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Archaeologists unable to find Pratt's remains

Parley P. Pratt
Parley P. Pratt

RUDY, Arkansas — The exhumation of Parley Parker Pratt ended Tuesday when archaeologists couldn't find the early LDS Church leader's remains.

Robert J. Grow, Pratt's great-great-great-grandson, said there were no signs of Pratt and the digging ended around 4 p.m.

"The passage of time and the shallowness of the grave have left no specific identifiable human remains," Grow said. "This was a possibility and the family always understood that."

Family members intended to move the remains of Pratt, who was murdered in Crawford County in 1857 by Hector McLean of California, to Salt Lake City. Pratt was an original member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his dying wish was to be buried in Utah.

Grow said archaeologists plan to close Pratt's burial site in the Wynn Family Cemetery today. The cemetery is east of Interstate 540 near Rudy.

"We have little or no doubt we've been excavating the right grave based on the science and the historical evidence," Grow said. "The family has now done everything to fulfill (Pratt's) dying request, but most importantly we've had an extraordinary experience with people in Arkansas."

Curious onlookers visited the small cemetery Tuesday, asking questions, chatting and watching archaeologists dig.

Van Buren resident Cornelious "Junior" Peters said his great-great-great-grandfather William Stewart gave away the walnut coffin he'd made for himself so Pratt could be buried in it. Peters wanted to see the coffin and Pratt's remains.

Led by Weber State University archaeology professor LeGrand Davies, the team hoping to exhume Pratt's remains used pitishes, mattocks and trowels. The small hand tools allowed workers to pick away as they dug deeper. They expected to find the remains 18 to 30 inches below ground, Grow said.

The digging was at the south end of the cemetery in a spot just west of Old Fayetteville Road. Historical accounts show Pratt was buried four feet from the road. A scan by ground-penetrating radar in 2006 identified tracks where wagon wheels compacted the soil, indicating a road.

The team worked in an area that was 20 feet wide by 20 feet long, focusing on spots with the softest soil, an indicator that it had been disturbed and might be a gravesite.

"It's very wet right now," Davies said. "It's sticky clay."

Davies didn't know what to expect as he watched others dig Tuesday morning. Teeth were the most likely remains because they "just don't erode away." He hoped he'd find signs of bones or even bones themselves.

Crawford County Circuit Court Judge Gary Cottrell during an April 2 hearing allowed the family to exhume Pratt's remains. The family obtained a disinternment permit from the Arkansas Department of Health.

Pratt's remains would have been the oldest exhumed in Arkansas since the state started keeping records of exhumation requests in 1999, said Grace Carson-Eubanks, the Health Department's assistant state vital records registrar.

Karl Anderson, 70, made his first trip to Arkansas to see the digging. He's studying his church's history and teaching it to other members of his congregation in Cleveland, Ohio. He'll share his snapshots with his students.

"The image I had was that the people here in Arkansas were negative and didn't want him here," Anderson said. "What I learned was there were people here who were good to Parley and folks who treated him well. They saw that he got a good burial."

Margaret Sevy, Grow's sister, said early Tuesday she thought Pratt should return to Utah in the same way her brother did years ago. Her brother, David William Grow, 20, was one of three LDS Church Mormon church missionaries murdered in 1974 near Harrisburg, Pa. He is buried in Utah.

"He came home, just like Parley should," Sevy said. "That's why it's tender to me."