The darkest chapter in Mormon-Missouri history occurred when 17 Mormon men and boys were killed at the Hawn’s Mill Massacre. Hostilities between Mormons and Missouri state militia led Joseph to surrender, and he was actually sentenced to death during a court-martial. Historian Steve LeSueur tells us more.
Hawn’s Mill Massacre
GT: Can you just give just a brief description of what happened to Hawn’s Mill?
Steve: The Mormons had a settlement there, and it was on the eastern border of Caldwell County, near Livingston County. So, there were some fears both by the Livingston County citizens and the Mormons at Hawn’s Mill, of an attack by the other. Apparently, they had signed a truce of, “We won’t attack each other.” The situation was such that the Livingston County people, they were fearful, but they were obviously overly aggressive. Then, they were also supplemented by citizens from Daviess County, who had been driven out. So, some of the attackers on Hawn’s Mill, were men from Daviess County, who probably were looking for some revenge. So, you had that going as well. Again, we don’t know. They never said, “No, we’re looking for revenge,” but, I think it’s a reasonable supposition. At this point in time, and I think you and Alex talked about this was, Joseph Smith was calling for the Mormons in the outlying settlements to come into the main town. So, in Caldwell, come to Far West, where you’ll be safe. In Daviess County, they called for them to come into Adam-ondi-Ahman, where you’ll be safe, where we have more people. Jacob Hawn came into Far West, and he talked to, I think Captain Killian, and then, Joseph. He really didn’t get the answer he wanted, which was, “We should stay.”
GT: Stay put.
Steve: But, now I’m going by memory, Joseph just said some effect of “Well, you do what you want, but I’m telling you to stay here.” Then, he went back, Jacob Hawn. According to one account, I read [that] one of the men from Hawn’s Mill, said, “He came back, and told us Joseph said we could come back. But the way Hawn portrayed the message, it was as if, “You can come back, but you would be cowards to do so,” and so they stayed, and this is just one person.
GT: It’s a sad thing.
Steve: Yeah, yeah. The Livingston troops, of course, they had no reason to attack. I mean, there was no threat from that village at all, and [the vigilantes] pretty much wiped them out: 17 killed and quite a number wounded as well. Seriously.
GT: Yeah, it’s a really sad story, in Mormon history.
Steve: For a long time, it was believed, or it was asserted by Mormons that they [the attackers] were just responding to the Extermination Order. But the order had not reached there, and they never gave that reason for doing that. Those who did speak about it argued that, “We thought the Mormons were going to attack us and so we attacked them first.” Whether they really believed that or not, again, we don’t have any contrary evidence, but we do know, they certainly had no reason to attack. They had no [reason. The Mormons attacking them] wasn’t going to occur. But maybe they were persuaded by the Daviess citizens or other events.
GT: Do we have any reaction by Boggs to the Hawn’s Mill Massacre?
Steve: You know, that’s a good question. Not that I recall, but I won’t say no. When somebody visited him, a Mormon, with some petitions, Boggs did express a lot of concern about the conditions of the Mormons, but I think this was in Far West. Also, the Mormon who recounted this didn’t really believe Boggs. He thought it was more of crocodile tears.
Steve: So, after Joseph comes back to Far West, and there’s the Crooked River Battle and the Extermination Order, and the troops come out. Several men, Reed Peck, and John Corrill and some others volunteered to go talk to the Missourians and find out what’s going on. Eventually, it ends up there’s five of them that that go out representing the Mormons. They go and they meet with General Lucas, who is in charge of the troops. He’s from Jackson County, by the way. So, here’s somebody’s not sympathetic to the Mormons. They’re just going out to find out what’s going on. What are your orders here? Lucas, gives them four demands. He says, “Well, first of all, you’ve got to give up your arms. Second, you’ve got to surrender. Give up your arms, you’ve got to surrender all of the people who were involved in the Crooked River Battle,” because a Missourian was killed. So, these were state troops. “We want to prosecute these people, and your leaders have got to be given up as well. Then, get ready to leave the state.” These five Mormon men, “Well, wait a second. You can’t make us give up our arms.” I think I should have looked this up before our discussion here. But I think he says something like, “You’ve got 30 minutes,” he says, “to agree to this.” He says, “If you need more time, then what you have to do is you have to give up these five men as hostages.” He names Joseph Smith, and Sidney Rigdon, and Hyrum Smith, and Lyman Wight,
Steve: and somebody else. He says, “You’ve got to give these people up as hostages while you make your decision, then you have till tomorrow,” he says. “If you want to fight to get your hostages back, we’ll give you back Joseph Smith and you can fight. But otherwise, you’ve got to do that now because I’m going to attack in 30 minutes.” So, these five commissioners, as we call them, they were negotiators, whatever you want to call them. They didn’t negotiate, you know, they were just given an ultimatum. The five men were George Hinkle, WW Phelps, John Corrill, Reed Pack, and a man named Morrison. Arthur Morrison, I think was his name. They run back. And they’ve got to tell Joseph, all of this stuff.
