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History’s Newsroom: Terror in Hancock County, 1845

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 21, 2012

Although I found this article in the Cleveland Herald, it appeared originally in the St. Louis Republican. The editor of the Republican at that date was Adam Black Chambers, presumably the author of this report. The scene is Hancock County, Illinois, in the farming district near Nauvoo and Carthage. The article describes – from the anti-Mormon perspective – the destruction of isolated Mormon farms and small settlements, leading to negotiations for the Mormons to leave Illinois and head West in the spring, as soon as the grass had grown enough to support the animals needed to pull Mormon wagons. And remember, the man writing about these events witnessed them the very day he composed his report.

CLEVELAND HERALD (Cleveland, Ohio)
27 September 1845

LETTER FROM THE EDITOR– THE BURNINGS –VISIT TO THE ENCAMPMENT –
THE OPPOSING PARTIES ON THE PRAIRIE – NO FIGHT –
PROSPECTS OF A COMPROMISE, AND OF THE MORMONS LEAVING THE STATE.

From the St. Louis Republican.

Warsaw, Wednesday Eve., Sept. 17.

I have finished an exciting and toilsome day, and witnessed scenes that, for the cause of humanity, and the credit of the laws of the land, as well as the good name and reputation of freemen, I most heartily wish had never transpired.

The civil war now raging here, has assumed a violence of character and feeling, of which those who have not witnessed its manifestation, or heard the expressions of the parties, can form no just estimate. I do not believe it could possibly be much more violent or unrelenting. The anti-Mormons are firmly convinced that they and the Mormons cannot live in the same community; that one or the other must go, and by a process of reasoning, if it may be called reasoning, upon their real or supposed wrongs, they have justified to their minds the right to inflict any violence which will drive the Mormons away. Under their present impressions, they would feel themselves justified in taking life, if such a contingency, in their view, was necessary to the attainment of the end desired– the driving of the Mormons out of the county. There are many here, if their language may be taken as indicating their real thoughts, who would have no compunctions in killing a Mormon, especially if engaged in a fight or fray. Nor can it be said that these feelings, this deadly hate of the Mormons, is confined to a few. But I have not time to dwell on this matter.

This morning, having procured a horse, I went out to the theatre of the difficulties, Green Plains, or to Col. Williams’, the headquarters of the anti-Mormons. About four miles out I passed the ruins of some four or five buildings, the residences of Mormons, which had been burned down the day previous. They were still blazing and smoking. Generally, the houses of the Mormons were small log buildings, of but little intrinsic value; but some of the ruins I passed were of the better class of large log houses. At the site of one, there stood the stacks of three chimneys. In every instance, the chimneys were standing monuments of the ruin and devastation around them.

A mile or so further on, I witnessed the process of destroying the homes. The Anti-Mormons, as the best means of driving the Mormons away, have resolved to burn down all their dwellings, but at the same time manifest a proper anxiety not to inflict injury upon the sick, and not to destroy any moveable property, or any of the grain or crops. In this they are careful, and I believe, where the contrary has been the case, it has been accidental. On arriving at a place called Stringtown — a number of Mormon residences being built along the road, each having attached to it a small farm — in the lane in front of one of these buildings were about twenty armed men, on horseback, drawn up. Within, the family, consisting of the parent and a number of daughters and sons, from about eighteen years down, assisted and urged on by two or three of the armed posse, were carrying and throwing out every moveable thing. The family were working with great assiduity and industry, and it was painful beyond conception, to witness them toiling thus to prepare their own house for the sacrifice. Still, they did it with more composure than I could have commanded. Except the mother and one or two of the youngest children, the rest worked with even a forced appearance of pleasure, and would reply, or laugh with seeming freedom, to the jests and jokes of the men who urged on the work. At length every thing was removed, even to the flooring plank – a fire was then kindled in one corner, by the aid of the clap-boards and other dry combustibles, and in ten minutes, the flames danced over the labor of months. In this way, the party served six or seven buildings, of the number, a handsome frame house. As I passed one place, a solitary female, apparently past the meridian of life, was walking alone, with mournful steps and downcast eyes, around the smoking heap which constituted the ruins of her home! I suppose that it was her only shelter. The sight might have drawn pity from sterner material that I can boast of. One man who was burnt out had twelve in his family; his house, of hewed logs, had been recently put up, and a smile of joy and triumph for a moment lit up the faces of his family, at the suggestion that the logs being green, would not burn; but it was only momentary for soon it was all in a blaze.

