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Correction: On Page A1 of Friday's paper, a photo of a femur with a bullet wound was modified to expand the background color at the bottom of the image, which should have been labeled as a photo illustration.
State archaeologists have unearthed a 150-year-old crime scene that could shed light on the slaying of seven American Indians in Nephi.
Archaeologists have excavated seven bodies from a mass grave in downtown Nephi. They say the men were the victims of a killing during the Walker War in 1853.
The skeletons, tangled together in a shallow grave, were discovered last month, when a home builder dug into an old ravine, now filled with about 6 feet of sand, to pour the foundation for a new home.
The bodies lay on top of each other - their bones splintered by bullets that hit some in the head and others in the hip or leg - in a grave just 3 feet wide. Archaeologists also found buttons attached to cloth, glass shards and a copper tube that contained what appeared to be a braid of hair.
Ronald J. Rood, assistant state archaeologist, described the discovery as "extremely important" to the history of how early Utah settlers and American Indians interacted during the state's formative years.
"These people have an important story to tell," he said.
Their story goes back more than century to a pair of oxen-drawn wagons traveling to Salt Lake City from Manti with wheat, according to accounts by Springville historian D. Robert Carter.
The wagons paused overnight at Uintah Springs, despite counsel to stop earlier. Isaac Morley, leader of the Manti colony, had urged the four men to wait for a company of horse-drawn wagons en route to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' general conference before venturing into hostile country, the history states.
As feared, the men were attacked and killed on Sept. 30, 1853.
The killing outraged settlers as the men's bodies were carted to Nephi for burial. What happened that following Sunday, Oct. 2, remains of historical dispute.
Some accounts say that a group of Indians came to camp looking for protection and food. Instead, the townspeople rose up against them and killed them "like so many dogs," a state history records.
Another account suggests that the Indians were summoned to town by military commander Maj. George W. Bradley. When ordered to drop their weapons, the men refused. A squabble ensued. One settler was struck with an arrow and the seven Indians were killed.
The killings came as part of a larger conflict between Mormon pioneers and American Indians known as the Walker War. The violence, sparked by pioneer encroachment upon the Utes' hunting and gathering grounds, lasted almost a year with tit-for-tat skirmishes between settlers and Indians. The parties reached a peace settlement in May 1854.
Rood has found nothing to change the history of the Nephi massacre. Rather, he has evidence to suggest that seven men, ages 16 to 25, were killed that day and thrown in a mass grave.
The archaeologist has found a ball of lead inside one man's skull, bullet holes penetrating other bones and a head fracture stained green by a copper trinket that suggests one Indian was killed with blunt force trauma.
Rood said he simply hopes to shed light on that skirmish so many years ago.
"I don't see it as revising history," he said. "I see it as adding another chapter."
Yet the fate of the seven skeletons remains uncertain, Rood said. State law allows American Indian tribes to make claims on their ancestors' bodies only if they are unearthed on public land.
The law gives no such allowance for bones found on private land, like the ones discovered in Nephi. Unless a family link is found, the state retains custody of the bones.
Forrest Cuch, executive director of the state Division of Indian Affairs, said more than 1,500 sets of human remains are boxed in state repositories and universities without any legal provision for returning them to the American Indian community for a proper burial.
Cuch said he will push for change during next year's legislative session. He hopes to expand tribal rights and hasten a repatriation process that now takes from seven months to a year.
Cuch, a member of the Ute tribe, described it as a "top priority" for Utah's tribes who consider it a breach of spiritual law to deny those bodies a proper burial.
"I am an Indian and was raised to have respect for the dead and to understand that there are certain physical laws and spiritual laws," he said. "I don't think we have been honoring the spiritual laws."
Homeowner Kevin Creps, who found the Indians' remains while preparing his foundation, said he wants nothing more than to see the bodies returned to their tribes.
The Nephi man chuckles about the repeated references to the film "Poltergeist II," which features a home built atop a mass grave, and said he won't lose any sleep over it. Instead, he said it would "break [his] heart" if the remains ended up in a box in some state warehouse.
"I want to make sure they are taken care of correctly," he said. "I want to make sure they get back to where they belong with a proper burial and proper funeral service."