A Touchstone of the Past: The Face Wheel from Haun’s Mill

By September 17, 2013

Tiffany T. Bowles offers this installment in the JI’s material culture month. Tiffany is a Curator of Education at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City. A native of Orem, Utah, she received a BA degree in history from BYU and an MA in Historical Administration from Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. She has worked for the National Park Service at Natchez National Historical Park in Natchez, Mississippi, and Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois. In addition, she has worked at the Illinois State Military Museum and volunteered for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

On a quiet fall day in October 1838, Amanda Barnes Smith and her family busily worked to prepare a campsite on the banks of Shoal Creek in the small community of Haun’s Mill, Missouri. After a grueling journey from Kirtland, Ohio, the Smiths were relieved at the prospect of settling near others of their Latter-day Saint faith on the unfamiliar frontier.

Without warning, the contentment of the autumn afternoon was broken by the sounds of a fast approaching mob. The men of the settlement gathered in a small blacksmith shop, prepared to defend themselves and their families. Amanda Smith and two of her children “escaped across the millpond on a slab-walk,” and sought safety in “some bottom land” near the creek [1]. When the firing ceased, Amanda returned to the blacksmith shop to find her husband and one of her sons among the 17 dead.

In Latter-day Saint memory, the brutality of the massacre at Haun’s Mill epitomizes decades of persecution endured by early members of the Church. Some Latter-day Saints today commemorate and try to make sense of this defining event in Church history by looking to the power of place and visiting the location of the massacre. A visit to this site today requires a long, bumpy drive on dirt and gravel roads (a hazardous journey after a rainstorm). The site of the massacre is an open field along a shallow creek bed. The only indication of the violent events that occurred at this location is a small sign detailing the events of October 30, 1838.

Others might look to the power of objects in making sense of the Haun’s Mill tragedy. Objects have the unique ability to provide a tangible connection to the past and allow us to transform “experience into substance” [2]. Steven Lubar and Kathleen Kenrick, Curators at the National Museum of American History, describe artifacts as “the touchstones that bring memories and meanings to life” [3]. Unfortunately, since the mill on Shoal Creek was torn down in 1845, tangible ties to Haun’s Mill are rare, though interest in objects related to the massacre has spanned two centuries.

In September 1888, Church historian Andrew Jenson and colleagues Edward Stevenson and Joseph S. Black embarked on a journey to visit Church history sites across the country. At Haun’s Mill, they noted a “remnant of the old mill dam,” including “five large pieces of timber left in the middle of the creek.” They mentioned standing “upon a solid ledge of rock,” where the milldam was originally located. The group then searched for the well where those murdered in the attack had been hastily buried. The site was marked “by an old millstone, formerly belonging to Jacob Haun’s mill” [4].

Latter-day Saint photographer George Edward Anderson mentioned another millstone when he visited Haun’s Mill in May 1907. He wrote of crossing the creek and finding “one of the old millstones, which we worked out of the ground and [then moved it] down to the edge of the creek and made two or three negatives of it, putting an inscription on one side” [5]. This particular stone was later moved to a city park in Breckenridge, Missouri [6].

Just two months after George Edward Anderson’s visit to Haun’s Mill, Latter-day Saint Charles White took a seven-day trip across the state of Missouri. Along the way, he gathered “relics” at each of the sites, hoping to establish a tangible connection not only to the various locations, but to the events that transpired there. At Haun’s Mill, White recorded that he waded out into Shoal Creek and broke several pieces off of an original millstone “as a relic of the blackest crime that was ever committed in our fair country” [7].

The interest in objects related to the Haun’s Mill Massacre continued into the late 20th century, when “Cowboy” Bill Howell, a resident of the area, discovered a piece of cast iron protruding from the bank of Shoal Creek. He assumed that he had found “the metal frame for half of the waterwheel from the old mill,” and “hoped that someday he might run upon the matching other half so he could reconstruct the wheel” [8]. In April 1986, Latter-day Saint Institute of Religion instructors Newell R. Kitchen and John L. Fowles asked Cowboy Bill if he would be interested in selling the metal wheel fragment to them, which he did for $25. Kitchen and Fowles later determined that the cast iron artifact was not a wheel frame, but was actually a “face wheel,” or a gear wheel that transferred power from the waterwheel to the rest of the mill’s machinery [9]. On August 11, 1986, the men delivered the face wheel to the LDS Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, where the artifact is now displayed as the lone representative of one of the most tragic events in Church history [10].

