MOUNTAIN MEADOWS, Washington County — Descendants of the victims and perpetrators of the Mountain Meadows Massacre met on sacred ground Saturday, hoping to heal wounds, open hearts and work toward a common future.
Perhaps this whole valley should be considered a sacred site, Kent Bylund, a past member of the Mountain Meadows Association board of directors, told a gathering of descendants, friends and others interested in the historic ground located just off U-18 between Central and Enterprise.
The 1857 massacre of some 120 Arkansas immigrants by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints remains a volatile topic, constantly fueled by new books, films and other stories. Barely 17 young children were spared in the killings that left bodies of men, women and children scattered in the grassy meadow.
The only man convicted for his part in the massacre was John D. Lee, a Latter-day Saint whose descendants still live in southern Utah. After his second trial, Lee was taken back to the massacre site and executed by firing squad as he sat blindfolded on a coffin.
Brigham Young University history professor Ronald G. Walker spoke Friday at the annual meeting of the association in the Dixie Center. Lee's part in the massacre and his bitterness toward then-LDS Church President Brigham Young for his failure to publicly support him are well known. Perhaps less known, said Walker, is why Lee was taken back to the scene of the crime for his execution.
"It was an extraordinary decision. Perhaps part of the reason for selection of the site was for its moral example, that crime and punishment might go together," said Walker, one of three church historians working on a book about the massacre. "I don't know if you can come to a reconciliation or catharsis of this horrible event in Utah's history without full and honest disclosure. That's what we're trying to do with our book."
Co-author Glen M. Leonard, director of the Museum of Church History and Art, reviewed various maps drawn of the massacre site, pointing out where the immigrant's wagons were circled, where the defensive fire pits were dug, and the distances victims likely ran before being shot and killed.
"We know before the immigrants left the corral that 10 of their dead were buried," said Leonard, adding that aerial photos are adding a new dimension of information to the old maps. "Where are the other 90 or more victims?"
Richard E. Turley, managing director of the LDS Church's Family and Church History Department and a co-author of the book to be published by Oxford University Press, spoke at length about the notion that there were outsiders in the Arkansas train who hated Mormons.
"The exact makeup of the company isn't known," Turley told descendants of the Baker-Fancher Company who were killed in the massacre, adding there are stories about men in the company who boasted of helping to kill LDS Church prophet Joseph Smith.
"These ruffians, these outsiders called Missouri Wildcats, could have been part of another company. If they had only pretended to be against the Saints it wouldn't have made any difference," Turley said. "It was the perception of those in southern Utah and people act on perception, not necessarily on what's true."
Nothing excuses or justifies killing innocent people, said Turley, but the stories do provide information about the climate that existed in southern Utah at the time.
"Even a few sparks flying in southern Utah could have culminated in disaster for the whole train," he said.
Mary Tackett traveled from her home in Flagstaff, Ariz., to the annual meeting of the Mountain Meadows Association.
"You do have to learn about your family's history," said Tackett, whose father, Edward Millam, brought her to the site when she was just 6 years old. "My father was very prejudiced against the Mormons because of it. To me it was never about that, but the base of the story has never changed."
For more information about the association go to www.mtn-meadows-assoc.com.