to the Mormons’ suspicion of aiding potential enemies.

After leaving Cedar City the wagon train entered the Mountain Meadows area where they stopped to rest.

While they were there, the group was attacked by members of the Utah Territorial Militia disguised as Native Americans and some members of the Native American Paiutes. Led by Mormon assailants Isaac C. Haight and John D. Lee, the militia held the emigrants at siege for five days.

On Sept. 11, 1857, under a white flag, Lee rode into the circle of wagons promising peace and a safe escort if the emigrants would lay down their weapons. The men and boys were separated from the women and girls and both parties were marched north from their encampment whereupon, on a predetermined signal, they were massacred.

Only 17 children were left alive, according to the same website.

The bodies were hastily buried leaving them susceptible to wild animals and the elements.

Mass grave sites found?

For more than a year-and-a-half, the remnants of the bodies were left along an important emigration route which, according to a September report in The Salt Lake Tribune, led the Army to dispatch soldiers to properly bury the bodies of the victims.

Exactly where those bodies were given burial remained a mystery … possibly until now.

A rock pile located in a ravine near Mountain Meadows which California archaeologist, Everett Bassett claims is a mass grave site containing the remains of the Mountain Meadows Massacre victims, Mountain Meadows, Nov. 7, 2015 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News
A rock pile located in a ravine near Mountain Meadows which California archaeologist, Everett Bassett claims is a mass grave site containing the remains of the Mountain Meadows Massacre victims, Mountain Meadows, Nov. 7, 2015 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

In September, a California-based archaeologist presented information to a gathering of victims’ descendants in Harrison, Arkansas, claiming to have found two mass gravesites built by the Army.

According to The Tribune, archaeologist Everett Bassett plans to publish his findings in a peer-reviewed journal.

The sites are located on private land west of property purchased by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that was set aside to honor the victims.

According to The Tribune, Bassett said he used old Army records to find the sites which he said were located in a ravine formed by the Old Spanish Trail.

The two sites — one for the men and one for the women — described as mounds of rocks are said to contain the remnants of some 100 of the Mountain Meadows victims.

If the sites do in fact turn out to be the actual graves it could mean closure for people in Arkansas who are descendants of the victims.

Robert John Miller, a descendant of John D. Lee through his first wife, first learned of the massacre at the age of 9, he said, when it was suggested that he do a school report on his ancestor.

Miller was raised in the LDS church but has since left, he said, citing historical problems and a difference of beliefs on ethical issues and doctrine.

“I think that is partly what is so uncomfortable about Mountain Meadows,” Miller said, “it challenges core beliefs about obedience and the authority of church leaders. For descendants, I think there is a tinge of discomfort discovering you are descended from someone who helped carry out the murder of 120 men, women, and children.”

Miller hopes that the supposed graves are investigated and if they do turn out to be the actual sites that it provides some closure. He said:

My hope is that the graves are further investigated and if they are confirmed, they should be properly marked and preserved. The victims should be remembered. And I do think this is more closure for those in Arkansas.

I’m sure there is a ripple effect we can’t comprehend, even 150 years later, and I feel deeply sorry for their loss. Whichever side you are on, it’s like the event is part of our collective consciousness.

Closure might not be close

Though the findings could be monumental, local historical researcher and founder of Treasures in America — a team of researchers dedicated to finding lost history and, as the name suggests, treasures throughout America — Timothy Draper said that he disagrees with the archaeologist.

When the findings first came out, Draper said, he was contacted by several people who knew of his interest in historical research and asked him if he knew where the sites were or if he could find them.

“When I found them, I found them with the whole idea that I want to know where these new sites are, I want to look at them,” Draper said, “I didn’t really have an opinion whether I believed it or not.”

After spending time at the supposed site though, Draper said, things didn’t seem right, some red flags were raised.

Draper noted that the rock piles didn’t appear to be over 150 years old. The lichen on the rocks, one indicator when testing for age, Draper said, didn’t seem old enough nor did the location of the graves seem logical.

Draper said:

It didn’t seem like it was that old. The ravine itself is really deep in that area, we’ve got about an 8-foot ravine, really, it threw me off almost instantly …. I have a hard time imagining the military finding these bones that are laying on the ground a year-and-a-half after the massacre happened, and the military collecting these bones, and then finding a ravine 800 yards from where the bones were laying on the ground, and then just dump them in the ravine and then put rocks on top of them.

Another indicator that the rock piles might not be graves is that according to the archaeologist, the ravine was part of the Old Spanish Trail, something Draper believes to be unlikely.

