Sunday, March 1, 2009

Cane Creek Vigilante Movement

An article recently came out in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly titled "Tennessee’s 1884 “Mormon Massacre” and the Cane Creek Vigilante Movement" By Jeremy R. Ricketts

Let me first say I am excited. I don't feel like Jeremy Ricketts beat me to the punch. He has been working on this article longer than I known about the Cane Creek Massacre. In fact, Jeremy grew up in the the area the massacre occurred. This paper is his PhD dissertation for his degree in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He has already presented this paper publicly at least once. I saw him listed on the program for a presentation at the University of Colorado in 2007. In truth, he beat me to the punch long before I even started.

Mostly, however, I am grateful. Jeremy uncovered some documents I did not know existed. "Hidden" in the Church History Archives are two interviews conducted by LDS Missionaries with former members of the vigilante mob. I was able to get a copy of each.
Of course his take on the character and motivations of the mob are fascinating. As I understand the persecution in the north (Nauvoo, Kirtland, etc), bitter apostates stirred up the ire of locals who in fear of losing political control, or their means of making a living, turned to violence. Wickedness, money and power were the driving force behind persecutions in the north.

Ricketts' take is that southern model was different. Much of the U. S. South was still recovering from the Civil War. Frontier justice was still common because the government was seen as incapable of taking care of local needs. So the answer was to form a vigilante committee. These were upstanding men with natural leadership abilities. The men who participated in such "committees" were widely respected, not just in Cane Creek, but across the South. So when the government proved incapable of stopping the Mormons from teaching polygamy, it was only natural to form a vigilante committee to deal with the problem. In addition, these committees were based on kinship networks which made them durable. This was the major fact in the inability of the government to bring any of the vigilantes to trial.

Jeremy Ricketts goes on to recast the events of the massacre through this new lens. He includes information from the interviews in the Church Archives, at least one document in his personal possession, and an interview with a historian from the one of the vigilante's family.
There are some minor details with which I disagree. For example, Ricketts claims that the next Mormon baptism in Lewis county took place in 1949. However I have already identified five baptisms in Lewis County after the Massaacre and prior to 1920.

He also says that two of the vigilante families, the Hinson and the Mathis families, are first cousins. Although Ruben Mathis' mother was indeed a Hinson, tracking back her family line for three generations as well as that of David Hinson does not revel a connection. They may indeed be related, but not closely enough to be first or second cousins. Another source says they were brothers-in-law, but I have not been able to verify this either.

He further claims that Jack Mathis, the brother of Ruben Mathis, was one of the vigilantes based solely on the account of Miles L. Jones. But upon closer inspection, the Miles L. Jones account only identifies one of the vigilantes as Ruben's brother while giving no name. Ruben had at least two brother's and to select one indicates either a casual disregard for the accuracy of his paper or perhaps insufficient research to discover that there are at least two people who fit the description. Of course, Mr. Ricketts does have access to additional information from the Mathis family historian and may have correctly identified Jack Mathis but simply did not cited this correctly.

Which bring out my last point. Multiple times I read something in his paper that made me flip back to the citations excited to see the support for a particularly novel idea. More than once the note in the citation did not indicate a source or was not related to idea being cited. The best example is the claim that
"the next Mormon baptism in Lewis County did not occur until 1949, long after most, if not all, of the vigilantes were dead. "
The citation for this is a discussion reconciling two conflicting indications of when Ruben Mathis was born and how old he was when he gave his interview.

These are, of course, minor in consideration of the value of Ricketts' overall research. In addition to raising awareness about the the massacre, Ricketts' work brings a better understanding of the southern vigilante culture and how it was manifest at the Cane Creek Massacre.

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