Steve: By the way, it is Joseph in charge. They’ve got to tell Joseph. So, there’s some discussion. Based on what the discussion was, the Mormon leaders, they knew exactly what Lucas was asking for. They were not betrayed. They were not tricked into going there. They knew what was at stake. The only thing that they didn’t know was they thought they would be able to go and negotiate with Lucas about these terms. That appears to be what they thought. But, in any case, they didn’t have much time. While they’re doing this discussion, Lucas was already setting up his cannons and his troops and lining them up. He was ready. He was going to attack. So, I’m sure these commissioners, these five men, were saying, “Come on.” So, the five men/the hostages go out. Again, they knew they were hostages. People back in Far West knew they were hostages to be released the next day if they wanted to fight. So, they go out there.
Steve: But, Lucas doesn’t negotiate with them. He just immediately said, “Alright, you’re my prisoners. You go sit over there.” They don’t get to talk to anybody. They just get to sit there in the rain all night and listen to Missourians howl. But, again, the Mormons knew what was going to happen, because among the things they did, is they went and they [were told,] “Go get the Crooked River boys,” all of those who fought at Crooked River. “They’ve got to get out of town.” So, that’s what many of them did. So, you had Charles Rich and others leave in the middle of the night, sneak out of town and get away. Why? Because they knew they were going to go on trial. So, then the next day comes, and the hostages are given their choice, “Do you want to fight or not fight?”
Steve: Well, they could see what was going on. They could see all the troops. So, they decide to surrender. But it wasn’t George Hinkle who negotiated those terms or set those terms. It wasn’t him who said that we’re not going to fight. It was Joseph. But the way things turned out, the Mormon hostages, Joseph and the others thought they had been betrayed, that somehow this is what Corrill and Hinkle and the others have negotiated. But, no. The terms were just dictated to them. Hinkle and Corrill, they had no more choice over what the terms were than Joseph did. But Joseph saw the handwriting on the wall that Far West and the Mormons would have been wiped out, lots of deaths, so, he surrendered.
GT: Okay, and this is what day? Do we know? This is November, I believe.
Steve: November 1st was the day of the surrender. So, October 31 was the day the troops showed up, and the hostages went out, and then, overnight to the November 1. By the way, news of the Hawn’s Mill Massacre had reached the Mormons.
GT: I was going to say that.
Steve: Before they went out as hostages, which was sort of another indication of…
GT: We can’t win this.
Steve: Then, I can’t remember if you and Alex talked about this, but then General Lucas subsequently held a court-martial of the prisoners, considering them military leaders. He court-martialed them and sentenced them to death, and then asked General Doniphan’s troops to carry out the sentence. Doniphan refused. A member of his troops, Peter Burnett, also recounts this and says the men in Doniphan’s brigade came to him and said, “We’re behind you on this. We’re not going to do this.” Lucas, by the way, then later denied that he ever did such a thing.
GT: Well, I know that’s in Sunday School manuals where Alexander Doniphan is, lauded as a great hero for defending Joseph Smith’s life in that situation. I’m trying to remember. They even quote what he said to Lucas, “You know this is illegal and I will hold you responsible.”
Steve: Lyman Wight tells an interesting story, too. He says that one of the officers came to him and said something to the effect of, “Listen. It’s just Joseph we want, just Joseph Smith.” He says, “If you’ll swear against him, we’ll let you go.” Lyman Wight says, “No way. Shoot and be damned.”
What are your thoughts on how the Mormons were treated in Missouri during this time?
Joseph Smith spent about six months in Liberty Jail following the Mormon-Missouri War of 1838. Historian Steve LeSueur talks more about the court hearings, and Joseph’s escape from jail, (or was he let go by the sheriff?)