It is highly unlikely, he said, that such an old and important trail would be in a ravine, especially one that could contain running water because the maintenance would be too intense.

An old photograph shows a rock cairn said to have marked areas where the bones of massacre victims were buried, Mountain Meadows, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Timothy Draper, St. George News
An old photograph shows a rock cairn said to have marked areas where the bones of massacre victims were buried, Mountain Meadows, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Timothy Draper, St. George News

As a historical researcher Draper said he always takes into account the oral history of those who have lived in the area for generations and has been shown by property owners that the actual Old Spanish Trail is not in the ravine. A noticeable depression runs diagonally across a field in the area marking what Draper believes is in fact the trail.

Draper also believes he has found an actual burial site for the men, he said; remnants of a rock cairn, one of several that marked the area where the massacre took place and where bones were buried were found by him and his team.

These remnants were found on the property purchased by the LDS church and reserved to honor the victims.

Red flags notwithstanding, Draper does not dispute that there are two large rock piles located in the ravine. So if not graves, what could they be?

Draper can’t definitively say, he said, but one educated guess he has is that they might have been dams or water retention walls of some sort, possibly built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

A photograph in the possession of the Utah Historical Society places the CCC in the Mountain Meadows area around 1936 although, Draper could not confirm whether they were stopping for a lunch break while on different pursuits or actually working in the area.

The only way to know for certain if there are human remains buried in the rock piles would be to dig up the site and search for bones.

Draper did add one final twist to the story however. Using a scientific instrument known as an H3 which Draper said is able to detect any element on the periodic table, one of his colleagues stood on the possible grave sites and did a search for elements in bones. The search came up negative.

Ed. note: St. George News was allowed on the private property with Draper to see the site where the alleged mass graves are located to photograph them. The property owners did not want to be identified in this report. All video footage was taken on public land at sites that have been set aside to honor the massacre victims.

Attempts to contact Bassett at Transcon Environmental, his listed place of employment, have not been successful as of publication time.

Click on photo to enlarge it, then use your left-right arrow keys to cycle through the gallery.

Resources

Email: hreina@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

 

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28 Comments

  • 42214 November 12, 2015 at 4:07 pm

    Mountain Meadows massacre, baby being taken from lesbian foster parents, children of gay parents can’t join church. The hits just keep on coming. It’s been a good week for the LDS.

    • mesaman November 12, 2015 at 5:36 pm

      Infidel! You must ride your camel into the sunset; and keep going. If it stirs you up, it was a good week.

      • 42214 November 12, 2015 at 9:46 pm

        Very thoughtful and mature response. Mesaman never disappoints.

      • 42214 November 12, 2015 at 10:15 pm

        Mesaman, if we could go back in time I have no doubt that you would cheerfully be John D Lee’s right hand man at Mountain Meadows. Just another mindless zealot doing the Lord’s work.

      • .... November 12, 2015 at 11:09 pm

        Oh oh cry baby mesaman and his stage of denial…….!!!

  • Real Life November 12, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    The most unfortunate outcome of this massacre, was the timing. Had it not been right at the beginning of the Civil War, the proper thing would have been done and Brigham Young would have been hung by the neck in front of all who called him “prophet”.

    • GrandmaB November 13, 2015 at 11:00 am

      Lee actually admitted during his trial that the orders came from Brigham Young. But, verbal testimony wasn’t enough to implicate the entire church. So, he died taking that secret to the grave. Executed for the murders. You should hear how the teachers in the schools teach this part of Utah history, it really isn’t recognizable. Again, members are told to trust in their “higher authority.” Cults do that. Since it is only the higher authority that can speak with god or understand him. I used to defend the church, I was a member. I don’t anymore. There are people who believe in the church whom I love. I believe religion is killing this planet, along with robber barons unfettered capitalism, which all churches seem to defend.

  • fun bag November 12, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    LDS church incorporated has the evidence that Brigham ordered the mass killing, but they keep in stashed away in their vault– always trying to rewrite their own history. As for the claimed “new graves”, they should get some professionals in there to excavate, preserve, and catalog the site before some local hillbillies go at it with a shovel, or backhoe, or worse. Of course they may not be legit sites, and may have just been some local yahoos that stacked up some stones. As for all this “closure” for the arkansans, seems idiotic to even say such a thing. No one living today has been sitting around waiting for newly discovered graves for “closure”. The best kind of closure would be for the LDS church corporation to admit that prophet Young and other top church officials organized and orchestrated the crime. Don’t expect mormons to ever let go of the lies and treachery though, it’s just too essential to their culture.

