New Insights and Interpretations of Hawn’s Mill Massacre

  By Scott Lloyd

  • 14 November 2013

Alexander L. Baugh, professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU, delivers his presentation, “Hawn’s Mill Tragedy: New Insights and Interpretations,” at This Is the Place Heritage Park.  Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Article Highlights

  • Although Jacob Hawn’s brother joined the Church, Jacob, owner of the Hawn’s Mill settlement, never did.
  • Pre-attacks suggest that the attack on Hawn’s Mill did not stem from the extermination order but was planned days before.
  • The Saints at Hawn’s Mill were told to move closer to Far West, but Jacob Hawn failed to relay the message.

“The ones who perpetrated that act are long gone, and we don’t need to hold grudges. We just need to remember the sacrifice [of the victims]. … We just want people to know the marvelous commitment these people made for their testimony and their belief in the restored gospel.”—Alexander L. Baugh, Church history scholar

On the 175th anniversary of the Hawn’s Mill Massacre, a professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU gave a lecture presenting “new insights and interpretations” pertaining to what is widely regarded as among the most tragic incidents in the history of the persecutions suffered by the Latter-day Saints.

Alexander L. Baugh, whose area of expertise is the northern Missouri period of Church history, presented the hour-long lecture October 30 at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City. He gave insights from his research regarding such matters as the identity of Jacob Hawn, the main reason for the attack on the Hawn’s Mill settlement, and whether the Mormons at Hawn’s Mill intentionally disobeyed Joseph Smith’s counsel to move in closer to the Far West settlement for protection, which would have prevented the attack.

The event was the last in a month-long series of lectures organized by Glenn R. Rawson, host of the History of the Saints and Joseph Smith Papers television documentary series, in anticipation of a book on which the two are collaborating with others. Expected to be “a tabletop book full of the best history and best art we can put together,” it is expected to be published at Christmastime in 2014, Brother Rawson told the audience at the heritage park visitors’ center.

He said an art display that has been exhibited in connection with the lectures will be set up at the St. George Utah Temple Visitors’ Center beginning in January, where it will remain for two months.

On October 30, 1838, a mob including members of the Missouri militia attacked a settlement of Latter-day Saints at Jacob Hawn’s mill on Shoal Creek in eastern Caldwell County, Missouri. To this day, the episode remains in the collective consciousness of the Latter-day Saints for its horrific brutality and cruelty, including the killing of 17 men and boys and the wounding of 15 others. But there was also great heroism and faith in its aftermath.

Brother Baugh said one of the most fascinating things that has come from his research is the identity of Jacob Hawn.

“I really wondered who he was,” he said. “Was he a Latter-day Saint? What happened to him after the tragedy? He kind of comes out of nowhere, and then he disappears.”

An acquaintance led Brother Baugh to the autobiography of Beverly Cleary, a famous children’s book author. In the autobiography, she identifies herself as a descendant of Jacob Hawn.

From that clue, he was able to trace the history of Jacob Hawn, learning that he and his wife, Hariett, crossed the plains in 1843 to Oregon; that Jacob Hawn was born in Genesee County, New York, in 1804 of German parentage; that he was a millwright and pioneer; and that he and his wife had “trundled” to Wisconsin, Missouri, Texas, back to New York, and to Missouri once more.

The places and dates matched Brother Baugh’s theretofore scant information, and he traveled to Yamhill, Oregon, where he found the grave markers of Jacob and Harriett Hawn.

He the Physician, I the Nurse by Meg Rieker depicts Amanda Barnes Smith caring for her wounded son Alma after the attack on the Hawn’s Mill settlement. Photo Courtesy Glenn Rawson.

The markers give the spelling of the surname as Hawn, differing from prior Church history accounts that spell it Haun. Brother Baugh said he was delighted that the new edition of the standard works published this year has the Hawn spelling for Hawn’s Mill on one of the Church history maps. He believes that stems from his research.

“He never joined the Church,” Brother Baugh said. “That’s another interesting thing: he’s non-Mormon, and that might explain some of the reason why he kind of just disappears [from Church history],” though his brother did join the Church.

His presence in the largely Mormon settlement was due to the fact that he was one of the first settlers in Caldwell County. When Church members moved there, they bought out most of the non-Mormons, but Hawn remained, having established his milling business there.

By 1838, Brother Baugh said, the settlement consisted of a few families, mostly Mormon, probably about a dozen cabins, and a blacksmith shop. However, another 75 Mormon families lived in the area.

The Hawn’s Mill attack occurred in the wake of hostilities that had been brewing for some time between Mormons and other settlers in Missouri. Church members had been driven from Jackson County, politically removed from Clay County, and pushed out of DeWitt.

