VAN BUREN, Ark. — Family members have received permission to disinter the remains of Parley Parker Pratt, an early Mormon leader murdered in Arkansas 151 years ago, and move his remains to Utah.
Pratt, an original member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was killed by Hector McLean on May 13, 1857, and buried in a family cemetery plot near Rudy, Ark.
Crawford County Circuit Judge Gary Cottrell said Wednesday that the family can move Pratt's remains to Salt Lake City with just one caveat: Because ground-penetrating radar used 1 1/2 years ago showed three or four people are buried at the site, Cottrell's approval allows only the body believed to be Pratt's to be dug up.
"The problem here is, you'd be asking me to possibly disinter bodies that weren't kin to you," Cottrell told Robert J. Grow, a descendant of Parley P. Pratt and president of the Jared Pratt Family Association (named for the father of Parley and his brother Orson, also an important early LDS leader).
"The question is, are you able to disinter others to which you are not kin? I don't want multiple disinterments," Cottrell said.
Grow, a Salt Lake City lawyer who petitioned the court to move Pratt's remains to Utah, said he thinks they know which body is Pratt's. One of Pratt's dying wishes was for his body to be returned to Utah, Grow said.
Pratt was an early Utah pioneer, as well as an author, entrepreneur and missionary. Parleys Canyon, through which I-80 now runs, was named for him after he created a toll-road alternative into the Salt Lake Valley via that route. He led an important exploratory expedition to southern Utah in 1849, two years after the pioneers settled in the Salt Lake Valley. His descendants include former Massachusetts governor and former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
McLean, a California man, had pursued Pratt across Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas, angry that his estranged wife, Eleanor, had become Pratt's 12th wife.
Records show that after his death, Pratt's body was placed near a large red oak tree on the south end of a private family plot now owned by the LDS Church. While the tree is gone, ground-penetrating radar used by Hager Geo-Science Inc. of Woburn, Mass., showed what appeared to be the tree's roots. It also showed a body nearby that is 18 inches underground.
Compacted soil just 4 feet from the body suggests wagons rolled through, meaning that is the likely location of the old Fayetteville Road. Historical records show Pratt's body was placed close to the road, Grow said.
"We think he's right here," Grow said as he stood in the grassy spot Wednesday afternoon where his great-great-great-grandfather was buried. A granite monument was erected in 1951 to mark the site where Pratt was buried. Grow said it will be maintained at the site.
Archaeologists are expected to exhume the body later this month.
"If it's not Parley, we certainly don't want to move anybody else," Grow told Cottrell. "We believe that's where he is. I think we've accomplished all we can with the science and the history. We've got complex circumstantial evidence."
The other bodies nearby likely are children, according to records.
Pratt's descendants also hope to identify Pratt's body on the basis of stab wounds on chest bones and gunshot wounds, Grow said.
Although some have wondered if Pratt's murder may have contributed to the Mountain Meadows Massacre in September 1857, most historians now discount such a connection, saying the 200 Arkansans who died on the wagon train headed across southern Utah for California were attacked for other reasons, said Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon scholar of Mormon history and professor emerita of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.
"People in Utah were concerned about it, but that it led to the massacre is probably much overstated," Shipps said.
Cottrell seemed fascinated by Grow's sworn testimony about the family's efforts to find Pratt and eventually move his body to Utah.
Historical records show family members began trying to find Pratt's burial site in the 1890s.
The next stop for Grow is to obtain a disinterment permit from the Arkansas Department of Health. Ed Barham, a Health Department spokesman, said it takes a couple of days to issue those permits, which must be obtained by a licensed funeral director. Putnam Funeral Home of Fort Smith is assisting the family with the process.
At the Salt Lake City Cemetery, Pratt's body will go in a family area, where four of his wives are buried. He is to have two wives to his left and two wives to his right, Grow said. "We're here desiring to close a chapter in our family's history," Grow told Cottrell.
"It's been a long time."