Haun's Mill Massacre
by Richard and Pamela Price
This painting is Nancy Harlacher's portrayal of Haun's Mill just hours before the terrible massacre in 1838. It was based on information researched by Richard and Pamela Price and Larry and Nancy Harlacher over a five-year period (1968–1973) and includes aerial photographs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, studies in the L.D.S. archives in Salt Lake City, archaeological activities, and interviews with local residents. Greatest efforts were made to make this painting an actual reconstruction of the scene—even the cabins are located where archaeological evidence dictated.
During the 1836–1838 period about twelve thousand Latter Day Saints moved into the nearly vacant Far West area of “Upper Missouri” with the hopes of building a Zionic community, where they could await the time when they would be allowed to return to the Center Place in Jackson County. At first, it seemed that peace and prosperity would bless their efforts, but during the summer of 1838 war broke out between them and the nonmember settlers.
The war intensified after the Battle of Crooked River on October 25, 1838, and after Governor Lilburn Boggs issued his infamous “extermination order” on October 27. The settlers throughout Northwest Missouri began to be caught up in a spirit of mobocracy and a determination to banish the Saints, even to the point of shedding blood. Thus it was that while the main army of settlers was gathering at Richmond for an assault on Far West, the Livingston County militia attacked the Saints’ village at Haun’s Mill. This act on October 30, 1838, proved to be the worst atrocity of the war; it became known as the “Haun’s Mill Massacre.”
In 1887 Burr Joyce, a journalist for the Saint Louis Globe-Democrat, wrote one of the best descriptions of this massacre, a shortened version of which is reproduced here.
At Jacob Haun’s mill, on Shoal Creek, in the eastern part of Caldwell County, about eight miles south of Breckenridge, there had collected about twenty Mormon families. Haun himself was a Mormon and had come to the site from Wisconsin a few years before. He had a very good mill, and clustered around it were a blacksmith shop and half a dozen small houses.
The alarm that the troops were moving against them had driven nearly all the Mormon families in the county to Far West for safety. A dozen or more living in the vicinity repaired to Haun’s mill, which was twenty miles to the eastward of Far West. As there were not enough houses to accommodate all of the fugitives, a number were living in tents and temporary shelters. A few families, perhaps four, had come in on the evening of the 29th, from Ohio, and were occupying their emigrant wagons. Not one member of the little community had ever been in arms against the "Gentiles,"” or taken any part whatever in the preceding disturbances.
Word that the militia of the State had been ordered to expel them from the country had reached the Mormons of the Haun’s Mill settlement, and following this intelligence came a report that a considerable number of men in Livingston County, together with some from Daviess, had organized in the forks of Grand River near Spring Hill in Livingston and were preparing to attack them.
Whereupon a company of about twenty-five men and boys, indifferently armed with shotguns and squirrel rifles, was organized at the mill, and David Evans was chosen captain. It was resolved to defend the place against the threatened assault.
Some of the older men urged that no resistance should be made, but that all should retreat to Far West. The day after the skirmish on Crooked River (October 25), Haun himself went to Far West to take counsel of Joe Smith. "Move here, by all means, if you wish to save your lives," said the prophet.
Haun replied that if the settlers should abandon their homes, the Gentiles would burn their houses and other buildings and destroy all of the property left behind.
"Better lose your property than your lives," rejoined Smith.
Haun represented that he and his neighbors were willing to defend themselves against what he called "the mob," and Smith finally gave them permission to remain. . . . On the 29th at Woolsey’s northeast of Breckenridge, an agreement was reached by the Gentiles for an attack upon Haun’s Mill. Three companies, numbering in the aggregate about two hundred men, were organized. They were commanded by Captains Nehemiah Comstock, William 0. Jennings, and William Gee. The command of the battalion was given to Col. Thomas Jennings, an old militia officer. . . .
It did not matter whether or not the Mormons at the mill had taken any part in the disturbances which had occurred; it was enough that they were Mormons. . . .
Setting out from Woolsey’s after noon on the 30th, Col. Jennings marched swiftly. . . . The word was passed along the column, "Shoot at everything wearing breeches, and shoot to kill". . . .
