SALT LAKE CITY — The southern Utah site of a wagon train massacre was dedicated Sunday as a national historic landmark 154 years to the day after the tragedy occurred.
About 350 people watched as Zion National Park Superintendent Jock Whitworth presented plaques to mark the Mountain Meadows Massacre Historic Site 30 miles north of St. George.
The 760-acre site is where 120 members of an Arkansas wagon train were shot and killed by a Mormon militia on Sept. 11, 1857. The Baker-Fancher wagon train stopped in the meadows on its way to California when it was attacked.
Government officials, church leaders and descendants of the pioneers spoke at the dedication ceremony, which took place under sunny skies two months after the U.S. Interior Department upgraded the site's status to a historic landmark.
Whitworth hailed the designation, saying it represents a "reconciliation" among different groups involved. Historic landmarks have "exceptional value and quality" in teaching Americans about their past, he added.
"Each national historic landmark is an indispensable chapter in our national story," he told the crowd. "They include the shining episodes, but they also include the darkest and most difficult, even the one that occurred here 154 years ago today."
The presidents of the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation, Mountain Meadows Association and Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants led a prayer and then read the names of each victim and survivor of the wagon train.
The descendant organizations worked for nearly a decade to elevate the meadows to historic landmark status. In 2008, the Mormon church, whose leaders in the past had downplayed the faith's role in the massacre, took the lead in pushing for the landmark designation, filing the application with the parks service.
Leaders of the descendant groups said the designation cements a new, hard-won partnership between them and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that will preserve the massacre story far into the future.
"It's very exciting and very comforting because there was a time when it (landmark designation) was not popular with the folks out here," Phil Bolinger, the Hindsville, Ark., president of the Mountain Meadows Massacre Foundation, told The Associated Press on Sunday.
Bolinger, a collateral descendant of nearly 40 of the victims in the wagon train, said there are few direct descendants because so few members of the emigrant party survived.
"Our ancestors were in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said. "Very few families (in the wagon train) were fortunate enough to have survivors."
Seventeen young children survived and were taken into Mormon homes. The children were later returned to relatives in the southeast.
Descendants also fought for years to wrestle an apology for the massacre from the Mormon church, which for decades denied or downplayed the faith's role in it, with explanations that church leaders did not have any advance knowledge of the attack.
No official apology has ever come, but a church official in 2007 expressed "regret" for the Mountain Meadows event.
On Sunday, the church's historian Marlin K. Jensen said he feels personally sorry for the events at the meadows and believes that sentiment is shared by current church leadership. Jensen also said there are two distinct parts to the meadows history — the massacre itself and the story of how those affected by it have worked together in its aftermath.
"This too is a complex narrative. In part, it documents the quest of historians in the intervening years to uncover the truth about the massacre. That truth, as it has emerged, has been greatly unsettling and a source of much reflection and sadness on the part of today's Church leaders and members," Jensen said. "The remarkable progress made in preserving Mountain Meadows as a sacred memorial to the massacre victims and, in according those victims the recognition they deserve, is also a vital part of this history."
The Mountain Meadows site has long been on the National Register of Historic Places, but landmark status will elevate the massacre story, which has often been left out of histories of the western migration of pioneers, to a new place in American history.
The landmark site includes a rock cairn monument at the site where the five-day siege began, a hillside memorial inscribed with the names of the known dead and an area known as the upper graves to the north. The site is part of a 2,500-acre rolling green valley, which includes several known mass grave sites.
Much of the land is privately owned by the church and some is held by the U.S. Forest Service.
© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.