Gender and Recording the Names of the 1838 Mormon War Dead

By May 31, 2016

HaunsMassacreMillstoneOn November 29, 1838, Major General John B. Clark wrote his final report to Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs reviewing the state militia?s recent operations against the Latter-day Saints. ?The whole number of Mormons killed through the whole difficulty as far as I can ascertain are about forty and several wounded,? while one non-Mormon had been killed.[1] Verifying Clark?s figure presents a challenge. Although Clark, as the commanding officer overseeing the campaign, was interested in total casualties, neither he nor anyone else in the state government had an incentive to record the names of Mormons who died. It was therefore left to the Saints themselves to document their losses of human life.

Although the data is limited, there is some evidence that gender played a role in whether the name of a Mormon who died in Missouri would be recorded. Contemporaneous sources contain the names of twenty-one Latter-day Saints who were killed in Missouri: three at Crooked River on October 25, seventeen at Hawn?s Mill on October 30, and one at the militia occupation of Far West on October 31.[2] These numbers account for only about half of Clark?s total, suggesting that even among the Saints, only some of the names of those killed were recorded. A quick scan of the twenty-one names reveals a common characteristic: all were men or boys who died in armed conflict with anti-Mormon vigilantes. The Saints, immersed as they were in biblical narratives of persecution and martyrdom, quickly identified men who died defending the Saints as martyrs who should be remembered and commemorated.[3]

Latter-day Saint women also died in Missouri, yet their names do not appear in contemporary lists of the dead. For example, in mid-October anti-Mormon vigilantes succeeded in expelling about seventy Latter-day Saint families from De Witt, a small settlement in Carroll County, southeast of Far West. Morris Phelps, a Latter-day Saint who wrote an unpublished history of the 1838 conflict in the early 1840s, recorded that two women died during the exodus from De Witt to Far West. One of the women had recently given birth, while the other was elderly, and both apparently succumbed to the difficult conditions of the forced march. Phelps, however, did not name the women.[4] Other early records mention these women?s deaths, yet the women remain nameless in all them.[5] Incidentally, two accounts written decades later did identify these two women, but only by their last names, and historians have raised questions about the reliability of these identifications.[6]

The example of these two women raises the question as to whether there were other Mormon women and children who similarly died from exposure and displacement, yet were only remembered as nameless statistics. As JI blogger and BYU-Idaho history professor Andrea Radke-Moss has shown, the way Latter-day Saints have narrated the church?s experience in Missouri during the 1830s has focused primarily on the actions of men, thereby relegating the actions of women and children to the margins of the narrative. In Andrea?s words, Snow?s ?story humanizes and feminizes an event [the 1838 Mormon War] that has always been told as a story of male war, male imprisonment, and male victimhood.? Her work and the evidence presented here indicate that the problem often goes back to the original sources themselves. Only by seeking to recover female voices, however incompletely preserved in historical sources, can historians begin the process of telling a more accurate story about the Mormon past.


[1] Clark to Boggs, 29 Nov. 1838, Mormon War Papers, Missouri State Archives. The non-Mormon militiaman who died was Moses Rowland, who was killed at Crooked River on 25 October 1838. Latter-day Saint Albert Perry Rockwood, writing from Far West, estimated on November 11 that about 30 Mormons had been killed. (Rockwood, Journal, 11 Nov. 1838, CHL.)

[2] Crooked River: David W. Patten, Gideon Carter, and Patterson Obanion. Hawn?s Mill: Hiram Abbot, Elias Benner, John Byers, Alexander Campbell, Simon Cox, Josiah Fuller, Austin Hammer, John Lee, Benjamin Lewis, Thomas McBride, Charles Merrick, Levi N. Merrick, William Napier, George S. Richards, Sardius Smith, Warren Smith, and John York. Far West: William Carey. (See Baugh, ?A Call to Arms,? Appendices H and J; Rockwood, Journal, 3 Nov. 1838, CHL.)

[3] See Grua, ?Memoirs of the Persecuted.?

[4] Morris Phelps, Reminiscences, [8], CHL.

[5] See, for examples, Isaac Leany, Quincy, IL, Affidavit, 20 Apr. 1839, photocopy, Material Relating to Mormon Expulsion from Missouri, 1839?1843, CHL; Daniel Avery, Affidavit, Lee Co., Iowa Territory, 5 Mar. 1840, Mormon Redress Petitions, CHL; John Murdock, Affidavit, 10 Jan. 1840, photocopy, Material Relating to Mormon Expulsion from Missouri, 1839?1843, CHL.

