Renewed Trouble For The Mormons - The Burnings

The death of the prophet did not bring peace with their outside

neighbors to the Mormon church. Indeed, the causes of enmity were

too varied and radical to be removed by any changes in the

leadership, so long as the brethren remained where they were.

In the winter of 1844-1845 charges of stealing made against the

Mormons by their neighbors became more frequent. Governor Ford,

in his message to the legislature, pronounced such reports

exaggerated, but it probably does the governor no injustice to

say that he now had his eye on the Mormon vote. The non-Mormons

in Hancock and the surrounding counties held meetings and

appointed committees to obtain accurate information about the

thefts, and the old complaints of the uselessness of tracing

stolen goods to Nauvoo were revived. The Mormons vigorously

denied these charges through formal action taken by the Nauvoo

City Council and a citizens' meeting, alleging that in many cases

"outlandish men" had visited the city at night to scatter

counterfeit money and deposit stolen goods, the responsibility

for which was laid on Mormon shoulders.

It is not at all improbable that many a theft in western Illinois

in those days that was charged to Mormons had other authors; but

testimony regarding the dishonesty of many members of the church,

such as we have seen presented in Smith's day, was still

available. Thus, Young, in one of his addresses to the conference

assembled at Nauvoo about two months after Smith's death, made

this statement: "Elders who go to borrowing horses or money, and

running away with it, will be cut off from the church without any


* Times and Seasons, Vol. V, p. 696.

A lady who published a sketch of her travels in 1845 through

Illinois and Iowa wrote:--

"We now entered a part of the country laid waste by the

desperadoes among the Mormons. Whole farms were deserted, fields

were still covered with wheat unreaped, and cornfields stood

ungathered, the inhabitants having fled to a distant part of the

country . . . . Friends gave us a good deal of information about

the doings of these Saints at Nauvoo--said that often, when their

orchards were full of fruit, some sixteen of these monsters would

come with bowie knives and drive the owners into their houses

while they stripped their trees of the fruit. If these rogues

wanted cattle they would drive off the cattle of the Gentiles."*

* "Book for the Married and Single," by Ann Archbold.

A trial concerning the title to some land in Adams County in that

year brought out the fact that there existed in the Mormon church

what was called a "Oneness." Five persons would associate and

select one of their members as a guardian; then, if any of the

property they jointly owned was levied on, they would show that

one or more of the other five was the real owner.

While the Mormons continued to send abroad glowing pictures of

the prosperity of Nauvoo, less prejudiced accounts gave a very

different view. The latter pointed out that the immigrants, who

supplied the only source of prosperity, had expended most of

their capital on houses and lots, that building operations had

declined, because houses could be bought cheaper than they could

be built, and that mechanics had been forced to seek employment

in St. Louis. Published reports that large numbers of the poor in

the city were dependent on charity received confirmation in a

letter published in the Millennial Star of October 1, 1845, which

said that on a fast-day proclaimed by Young, when the poor were

to be remembered, "people were seen trotting in all directions to

the Bishops of the different wards" with their contributions.

We have seen that the gathering of the Saints at Nauvoo was an

idea of Joseph Smith, and was undertaken against the judgment of

some of the wiser members of the church. The plan, so far as its

business features were concerned, was on a par with the other

business enterprises that the prophet had fathered. There was

nothing to sustain a population of 15,000 persons, artificially

collected, in this frontier settlement, and that disaster must

have resulted from the experiment, even without the hostile

opposition of their neighbors, is evident from the fact that

Nauvoo to day, when fifty years have settled up the surrounding

district and brought it in better communication with the world,

is a village of only 1321 inhabitants (census of 1900).

Politics were not eliminated from the causes of trouble by

Smith's death. Not only was 1844 a presidential year, but the

citizens of Hancock County were to vote for a member of Congress,

two members of the legislature, and a sheriff. Governor Ford

urgently advised the Mormons not to vote at all, as a measure of

peace; but political feeling ran very high, and the Democrats got

the Mormon vote for President, and with the same assistance

elected as sheriff General Deming, the officer left by Governor

Ford in command of the militia at Carthage when the Smiths were

killed, as well as two members of the legislature who had voted

against the repeal of the Nauvoo city charter.

The tone of the Mormons toward their non-Mormon neighbors seemed

to become more defiant at this time than ever. The repeal of the

Nauvoo charter, in January, 1845, unloosened their tongues. Their

newspaper, the Neighbor, declared that the legislature "had no

more right to repeal the charter than the United States would

have to abrogate and make void the constitution of the state, or

than Great Britain would have to abolish the constitution of the

United States--and the man that says differently is a coward, a

traitor to his own rights, and a tyrant; no odds what Blackstone,

Kent or Story may have written to make themselves and their names

popular, to the contrary."

