Gendering the Memory of the Haun’s Mill Massacre

By March 27, 2009

So, I am more than a little embarrassed that almost all of Women’s History month has passed and the JI has not published even one post on women and Mormonism. I was hoping to put together a more analytical post on how gender shaped some of the early Mormon narratives and poems written after the expulsion from Missouri, but that’s a project that will have to wait for now. But here is an Eliza R. Snow¬†poem that describes the Haun’s Mill massacre. How does Snow use gender to shape the memory of the massacre?

For the Times and Seasons.

THE SLAUGHTER ON SHOAL CREEK,

CALDWELL COUNTY MISSOURI.

[BY MISS ELIZA R. SNOW.]

Here, in a land that freemen call their home,

Far from the influence of papal Rome;

Yes, in a “mild and tolerating age”

The saint have fall’n beneath the barb’rous rage

Of men inspired, by that misjudging hate,

Which ignorance and prejudice create;

ll-fated men-whose minds would hardly grace

The most ferocious of the brutal race:-

Men without hearts-else, would their bosoms bleed

At the commission of so foul a deed

As that, when they, at Shoal Creek, in Caldwell,

Upon an unresisting people fell;

Whose only crime, was, DARING TO PROFESS

THE ETERNAL PRINCIPLES OF RIGHTEOUSNESS.

Twas not enough for that unfeeling crew,

To murder men: they shot them through and through?

Frantic with rage; they pour’d their moulted lead.

For mercies claim, which heav’n delights to hear

Profusely on the dying and the dead;

Fell disregarded on relentless ears;

Long o’er the scene, of that unhappy eve

Will the lone widow-and the orphan grieve

Their savage foes, with greedy av’rice fir’d;

Plunder’d their murder’d victims, and retir’d;

And at the shadowy close of parting day,

In slaughter’d heaps, husbands and fathers lay;

There lay the dead and there the dying ones

The air reverberating with their groans;

Night’s sable sadness mingling with the sound

Spread a terriffic hideousness around;

Ye wives and mothers; think of women then

Left in a group of dead, and dying men,

Her hopes were blasted-all her prospects riv’n

Save one; she trusted in the God of heav’n,

Long, for the dead, her widow’d heart will crave

A last kind office-yes, A DECENT GRAVE!

Description fails; Tho’ language is too mean

To paint the horrors of that dreadful scene,

All things are present to His searching eye

Whose ears are open to the ravens’ cry.

Times and Seasons, December 1839, 32.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins From the Archives Gender


Comments

  1. Fairly typical views of the period, no? Ann Douglas argues that the central place of women at death and the rise of evangelical victorian sentimentalism was in part a bid for power, but I suspect that her analysis over-exceptionalizes this period. It’s hard to find a culture where women aren’t a central trope of bereavement and the care of the dead.

    I have been impressed, though, in the earliest Mormon documents, just how robust the “Victorian” worldview was in its antecedents. The notion that the victorian period is something new a few decades later is clearly wrong.

    There are some fascinating epidemiological observations here, too, I think. Women die prematurely in childbirth, while men die of falling off things and killing each other. (they die fairly equally of the dumb luck of cancer and infection).

    Thanks for reminding us of Women’s History month.

    Comment by smb — March 27, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

  2. I agree with smb that this is fairly typical proto-Victorian material. The anti-Catholic jab in line two is also very typical.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 27, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

  3. Thanks for this, David. I wish I had more to add, but smb and SC covered what came to my mind. (or that statement could just be a cover for my not knowing enough to say anything)

    Comment by Ben — March 27, 2009 @ 5:14 pm

  4. It may only be residual Utah War thinking from having just read SC’s post, but this poem reminds me of the one Eliza wrote during the Utah War to the women with the army at Bridger — an “is this really what you want your men to do?” kind of thing, a way of appealing to the nobler side of women to control the baser side of their men.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — March 27, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

  5. This is really dreadful. Tastes have certainly changed.

    Comment by Anonymous — March 27, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

  6. Interesting post, David.

    Anonymous, what the hell are you talking about?

    Comment by Christopher — March 27, 2009 @ 7:47 pm

  7. I’ve read this over and over a number of times, and I’m afraid we are imposing our modern language-gender awareness beyond what Eliza Snow intended there. In other words, some of her references are in the spirit of “mankind” meaning “humankind” and the like. And in those instances where Eliza is clearly singling out the predominance of women and orphans left standing after the massacre, it is a reflection of actual history of the event.

    Only four or five able-bodied men were left or available on October 31, 1838 to carry the bodies to the well. The plea for a decent grave was no more Eliza’s feminizing of the tragic sentiments, than relating what actually predominated at the scene. Most of the male survivors deliberately stayed away from the mill for days afterward, fearing that the returning mob would kill them (but knowing the mob would not kill the surviving women).

    I’m all for sentimental observance of the event, however (to prove which, I’ll lay myself out vulnerably here for a moment to offer my own schmaltzy reflections) . . .

