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The Mormon Rebellion
America's First Civil War, 1857â"1858
By David L. Bigler, Will Bagley
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
To Sow the Wind
These people had violated the laws of the land by open and avowed resistance to them—they had undertaken without the aid of the civil authority to redress their real or fancied grievances—they had instituted among themselves a government of their own, independent of and in opposition to the government of this state.
—Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs, 1838
The Mormons openly denounced the government of the United States as utterly corrupt, and as being about to pass away and to be replaced by the government of God, to be administered by his servant Joseph.
—Illinois governor Thomas Ford, 1854
I am at defiance of all Earth and hell to point out the first thing that this people have ever committed where in righteousness it could be called an infringement upon our government. I am at the defiance of all hell [and] Governments, but especially ours.... We have observed good, wholesome rules and laws, but now they can pass over every Mobocratic spirit and institution, every violation of the Constitution, they pass over it as nothing, and raise a force to come and slay all the Latterdaysaints, men, women and children.... We will keep revolutionising the world, until we bring peace to mankind, and all hell cannot help it.
—Utah territorial governor Brigham Young, 1857
During the winter of 1857–58, the military arm of a defiant theocracy confronted an American army on the high plains of today's southwestern Wyoming. To the east, some eighteen hundred solders, regulars and volunteers, of the U.S. Army's Utah Expedition were camped around the burned ruins of Jim Bridger's trading post. Between them and the winding Echo Canyon entry to Salt Lake Valley stood the hosts of latter-day Israel, also known as the Nauvoo Legion or the Utah Territorial Militia, some four thousand strong. As each side waited for spring to open the way to shed the other's blood, Congress asked President James Buchanan why he had taken the action that touched off the nation's first civil war, a teapot version of the one that would open in Charleston Harbor four years later.
In reply, the president handed national lawmakers the letters and reports compiled over six years that had compelled him in May 1857 to order the U.S. Army to escort a new governor to Utah to replace Brigham Young, whose term in that office had expired in 1854. More importantly, the troops were also to serve as a posse comitatus in imposing federal authority over the vast Mormon-controlled western territory. Buchanan's action to bring a rebellious territory to heel had led to an armed revolt.
The president's response, titled "The Utah Expedition," took in some six dozen reports, mainly written by U.S. officials from 1851 to 1857, alleging treason, duplicity, disloyalty, and other serious offenses. Forty-six of the documents came from the Office of Indian Affairs. In conveying them to the president, Charles E. Mix, acting commissioner, said that they illustrated the "policy pursued by the Mormons, which aimed at the establishment of an independent Mormon empire." Congress found it hard to take such an allegation seriously and delayed Buchanan's request for four new regiments to put down the rebellion.
People in the western states, however, had learned to take Mormon aspirations very seriously. In Missouri, they had seen little peace after 1831, when the Almighty through a professed prophet identified Jackson County as the location of the Garden of Eden and proclaimed the Santa Fe Trail jumping-off town of Independence as the site of New Jerusalem, the City of Zion. As ardent believers poured in from such exotic places as New England, New York, and Canada, many harboring abolitionist sentiments, fighting spread over five western Missouri counties. The state's Mormon War came to an abrupt end in 1838, when Governor Lilburn W. Boggs ordered the militia to exterminate the troublesome religionists altogether or drive them from the state "if necessary for the public peace." As his words indicate, the search for causes of the 1857–58 Mormon rebellion must begin with sources of conflict between the millennial-minded religionists and their Missouri neighbors twenty years before.
Among the most volatile of these was the issue of landownership. In Zion, the Lord owned the land. To gain a safe harbor against the storms of the Last Days, converts sold their former property and submitted the proceeds to the church as described in the Book of Acts. In a perpetual land-acquisition scheme, the bishop in Zion then applied the money to purchase land in Jackson County and lease a tract back to the consecrator to keep as an inheritance, "unless he transgresses." To implement this system, Joseph Smith announced the revealed plan of New Jerusalem.
The City of Zion was a picture of millennial order and communistic economic purpose. Drawn to a square mile, the plot featured ten-acre blocks, each with twenty half-acre lots and streets 132 feet wide that ran by the compass. Each lot was to hold one house, and all dwellings were to stand twenty-five feet from the street. On the outskirts enough land was projected for "the agriculturist" to supply the city. Farmers were to live in the city and harvest food from land inheritances on the outside to serve all alike. "When this square is thus laid off and supplied," Smith instructed, "lay off another in the same way, and so fill up the world in these last days, and let every man live in the city, for this is the city of Zion."
A reflection of the beehive symbol, the City of Zion on paper appears harmless enough, but a closer look shows its confrontational nature. The projected urban center is exclusive, even hostile toward outsiders, for whom it holds no room. A sign on the outskirts might read "New Jerusalem, Outsiders Keep Out." It also violates both the intent and the provisions of federal land laws, created to promote private landownership.