How can this rusty piece of cast iron connect us to the events of October 30, 1838? The basic function of this face wheel gives us insight into the type of work that was done at the mill on Shoal Creek. Face wheels of this kind were common in gristmills of the time period, and gristmills were used to grind grain into flour. The probability that the mill at the Haun’s Mill settlement was a gristmill is substantiated by a statement from Latter-day Saint Ellis Eamut who recorded that non-Mormon residents of the area were initially friendly with the Saints, using “[our] mill[s] for grinding” [11]. Interestingly, Eamut mentions that they also used the mill for ‘sawing,” indicating that the mill functioned as both a gristmill and a sawmill. A study of nineteenth century mills in South Carolina states that “a saw mill could often be found at the site of a grist mill. The two could be powered by the same wheel or turbine by using different gearing” [12].

In addition to increasing our understanding of the type of work done at the mill, the face wheel artifact can also connect us to the personal stories of Haun’s Mill. Latter-day Saint convert and successful millwright Jacob Myers from Richland County, Ohio, constructed the original mill on Shoal Creek in 1836. Myers later sold the mill to Jacob Haun, and Myers’ son, Jacob Myers Jr., helped Haun operate the mill. On the day of the 1838 attack at Haun’s Mill, Jacob Myers Jr. was shot through the leg as he attempted to run from the ill-fated blacksmith shop. One of the attackers approached him with a corn cutter, intending to kill him. According to Myers’ sister, “As [the attacker] raised his arm to strike, another one of the mob called out to him and told him if he touched my brother he would shoot him,” for Myers had “ground many a grist for him” [13]. Instead of killing him, the mob carried Myers to his home. His skill as a worker at the mill had saved his life.

The rusty face wheel on display at the Church History Museum serves as a tangible connection to the early Saints, increasing our understanding of their life and times and serving as a reminder of their sacrifices and courage. In a broader sense, this artifact also represents, as a plaque near the original millstone in Breckenridge, Missouri, states, “The perpetual need for greater understanding and tolerance between all peoples” [14].

Original cast iron face wheel from Haun’s Mill on display at the Church History Museum

 George Edward Anderson 1907 photograph of original Haun’s Mill millstone, Courtesy Church Archives


[1] Journal of Amanda Barnes Smith, unpublished typescript, 3.

[2] Marguerite S. Shaffer, See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), 265.

[3] Steven Lubar and Kathleen Kenrick, “Looking at Artifacts, Thinking about History,” Smithsonian National Museum of American History “Guide to Doing History with Objects,” http://objectofhistory.org/guide/.

[4] “Half a Century Since,” Deseret News (October 3, 1888), 10. The “red millstone fragment” that marked the well was moved by area resident Glen E. Setzer in 1941. Setzer, unaware of the significance of the stone’s location, moved it to the site of a marker he constructed near the road (‘story of Haun’s Mill’ by the Missouri Mormon Frontier Foundation, unpublished typescript, 2003, 5).

[5] Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, T. Jeffrey Cottle, and Ted D. Stoddard, eds., Church History in Black and White: George Edward Anderson’s Photographic Mission to Latter-day Saint Historical Sites (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1995), 97, as quoted in Alexander L. Baugh, “The Haun’s Mill Stone at Breckenridge,” Mormon Historical Studies 2, no. 2 (Fall 2001), 211.

[6] Baugh, “The Haun’s Mill Stone at Breckenridge,” 211.

[7] Charles White, Charles White, Journal, 1907 [typescript] MSS SC 219, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, p. 13.

[8] Newell R. Kitchen and John L. Fowles, “Finding the Haun’s Mill Face Wheel,” Mormon Historical Studies 4, no. 2 (Fall 2003), 167.

[9] Kitchen and Fowles, “Finding the Haun’s Mill Face Wheel,” 170.

[10] Artifact acquisition records, artifact number LDS 87-26, Church History Museum.

[11] Ellis Eamut, “Reminiscence,” in Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 30 October 1838, 11.

[12] Chad O. Braley, Southeastern Archaeological Services, Inc., “Mills in the Upcountry: A Historic Context, and a Summary of a Mill Site on the Peters Creek Heritage Preserve, Spartanburg County, South Carolina,” unpublished manuscript prepared for the Spartanburg Water Authority, 2005, 12.

[13] Artemisia Sidnie Myers Foote, “Reminiscences, 1850-1899,” MSS SC 999, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[14] Historical marker at Breckenridge, Missouri City Park, dedicated May 26, 2000.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Material Culture Memory


  1. Very interesting write-up, Tiffany. I love the connections you make between the face wheel and Jacob Meyers’ story. People do remember with objects as much as words, and that story adds additional meaning to the face wheel and a name that would otherwise remain obscure.

    Comment by David G. — September 17, 2013 @ 11:45 am

  2. This is really interesting, Tiffany, and something I knew next to nothing about previously. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — September 17, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

  3. This is fantastic and fascinating. Many thanks, Tiffany.

    Comment by Ben P — September 17, 2013 @ 2:06 pm

  4. Interesting. I think the physical connection to past times and events is the driving factor in collecting coins, stamps, or antiques of any kind.