The Neighbor, in the same article, thus defined its view of the

situation, after the repeal:--

"Nor is it less legal for an insulted individual or community to

resist oppression. For this reason, until the blood of Joseph and

Hyrum Smith has been atoned for by hanging, shooting or slaying

in some manner every person engaged in that cowardly, mean

assassination, no Latter-Day Saint should give himself up to the

law; for the presumption is that they wilt murder him in the same

manner . . . . Neither should civil process come into Nauvoo till

the United States by a vigorous course, causes the State of

Missouri and the State of Illinois to redress every man that has

suffered the loss of lands, goods or anything else by expulsion .

. . . If any man is bound to maintain the law, it is for the

benefit he may derive from it . . . . Well, our charter is

repealed; the murderers of the Smiths are running at large, and

if the Mormons should wish to imitate their forefathers and

fulfil the Scriptures by making it 'hard to kick against the

pricks' by wearing cast steel pikes about four or five inches

long in their boots and shoes to kick with, WHAT'S THE HARM?"

Such utterances, which found imitation in the addresses of the

leaders, and were echoed in the columns of Pratt's Prophet in New

York, made it easy for their hostile neighbors to believe that

the Mormons considered themselves beyond the reach of any law but

their own. Some daring murders committed across the river in Iowa

in the spring of 1845 afforded confirmation to the non-Mormons of

their belief in church-instigated crimes of this character, and

in the existence and activity of the Danite organization. The

Mormon authorities had denied that there were organized Danites

at Nauvoo, but the weight of testimony is against the denial.

Gregg, a resident of the locality when the Mormons dwelt there,

gives a fair idea of the accepted. view of the Danites at that


"They were bound together with oaths of the most solemn

character, and the punishment of traitors to the order was death.

John A. Murrell's Band of Pirates, who flourished at one time

near Jackson, Tennessee, and up and down the Mississippi River

above New Orleans, was never so terrible as the Danite Band, for

the latter was a powerful organization, and was above the law.

The band made threats, and they were not idle threats. They went

about on horseback, under cover of darkness, disguised in long

white robes with red girdles. Their faces were covered with masks

to conceal their identity."*

* "History of Hancock County." See also "Sketches and Anecdotes

of the Old Settlers," p. 34.

Phineas Wilcox, a young man of good reputation, went to Nauvoo on

September 16, 1845, to get some wheat ground, and while there

disappeared completely. The inquiry made concerning him led his

friends to believe that he was suspected of being a Gentile spy,

and was quietly put out of the way.*

* See Lee's "Mormonism Unveiled," pp. 158-159, for accounts of

methods of disposing of objectionable persons at Nauvoo.

William Smith, the prophet's brother, contributed to the

testimony against the Mormon leaders. Returning from the East,

where he had been living for three years when Joseph was killed,

he was warmly welcomed by the Mormon press, and elevated to the

position of Patriarch, and, as such, issued a sort of

advertisement of his patriarchal wares in the Times and Seasons*

and Neighbor, inviting those in want of blessings to call at his

residence. William was not a man of tact, and it required but a

little time for him to arouse the jealousy of the leaders, the

result of which was a notice in the Times and Seasons of November

1, 1845, that he had been "cut off and left in the hands of God."

But William was not a man to remain quiet even in such a retreat,

and he soon afterward issued to the Saints throughout the world

"a proclamation and faithful warning," which filled eight and a

half columns of the Warsaw Signal of October 29, 1845, in which,

"in all meekness of spirit, and without anger or malice" (William

possessed most of the family traits), he accused Young of

instigating murders, and spoke of him in this way:--

* Vol. VI, p. 904.

"It is my firm and sincere conviction that, since the murder of

my two brothers, usurpation, and anarchy, and spiritual

wickedness in high places have crept into the church, with the

cognizance and acquiescence of those whose solemn duty It was to

guardedly watch against such a state of things. Under the reign

of one whom I may call a Pontius Pilate, under the reign, I say,

of this Brigham Young, no greater tyrant ever existed since the

days of Nero. He has no other justification than ignorance to

cover the most cruel acts--acts disgraceful to any one bearing

the stamp of humanity; and this being has associated around him

men, bound by oaths and covenants, who are reckless enough to

commit almost any crime, or fulfil any command that their

self-crowned head might give them"

William was, of course, welcomed as a witness by the non-Mormons.

He soon after went to St. Louis, and while there received a

letter from Orson Hyde, which called his proclamation "a cruel

thrust," but urged him to return, pledging that they would not

harm him. William did not accept the invitation, but settled in

Illinois, became a respected citizen, and in later years was

elected to the legislature. When invited to join the Reorganized

Church by his nephew Joseph, he declined, saying, "I am not in

sympathy, very strongly, with any of the present organized bands

of Mormons, your own not excepted."

