The burial site for the victims of the Mountain Meadows massacre has been discovered. That massacre was one of the heinous crimes of the 19th century: the Mormons ambushed and slaughtered a wagon train passing through Utah, killing about 120 people, and taking away a few children under 8 years old. It was very Biblical. To add cowardice and racism to their crime, the Mormons also tried to pin the blame on Indians.
It’s odd to me how the weight of history can add resonance to a location, and how so many of us are oblivious to it.
Bassett said he’s surprised that the burial sites weren’t discovered before now because the Army records are very accurate. The burial site for the women and children is within sight of Utah Highway 18, he said.
“Truckers were driving by honking at me,” Bassett said. “The location where the women and children were massacred is right in the middle of the highway, to some extent.”
Near where I grew up, in Auburn, Washington, there is a monument to the victims of an Indian massacre, by which I mean some white people were killed in conflict with local natives. It’s located along a busy highway, near the local airport, and I used to bicycle out that way, and the monument was a convenient resting place. I’d also think about how different the area had been 125 years before — it was a paradise for the natives, with rich forests and rivers full of fish, and here a few scattered strangers had settled, building cabins and farming, claiming the land for their own, and a few times tensions erupted into violence. The white victims got memorials and monuments. I always wondered where the monuments to the Indians were — in that conflict, a heck of a lot more of the natives died than the invading strangers, and of course, when I looked around on my bike ride, I saw teeming swarms of white people and no Indians at all. Where were they? Buried somewhere, no doubt, and their descendants confined to reservations, but they don’t get markers commemorating their destruction by people of European descent.
So I’m reading along, thinking sad thoughts about the past, and then I hit this statement and my brain got all confused.
“I know it’s stressful not knowing where your ancestors are buried,” he said. “Maybe if we can put this to rest by knowing where they are, it might create a balm to heal some of these wounds.”
Wait. I don’t know where most of my ancestors were buried at all, and I can’t say that I was at all concerned about them. The ones I knew, sure, I could probably even lead you to the spot on a hillside in Kent, Washington where their bones are decaying. And I’d rather you didn’t dig them up and wave them around in front of me, because that would just stir up personal memories of grief and loss. But the ones I didn’t know, that no one living has memory of now? Respect the fact of their past existence, but their bones have no capacity to make anyone grieve now.
I know that attitude is somewhat in contradiction to the unsettling observation of trucks now roaring past sites of old pain and death, heedlessly. We are always looking for an emotional acknowledgment of the burden of our history, even while we may see it as a pointless exercise, intellectually. Being human is a tangle.
But the other jarring side of that comment about it being “stressful not knowing where your ancestors are buried” is this: it seems to refer specifically to white ancestors. We need to know where and how dead white people from 150 years ago were buried, and we take it for granted that officials damned sure better treat those bone fragments with honor.
But once again, I have to consider the other side. Do we similarly take it for granted that Indian remains should be repatriated? My brain says there is no reasonable personal connection between old bones and living people, and if we can learn new knowledge by studying them, we should keep them in museums where they can be useful. But my brain also says an appreciation of and feeling for the humanity of history is important, too, and that we lose something important when we replace a sense of reverence with a pair of calipers and a DNA sequencer.
Still tangled. I don’t think I can ever be untangled.
While I wouldn’t want my parents or grandparents dug up for fun I’d gladly have it done for scientific research.
Johnny Vector says
“How we treat our dead is part of what makes us different than those did the slaughtering.”
I hope this doesn’t derail things, but the history of America’s native peoples is a good example of the silliness of the “We need guns to defend ourselves from tyranny!” idea. Their armed resistance wasn’t enough, because they where outnumbered and fought an enemy with more resources.
For that matter the victims of the Mountains Meadow Massacre were armed. Sure didn’t do them much good.
Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says
Now what does that remind me of????
Big Boppa says
The massacre at Mountain Meadows has been part of my family lore for as long as I can remember. My grandmother had a couple of relatives who were among the 17 surviving children (she called them her uncles but their mother was actually her great aunt). The older one apparently had some memory of seeing his mother killed and he was kind of an emotional wreck his whole life. The younger was an infant when it happened so he escaped having first hand memories of it. The US government recovered the boys from the Mormons a couple of years after the massacre and returned them to their grandparents. My great grandfather was named after one of the boys.