    I wonder if the author is aware that a faction of the church membership considers the victims of Haun’s Mill–or at least Haun himself–as slightly less than innocent. This group apparently includes Pres. Eyring.

    Comment by The Other Clark — September 18, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

  5. A fascinating read Tiffany! Thank you for your contribution.

    Comment by Tod R. — September 18, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

  6. Excellent. I did not know any physical artifacts had survived.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — September 18, 2013 @ 7:38 pm

  7. This is really fascinating. I always tend to walk by artifacts in museums unless I have a tour guide, but once I do they give me a deeper sense of connection.

    I find the writing on the millstone really interesting. It reminds me of the writing on signs for summer camp or graffiti. It seems homier than a lot of the signs I see on objects.

    Comment by Amanda HK — September 18, 2013 @ 8:05 pm

  8. Thank you for all of the comments! Addressing The Other Clark’s inquiry as to whether the author is aware of the faction of Church members who consider the victims of Haun’s Mill to be less than innocent, I am indeed aware of such beliefs. However, even Elder Eyring concludes that it wasn’t the people at Haun’s Mill who had been disobedient, but rather Jacob Haun. As Elder Eyring quotes, ?Brother Joseph had sent word by Haun, who owned the mill, to inform the brethren who were living there to leave and come to Far West, but Mr. Haun did not deliver the message.? Many of those affected by the massacre had just arrived in the area and were taking a brief rest before continuing to Far West. Willard Smith, who survived the attack, remembered that when he and his family arrived at Haun’s Mill on their way to Far West, they “received a cordial, hearty welcome . . . the people had bees and had just taken out their honey, which was in pans and buckets.” They were told, “Help yourselves, eat all you want.” Within just a few hours, Willard’s father and brother were killed in the blacksmith shop. These people certainly weren’t knowingly disobeying the prophet–they were unaware of his instructions to vacate the settlement and were simply enjoying a respite before continuing their journey.

    Comment by Tiffany Bowles — September 19, 2013 @ 12:30 am

  9. Thank you for this. I was not aware of the face wheel. I just visited Haun’s Mill this June and also saw the millstone in Breckenridge. I wrote down poor directions from the internet, but eventually found my way to Haun’s Mill by the back way. The road is even worse that way. I was afraid my rental car was going to be permanently stuck in the mud.

    I came away with ticks and muddy shoes, but it was well worth the trouble. I am one of those who connects to places. A few years ago, for example, I visited the site of League Park in Cleveland and stood where Bill Wambsganss completed his unassisted triple play in the 1920 World Series.

    On the same trip as Haun’s Mill, I visited the Liberty Jail site. The missionary tour guide was a nice enough fellow, but he kept prompting me to profess a spiritual experience, and then shook me down for referrals. I’ve had the same experience recently in Independence and Kirtland. Really, I’m much more likely to have a spiritual experience if I’m not being prodded into one.

    My most moving and spiritual experiences at church history sites have been self guided: the sacred grove, Haun’s Mill, Far West, Adam-Ondi_Ahman, Mountain Meadows. The missionary at Liberty Jail told me not to go to Haun’s Mill because of the roads. I’m glad I didn’t listen, but I’m just as glad they don’t send hoards of people out there. I kind of like that Haun’s Mill is so inaccessible. Somehow, that seems fitting. A better marker would be good, but nicely manicured lawns and busloads of LDS tourists would diminish the experience for me.

    Comment by Left Field — September 19, 2013 @ 8:21 am

  10. I agree with Left Field about visiting Haun’s Mill. Though rather inaccessible, it is definitely worth the drive out there. I, too, appreciate the fact that because it is not easy to get to, it remains somewhat untouched. It is a quiet, sacred spot where one can ponder the events of that place and appreciate the sacrifice, not only of those who died, but those who survived, as well. Thank you, Tiffany Bowles, for your response to The Other Clark, to clarify the fact that most of the victims of the massacre were, indeed, innocent of any wrongdoing since they were unaware of the Prophet’s instructions to vacate that place.

    Comment by Diane T. — September 24, 2013 @ 9:36 am


Recent Comments

Armand Mauss on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I am pleasantly surprised and deeply grateful for the three assessments offered in this space this week by Gary Shepherd, Jana Riess, and Matt Bowman.…”

Roger T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Since I work in Mormon studies, I tend to read a lot. It's impossible to keep up with everything being published, but over the past…”

Jeff T on Q&A with Taylor Petrey,: “Thanks, Taylor!”

Jeff T on The Mechanics of Applying: “Thanks, J!”

Jeff T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks, Matt!”

Jeff T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks, Jana! My experience with Armand, too, has been that of generosity and genuine care for Mormon Studies as a broad and inclusive field. And…”