Speak Your Piece: a podcast about Utah's history

Season 2 Ep. 1 (Part 2): Everett Bassett: Discovering human remains at Mountain Meadows

September 10, 2020 Brad Westwood Season 2 Episode 1
Speak Your Piece: a podcast about Utah's history
Season 2 Ep. 1 (Part 2): Everett Bassett: Discovering human remains at Mountain Meadows
Speak Your Piece: a podcast about Utah's history
Season 2 Ep. 1 (Part 2): Everett Bassett: Discovering human remains at Mountain Meadows
Sep 10, 2020 Season 2 Episode 1
Brad Westwood

The story of the siege and massacre of approximately 120 California bound immigrants by Mormon settlers and Paiute Indians at Mountain Meadows (Washington County, 38 m. northwest of St. George) on September 11, 1857 is perhaps the second most well-known story in all of Utah’s history behind only the epic story of the 1847 Mormon Pioneers. 

The massacred were hastily and incompletely buried after this horrendous event. Two years later in 1859 U.S. Army troops led by Major James H. Carleton, gathered the exposed remains and interred them in two mass graves. The finding of these graves in 2014 by Bassett is the focus of this Speak Your Piece interview. 

Guest Bio: Everett Bassett is a principal archeologist for Transcon Environmental, Inc., an environmental planning firm, with expertise in the pursuit of developing infrastructure for energy, communications, and mining. Previously Bassett worked as contact archeologist for a firm doing extensive work for the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. He has degrees in biology, history and anthropology. As a young man Bassett worked as a logger and served in the United States Merchant Marines.

Show Notes Transcript

The story of the siege and massacre of approximately 120 California bound immigrants by Mormon settlers and Paiute Indians at Mountain Meadows (Washington County, 38 m. northwest of St. George) on September 11, 1857 is perhaps the second most well-known story in all of Utah’s history behind only the epic story of the 1847 Mormon Pioneers. 

The massacred were hastily and incompletely buried after this horrendous event. Two years later in 1859 U.S. Army troops led by Major James H. Carleton, gathered the exposed remains and interred them in two mass graves. The finding of these graves in 2014 by Bassett is the focus of this Speak Your Piece interview. 

Guest Bio: Everett Bassett is a principal archeologist for Transcon Environmental, Inc., an environmental planning firm, with expertise in the pursuit of developing infrastructure for energy, communications, and mining. Previously Bassett worked as contact archeologist for a firm doing extensive work for the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. He has degrees in biology, history and anthropology. As a young man Bassett worked as a logger and served in the United States Merchant Marines.


BW: Welcome to the podcast Speak Your Piece. This is a podcast about Utah's history produced by the Utah Department of Culture and Community Engagement. I'm Brad Westwood, Senior Public Historian. My job is to make the very best, the most interesting, the most accurate history, accessible to the widest audience. In our last session, we were speaking to historical archaeologist Everett Bassett. And we've come back to talk more about the subject of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Everett, you were talking, and I sadly had to cut you off, but let's pick it up related to the Army, and just how their records and how they approached—you had found the road, something that had been disputed. Quickly for our audience, tell us how you did that, and let's pick up the story from there.

EB: Well, one thing I did was, I started off by identifying areas where a wagon in the 1850s would not have traveled. And so it limited the area where the road likely was. And then I went, and I used drones, and I used aerial photography, to identify what we call “traces”. Evidence is very low swales in the soil. These are best seen very early in the morning, at dusk and at dawn. It provides shadows. And you might find a piece that might go for 350 yards and then you lose it for a while. But eventually, you can pretty much tie it together. And what I found was very interesting was, the creek that runs through the Meadows, which is called Mogatsu Creek, the upper portion of that creek running north from the attack site to where we eventually found the mass burials, was actually the downcut 1829 Old Spanish Trail. So the road had, all these cattle coming through had worn it down, these big storms that I recorded coming over from California had washed it through.

BW: The water following the cut ups or the teardown to the landscape, and eventually they become little riverlets. Is that it?

EB: Exactly, exactly. And it was actually in these ravines, which was the abandoned portion of the Old Spanish Trail, is where these graves were actually placed. And a newer road had been built. When I say new, I'm talking, it was probably built in 1847 as a wagon road, and it was used by the Mormon Battalion. But it was 50 yards away, it was off the value a little bit. And so I was able to map that. And I was able to determine, based on some historic records, that this was the likely location where they had done it. And I then used...

BW: I was going to ask you about the Army. The Army always has regulations and processes for everything. Tell us, is that part of the story you're going to tell about how the Army's instructions as to how to build tumuli, does that come into the picture? 

