An old news article I ran across recently about the accidental unearthing of human remains in Smithfield screams for a followup — albeit three decades later.
The article from the July 2, 1989, edition of the Deseret News appeared under the headline, “Are bones in Smithfield those of Shoshone chief?”
A real grabber, right? And as expected, the online article contained some fascinating details and speculation about the discovery of a partial skeleton by a crew installing sewer pipe along Smithfield Canyon Road. But there were no answers at that time, and nowhere online could I find a subsequent article about what came of the remains or the mystery.
According to the article, USU anthropologist Carol Loveland was called in to examine the remains. At the same time, local historian A.J. Simmonds was offering some pretty convincing anecdotal evidence that the crew might have happened upon the skeleton of a Shoshone chief named Pagunap, who played a storied role in Cache Valley history.
As various historical accounts tell it, the chief was camped east of Smithfield on July 23, 1860, when he was captured by three white settlers on suspicion of stealing a pony. In an attempt to escape, aided by five fellow Shoshone, the chief was shot and killed. Then while fleeing the area, the small band of his companions reportedly took revenge by killing three other settlers.
It turned out this would be one of a number of incidents leading to the summoning of a U.S. Cavalry detachment to Cache Valley in January of 1863, a fateful turn of events that led to the Bear River Massacre northwest of Preston.
An historic marker outside the Smithfield tabernacle commemorates the death of one of the settlers and recounts a version of the story.
Simmonds, who was curator of Special Collections at USU and wrote a long-time history column for The Herald Journal, told the D-News that a missing portion of the remains, a jawbone, could have been a tell-tale sign because Pagunap’s jawbone was said to have been discovered in nearby Summit Creek two years after he was killed.
“The jawbone was retrieved by Joseph Watts, a Smithfield resident who displayed it on a peg on his house,” Simmonds was quoted as saying. “History tells us the Indians objected to the chief’s jawbone being displayed, so they attempted to reclaim it. But two women in the house threw the jawbone in the creek, and although it was recovered later, it was buried somewhere and has never been found.”
It’s important to note the 1989 Smithfield discovery predated widespread public sensitivity about Indian burial grounds and remains. That would come soon, however, with passage of both state and federal laws that require any Native American remains and artifacts accidentally unearthed on public land be returned to culturally affiliated tribes.
Carol Loveland was an expert in skeletal analysis, so it made sense that she would be asked to examine the remains. What transpired after that has been difficult to track down — one reason being that the USU anthropologist died about five years after the Smithfield discovery.
I was able to reach her protege and colleague Steven Simms, a retired USU professor now living in Wyoming. He remembered the find but said nothing conclusive ever came out of the examination, and he does not remember what ultimately came of the remains.
“There were so few bones and they were so disturbed by the construction crew that we weren’t able to determine how old the individual was or even if it was a male or female,” he said. “They could be several hundred years old or 1,000 years old, Shoshone or ancestors of the Shoshone. That’s about all we know. … No radiometric dating was done. There was no funding.”
Simms remembers a lot of talk at the time about the remains’ possible origin — not necessarily from A.J. Simmonds but from Smithfield locals. He discounted it as “folklore.”
“A couple of people in the neighborhood immediately started making up stories,” Simms recalled. “Carol had to laugh. The lady across the street said ‘Oh, I see you found our little Lamanite.’ She’d get comments like that.”
Simms said one factor suggesting the bones were not Pagunap’s is that the sewer pipe excavation was about 100 yards away from Summit Creek, where the jawbone washed up, and it’s unlikely the course of the creek had shifted much since the 1860s since it’s bordered by several old homes.
“The beautiful thing about science is that one has to be comfortable with ambiguity, inconclusiveness, and I think one of the reasons people make up these stories is they want some kind of conclusiveness,” he said. “My view as a scientist is if they need conclusiveness, then they can just get their beliefs all set up and then just go with it, believe whatever they want to believe, but in science the answer is often, ‘We don’t know.’”
Around the same time as the Smithfield discovery, Loveland did a lot of work with the state of Utah analyzing and cataloguing indigenous remains exposed by flooding around the Great Salt Lake. Simms said the Smithfield bones might have ended up with those remains and been handed over to tribal leaders.
Patty Timbimboo Madsen, who serves as a history specialist for the Northwest Band of the Shoshone, said she has no memory of the Smitfiled find, but what’s more, a good many of the Salt Lake remains are still in the state’s possession because it has not been conclusively established the individuals were historical ancestors of the Shoshone.
“That’s kind of what’s holding those remains,” Madsen said. “Our request to the state was that no invasive examinations or cutting be made on any of those bones that they have. To do their analysis, it wasn’t necessary. Our native people are of the belief that we are the caretakers of the remains, and it doesn’t matter what tribe they came from, they need to be laid to rest instead of being put in a vault somewhere.”
I decided to write this column before exhausting all attempts to find out the fate of the Smithfield bones. I have a call into the Utah Department of Anthropology, and they could have a record of everything handled by Carol Loveland. There are also some boxes containing Loveland’s files stored somewhere in the USU anthropology department — which Simms insisted be saved after her death — and the secretary in the department is going to make an effort to locate those boxes for me.
If something turns up, I’ll let you know.