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Mormons in the American West
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The Mormon Church was founded in New York in the late 1820's
by Joseph Smith,
Jr., who claimed to have found a buried book of golden
plates written by ancient American prophets.
Smith said the Angel Moroni,
who was the guardian of these plates, had directed him to these writings
and that his mission was to publish a translation of this book. This work,
published in 1830, as the Book of Mormon, served as a foundation for
Smith's organization, first called the Church of Christ. It was later
renamed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
For most of the 1830s,
Smith lived with the majority of his church members
in Kirtland, Ohio. Growing in numbers,
Smith sent followers to Jackson
County, Missouri, in an attempt to establish a city of Zion as the
biblical New Jerusalem. Situated near Independence, the Mormon settlers
were driven out of the county in 1833, then settling in Clay and Caldwell
Counties of Missouri.
Smith's paramilitary campaign to redeem the area was
Smith then taught his followers that the church needed endowment
of heavenly power before redeeming Zion, and he soon began
construction of an expensive temple in Kirtland where the endowment
was to occur. However, on January 12, 1838, after a financial scandal
effectively caused the collapse of the Ohio church,
Smith fled an arrest warrant and joined his followers in
Joseph Smith, Jr.
When many of the Kirtland church members followed him to
tensions escalated with the old Missouri
settlers, which led to what has
become known as the Missouri Mormon War.
Missouri's "old settlers,”
characterized the Mormons as fanatics whose clannish behavior made a
mockery of republican institutions by placing power in the hands of a
Violence broke out again at an election riot in Gallatin on August 6, 1838
and before long, "old settler” mobs and Mormon paramilitary units roamed
the countryside. When the Mormons attacked an authorized militia group,
under the belief it was an anti-Mormon mob,
Missouri's governor, Lilburn
Boggs, ordered them expelled from the state, or "exterminated,” if
necessary. Between August and November, 1838, more than 20 Mormons were
Over the next year, an estimated 10,000 Mormons were forced to leave the
state, most settling in or near what would become the city of Nauvoo,
Illinois. In 1839,
Smith directed the construction of a second temple in
Nauvoo, as well as becoming the mayor of the new town, and commander of
the Nauvoo Legion, a large and nearly autonomous branch of the
militia. Publicly, while
Smith was teaching religious doctrines, he was
also secretly introducing the practice of polygamy among his members, as
well as a symbolic Millennial legislature that made him the king.
Smith ran for President of the United States
but, by this time, there were several church members that had begun to
question him. The first
and only edition of the Nauvoo Expositor, ran an article that claimed
was practicing polygamy and that he intended to set himself up as a
theocratic king. The assertions, made by a group of Latter Day Saint
members, also charged that
Smith was a fallen prophet and that he had
acquired too much power.
Smith, who was then serving as Nauvoo Mayor,
responded by destroying the newspaper’s facilities and declaring martial
law to corral the local outrage.
Smith was then arrested and jailed in
Carthage, Iowa on charges of treason. While he was awaiting trail, an
armed mob of men with painted faces stormed the jail and shot him and his
brother Hyrum to death. Today, Latter Day Saints view Joseph and Hyrum as
Broken up, the council chose
Brigham Young as their leader and decided to
move westward. They toiled across Iowa and
Missouri during the years of
1845-46, settling down again at points on the
River. Trouble with
the Indians caused them to build a town across the river near the present city of Council
Bluffs, calling it "Kanesville." Nearly 15,000 of them located at a point
north of Omaha, near present-day Florence,
Nebraska, calling it "The
In the spring of 1846,
Brigham Young sent out 80 wagons equipped to travel
into the Rocky Mountains, where it was rumored that an inland sea, with
fertile lands bordering it, awaited their coming, and where they could
build up an empire outside of the jurisdiction of the United States.
The next year,
Young led a large band of Mormons up the Platte Valley,
across the plains and mountains to the great Salt Lake in present-day
Utah. Other groups soon followed, and the Mormon towns of Florence and Kanesville, which, at their height, had contained long streets that were
lined with stores and residences, were practically deserted by 1851-52.
The cholera scourge of 1850 followed the Mormons far out on the trail,
with many hundreds of them succumbing to its ravages in the first 400
miles of the journey.
Mormon Wagon Train re-enactment, Harry A. Kelley, 1912.
While the Platte River was the main Mormon Trail to Fort Kearney,
Nebraska, second in importance was their use of the original trail from
Independence to Fort Kearney, especially by the thousands of Mormons who
emigrated from England, and by boats via New Orleans and St. Louis to
Independence, or by rail via New York. Migration of the Mormons to the
west continued in organized companies along the Mormon Trail until 1869.
Afterwards, they came by railroad, continuing the resettlement until 1890.
Upon arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, the Mormons publicly announced the practice of plural
Smith had instituted in secret some years earlier. Plural marriage would
become the faith's most famous characteristic during the 19th century.
However, the practice was vigorously opposed elsewhere in the United
States, threatening the church's existence as a legal institution.
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