    Amanda Smith closed her eyes. She strove to quiet the sounds in her head of guns and confused yelling, of bellowing cattle, screaming children. Hiding on her knees inside a tiny temple of corn stalks, she could pray here for a few minutes, whatever the mob might say. Strange to think that those men were back at the house, carrying wood and water for the women, even as they continued to plunder the mill. They would not bother her child, resting quietly on a bed, face-down. They had shot away half of his little butt, it seemed, after he tried to hide in Jim Houston’s blacksmith shop, but a voice had instructed Amanda how to cleanse the wound and dress it, telling her the exact details and substances required. Her husband Warren’s body, on the other hand, was now rotting with more than a dozen others in Jake Myers’ well. When Father Myers had reached gently for the remains of her other boy Sardius, she had screamed at first, and could not let him go to the mass grave until the last.

    In a temple of corn, the young widow communes alone with forces which some can never understand. She gathers her power and marshals her faith. She shall be sustained, so long as her days may require. Alma will walk again. One day, far from here, she will point him out to younger children of Zion, and let them know there is a God. But now there is work waiting at the house, and much suffering to do. Amanda peeks between the stalks and crawls out achingly, her skirt catching on everything around. It is not easy to face reality so soon. As she begins her anguished walk back, the voice returns. It speaks as audibly as if Warren and Sardius were by her side, softly chanting the familiar lines . . .

    The soul that on Jesus hath lean’d for repose,
    I will not, I cannot desert to his foes:
    That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
    I’ll never?no, never, no never forsake!

    This vignette is not fiction, and the Haun’s Mill massacre of October 30, 1838 in western Missouri remains the “9/11” of Mormon history in terms of psychological focus of the sufferings of early Latter-day Saints. The inescapable fact that American citizens could descend upon a peaceful settlement of neighbors, and without immediate provocation coolly slaughter men and young boys trapped in a small building – over no greater differences than politics, land and a little religion – caught the nation by surprise. Previously amused or dismissive editors who had theretofore offered only superficial notices of “Mormonites” in the national news suddenly turned to report the Saints’ plight. Indignation meetings were held among Protestants as far away as New England to draw up petitions censuring the State of Missouri for allowing such atrocities to occur. In general terms, American newspapers would not seriously criticize the Mormons again until John C. Bennett’s articles about polygamy appeared in 1842. The events at Haun’s Mill, Caldwell County, Missouri thus stand as both watershed and symbol in the grand Mormon psyche of persecution.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — March 27, 2009 @ 8:23 pm

  8. One which we then re-enacted.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 27, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

  9. Oh, puh-leze, SC!

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — March 27, 2009 @ 9:04 pm

  10. Yikes Ardis! That wasn’t meant as a SL Trib comments section insult to the “morgbots.” I didn’t mean to touch a nerve. As a descendant of a Haun’s Mill victim, I have always been interested in the ways in which that event has been used to construct identity. I think that the way we have traditionally approached both events says a great deal about the role of emplotment and the value-laden contextualization of narrative that shapes community memory.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 27, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

  11. Thanks all for the comments. I find the poem worth highlighting for several reasons. First, it was written by a woman at a time when few women were participating in Mormon public discourse. Second, Snow addresses her poem specifically to women, another rarity among early persecution narratives and poems. And third, Snow chooses to allow women equal space in her representation, rather than simply focusing on the male martyrs, which I agree with sam is in part a bid for power. When women appeared in other early poems and narratives, they usually were there as 1) rape victims 2) simply grieving wives or 3) victims with bloody footprints. But in this poem, and in the Amanda Barnes Smith narratives, women are highlighted not only as grieving widows, but also for their strength and trust in the God in Heaven, and are therefore held up as worthy of emulation.

    Comment by David G. — March 27, 2009 @ 9:41 pm

  12. See David, you should have included that with the original post. Then we could have agreed with you and looked smart. Seriously though, very nice parsing. Within the context of early Mormon persecution narratives, this does seem to widen the scope in terms of the identity of women. I guess I’m surprised at the degree to which it incorporates a tone that was already ascendant in the broader culture.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 27, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

  13. #10, I’m with you.
    More broadly, though, wives and mothers rhetoric is not infrequently used to witness the premature death of men. I’m curious whether any of them made connections between this model of bereaved women as power figures and the witnesses that would finally force God to annihilate the wicked in retaliation for the death of martyrs, a Mormon appropriation and modification of Rev 6: esp. 9.

    Comment by smb — March 27, 2009 @ 9:59 pm

  14. That is interesting, sam. I don’t recall any poems or narratives that specifically place widows in a Rev. 6 context, crying out to God to bring vengeance upon the wicked, but then again, when I was researching my thesis I really wasn’t thinking in a gendered vein, so it’s certainly possible that there are instances of that.

    Comment by David G. — March 27, 2009 @ 10:14 pm

  15. Sorry, SC, that was ruder of me than I meant it to be. It’s just such an easy thing to say, and … well, you understand why it touched a nerve. Sorry.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — March 28, 2009 @ 7:22 am


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