Murder at Dexter’s Peninsula Mills
By Doug Marrin
Note: The following article is a synopsis of the intellectual work of Danielle Roth from her 2006 Eastern Michigan University Masters Thesis, Murder at the Dexter Michigan, Peninsula Mills. While an undergrad, Danielle worked summers with the Dexter Area Historical Society.
Twenty-three-year-old Deforest Phelps was murdered by Sayer Reeves in the dark hours of the morning of May 2, 1845, outside of Dexter, near the Peninsula Mills.
Roth delves into and frames the case as a glimpse into the evolving socio-economic landscape and the stress these forces could have on some citizens. The story is also a fascinating example of a surreal legal process that allowed a man to get away with murder.
Just beyond the Dexter city limits, across the Huron River on Mast Road, sits a blue party store at the five-point corner. This party store is the historic site of the Peninsula Mills and the dam that Jesse Millerd and his son, George, constructed to power their grist mill.
The Peninsula Dam had been “the theatre of much excitement” for the Village of Dexter because of the ongoing feud between the Millerds and Sayer Reeves. Each spring, with the winter runoff, the dam caused Huron River to flood Reeves’s homestead a mile upriver. As a result of the flooding, many trees on the property rotted out, and the Reeves family suffered from waterborne diseases. Reeves pursued legal means for the problem and had successfully sued the Millerds. However, the father and son refused to pay.
Reeves then took the matter into his own hands. On the night of May 1, 1845, Reeves, his brother-in-law Jonas Young, another relative, James Jacobus, and two friends set out to destroy the dam. Unbeknownst to the five, a group of twenty Dexter citizens, including Deforest Phelps, had learned of the plot and were positioned, ready to defend the dam.
Mills were critical to the health of a frontier economy. In America, mills were the first buildings to be constructed when settling an area. Settlers harnessed the power of rivers such as the Huron to drive the rural business opportunities. Around Dexter, mills would be built in the villages of Delhi and Scio. Samuel Dexter constructed a mill in the heart of his namesake settlement. The Bates Flour Mill was built on Mill Creek, near where it intersects with Shield Road. Hudson Mills would evolve into a village of six mills. In these communities, water-powered machinery cut logs, ground grain, and wove fabric.
The impact of a mill on an area cannot be understated. Primarily, mills allowed farmers to move beyond subsistence living to growing surplus, processing it, and selling it to the markets out east. Roth speculates that the economic boon the Peninsula gristmill provided Dexter was the reason for the citizens’ zeal in protecting it.
But the mill that was a blessing for the Dexter community was a curse for Sayer Reeves. Late at night on May 1, 1845, he and his cohorts began tearing down the wooden dam at the Peninsula Grist Mill. Around midnight on Friday, May 2, 1845, the citizen group rushed forward to stop the destruction led by Deforest Phelps. Reeves had resolved to fire upon anyone who attempted to stop them. Reeves blindly shot into the crowd. Phelps was struck and died on-site. Reeves fled into the night, tossing the gun into the mill race.
In her thesis, Roth delves into the possible mindset that drove Reeves to murder. As mentioned, the mill gave farmers the chance to sell their surplus to New England markets. The Peninsula Mill, like others, symbolized economic modernization for the Village of Dexter. A new culture of “individualism and competitive pursuit of wealth” was emerging. “Reeves murdered Deforest Phelps in part out of the frustration of being trapped in a larger, economic, legal, and cultural transformation occurring in southeastern Michigan,” Roth states.
Reeves was poor, barely able to avoid starvation. Perhaps it was a profound and overwhelming sense of being left behind in the growing wealth or feeling victimized by those getting rich that provoked him to attack the most tangible element of his changing world—the mill and the people who supported it.
Roth writes, “In 1845, Dexter was a village in transition. A decade previous, Dexter was a small agricultural community without many outlets to the outside market. The residents of Dexter produced most of the goods they required themselves. Then, in 1841, the train flooded the small community with goods and people from the East and Europe. Suddenly Dexter had a thriving business center, an accessible market for their produce and livestock, and the manufactured products from factories. Millerd was instrumental in bringing about this transformation. He traveled to the east to make contacts with merchants, sold manufactured products in his store, and helped sell agricultural produce to out-of-state markets.”
But the whole situation gets more complicated and twisted. The economic forces may have exerted pressure on Reeves to take the action he did, but he and his family shouldn’t have been on the land in the first place. The Reeves were squatters. The springtide flooding was why the land was vacant and unsettled. Nobody could live there. Judge Samuel Dexter owned the property. Judge Dexter anticipated the flooding and so kept it free of tenants, licensing it to the Millerds for flooding. The Millerds had a legal right to flood the land, the very land that Reeves unlawfully settled.
“Yet there was no evidence Judge Dexter attempted to move Reeves off his land,” writes Roth. “Perhaps as the patriarch of the community, Judge Dexter took pity on the Reeves family and allowed them to stay on his land without charge.”
Dexter’s generosity, however, may have played an inadvertent role in the whole tragic situation. According to the law of the day, squatters could gain the right to remain on the land if they managed to hold it for a specific time. Despite the swamp-like conditions, Reeves managed to live on the property for three years, eking out enough to avoid starvation. At the end of 1843, he sued the Millerds for trespass. A jury assessed damages of $250. The Millerds refused to pay.
The story gets weirder.
Mills proliferated in the western expansion, Michigan included. Conflicts between mill owners and the farmers whose land they flooded abounded, setting specific precedents. Roth writes, “According to the common law, a farmer claiming damage to land could legally ‘abate the nuisance himself,’ even to the extent of tearing down the dam.”
According to the laws of the day, Reeves obtained the land by successfully squatting on it and had a legal precedent for removing the source of the flooding.
Reeves and his party that attacked the Peninsula Dam were all apprehended but remained in jail only a few weeks. The group was released without a trial for damaging the dam. In a twist of leniency that jars our sensibilities today, Reeves never stood trial for killing Deforest Phelps.
Roth explains the legal mindset of the day, “By dim light of the last quarter moon, a shot was fired from a group towards a group. The gun lay deep underwater at the bottom of the mill race. Given the moods and conditions of the times, it would be difficult to prove an intention of wrongdoing to a jury. Juries would be likely to sympathetic to Reeves. Reeves was still a sympathetic figure, trying to make his way during the transition to the market economy. Basically, Reeves’s actions were not a flagrant violation of public norms sufficient to warrant a trial. In the early to mid 1800s, charges were rarely brought against the perpetrators of dam breakings. Thus, in effect the public condoned their behavior.”
Roth adds, “In fact, murderers were rarely convicted and imprisoned in Michigan State Prison. Between 1839-1845, only nine people were incarcerated for murder in the state.”
Life continued to be an uphill struggle for Reeves. In 1850, he moved to London, Michigan, where he managed a hotel. After that, an 1870 census records that the man, who fought the changing world by attacking a dam and killing Deforest Phelps, opened the Reeves Saw Mill.
The Millerds ran the Peninsula Mill until 1855, when they sold it. The mill continued its operations until 1888. The building collapsed in 1910. When the mill closed, one Dexter resident commented that this was “the hardest blow ever struck Dexter.”
Much thanks and appreciation goes out to Danielle Roth for her work in excavating this hidden treasure of Dexter’s history and the context in which she has placed it. Danielle’s entire thesis can be viewed online at http://commons.emich.edu/theses