EB: Yeah. The historical records, and then using the roads, together I was able to identify where I believed these mass graves were. And the first time I walked to where the men and boys grave I thought would be, I couldn't find it, because I was looking around for a cairn. And I realized I was actually standing on this large mound of rock in the ravine. And I sat down, and I actually had a drink of water, and I realized there was something curious about this mound of rock. So I went down underneath, and I realized that it was constructed. It was a rectangular box, 12 foot by eight foot by four foot.

BW: It wasn't organically developed. 

EB: No, it was not organic. And I've worked in that area long enough to realize that there were a lot of things it wasn't. It wasn't a house foundation. It wasn't structural support, it was check dam [or weir] support. And so I suddenly said, well, this is where it should be. This must be it. This must be the low mound of stone that that surgeon, Brewer, had identified. And then when I went to look for the northern one, I found one that was almost identical. So I know they had been built, by groups who had the same instructions. They were where they should be. They were adjacent to the road. 

BW: So there were two different groups that were doing this. And you're saying they both followed the same Army regulation, as far as how they were built?

EB: Well, they were different groups of soldiers under the command of Captain Campbell. So I'm sure he said, "Well, I want you to build this here." And then he took another group of soldiers and said, "I want you to build this, and I want you to collect all the bones to put it in them." And what these graves are, is they are classic, double walled, New England stone walls. And a lot of these soldiers were from New England, they had grown up building these walls, and building these little enclosures, to hold fieldstone. It's very classic New England technology. And once you recognize that's what it is,  then all kind of…. "Oh, yeah, I get it."

BW: Tell me about the antique Civil War equipment. This fascinates me. Surveying is so much a part of our 19th century experience, and it's so different today. How did that play into the story?

EB: Well, the historic records for the Mountain Meadows Massacre, there's a lot of information about directions and distances. But a lot of it seems to be just guesswork. The Army data was very precise. And we know that Brevet Major Carleton, who reported on it, he had been with the 1st Dragoons, and he'd been attached to the Topographical Engineers for many, many years, for example, during the Pottawatomie Expedition. He knew a lot about mapping. And so I thought I could trust his distances and direction. But to double check, what I did was, I consulted with historical surveyors, and I got hold of the very equipment that Carlton would have used in 1859. A Burt's solar compass, and then the steel chain, Gunter's steel chain, that the Army would have used. Now, these were antiques from the Civil War, which, of course, was only four years later. And I actually practiced with them and practiced with them, and then I went out and I replicated what Carleton had done, and I found I was accurate. Even though I'm not a professional surveyor, I was accurate to within a couple meters, over several miles. That gave me the confidence that Carleton's measurements, with his much greater experience, were probably as accurate, or more so.

BW: So you've done this work, you approached one of the descendants' organizations, in a sense receiving kind of general permission. You worked through the issues associate--because this was a privately owned ranch--and working through that. You've gathered all this information. Just try to remember, what was that feeling like? Tell me, when all that picture came together, where were you? How did it happen?

EB: When I first discovered it and realized what I had, I picked up the phone, and I called a couple people. And I said, "Oh my god, I just walked here, and here it is." So I was kind of feeling proud of myself. And then my second thought was, “well, this was pretty easy. Maybe this wasn't such a great deal after all.” And the question became, why did no one else find it? [laughs]

BW: That's one of the things I said to you at one time. It's like the push, the amount of people involved, the minds engaged in this, I mean, particularly, say, someone like Morris Shirts, who was a really on the ground local historian that was trying to do what you did, trying to understand the roads and the ravines, and the....

EB: And T. Michael Smith. An excellent field archaeologist.

BW: But even still, I think even though it perhaps appears to be easy, I think going through the, pushing beyond all the physical history, and all the previous—I mean, just the crush of history, I think, was one of the determining factors here. And that's something historical archaeology offers.

EB: Yeah. And anyone looking at these piles of rock would look at them and say, "Oh, these are piles of rock! [laughs] A farmer dumped it here." Which is exactly what I thought when I was standing on them. So it's understandable. If you were looking for cairns, if you were looking on the flat, if you were trying to fit all the history in, all those things, conspired against these being found.

BW: Everett let's talk about… well in a moment we're going to talk about preservation in the future. But there was some additional physical evidence or scientific process to determine what you thought was accurate. And that had to do with the LDS church using human remains dogs, which are different than cadaver dogs. Will you tell us that story?