Liberty Jail Hearing
Steve: Yes, and it appears that he was let go by the sheriff. So, he’s in jail. At the Richmond preliminary hearing, he and about 63 Mormons, I think it is, were tried for various crimes allegedly committed during the war. Here, again, is an example of, well, in a conflict like this: there’s winners and losers. Whoever wins puts the losers on trial for the crimes that were committed. In this case, the Mormons lost, so they were put on [trial.] It was thought [that] they were the aggressors. They’re put on trial and Joseph and some others are put in jail for treason.
Steve: Now, let me mention here, that the Richmond court of inquiry occurred after Lucas finally surrenders the prisoners. He doesn’t kill them. Boggs is adamant that, “Hey, turn them over to the civil authorities if they committed crimes.” So, it’s called the Richmond court of inquiry. For much of our Mormon history, we have derided this as a mock trial, a mock hearing, where the Mormons weren’t allowed to bring defense witnesses, and the people who testified, all lied, either on purpose, or they were Missourians who lied or dissenters who lied because they were bitter, or Mormons who were forced at the point of bayonet to lie. What they lied about was that there was burning and plundering etc. This was a mock trial.
Steve: Well, this was not a trial. It was a preliminary hearing. The purpose of a preliminary hearing is just to see if there’s probable cause to believe that the defendants may have committed the crimes. And if so, then you bind them over for an actual trial. So, that’s all this was. So, there was plenty of evidence, people testifying that, “Yes, I saw Joseph do this. Yes, I saw Joseph do that, ” or “Yes, I saw this person at the Battle of Crooked River.” So, that was sufficient to say, okay for example, if you were at the Battle of Crooked River, one of the soldiers, then you were part of this group that murdered a state militiaman.
Steve: Likewise, if you were at Gallatin while the town was being burned and plundered, or I saw you there, that’s enough. The Mormons’ defense, if they were to mount a defense, would have been something to the effect of, “Yes, I was there. I was protecting myself. Yes, I did this. It was because I was being attacked.” Or “We thought we were going to be attacked.” So, these are legitimate defenses. But, you don’t put on that defense at a preliminary hearing. Because, in fact, if you were to say that at a preliminary hearing, the judge would say, “Okay, so you were there and you did shoot,” or, “you did do,” whatever. That’s up for a jury to figure out whether you were justified or not? The Mormons did actually bring seven people who testified, and they testified to very specific things like, “No, he didn’t have a clock,” or “I heard Sampson Avard say he would lie.”
Steve: They [the ones charged with treason] were not allowed to post bail. And those who were involved in the Crooked River Battle, were not allowed to post bail, because there was a murder involved. So, that’s why Joseph was in Liberty Jail, was because of the testimony of him saying that he was prepared to march against the state. He didn’t care if state troops all came against him, that all the militia was a mob, etc. This was interpreted as possible treason. So, he goes to Liberty Jail, then he and his fellow prisoners are taken up to Gallatin for a trial, a grand jury hearing, essentially, again, more just like a preliminary hearing, and they get a change of venue to a different county. So, it was while they were being transferred that the sheriff in Daviess, apparently, let them go. There’s some testimony, people said that oh, yeah, they saw that sheriff later in Nauvoo collecting his bribe. So, some people have argued that the whole state was in on letting him go. They just wanted to let Joseph go, because they saw that they really messed up and just wanted to be done with the Mormons. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. Because, when the sheriff came back to Gallatin, he apparently was ridden out of town, tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail, because they didn’t like the fact that he let Joseph get away. Then, later, Missouri did try and extradite Joseph and Lyman Wight and some others.
GT: So you think the sheriff went against the state government, in letting Joseph go?
Steve: I don’t know. I haven’t found any evidence that anybody in the state said, “Yeah, let him go.” It’s been more of our surmise that they probably were glad to be rid of him, and [were not] sorry, because it made the state look bad. I think that’s a legitimate interpretation, though, I could also just interpret it as, this guy [decided on his own to] let him go, and as far as the state was concerned, it wasn’t worth the trouble to try and go get him, and for those reasons. It just makes us [the state of Missouri] look bad.
Following the Mormon expulsion from Missouri, someone made an attempt on Missouri Gov Boggs’ life. Most people think it was Porter Rockwell. What does historian Steve LeSueur have to say about the matter?