As its plot shows, the City of Zion was a millennial ideal. It was a place of refuge prior to the Lord's imminent arrival and a place of peace and divine rule afterward. In the meantime, however, the concept was coercive and hostile toward neighboring landowners, who depended on their property to survive. New Jerusalem was never built in Missouri, but its plot, with minor alterations for topography, became the model for all future Mormon cities. The consequences were predictable. It would be difficult to imagine an urban concept more at odds with the values of self-governing citizens of a republic.
If the Mormons' early beliefs about landownership made nearby residents uneasy and nervous, their doctrines regarding American Indians made their frontier neighbors' hair stand on end. A revered scripture of the faith, the Book of Mormon is the purported history of Hebrews from the tribe of Manasseh who migrated to the New World in about 600 B.C., before the first destruction of Jerusalem. Their offspring, known as Lamanites, became today's Indians, a "remnant of Israel" in the Americas. Most white Mormons believed then and continue to believe today that they also descend from Joseph through his younger son, Ephraim, so Mormons and Indians share a vital bond. They are both of the lineage of Abraham through Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, and are first cousins some six hundred or so generations removed.
Young believed in this lineage intently and quite literally: "We are of the House of Israel, of the royal seed, of the royal blood," he told his followers in 1855. Their missionaries purposely sought the Indians, but not the Gentiles, as did the Apostle Paul, "because they are disobedient and rebellious," he said. "We want the blood of Jacob, and that of his father Isaac and Abraham." In a family with ten children, one might be "purely of the Blood of Ephraim," he explained, while the other nine were Gentiles, a disparaging term. But if the latter strongly desired to join the royal seed of Israel, there was a transfusion ritual by which non-Israelite blood could be flushed from their veins: "Joseph said that the Gentile blood was actually cleansed out of their veins, and the blood of Israel made to circulate in them," Young said.
The Book of Mormon prophesied that the Lamanite remnant of Israel would return to the faith of their forefathers, help build New Jerusalem in America, and become again "a white and delightsome people." To fulfill this necessary condition of Christ's return, Mormon missionaries had gone out to the frontier to carry the good news to their Native kinsmen soon after the church's founding. Like the City of Zion, this may strike some as peculiar, but innocent on its face. Yet below the surface lies an explosive corollary long since defused by time. For in the days of Zion's redemption, said the prophet Micah, "the remnant of Jacob shall be among the Gentiles ... as a young lion among the flocks of sheep; who if he go through, both treadeth down and teareth in pieces." Moreover, the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi repeated Micah's forecast, but made it conditional, "if the Gentiles do not repent."
The escape clause held little comfort for families who lived in isolated cabins on the Indian frontier, especially when Mormon missionaries visited nearby tribes. From the earliest days of the millennial movement, the doctrine had stirred opposition from its neighbors. Nor did it steady the nerves of overland emigrants when Indians scornfully called them "Mericats," meaning Americans, to distinguish them from Mormons. Irrelevant today, the belief was a potent source of rumor, misunderstanding, and conflict across the frontier that did not end in 1857 with President Buchanan's ordering troops to Utah.
As the army marched west, Young instructed a trusted lieutenant to tell the Indians in their path "that if they permit our enemies to kill us they will kill them also." Ominously he said, "the prospect is that all Israel will be needed to carry on the work of the last days." Less alarming but equally change-resistant was Mormons' trust in revealed justice as opposed to what their prophets denigrated as "man's law." In Missouri, Justice of the Peace Adam Black swore that some one hundred armed Mormons had surrounded his house and forced him "to subscribe to an article which I refused to do, until instant death was threatened me." He alleged that Joseph Smith himself led the party. The paper Black signed under duress certified that he was not connected to any mob and would not be. As soon as the intruders left, he ordered the commander of the county militia "to disperse said body, and maintain the supremacy of the law."
A criminal court of inquiry into "high treason, and other crimes in the state" in Richmond, Missouri, in November 1838 heard witnesses describe other clashes between revealed rule and manmade laws. John Whitmer testified that when he had supported "the supremacy of the laws of the land," he was told that "when God spoke he must be obeyed, whether his word came in contact with the laws of the land or not." Afterward, when the disaffected follower told the Mormon prophet that he wished to control his own property and "be governed by the laws of the land," Smith shot back, "Now, you wish to pin me down to the law." One does not pin the Almighty or His prophet down to man's laws.
Meanwhile, if the Mormons' beliefs about Indians, landownership, and law made outsiders uneasy, the millennial religion's military aspirations made their neighbors sleep with one eye open. Only four years after the church was formed, the first manifestation of a Mormon military tradition appeared. In 1834, Joseph Smith led a ragtag force of about two hundred men, known as Zion's Camp, in an ill-fated attempt to recover consecrated lands in Jackson County, Missouri. After the collapse of various financial schemes, Smith fled the Mormon settlement in Kirtland, Ohio, in the dead of night. He arrived in Missouri at the Mormon settlement of Far West in March 1838, and by fall the state was embroiled in a civil war. The "Mormon War" was largely fought between ragtag state militia companies, with the Mormon forces including many members of a secret organization known as the Sons of Dan, or the Danites, a name inspired by Jacob's blessing on one of his twelve sons: "Dan will be a serpent by the roadside, a viper along the path, that bites the horse's heels and causes the rider to fall backwards." Initially the brotherhood was intended to suppress internal dissent, but its focus soon shifted outward.
