The arrival, and growth, of the Mormon community at Nauvoo was a dominant news story in Illinois in the early 1840s. Though the Mormons were actually in Illinois for a relatively short time, their presence threw the state into an uproar.
When the Mormons arrived in northwestern Illinois in late 1839, their faith was relatively new. Nine years before in New York, the church was organized after Joseph Smith, the self-proclaimed prophet of the religion, believed he had been visited by angels and published the Book of Mormon.
The Mormons were nomadic, partly because of the controversy they seemed to generate. They left New York for Ohio, then settled in northwestern Missouri, where continued unrest led to their expulsion from the state.
Smith, who was jailed with other leaders in Missouri, escaped and reclaimed his leadership position as his followers wintered in Quincy, aided by charity from local residents. They then relocated 70 miles north in Commerce, a mosquito-infested, swampy village that Smith called “literally a wilderness … the land was mostly covered with trees and brushes.”
A new town was established and named Nauvoo, a Hebrew term for “beautiful place.” Indeed, the name soon reflected the splendor of the settlement, which grew quickly. Attractive brick homes and well-maintained streets, gardens and trees soon came to define Nauvoo, which was lauded by Mormons and visitors alike for its appearance and high standards of living.
Nauvoo also had a unique system of governance. With help from Secretary of State Stephen A. Douglas, Nauvoo received a charter in 1840 that gave the town nearly unlimited home rule. The town was able to establish its own court system and create its own militia, the Nauvoo Legion, which eventually become the nation’s second-largest military force, trailing only the U.S. Army.
By 1842, some 16,000 Mormons were living in Hancock County, and, three years later, Nauvoo had the largest population in the state. It was under the leadership of Smith, a tall, blond man whose handsome looks were exceeded only by his charisma. He became Nauvoo’s mayor, chief magistrate, lieutenant genera, and newspaper editor, while also dealing in real estate and other ventures.
The prosperity of Nauvoo led to the construction of a striking temple, which cost $1 million and took five years to complete. The settlement also became a potent political force, often voting as a bloc, though with no party loyalty.
The economic and political power of Nauvoo was an increasing statewide concern. The traditional Mormon practice of polygamy also sparked outcry, though it was actually a divisive issue within Nauvoo itself. Smith declared for president in the 1844 elections, though he was dogged by multiple controversies, including attempts by Missouri to extradite him for treason, murder and arson.
Smith and his followers added to their own troubles. The prophet routinely blasted politicians whom he disagreed with, and acts of violence were common between Mormons and their enemies. Smith himself was charged with destroying the press of an opposing Nauvoo newspaper after only one issue.
He was ordered to Carthage to address that charge in June 1844, where animosity from the locals boiled over and new complaints were added. Gov. Thomas Ford, in town to meet the issues, ordered Smith and his brother, Hyrum, held in the local jail for their protection.
Ford had guaranteed the safety of Joseph and Hyrum, though an armed crowd of some 2,500 anti-Mormon demonstrators, along with an unsympathetic local militia, fanned the flames. As Ford was addressing the crowd on , a mob charged into the jail and fatally shot both of the Smiths.
Ford has been severely criticized by Mormon historians ever since. The incident touched off persistent violence across Hancock County that led to what some call “The Mormon War.” Illinois canceled the town’s charter in 1845.
Eventually, most of the Mormons left Illinois in February 1846, heading for a new life in Utah before the grand temple was dedicated. The structure was later destroyed by arson and a tornado, reflective of the swirl of emotion that defined the short-lived Mormon settlement at Nauvoo.
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