Mormon Answers: What Was the 1838 "Mormon War"?

This page provides historical background on the persecution of Mormons in Missouri, leading to the 1838 Extermination Order. The setting in Missouri, the activities of mobs and militias, and the Mormon effort at self-defense are discussed, along with background on the development of the infamous Danites. This page offers supplementary information to my page on The 1838 Mormon War and Tales of the "Danites". That page should be consulted first for quick answers to major questions on the Danites and the 1838 conflict in Missouri. This is one page in the suite of Frequently Asked Questions About Latter-day Saint Beliefs. It is the personal work of Jeff Lindsay and does not necessarily reflect official LDS doctrine.

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An Overview of the Danites and the Church in Missouri

The Danites

The term "Danites" typically refers to a short-lived, secretive band of Mormons organized by Sampson Avard in 1838. The Danites apparently were organized in June of 1838 to defend the Mormons from internal enemies who had stirred up prejudice and even violence against the Saints. In June, several dissidents from the Church were given a letter signed by Avard (the first signer) and 83 others urging them to leave immediately, which they did. Other dissidents stayed on but apparently became more quiet. With the threat of internal dissidents largely removed, the Danites evolved by the fall of 1838 into a defensive group to protect the Saints from the external threat of mobsters.

As defenders and protectors of the Church, the term "Danites" was sometimes used to refer to the entire public militia forces of the Saints and was synonymous with the public "Armies of Israel," but among the public Danites, Sampson Avard continued to lead a smaller loyalist group bound by oaths to support each other and the leaders of the Church. (Even among this group, the real intents and plans of Avard were not known by most during most of the short history of the group.) Thus, an arguably legitimate public Danite organization existed in the form of the Mormon militia, along with a smaller, secretive group lead by Avard who would have turned the loyalists into a renegade and bloodthirsty band. (This is not to say that the public actions of the Mormon militia were always justified during the chaos of the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, for it appears that some genuine crimes occurred in the burning of some homes of Missourians, though some felt there was a genuine need to drive dangerous enemies away.)

Evidence for the public Danites, as opposed to the smaller secretive group, is found in several sources, as detailed below. Some anti-Mormon critics point to any use of the term "Danites" as a reference to a bloodthirsty, secretive group, when that may be quite inappropriate.

Public Militia and Secret Danites: Separate Organizations

There is a reasonable case to be made for the proposition that Avard's secretive Danites and the "public Danites" - meaning the entire Mormon armies, the Armies of Israel - were separate organizations. The Armies of Israel were public and enrollment was open to all able-bodied men. The Armies of Israel were not bound by secret oaths or passwords and were organized solely for self-defense (Gentry, 1974, p. 441).

Nothing confirms the fact of separateness, however, like a comparison of the officers of the two organizations. Reed Peck, one-time member of the Danites, claims the following:

Philo Dibble told me who the officers of the Danite Band were: that George W. Robinson was colonel, that he [Dibble] was lieutenant colonel, and Seymour Brunson, major, and that I was chosen adjutant. After that, I had a talk with George W. Robinson, in which I was informed . . . further, that Jared Carter was captain general of the band, Cornelius P. Lott, major general, and Sampson Avard, brigadier general. This is as I recollect it. [Document, p. 17. Peck, "Peck's Manuscript," p. 47, also states that Carter was later dismissed and replaced by Avard. Avard's position in the legitimate Armies of Israel was that of Surgeon. See Document, p. 3.]

The military organization for the Armies of Israel, on the other hand, was as follows:

It was determined that Colonel [Lyman] Wight should be commander-in-chief at Adam-ondi-Ahman; [Seymour] Brunson, captain of the flying of Daviess; Colonel [George M.] Hinkle, commander-in-chief of the Far West troops; Captain Patten, captain of the flying horses or cavalry [at Far West]; and that the Prophet, Joseph Smith, jr., should be commander-in-chief of the whole kingdom. [Document, p.4. Several authorities deny that Joseph Smith exercised any military authority whatever. HC 3:280, 404, 432-33, 449]

It will be noticed that in the foregoing quote, Avard places Joseph Smith as "commander-in-chief" of the Armies of Israel and makes no mention whatever of himself. In this way, Avard, who could not have failed to know the difference between the two organizations, attempted to make the Mormon prophet pay for Avard's own folly. George M. Hinkle, however, inadvertently exposed Avard's rascality at the hearing when he complained bitterly that the Danites took "all power out of the hands" of himself and the officers of the troops in Far West [referring to a scene in Far West upon his return from efforts in Daviess County]. He thus clearly distinguishes between the two groups. [Document, pp. 22-23]

(Gentry, 1974, pp. 441-442)

In an illuminating essay, Jesse and Whittaker (1988) examine one of the most valuable primary sources of information on the Danites and the Mormons in Missouri, the Albert P. Rockwood journals. They argue that some writers, such as Stephen LeSueur, have grossly misunderstood Rockwood in using his commentary to support positions unfavorable to Joseph Smith on the Danite issue. They provide excellent analysis and provide extensive portions of the available documents. Of the interpretation of Rockwood's writings, they write the following:

Rockwood's own narrative suggests that both Mormons and non-Mormons have fundamentally failed to grasp what the Danites were, and this misunderstanding is perpetuated in the continued use of the term only for meanings critics of the Church early attached to it. While space limitations prevent a detailed analysis here, several points are revealing. [For a lengthy discussion of this whole matter, the reader is referred to David J. Whittaker, "The Book of Daniel in Early Mormon Thought" (Address at Mormon History Association, 7 May 1988, Logan, Utah).]

Rockwood's record for 22 October 1838 suggests several important points for our understanding of the Danites. First, the origin of the "Armies of Israel" predates 1838; in fact, it goes back to Zion's Camp in 1834 (see D&C 105:30-32). Here militia operations in or by the Church were tied to divine injunctions to redeem Zion, a central part in Joseph Smith's mission of establishing the latter-day kingdom of God in Missouri (see D&C 107:72-73). And it has been clearly established that "Zion's Camp" was a defensive operation, depending solely on the promises of the governor of Missouri [See Crawley and Anderson, "The Political and Social Realities of Zion's Camp"].

Second, Rockwood's account of the organization of Danites involves the whole Mormon community, and he describes its structure in the biblical terms of companies of tens, fifties, and hundreds (see Ex. 18:13-26). He clearly says the various groupings provided all kinds of community service, not just bearing arms. Some groups of Danites were to build houses; others were to gather food or care for the sick, while still others were to help gather the scattered Saints into the community. There can be no doubt that Rockwood is describing the total activities of a covenant community that viewed itself in the same terms as ancient Israel. Working in groups, these Danites served the interests of the whole. The consecration of labor and property involved the whole community. It was hardly a secret organization working under the cover of darkness; in fact, Rockwood is more explicit about Danite activity in the letters he sends than in the accounts he copies into his own journal. This would hardly be a proper course to take if the whole thing were to be kept in absolute secrecy. Rockwood thus presents a view fundamentally different from Avard's, a view that allows for an interpretation of these developments in a much broader perspective, both historically and doctrinally.

Finally, Rockwood reveals that the name Dan came not from the warrior tribe of Dan (Gen. 49: 16-17; Deut. 33:22; I Chr. 12:35) or from the militant references to the "Daughters of Zion" (Isa. 3:16), as critical sources alleged or misunderstood, but rather, and more consistently, from the book of Daniel, "because the Prophet Daniel has Said the Saints Shall take the Kingdom and possess it for ever" (Dan. 2:44). To the student of Mormon history, this brings the whole notion into clear focus. Early Mormons consistently used the book of Daniel in their own self-understanding of the mission of the Church (see especially D&C 65:2). The "stone cut out without hands" was to fill the whole earth. It was, in their minds, the kingdom of God, and it was a direct outgrowth of their millennial expectations. It was not to be established by bloodshed or lawbreaking (see D&C 58: 19-22; 98:4--7; 105:5). The righteous were to be gathered out of the world, and, as Rockwood notes, it was the growing concentration of Mormons that really bothered their Missouri neighbors. General Clark's counsel to those who remained at Far West was to not gather again.

Throughout Rockwood's letters, Mormon millennial expectations are obvious, but nowhere is there the cutthroat secrecy that Avard later persuaded Judge Austin King and other non-Mormons there was. The illegal activities Avard testified to are also missing in the other known contemporary Mormon references to Danites. John Smith's diary speaks of the Danite activity in Adam-ondi-Ahman in very matter-of-fact terms; and the reference in the "Scriptory Book" of Joseph Smith kept by George Robinson also confirms the essentials suggested by Rockwood:

Some time past the bretheren or Saints have come up day after day to consecrate, and to bring their offerings into the store house of the lord, to prove him now herewith and se[e] if he will not pour us out a blessings that there will not be room enough to contain it. They have come up hither Thus far, according to the order (Rev?) of the Danites, we have a company of Danites in these times, to put right physically that which is not right, and to cleanse the Church of verry great evils which hath hitherto existed among us inasmuch as they cannot be put to right by teachings & persuasyons, This company or a part of them exibited on the fourth day of July [illegible word] They come up to consecrate by companies of tens, commanded by their captain over ten.

All of this is not to suggest that the Mormon militia obeyed all the laws or that a segment of them were not misled by Avard. But as Richard L. Anderson has recently shown, even the burning of Gallatin and the raid on Millport were defensive in nature and came only after years of patient suffering. Therefore, to argue that these were simply the more public side of the very dark Danite activities is not historically accurate. It might be suggested that either Sidney Rigdon's speeches or private counsel could have encouraged Avard's activities, but it is unfair to continue to use the term Danite to cover only an aberration.

Rockwood's record would lead us to conclude that the original intention of the Danites was to more fully organize modern Israel into an integrated community with each person contributing to the benefit of the whole. It is unfortunate that the term has only been used to identify the activities of the more radical fringe, probably those led in that direction by Avard.

(Jesse and Whittaker, pp. 12-14.)

Anson Call also used the term "Danites" to refer to the entire Armies of Israel: "I belong[ed] to this organization [the Danites] and so did the whole of the military force" (as cited by Anderson, p. 65). Certainly not all of militia had joined Avard's exclusive group, but they were viewed as Danites to Call, perhaps because the Armies of Israel had assimilated the members and leaders of the Danites, as Anderson suggests. Indeed, all able-bodied men were needed for defense and were asked to help in the defense of the Daviess County Saints in mid-October of 1838, apparently near the time of Call's statement.

Joseph Smith's Relationship to the (Secretive) Danites

Avard eventually sought to use his secretive group to seek vengeance against enemies of the Church at a time when mobs in Missouri had been a source of great trouble and remained a real threat to the Latter-day Saints. He and other Mormons were undoubtedly tired of the defensive, non-aggressive posture of the Church in the face of continued persecution and wanted to even the odds. And in 1838, the Church had its back against the wall as the prospect of mob assaults loomed under the encouraging shadow of a state government that was obviously deaf to Mormon cries. Unwilling to be driven out of yet another county or to lose lives and property once again, even leaders of the Church warned potential mobs that further attacks would bring retribution.