As an adult, I did some research on the subject to see how much of the family history (if any) was embellished bullshit. Turned out to be pretty accurate overall. Gave me an insight into why the older members of the fam considered Mormons to be some kind of Satanic cult.
I’m with you. I don’t even know who my ancestors were beyond my great-grandparents, other than “a bunch of peasants in Ireland.” Given how well the Irish kept records, I could probably look them up, but who cares? Their lives would be good and interesting (and perhaps harrowing or triumphant, who knows) stories, I imagine, but have only Butterfly Effect relevance to my life, which is happy and successful by most human standards.
It is tremendous hypocrisy for people to venerate their ancestors and not the folks whose lives were cut short by those ancestors, and whose descendants continue to suffer as a result.
Lynna, OM says
Ex-mormons discuss the finding of the burial site:
You’re dismissing the reasons so many Indian skeletons ended up in museums. We were considered to be animals – filthy savages by some, noble savages by others, graves free to plunder, because why on earth would savages care about that? I’ll let Pura Fé, Soni, and Jennifer speak for me:
You could remove a few details and people would think you were talking about ISIS.
If that was directed at me, all I can say is Jesus Fuck. Glad I’ll be away from the ‘net later today.
Big Boppa says
They thought they were safe because the Mormons had given them permission to camp on their land and rest their livestock. It was all a ruse to steal their property and leave no witnesses. They rounded up the people and divided the men from the women and children. The men were taken into a ravine and slaughtered within earshot of their families. The women and older children were killed after the men were all dead.
The 17 survivors were all children under 7 years old who were given to the same wealthy families who plundered their belongings.
Reminds me of David Mitchell’s joke on the topic (paraphrased):
“I don’t care about all the lives it saves. I’m just upset my uncle’s brain is in a jar and not in a ditch!”
Lynna, OM says
Steve Benson writes about his visit to the Mountain Meadows Massacre site before the new discovery.
Lynna, OM says
Below is an excerpt from a March 12, 2000 Salt Lake Tribune article, in which we find more evidence that Indians did not massacre the victims, white men did, mormons did.
In 2000, the Governor of Utah, Mike Leavitt, a descendant of one of the perpetrators of the massacre, did his best to cut Novak’s examination of the bone fragments short.
The quote below is from a Mormon News Room article:
I know that bones at my local university are sometimes uncovered (usually from erosion on a local creek bank). After a check by the local police and the campus archaeologist to determine age, older bones are turned over to representatives of the Muwekma Ohlone people whose ancestors had lived in the area.
A few days ago, PZ asked:
A hypothesis I’ve had in mind for a while is that at least some of that was the result of something like this: there were contemporary massacres at or slightly before the time that the bible was being composed; events similar to the Meadow Mountain Massacre. And some of the participants and/or witnesses were bothered by what they had done or seen. Thus, the bible narratives had the various genocides, massacres, and atrocities added in in order to provide historical rationalization and precedent for the contemporary butchery. In essence, the narratives were created to say something like:
I do wonder if any of those directly involved in the Mountain Meadow massacre looked to massacres in the bible or the book of Mormon as part of their own process of rationalizing what they had done.
AJ Milne says
I knew about Mountain Meadows through… ‘Kay I’m not even sure. Certainly read the Krakauer book, some years back, but think I’d heard of it previously. As a (relatively) NRM whose history is to a large degree still kicking around, the Mormons and Smith have always been kinda (darkly) fascinating to me. Oddly, however, I didn’t even realize the grave sites weren’t known. I see from the report the existing monuments weren’t exactly far off, and I knew those existed; maybe this is why?
I liked the Krakauer book okay, by the way. Kind of thing in which so many people are likely to find something to object to, but it does keep the story interesting, weaves a lot together. Obviously, however, I’m not the sort of audience is likely to take much exception to suggestions some people seem to have found therein that religion in general tends to the toxic (my reaction: yeah, just maybe… and?).
