Sunday, September 11, 2011

William Allen Aden: Artist and Adventurer

William was born near Paris, in Henry County, Tennessee in 1838 to Sidney Bennett Aden (1806-1879) and Delilah H. Brown (1809-1889). He was handsome, six feet tall with blue eyes and dark hair. When he was a young man, a Mormon missionary came through town by the name of William Laney (1815-1891). While Elder Laney was preaching in front of the court house, William Aden and a few of his friends, secured a small canon and set it up on the other side of the building. Without warning they set off the canon, with the intent of surprising the missionary. It was more successful than they had hoped, Laney was so sure that an armed mob was upon him that he immediately fled the scene. On his rush out of town, he ran into William's father Dr. Sidney B. Aden who assured the Elder that he would protect him. Only after taking the missionary to his home was the truth of the prank fully revealed, including William's participation.

William was an artist. In addition to painting, he wrote poetry and played the banjo "tolerably". Letters from his father and brother, however, both describe him as an artist, and from their descriptions and the jobs he took, he was quite good. To earn a living he painted signs, but he was interested in so much more. So when the opportunity arose, he set off for California in search of adventure.

While in Wyoming, he met a member of the Provo Theatre Company who recognized William's talent and offered him work painting scenes for the theatre. William seemed to like the idea. He wrote his father telling him he was going to spend the winter in Provo painting for the theatre and continue on to California in the spring.

When he arrived in Provo, however, something changed his mind. Perhaps he heard rumors of the coming war. So instead of staying to work he joined a group of Mormons heading south. He hoped he would catch up with a wagon train heading to California.

At Parowan he caught up with the wagon train while they were camped outside the town walls. The town was under orders not to trade with any wagon train, except for small amounts of grain. While they were making their trade, William recognized a man from his past, Elder Laney, who his father had sheltered in Paris, Tennessee a few years earlier. William identified himself. Laney, who remembered it all, invited William to his home inside the fort. Laney was polygamist and at the time had two wives and they both lived in the same home. During the visit, William noticed some onions growing in the garden and asked about purchasing them. Laney, eager to repay the kindness William's father had shown him, immediately had them harvested and presented them to William as a gift. Laney later said he was beaten by town authorities for trading with the wagon train against specific orders. His life was saved by his two wives who dragged hin into the house away from the thugs.

The details of what happened to William after he left Parowan starts to diverge based on who is telling the story. From the various versions William appears to have been accepted into the wagon train, led by Alexander Fancher. Yes, the Fancher Party. The full story of what happened to the Fancher Party is beyond the scope of this post, but a day or so after the initial "Indian" attack, William was shot and killed by William C. Stewart. William Aden's murder and that fact that a witness made it back to the rest of the wagon train, was one of the pivotal events of the Massacre at Mountain Meadows.

William's family, and most particularly his father, spent years trying to track down William, even offering a reward of $1,000. They hoped that perhaps he was merely captured by Indians. It would be 1874 before William's family was convinced he had joined the Fancher party and was certainly dead.

Fast forward to the spring of 1884. While Elders John H. Gibbs and William H. Jones were traveling somewhere in west Tennessee, the two missionaries were accosted by two men with clubs who said they were angry about the death of a relative at Mountain Meadows. Jones, who spoke about the event with a newspaper reporter, had no idea who that relative might be. But in this case I believe it was William Aden they were angry about.

There were several people among those killed at Mountain Meadows who were born in Tennessee. In most cases, their parents had settled in Tennessee briefly before continuing on west to Arkansas. Plus nearly all of them were from counties east or south of Nashville. But William's  family still lived Tennessee. In addition, Aden's home in Henry County, Tennessee was very close to where Gibbs and Jones spent the first couple of weeks of their west Tennessee tour. 

The full extent of the attrocity at Mountain Meadows wasn't widely known at first, and even today more is being discovered. But certainly after John D. Lee published his book in 1877, most Tennesseans who knew about it at all would have correctly believed that it was perpetrated by the local Mormon residents in southern Utah. That a couple of relatives of William Aden's would have made a connection between two Mormon missionaries and William's death does not seem far fetched.

Others of the Fancher Party born in Tennessee:
Captain Alexander Fancher was born in Overton Co., Tenn., but left when he was a young man. He still had relatives there but many of them joined him when he settled in Arkansas.
Milum Lafayette Rush was born in Rhea Co., and lived in Meigs Co., Tenn. before he moved to Arkansas
Three of the Huff Children were born in Meigs Co., Tenn., before their parents moved to Arkansas
Mary M. Wharton & Nancy Jane Wharton were from Lawrence Co., Tenn., before they moved to Arkansas
Jesse Dunlap, Jr. was born in Warren Co., Tenn., before he moved to Arkansas
Cynthia Tackitt was born somewhere in Tennessee before she moved to Arkansas
Armilda S. Miller Tackitt was born somewhere in Tennessee before she moved to Arkansas
Silas Edwards born in Hickman Co., Tenn., before he moved to Arkansas
Charles Roark Mitchell was born somewhere in Tennessee before he moved to Arkansas
Allen P. Deshazo born in Hickman Co., Tenn., before he moved to Arkansas


Ardis said...

This is a day to remember those others, too, Bruce -- thanks. The terrible irony of the Aden and Laney connection is especially poignant.

Do you have a copy of the letter Aden's father wrote to Brigham Young asking for word of his missing son?

BruceCrow said...

You know, I hadn't even connected that letter with your collection. No, I don't have a copy of that letter, but I'd like to. I am assuming you do.

andrew h said...

Very nice column. Thank you for writing this.

I have read the two letters fro Brigham Young to Aden in the book "Innocent Blood." I did not realize that there was an extant letter of Aden to Brigham. It would be interesting to read.

Ardis is a real treasure. I bet if the Church archives were completely lost that she could rebuild them from her lap top.

BruceCrow said...

Thank you Andrew. I read excerpts from Aden's letter in Richard E. Turley's book. But I haven't seen the whole thing.

Kevin said...

Bruce, I am always amazed at what you do in your corner of the world there. I always enjoy your blog, I just don't get here often enough.

BruceCrow said...

Thanks, it is a quiet corner of the world. I couldn't do much of it without the internet.

Anonymous said...

William Aden's Aunt, Lucinda (Aden) Earnest is my great-great-great grandmother. I came upon your blog as I was preparing to visit my daughter in Franklin, TN this week. I hope to find the gravesite of William's grandparents Bennett and Martha Aden which I believe to be in, or near, Fairview, TN on Thursday. Thanks for your work and your graciousness in sharing it with us. History is such a wonderful commentary on the journey of man.

Anonymous said...

William Allen Aden was one of my grandfathers uncles. Somewhere in the family files we have several letters from Brigham Young admitting that they killed William but never apologising or fully explaining the "why".

Good story
Jim Aden

BruceCrow said...

Thanks for taking the time to come by and comment. I'd love to read those letters, if you ever get your hands on them.