From this place, the armed party passed over to the Bear Creek Settlement, and soon the ascending columns of black smoke told that the work of destruction was going on. In various other directions the ascending smoke gave notice that other parties were out. As far as I can ascertain, from a free conversation with persons engaged, there have been destroyed – including those burned in the Morley settlement –between 70 and 100 houses. All have been swept in the Morley precinct, and between 20 and 30 ruins may be seen in a short ride in this vicinity. In many cases, the loss has not been great, but in deprivation imposed on the unhappy residents, it has been heavy.

From the scene of burning at Stringtown, I went to Col. Williams’, the headquarters of the anti-Mormon party. We met a number of armed men at various houses which we passed on the way, and at Col. Williams’ there were a number, but the larger portion of the anti party engaged in this business, were out on scouts, as they call those parties sent out to burn down the buildings. Col. Williams, Col. McCauley, and several others, whom I met and conversed with, are old men, and for many years have been citizens of the county. They are respectable men, and some of them have filled high official stations, but in their opposition to the Mormons they are irrevocably fixed. Those with them are determined looking men. I regretted to notice among the number, several youths and two small boys. All breathe but one spirit – that is, that one party or the other must leave, and any means are justifiable to drive the Mormons away.

About eleven o’clock, a couple of gentlemen drove up, in great haste, and announced that Mr. Backenstos, the Sheriff of the county, was in a prairie near the camp, with five hundred armed men. Instantly there was a call to arms. Those who had horses were despatched to call in the scouting parties, whilst a small company on foot were marched through the woods to the prairie. An engagement seemed to be inevitable, and I expected to see a little bit of a fight. I soon reached the prairie, and got in a position to have a near and good view of the conflict. As I belonged to another parish, and was not in any way identified with the parties, I felt no uneasiness and was not so much interested in the result as the active partizans on the ground.

Upon getting my station, I saw Backenstos, with about two hundred mounted men, well armed, approaching from the north west, on the road to Nauvoo. His men were well mounted, and, backed by sufficient courage, ought to have done efficient service. He was marching in the open prairie, in the direction of the burning buildings on Bear Creek. Information of the approach of Backenstos had been sent to the scouts engaged in firing these buildings, and they had to return by a road crossing the Nauvoo road at right angles. The scouts and a number of others from Col. Williams’, soon appeared on a hill, each having the other in full view, separated by an hundred yards or more. Now for the roar of the guns, and the clash of steel, the deadly conflict, the struggle, the groan and all that makes up the excitement and horrors of war! The horses are at the top of their speed, each party keeping on their way. Alas! for my high expectations! The Antis held on for the camp, urging their horses by every possible means. Backenstos followed after, and if there was not a fight, it was at least an exciting race. Some of the Antis took to the corn fields, while the horsemen followed the road they were on, through a lane, – some returning to camp, and some taking the nearest route home, or to thick woods. Backenstos’ men marched up to the foot of the lane, where they made a sudden halt. I can only account for their not continuing the pursuit, by supposing that they feared an ambush was laid in the corn fields on the side of the road. I did not see or hear a gun fired, but one man– a Mr. Landsey, of the Anti-Mormon party – and his horse, were wounded by a discharge of buckshot, but not seriously. Backenstos soon wheeled his men, and returned to the road on which he had been marching, and turned in the direction of Nauvoo, to Golden’s Point, where he is encamped to-night, about 12 miles from this place, and the same distance from the encampment of the Antis. Backenstos went, on Tuesday night, from Nauvoo to Carthage, with about 500 armed men, and removed his family from the latter to the former place. His posse of 200 were a portion of the 500. I do not believe it is the intention of Backenstos, or of his men, to give the Antes a fight. In fact, I begin to believe there is no such word in the Mormon dictionary as courage. Men who will suffer their houses to be burned down in broad day, and in their own sight, and will not fight to protect them, cannot possess a particle of courage.

In the evening I returned to Col. Williams’ camp, where I found many heroes of the day’s conflict. It was amusing to listen to the accounts, apologies, and various versions given of the affair. No two agreed in all particulars, and not one ran from any fear of the consequences to himself. I reached Warsaw about dark.