Fed up with being pushed around, Lyman Wight and several companies of Mormon defenders forced the removal of several hundred non-Mormons from Daviess County.

“The Mormons didn’t hurt anybody,” Brother Baugh said. “They just kind of went up to their houses and said, ‘You’ve got 24 hours to get out.’ … Some of these people were very much anti-Mormon antagonists. They made sure they were gone. But some innocent civilians, we have to say, were part of that also. That’s kind of a black eye of the northern Missouri period [of Church history], but some of the Mormons kind of took the law unto themselves to do this.”

Staging the Attack by Kelly Donovan depicts mobbers creeping up on the Hawn’s Mill settlement. Photo Courtesy Glenn Rawson.

Most of the exiled citizens took refuge in Livingston County, where they began collaborating with residents there on how to retaliate against the Mormons.

“It did not matter whether or not the Mormons at the mill had taken any part in the disturbance which had occurred [in Daviess]; it was enough that they were Mormons,” Brother Baugh quoted one historian, Reburn I. Holcombe or “Burr Joyce,” as writing.

“And they had not,” Brother Baugh said. “There was not one person who had participated.”

In the days preceding the attack, anti-Mormon “regulators” visited the settlement, issued threats, and disarmed the residents. They also harassed Mormon emigrant trains passing through.

These pre-attack plans indicate the assault on the settlement was hatched days ahead of time, too soon for it to have resulted from the Extermination Order issued by Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs, as has been supposed in the past, Brother Baugh noted.

Addressing another past supposition, Brother Baugh asserted that the Mormons at Hawn’s Mill did not intentionally disobey Joseph Smith’s order to move in closer to Far West for safety.

My Arms Flew Up by Julie Rogers depicts 12-year-old Willard Smith being miraculously prevented from entering the blacksmith shop where he almost certainly would have perished during the Hawn’s Mill Massacre. Photo Courtesy Glenn Rawson.

“Because of the hostile activities of the Livingston/Daviess County regulators against the Mormons living at Hawn’s Mill, Jacob Hawn was appointed to go to Far West to seek counsel concerning whether or not they should continue to maintain the mill site and remain in the area,” Brother Baugh said. “The Prophet informed him that they should abandon the mill so as to not risk the lives of the Saints living there. However, when Hawn returned, he reported that Joseph Smith said they could stay and maintain the mill.”

In this, Brother Baugh said, Hawn may have been motivated by the fact that he stood to lose his livelihood if the Mormons were to abandon the settlement.

Brother Baugh concluded his presentation by speaking of what he called the Hawn’s Mill legacy.

“It is probably one of the worst tragedies in terms of anti-Mormon persecution, but there are some sterling characters who come out of this,” he said.

One is Willard G. Smith, a 12-year-old who tried to enter the blacksmith shop for safety with his father and two younger brothers but who was miraculously prevented from doing so when both of his arms flew up and braced themselves against the entrance. Those who entered the shop perished.

Later, Willard gave aid to an old man who had been wounded and who later died. Willard helped six little girls escape into the woods.

In the aftermath of the attack he entered the blacksmith shop, stepping over the dead body of his father and finding his brother Sardius with the top of his head shot away. He brought his brother Alma, whose hip had been shot away, to his mother, Amanda.

Amanda, Brother Baugh said, is the heroine of the Hawn’s Mill experience. She nursed Alma back to health. Through the combined faith of Amanda and Alma, his wound was healed and he walked again.

“The ruffians, after the Hawn’s Mill tragedy, came back and occupied the site militarily,” Brother Baugh said.

Unable to move her children from the site because of Alma’s wound, Amanda remained. They were forbidden to pray. Unable to stand it, she went out to a cornfield and, according to Willard’s account, “prayed till her soul felt satisfied.”

The Rude Vault by Julie Rogers depicts Amanda Barnes Smith and her son Willard interring the body of her son Sardius in a well, where other murdered victims of the Hawn’s Mill Massacre had already been buried. Photo Courtesy Glenn Rawson.

Willard recounted that after she left the field, though no one was in sight, she heard a voice repeating the words of the seventh verse of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation”:

That soul that on Jesus hath leaned 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.

Of the Hawn’s Mill Massacre and his research, Brother Baugh said in conclusion, “The ones who perpetrated that act are long gone, and we don’t need to hold grudges. We just need to remember the sacrifice [of the victims]. And certainly we’re not out for retribution or revenge or anything else. We just want people to know the marvelous commitment these people made for their testimony and their belief in the restored gospel and that they ... laid down their [lives] for the cause of truth.”