The fear of mobs and the willingness of the Church to fight back and stand its ground provided a climate that Avard exploited. He claimed he had the backing of the leaders of the Church, but swore his men to secrecy such that they could not even approach Joseph directly to ask about his feelings on the secret band. Portrayed as a group of supporters and defenders of the Church, a band of supportive defenders was undoubtedly welcome to Joseph, who met with them perhaps only once in Far West (as far as can be proved) and rarely elsewhere, without being told of the true intent of Avard. It was an ideal climate for Avard to manipulate others into following his schemes. But when he proposed extreme plans for vengeance and theft, he was opposed by leaders within the group and then exposed with reports to Joseph Smith. Previously, Joseph had only been exposed to seemingly positive aspects of the Danites, having attended at least one meeting in Far West where he was pleased to learn of men working to support Church leaders and protect the Church. Even the antagonistic testimony of John Corrill (who wrote a history after leaving the Church) during the Missouri trial shows that Joseph did not understand the Danites to have an agenda of aggression, but encouraged them to be lawful and work for defensive goals. Corrill is quoted in the following passage from an article on the Extermination Order and associated events in Missouri by Richard L. Anderson ("Clarifications of Bogg's "Order" and Joseph Smith's Constitutionalism," in Church History Regional Studies, Missouri, ed. Arnold K. Garr and Clark V. Johnson, Department of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 1994, p. 66):

The historian knows a little about Danite meetings but has no proof of a purely Danite military action. At Adam-ondi-Ahman meetings, Wight spoke fiercely about not giving ground to Daviess expulsionists. At Far West meetings, Avard's overblown rhetoric prevailed, contrasted with Joseph Smith's realism in his only provable visit to the society there. Joseph Smith's speech was described in some detail by John Corrill and Reed Peck. This military organization was only for protection, Joseph Smith said, and the reported discourse continued:
Relating the oppressions the society had suffered, and they wanted to be prepared for further events; but said he wished to do nothing unlawful, and if the people would let him alone, they would preach the gospel and live in peace.[John Corrill testimony, Document, 111]

Apart from Sampson Avard, other former Danites who testified against Joseph Smith were still cautious and uncertain about Joseph's involvement. They had been assured by Avard that he had Joseph's support, but they had no firm evidence for that and no evidence that Joseph knew of and approved of what Avard had been trying to achieve. Reed Peck, a Danite officer, testifying at the Richmond hearing, said:

Dr. Avard, in speaking to the society, remarked that it would be impossible for the presidency to explain the object of the society to every member, but that the presidency would explain their views or wishes to the head officers, and they to the members of the society. I was present at one meeting when the officers of the society were presented and introduced to the presidency, each officer receiving a blessing from them. Avard stated that he had procured the presidency to come there, to show the society that what he had been doing was according to their direction or will; and while there, the presidency approved of Avard's course in the society. Dr. Avard, however, did not explain to the presidency what his teaching had been in the society. (Anderson, p. 65)

But once Joseph learned of the devious plans of Avard, he removed Avard from power and sought to limit his influence and the operations of the Danites. His own life had been threatened by Avard, though, so he had to act with some degree of caution. Here is an excerpt from the History of the Church, Vol. 3, p. 178-180, which is written in Joseph Smith's words but was at least partially written by Morris Phelps:

And here I would state, that while the evil spirits were raging up and down in the state to raise mobs against the "Mormons," Satan himself was no less busy in striving to stir up mischief in the camp of the Saints: and among the most conspicuous of his willing devotees was one Doctor Sampson Avard, who had been in the Church but a short time, and who, although he had generally behaved with a tolerable degree of external decorum, was secretly aspiring to be the greatest of the great, and become the leader of the people. This was his pride and his folly, but as he had no hopes of accomplishing it by gaining the hearts of the people openly he watched his opportunity with the brethren--at a time when mobs oppressed, robbed, whipped, burned, plundered and slew, till forbearance seemed no longer a virtue, and nothing but the grace of God without measure could support men under such trials--to form a secret combination by which he might rise a mighty conqueror, at the expense and the overthrow of the Church. This he tried to accomplish by his smooth, flattering, and winning speeches, which he frequently made to his associates, while his room was well guarded by some of his followers, ready to give him the signal on the approach of anyone who would not approve of his measures.

In these proceedings he stated that he had the sanction of the heads of the Church for what he was about to do; and by his smiles and flattery, persuaded them to believe it, and proceeded to administer to the few under his control, an oath, binding them to everlasting secrecy to everything which should be communicated to them by himself. Thus Avard initiated members into his band, firmly binding them, by all that was sacred, in the protecting of each other in all things that were lawful; and was careful to picture out a great glory that was then hovering over the Church, and would soon ... arm them with power, that the gates of hell could not prevail against them; and would often affirm to his company that the principal men of the Church had put him forward as a spokesman, and a leader of this band, which he named Danites.

Thus he duped many, which gave him the opportunity of figuring as a person of importance. He held his meetings daily, and carried on his crafty work in great haste, to prevent mature reflection upon the matter by his followers, until he had them bound under the penalties of death to keep the secrets and certain signs of the organization by which they were to know each other by day or night.

After those performances, he held meetings to organize his men into companies of tens and fifties, appointing a captain over each company. After completing this organization, he went on to teach the members of it their duty under the orders of their captains; he then called his captains together and taught them in a secluded place, as follows:

Avard's Instructions to His Captains.

My brethren, as you have been chosen to be our leading men, our captains to rule over this last kingdom of Jesus Christ--and you have been organized after the ancient order--I have called upon you here today to teach you.... Know ye not, brethren, that it soon will be your privilege to take your respective companies and go out on a scout on the borders of the settlements, and take to yourselves spoils of the goods of the ungodly Gentiles? for it is written, the riches of the Gentiles shall be consecrated to my people, the house of Israel; and thus you will waste away the Gentiles by robbing and plundering them of their property; and in this way we will build up the kingdom of God, and roll forth the little stone that Daniel saw cut out of the mountain without hands and roll forth until it filled the whole earth. For this is the very way that God destines to build up his kingdom in the last days. If any us should be recognized, who can harm us? for we will stand by each other and defend one another in all things. If our enemies swear against us, we can swear also. [The captains were confounded at this, but Avard continued]. Why do you startle at this, brethren? As the Lord liveth, I would swear to a lie to clear any of you; and if this would not do, I would put them or him under the sand as Moses did the Egyptian, and in this way we will consecrate much unto the Lord, and build up His Kingdom; and who can stand against us? And if any of us transgress, we will deal with him amongst ourselves. And if any one of this Danite society reveals any of these things, I will put him where the dogs cannot bite him.

At this lecture all of the officers revolted, and said it would not do, they would not go into any such measures, and it would not do to name any such thing; "such proceedings would be in open violation of the laws of our country, would be robbing our fellow citizens of their rights, and are not according to the language and doctrine of Christ, or of the Church of Latter-day Saints."

Avard replied, and said there was no laws that were executed in justice, and he cared not for them, this being a different dispensation, a dispensation of the fullness of times; in this dispensation he learned from the Scriptures that the kingdom of God was to put down all other kingdoms, and the Lord Himself was to reign, and His laws alone were the laws that would exist.

Avard's teachings were still manfully rejected by all [the captains]. Avard then said that they had better drop the subject, although he had received his authority from Sidney Rigdon the evening before. The meeting then broke up; the eyes of those present were opened, Avard's craft was no longer in the dark, and but very little confidence was placed in him, even by the warmest of the members of his Danite scheme.

When a knowledge of Avard's rascality came to the Presidency of the Church, he was cutoff from the Church, and every means proper used to destroy his influence, at which he was highly incensed and went about whispering his evil insinuations, but finding every effort unavailing, he again turned conspirator, and sought to make friends with the mob.

And here let it be distinctly understood, that these companies of tens and fifties got up by Avard, were altogether separate and distinct from those companies of tens and fifties organized by the brethren for self defense, in case of an attack from the mob. This latter organization was called into existence more particularly that in this time of alarm no family or person might be neglected; therefore, one company would be engaged in drawing wood, another in cutting it, another in gathering corn, another in grinding another in butchering, another in distributing meat, etc., etc., so that all should be employed in turn, and no one lack the necessaries of life. Therefore, let no one hereafter, by mistake or design, confound this organization of the Church for good and righteous purposes, with the organization of the "Danites," of the apostate Avard, which died almost before it had existed.

Though quickly dismissed by some critics who rely on Avard's testimony, the above account is also supported by other witnesses, including Lorenzo Dow Young, whose recollection, according to Anderson, "should be credited because of its rich detail." Anderson offers the following:

In "late summer" Young was invited to Danite sessions in Far West and was offended at the secret principle of taking "vengeance on their enemies." After several meetings Avard demanded that Lorenzo take the oath of loyalty on the spot, only to have Young openly criticize Avard with support from many members:
From the meeting I went direct to Brother Brigham and related the whole history of the affair.... He added, "I will go at once to Brother Joseph, who has suspicioned that some secret wickedness was being carried on by Dr. Avard." Dr. Avard was at once cited before the authorities of the Church and cut off for his wickedness. [Lorenzo Dow Young, 5 Feb 1890, see James Amasa Little, "Biography of Lorenzo Dow Young," Utah Historical Quarterly 14 (1946): 51-53.]

(Anderson, pp. 67-68)

Lyman Wight's journal also demonstrates Joseph's opposition to Avard:

November 12th [1838]. Court opened this morning and Sampson Avard was sworn. He was a man whose character was perfectly run down in all classes of society, and he being a stranger, palmed himself upon the Mormon Church, and in order to raise himself in the estimation of the Church, invented schemes and plans to go against mobocracy, which were perfectly derogatory to the laws of this State and of the United States, and frequently endeavored to enforce them upon members of the Church, and when repulsed by Joseph Smith, he would frequently become chagrined. At one time he told me that the reason why he could not carry his plans into effect was that the First Presidency of the Church feared he would have too much influence and gain the honor which the Presidency desired for themselves. At one time he said to me that he would 'be dammed' if he did not carry his plans through. More than once did he raise a conspiracy against them (the Presidency) in order to take their lives, thinking that he might then rule the Church. Now when he was brought before the court, he swore that all these treasonable purposes (which he had sworn in his heart to perform) originated with us.

(Quoted in Rollin Britton, Early Days on the Grand River and the Mormon War, Columbia, Missouri Historical Society, 1920, p. 86, as cited by Gentry, 1974, p. 434.)

Gentry deals with the "abundant evidence to indicate that Avard was untruthful" (Gentry, 1974, p. 434), including testimony of others who heard Avard say that he would readily swear a lie to achieve his aims. Avard's true character - and the falseness of charges that Joseph Smith was the mastermind behind the Danites - is demonstrated by Avard's testimony at the Richmond hearing. He said everything that the expulsionists were hoping to hear, even claiming that the little band of 10,000 Mormons were planning to take over the state of Missouri with its 250,000 people. On and on he went, playing the game well to gain immunity. He also made much of an alleged Danite Constitution (a favorite of anti-Mormon writers to this day) supposedly written by Joseph and supposedly found by an enemy of the Church, the apostate William E. McLellin, during an illegal raid of Joseph's home - a Constitution that none of the other Danites seemed to know of. And the impunity with which Avard testified against Joseph raises interesting questions on its own. If Avard's stories were true, then his life would have been in grave danger for betraying the secrets of the Danites and testifying against Joseph. He surely would have been killed. Instead, the only action Joseph took against this traitor who caused him so much suffering in jail and harmed so many of the Saints was to have him excommunicated. Avard was released and Joseph Smith and some other Church leaders spent the next 5 months under terrible conditions in the Liberty Jail.

Historical Summary

To summarize, here is a portion of David J. Whittaker's article, "Danites," in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1:

Following the violence in northwestern Missouri in 1838, the Mormon dissident Sampson Avard, star witness in a court of inquiry weighing evidence against LDS leaders, charged that the Church had organized a band of armed men bound by secret oaths who had engaged in illegal activities against non-Mormon neighbors (Document, pp. 97-108). With the 1841 publication of the court proceedings, Avard's account became the foundation for all subsequent non-Mormon "Danite" accounts. Thus was born the legend of the Danites.