The Twelve Elders, or principal men of the Mormons, have addressed a proposition to the Antis, which was received this evening, and which, I trust, may put a final end to this war. The Twelve propose that they will leave Nauvoo, and the county, next spring, provided hostilities are suspended, and the vexatious suits which they charge the Antis to have instituted against them, are withdrawn, and they are allowed peaceably to dispose of their property, and prepare for their removal. They have appointed a committee of five, to correspond with a committee of an equal number on the part of the old settlers. This proposition is well received by many of the citizens of Warsaw, and if they do not reject it because of the language in which it is addressed them, (they thinking it disrespectful,) it will most likely lead to a settlement, and to the removal of the Mormons from among them. It is very desirable that this should be the result.



6 Comments »

  1. They are respectable men, and some of them have filled high official stations, but in their opposition to the Mormons they are irrevocably fixed. Those with them are determined looking men. . . . All breathe but one spirit – that is, that one party or the other must leave, and any means are justifiable to drive the Mormons away.

    “I begin to believe there is no such word in the Mormon dictionary as courage. Men who will suffer their houses to be burned down in broad day, and in their own sight, and will not fight to protect them, cannot possess a particle of courage.

    Thanks for this article! It is a precious find.

    What a sad day. Hurrah for the early Saints!

    Comment by ji — September 21, 2012 @ 9:39 am

  2. Great to read a contemporary report from a non-interested party. Thanks for sharing.

    I have to add a personal note here. One of the homes burned on this day belonged to one of my wife’s ancestors, Edmund Durfee. Along with the other farmers, Durfee and his family retreated to Nauvoo for safety. About a month later, Durfee and several other farmers returned to the area in an attempt to harvest the crops they had left behind. They stayed overnight at the home of a sympathetic non-Mormon, but their presence became know to the mobs, who set fire to the haystack. As the men rushed out to fight the fire, the attackers opened fire, and Edmund Durfee was shot in the back and killed, November 15th.

    Durfee’s wife and children, some of them grown and married, traveled west to Utah, but Durfee’s wife died at Winter Quarters, leaving the the older siblings to continue the trek and care for the younger ones. I believe there were 8 children in the family.

    Comment by kevinf — September 21, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

  3. Fascinating. Great find, Ardis. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Christopher — September 21, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

  4. The “partizan” political struggles of this year pale in comparison, huh?

    I think I must side with the author that the Mormon’s should have been more stubborn in defending their rightful property. OTOH, maybe they learned a lesson at Crooked River that we’ve forgotten. In any case, it might explain why BY opted for a firmer stance 15 years later when Johnson’s Army came to Utah.

    Comment by The Other Clark — September 21, 2012 @ 5:30 pm

  5. Thanks, Ardis.

    But, names! If only we had more names! He has a few names of the anti-Mormon party, but not of the Mormons. Checking back my only source, History of the Church V7:522, 525, 527, 530, it appears that my ancestor William Kelsey Rice’s home at Camp Creek was burned five days earlier on September 12. I’ve got to get to the CHL and do more work on this.

    Comment by Grant — September 21, 2012 @ 9:42 pm

  6. This is fascinating. Some of my ancestors lived close enough to know of the “Mormon problem.” The is only one journal entry in a farming diary that recorded the lack of workers to harvest his crops because they “had all got caught up in the excitement of settling’ the Mormon problem, 20 miles away. What good it is to feed and house a man who is so intemperate to leave good work undone for the sport of hunting Mormons.”

    I will have to ask my mom which direction the 20 miles away from Nauvoo they were. I am not sure which of the John Holmans wrote it, but it is either my third great grandfather (born 1830) the nephew of that third great grandfather (born 1832) who is not a direct ancestor, or my fourth great grandfather (died 1847). It is tempting to go with the older John, except that all of the contracts he signed were with an X.

    My third great grandfather married one of the Ruttle girls in 1846, when he was 16. (He married three Ruttle girls (his first two wives were cousins who both died in childbirth, and his third wife was his first wife’s twin sister.) His address on the marriage certificate is different from his parent’s farm, so he may have had a farm in 1845.

    A total side note, but I always wondered why John’s oldest sister name her second son John. The “older John” was only two years old and the only boy of that generation. I also think it is interesting that three of the girls in the family married first or second cousins, and do they had the same names for their entire lives.

    Okay, sorry to ramble. I just thought it was cool to realize that it was the same date in the journal. My mom made all of us kids photocopied all of the source materials for Christmas last year. It is the first time I have actually had any of my family have a connection to the LDS church before the late 60s. Thank you for making a little bit of my family history more alive.

    Comment by Julia — September 22, 2012 @ 12:45 am

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