[6] In his autobiography, Zadoc Knapp Judd, who was about ten years old in 1838, wrote that the elderly woman?s surname was Downey and that she had recently migrated from Canada. (Judd, ?Reminiscences of Zadoc Knapp Judd,? 7, CHL.) Similarly, when B.H. Roberts published volume 3 of the History of the Church in 1905, he identified the young woman as Jensen, again without a first name. The base text for this passage was Sidney Rigdon?s 1839 history, published as An Appeal to the American People. Rigdon did not identify the woman?s name. Neither did the church clerks who incorporated Rigdon?s history into the manuscript history, or when the manuscript history was published in the Deseret News in the 1850s as the ?History of Joseph Smith.? It is unknown how Roberts determined that the woman?s name was Jensen. (Roberts, ed., History of the Church, 3:159.)  As historian Alexander Baugh has noted, however, Jensen is a Scandinavian name, and there were no known Scandinavian converts in the church in 1838, casting significant doubt on the reliability of Roberts?s identification. (Baugh, A Call to Arms, 81n109.)




Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Gender Memory Women's History


  1. We have an ancestral story about a female family member who died from the persecutions: “Polly Steepleford and the Woodlands [her daughter’s family] came to be with Saints in Jackson County, Missouri. There she died during the Missouri mobbing, and the family was unable to get lumber for her coffin due to the mob. Thus, they buried her in a clothes box, which was not long enough, and her feet stuck out six inches which was a trial they never forgot.?

    Comment by anita wells — May 31, 2016 @ 7:16 am

  2. Thanks, Anita. While my post deals specifically with the 1838 conflict, your family story from 1833 illustrates the same phenomenon. Early accounts of the 1833 violence mention the death of Andrew Barber at the Battle of the Blue, but I don’t recall seeing mention of Polly Steepleford’s death. Mormon women were less likely to die violent deaths, but instead from exposure, and so their names were less likely to be recorded in contemporary sources, although they sometimes were memorialized in autobiographies and family traditions.

    Comment by David G. — May 31, 2016 @ 8:42 am

  3. This is really interesting, David. Thanks.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 31, 2016 @ 11:01 am

  4. Fascinating stuff, David. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — May 31, 2016 @ 8:23 pm

  5. I’ve been thinking about the Missouri War recently and this post is helping me shape some thoughts. Thanks, David!

    Comment by J Stuart — June 2, 2016 @ 10:16 am

  6. David: This is a great call for expanding how we read the sources associated with the Missouri War. While my own research has not yet tackled actual numbers of women killed and wounded, this is definitely a route worth pursuing. And the examples you have described here give a good model of how to do this: mine the sources to look for references to women as victims of exposure, death in childbirth, refugee conditions, sickness, rape, and other forms of direct physical assault. For example, Community of Christ historian Ron Romig has provided me a record for the Far West burial grounds that has potential for determining deaths that might be related to the war and its effects. These kinds of sources have the potential for doing what you are calling for. We also need to look beyond 1839 into the Quincy and Nauvoo periods of late 1839, 1840 and even 1841 to find women who died of causes incident to what they suffered in Missouri. Even Morris Phelps’s wife, Laura, died in Nauvoo in 1841 (age 34 and 8 months), possibly due to illness that had been exacerbated by her sufferings in Missouri.

    Thanks for this– a great reminder for how gender can inform our research.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — June 2, 2016 @ 4:22 pm

  7. Thanks, all. Andrea, thanks especially for your comment. I’m excited to see your full treatment of ways that gender shaped, and how women experienced, the conflict. You’re right that the Saints interpreted some deaths in Illinois to the lingering effects of Missouri, even interpreting some of these later deaths within the category of martyrdom. I know, for example, that the deaths of Edward Partridge and Joseph Smith Sr. were seen in this vein–I even have a family story that attributes one ancestor’s death in the mid-1850s as the result of injuries incurred in Missouri. It would be interesting and important to see how gender continued to shape how the Saints talked about these later deaths.

    Comment by David G. — June 3, 2016 @ 6:37 am

  8. David, I’ve been looking at Mormon family bibles in advance of my presentation at MHA, and I found an interesting example of an inscription that attributes a familial death to the Missouri experience. Let’s connect offline.

    Comment by Ryan T. — June 3, 2016 @ 6:56 am

  9. I also wonder about the relationship between memorialization and violence. Was it easier to memorialize a violent death (or a violent rape) than a death which was indirectly caused by violence, as Mormon women’s were? You’d be the one to know!

    Comment by Ryan T. — June 3, 2016 @ 7:00 am

  10. Thanks for replying to my comment. I don’t know where you got the 1833 date, but our Polly (officially Mary Saunders Steepleford/Stapleford, FamilySearch ID L7L2-7R8) died on October 26 or 27, 1838, in Adam-Ondi-Ahman, Jackson County, Missouri, this same era you’re examining.

    Comment by anita — June 3, 2016 @ 11:22 pm

  11. Hi Anita, thanks for the additional information. My apologies, but the reference to Jackson County threw me off, as the Saints were expelled from Jackson County (where Independence is) in 1833. Adam-ondi-Ahman is in Daviess County, and that late October 1838 date does make sense now. Very interesting.

    Comment by David G. — June 4, 2016 @ 6:18 am

  12. Ah, geography error in the original story that needs correcting. Thanks! But do add her to your list of martyrs.

    Comment by anita — June 4, 2016 @ 2:20 pm

  13. I will! Thanks, Anita.

    Comment by David G. — June 4, 2016 @ 3:08 pm


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