Entering the timber north of the mill, Colonel Jennings passed through it unobserved right up to the borders of the settlement and speedily formed his line for the attack. Capt. W. 0. Jennings’ company had the center, Capt. Comstock’s the left, and Capt. Gee’s the right.
The Mormon leader had somehow become apprehensive of trouble. He communicated his fears to some of the men and was about sending out scouts and pickets. It had been previously agreed that in case of attack the men should repair to the blacksmith shop and occupy it as a fort or blockhouse. This structure was built of logs with wide cracks between them, was about eighteen feet square, and had a large wide door.
The greater portion of the Mormons were, however, unsuspicious of any imminent peril. Children were playing on the banks of the creek, women were engaged in their ordinary domestic duties, the newly-arrived immigrants were resting under the trees, which were clad in the scarlet, crimson, and golden leaves of autumn. The scene was peaceful and Acadian. It was now about four o’clock in the afternoon, and the sun hung low and red in a beautiful Indian summer sky.
Suddenly, from out of the timber north and west of the mill the Gentiles burst upon the hamlet. The air was filled with shouts and shots, and the fight was on. It cannot fairly be called a fight. Taken wholly by surprise, the Mormons were thrown into extreme confusion. The women and children cried and screamed in excitement and terror, and the greater number, directed by some of the men, ran across the milldam to the south bank of the creek and sought shelter in the woods. Perhaps twenty men, Captain Evans among them, ran with their guns to the blacksmith shop and began to return the fire. Some were shot down in their attempts to reach the shop.
The fire of the Mormons was wild and ineffective; that of the militia was accurate and deadly. The cracks between the logs of the shop were so large that it was easy to shoot through them, and so thickly were the Mormons huddled together on the inside that nearly every bullet which entered the shop killed or wounded a man. Firing was kept up all the while on the fleeing fugitives, and many were shot down as they ran.
Realizing very soon that he was placed at a decided disadvantage, Captain Evans gave orders to retreat, directing every man to take care of himself. . . . The fugitives were fired on until they were out of range, but not pursued, as the few who escaped scattered in almost every direction.
Coming upon the field after it had been abandoned, the Gentiles perpetrated some terrible deeds. At least three of the wounded were hacked to death with the "corn knives" or finished with a rifle bullet. William Reynolds, a Livingston County man, entered the blacksmith shop and found a little boy, only ten years of age named Sardius Smith, hiding under the bellows. Without even demanding his surrender, the cruel wretch drew up his rifle and shot the little fellow as he lay cowering and trembling. Reynolds afterward boasted of his exploit to persons yet living. He described with fiendish glee how the poor child "kicked and squealed" in his dying agonies and justified his inhuman act by the old Indian aphorism, "Nits will make lice."
Charley Merrick, another little boy only nine years old, had hid under the bellows. He ran out, but did not get far until he received a load of buckshot and a rifle ball—in all, three wounds. He did not die, however, for nearly five weeks.
Esquire Thomas McBride was seventy-eight years of age, and had been a soldier under Gates and Washington in the Revolution. He had started for the blacksmith shop but was shot down on the way and lay wounded and helpless but still alive. A Daviess County man named Rogers, who kept a ferry across Grand River near Gallatin, came upon him and demanded his gun. "Take it," said McBride. Rogers picked up the weapon and finding that it was loaded deliberately discharged it into the old veteran’s breast. He then cut and hacked the body with his "corn knife" until it was frightfully gashed and mangled.
After the Mormons had all been either killed, wounded, or driven away, the Gentiles began to loot the place. Considerable property was taken, much of the spoil consisting of household articles and personal effects. At least three wagons and perhaps ten horses were taken. . . . Two of the survivors have stated to me that the place was "pretty well cleaned out."
Colonel Jennings did not remain at the mill more than two hours. Twilight approaching, he set out on his return to his former encampment. He feared a rally and return of the Mormons with a large reinforcement, and doubtless he desired to reflect leisurely on his course of future operations. Reaching Woolsey’s, he halted his battalion and prepared to pass the night. But a few hours later he imagined he heard cannon and a great tumult in the direction of Haun’s Mill, betokening, as he thought, the advance of a large Mormon force upon him. Rousing his men from their sweet dreams of the victory, he broke camp, moved rapidly eastward, and never halted until he had put the West Fork of Grand River between him and his imaginary pursuers. He and his men had won glory enough for one day, anyhow! They had not lost a man killed and only three wounded. . . .