  • fun bag November 12, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    mormons have such a wonderful history. It’s actually quite twisted, dark, and perverse when you read actual history of it–not the sugar-coated fluff of church endorsed material. Mormons should look into the actual reasons they were expelled from Missouri and Illinois, and to some degree NY as well. The mormons were not a poor persecuted minority, they were the ones doing most of the persecuting and power grabbing. I encourage mormons to research the ACTUAL history of events.

    • mesaman November 12, 2015 at 5:37 pm

      Bite me!

      • 42214 November 12, 2015 at 9:47 pm

        Another good one mesa, you’re really showing off that IQ tonight.

      • .... November 12, 2015 at 11:11 pm

        Ha ha mesaman. the truth really hurts doesn’t it ? Ha Ha

      • fun bag November 13, 2015 at 5:24 pm

        bite me? what does that even mean in this context? i don’t think anyone want to bite you and it’s disgusting to think about, MM. Can’t you come up with a adult response? it’s time to grow away from childish ways, MM

    • Rainbow Dash November 12, 2015 at 8:54 pm

      Like sugar in a gas tank, Mormonism and truth just don’t mix.

  • MicrowavedHamster November 12, 2015 at 5:29 pm

    These comments. lmao

    • .... November 12, 2015 at 11:14 pm

      So what’s your point ?

      • MicrowavedHamster November 13, 2015 at 6:56 am

        For such an LDS based community the only comments on these things are negative.

        • Real Life November 13, 2015 at 9:23 am

          Do you really expect positive reactions? Really? This is precisely the point. Mormons have a long history of narrow mindedness. You are looking for “positive” reactions for the massacre of innocent women and children? Get your head out of your church’s butt, and open your eyes a little.

        • .... November 13, 2015 at 9:52 am

          Yeah..so what else is new ?

        • Jeff November 13, 2015 at 10:36 am

          Some of us know better than to feed the trolls.

        • NotSoFast November 13, 2015 at 12:02 pm

          I just think the community just needs closure. i.e. the truth. Reminds me of a scene in the movie ‘The Wizard of OZ’
          ” Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, Nothing of value there”. (Just imperfect men lying through their teeth).

          • fun bag November 13, 2015 at 5:21 pm

            going over the amount of self-incriminating historical documents the LDS inc has hidden away from the world deep in their vault would shock almost anyone i think. dirty laundry that might even stink to the devoutest of momo’s

  • proudpatriot November 13, 2015 at 8:49 am

    Now let’s be fair, just because they call themselves Mormons don’t mean they are all good people, same goings for Catholics who hide there pedifiles. And remember the Spanish Inquisition and Muslims hate you and are willing to kill you just because you are a America.
    This stupid article was ment to be inflammatory, can’t we wait until find actual remains?

  • fun bag November 13, 2015 at 6:21 pm

    it also wouldn’t surprise me if the land owner concocted these rockpiles as “graves” in some sort of ploy to sell the land to the LDS at a high price. They are unusually intact rock piles for 160 years old, esp being located in a flood gully. And why would they have put them in a gully? And why did local mormons leave these intact? Brigham ordered the original 1859 monument destroyed when he first came thru the area after the event. anyways the whole place (mountain meadow) gives me the creeps. It’s been said the place is cursed.

  • .... November 13, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    I wouldn’t be surprised to find out Charles Manson is a Mormon.

  • Pat November 13, 2015 at 11:16 pm

    GrandmaB and FunBag are right. I personally know the great granddaughter of John Lee and she lives in St. George. She is a very dear friend of my mothers’ so we have heard the story of what did happen.
    Lee did not act on his own without orders from higher up without mentioning any particular name. They all dressed as Native Americans and along with the Paiute of that time did massacre them under a white flag while they were all unarmed. After which they took anything and everything that the Mormons could use.
    I was raised Mormon but had my name removed from the records in1972 but not because of this matter. By the way, if you left the church on your own or you were excommunicated your name is still on the records as a tax break. It took me 4 months of arguing with the Bishops and Elders where I was living at the time to get my name completely removed.

  • Pat November 13, 2015 at 11:27 pm

    Why not Charles Manson? The church took a teenager to one of the temples and baptized that teenager in the name of Adolph Hitler in 1992. So now Hitler’s name is in the records as a Mormon so his spirit will go to the highest kingdom while he is another tax write off. Sure glad I had my name removed so I won’t be going to the highest kingdom along side people like Hitler.

  • .... November 15, 2015 at 12:58 am

    I bet Ted Bundy was an apostle

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