Gov Boggs Assassination Attempt
GT: Oh, except for I guess we forgot about the assassination of Gov Boggs. Actually, I wanted to get your opinions of Governor Boggs’ handling. I know you said in your book, by the end of his term, nobody liked him. He wasn’t a very good governor. Was he a pretty terrible governor? Would a different person have handled that better?
Steve: I’d say a different person probably couldn’t have handled it worse. So, yes, I would say that. In the book, I tried to let him speak for himself and explain, “Well, this is why I did this or that.” But, for the most part, as it turned out, he was prepared to send out troops early on, when he thought the Mormons were the cause of trouble. But it turned out that Atchison and his troops were able to solve things. So, Boggs didn’t come out. He didn’t need to. But, then later, as things started breaking down, Boggs continually heard reports from his generals, saying, “You need to come out here.”
Steve: The Mormons are not at fault. But the Mormons are in a desperate situation. They’re desperate people, and we could have a big war here, a big conflict. So, they asked him to come out. He didn’t come out. You could say, “Well, that it isn’t necessarily the governor’s job to call out troops and lead them out all the way out west, like that.” But that’s what he was asked to do.
GT: So, would you say he was the worst governor of Missouri?
Steve: Well, I don’t know my Missouri history.
GT: There might have been one worse?
Steve: I don’t want to shortchange anybody. By the time he [Boggs] left office, he was not popular.
Steve: Just based on my knowledge, it’s not something I’ve looked into recently. So, if there’s been recent evidence, I don’t know of it. But the evidence seems to be that on the one hand, when you say the attempt, Porter Rockwell, a Mormon was accused of trying to assassinate Boggs, and Boggs was shot. He was shot and Porter Rockwell mysteriously happened to be in Independence at the time. [Rockwell] was arrested, tried by a jury and acquitted. They didn’t have enough evidence to convict him. You would think that this would be a jury that might be eager to convict a Mormon of something like this. But they didn’t.
Steve: So, on the one hand, there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive evidence [that Rockwell shot Boggs]. We haven’t uncovered any evidence about it. On the other hand, what was Porter Rockwell [doing there?] He had no business, really, in that town. There was no reason why he should have been there. [There was] no reason why any Mormon would have wanted to have been in western Missouri at that time. Excuse me for forgetting, I don’t remember which year that was. Was it 1842-43?
GT: I don’t remember either.
Steve: Anyway, the Mormons weren’t there. He had no reason to be there. There’s a story, likely apocryphal. But somebody asked Porter Rockwell, “Did you really try to attempt to assassinate Boggs?”
Steve: He said, “Well, if it had been me, it would not have been an attempted assassination.”
GT: [Porter implies,] “I would have done it. I wouldn’t have missed.”
Steve: Yeah, he would be dead.
GT: It seems like Alex Baugh said that it was like a buckshot pistol. It wasn’t something that would have killed him. It was like a BB gun kind of a thing. It was more to just to scare him. So, he thought, “Well, maybe Porter was trying to scare Boggs,” which, if that’s what it was, he certainly accomplished that.
What are your thoughts on the Missouri Period?
If you’re interested in Steve’s other writings, check this out!
Articles and Books by Steve LeSueur
LeSueur, Stephen C. The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.
LeSueur, Stephen C. “”High Treason and Murder”: The Examination of Mormon Prisoners at Richmond, Missouri, in November 1838.” Brigham Young University Studies 26, no. 2 (1986): 2-30.
LeSueur, Stephen C. “The Danites Reconsidered: Were They Vigilantes or Just the Mormons’ Version of the Elks Club?” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 14 (1994): 35-51.
LeSueur, Stephen C. “The Community of Christ and the Search for a Usable Past.” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 22 (2002): 1-24.
LeSueur, Stephen C. “The Mormon Experience in Missouri, 1830-39,” pp. 87-112, in Excavating Mormon Pasts: the New Historiography of the Last Half Century, eds., Newell G. Bringhurst and Lavina Fielding Anderson, Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2004.
LeSueur, Stephen C. “Missouri’s Failed Compromise: The Creation of Caldwell County for the Mormons.” Journal of Mormon History 31, no. 2 (2005): 113-44.
LeSueur, Stephen C. “Mixing Politics with Religion: A Closer Look at Electioneering and Voting in Caldwell and Daviess Counties in 1838.” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 33, no. 1 (2013): 184-208.