Though no Danite organization was known in Nauvoo or in Utah, the stereotype persisted, becoming a part of national discussion about Utah and the Latter-day Saints....

The reality of Danites in Missouri in 1838 is both less and more than the stereotype. Contemporary records suggest something fundamentally different. In October 1838, Albert Perry Rockwood, an LDS resident of Far West, Missouri, wrote in his journal of a public Danite organization that involved the whole Latter-day Saint community. He described in biblical terms companies of tens, fifties, and hundreds (cf. Ex. 18:13-26).... Here the Danite organization encompassed the full range of activities of a covenant community that viewed itself as a restoration of ancient Israel. Working in groups, with some assigned to defense, others to securing provisions, and still others to constructing dwellings, these Danites served the interests of the whole. This was not the secret organization Avard spoke of; in fact, Rockwood's letters to friends and family were even more descriptive than his journal (Jessee and Whittaker).

In the fall of 1838, with old settlers in Missouri swearing to drive the Mormons out rather than permit them to become a political majority and with LDS leaders declaring that they would fight before again seeing their rights trampled, northwestern Missouri was in a state of war (see Missouri Conflict). Sparked by an effort to prevent LDS voting, violence erupted in August and soon spread. On both sides, skirmishes involved members of state-authorized militias. Evidence suggests that during this time of fear, clashes, and confusion, Sampson Avard, probably a captain within the public Danite structure and a militia officer, subverted the ideals of both by persuading his men to undertake the criminal activities he later argued were the authorized actions of the whole community. Encouraged perhaps by the firmly stated intentions of leaders to meet force with force but apparently without their approval, Avard used his Danite and military positions to mold a covert renegade band to avenge anti-Mormon outrages. He succeeded because after weeks of responding to violence with strictly defensive measures, Avard was not alone in feeling that the time for forbearance had passed. Others of the time in late reminiscences recalled that clandestine meetings were held, which were subsequently reported to Joseph Smith, who then denounced Avard, removed him from his official command, and disbanded the maverick body. Though short-lived and unauthorized, this covert organization, thanks to Avard's distorted and widely publicized testimony, usurped the former usage of "Danites," and the once honorable appellation became a synonym for officially sanctioned secret lawlessness.

In contrast, when five hundred men in the Caldwell County (Mormon) militia later took the offensive in response to two months of unrelenting violence and depredations, there was nothing secretive about it. In mid-October, with supplies running low, they left defensive positions to forage and to punish enemies - a very public effort to improve security by preemptive forays. Two weeks later, facing increasing numbers of volunteers and a militia emboldened by the governor's Extermination Order, they surrendered their arms in defeat.

The reality, then, behind the supposed secretive, lawless Danites of legend was this renegade band formed briefly in 1838 in the midst of war. There is no evidence of any such band later, and even in 1838, the Latter-day Saint community as a whole did not deserve blame for the unauthorized actions of a few. As Parley P. Pratt, an apostle, wrote to his family after hearing Avard's court testimony, "They accuse us of things that never entered into our hearts." From Liberty Jail on December 16, 1838, Joseph Smith summarized the situation as he then understood it: "We have learned also since we have been in prison that many false and pernicious things which were calculated to lead the saints far astray and to do great injury have been taught by Dr. Avard as coming from the Presidency . . . which the presidency never knew of being taught in the church by any body untill after they were made prisoners . . . the presidency were ignorant as well as innocent of these things" (PWJS, p. 380)....


Cornwall, Rebecca Foster, and Leonard J. Arrington. "Perpetuation of a Myth: Mormon Danites in Five Western Novels, 1840-90." BYU Studies 23 (Spring 1983):147-65.

Document Containing the Correspondence, Orders, Etc. in Relation to the Disturbances with the Mormons; and the Evidence Given before the Hon. Austin A. King. Fayette, Mo., 1841.

Gentry, Leland H. "The Danite Band of 1838." BYU Studies 14 (Summer 1974):421-50.

Jessee, Dean C., and David J. Whittaker, eds. "The Last Months of Mormonism in Missouri: The Albert Perry Rockwood Journal." BYU Studies 28 (Winter 1988):5-41.

Whittaker, David J. "The Book of Daniel in Early Mormon Thought." In By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, Vol. 1, pp. 155-201. Salt Lake City, 1990.

But the existence of the Danites did reflect an increasingly forceful attitude of at least some of the Saints against their persecutors. Lives of men, women and children were again at risk, and the patience of the Saints had worn thin. Sidney Rigdon and even Joseph Smith had made strong remarks about standing up to the mobsters and taking persecutions no more. After several serious mob attacks against scattered groups of Saints, the Mormon militia was called upon to rid Daviess county of the mobsters. In this action, there were abuses by both Mormons and non-Mormons. Some Mormons did burn some homes and commit acts of plunder. Avard and many others were later arrested. Once he was arrested, Avard realized that the authorities were really most interested in Joseph Smith. To save his own skin, Avard created the lie that Joseph Smith was the mastermind behind the secretive Danite band and the instigator of violence against other Missouri inhabitants. Most of what critics of the Church say today about the Danites derives from Avard's testimony. Absent that, there is very little evidence that the secretive band of Danites played a significant role in the affairs of the Saints or that they were anything but a short-lived aberration. And certainly there is no evidence that Joseph approved of Avard's malicious plans for the Danites, but the evidence shows that he was opposed to such actions.

The antagonistic testimony of enemies of Joseph Smith is partly refuted by Joseph's actions and teachings both before and after the Missouri episode, which show an attitude more suggestive of a tolerant advocate of civil rights than a vengeful madman. As we shall see below, in the case of Daviess County, bold action was needed as a matter of survival, for it was a time of war against the Saints. The excesses of some frustrated Mormons are tragic, but were probably not the desire of Joseph Smith.

Background on the War in Missouri

Troubled Beginnings

Latter-day Saints and especially their leaders had demonstrated commendable restraint in their response to violence time after time in the early days of the Church. Shunning aggression and retribution, Latter-day Saint actions had been essentially defensive in the face of persecution and violence in New York and then in Ohio. They had been driven from their homes and property in both states, some of them losing everything more than once. By 1838, they Saints were gathering in force in Missouri, where they hoped to exist peacefully and help establish a kingdom of God on earth.

Though there were some naturally rough and violent people in the frontier state of Missouri, even respectable citizens of that state had legitimate reasons for being concerned about their Mormon neighbors. They were concentrating in one portion of the state, where they were becoming a significant economic and local political force. They tended to do business among themselves, leading to charges that their economic exclusivity was un-American. They were different, with a much-belittled religion and the odd belief that a Prophet was among them. They were also buying up much land in the area. They were also branded as pro-abolition in a state that favored slavery. There were concerns that Mormons would incite rebellion among slaves and Mormons were accused of slave tampering. Likewise, there was fear that Mormons might incite Indian wars, since the Mormons were favorably oriented toward the Indians and had tried to preach to them. Naturally, it was easy for neighbors to be suspicious and worried. Take the Missourians economic and political concerns, through in a little bigotry, couple that with Mormon frustration about endless persecutions against a "chosen people," and toss in some inevitable human misbehavior among the Mormons as well, and you've got a recipe for trouble.

Frankly, the above description is probably too generous to the Missourians. It does injustice to history to downplay the significant role that religious bigotry played. Terry L. Givens thoughtfully explores this issue in his book, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 40-59). He notes that critics have long had a vested interest in emphasizing nonreligious reasons for the persecution of the Latter-day Saints, and historians have also focused on causes of the conflict other than religious bigotry. However, Givens notes, even before the Missouri Wars began, "the hundreds of mobbers involved at the outset were good enough to commit their complaints to paper" (ibid., p. 44), referring to a document "drawn up at a mass meeting in Jackson County, Missouri, in July 1833" that shows the significance of religion in the minds of the mobbers. It begins with lip service to the notion of leaving the "grossest supestition" of Mormon religion out of the conflict, but quickly launches into attacks on LDS beliefs. The authors raise the specter of Mormon "swarms" invading their land, people "who do not blush to declare, and would not upon occasion hesitate to swear, that they have wrought miracles . . . and supernatural cures, have concourse with God and His angels, and possess and exercise the gifts of divination and of unknown tongues" (ibid., p. 44). There follows a brief reference to LDS antiabolitionist tendencies - the only attempt in the document to provide a legal reason for opposing the Mormons - followed by a reiteration of a religious attack on the Mormons. Givens writes, "Rather than mount a serious attack on Mormon racial views in a way that would lend legitimacy - or at least mitigate - their violent solutions [in the context of a pro-slavery state], the mobbers repeatedly invoke and caricature Mormon religious heterodoxy" (ibid., p. 44). In many of the actions against the Mormons, local religious leaders played significant roles. For example, affidavits signed by three members of the Church indicate that when Joseph Smith was court-martialed and sentence to death at Far West by the Missouri Militia, that "seventeen preachers of the gospel were on this court martial; and, horrible to relate, were in favor of this merciless sentence" (Clark V. Johnson, ed., Mormon Redress Petitions: Documents of the 1833-1838 Missouri Conflict (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1992), p. 407).

There was a spirit of violence and persecution against the Latter-day Saints - apparently largely motivated by religious hostility - while the Saints were still few in number in the early 1830s, when the Church was centered in Kirtland, Ohio. The actions of a few of the Missourians shortly after the first group of Saints arrived in 1831 shows something about the kind of people they were dealing with. Here is an excerpt from the article "Missouri Conflict" by Max H. Parkin in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2, relating facts that I believe are not in dispute:

Vandalism against LDS settlers first occurred in the spring of 1832. Coordinated aggression commenced in July 1833, after the article "Free People of Color" appeared in the Evening and the Morning Star. Even though the article was written to curtail trouble, it so outraged local citizens that more than 400 met at the courthouse to demand that the Mormons leave. When the Latter-day Saints refused to negotiate away or abandon lands they legally owned, some citizens formed a mob and destroyed the press and printing house, ransacked the Mormon store, and violently accosted LDS leaders. Bishop Edward Partridge was beaten and tarred and feathered. Meeting three days later, the mob issued an ultimatum: One-half of the Mormons must leave by year's end and the rest by April (1834).

What was in the "Free People of Color" article that caused such outrage? It was said to be an invitation for free people of color to accept the Gospel and join the Saints, something quite offensive in a pro-slavery state. But the article was greatly and perhaps deliberately misconstrued by enemies of the Church to stir up the Missourians. The article primarily cited two sections of Missouri state law on the emigration of a colored person into the state and encouraged that the laws be respected and that things be done in prudence. It was hardly a call for emigration of freed slaves.

Continuing from Max Parkin:

Local Church leaders sought counsel from Joseph Smith at Kirtland and assistance from Missouri Governor Daniel Dunklin. The Prophet urged them to hold their ground, and the governor advised them to seek redress through the courts. They did both. They employed lawyers from Clay County, including Alexander W. Doniphan and David R. Atchison.

Determined to settle the matter decisively, the old settlers mobilized to drive the Mormons out. Renewed violence began on October 31, 1833, with an attack on the Whitmer Branch a few miles west of the Big Blue River, near Independence. The mob demolished houses, whipped the men, and terrorized the women and children. For a week, attacks, beatings, and depredations against the Saints continued. On November 4 a mob again attacked the Whitmer settlement, making its streets a battleground. Two Missourians and one defender died.