The Mormons killed and mortally wounded numbered seventeen. Here are the names:
Thomas McBride, Augustine Harmer, Levi N. Merrick, Simon Cox, Elias Benner, Hiram Abbott, Josiah Fuller, John York, Benjamin Lewis, John Lee, Alexander Campbell, John Byers, George S. Richards, Warren Smith, William Napier, Charles Merrick, aged 9, Sardius Smith, aged 10.
The severely wounded numbered eleven men, one boy (Alma Smith, aged 7), and one woman, a Miss Mary Stedwell. The latter was shot through the hand and arm as she was running to the woods.
Bloody work and woeful! What a scene did Colonel Jennings and his men turn their backs upon as they rode away in the gloaming from the little valley once all green and peaceful! The wounded men had been given no attention, and the bodies of the slain had been left to fester and putrefy in the Indian summer temperature, warm and mellowing. A large red moon rose, and a fog came up from the stream and lay like a facecloth upon the pallid countenances of the dead.
Timidly and warily came forth the widows and orphans from their hiding places, and as they recognized one a husband, one a father, another a son, and another a brother among the slain, the wailings of grief and terror were most pitiful. All that night were they alone with their dead and wounded. There were no physicians, but if there had been, many of the wounded were past all surgery. Dreadful sights in the moonlight, and dreadful sounds on the night winds! In the hamlet the groans of the wounded, the moans and sobs of the grief-stricken, the bellowing of cattle, and the howling of dogs, and from the black woods the dismal hooting of owls.
By and by, when the wounded had been made as comfortable as possible, the few men who had returned gathered the women and children together, and all sought consolation in prayer. Then they sang from the Mormon hymn book a selection entitled "Moroni’s Lamentation". . . . And so in prayer and song and ministration the remainder of the night was passed.
The next morning the corpses had changed and were changing fast. They must be buried. There were not enough men left to make coffins or even dig graves. It could not be determined when relief would come or when the Gentiles would return. There was a large unfinished well near the mill, which it was decided should be used as a common sepulcher. Four men, one of whom was Joseph W. Young, a brother of Brigham Young, gathered up the bodies, the women assisting, and bore them one at a time on a large plank to the well and slid them in. Some hay was strewn upon the ghastly pile and then a thin layer of dirt thrown upon the hay.
A day or two thereafter Captain Comstock’s company was ordered to Haun’s mill, where it remained in camp for some weeks. . . . While in camp at the mill, according to the statements to me of two of its members, Comstock’s company lived off the country, as did the State troops at Far West. The Mormon cattle and hogs had been turned into the fields and were fine and fat. The mill furnished flour and meal, and other articles of provision were to be had for the taking. The Mormon men were either prisoners or had been driven from the country.
By the 1st of April following all had left the State. Many of them had been killed, their houses burned, their property taken, their fields laid waste; and the result was called "peace." (RLDS History of the Church 2:225-233)
An estimated three hundred Church members lost their lives during these troubled times in Missouri when the Missouri settlers drove them out of the state at gunpoint.
The Haun’s Mill Massacre stands as a symbol of the sacrifice and devotion of the Saints. After a century and a half of study and reflection, it can be seen that some of their sorrows could have been avoided by the use of more discretion and meekness. On the other hand, that was an era of religious bigotry, and any denomination which claimed to have revelations direct from heaven would have been the object of intense hatred.
Some of the Saints forsook their religion and were spared the persecution. But the great majority of them became even more convinced that this work was true. This knowledge and assurance came to them not only through the testimony of Joseph Smith, but through marvelous spiritual manifestations of their own. In the words of one English immigrant who joined the Church: "This is the work of the living God, and though death and hell combine against it, they cannot prevail."
And so even today, the "Marvelous Work and a Wonder" continues to offer salvation to all who come to it.
(The Restoration Story, pp. 103,105–106)
Prints of Haun's Mill by Nancy Harlacher are available in various sizes for purchase at the Restoration Bookstore or from our online store.