EB: Yeah, well, the LDS Church purchased the land that the two graves are on. The church also owns the land where the attack site monument is. And they've been doing a really good job of protecting and preserving the area. But they decided that, because I think there was still some question about if these were the graves or not, they brought out these identification dogs. And these are trained specifically to smell for bones. These are not the dogs they take out after an earthquake to look for bodies. These are trained to look for bones. And quite frankly, I was a little bit skeptical of it. And I was a little worried that if the dog didn't find anything, I mean, after all, these bones have been buried for 160 years. How is a dog going to smell them? My worry was that if the dogs went out there and didn't find anything, then people would say, "Oh, well, obviously there's nothing there."

BW: A triggered response to say "Oh, that's not the case."

EB: Yeah, Bassett's wrong. And the whole thing about, his lack of evidence, whatever. But no, these dogs, we watched them, and what they would do is they would take them far away, like a quarter of a mile, and they would release them, and the dogs would run around in circles. And then when they got to the graves, they would stop and they would squat. This was their signal. They had found something. Every single dog identified those graves as having human remains in them. And it was interesting, because we had these loose rocks, and so, i'm guessing the smell from the bones was coming up through various different cracks. So the dogs were like running around, and they would sit at one spot of the grave, and then they'd run over and they'd sit at another spot. But it was actually pretty amazing. I was very convinced that these dogs knew what they were doing. And they didn't squat anywhere else within about a quarter of a mile.

BW: They took them far away, like you said, and didn't they spread them out? It wasn't like they took them to the site. They put them in a broader landscape.

EB: That's right. They did it very scientifically. They would let one dog loose. But they wouldn't let the other dogs see what the first dog was doing. They were locked up. And then they would have the dog run around in a huge circle. And then when that was done, they would lock that dog up. Presumably the dogs didn't talk to each other. And then they let the next one out. I think we had five dogs out there, as I recall. And each dog identified both locations.

BW: And every one of them validated the story. Okay, so, Everett, for me, what fascinates me—well, many things fascinate me about this story. But how is this reverse working, the throwing out of the historical record, the focus on the Army records, the doing the physical work out on the landscape, doing the surveying, how does that...what does that now say about the massacre site, and what we presumed in the past?

EB: Well, I think what it says is that the fact that we know where these graves are, it gives a certain amount of closure—not complete closure, but perhaps partial closure—to the descendants of the people that were massacred. I think it also provides some closure to the sins of the people that were involved with the massacre. This has been a horrific event, that the folks around Cedar City, a lot of old families there, I talked to a lot of old folks that said that as small children they were not ever allowed to talk about Mountain Meadows...

BW: As soon as it happened, because of the cohesiveness of the church and its hierarchical arrangement, people were silenced, basically, soon after.

EB: Exactly. They were instructed not to talk to it. But also, they probably wouldn't want to talk about it. This was something that was, immediately after it happened, identified as something that was shameful.

BW: Wasn't it a lot of ostensibly young men who were—I mean, there was the military militia leaders, but who they gathered up to do this were in fact fairly young people. Do you know about that? Is that a correct statement?

EB: Yeah. Obviously, if you want to do something really, really stupid, you get young men to do it. Whether that's driving down the road with a hatchet, knocking off mailboxes or whatever, it's young men. They have this sort of gang mentality, even when they're good Mormon boys. And yeah, that's what armies are. You look at My Lai, you look at Babi Yar, you look at all the great massacres in history, and they were you know, young men who were taught to demonize the enemy, who were part of a hierarchy where they weren't allowed to question orders, where they were highly isolated, where they had very little information, where they were made to fear what could happen in the future. This is a classic, classic story of a massacre. 

BW: It's a classic little cycle, isn't it?

EB: Yes, exactly. And one thing that actually, I don't want to be a Pollyanna here, but it's kind of encouraging that these events often happen, and they don't end up in that, but many times they do.

BW: Would you say that again?

EB: Well, many times, these events, where people should be hating each other, and should be acting out in violence, because of what led up to that event, they don't act out. They stand down. And I think that's a lesson that, if people are basically good, sometimes they're not. And, of course, this is one of many cases in American history where the solution to the perceived problem was murder.

BW: Well, and then as I said at the top of our interview, second only to the pioneer story, this is what most people know about, about the history of Utah. And I think by prosecuting it again, by understanding just how it all happened, it informs us today, I mean, for me, as a public historian, it gives us pause and makes us understand, maybe not as dramatic, and certainly we're not in some moment of where a massacre will occur, but there's a lot of lessons here. Do you agree?

