Utah massacre site may become national landmark

By Jennifer Dobner
Salt Lake City, Utah (AP) December 2010

The southern Utah site where Mormons massacred the members of a 19th Century Arkansas wagon train is on its way to becoming a National Historic Landmark.

In November, a National Parks Service Advisory Board subcommittee voted unanimously to recommend a petition to elevate the Mountain Meadows Massacre site to landmark status, parks historian Lysa Wegman-French said.

The advisory board is scheduled to meet in April to decide whether to recommend the proposal to the U.S. secretary of the interior, she said.

“I see no obstacles ahead,” said the Denver-based Wegman-Smith, who has worked on the application since 2008. “We’re not hearing any objections from any quarter.”

A rolling, 2,500-acre valley about 30 miles north of St. George, the Mountain Meadows site is already on the National Register of Historic Places. But its story carries the kind of historical heft that makes it a good candidate for landmark status, Wegman-French said.

Landmark status would guarantee public access and federal oversight that includes public input on any construction or development.

On Sept. 11, 1857, 120 men, women and children from the Baker-Fancher wagon train were attacked and killed at Mountain Meadows by Cedar City-area church and militia leaders. The Arkansas-based travelers were bound for California when their stopover in the meadows turned deadly.

“It’s an unusual story,” Wegman-French said. “Members of the LDS church and members of the dominant society in the 1800s were really at odds with each other. There was a lot of violence, and members of the church had been forced to move across the country. ... This particular episode was a culmination of the conflict.”

The valley includes several mass grave sites and two monuments – a rock cairn marking the spot where the siege erupted and a memorial wall inscribed with the names of the known dead.

For decades, Mormon church leaders downplayed its role in the killings and instead laid the blame on the area’s American Indians. That left the church at odds with the descendants of the 17 young children who survived the attack.

But in recent years, church officials and three descendant organizations – the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation, Mountain Meadows Association and Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants – worked to mend the rift. The church, which owns much of the massacre site land, announced its plans to seek national landmark status in 2008.

Representatives of all three groups were in Washington, D.C., in November to support church historian Richard Turley’s presentation to the parks subcommittee.

“This is something that we’ve wanted, some higher order of protection for our lost loved ones,” said Phil Bolinger, the Hindsville, Ark., president of the foundation which has worked for a landmark designation for nearly a decade. “There’s not a lot you can do for people that were killed and buried 150-plus years ago, but you can honor and remember them in the highest possible way.”

For association president Terry Fancher, of Braintree, Mass., the subcommittee vote was affirmation that massacre story is as important to U.S. history as it has been to the descendant families.

“It raises the level of consciousness for something that was important to our families,” he said. “To go to that (landmark) level, you kind of pinch yourself.”

Whether landmark status can in face protect the meadows and its sacred burial sites – some of which may not yet be identified – is unknown. Rocky Mountain Power is working with the Bureau of Land Management to identify a route for a major new power transmission line that would cross through southern Utah.

BLM national project manager Tamara Gertsch said four alternatives are being considered, including one that could potentially affect the meadows. A preferred route won’t be identified until after an environmental impact study is completed next summer, she said.

Massacre descendant groups have already voiced their concerns and provided the BLM with information about the site’s cultural and historic value.

“We are of course very concerned and are staying on top of it,” said Patty Norris, the Omaha, Ark., president of the Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants. “You just don’t want to see your ancestors graves desecrated any more than they already have been.”