The following day men led by Lyman Wight arrived from the Prairie Branch, twelve miles west, to protect members threatened at Independence. Colonel Thomas L. Pitcher then called out the county militia to quell the mob and negotiate a truce with Wight. According to John Corrill, a Church officer at Independence, after the Saints surrendered their arms to the militia, the troops joined the mob in a general assault against them. Some county residents recoiled at this barbarism. John McCoy, whose father rode with the mob, later wrote in the Kansas City Journal (Jan. 18, 1885, p. 5) that the Mormons "were unjustly and outrageously maltreated." But neither Colonel Pitcher nor Lieutenant Governor Lilburn W. Boggs, a resident of the county, interfered. [In fact, Boggs had already had conflicts with Mormons over land he wanted and had no desire to see a group opposed to slavery grow strong in his state (Hill, p. 162). He told the Saints, "You now know what our Jackson boys can do, and you must leave the country" (History of the Church, Vol. 1, pp. 391-392).]

The terrified Saints fled Jackson County in disarray. Most went north, across the Missouri River, and sought refuge in Clay County, whose citizens were generally sympathetic and hospitable. Even there, however, these refugees endured a miserable winter without sufficient shelter, clothing, or food....

After the Missouri governor promised militia assistance, about 200 Saints marched from Ohio to Missouri to escort the exiles back to their homes. This paramilitary relief party was known as Zion's Camp. But reports of the camp's coming mobilized anti-Mormons throughout Missouri's western counties, and when it arrived in Missouri, it encountered hundreds of armed adversaries. The promised military assistance from the governor was not forthcoming, and the camp disbanded in June 1834 without crossing into Jackson County. The revelation disbanding Zion's Camp declared that, because the Saints had not been blameless and must yet learn much, their anticipated Zion would not be redeemed for "many days" (D&C 105:2-10, 37).

All parties considered the Saints' exile in Clay County to be temporary. Joseph Smith still hoped for the strength to return to Jackson County in the near future. But the Clay County old settlers, fearful of the flood of new LDS arrivals, grew impatient. On the night of June 28, 1836, a Clay County mob, determined to drive the Mormons from the county, commenced to harass and beat them. The following day a convention of leading citizens entreated the Saints to leave the county before the mob struck further. Grateful for the refuge provided by Clay County citizens at a time of deep crisis, Church leaders agreed to move.

An uninhabited area north of Richmond became the new gathering place. Friends of the Saints, including state legislator Alexander W. Doniphan, guided the formation of a new "Mormon county" called Caldwell. By late 1836, with the county seat of Far West surrounded by other settlements, Latter-day Saints streamed into Caldwell County. In early 1838, after experiencing difficulties in Ohio, Joseph Smith arrived at Far West, and the settlement became Church headquarters. Many of the Ohio Saints soon followed. As LDS settlement extended into nearby Daviess and Carroll counties, competition with the old settlers resumed, eventually erupting into conflict.

Foreshadowing the degree to which the Mormons could rely on the forces of the State for protection, Governor Dunklin had promised the Mormons that he would help them regain their lands. Thus, Zion's Camp was organized in 1834 to march to Missouri from Kirtland with a force that was intended to protect the Saints once they had been assisted back into their homes and onto their lands in Jackson County (Crawley and Anderson, 1974). It was all hypocrisy, for Dunklin broke his promise and turned Zion's Camp into a futile effort. Crawley and Anderson offer this summary in their excellent essay on the realities of Zion's Camp (Crawley and Anderson, 1974):

The destiny of Zion's Camp, in a real sense, was in Dunklin's hands. His promise of a guard was a precipitating factor in the camp's creation. And his decision not to provide armed assistance removed any opportunity for the camp to play a lawful role in recovering Mormon lands. Nevertheless, in retrospect it would seem that Joseph Smith had no other reasonable alternative at the 24 February council meeting but to respond as he did with the formation of Zion's Camp. Given the Mormons' belief in the eschatological significance of Jackson County, it was impossible for them simply to walk away from their holdings in Jackson without making some substantial effort toward their recovery, particularly with the governor's promise of help lingering in their minds. The camp was the embodiment of such an effort. It further brought into sharp focus just what the Mormons could expect from the Missouri government. Having made that effort and having tested the limits of governmental support, the leaders of the Church could move from a single minded concentration on Jackson County to examine other alternatives for the Latter-day Saints in Missouri.

All efforts to follow the established legal system seemed to be futile. For example, Edward Partridge, who had been tarred and feathered and badly beaten by mob forces in Jackson County, vainly sought legal redress in Feb. 1834 against Samuel Lucas and other assailants. The defendants all claimed that the attack of the mob of several hundred men against Partridge was in self defense - though they never offered any details of just how Partridge went about assailing such a large group of men. (Something out of a modern ninja movie, no doubt.) In court, a defendant, John M. Walker, said that in defending himself he did "necessarily and unavoidably a little beat, bruise, wound, and ill treat the said Edward Partridge, and rend, tear, damage and spoil the wearing apparel, and unavoidably did besmear the said Edward Partridge with a little pitch, tar, and feathers" (Hill, p. 167). Well, who can fault anybody for that? Some accidents with tar and feathers are just plain unavoidable. All defendants were found not guilty. This was a pattern that would be repeated again. LDS victims would know that there would be no justice in a legal system filled with persecutors. This pattern would continue in Illinois as well, where the murderers of Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith would also be found not guilty in a grossly unfair trial.

John Greene, writing in 1839 after the expulsion of the Saints, recaps the history of the Saints in Missouri in this manner:

Soon after the settlement [in Jackson County] began, persecution began, and as the society increased persecution also increased, until the society at last was compelled to leave the county....

On the 20th of July 1833, a mob convened at Independence, a committee of which called upon a few of the men of our church there, and stated to them that the store, printing office, and indeed all other mechanic shops must be closed forthwith, and the society leave the county immediately.... In a short time, the printing office, which was a two-story brick building, was assailed by the mob and soon thrown down, and with it much valuable property destroyed... Their next move was their dragging of Bishop Partridge from his house and family to the public square, where, surrounded by hundreds, they partially stripped him of his clothes, and tarred and feathered him from head to foot. A man by the name of Allan was also tarred at the same time. This was Saturday, and the mob agreed to meet the following Tuesday, to accomplish their purpose of driving or massacring the society. Tuesday came, and the mob came also, bearing with them a red flag in token of blood. Some two or three of the principal men of the society offered their lives, if that would appease the wrath of the mob, so that the rest of the society might dwell in peace upon their lands. The answer was, that unless the society would leave "en masse," every man should die for himself. Being in a defenseless situation, to save a general massacre, it was agreed that one half of the society should leave the county by the first of the next January, and the remainder by the first of the following April. A treaty was entered into and ratified, and all things went on smoothly for a while. But some time in October the wrath of the mob began again to be kindled, insomuch, that they shot at some of our people, whipped others, and threw down their houses, and committed many other depredations....These abuses, with many others of a very aggravated nature, so stirred up the indignant feelings of our people, that a party of them, say about 30, met a company of the mob of about double their number, when a battle took place in which some two or three of the mob and one of our people were killed. This raised as it were the whole county in arms, and nothing would satisfy them but an immediate surrender of the arms of our people, and they forthwith to leave the county--Fifty-one guns were given up, which have never been returned or paid for to this day. The next day parties of the mob, from 30 to 70, headed by priests, went from house to house, threatening women and children and death if they were not off before they returned. This so alarmed them, that they fled in different directions; some took shelter in the woods, while others wandered in the prairies till their feet bled. In the mean time the weather being very cold, sufferings in other respects were very great.

(John Greene, "Expulsion of the Mormons," 1839, pp. 10-11.)

Lyman Wight later described some of these events:

I saw one hundred and ninety women and children driven thirty miles across the prairie, with three decrepit men only in their company, in the month of November, the ground thinly crusted with sleet; and I could easily follow on their trail by the blood that flowed from their lacerated feet on the stubble of the burnt prairie!

This company, not knowing the situation of the country or the extent of Jackson county, built quite a number of cabins, that proved to be in the borders of Jackson county. The mob, infuriated at this, rushed on them in the month of January, 1834, burned these scanty cabins, and scattered the inhabitants to the four winds; from which cause many were taken suddenly ill, and of this illness died. In the meantime, they burned two hundred and three houses and one grist mill, these being the only residences of the Saints in Jackson county.

(History of the Church, 3:439)

This would not be the last time in Missouri that the Saints would have their homes burned or be driven out of their settlements in winter. The events in Jackson County would set a precedent that would be repeated by similar forces. But by settling north in Caldwell and Daviess Counties, which were largely unpopulated, the Saints hoped to escape mob conflict - and for a short time, they did.

As in other places, the persecution in Jackson County did not simply arise spontaneously. Much of it was fomented deliberately by religious bigots in the guise of ministers. For example, in 1833, a Revered Pixley from the eastern Missionary Society and Reverend Finis Ewing of the Cumberland Presbyterians worked hard to inflame Missourians (Hill, p. 159). Pixley wrote to newspapers, gave many speeches, and even went door to door with a pamphlet. Ewing wrote that "The Mormons are the common enemies of mankind and ought to be destroyed" (Hill, p. 159, citing History of the Church, Vol. 1, pp. 373-373 and 392).

Trouble Brewing in 1838

1838 was to become a time of war between the Mormons and some non-Mormon Missourians (today's journalists would might call it the Missouri "peace process"). The potential for trouble had been clear for years, but 1838 became critical as Missouri became the primary gathering place for the Church. As the Saints grew in strength in Missouri, it was obvious to those Saints who had been there long that there would be a resurgence of mob activity. Their potential political and economic strength again would be resisted.

Some have argued that the Saints were paranoid about violence and that there would have been no conflicts in 1838 if the Saints hadn't become belligerent about self-defense. But the reality is otherwise. Already in 1837, as the Saints were settling Caldwell and Daviess counties in northwestern Missouri, they had met with antagonism and threats. Saints in Daviess Country were asked to move out, for example. And one of several hints of what the Saints could expect was reported by Anson call, who arrived from Ohio in the spring of 1837 via steamboat. On the steamboat, according to Richard L. Anderson,

General Wilson of Jackson County warned him against gathering to the Mormon center, and reinforced his point at Jefferson City by introducing him "to about a dozen of the Jackson County boys, Governor Boggs included." They responded with ridicule at "a Mormon going to Caldwell County." Earlier on the boat, Wilson was both crude and accurate when first told that Call's group was headed to Far West:
You will be driven from there before six months.... I am Colonel Wilson of Jackson County. I was one of the principal actors in driving the Mormons from that county and expect to be soon engaged in driving them from Caldwell County.... He advised us to stop in some other place, for if we went to Far West we were sure to be butchered. [Shann L. Call, ed., The Life and Record of Anson Call (Afton, WY: Ethan L. Call and Christine Shaffer Call, n.d.) 8-9. Anderson notes that Anson's journal entry was written before he attended the Far West celebration of 4 July 1838, where Rigdon warned against trying to "exterminate" the Mormons.]

(Anderson, p. 36)

After having been driven from New York to Missouri and now having been driven out of two counties in Missouri, the Saints were not going to be passive and meek in their defense. On July 4, 1838, Sidney Rigdon gave an audacious sermon in Far West declaring that mobs coming against the Mormons would be punished. That was only a small fragment of the talk - most of it was devoted to explaining the positive aspects of the Saints and their patriotism. But the declaration that the Saints would resist mob violence was used to stir up further anger, especially the ominous declaration: "And that mob that comes on us to disturb us: it shall be between us and them a war of extermination." But Rigdon followed that with a statement indicating his defensive intent: "We will never be the aggressors, we will infringe on the rights of no people: but shall stand for our own until death."

