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For decades, site markers left out who committed Utah's Mountain Meadows Massacre

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Now we bring you a story about a site in southwest Utah that took 150 years to tell the truth. It's part of our series, "Off The Mark," about the nation's fascinating and sometimes completely wrong historical markers. The Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857 is one of the worst mass killings in American history. But the signage of the site did not say who was responsible for the bloodshed. David Condos of Member Station KUER reports the evolution of the site's markers illustrates how Utah is reckoning with a dark part of its past.

DAVID CONDOS, BYLINE: Mountain Meadows was an oasis, a lush green valley on the doorstep of the Mojave Desert. But one September day in 1857, this peaceful place was thrown into unthinkable violence.

RICHARD TURLEY: If you can imagine small children going to the legs of their mothers looking for protection, gunfire, smoke, screams.

CONDOS: Richard Turley is a historian, retired from working for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He's spent more than three decades researching the massacre, which he calls the worst event in the church's history.

TURLEY: Unless you understand the horror of what happened, you don't understand the gravity of what happened.

CONDOS: A group of families from Arkansas were passing through Utah in a wagon train bound for California. Tensions in the territory were already running high, and historians believe a combination of paranoia and misinformation led residents to believe the wagon train was a threat. Dozens of Mormon settlers attacked the travelers, murdering more than 100 men, women, and children at close range.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) It was on the Mountain Meadows...

CONDOS: The tale of the attack spread far and wide in the nation's newspapers. It even inspired a folk song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC).

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: ...And Utah bears the blame.

CONDOS: But for well over a century, that wasn't the story historical markers told here. The first memorial went up just two years after the massacre, built by the U.S. military. It said nothing about who the killers were. In the 1930s, local residents put up a new plaque, but it blamed the attack on just one settler and members of the Paiute Indian tribe. And that's the way it was remembered here for decades. That made Native Americans and descendants of the victims' families angry. One of those descendants is Phil Bolinger of Arkansas. Around 25 years ago when he began reaching out to people in Utah about adding more detailed markers, they told him that wouldn't be in the best interest of the Mormon Church.

PHIL BOLINGER: And we're like, well, you know, we realize it's not in the best interest of y'all, but that's not what this is about. We're trying to fix all of your lies and your deceit.

CONDOS: Historian Barbara Jones Brown co-authored a book on the massacre's aftermath with Turley. She says, reconciliations like this often don't follow a straight line. But...

BARBARA JONES BROWN: Unless we're able to engage with the trying, painful parts of our history, we can never truly heal and move on.

CONDOS: And slowly, that's happening. Since 2011, descendants have collaborated with the Church to add more than 20 new markers that tell a fuller story.

TURLEY: So we are now at the memorial to the men and boys.

CONDOS: Down in the valley, Turley stops at one of those recent additions.

TURLEY: The text reads, (reading) never to be forgotten, in memory of the emigrant...

CONDOS: He calls this marker a turning point - the first to finally tell the truth about who's to blame.

TURLEY: (Reading) Their lives were taken prematurely and wrongly by Mormon militiamen in one of the most tragic episodes in Western American history.

CONDOS: He says, getting the story right on the markers isn't just about preserving the past. It's about learning from it.

TURLEY: I am confident that those who carried out the massacre could not have imagined themselves doing something so horrific, and yet they did it. Today, we're in a period of increasing polarization, and most of us can never imagine being involved in such group violence. And yet, history teaches us that as people begin to vilify one another, the ultimate result, if not checked, is violence.

CONDOS: And for everyone with a connection to this massacre, the work of reconciliation continues, no matter how long or how many historic markers it takes.

For NPR News, I'm David Condos in Washington County, Utah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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