This is cross-posted at Times and Seasons.
In April 2005, I spent two weeks on assignment for the Joseph Smith Papers Project in Missouri and Illinois, visiting court houses and archives searching for documents pertaining to early Mormon history. On the second evening of my stay in northwestern Missouri, I drove down a lonely dirt road to a desolate place that had significant meaning for me as a Latter-day Saint. When I arrived, I found only a small creek surrounded by trees, grass, mud, and a small plaque that identified the site of the Haun’s Mill Massacre, where Missouri vigilantes murdered 17 Mormon men and boys in October 1838. As I looked over the site, I felt that I was standing on hallowed ground. I would not know until later that among the 17 was George S. Richards, the 16-year-old son of my ancestor, Phineas Richards. Like George, the lives and identities of most of the 17 have unfortunately been forgotten, but their deaths have not been. Since 1838 the Haun’s Mill Massacre has become a symbol in Mormon collective memory of the violent persecutions suffered by the Latter-day Saints in the 1830s and 1840s and the place of the massacre has been a site of pilgrimage for Mormons of all stripes since the late nineteenth century.
The massacre is an example of how “atrocities render places religiously charged, indigestible in their toxicity…where the wounds of the past nevertheless still resonate.”Scholars of religion Oren Stier and Shawn Landres define the relationship between religious violence, place, and memory “as a cultural product emerging from the negotiation and contestation of meaning within religious frameworks at specific sites marked by violent histories.” In the decades following the massacre, it’s meaning has been negotiated and contested as Latter-day Saints have continued to define themselves in relation to the violence of their past.
Mormons for the most part have described the 17 victims as martyrs, murdered for the simple reason that they were Latter-day Saints. Phineas Richards, for example, wrote to comfort his wife Wealthy on January 7, 1839, not long after his son George’s death. Phineas assured her that “George is gone an early martyr to the cause of Zion <strong in the faith>, (through Babylon’s Rage.) Lay not this thing too much at heart, but trust in Christ alone, and realize that God is right.”Joseph Smith himself only spoke a few times specifically about the victims at Haun’s Mill. To my knowledge, he never specifically referred to them as martyrs, but he usually spoke favorably of them. While in Liberty Jail, Joseph Smith wrote to the Latter-day Saints and mentioned those murdered at Haun’s Mill in the same sentence with David Patten (who is referred to as a martyr) and others “who were called to suffer without cause.”Early Latter-day Saint Benjamin Andrews penned one of the most eloquent descriptions of how early Mormons saw and interpreted the meaning of Haun’s Mill in 1844:
We can never forget the injuries done us in Missouri. They are ever present to our minds. We feel it impossible to efface them from our memories. We can never forget the blood of our brethren, so wantonly lavished to satisfy the infernal thirsts of men, as heinous to the righteous, as the fiends of hell. Were we to forget them, heaven itself would upbraid us. The immortal shades of our martyred brethren would spurn us from their presence. Their cries with those seen under the altar of God, as viewed by the ancient prophet, would ascend to the throne of Jehovah against us. We swear by the precious memory of the illustrious dead—the fathers of our independence, that we will remember them. We will do all in our power to mete out justice to those who without the least cause have murdered our friends.
Andrews argued that Mormons had a religious and communal responsibility to remember those that had died in Missouri, concluding that forgetting those that died would bring upon living Latter-day Saints the vengeance described in Revelation 6:9-11.
This martyrological narrative, in my view, has dominated images that subsequent generations of Latter-day Saints have had of the Haun’s Mill Massacre. However, another narrative has circulated in Mormon circles since at least the early 1840s that subverts and contests the notion that the 17 victims should be remembered as martyrs. As mentioned, Joseph Smith usually spoke favorably of those that died at Haun’s Mill, but in August 1842 he gave a sermon on the importance of heeding counsel. Smith concluded that “[u]p to this day God had given him wisdom to save the people who took council. None had ever been killed who abode by his council. At Hauns Mill the brethren went contrary to his council, if they had not there lives would have been spared.” This narrative suggests that the Haun’s Mill victims should be remembered not as martyrs but as unfortunate individuals that needlessly lost their lives due to terrible consequences resulting from not listening to sound counsel.
These two narratives continue today to wrestle for control over the memory of Haun’s Mill. Recently, I asked a close friend from Mexico if he had ever heard the second narrative, and he assured me that the Mexican Latter-day Saints that know about Haun’s Mill consider the victims martyrs. Others that I have talked to have difficulty using the descriptor martyr, but continue to see in Haun’s Mill a great example of faith and sacrifice among the early Latter-day Saints. I have also heard Latter-day Saints use the second narrative to argue that those at Haun’s Mill cannot be martyrs, because they were disobedient. Some of these individuals argue from the position that victimizing our past is at root divisive and ultimately serves as a barrier between ourselves as Latter-day Saints and others. Admittedly, my observations of contemporary reactions are anecdotal. I’m interested in knowing what the readers of Times and Seasons have to say about the place of the Haun’s Mill Massacre in Latter-day Saint memory. More broadly, what role should our sites of martyrdom play in defining who we are as Latter-day Saints in the contemporary world?
Oren Baruch Stier and J. Shawn Landres, eds., Religion, Violence, Memory, and Place, (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2006), 9-10.
 Ibid., 6.
 Phineas Richards to Wealthy Richards, January 7, 1839, private possession, photocopy in Richards Correspondence, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.
 JS to Edward Partridge, 20 March 1839, in Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith(Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Company and BYU Press, 2002), 439-40.
 Benjamin Andrews, “An Appeal to the People of the State of Maine,” Times and Seasons, January 15, 1844, 405, see also 404.
 Joseph Smith, Journal, 29 August 1842, in Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith, vol. 2, Journals, 1832-1842 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992), 2:445-46.