Joseph Young Hawn’s Mill massacre account
At this time of year the minds and hearts of many Utahans and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints across the world often drift toward the pioneers of the Church and the stories of their toil and sacrifice to trek to the Great Basin and establish a place of refuge where the Church and its people could flourish and live in peace. For those who fit this mold, L. Tom Perry Special Collections will provide a special treat this week. Throughout this week we will post here ways you can learn more about these stories of Mormon pioneers through our collections and resources.
Our first entry will highlight a piece of an exhibit that is currently on display in our lobby. The exhibit is on primary sources that tell the stories of the Mormon Missouri experience, focusing on the fall and winter of 1838-1839. Among all the stories of this time period, none is more vivid and burned into the memories of Latter-day Saints than the massacre at Hawn’s Mill. Joseph Young, older brother of Brigham Young, was a survivor and eyewitness of this tragic event. In response to Joseph Smith’s plea from Liberty Jail for members of the Church to record their experiences in Missouri to seek redress from the government (D&C 123:1-3), in June 1839 Young took to creating a descriptive narrative of what he witnessed, and his statement was sworn before an Adams County, Illinois, judge. This recounting in the form of an affidavit is the earliest known, and the most widely published, account of this event, and has become one of the most highly used sources for retelling this event since the earliest days of Church history.
The significance of this account is in the details it provides. Young recounts his family’s journey from Kirtland, Ohio, to Missouri, being told of an eminent doom, even threatened with death, if they continue their journey, but determining to make it to their destination. They eventually eluded the mobs and on October 28, 1839, arrived at Hawn’s Mill where many of their friends resided. Young mentions that same day a member of the mob who was threatening the residents at the mill came to present a treaty or truce, but the Saints remained under arms due to threats from other mobs. Two days later the mobs would attack, and Young provides great detail on the time and circumstances of the event, showing the people were taken by surprise. The attack took place late in the afternoon (around 4 o’clock), with the people about doing their normal duties of gathering crops and taking care of domestic affairs, and no one seemed to be in a state of apprehension or concern for what was to come.
Young’s description of the massacre is rich in detail as well. He mentions that David Evans, a Mormon, tried to stop the advancing mob, “their being 240 of them according to their own account,” but was only met with leader of the mob firing his gun into the air. This appeared to be a signal for the mob to ready themselves, because after a haunting 10-12 second pause, according to Young, “they discharged about 100 rifles aiming at the blacksmith’s shop into which our friends had fled for safety; and charging up to the shop the cracks of which between the logs were sufficiently large, to enable them to aim directly at the bodies of those who had there fled for refuge from the fire of their murderers.” Young viewed this from the porch of his home, which appeared to be some distance from the shop, and was frozen in terror until he realized the danger he was in and fled alone up a hill. He was fired upon as he ran, but were able to hide in the bushes until 8 o’clock that night.
Once he was able to come out of hiding, Young found his family safe, and the next day at first light went with four or five others to determine the fate of those at the mill. He mentions seeing the condition of Thomas McBride, and heard from a woman his story of being shot with his own gun “and then was cut to pieces with a corn cutter.” He names the bodies of others he is able to identify, and describes preparing a place of burial: “The place of burial being a vault in the ground formerly intended for a well, into which we threw the bodies of friends promiscuously.” He continues to list names of those whom he discovered among the dead or wounded, 18 or 19 total, including 9-year old Sardius Smith, son of Warren and Amanda Smith, who was shot in the head after he was discovered hiding in the blacksmith shop by the mob. Young also mentions how members of the mob bragged of their deeds afterward, and how the mob, after this killing, proceeded to rob houses, wagons, and tents, “leaving widows and orphans destitute of the necessaries of life, and even stripped the clothing from the bodies of the slain!” He concludes by giving the number of rounds shot, “according their own account,” as “upwards of sixteen hundred shots at a little company of men about thirty in number.”
While such an account is difficult emotionally to read and comprehend what it would be like to witness such horror, it is essential to have such documents to better understand what actually occurred on this fateful day over 175 years ago. This is treasure that we are fortunate to have available for research.
But, don’t take my word for it. You can learn more about this document by reading the BYU Studies article written by Alexander Baugh, BYU professor of Church History and Doctrine (Volume 38, Issue 1). Or, come see this document for yourself, among others that will help you better understand these important events in LDS Church history. Who knows…you may even learn something new!