Missouri’s Mormon past

The Mormon War of the 1830s changed the destiny of Mormons in the U.S.

The Missiourian/October 15, 2006
By Anna Scianna

If it wasn’t for the Mormon War of the late-1830s, Missouri, and not Utah, would probably be the Mormon capital of the world.

In 1838 and 1839, following an “extermination” order issued by Gov. Lilburn Boggs, 8,000 to 10,000 Mormons were driven out of Missouri. Boggs had declared Mormons in “open and avowed defiance” of the state’s laws and of having made war upon the people of Missouri.

“The Mormons must be treated as enemies,” Boggs declared on Oct. 27, 1838, “and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace; their outrages are beyond all description.”

Three days later, a unit of the state militia killed 17 men and boys, all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in the Haun’s Mill Massacre.

Today, only 56,000 of the approximate 4.7 million Mormons in the United States live in Missouri. But Mormons still believe that Missouri plays an important role in the church. Independence is a “centerplace” of the City of Zion, from which the teaching of Christ will come upon his return, said Helen Penfield of the Columbia Mormon Stake.

“The Mormons came to Missouri with the idea that they were going to stay here,” Penfield said. “They called it Zion, but they were kicked out of Zion.”

The conflict began soon after thousands of Mormons migrated to Missouri from the East Coast in 1831. The Mormons first settled in large groups in Jackson County, said Kenneth Winn, the Missouri state archivist. However, residents began to fear the economic and social consequences of the Mormon population, and other religious leaders feared their impact. One pastor, the Rev. Finis Ewing of the Cumberland Presbyterians, went door-to-door protesting the Mormons and distributing pamphlets calling Mormons “the common enemies of mankind (who) ought to be destroyed.”

In 1833, according to the “Guide to the Mormon Papers” published by the Missouri Secretary of State’s Office, the Mormons migrated from Jackson County, where they had begun to settle the City of Zion, to Clay and Ray counties. They remained until around 1836, when they were forced once again to move on, this time to Caldwell, Davies and Carroll counties. By the mid-1830s, the constant persecution was beginning to take a toll on the Mormons, Winn said.

“By 1838 Mormons became very aggressive,” Winn said. “(They) were engaged in fairly violent rhetoric.”

In a July 4, 1838, speech, Sidney Rigdon, a Mormon church leader, warned of a “war of extermination” against any mob that attacked church members. Boggs’ order was in response to skirmishes between Mormons and local vigilantes in DeWitt. On Oct. 1, 1938, mobs burned the home and stables of a prominent church member, Smith Humphrey, which led to a 10-day siege by hundreds of armed non-Mormons. Mormon leaders agreed to abandon the settlement and move to Caldwell County.

Haun’s Mill was a weigh station between the east and Far West, Mo., one of the earliest Mormon settlements. About three dozen Mormon families were living there when, on Oct. 30, 1868, a group of “raiders” under the leadership of Col. Thomas Jennings approached the settlement and opened fire in a surprise attack. Winn said the Missourians blamed the Mormons for the encounter. That winter, church members were forced to leave their homes and find a new land.

“Without any resources other than the clothes on their backs and the things they could carry, the Mormons left for Illinois,” Winn said.

Albert Perry Rockwell, who came to Missouri in July 1838 and stayed until January of 1839, recorded events and his exodus from the state in diary entries and letters to family. In January, before he departed, Rockwell wrote, “The whole state of Missouri has risen up to destroy us from the face of the Earth or drive us from the state by orders from the Gov.”

A month later, Rockwell’s letters reflect his difficult journey to Illinois. “We had snow and rain every day but 2. We had heavy loads, were obliged to walk from 2 to 8 miles thro (sic) mud and water, camped out on wet ground 3 nights before we arrived at the river. A few days before we got to the river it grew cold. the river froze over and we could cross in the boat, 6 wagons were with us at the time.”

Many of the Mormons who left Missouri were welcomed in Quincy, Ill., whose newspaper, the Quincy Argus, openly condemned the Show Me State in a March 16, 1839, editorial: “We have no language sufficiently strong for the expression of our indignation and shame at the recent transaction in a sister state.”

Altogether, Winn estimated about two dozen Mormons died in the Mormon War, as well as a few non-Mormons. Mormon leaders Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon and Hiram Smith wrote a letter to another newspaper, the Quincy Whig, expressing their concerns about the conflict.

“We ask the aid of all parties, both in politics and religion, to have justice done us to obtain redress of our grievances,” they wrote.

This newfound peaceful homeland in Illinois did not last long, though. Winn said that, even as Illinois citizens took issue with Missourians for their “backward” treatment of the Mormons, they were forming their own mobs to harass church members. Mormons were eventually forced to move west and set up in Utah, where the majority of American Mormons remain today.

“Essentially they go to Utah because there’s no one there to shoot them,” Winn said.

Boggs’ extermination order was finally rescinded in 1976 by Missouri Gov. Christopher Bond, who also offered his regrets on behalf of the state.

Michael Reall, president of the Columbia Mormon Stake, said that while the Mormon War is frequently taught in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Mormon schools, few outside the church know about Boggs’ order.

“‘You’re kidding.’ That’s probably the most frequent comment you’ll hear,” Reall said.

Winn said he started studying Mormon history “accidentally.” He said few know about the church’s history in Missouri because it is unusual for non-church members to research it. After writing a short paper on it in graduate school, he began to explore it more deeply, which eventually led to him writing a book: “Exiles in the Land of Liberty: Mormons in America, 1830-1846.”

“Most church members think that it was just religious persecution pure and simple,” he said, “but it’s really quite complicated.”

As part of the Missouri Mormon history project, the Missouri State Archives is working with church volunteers to post online records of Mormon family history and other resources. Winn said he hopes the database will be up by January.

Ken Stull, a Columbia native who now teaches school in Chillicothe, did his master’s thesis on violence against frontier religious groups, focusing on Jews, Irish Catholics and Mormons in the 1800s. Stull’s family settled in Missouri in the early 1800s but did not join the Mormon Church until 1941. Stull recalled a story his grandfather told him about joining the church.

“He had a friend who would tell him that now he could kill him because you could kill Mormons in Missouri,” Stull said.

Stull attributes a lot of the violence to land-buying issues that didn’t occur as much in the New England area where Jews and Irish Catholics settled. “The actual violence against Mormons was greater than that against any other group,” Stull said.

Stull’s family history has ties to the Mormon War. One of his family members was supposed to serve as a jury member in the trial of Parly P. Pratt, a Mormon leader who was charged with treason. Stull has also encountered others in Chillicothe whose relatives played key roles in the drama. A few years ago in class he taught two boys whose great-great-grandfathers were said to have thrown the first punches on opposing sides to begin the Mormon War.

The Columbia stake comprises six congregations and totals about 3,400 people. Stull said he does not think Missouri Mormons hold a grudge against the state. However, some Mormons moving to Missouri may be wary when they learn of the past persecution, he said.

“There’s a little concern when they first come,” Stull said, “but after they stay for a while they lose it really quickly.”

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