By the spring of 1845 the Mormons were deserted even by their

Democratic allies, some three hundred of whom in Hancock County

issued an address denying that the opposition to them was

principally Whig, and declaring that it had arisen from

compulsion and in self-defence. Governor Ford, anxious to be rid

of his troublesome constituents, sent a confidential letter to

Brigham Young, dated April 8, 1845, saying, "If you can get off

by yourselves you may enjoy peace," and suggesting California as

opening "a field for the prettiest enterprise that has been

undertaken in modern times."

An era of the most disgraceful outrages that marked any of the

conflicts between the Mormons and their opponents east of the

Rocky Mountains began in Hancock County on the night of September

9, when a schoolhouse in Green Plain, south of Warsaw, in which

the anti-Mormons were holding a meeting, was fired upon. The

Mormons always claimed that this was a sham attack, made by the

anti-Mormons to give an excuse for open hostilities, and

probabilities favor this view. Straightway ensued what were known

as the "burnings." A band of men, numbering from one hundred to

two hundred, and coming mostly from Warsaw, began burning the

houses, outbuildings, and grain stacks of Mormons all over the

southwest part of the county. The owners were given time to

remove their effects, and were ordered to make haste to Nauvoo,

and in this way the country region was rapidly rid of Mormon


* Gregg's "History of Hancock County," p. 374.

The sheriff of the county at that time was J. B. Backenstos, who,

Ford says, went to Hancock County from Sangamon, a fraudulent

debtor, and whose brother married a niece of the Prophet Joseph.*

He had been elected to the legislature the year before, and had

there so openly espoused the Mormon cause opposing the repeal of

the Nauvoo charter that his constituents proposed to drive him

from the county when he returned home. Backenstos at once took up

the cause of the Mormons, issued proclamation after

proclamation,** breathing the utmost hostility to the Mormon

assailants, and calling on the citizens to aid him as a posse in

maintaining order.

* Ford's "History of Illinois," pp. 407-408.

** For the text of five of these proclamations, see Millennial

Star, Vol. VI.

A sheriff of different character might have secured the help that

was certainly his due on such an occasion, but no non-Mormon

would respond to a call by Backenstos. An occurrence incidental

to these disturbances now added to the public feeling. On

September 16, Lieutenant Worrell, who had been in command of the

guard at the jail when the Smith brothers were killed, was shot

dead while riding with two companions from Carthage to Warsaw.

His death was charged to Backenstos and to O. P. Rockwell,* the

man accused of the attempted assassination of Governor Boggs, and

both were afterward put on trial for it, but were acquitted. The

sheriff now turned to the Nauvoo Legion for recruits, and in his

third proclamation he announced that he then had a posse of

upward of two thousand "well-armed men" and two thousand more

ready to respond to his call. He marched in different directions

with this force, visiting Carthage, where he placed a number of

citizens under arrest and issued his Proclamation No. 4., in

which he characterized the Carthage Grays as "a band of the most

infamous and villanous scoundrels that ever infested any


* "Who was the actual guilty party may never be known. We have

lately been informed from Salt Lake that Rockwell did the deed,

under order of the sheriff, which is probably the case."--Gregg,

"History of Hancock County," p. 341.

"During the ascendency of the sheriff and the absence of the

anti-Mormons from their homes," said Governor Ford,* "the people

who had been burnt out of their houses assembled at Nauvoo, from

whence, with many others, they sallied forth and ravaged the

country, stealing and plundering whatever was convenient to carry

or drive away." Thus it seems that the governor had changed his

opinion about the honesty of the Mormons. To remedy the chaotic

condition of affairs in the county, Governor Ford went to

Jacksonville, Morgan County, where, in a conference, it was

decided that judge Stephen A. Douglas, General J. J. Hardin,

Attorney General T. A. McDougal, and Major W. B. Warren should go

to Hancock County with such forces as could be raised, to put an

end to the lawlessness. When the sheriff heard of this, he

pronounced the governor's proclamation directing the movement a

forgery, and said, in his own Proclamation No. 5, "I hope no

armed men will come into Hancock County under such circumstances.

I shall regard them in the character of a mob, and shall treat

them accordingly."

*Ford's "History of Illinois," p. 410.

The sheriff labored under a mistake. The steps now taken

resulted, not in a demonstration of his authority, but in the

final expulsion of all the Mormons from Illinois and Iowa.

Radical Dissensions In The Church - Origin Of The Danites - Tithing Rivalries Over The Succession facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail