Op-ed: Mountain Meadows Massacre victim deserves better than anonymous burial

On Sept. 11, 1857, more than 120 men, women, children and infants of the Baker-Fancher wagon train were attacked, robbed and slaughtered by more than 60 Mormon men. Their stripped bodies were left to rot on the plain and were eaten and dispersed by wolves and coyotes. Seventeen children under the age of 6 were allowed to live. A U.S. Army battalion arrived 18 months later to recover and bury 34 victims in a mass grave.

There are no laws in the U.S. mandating DNA testing and identification of child murder victims. The National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM) has refused requests from six families to identify their child murdered at the Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah. Instead, the child is scheduled to be returned to the massacre site and buried anonymously.

The museum has identified the child as one of 13 victims – four of which were Cherokee; yet, a claim submitted by the Baker family under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was denied.

Ancestry can only be determined via DNA. The museum has refused DNA testing compassionately offered by Dr. Kelly Grisedale, director of the Forensic Science Department at Western Carolina University, who worked with the families to find the matching DNA candidates.

The refusal for testing also negates repatriation by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (ECBI). Russell Townsend, tribal historic preservation officer of the ECBI, cannot assist the families under NAGPRA, because the museum states the remains are not Native American; but, Native American ancestry can only be determined via DNA testing. It's a Catch-22.

Three Baker sisters and their baby brother, Billy, were in the back of a wagon with their parents when close shots rang out. Sallie was 3 years old and recalled watching her "mother topple over beside her with a big red splotch getting bigger and bigger on the front of her calico dress." The bullet that killed her father while she sat on his lap took a nick out of her left ear, and the scar became her lifelong momento mori. Seven-year-old Vina Baker was torn from the clinging arms of her 5-year-old sister, Bettie, in the back of the wagon. The little girls watched in collective horror as Vina was dragged out of the wagon and led away into the sage brush by two Mormon men.

Ninety-four-year old Betty Pinkston remembers her grandmother, Bettie, talk about Vina, "She was my sister who watched over me, played with me, slept with me on the wagon train on the way to California. I was saved, she was murdered." Mrs. Pinkston imagines her mother would say, "I do not want you returned to Utah. Let them bury you with me. Right now, we are both with God and pray they will not separate us" ... again.

This child, shot at close range in the back of the head, is to remain nameless and will be buried in September in a mass grave along with 34 other unidentified victims of the massacre. Officials at the museum remain unmoved by written pleas from descendants who want to know if this is their child.Families should have the legal right to identify their child, and regardless of any burial site chosen a murdered child at the very least deserves the right to be named.

The supplications of more than 135 living descendants sent to the NMHM represent the idea that no group should hold precedent over the impervious hearts of the family – legally, morally or spiritually.

Catherine Baker is a descendant of the Baker girls' Cherokee grandmother, and co-author of the Baker family NAGPRA claim. She lives and writes in North Carolina and has published in The Chicago Tribune, The Nashville Tennessean and The Salt Lake Tribune. She can be reached at kanalusgvi@gmail.com.