On the bones of ancestors: I have a vague curiosity about where some of mine are. But I think it’s part of the larger curiosity about where they even lived. As with (I suspect) a lot of people, that’s a pretty confused history in my family. There’s a very few lines were just wealthy and/or prominent enough they’re not so hard to find, but others, yeah, when it’s a mix of poor sharecroppers and the like from across Europe and the British Isles, all we have now are terse notes on which direction they walked out of the forest from, and at a few sparse points, in which office someone wrote it down in whichever registrar.
Funny thing is: I figure it was probably always a bit like that, for most people. An uncle tells you someone told him his grandmother grew up somewhere near Plymouth; unless you were born with the proverbial silver spoon and someone’s been helpfully inscribing the family tree in the same huge leather bound bible in the family library for the past five years, that’s all you got. People bailing from whichever war or famine may not have a lot of time for genealogy; it’s hard to blame them. And I wonder if it’s probably only against the scary ubiquity of networks and datacentres of the past few decades and the megabits of data you can get on just about any damned question you might want to ask that this even seems so strange.
Thinking about it, I also figure I wouldn’t be much bothered by people interested in digging them up to work out what pathogens they might have carried during life, or whatever (knowing so damned little, I almost would encourage it). But I figure also that’s a very different context for me than, say, members of North American native cultures who have been treated with such general contempt in this and so many other ways for long centuries, now.
AJ Milne says
(Right. That was supposed to be ‘the past five hundred years’. As leaving it that way does come out a bit ‘wait, what?’)
Lynna, OM says
Owlmirror @17, Brigham Young preached the doctrine of “Blood Atonement.” Some people see vestiges of this doctrine in modern-day mormon communities. It shows up in things like the vote in Utah to reinstate firing squads as a method of execution.
In other words, the Mountain Meadows Massacre very likely had some connection to blood atonement for the death of Joseph Smith. Brigham Young foisted the fault onto one guy, John D. Lee, but Young probably ordered the massacre.
An interesting detail: John D. Lee had been “sealed” to Brigham Young, meaning that John D. Lee would continue to serve Young after death, in the mormon Celestial Kingdom. In real life, Lee was a member of Young’s secret “Council of Fifty.” This council often decided which mormon men should die for real or imagined sins, with blood being shed during the killing, and with council members doing or ordering the killing.
In the book “Confessions of John D. Lee,” Lee wrote:
Details from a more direct connection between the doctrine of blood atonement and the Mountain Meadows Massacre:
Dark Jaguar says
I could be way off on this, but I seem to recall some documentary years ago that said that the native americans (by which I mean north america since borders weren’t exactly the same back then) had a bustling empire of their own which suffered a cataclysm even before white settlers showed up, complete with a highway system (sans concrete) and major cities (sans modern technology). Had that pre-arrival disease never happened, european settlers would have found themselves setting shore on a fully populated nation with no hope of committing their own atrocities.
Dark Jaguar@21, “… no hope of committing their own atrocities.”
Until they used their Guns, Germs, and Steel. (I highly recommend the book.)
Usernames! (╯°□°)╯︵ ʎuʎbosıɯ says
Perhaps you’re thinking of the formation of the Five Nations (by Hiawatha, et. al.), prior to European invasion/occupation? There doesn’t appear to be archaeological evidence for any cities of stone in NorAm comparable to, for example, Tenochtitlan.
As for roads, it was common to use trees as trailmarkers, because road maintenance on a large scale would be unfeasable.
@Usernames! ; @Dark Jaguar :
Not stone, perhaps, but still some pretty large structures.
I am of two minds on the subject. I think that the remains should be studied and as much as possible their history be known. I also think that should be applied to all remains we find not just the ‘settlers” but the natives as well. I would apply the same standard to all remains every where. They all should be subject to as
thorough a scientific analysis as possible.
At the same time I think we owe them some kind of reverence and respect as well as their descendants wishes. They are all our relations no matter how distant and as we treat them we treat ourselves.
Yes they were from a different time and they still committed heinous crimes. I really detest this holly reverence when we sanctify the past and it’s inhabitants.
They were humans and animals and completely fallible and facing life in all it’s strangeness without any more understanding the we have and subject to all the same emotional pressures we are.
as I say of two minds.
