Skull of unknown Mountain Meadows Massacre child victim buried as descendants, Mormon church mourn 1857 tragedy

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Judge Roger V. Logan, Jr., gives a prayer during the funeral for a young victim of the Mountain Meadows Massacre Saturday, September 9, 2017. The funeral mourns not only the unknown young boy or girl whose head was ruptured by bullet fired by a Mormon settler in one of most inexplicable acts of violence in U.S. history, but all 20 of the children who were murdered to ensure they would not bear witness to the crime.

Mountain Meadows • After 160 years buried in a museum collection, the skull of one the Mountain Meadows Massacre’s youngest victims was laid to rest Saturday in a song-filled ceremony that honored all the migrant children whose lives were cut short here in what was among the nation’s worst peacetime atrocities.

The child’s remains made the journey from an East Coast museum back to Utah this summer. Saturday, they were interred at the meadow where relatives of the doomed Arkansas immigrants gathered to reflect on a tragedy and close a controversy that had ensnared the skull for nearly a decade.

“It represents all the children who died. It’s not just one. It’s all of them we grieve for today. God knows who this child is. It is an honor to give this child a Christian burial,” said Patty Norris, a descendant of the migrant train leader Alexander Fancher, to open the service.

Seven of the nine Fancher children were murdered, along with every adult.

Saturday’s service marked the anniversary of the five-day siege that culminated in the massacre of some 120 California-bound immigrants on Sept. 11, 1857, at the hands of Mormon militiamen from Parowan. Unfolding in a scenic valley 50 miles southwest of Cedar City, the massacre still defies explanation.

For decades the siege and massacre sites were largely neglected and the story of the tragedy only partially told, with the blame falling on Paiute Indians who had been recruited by the militiamen to help attack the wagon train. But since the 1990s, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken a stronger role in developing the area into a National Historic Landmark. The church has worked with the victims’ descendants to properly remember and honor the victims, who for decades were regarded in Utah as faceless passers-by who brought their misfortune upon themselves.

The church facilitated Saturday’s memorial.

“We see this is a great day for the groups to come together and put some closure on an issue that that been outstanding for some time,” said Benjamin Pykles, an archaeologist who heads the LDS Church’s Historic Sites Division.

The church’s efforts reached a new milestone Saturday with the unveiling of new signage at the siege site and Dan Sill Hill, overlooking the gravesite memorial and the massacre sites, separated by about a mile.

The verbiage on the 19 signs, crafted in collaboration with the three main descendant groups, emphasize the experience of the victims, many of them prosperous residents of Carrollton, Ark., who were on their way to California.

“We want to humanize the immigrants. It’s easy to vilify people that you don’t know anything about, that you just relegate to the category of immigrants,” said Roger Logan, a retired Arkansas circuit judge who led a tour of the new signage.

While the signs provide details about the migrants, identifying several by name and station in life, they are silent on why they were killed. Around 50 Mormon pioneers participated in the slaughter but none is named except John D. Lee, the sole perpetrator found guilty. He was executed 20 years later at the scene of the crime.

After the service, two descendants of Lee offered tearful apologies to a group of migrant descendants at the site where Lee met his end before a firing squad. They both spoke of the heavy weight the massacre has brought to their communities.

“I ask for you forgiveness on behalf of my ancestors, my church and my family,” said Jared Smith. “The best sermon I’ve heard on forgiveness is from this group.”

He went on to ask migrant descendants to “humanize” the perpetrators, many of whom probably had no wish to kill in cold blood and lived out their days with regret.

“I view Lee as an additional victim, in this case a just victim, of the decisions made that day and the orders given,” Smith said.

The child’s skull that was interred Saturday had been collected from the massacre site by U.S. Army soldiers under the command of Maj. James Carleton, who had been dispatched there to investigate nearly two years after the massacre. The victims had not been adequately buried and their bones were scattered in three main sites. The soldiers gathered the bones and placed them in two stone crypts they built there.

The skull wound up in what became the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland, established during the Civil War to promote understanding of military medicine.

While all three descendant groups’ endorsed the return of the skull to Mountain Meadows, some relatives wanted DNA testing. Forensic analysis indicates it belonged to a child between ages 6 and 10, which narrows the possibilities to about a dozen children known to have been killed.

Descendant Catherine Baker contends that every effort should be made to identify the remains of a murder victim. She believes the skull should be interred next to the grave of a sibling who might have survived the attack.

But the museum rejected her request in favor of returning the child’s remains to the site where his or her parents are buried. Museum officials said that DNA analysis, which would have to be compared to DNA from numerous descendants, could not conclude with much certainty whom the skull belonged to, since many of the children on the wagon train were related to each other.

The service was much like any other funeral, just without pallbearers and the precise identity of the person being buried. The funeral home director bore the child’s remains to the ceremony in a flag-draped oaken box, hewn from a tree cut in the Ozarks, while a four-piece string band performed classic Americana songs 19th-century migrants would have played on their way West, including “I Wish I Were in Dixie” and “It Is Well With My Soul.”

Descendants cast Arkansas soil into the vault at the base of the stone pyramid erected by U.S. soldiers 18 months after the massacre, which now anchors the historic landmark.

Over the strains of the Old Time Fiddlers and the blowing wind rushing up the valley, the names and ages of 21 children who perished here 160 years ago were read and recited back by the audience. Then, with “Amazing Graze” emitting from bagpipes, the tiny casket was carried to the vault, past the descendants lining the walkway.

Earlier in the day, at a St. George funeral home, a viewing was held for the remains, wrapped in a quilt bearing the names of the children. A hole left by the bullet that killed the child was plainly visible.

“To see that small child’s skull, reality comes home. It is so fitting that this child has been brought from Washington, D.C., to rest with the rest of their family and the rest of the bones it was take from,” said Kenny Hightower, a descendant of massacre victim Milum Rush. “It was taken as evidence and it has served its purpose. Now it’s time for it to be interred with the rest of its family. I’m happy to be a part of that today.”