Joseph Smith endorsed the sermon in a Church publication, which some writers see as evidence of belligerency. Also, on Sept. 1, after dealing with increasing false rumors and threats of violence, Joseph wrote in his journal, describing an unwillingness to take any more persecution:

There is great excitement at present among the Missourians, who are seeking if possible an occasion against us. They are continually chafing us, and provoking us to anger if possible, one sign of threatening after another, but we do not fear them, for the Lord God, the Eternal Father is our God, and Jesus the Mediator is our Savior, and in the great I Am is our strength and confidence.

We have been driven time after time, and that without cause; and smitten again and again, and that without provocation; until we have proved the world with kindness, and the world has proved us, that we have no designs against any man or set of men, that we injure no man, that we are peaceable with all men, minding our own business, and our business only. We have suffered our rights and our liberties to be taken from us; we have not avenged ourselves of those wrongs; we have appealed to magistrates, to sheriffs, to judges, to government, and to the President of the United States, all in vain; yet we have yielded peaceably to all these things. We have not complained at the Great God, we murmured not, but peaceably left all, and retired into the back country, in the broad and wild prairies, in the barren and desolate plains, and there commenced anew; we made the desolate places to bud and blossom as the rose; and now the fiend-like race is disposed to give us no rest. There father the devil, is hourly calling upon them to be up and doing, and they, like willing and obedient children, need not the second admonition; but in the name of Jesus Christ the Son of the living God, we will endure it no longer, if the great God will arm us with courage, with strength and with power, to resist them in their persecutions. We will not act on the offensive, but always on the defensive; our rights and our liberties shall not be taken from us, and we peaceably submit to it, as we have done heretofore, but we will avenge ourselves of our enemies, inasmuch as they will not let us alone.

(History of the Church, Vol. 3, pp. 45-46)

Joseph was a strong advocate of law and order, but part of that concept was the need to defend his people in the face of lawless aggression from mobs. He was obviously unwilling to resist force with force for the protection of his people, and probably wanted his enemies to know that.

The Election Day Battle

As the Saints began to spread into Daviess County, the original settlers wanted to elect a non-Mormon, naturally. They were warned to stay away from the polling place in Gallatin on election day, yet a handful of Mormons went anyway to vote. An anti-Mormon candidate, William Penniston, gave a speech denouncing the Mormons that morning. With whiskey already flowing, the anger of the settlers led to a fight. The Mormons were outnumbered, but fought bravely and held their own. Those that were present appear to have been Danites and gave a Danite distress call to enlist their fellows into the fight. But what kind of Danites? Avard's or the public Danites? Some critics see the fight as evidence of a secretive, select Danite band showing their violent nature. "But this presupposes that only Avard-type Danites voted, which is absurd; doesn't it make more sense to understand the situation in the same way as Rockwood did, that the whole community of men had been organized into 'Danites'?" (Whittaker, 1990, pp. 195-196).

According to Lucy Mack Smith, the Prophet's mother, the mob was enraged to be beaten by the Mormon men and that night enlisted the help of the judge of the election who wrote letters in their behalf claiming that Joseph Smith had killed seven met at the place, "and that the inhabitants had every reason to expect that he would collect his people together and exterminate all who did not belong to his church. They therefore begged the assistance of their neighbors against the Mormons" (Lucy Mack Smith, p. 361).

Joseph Smith and a group of Mormons came the next day, responding to confused rumors of what had happened. Joseph met with the local Justice of the Peace, Adam Black, who had been involved in anti-Mormon activities. Joseph asked if Mr. Black could administer justice fairly and had him agree to sign an affidavit saying that he would disassociate himself from the mob. The next day, a group of Mormons and non-Mormons signed an accord stating that they would preserve each other's rights and stand in each other's defense and deal with offenders according to principles of law and justice (History of the Church, 3:60). This phase of the "peace process" lasted one day. On August 10, William Penniston presented an affidavit to the circuit judge, Austin King, in Richmond, Ray County. The affidavit accused Joseph Smith and his second counselor, Lyman Wight, of threatening all the old settlers of Daviess county with death ((History of the Church, 3:61). Joseph was willing to submit to be arrested if he could be tried in Daviess County. Adam Black soon added to the tension by claiming that 154 Mormons had threatened his life unless he signed the agreement he had been offered. To Joseph, this was evidence that Black was an "unprincipled mobocrat" who had perjured himself ((History of the Church, 3:65). Reports reached Governor Boggs of a Mormon uprising. War seemed imminent.

Joseph, though he had talked of bold self-defense, apparently wished to avoid violence and consulted with Major General David Atchison and Brigadier General Alexander Doniphan of the Missouri state militia. These two men were lawyers who had gained the respect of the Saints because of their fairness and kindness. Joseph sought ways to end hostilities in Daviess County. General Atchison said he would work to disperse the mob. Lyman Wight and Joseph were told that they should also volunteer to be tried in Daviess County. A trial was scheduled on Sept. 7. Though there was no incriminating evidence, Judge King ordered them to be tried before the circuit court and had them post bond of $500.

Tensions Grow in Daviess County

In spite of Joseph's willingness to be tried and his search for ways to prevent further conflict, the anger of the mobs was not abated. Daviess County settlers wanted to be rid of the Mormons and now increased their efforts. General Parks wrote that there were steady threats from the settlers, and that "Their intention is to drive the Mormons with powder and lead from this county" (General Parks to David Atchison, 25 Sep 1838, Millport, as cited by Anderson, p. 38). George B. Teeples, a Mormon in Daviess County, said that the settlers there "had resolved that there should not one of our people live in that county, and that they would give me four days to leave the county" (as cited by Anderson, pp. 38-39). Tensions were building toward war:

Enemies of the Church, including many from other counties, prepared to attack Adam-ondi-Ahman. Lyman Wight held a colonel's commission in the fifty-ninth regiment of the Missouri Regiment, which was directed by the state under General H. G. Parks. Lyman directed the arming of over 150 men, part of the state militia, to defend the town against the mobs. Both Mormons and mobbers sent scouts throughout the countryside, occasionally took prisoners, and generally insulted each other. Only the prudent actions of generals Atchison and Doniphan prevented violence. Late in September, General Atchison wrote to the governor: "Things are not so bad in that county [Daviess] as represented by rumor, and, in fact, from affidavits I have no doubt your Excellency has been deceived by the exaggerated statements of designing or half crazy men. I have found there is no cause of alarm on account of the Mormons; they are not to be feared; they are very much alarmed."

About this same time a committee of "old citizens" in Daviess County agreed to sell their property to the Saints. Joseph Smith immediately sent messengers to the East and South to try and raise the necessary funds, but the rapidly escalating conflict made this tentative agreement impossible to fulfill.

(Church History in the Fulness of Times, p. 196)

The Siege of DeWitt in Carroll County

Starting in June 1838, Latter-day Saints had also established a settlement in DeWitt, Carroll County, which also became a target for mob activity. Missourians there realized that the Saints could become powerful in their county. Fearful of Mormon influence, it was easy to believe all the rumors spread about this strange people. Efforts were soon made to expel them from the county. Several meetings of Missourians were held in July, resulting in an ultimatum to the Mormons commanding them to leave. The Saints were explicitly threatened with extermination of men, women, and children (Anderson, p. 40). George M. Hinkle, a Mormon colonel in the Missouri state militia, was defiant and stated that the Mormons would stay and defend their rights. The Saints asked Governor Boggs for help in the defense against mob in Carroll County, but Boggs, long a friend of those seeking Mormon expulsion, ignored their plea. Mobs soon poured into Carroll County preparing for conflict. DeWitt was under siege, and the vastly outnumbered Mormons there were low on food and provisions as they sought to protect themselves - some were starving, it appears. Joseph Smith was gravely concerned and found a way to secretly slip into the Mormon settlement, avoiding mob guards. The Church obtained affidavits from sympathetic non-Mormons and again appealed to the Governor. He responded that "The quarrel was between the Mormons and the mob" and that the Mormons "might fight it out" (History of the Church, 3: 157). Thus, the Saints could abandon all hope of receiving any assistance from the government in protecting their Constitutional rights. It was looking a lot like 1833 in Jackson County.

The state militia had been called out to help, but when they arrived, they took sides with the mob and joined in the siege (Warren Foote autobiography, p. 24). The Saints were learning that state militias could not be trusted and included many people who were bent on expulsion of the Mormons. Lucy Mack Smith speaks of the "state mob" when describing the non-LDS Missouri militia (Lucy Mack Smith, p. 366).

The Mormons concluded that DeWitt would have to be abandoned. The Saints, with Joseph Smith, gathered up their wagons and left DeWitt on October 11. A woman who had recently given birth died from exposure, having been forced to travel before she was strong enough. Mob harassment continued as the Saints departed. Several more of the weakened and weary Saints would die along the way (Church History in the Fulness of Times, p. 197).

The War in Daviess County

With the capitulation of the Mormons in DeWitt, the wrath of the mob was hardly abated. The illegal forces in Carrol County now began massing toward Daviess County, hoping for yet more victories in the war of expulsion against the Mormons. Governor Boggs surely should have recognized the likelihood for terrible violence in that county, for "General Atchison, Mormons, rank and file in the settlers' party, and bystanders all said that illegal forces freed by the Carroll capitulation would now move against Daviess County Mormons" (Anderson, p. 41). General Atchison wrote to Governor Lilburn Boggs on 16 Oct., 1838, warning that "A portion of the men from Carroll County are on their march for Daviess County, where it is thought the same lawless game is to be played over, and the Mormons to be driven from that county and probably from Caldwell County" (Anderson, pp. 41-42).

Hyrum Smith describes the atrocities of the mob against Mormons in Daviess County and elsewhere, including the burning of Agnes Smith's home, who had to flee through the cold night with her babies and wade across a river to find safety. Colonel Lyman Wight was outraged. He asked General Parks what should be done:

General Parks told him that he "should take a company of men, well armed, and go and disperse the mob wherever he should find any collected together, and take away their arms." Colonel Wight did so precisely, according to the orders of General parks, and my brother, Joseph, made no order about it.

(Statement of Hyrum Smith before the Municipal Court, Nauvoo, June 30, 1843, in Lucy Mack Smith, p. 376)

Mormon leaders felt that their actions in Daviess County were approved by General Parks, though it is difficult to confirm what the General really intended. In any case, from the Mormon perspective, their use of troops in Daviess County to drive out the mob was legal and justified.

Some critics depict the following events in Daviess County as purely aggressive, as if men from Caldwell County illegally marched into a neighboring county without cause and chased away the non-Mormons. But many Mormons lived in Daviess County, and mobs composed of many Daviess County settlers and settlers from other counties were massing there to drive out the Mormons from that county and, if they succeeded, perhaps from Caldwell County as well. A couple of Mormons captured by the mob moving into Daviess County boasted that they would use their canon to drive Mormons from Daviess County to Caldwell County, and "from Caldwell to hell" (Edward Partridge, as cited by Anderson, p. 42). Other evidence clearly points to an active expulsion effort in Daviess County, with several counties providing forces to drive out the Mormons (Anderson, p. 43). Immediate, forceful action was needed to protect the Saints there.

Up to mid-October, the Saints had cooperated fully with civil and military authorities and had shown great respect for the law, though no such respect was afforded them. The "Mormon War" was about to begin when the Saints would try to establish a defensive perimeter for their people (Anderson, p. 42), using their own militia and risking conflict with the civil and military powers that had long abandoned them. With armed vigilantes from multiple counties were flocking to Davies County and boasting of their plans to drive the Mormons away, the situation was desperate: "Regional war had been declared, and not by the Mormons" (Anderson, p. 44).