CJO, egregious by any standard says
Well, there was already a long tradition in ANE royal propaganda of framing military victories as utter annihilations and dispossessions of the enemy, when we know that ancient warfare rarely took on the aspect of total war. Some sieges were concluded with destruction of the city and massive displacement of people along with many deaths of course, but my point is that if you were an aspiring monarch in that time and place, massive, improbably one-sided total defeats is what you were supposed to be handing out to all who dared oppose your might.
So I read the Conquest Narratives as legitimization narratives couched in the familiar terms of royal boasting retrojected to a previous era. As this is purely literary/propagandistic, no actual massacres are necessary to explain the texts. Post-exile, returning elites to Judea were concerned to assert two, somewhat contradictory claims: one, that the Tribes of the Hebrews had a unique connection and guarantee to the land west of the Jordan, but, two, that they were distinct from the surrounding Canaanite tribes.
CJO, egregious by any standard says
Sorry, the blockquote in #26 is from Owlmirror’s #16.
Caine@10 my comment was definitely not intended as a reply to yours, which hadn’t appeared yet when I was typing it. Just another example of why it’s a bad idea to try to write comments while trying to get ready to run out the door. It was intended as a general comment about the post, as the Mountain Meadows Massacre doesn’t sound much different from what ISIS is doing these days.
There’s no denying that indigenous remains have been treated disrespectfully and irresponsibly by the general scientific and historical community for generations. If there’s still descendants of a people/culture around to ask there’s no excuse for not consulting them on how the remains of their ancestors should be handled. If there’s no one to speak for a set of remains there still needs to be strong consideration for whether they should be examined or not, and how they should be handled afterwards
slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says
I understand the story and the massacree and all, yet part of me is baffled by digging it up (causing highway delays etc). Trying to be empathetic, yet my emotions tell me, “build a prominent marker to highlight the site, possibly ad a fence around it to delineate the boundaries of it.
Dark Jaguar, you might be thinking of the Anazazi. Check out Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. http://docuwiki.net/index.php?title=The_Mystery_of_Chaco_Canyon. They had quite a high civilization with commerce with Mexico and South America.
The first time I heard of the Mountain Meadow Massacre, it was from a Mormon girl in my high school.
Except that according to her, it was something that the US Army did to a group of Mormons.
I don’t know where a single one of my ancestors is buried. All the ones I actually knew have been cremated. I suppose I could find out my ancestors names at least back to the first census, which isn’t that long ago. Realistically, before that, they were worth less than the paper the church records were written on – assuming they were near enough a church to fall under its jurisdiction.
All that aside, what’s interesting about finding the remains is the historical perspective it might give – and which I’m still missing. So there was a massacre? Was this an isolated event or part of a pattern? When you say a massacre by ‘the Mormons’ does that mean supported by the official Mormon leadership of that time? I suppose the Mormons could have been quite a small group then with ‘everyone’ involved? What motivated them – if pure highway robbery of sorts, one would expect a recurrence… or was there some kind of crisis? Just a few of many questions….
chigau (違う) says
You know…you’re on the internet…
I know my paternal line onto the ninth generation – and they’re all buried in the same place, even if we only have stones from my great-great-grandfather.
I don’t think this makes me a better person.
Pen #35 –
To start, there’s the first source PZ cites in the OP: (link)
2003 article from Archaeology: (link)
And this site (1857massacre) collects the reports of news articles at the time, Army captain J. H. Carleton’s formal report, and accounts from the survivors who did remember what had happened to them as small children. Carleton reports being told that Brigham Young authorized the attack on this wagon train:
Also from that site, a survivor’s account recorded in 1940:
Much more material at the link.
*Pen at #32, oops
I’m personally hoping that my family won’t interfere with my plans for whatever can be donated be donated, and the leftovers sent to our new body farm for research*.
I do understand being tangled though. While it wouldn’t bother me for my ancestors to be dug up, this is something of a culturally specific attitude. I don’t understand, but I sympathise with and certainly agree that the remains of the dead be treated with respect, whether recent or ancient, for the ease of those still living. I also sympathise with (although again, cannot fully appreciate or understand) the cultural importance of the return of artifacts and remains of members of indigenous cultures that have been sent around the world in the *cough* glory days *cough* of the Empire.
I think it is good to be conflicted like that though — keeps me on my mental toes, and keeps me checking my privilege and empathy levels (I’m still learning!).