One of the covert group's earliest fights occurred over a phenomenon that historians usually refer to as a "tendency" of the faith to vote as a bloc, as if moved by a kind of herd instinct. When thirty or so Mormons came to cast their ballots in Gallatin, Missouri, in 1838, the old settlers tried to stop them. "When I called out for the Danites," an arriving voter said, "a power rested upon me such as one as I never felt before." In the ensuing melee, many on both sides were hurt by knives, clubs, and rocks, but the outnumbered Danites at last prevailed. The fight was notable as the first confrontation over Mormon voting practices, which chalked up majorities over the next forty years that no secret ballot could ever inspire.
After the Gallatin fight, Joseph Smith disavowed the Danites, who vanished, at least on the surface, as an organized body, and gave his support to the new Army of Israel, the first of the larger, more visible military outfits presented to non-Mormons as legitimate militias. A legacy from the Missouri period, however, was a dread of the Danites among their neighbors that Mormons did little to discourage.
The Sons of Dan won the fight in Gallatin, but not the first Mormon War, which escalated into a skirmish with Missourians at Crooked River, in which the Mormons won the fight and their first martyr, Apostle David Patten. The victory and the fear it inspired prompted Governor Boggs to mobilize the state militia and issue his notorious extermination order. Even before it reached western Missouri, a local mob massacred seventeen of Smith's followers at Haun's Mill.
Driven from their homes during the brutal winter of 1838–39, the Mormons left Missouri with bitter memories and enduring grudges: they quickly forgot the farms the Danites had burned and the cattle they had rustled, but the maltreated Saints meticulously cataloged their grievances in 678 individual affidavits and on a petition signed by 3,419 citizens, which told "the story of a people wrongfully deprived of their rights as free men and women," as LDS scholar Clark V. Johnson put it. They itemized losses in land and personal property totaling more than $395,000, while Joseph and Hyrum Smith each claimed $100,000 in damages, in part to cover more than $50,000 in fees paid to Missouri lawyers.
The prophet's followers pooled their resources and struggled eastward across the Mississippi River into western Illinois, where the sympathetic inhabitants received them with kindness. Locked in a cell, Smith exhibited a genius for martyrdom and survival. After his jailors conspired in his escape, President Smith demonstrated how to turn disaster into triumph: his dedicated missionary apostles cast the conflict as the persecution of an unpopular religion and the driving of the Latter-day Saints from their prosperous Missouri farms as a national disgrace. The story of their suffering garnered oceans of benevolent ink and won an immense amount of sympathy for the Mormons.
Although the number of members who abandoned the faith in the wake of the Missouri ordeal is impossible to know, it created another example of the "very curious accumulation and loss of members constantly going on in the Mormon community." Whatever the number, those who emerged from the refiner's fire and stayed loyal found themselves even more deeply committed to the new religion. Remarkably, when Joseph Smith created the Mormons, he accomplished something few others have ever done: he invented a people. He convinced his followers that they were literally the Children of Israel, God's new chosen people, a "peculiar people" exceptional and distinct from their fellow Americans. But neither Smith nor his followers had learned from their hard knocks: in their new gathering place, they marched in lockstep down the same road to another Mormon war between theocratic and republican systems of rule, but this time on a larger scale. The predictable conflict in Illinois seemed to show that the more fervent the believers, the more slowly they learned from experience.
On a scenic bend of the Mississippi River, some fifty miles north of Quincy, they established an exotic metropolis named Nauvoo, "the beautiful," and designated it as the Corner Stake of Zion. Wooed by the hope of revelation-cast votes, state lawmakers gave the city a charter that empowered Smith to establish "a government within a government, a legislature with the power to pass ordinances at war with the laws of the state, courts to execute them with but little dependence upon the constitutional judiciary, and a military force at their own command," Illinois governor Thomas Ford said. The sovereign city-state was a working model for the theocratic institutions later created in the Great Basin of the American West. At Nauvoo, Smith also revealed the doctrine of plural marriage, or polygamy, denied in public but practiced in secret by a select circle of Mormon leaders.
Meanwhile, the new lodestone of Zion by 1842 made the city one of the largest urban centers in Illinois as believers heeded the call to come out of Babylon from North America and Europe. Its booming population and voting practices spelled temptation for those who hungered for political power. In Nauvoo, candidates favored by Mayor Smith normally won unanimously, except for an occasional voter or two who failed to get the word. Such elections gave Smith growing control over county government and even threatened to hand him the reins of power in Illinois and unwarranted influence over the state's role in national politics.
Excerpted from The Mormon Rebellion by David L. Bigler, Will Bagley. Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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