The Haun’s Mill Massacre in Mormon Memory

By December 17, 2007

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.”[1]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.”[2] 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.”[3]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.”[4]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.[5]

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.”[6]  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?

___________

[1]Oren Baruch Stier and J. Shawn Landres, eds., Religion, Violence, Memory, and Place, (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2006), 9-10.

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Phineas Richards to Wealthy Richards, January 7, 1839, private possession, photocopy in Richards Correspondence, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[4] 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.

[5] Benjamin Andrews, “An Appeal to the People of the State of Maine,” Times and Seasons, January 15, 1844, 405, see also 404.

[6] 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.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Memory


Comments

  1. I feel that using Haun’s Mill incident to teach obedience seems like a scare tactic. If they disobeyed counsel to move, and suffered as a result, it doesn’t change the fact they were killed as Mormons, and had they not been connected with the cause they would not have suffered thusly.

    I think the massacre can be used in conjunction with the Mountain Meadows massacre, as well. There are some important parallels for us to learn from both of these incidents.

    Comment by BHodges — December 17, 2007 @ 11:57 am

  2. BHodges: I agree. It seems to me that using Haun’s Mill to teach obedience places the burden of the narrative on the victims, rather than perpetrators.

    Comment by David Grua — December 17, 2007 @ 12:20 pm

  3. David, What effect, if any, do you feel Haun’s Mill had upon the later injunction during temple rites to avenge the blood of the martyrs? Do you think this vow of vengeance in turn had an effect upon those local leaders who made tragic decisions at Mountain Meadows? Having had vengeance invoked in a temple setting, was it on their minds when they were deciding how to react to wagon trains from Arkansas and Missouri coming through their territory?

    Comment by BiV — December 17, 2007 @ 1:56 pm

  4. BiV: I haven’t done a thorough analysis yet of the temple vengeance accounts or the MM vengeance accounts, but I’ve seen enough to have a tentative answer for you. IIRC, the vengeance oath (Van Hale suggests that it wasn’t an oath but simply part of the ceremony’s narrative) was inserted into the endowment ceremony prior to JS’s death, so it likely referred in part to Haun’s Mill, although it was ambigious “avenge the blood of the prophets”. I have seen a couple of statements from the 1850s by individuals that survived Haun’s Mill saying that they wanted revenge.

    However, it should be remembered that Mormons had been coming into direct contact with Missourians throughout the 1840s and 1850s without exacting revenge for the earlier persecutions. In my opinion, although the temple talked about vengeance, most Mormons in most contexts believed that God would supernaturally bring vengeance upon the Saints’ tormentors. While I do think that the memory of Haun’s Mill did play a role in what happened at MM, there were several other factors that led to that terrible outcome.

    Comment by David Grua — December 17, 2007 @ 2:16 pm

  5. Admin. Note: The topic of this thread is the Haun’s Mill Massacre, not the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Please keep comments relevant to the topic at hand. Thank you.

    Comment by Christopher — December 17, 2007 @ 2:18 pm

  6. I think I might answer this slightly differently on T and S but here is my opinion. Much of the early church period is millenial in nature until the expulsion at Missouri. After that there is pressure on Joseph over the Missouri arrest which causes him to be on the run for a part of the Nauvoo period. I am sure that as this constant pressure kept up to bring Joseph to Missouri Justice and then his Martyrdom after must have made Haun’s Mill all the more important to the Saints.

    While I think in the context of the situation in 1842 Joseph’s admonition had bearing, in part because he was teaching something. In this case I think this was during the Bennett era when members of the church, like Orson Pratt were not listening to sound council.

    Taken in that view I think there is nothing wrong with considering those killed at Haun’s Mill as Martyrs, they died fort the testimony of Jesus and the restored Gospel. While making a bad decision does not make them less qualified in my view.

    Comment by JonW — December 17, 2007 @ 5:05 pm

  7. […] on the martyrdom qualifications of those at Haun’s Mill At Times and Seasons and Juvenile Instructor David Grua has launched an interesting question about the position of church members on the […]

    Pingback by Expounding on the martyrdom qualifications of those at Haun’s Mill « Banner, Sword, and Shield — December 17, 2007 @ 6:01 pm

  8. Martyrs always have a choice. By staying when they were warned to flee, the adults at least were choosing potential martyrdom. Joseph returning to Illinois knew what to expect as did the brethren who joined him in Carthage. Martyrdom requires choosing death over denial of a testimony. That choice can be made well in advance of the death.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — December 29, 2007 @ 11:03 am


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