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  • Writer's pictureLawrence Lore

What Happened Here? The Massacre

A ghastly tale of murder and mayhem occurred in the historic area we have been featuring this week. Details were published at the time of the event in the Vincennes Western Star (April 25, 1812) and the Louisiana Gazette (May 16, 1812).

Along the Embarras River, at a place called Mussel Shoals, a few miles southeast of Lawrenceville, in 1812 lived William and Olive Parker Harriman and their five young children. The Harrimans were natives of Montpelier, Vermont, and had moved to the territory to work for John Small who had built a grist mill there. With them lived a young man named Seneca Amy.

Local history says that Olive Harriman, for two successive nights dreamed that she saw her children horribly butchered. She told her husband that she regarded the dreams as prophetic of their fate, unless they sought some place of safety. He endeavored to quiet her fears, but became apprehensive himself because of the “sulky disposition manifested by the natives whom he met”. He finally yielded to her importunities. (This means he probably got tired of her nagging, and didn’t want to admit he was moving to safer territory because of her dreams. Mrs. Harriman gets no credit for trying to save their lives. If he had listened to her earlier, they might have survived but we won’t go there….)

On that evening of April 22, 1812, the family was at the Embarras River’s edge, seated in the pirogue with their belongings stored around them. Harriman sent young Amy back to the cabin to fetch a gun they had left behind. (Pause here to think about this. The family is being attacked by Indians, and the one item you forget to bring with you is the ...gun?)

Approaching the cabin, the young man saw it was surrounded by Indians and saved himself by hiding in the brush unnoticed. The family was not so fortunate. The Indians descended upon them, shooting down Harriman at the onset. (He forgot the gun remember?)

Young Amy ran a half mile downriver to warn two neighboring families. At one cabin the lady of the house had been in labor for 36 hours, and the doctor was in the act of delivering her. The men picked her up, literally threw her into a canoe, descended the Embarras five miles, rowed across the Wabash, and carried her to the first house they came upon, where she delivered a fine son in fifteen minutes.

The next day Lieut. Col. James Miller led a well- armed party to the mill site. Harriman had been shot through the head, tomahawked, and his entrails torn out. Nearby lay the bodies of his wife, two little girls aged nine and seven, twin boys of three years, and the baby, all of them shot, tomahawked, and stabbed. All had been scalped except the baby, held tight in its dead mother's arms. Miller wanted to take the bodies to Vincennes for burial, but he was dissuaded by his men, who argued that the sight would create panic in town. (You think?) Accordingly, he had the family decently buried where they had died. Their unmarked burial site remains today on this property.

On Lieut. Col. Miller’s way back to the Vincennes, the occupants in the house where the delivery of the baby occurred, had all fled and left the new mother with her child alone there. Her husband being with Miller, took his wife and his tiny son back to Vincennes. Unfortunately, this courageous woman’s name has been lost to history.

Later, Lt. Miller would write to his commander that “the savage horrors of the Indian war caused great distress.” (The pregnant woman and Mrs. Harriman would have probably called this understatement.)

After William Henry Harrison sighed a peace treaty with Tecumseh in 1815, John Small and William Spencer returned to operating the mill and ferry. But John Small had bigger plans for the area.

Illinois became the 21st state in the Union in 1818. The land was surveyed and eager settlers began to buy acreage from the U.S. government. Illinois during the period was a wilderness. Settlements in this area were usually limited to land along the Wabash or Embarras Rivers, making this area a perfect location for a town.

(Facts were taken from the book, “Illinois in the War of 1812” by Gillum Ferguson as well as local histories, and newspaper accounts.)

Tomorrow --The Town

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