EB: I do. I do. And I believe it's really easy to, as Josef Goebbels said, if you repeat something over and over again, a lie becomes the truth. And it's easy to develop enemies, and then to act on that perception of what an enemy is. And that's something that I think never goes away.

BW: Everett, there's a fascinating story about, prior to the passing of the Antiquities Act in 1906, where Congress passed it, it was signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, there was a letter exchange between the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Interior, regarding possibility of homesteading there in Mountain Meadows. Would you recount that story?

EB: Yeah, actually it happened directly after. So the Antiquities Act, which is to use the prehistory and history of America's treasures to put land aside—for example, as a national monument—was signed in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1907, James R. Garfield, who was the Secretary of the Interior, he was also the former president's son, wrote a letter to Jim Hill, who was the Secretary of Agriculture. Agriculture, then, as now, controls the Dixie National Forest, or the Dixie Forest Reserve, as it was called. And Garfield suggested to the Forest Service that this land in the Meadows, where the massacre took place, should be set aside as a monument under the Antiquities Act, that it should not ever be open for homesteading. Now, we don't know what happened, if Agriculture just didn't get the letter, or they didn't act on it, or they lost it. What happened was, the land was never set aside. And later, in 1933, it was homesteaded and went into private ownership, which of course it still is now. But it's interesting, because when that letter was written, only four properties in the United States had been preserved for protection by the government because of their historic value, and here he is, saying this should be one of those locations.

BW: That fascinates me that one of the earliest examples where a federal official was looking around and saying, "This is worthy of preservation, this should be set aside, and it is of national significance." 

EB: Yeah. And it wasn't some forest ranger or BLM field officer, it was the son of the President and the Secretary of the Interior, writing to the Secretary of Agriculture. Pretty amazing.

BW: Yeah. And I think it informs us today about what should, or how we should look at it in the future. Let's talk about preservation, because, very interestingly, the LDS Church, its Historical Department, which is one of the finest institutions as far as their methodology and process—there's archaeologists, historians, archivists, people who are carefully following the highest level of professionalism. They've been put to task to work on this site, and to preserve it. The LDS Church purchased these lots, these locations, as well as the prior ones. Tell us about preservation, stabilization. What’s going on? What's next?

EB: Well, one thing they're doing is the church is working with the National Park Service to establish these locations. And by "locations" I mean the two massacre sites with the graves, the original attack site, a portion of the road. Now there are other features in the valley, including the Jacob Hamblin Ranch, but basically, they want to delineate it as a National Historic Landmark. And this provides a certain amount of protection to the land, even though the land is privately owned. The church has also worked really closely with descendants’ groups. They want to protect the area. They have put fences around the graves, and nobody, as far as I know—the descendants, the Park Service, the LDS Church—wants to, you know, have roads going down to the graves, or signs or excavation or anything. 

BW: It's inaccessible right now, is it not, and has been since it was purchased?

EB: It is inaccessible, although the church does make exceptions for researchers and for descendants, and usually every September the descendants come out from all over the country, many from Arkansas.

BW: And that anniversary is coming up here, in September.

EB: That's right. Because of COVID 19 they may not be coming out this year, but it's a huge event for them. We talked earlier about the importance of “place.” Well, these folks come out and they have songs, and they have prayers, and they have discussions, and they do a little praying, and a little drinking, and a little picnicking, and it really ties them back to this event and their family's involvement in that. So yeah, they do have access to that. The church has been very good about that.

BW: I was just going to say, Everett, even though maybe this is just my statement as a public historian. After these events occurred, there was an incredible amount of obstruction of justice. And the LDS Church was not able or willing somehow to really kind of frame this up properly. Today, it's a much different matter, where the LDS Church not only owns the land, but they put in all kinds of resources, and, in a sense, a “welcome” mat, to say, Okay, everybody come out. So it's a far different, much more appropriate approach by the LDS Church dealing with this site, along with the various groups.

EB: Yes, that's one view. [BW and EB laughs] And I think that's a very good view, I think that view is mostly correct. However, there are many defendants, who feel that the church's need to purchase and control the land allows them to also control the narrative. And I don't think this should be a big deal for the church. I mean, we're all pretty much in agreement with what happened. And a lot of the descendants are clearly offended that the church owns this land. I spoke to one descendant who was actually a grandson of one of the children that was at the massacre. And he said, "Look, Everett," he says, "imagine that you were the descendant of someone who had been in the Holocaust, and you went to Auschwitz, and you discovered that the museum there was run by the Nazi Party. This is how some of us feel about the church, whose Nauvoo Legion perpetuated this crime, controlling this land." So this is an ongoing issue. Should the church own this land? Should this land become part of a national monument? Should it become a state park? Should it be part of the Forest Service, which is adjacent to the site? These are all questions that are being discussed.