Joseph Smith had limited options. Winter was approaching, and the Saints had lost much food from assaults of mobs. He could attempt to lead his Saints away from their homes, which would bring abundant risks. He could wait for further attacks, risking the forced expulsion of more Saints into the depths of winter. Or he could strike against the mob and seek to stop their assaults and perhaps regain food and supplies needed for his people. While Avard and his band might have been thirsting for vengeance, survival was the immediate need. Joseph chose to expel the mob from Daviess County, where the Mormons were now a majority and where the brunt of mob action was to take place. He seems to have understood that the action was approved by General Parks and not in violation of the law, and in any case it was motivated by the need to defend Mormon settlers. Thus, the Armies of Israel went into Daviess County, and several different groups went to different areas to drive out the mob while Joseph apparently stayed with the Saints in Adam-ondi-Ahman, the largest Mormon settlement in Daviess County.

In this hour, one could argue that there was no time for patience with dissenters and the timid: Mormons unwilling to oppose the mob were threatened with the loss of property to support those who would (Autobiography of Warren Foote, pp. 29-30). Property, not lives, was threatened. Here is Warren Foote's account of the events, which contains several statements that critics of the Church love to quote:

[October] 14th. [1838] Sunday. Mr. Barnard, and I went to Far West to meeting. Joseph Smith preached. He said that those who would not turn out to help to suppress the mob, should have their property taken to support those who would. He was very plain and pointed in his remarks, and expressed a determination to put down the mob or die in the attempt. The report was, that they had gathered in Daviess County to the number of 400 or 500. Just as meeting closed, there was an alarm given, that a company of armed men were approaching the town from the south. The men immediately ran for their guns, so as to be in readiness should they prove to be enemies. But they proved to be a company of militia, who had been ordered to Daviess County, (they said,) to quell the mob. Joseph said that he wanted all the people (men) of Caldwell County to assemble at Far West tomorrow, in order to find out who will fight, and who will not. He said that the Mormons would have to protect themselves, as they could not put any dependence in the militia of the state; for they were mostly mobocrats. On our way home from meeting, we met several families from DeWitt, just getting in, amongst whom was S. Markham, and company, whom we left in Illinois. They were among those that were detained at DeWitt by the mob. During the skirmish there, Markham was shot at several times, but not hurt.

[October] 21st. [1838] The "Mormons" assembled at Far West last monday, according to appointment, and about 300 volunteered to go to Daviess County, with Joseph Smith, to assist their brethren, while the rest were to stay, and guard this town. On the 17th the snow fell about six inches, and the men at Far West were permitted to return home. I shall merely give a brief account of our troubles in this war, (for it cannot be called any thing else) as it is likely a full account will be published in the Church History. The company who went with J. Smith Jr., assisted by those living in Daviess County, dispersed the mob, and found their cannon buried in the road. In their flight they were unable to take it with them, and they buried it in the road, so that the wagons passing over it would obliterate all signs of any thing being buried there. The report is, that a sow had rooted it up, so that the Mormons discovered it, and took it away with them. Now in order to sustain themselves, the Mormons took their enemies corn, cattle, hogs, etc., according to the usages of war. This so enraged the mobbers, that they swore that they would kill every Mormon in the state. They set their own houses afire, and ran into the adjoining counties, and declared that the "Mormons" had driven them out, and burned their houses etc. This they done to excite the people against the Mormons, in order to get them to join them in their persecutions. There were several Missourians living in Daviess County, and they had become jealous of the "Mormons", who were filling up the county very rapidly. They were also very much prejudiced against their religion.

(Warren Foote autobiography, pp. 24-25)

Foote provides evidence that some of the homes burned in Daviess County were burned by Missourians to further inflame anger against the Mormons, but Foote was not an eye-witness to such burnings and may have simply heard rumors started by guilty Mormons to shift blame. He also describes the wartime plundering or foraging for food that occurred, noting that the Saints needed to sustain themselves. Danite efforts may have resulted in excesses in this regard as well, with unnecessary items taken and, as Avard had taught his men, brought to the storehouse to be "consecrated" to the Saints.

It must be emphasized, however, that the efforts in Daviess County were not directed by the Danites. As discussed above, Avard's secretive Danites and the "public Danites" - meaning the entire Mormon armies, the Armies of Israel - were separate organizations, and the leaders of the Armies of Israel were not the leaders of the Danites, though some of them were Danites. Avard was not in power, but had been removed from office and asked to serve as a surgeon.

This results of the Daviess County episode of the "Mormon War" and the offenses of some troops are summarized by Anderson:

Mormon operations lasted about ten days, took no lives, failed to engage several hundred canny irregulars, burned perhaps three dozen buildings of potential use against Saints' settlements, and foraged for supplies for the beginning winter. Counterstrikes then destroyed additional Mormon dwellings and property. Mormon patrols perhaps exceeded instructions in forcing some Daviess citizens to leave if they did not declare neutrality or cooperation. But fear of Mormons and anticipation of anti-Mormon hostilities certainly emptied more homes than did confrontation. The legislative petition of the Presiding Bishop and senior apostles admitted using defensive force in mid-October:
That instances have been of late, where individuals have trespassed upon the rights of others, and thereby broken the law of the land, we will not pretend to deny. But yet we do believe that no crimes can be substantiated against any of the people who have a standing in our Church of an earlier date than the difficulties in Daviess County. And when it is considered that the rights of this people have been trampled upon from [time] to time with impunity, and abuses heaped upon them almost innumerable; it ought in some degree to palliate for any infraction of law which may have been made on the part of any of our people. [Partridge, et. al., petition, 218; see also HC 3:222. For a review of mid-October Mormon operations in Daviess County, see Anderson, "Atchison's Letters," 25-31.]

(Anderson, pp. 44-45)

During these actions, it is my understanding that Joseph Smith was not a commander of the militia and did not participate in or direct the military acts of the militia (History of the Church, 3:280). But there is little doubt that he ordered the Armies of Israel to drive out the mob, which action then took place under the direct military leadership of Colonel Lyman Wight and other militia leaders.

Battle of Crooked River

After the brief Mormon actions in Daviess County to drive out the mob, people in Ray County, south of Caldwell County, became agitated and heard rumors of a coming Mormon invasion in their county. They appealed to the Governor for help. Meanwhile, the county line was to be secured. Samuel Bogart, an expulsionist and Methodist preacher bitterly opposed to the Mormons, had the duty of patrolling the county line to prevent a Mormon invasion. Anderson explains that Bogart

exceeded his orders by allowing his company of 50 men to threaten Mormon settlers, after which he detained three Mormons. Fearing for the lives of these three, Mormon commanders mustered about 70, routed Bogart's company and freed the prisoners. Three Mormons were killed, and one of the Ray County militia, besides a number wounded on both sides. The Latter-day Saint group solemnly returned north to bury their dead, though popular panic had them marching south to burn Richmond.

(Anderson, pp. 45-46)

The Battle of Crooked River occurred in northern Ray County on Oct. 25, 1838. When the Mormons encountered Bogart's sentries, words were exchanged between the Mormons and a sentry, John Lockhart, who soon thought he heard a gun snapping and quickly fired into the Mormon troops, hitting a man. Gunfire then broke out on both sides. (LeSueur, pp. 139-140.) Two died on the battlefield, one on each side, and two mortally wounded Saints died soon after, including Apostle David W. Patten, leader of the Mormon troops. (There is a helpful page at another site on the death of David Patten at Crooked River.)

The Mormon deployment against Bogart was aimed at rescuing illegally captured men and stopping a renegade band that had been committing crimes against Mormons. John Greene, writing in 1839, describes the Battle of Crooked River and associated events from the Mormon perspective:

The threats of the mob induced some of our people to go to Daviess to help to protect their brethren who had settled at Adam-ondi-Ahman, on Grand River.

The mob soon fled from Daviess County: and after they were dispersed and the cannon taken, during which time no blood was shed, the people of Caldwell returned to their homes in hopes of enjoying peace and quiet; but in this they were disappointed, for a large mob was soon found to be collecting on the Grindstone, from ten to fifteen miles off, under the command of C. Gillman, a scouting party of which, came within four miles of Far West, and drove off stock belonging to our people, in open day light. About this time word came to Far West that a party of the mob had come into Caldwell County to the south of Far West--that they were taking horses and cattle--burning houses, and ordering the inhabitants to leave their homes immediately--and that they had then actually in their possession three men prisoners. This report reached Far West in the evening and was confirmed about midnight. A company of about sixty men went forth under the command of David W. Patten, to disperse the mob, as they supposed. A battle [Crooked River] was the result, in which Captain Patten and two of his men were killed, and others wounded. Bogart, it appears, had but one killed and others wounded. Notwithstanding the unlawful acts committed by Captain Bogart's men previous to the battle, it is now asserted and claimed that he was regularly ordered out as a militia captain, to preserve the peace along the line of Ray and Caldwell Counties. That battle was fought four or five days previous to the arrival of General Lucas and his army. About the time of the battle with Captain Bogart, a number of our people who were living near Haun's Mill, on Shoal Creek, about twenty miles below Far West, together with a number of emigrants who had been stopped there in consequence of the excitement, made an agreement with the mob which was about there, that neither party would molest the other, but dwell in peace. Shortly after this agreement was made, a mob party of from two to three hundred, many of whom are supposed to be from Chariton County, some from Daviess, and also those who had agreed to dwell in peace, came upon our people there, whose number in men was about forty, at a time they little expected any such thing, and without any ceremony, notwithstanding they begged for quarters, shot them down as they would tigers or panthers. Some few made their escape by fleeing. Eighteen were killed, and a number more severely wounded.

This tragedy was conducted in the most brutal and savage manner.... As yet, we have not heard of any being arrested for these murders, notwithstanding there are men boasting about the country, that they did kill on that occasion more than one Mormon, whereas, all our people who were in the battle with Captain Patten against Bogart, that can be found, have been arrested, and are now confined in jail to await their trial for murder.

(John Greene, "Expulsion of the Mormons," 1839, pp. 12-13.)

After the battle, rumors spread like wildfire, claiming that Mormons had slaughtered many people and that the attack was unprovoked. Hysteric reports would soon reach and outrage Governor Boggs and would further inflame mobsters, including those who launched a truly unprovoked attack at Haun's Mill that included the deliberate and cold-blooded murder of children. The murders at Haun's Mill were clearly spurred by the Extermination Order (Hill. p. 235). Survivors fled to Far West, which was put under siege on October 31 by Major General Samuel D. Lucas and his troops. Time was running out for the Mormons.

The Extermination Order

Reports of the Battle of Crooked River, coupled with many allegations about Mormon insurrections in Daviess County, moved Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs to issue a military order for the objective that enemies of the Church had been seeking for years: the expulsion or extermination of the Mormons. The infamous Extermination Order was issued on October 27, 1838. It stated that "appalling" new information had come that showed the Mormons to be aggressors guilty of "open and avowed defiance of the laws, and of having made war upon the people of this State." So terrible were there recent offenses that now "the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace - their outrages are beyond all description." (The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, "Extermination Order." See also Anderson, 1994, for evidence that expulsion or extermination had long been sought by enemies of the Church in multiple counties - enemies who held great sway with their friend, Governor Boggs.)

