Ben Gelman: Mormons, Icarians Helped Form Mississippi River Town

The Southern Illinoisan/January 21, 2004

Nauvoo, located on the Mississippi River in Hancock County, is not, strictly speaking, part of the section of Illinois known as Egypt, but in 1941 Will Griffith and Katharine Griffith (who two years later would begin publishing the popular Egyptian Key magazine) wrote a history of the town.

"Historic Nauvoo (Quest Publishing Co., Peoria, 48 pages, paperbound) tells the story of the Mormons or Latter Day Saints who inhabited the town from 1840 until 1846 and the lesser-known Icarians, who lived there from 1849 to 1856.

"Before the first white settlers arrived in 1824, the Sac and Fox Indians had a village at this bend of the river known as Quashquema," according to the booklet.

"The first white settlement was named Venus and later called Commerce. When taken over by Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, he named it Nauvoo, meaning, according to him, 'Beautiful Place.'

The Mormons had moved from Ohio to Missouri, before settling in Illinois. Their religion was based on the Book of Mormon, which describes their version of the history of ancient America.

Joseph Smith, the Mormons believe, was visited by the Angel Moroni and became the Prophet of the Mormons. His older brother Hiram, was known as the Patriarch.

In the early 1840s, the Mormons prospered in Nauvoo, whose population grew to 10,000 or more, much larger at the time than that of Chicago. The cornerstone of a majestic Mormon Temple was laid. The building was to be 180 feet long, 80 feet wide, and 100 feet high, with a tower and belfry another 80 feet in height.

A sum of $1 million was raised for its construction. The temple was completed, but Joseph and Hiram Smith did not live to see it and it burned in 1848. The Mormons got into difficulties with the non-Mormons or Gentiles around them, partly because of the Mormons' practice of polygamy (they believed a man should have as many wives as he could support).

Eventually, the Smiths were charged with treason and destruction of property after the press and other equipment of The Nauvoo Expositor was ransacked and burned. The paper had published scandalous comments about the Smiths.

While the Smiths were in jail awaiting trial in Carthage, the Hancock county seat, they were shot to death by members of an angry mob. Shortly afterwards, on Feb. 4, 1846, Brigham Young, known as the Lion of the Lord, led the first Latter Day Saints across the Mississippi on their long trek to Utah, where the Mormons established their present headquarters.

"In far off sunny France in 1847, one Etienne Cabet was organizing a branch of his followers, believers in his communistic ideas, to leave their homeland to come to America to prove the practicality of his ideas, the Griffiths wrote.

Early in 1849, Cabet and 480 of his followers reached America. After an original plan to settle in Texas fell through, the group set up their home in the largely uninhabited town of Nauvoo.

Unlike the Mormons, whose culture was based on religion, the Icarians, as they called themselves, were organized on a secular basis, with no established church, no religious obligation. At first, the community prospered and grew in size.

Children were the common property of the commune, raised apart from their parents by nurses and teachers. People ate in a community dining hall that accommodated 1,200 at 120 tables of 10 persons. Food was brought from the kitchen by a sort of miniature railroad.

Work was arbitrarily assigned, regardless of qualifications. A talented painter dug coal; a university professor chopped wood. The Icarians bought a distillery, produced and sold whiskey. They grew grapes and manufactured wine for their own use.

After a few years, the experimental community developed dissension in its ranks. Cabet and some of his followers left to start a new town in Missouri, but he died in 1856.

While the Icarian community died out, some descendants still live in the area. Other Nauvoo residents survived both the Mormon and Icarian periods. The Griffiths noted in their booklet the production of fruit products, blue cheese and wine. They also mention the establishment, in 1874, of St. Mary's Academy, a grade and high school for girls, run by the Benedictine Sisters.

There is a map of the town in the booklet, with landmarks left by the Mormons and Icarians located.

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