The remains of seven American Indians unearthed by a homebuilder show several were shot point-blank in the head by Mormon settlers seeking revenge during a period of pitched violence in 1853, say scientists who plan to release their findings today.
The bones were discovered by contractors digging in Nephi, about 70 miles south of Salt Lake City, last summer for a house that now stands over the site.
The victims, all males about 13 to 35 years old, are believed to have been Goshute Indians who were unwitting casualties of the Walker War, a nearly yearlong clash between Mormons and other Indian tribes under the leadership of Ute Chief Wakara.
"These Indians just happened to be in the wrong place," said Ron Rood, an assistant state archaeologist who retrieved the bones, scraps of clothing, copper ornaments and a lead bullet from inside a skull.
By one account, the Oct. 2, 1853, killings were in retaliation for the ambush a day before of four Manti farmers hauling wheat to Salt Lake City by oxen. That attack occurred at Fountain Green, about halfway between Manti and Nephi.
Manti is about 30 miles southeast of Nephi, a gateway to the Wasatch Front.
The massacre occurred during a summer and fall of bloody conflict between Mormon settlers fanning out from the Salt Lake Valley and raiding tribes. "There were a whole series of tit-for-tat killings," he said.
Rood said his findings refute an account by a Mormon militia regiment that the Indians approached Nephi refusing to drop their weapons and attacked first, hitting a settler with an arrow.
"A discovery like this allows the victims to tell their story," Utah state archaeologist Kevin Jones said.
Four of the victims were shot in the head. All of the victims showed defensive wounds. The hands of one Indian were tied behind his back. Several showed evidence of blunt-force trauma.
Their bodies were heaped into a shallow grave about 3 feet wide, Rood said.
The grave was covered by a cedar plank and several feet of sediment from flash floods over the years. By last August, it yielded to heavy equipment digging a hole for a foundation. Contractors stopped the excavation to call police and a medical examiner.
The event had been recorded in historical accounts as involving Isaac Morley, a leader of 225 settlers sent to Nephi by Brigham Young, the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"We have the personal journals of two women who witnessed this event and described it as a heinous act of murder," said Rood. "This is a great example of archaeology and history coming together."
Rood teamed up with Derinna Kopp, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Utah.
Their investigation will be the topic of a lecture tonight at a conference of the Utah Statewide Archaeological Society at Utah Valley State College in Orem. The lecture will be at 8 p.m. at the McKay Events Center.
Springville, Utah, historian D. Robert Carter plans to set the stage for Rood with an overview of settler and Indian conflict in Utah Valley.