Haun’s mill and bottom-up research

Back in 1838, a contingent of Missouri militia members attacked a mill belonging to Jacob Haun that was serving as a settlement for some forty Mormon families. This incident, which occurred during a time of truce, has come to be known as the Haun’s mill massacre. Of course, I grew up learning about this event in Sunday School and other church settings. It is, after all, one of the iconic events of the Missouri period of Mormon history, and one in which the Mormons suffered violence at the hands of others. It was also included in the film Legacy. What I didn’t know is that I had any connection to Haun’s mill.

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Until now, anyway. Last time, I posted a biographical sketch of Ira M Judd, written by his daughter Sarah. Ira is my second great grandfather and his wife Hannah Louise Lewis. It’s his first wife, Nancy Ann Norton, that actually has family that goes back to Haun’s mill. In case you’re wondering, yes, Hannah was a plural (or polygamous) wife. It’s one of those things that makes Mormon genealogy, well, interesting (and confusing!). To me, the most interesting thing about family history, the term I prefer to genealogy in most cases, is that it’s a sort of a bottom up approach to history. We start out with what we know best, our immediate families, and work outward from there. This is, in some sense the opposite of traditional historiography in which we start out with big narratives, and then examine them in ever greater detail, trying to reconstruct a coherent narrative and, maybe more to the point, try to learn why things happened the way they did.

In my case, I started looking at what I knew about Ira M Judd, trying to find more information, if I could. I really had no thought of looking at Nancy at the time, but added historical records as I found them. Once I learned that her father was John Wesley Norton (a name that meant nothing to me) and then that her mother was Rebecca Hammer, the historical records would come quickly, usually a good indication that something interesting is coming. And, indeed, her father, Austin Hammer, was one of those that died at Haun’s mill. In this case, what I stumbled across in this way was a well-known and well-documented historical event, so I didn’t really learn anything about history writ large. At least not this time. Family records could just as easily have led to something new, or to a new perspective on something that’s already known. Then again, family history need not be anything more than learning more about our ancestors and their lives. That’s my goal.

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