What were these appalling new outrages that were beyond all description? It was the defeat of 50 state troops by 70 Mormons at the Battle of Crooked River in order to rescue kidnapped Mormon men from a renegade band that had violated their orders and were committing crimes against the Mormons. "Ten thousand Mormons were now to be exiled in retaliation. Furthermore, Governor Boggs reiterated this extermination order after he was in possession of more accurate facts, which shows that he was more controlled by politics than events" (Anderson, p. 48).

General Lucas laid siege to Far West after the Extermination Order was issued. The Saints, considered to not even be citizens anymore, were to be driven out or killed.

The Imprisonment of Church Leaders

With Far West under siege, options were limited for the Saints. Joseph was interested in preventing bloodshed, but probably was not ready for the series of dangers, depredations and betrayals that awaited him. He agreed to meet with militia leaders to avoid bloodshed, but was imprisoned and condemned to be shot without a trial. Donna Hill describes these happenings (Hill, pp. 237-238):

Hinkle told [Joseph] that officers of the militia wanted an interview with him and other leaders of the church to see if terms could be reached without carrying out the extermination order. Joseph said he immediately agreed to talk with them, believing it to be the only alternative to having the town sacked. He went out with Sidney Rigdon, Parley P. Pratt and others to the camp of the militia, but Joseph says he never offered to surrender. Joseph and the others were taken prisoner and treated with the utmost contempt.

Accounts agree that Joseph and the other leaders went out to the militia voluntarily and were held captive. Parley Pratt said that General Lucas rode up without speaking a word to the Mormons and ordered his guard to take them. The brethren were surrounded and marched into camp while unruly troops under Cornelius Gilliam, savage-looking men dressed and painted like Indians, whooped and shrieked around them.

The triumphant shrieking could be heard all over Far West. Zadoc Judd said it was loud, long and ferocious, worse than any human noise he had ever heard.

A drumhead court-martial was convened at once, and according to one report, lasted all night. The Mormons were not permitted to attend.

Joseph and the others were kept out on the open ground that night in the rain, while their guards carried on a tirade of abuse. Parley Pratt says they taunted the prophet with such remarks as "Come, Mr. Smith, show us an angel." "Give us one of your revelations." "There is one of your brethren here in camp whom we took prisoner yesterday in his own house, and knocked his brains out with his own rifle . . . he lays speechless and dying; speak the word and heal him, and then we will all believe." They boasted of having raped Mormon women and girls.

Word reached the brethren that the court-martial had sentenced them to be shot the next morning by General Doniphan in the public square at Far West. The prisoners knelt together in prayer, asking the Lord that their lives be spared. The Saints never forgot what followed. When Major General Lucas sent orders to Doniphan to execute the prisoners, Doniphan denounced and defied him. This was a rare, perhaps unique, instance in which an American military officer refused on moral grounds to carry out the command of a superior without being called to account. [emphasis mine] The following communications between the two officers are in Caldwell County records:

"To Brigadier-General Doniphan: Sir: You will take Joseph Smith and the other prisoners into the public square of Far West and shoot them at 9 o'clock tomorrow morning. Samuel D. Lucas, Major-General Commanding."

To this, Doniphan promptly replied, "It is cold-blooded murder. I will not obey your order. My brigade shall march for Liberty tomorrow morning, at 8 o'clock; and if you execute these men, I will hold you responsible before an earthly tribunal, so help me God. A. W. Doniphan, Brigadier General."

The Saints in Far West were ordered to give up there arms. Missourians then went into the town, confiscating whatever they wanted and intimidating the women. "The troops ransacked Joseph's house, pushed Emma and her children out into the street and carried away most of their property. Hyrum Smith, though ill, was taken at bayonet point to the camp and thrown in with Joseph and the other prisoners. A table was brought to the public square and the people were called out and forced to sign away their possessions. There was pillage and destruction throughout the town..." (Hill. p. 241).

The Saints were told that they would never see Joseph again. Though he would survive, former allies would turn against him to save their own skins, the most notorious being Sampson Avard, who blamed Joseph for violence and great crimes. He also would testify that Joseph was the mastermind behind the ominous Danites. Meanwhile, horrid crimes were committed against the Saints by the mob. Faced with a state government bend on expelling or exterminating the Mormons, Brigham Young led over 10,000 Saints in the winter north to Illinois.

Joseph Smith and several others spent five months in jail awaiting trial for alleged murder, treason, arson, and other charges. This was a dark time for the Prophet, but would be accompanied with powerful revelations from heaven and renewed strength (see Doctrine and Covenants 121-123). A trial was never held. On April 15, 1839, while being moved for a change of venue, Joseph and Hyrum were quietly allowed to escape, apparently to help the State of Missouri save face.

The betrayal, arrest, and imprisonment of Joseph Smith and other Church leaders is also described in The History of Lyman Wight, the full text of which is available at the "Early Saints" site (within the Book of Abraham Project site ( A relevant excerpt follows:

In October, 1838, after learning that Far West was surrounded by a mob, he [Lyman Wight] raised fifty-three volunteers in Adam-ondi-Ahman (25 miles distant,) and repaired immediately to Far West to aid in its defense, where, with Joseph and Hyrum Smith and others, he was betrayed into the hands of his enemies, by Colonel George M. Hinkle, on the 31st; and was sentenced by a court martial to be shot the next morning (November 1) [1838] at 8 o'clock. During the evening, General Moses Wilson took him out by himself, and tried to induce him to betray Joseph Smith, and swear falsely against him; at which time the following conversation took place. General Wilson said, "Colonel Wight, we have nothing against you, only that you are associated with Joseph Smith. He is our enemy and a damned rascal, and would take any plan he could to kill us. You are a damned fine fellow; and if you will come out and swear against him, we will spare your life, and give you any office you want; and if you don't do it, you will be shot tomorrow at 8 o'clock." Colonel Wight replied, "General Wilson, you are entirely mistaken in your man, both in regard to myself and Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith is not an enemy to mankind, he is not your enemy; but is as good a friend as you have got. Had it not been for him, you would have been in hell long ago, for I should have sent you there by cutting your throat, and no other man but Joseph Smith could have prevented me and you may thank him for your life. And, now, if you will give me the boys I brought from Adam-ondi-Ahman yesterday, I will whip your whole army." Wilson said, "Wight, you are a strange man; but if you will not accept my proposal, you will be shot tomorrow morning at 8." Colonel Wight replied, "Shoot and be damned."

This was the true character of Lyman Wight; he was true as the sun to Joseph Smith, and would die for his friends. He was taken to Jackson County with Joseph, Hyrum and other prisoners. They were chained together, and fed on human flesh in prison by their Christian guards, and he continued to suffer with his brethren until the 15th day of April, 1839, when he started with Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Alexander McRae and Caleb Baldwin and guard, to go to jail in Columbia, Boone County; but on the night of the 16th, the sheriff fell asleep, the guard got drunk, and the prisoners left them, and went to their families and friends in Illinois.

"If it Please the Court": The Mock Hearing at Richmond

After the repeated failure of the legal system to show any sign of fairness toward persecuted Mormons, it is not surprising that the preliminary hearing in Richmond was also less than fair. Just as Edward Partridge's quest for legal redress was a mockery of justice, with all assailants found innocent, so was the Richmond Hearing a travesty of justice. It offered many opportunities for enemies of the Church to testify, providing modern critics an abundance of slander to sift through for their own purposes, but the voice of witnesses for the defense was stifled by guns and bayonets. Witnesses were threatened and not allowed to testify. The outcome of the hearing was essentially predetermined. Further, rather than seeking justice, the judge, Austin King, showed great bias in making hostile remarks to the Mormons and using the court to further pressure the Mormons into leaving the state.

This unethical agenda was reported by the only minor Mormon tainted with treason, Caleb Baldwin. Perhaps he was punished in part for his fiery tongue, for this indignant survivor of the Jackson and Clay expulsions demanded a fair trial and twice recorded Judge King's retort that "there was no law for Mormons" - that "they must be exterminated." Church leaders also exposed King in their sworn testimony at Nauvoo. Hyrum Smith heard the judge insist that Boggs' decree controlled their case, "that there was no law for us, nor the Mormons in the State of Missouri; that he had sworn to see them exterminated, and to see the governor's order executed to the very letter." Lyman Wight heard such words in open court - King said he would have literally fulfilled the exterminating order "ere this time," had it been directed to him. Parley P. Pratt told of a Mormon witness questioned on the point of spring sowing, with the judge's lecture: "If you once think to plant crops or to occupy your lands any longer than the first of April, the citizens will be upon you: they will kill you every one, men, women and children."

(Anderson, pp. 58-59)

Donna Hill in her excellent biography, Joseph Smith: The First Mormon, (Doubleday and Company, Garden City, NY, 1977, p. 248) provides important information on the hearing and its lack of fairness:

Clark delivered Joseph and the others to the civil authorities, their chains were removed, and they were taken with the other brethren, some fifty in all, to the courthouse on the morning of November 13 for a preliminary hearing for treason, murder, arson and the sundry other charges. The prisoners were appalled to learn that the presiding judge was Austin A. King, who had publicly denounced the Danites and had already condemned the Mormons in the Jeffersonian Republican on November 3, 1838, and again in the Missouri Argus on November 8. In the Missouri Argus he had said, "Until lately, I thought the Mormons were disposed to act only on the defensive; but their recent conduct shows that they are the aggressors, that they intend to take the law into their own hands . . . the Mormons expect to settle the affair at the point of the sword . . . I can assure you that either with or without authority, something will shortly have to be done."

According to Hyrum, King and District Attorney Birch, who was prosecuting, had both sat on the court-martial when the Mormons were sentenced to be shot.

Although no one denied that King knew the law, he was said to be unpopular with younger colleagues, who considered him a humorless man and a religious zealot. In this hearing, his object was plain from the start, to see the Mormon leaders brought to trial for treason against the state.

Representative Scott of the Missouri legislature later called King "the most unfit man I know" to have presided in the case, and expressed the wish that the legislature had the power to remove him "from the station he disgraces." The editor of the Missouri Republican said that regardless of politics, King's conduct was "almost universally condemned."

For two weeks witnesses for the state were called. None, Representative Scott said, was put under oath. Sampson Avard, called first, had previously told Oliver Olney that if Olney wished to save himself from the court and the mob he must "swear hard" against the leaders of the church, and that was what he meant to do or they would take his life. Other Mormons testified under the same duress, including John Corrill, George Hinkle, Reed Peck, John Whitmer and Orson Hyde. William W. Phelps later wrote that his testimony against the Danites had also been given under fear for his life.

In spite of such blatant disregard for fairness, some writers such as Stephen LeSueur would argue that the Richmond Hearing was fair. LeSueur makes much of the small number of witnesses called by the defense for Joseph and suggests it points to the guilt of the defendants. But the reason for the lack of numerous witnesses is well known: they were intimidated, and the defense attorneys knew the hearing was rigged. There was no point to bringing forth numerous witnesses. Donna Hill explained this long ago (Hill. p. 249):

Finally the Mormons' lawyers, Alexander Doniphan and Amos Rees, advised them not to bring in any more witnesses; so many had been thrown in jail or chased out of the county that they were afraid none would be left for the trial. It was apparently Doniphan's belief that the witnesses would make no impression on King in any case. He said that if a cohort of angels were to come down and declare the Mormons innocent, it would make no difference to King, who was determined from the beginning to have the Mormons in prison.

The Hearing was so clearly improper that the state legislature debated whether to even publish the transcript. "It was published eventually with apology, and only because the Mormons had effectively used newspapers and pamphlets to make known their cruel expulsion from Missouri" (Hill, p. 250). A local country judge, Judge Turnham, expressed his opinion that the Mormons were innocent and that the actions against them were genuine persecution, a repeat of Jackson County (Hill, p. 251). There is little reasonable basis for calling the Hearing fair or proper.