BW: But at this moment, I guess what I would express admiration for, for this organization, for the LDS Church, is, they've searched out, gathered, digitized, made available—millions and millions of dollars have been put into not only real estate, but professional historians, researchers, archaeologists... I mean, whatever the reasons all this happened, they are at least right now doing their very best to make it accessible, and available and to tell the story. I mean, the last 20 years has been a massive campaign to pull the story together and make it known.

EB: That's true, that's exactly true. And not only are the graves being preserved—and in fact, one of them actually needs to be stabilized, and the church is putting quite a bit of resources into that. But because the lands around it, around these graves and around the attack site, have been purchased, and are no longer being grazed upon, the land is returning to what it looked like in 1857. Grasses are growing up again, where there had been some erosion. There's a potential for removing or undergrounding a power line; some of the old cattle tanks can be removed. So it's not just the features, the graves, that are being preserved by the LDS Church, but also the landscape itself, including the old road. It's much broader. And if the grave was completely undisturbed, and you were standing there, with a pole barn full of tractors right next to it, it wouldn't be the same, it wouldn't have the same feeling.

BW: It really is that broader landscape altogether that needs to be managed and preserved.

EB: Exactly, exactly. And particularly where the men and boys grave and massacre site is, you can stand there, and with the exception of this one small power line, you can imagine you were in 1857. In fact, the ancient juniper tree where we think the militia stopped and said, "Okay, men, do your duty," and they shot them, is still there. That tree is right there. It's less than 50 yards from the grave. And so it's a really fantastic landscape, and kudos to the church for not just their historical but their environmental, going forward, preserving the landscape.

BW: Everett, this is a remarkable story. It's a story that is constantly being reassessed, and I urge all of those who are listening today, to go to our show notes. Everett Bassett is also pursuing some articles, some works that we hope you will see with his name as an author [on them], very soon. Can you describe some of these things that are coming up or that you're working on?

EB: Well, I have one article coming out in Historic Archaeology, which talks about, basically, how we found these graves, what we call tumuli, and how we went about them, and maps and so forth. I am also doing some research on environmental changes in the valley, in the Mountain Meadows. I've also located the Jacob Hamblin Ranch, where the children were taken. I've identified two old Adobe mills, a forge, an adobe pool, which are very interesting. And that will be published. 

BW: That's been mislocated as well in the past.

EB: A lot of people think he lived at what was later called the town of Hamblin. He didn't, it was some distance away. Hamblin was a lot of things. He's a big hero in the Mormon Church. He was a missionary to the Indians. He was also a very savvy businessman. And he built his ranch at the junction of the two major trails in southwestern Utah, where they all came together. Everyone who came through southwestern Utah, had to stop at his ranch. So that's something coming up. Now, in addition, this is an ongoing story, it's going forward. Dr. Shannon Novak and myself, are considering perhaps a book together in the future that will bring together a lot of these different issues. 

BW: And her book is also listed in our recommended readings.

EB: Yes. Now her work is very interesting, because while everyone else has been doing work that is kind of Utah-centric, she's actually gone back to Arkansas and figured out where these people came from, who they were. Of course she analyzed some skeletons that came out earlier. So she talks about their diet and their health. And she's become really good friends with the descendants, and understands their concerns. And it's a very different book than some of the other ones.

BW: Everett, thank you. Today's guest has been historical archaeologist Everett Bassett, and our topic has been his discovery of the burial sites there at the Mountain Meadows. If you want to read more, the show notes will describe this. Please go to community.utah.gov then “Speak Your Piece.” Thank you so much for joining today in this fascinating discussion. Everett Bassett, we so much appreciate the work you've done on the Mountain Meadows Massacre site, and we hope to have you again. There are so many other topics that you have such a mastery of that I'd like to have you back. So thank you.

EB: Thank you, Brad.

BW: Speak Your Piece is a podcast recorded and engineered at the Studio Underground, here in Salt Lake City. I thank my sound engineer and post production editor Connor Sorenson, from  Studio Underground. Special thanks also is offered to Spencer Stokes, president of Stokes Strategies, who owns Studio Underground. The past is never truly in the past. It's all around us. It informs us, it speaks both to our shared and to our separate identities. Speak Your Piece is a podcast for historians, archaeologists, and anyone who can help us understand better the great story of Utah. If there's one place, one podcast, to get your Utah history fix, we hope “This Is the Place.” We hope you'll tune in again. Thanks so much for listening.