A preface to a book on the violent incident at Nephi in the 1850s.

Reflections on a premise and presuppositions.

Over 150 years ago, a group of European-Americans, probably Mormon pioneers, encountered a group of Native-Americans, probably of the Ute tribe, on the western slopes of the Wasatch Front Range near the tiny settlement of Nephi in what is now central Utah.

The encounter resulted in the violent deaths of seven Native-American young men whose bodies were hastily flung into a shallow trench scraped in the bottom of a dry ravine.  Boards and dirt were thrown over them.  Over time their remains became buried under several feet of soil washed down the gully.  The remains were brought to light in the summer of 2006 when a backhoe sliced through their grave as part of the excavation of a basement for Nephi’s expanding housing developments.

Typically, contemporary European-Americans would later describe such encounters as “victories” in “battles” fought against “bloodthirsty savages.”  The site of one such encounter with a similar result is commemorated today on maps of Utah as “Battle Creek.”  Curiously, apparently no boasting, celebrating, or commemoration marked the “victory” at Nephi.  Why not?  Had the tables been turned and seven European-Americans had died, a monument would certainly have been erected to memorialize the Nephi “massacre.”  This asymmetry in historical accounting colors all attempts at “objective” reconstructions.

Reports of such incidents are wholly written by the European-Americans. Response to “Indian depredations” was the most common apologetic used, and the subjugation and displacement of the native inhabitants of the region utilizing whatever force was necessary was taken to be appropriate, right, just, and inevitable.

What did happen at Nephi?  When and why did it happen?  What did the event signify to those who were immediately involved?  What does it mean to us today?

These are the questions to be addressed.   They are questions of historical anthropology, a field that hardly existed in its own right a generation ago. Answering such questions means confronting fundamental issues of both history and anthropology. How do we evaluate the veracity of the reports we have?  Who has the right to speak for the Native-Americans? How do we correctly incorporate the information gathered from careful recovery of artifacts and pathological study of the human remains into the social and political milieu of the time? What unique perspectives on the incident can these sciences offer?  Can we ever hope to articulate the meanings behind such violence?

Previous generations of ethnographers and anthropologists rarely felt comfortable deliberately incorporating “history” into the theoretical framework of their work.  As Susan Kellogg has stated, they were content to invoke history either as “preface or introduction” to set their own work into basically a static context, or history as “contrast” to heighten the uniqueness of their own current work, or finally, history as “data bank” to provide reference and examples.

Times have changed.  Cultures are no longer seen as a mere collection or set of essentially inert data whether such be artifactual, ethnographic, textual, or oral, but as ongoing and continuing dynamic processes of social and cultural generation and regeneration.  “Instead of presenting static pictures of societies in an ethnographic present, anthropologists increasingly have sought to describe a dynamically changing world in which groups survive by making decisions, altering strategies, and changing, sometimes consciously and sometimes as an unexpected consequence of previous decisions or actions.”  (Kellogg, page 12.)

In central Utah in 1853, a particular “close encounter” of two groups of culturally alien beings who were both trying desperately to survive in a harsh landscape led to decisions and actions with fatal consequences for one group.  To understand this encounter will require delving into both groups’ historical cultures, their strategies for domestic survival, their mechanisms for coping with dramatic and unanticipated rejoinders to their own actions, and the adaptations each group felt compelled to explore in the face of altercations over land use, exploitation of animal and plant resources, family and social structure and religious practices.

Marshall Sahlins, although speaking of Captain Cook’s encounter with native Hawaiians, captures the essence of the problem confronting any historical anthropology study today, “…to understand what did happen, it would be insufficient to note that certain people acted in certain ways, unless we also know what that signified.  The contingent becomes fully historical only as it is meaningful, only as the personal act or the ecological effect takes on a systematic or positional value in a cultural scheme.” (Sahlins, page 109.)  Later he adds, “…an event is not just a happening in the world; it is a relation between a certain happening and a given symbolic system. … The even is a happening interpreted—and interpretations vary. (Sahlins, page 153.)

The goal of this study of the violence at Nephi is first to recover the full particulars of the encounter.  Secondly, every effort will be made to explicate the relative meaning and significance of the actions of the individuals and groups involved. This will involve interpreting the meaning of events relative to the cultural symbols and categories that each group involved brought to the encounter.  This reciprocal “contextualization” will be attempted despite the obvious fact that the cultural schema of each group was rapidly mutating consequent to the ongoing collision between their fundamentally alien societies.

No claim is made that the results of the study will be final or definitive or even that such an abstraction is possible.  However, the interdisciplinary conjunction of history, anthropology, archaeology, and forensic pathology simultaneously with an extensive process of cultural contextualization is seen as the most appropriate methodology with which to approach understanding.


Cook, Matthew A., “An Historian Among the Anthropologists,” CJH, The Columbia Journal of Historiography, Volume One, Fall 2003.

Kellogg, Susan, “Ten Years of Historical Research and Writing by Anthropologists, 1980-1990,” from Engaging the past:  The Uses of History across the Social Sciences by Eric H. Monkkonen; Duke University Press, 1994.

Sahlins, Marshall, Islands of History, The University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Words! Mere Words! Was there anything so real as words? - Dorian Gray