House of Mourning

A Biocultural History of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

On September 11, 1857, some 120 men, women, and children from the Arkansas hills were murdered in the remote desert valley of Mountain Meadows, Utah. This notorious massacre was, in fact, a mass execution: having surrendered their weapons, the victims were bludgeoned to death or shot at point-blank range. The perpetrators were local Mormon militiamen whose motives have been fiercely debated for 150 years.

In House of Mourning, Shannon A. Novak goes beyond the question of motive to the question of loss. Who were the victims at Mountain Meadows? How had they settled and raised their families in the American South, and why were they moving west once again? What were they hoping to find or make for themselves at the end of the trail? By integrating archival records and oral histories with the first analysis of skeletal remains from the massacre site, Novak offers a detailed and sensitive portrait of the victims as individuals, family members, cultural beings, and living bodies.

The history of the massacre has often been treated as a morality tale whose chief purpose was to vilify (or to glorify) some collective body. Resisting this tendency to oversimplify the past, Novak explores Mountain Meadows as a busy and dangerous intersection of cultural and material forces in antebellum America. House of Mourning is a bold experiment in a new kind of history, the biocultural analysis of complex events.

Winner of the Society for Historical Archaeology James Deetz Book Award. 

Shanon A. Novak is assistant professor of anthropology in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

Praise and Reviews:

"Shannon Novak shows us the way that bioarchaeology can combine with history to provide a more complete and accurate story of the past—better than either can do by itself. Her research of the history of the Arkansas emigrants and their roots goes well beyond the efforts of most works of this kind"—George W. Gill, professor emeritus of anthropology, University of Wyoming

"By introducing elements of anthropology, geography, and sociology, as well as history, Novak confirms some elements of the historical narrative concerning the Mountain Meadows Massacre while refuting others....House of Mourning will prove to be a valuable addition to the study of the tragic tale of the Mountain Meadows Massacre."—The Journal of Mormon History

"Essential reading for anyone interested in the biocultural dynamics of nineteenth-century pioneers. House of Mourning, in fact, should serve as a model for the fine-grained analysis of forensic study and its historical interpretation."—Journal of Anthropological Research

"One of the most original, stimulating contributions yet published on this morbid subject. An important, creative, and welcome book. It is required reading for those seriously interested in the victims of this extraordinary wartime atrocity."—Western Historical Quarterly


"The deftly and tightly written story is constructed like a Greek tragedy. The victims have an eloquent voice in Shannon A. Novak. I am impresssed by how she connects the history of the bones to the larger events of Mountain Meadows. Much of her research is archival, yielding a study of the Ozarks that gives readers a comprehensive social, economic, cultural picture of the region from which the emigrants embarked....Novak's ability to make her voice that of the victim's honors their memory."—The Journal of American History

"Well documented and well researched. Novak presents her story and her data in a scholarly yet engaging style. The massacre at Mountain Meadows is a dark moment in Utah's past. Reading about it is difficult; understanding it is more difficult. Novak brings a unique data set, a different perspective, and, I believe, useful insight into this tragedy."—BYU Studies