Joseph insisted that he was innocent of the charges and could prove it if only his witnesses could speak. In an affidavit, he offered this testimony:

And your petitioners allege, that he is not guilty of any crime, whereby he should be restrained of his liberty, from a personal knowledge, having been with him, and being personally acquainted with the whole of the difficulties between the "Mormons" and their persecutors; and that he has never acted at any time, only in his own defense, and that too on his own ground, property and possessions. That the prisoner has never commanded any military company, nor held any military authority, neither any other office, real or pretended in the state of Missouri, except that of a religious instructor; that he never has borne arms in the military rank; and in all such cases has acted as a private character and as an individual.

How, then, your petitioners would ask, can it be possible that the prisoner has committed treason? The prisoner has had nothing to do in Daviess county, only on his own business as an individual.

The testimony of Dr. Avard concerning a council held at James Sloan's was false. Your petitioners do solemnly declare, that there was no such council; that your petitioners were with the prisoner, and there was no such vote or conversation as Dr. Avard swore to. That Dr. Avard also swore falsely concerning a constitution, as he said was introduced among the Danites; that the prisoner had nothing to do with burning in Daviess county; that the prisoner made public proclamation against such things; that the prisoner did oppose Dr. Avard and George M. Hinkle against vile measures with the mob, but was threatened by them if he did not let them alone. That the prisoner did not have anything to do with what is called Bogart's battle, for he knew nothing of it until it was over; that he was at home, in the bosom of his own family, during the time of that whole transaction.

And, in fine, your petitioners allege, that he is held in confinement without cause, and under an unlawful and tyrannical oppression, and that his health, and constitution, and life depend on being liberated from his confinement.

Your petitioners aver that they can disprove every item of testimony that has any tendency of criminality against the prisoner; for they know the facts themselves, and can bring many others also to prove the same.

Therefore your petitioners pray your honor to grant to him the state's writ of habeas corpus, directed to the jailer of Clay county, Missouri, commanding him forthwith to bring before you the body of the prisoner, so that his case may be heard before your honor, and the situation of the prisoner be considered and adjusted according to law and justice, as it shall be presented before your honor, and, as in duty bound, your petitioners will ever pray.

And further, your petitioners testify that the said Joseph Smith, Jun., did make a public proclamation in Far West, in favor of the militia of the state of Missouri, and of its laws and also of the Constitution of the United States; and that he has ever been a warm friend to his country, and did use all his influence for peace; that he is a peaceable and quiet citizen, and is not worthy of death, of stripes, bond, or imprisonment.

The above mentioned speech was delivered on the day before the surrender of Far West,

(History of the Church, 3:279-281)

After his arrest, it would be several days before Joseph Smith would know what charges there were against him. His journal entry for Nov. 10 indicates that:

General Clark had spent his time since our arrival at Richmond in searching the laws to find authority for trying us by court martial. Had he not been a lawyer of eminence, I should have supposed it no very difficult task to decide that quiet, peaceful unoffending, and private citizens too, except as ministers of the Gospel, were not amenable to a military tribunal, in a county governed by civil laws.

(Joseph Smith, Jr., The Journal of Joseph, compiled by Leland R. Nelson, Council Press, Mapleton, Utah, 1979, p. 145.)

But the charges would be high treason, murder, burglary, arson, robbery, and larceny. The vast majority of "evidence" used to incriminate Joseph Smith and the Church in the matter of the Danites comes from the testimony of Sampson Avard and others at the Richmond trial. According to the Nov. 13, 1838 entry in Joseph's journal, Avard was the first one brought before the court. Avard was ready to swear to anything to save his own skin:

He had previously told Mr. Oliver Olney that if he [Olney] wished to save himself, he must swear hard against the heads of the Church, as they were the ones the court wanted to criminate; and if he could swear hard against them, they would not (that is, neither court nor mob) disturb him. "I intend to do it," said he, "in order to escape, for if I do not, they will take my life."

Many others seemed to follow Avard's lead. Witnesses used by the prosecution included John Corrill, George M. Hinkle, Reed Peck, William W. Phelps, John Whitmer, and many others. Joseph's journal entry of Nov. 13 (The Journal of Joseph, p. 147) provides important insight into the proceedings of the trial:

We were called upon for our witnesses, and we gave the names of some forty or fifty. Captain Bogart dispatched with a company of militia to procure them. He arrested all he could find, thrust them into prison, and we were not allowed to see them.

During the week were again called upon most tauntingly for witnesses; we gave the names of some others, and they were thrust into prison, so many as were to be found.

In the meantime Malinda Porter, Delia F. Pine, Nancy Rigdon, Jonathan W. Barlow, Thoret Parsons, Ezra Chipman, and Azra Judd, Jun., volunteered, and were sworn, on the defense, but were prevented as much as possible by threats from telling the truth. We saw a man at the window by the name of Allen, and beckoned him to come in and had him sworn, but when he did not testify to please the court, several rushed upon him with their bayonets, and he fled the place; three men took after him with loaded guns, and he barely escaped with his life. It was of no use to get any more witnesses, even if we could have done so.

After several days, all prisoners were released except for Joseph Smith, Lyman Wight, Caleb Baldwin, Hyrum Smith, Alexander McRae, Sidney Rigdon, Parley P. Pratt, Morris Phelps, Luman Gibbs, Darwin Chase, and Norman Shearer, who were sent to Liberty, Clay County, to be jailed and to stand trial for treason and murder. "Our treason consisted of having whipped the mob out of Daviess county, and taking their canon from them; the murder, of killing the man in the Bogart battle" (Nov. 28 entry in The Journal of Joseph, p. 147).

Justice was not to be served in Liberty, either, for the same type of threats were made against witnesses. According to Joseph's Nov. 28 journal entry (The Journal of Joseph, pp. 147-148):

The matter of driving away witnesses or casting them into prison, or chasing them out of the county, was carried to such length that our lawyers, General Doniphan and Amos Rees, told us not to bring our witnesses there at all, for if we did, there would not be one of them left for final trial, for no sooner would Bogart and his men know who they were, than they would put them out of the country.... We never got the privilege of introducing our witnesses at all; if we had, we could have disproved all of the evidence of our enemies.

After the mock hearing, Joseph and others were ordered to await trial until spring - by which time the Mormons were to be gone from Missouri. In spring, it appears that the state saved face by quietly allowing Joseph Smith to escape, thus avoiding the potential bad publicity that a real trial could bring - after all, the truth about Governor Boggs' actions was most embarrassing. In fact, the state legislature expressed their embarrassment over the hearing and debated over whether or not the record of the hearing should even be published. "It was published eventually with apology, and only because Mormons had effectively used newspapers and pamphlets to make known their cruel expulsion from Missouri" (Donna Hill, Joseph Smith: The First Mormon, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, NY, 1977, p. 250)

With 12,000 men, women, and children driven out of Missouri by mobs and militias in the most desperate conditions - having been offered no protection by the law - and their beloved leaders jailed for treason, the Saints were in difficult circumstances indeed. Further still, the state ordered that some Mormon property would be used to benefit settlers in Daviess county and fined the Church $200,000 - a huge sum - to pay the state for the trouble of driving out the Mormons.

Under Brigham Young's leadership and with the kindness of merciful people in Quincy, Illinois, the Saints would survive that winter and go on to build yet another community, turning a swampland into perhaps the finest Midwest city of its time, Nauvoo.


Anderson, Richard L., "Clarifications of Bogg's 'Order' and Joseph Smith's Constitutionalism," Church History Regional Studies, Missouri, ed. Arnold K. Garr and Clark V. Johnson, Department of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 1994, pp. 27-70)

Baugh, Alexander L., A Call to Arms: The 1838 Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri (Dissertations in Latter-day Saint history) (Provo, Utah: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History and BYU Studies, 2000). This is a master's thesis available for purchase.

Church History in the Fulness of Times, Church Educational System, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1989, pp. 193-210. But see the newer materials on Church history at the Church's website, especially the new book, Saints. Material on the trouble in Missouri begins around Chapter 26 in Saints, vol. 1.

Crawley, Peter, and Richard L. Anderson, "The Political and Social Realities of Zion's Camp," BYU Studies, Vol. 14, No. 4, 1974, pp. 406-420.

Document Showing the Testimony Given Before the Judge of the Fifth Judicial District of the State of Missouri, on the Trial of Joseph Smith, Jr., and others, for High Treason and Other Crimes Against that State. (Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1841), as cited and used by Gentry or by Anderson, who cite it as Document. Available at

Foote, Warren, "Autobiography," typescript at BYU, obtained on the Infobases Collectors Library '97 CD-Rom.

Gentry, Leland H., "The Danite Band of 1838," BYU Studies, Vol. 14, No. 4, Summer 1974, pp. 421-450.

Gentry, Leland H., "History of the Latter-day Saints in Northern Missouri, 1836-1839," Ph.D. Dissertation, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 1965, as cited by Gentry, 1974.

Hancock, Mosiah, The Life Story of Mosiah Lyman Hancock, available online at

Hill, Donna, Joseph Smith: The First Mormon, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, NY, 1977.

Jessee, Dean C. and Whittaker, David J., "The Last Months of Mormonism in Missouri: The Albert Perry Rockwood Journal Edited," BYU Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter 1988, pp. 5-34.

Johnson, Clark V., "The Missouri Redress Petitions: A Reappraisal of Mormon Persecutions in Missouri," BYU Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1986, pp. 36-43.

Johnson, Clark V., ed., Mormon Redress Petitions: Documents of the 1833-1838 Missouri Conflict (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1992).

LeSueur, Stephen C., The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, University of MIssouri Press, Columbia, Missouri, 1987.

LeSueur, Stephen C., "High Treason and Murder": The Examination of Mormon Prisoners at Richmond, Missouri, in November 1838," BYU Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1986, pp. 2-26.

Smith, Lucy Mack, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, ed. S.F. Proctor and M.J. Proctor, Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1996.

Whitaker, David J., "The Book of Daniel in Early Mormon Thought," in By Study And Also By Faith, ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, Vol. 1, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, and Foundation for Ancient Religion and Mormon Studies, Provo, Utah, 1990, pp. 155-201.

Whitaker, David J., "Danites," The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1.

Other Resources

The 1838 Mormon War and Tales of the "Danites"

Wild Bill Rides Again: The Tanners on the Danites - an article on Bill Hickman's testimony about Danite crimes, written by Russell C. McGregor.

LDSFAQBack to the LDS FAQ Index

Parley P. Pratt Describes Persecution in Missouri

B.H. Roberts' on the Missouri Persecutions (secure shortcut via to -- part of the Mormon Literature Website (

Autobiography of Warren Foote

Early Saints - autobiographies and biographies of early LDS people, such as David Patten.

The Death of David Patten at Crooked River - from

The State of Illinois Officially Apologizes to the Church - In March 2004, a resolution was passed by the Illinois Legislature asking for "the pardon and forgiveness" of the Mormon Church for persecution that led to the expulsion of 20,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1844 from Nauvoo, and the 1844 vigilante murder of Mormon leader Joseph Smith. Thank you, Illinois! (Here is another source for the article about the Illinois apology.)

How the Missouri Extermination Order was Rescinded

Journal of Mormon History - all issues can be downloaded as PDF files. A remarkable resource! Courtesy of the Mormon History Association.

Introduction to the LDS Church - (Jeff Lindsay's)

Jeff Lindsay's home page

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Curator: Jeff Lindsay ,  Contact:
Created: 2004
Last Updated: June 13, 2008
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