In a statement considered ground breaking, Elder Henry B. Eyring, a member of the Quorum of Twelve, said new research shows local Mormon leaders were responsible for recruiting Paiute Indians to participate in the crime during which 120 men, women and children of the Fancher-Baker wagon train, en route to California from Arkansas, were brutally killed by a group of Mormon militia members and some Paiute allies, although the Paiutes' participation remains disputed.
"What was done here long ago by members of our church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct," said Eyring, who choked up while reading a statement delivered on behalf of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "We cannot change what happened, but we can remember and honor those who were killed here."
The words, "we're sorry," were not part of the statement, but Richard Turley Jr., the LDS Church's managing director of family and church history and co-author of the forthcoming book, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, insisted after the ceremony that the statement was meant to be an apology.
"[The church] is deeply, deeply sorry," he said. "What happened here was horrific."
The apology went out to descendants of victims, but also to those of survivors and perpetrators.
"Many of those who carried out the massacre were haunted all their lives by what they did and saw on that unforgettable day. They and their relatives have also suffered under a heavy burden of guilt," Eyring said. "No doubt divine justice will impose appropriate punishment."
The service, attended by about 400 people, began as an antique wagon, driven by Arkansas descendants and pulled by two Belgian work horses, wound its way down to the memorial grave site. Behind the wagon were descendants carrying flags bearing the names of the 29 families who were massacred in this valley that was a popular stop along the Old Spanish Trail.
Hanging from the fence surrounding the memorial about an hour's drive southwest of Cedar City were 120 crosses representing those who died in the massacre, plus another 17 adorned with red ribbons to represent the children who survived.
Onlookers watched the procession, snapping pictures and filming with hand-held recorders. Some wiped away tears, while several others sobbed openly and embraced. They wept for people they'd never known but whose memories they and their families have held onto for decades.
The bloodbath in this meadow has stood out as perhaps Utah's, and the LDS Church's, darkest and most disputed chapter. Descendants, in varying degrees, have cried out for apologies, recognition and protection of their ancestors' stories. So while the people in the audience heard Eyring's words and viewed them as progress, few seemed to hear them as an outright apology.
Historian Will Bagley, who wrote Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, appreciated the expression of contrition to the Paiutes, but he felt the church - as an institution - fell short in owning up to its culpability.
"I don't think shoving it off on local [Mormon] leadership is an apology," he said. "Did you hear an 'I'm sorry?' "
Added Priscilla Dickson, 60, of St. George, a descendant of the Tackett family, which was among the emigrants, "Simply saying 'I'm sorry,' would go a long way.' "
The scars of that time have been long lasting for the Paiutes, said Lora Tom, a representative of the Paiute Nation.
"For 150 years no one asked for our account," she said.
Tom, whose remarks elicited a standing ovation, said the long-perpetuated lies faulting her ancestors have hurt Paiute youth who've grown up reading about this in history books. She said her ancestors had remained silent because they were trying to survive. They feared speaking up because they relied on local Mormons.
"That was a time not to confront this story, but now is the time," she said. The Paiutes "have kept to themselves for too long . . . This is the beginning for us. Let us begin together."
Eyring's statement offered a "separate expression of regret" to the Paiutes, "who have unjustly borne for too long the principal blame for what occurred during the massacre."
While the extent of the Paiutes' involvement is disputed, Eyring said church leaders now believe they "would not have participated without the direction and stimulus provided by local church leaders and members."
New research, to be included in Turley's book, which will be released in coming months, "enabled us to know more than we ever have known about this unspeakable episode. The truth, as we have come to know it, saddens us deeply," he said.
Others on the dais, representing various descendant organizations (there are three of them), spoke of reconciliation and the need to forgive without ever forgetting.
In a move considered a big step, Patty Norris of Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants announced her group will join Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation Inc. in pushing for historic landmark designation on the hallowed grounds.
This designation would offer protection to interested parties without forcing the LDS Church to give up ownership. Doing this would give many descendants comfort and bolster their faith as plans for another monument, expected to eventually be built in the northern valley where the massacre occurred, start to develop.
According to Turley, the idea may not be too far fetched. He said the church "came here today to express regret and listen." So as talks about landmark designation continue, he said, "We support going forward and considering it."