Just sixteen years after doubling in size through the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from France, the United States threatened to splinter apart when residents of Missouri, a section along the eastern edge of the newly purchased lands, applied for statehood. Many of these settlers had migrated from slave states, bringing the practice with them, and accordingly, accepting their application to become the 23rd member of the union would upset the political balance, shifting Congressional power to favor the then-more numerous pro-slavery states. A compromise held the union together, but it was a choleric peace that could not survive as ongoing westward expansion fused migrants from slave and free states together in new lands, precipitating new clashes.
Here, of all places, God revealed to Joseph Smith, leader of a new sect known colloquially as “Mormons,” was His chosen site for the holy city of Zion. In Jackson County on the western frontier, the Lord intended them to build a temple with a central public square surrounded by residential lots for the faithful to serve as their mecca. It would be a refuge (amidst slavery) — a place for the downtrodden to worship and find peace, and in 1831, the saints, remarkably, began to come. From free states farther east, they left lives and familiar homes to bravely make the journey to a place already scarred by divisiveness and a people distrustful of abolitionism. It was a great flood of hundreds that swelled to thousands in a few short years.
The Mormon migrants’ numbers gave them immediate political standing; in a republic, a sudden majority overwhelms. United in philosophy and purpose, they voted in blocs and restricted their trade for the benefit of their members. They could affect the political landscape in their communities courtesy of their numerous ballots, and they thrived economically through their exclusive commercial network. Their pilgrimage appeared blessed.
However, their power naturally alienated and dismayed the “old settlers” already established there, who found their status upended in short time. Those who had pushed for statehood and pioneered the territory feared they would lose their political voice — and most especially, the reality that they might be powerless to defend slavery against this overwhelming influx of free-staters presented a looming threat.
So, non-Mormons took to harassing sect members and vandalizing their property, in an effort to scare them out, and fear prompted the saints to do other than turn the other cheek. Shortly, the hostilities escalated to armed clashes. Local law enforcement and the state militia provided no security, so the Mormons organized their own paramilitary groups to patrol and protect. Still, they were driven from one county to another — none of which stemmed the intimidating growth of their population.
For seven years, their resisted migration to the Promised Land continued, despite the violence and terrorism, but in August, 1838, anti-democratic forces finally had their way. In Daviess County, a group of non-Mormons forcibly prevented members of the sect from voting, and this time, when fighting broke out, the state militia did respond — only it was to have tragic consequences for the Mormons.
A riotous “war” erupted — engagement by raid, arson, theft and violence. Both sides did harm in turn (though the majority of the fatalities were Mormon), but the negative reports that reached Gov. Lilburn Boggs decried the Mormons particularly. Boggs issued an order to the militia: run them out of state or “exterminate” them. The intervention of Brigadier General Alexander Doniphan prevented any mass killing, but the Mormons (numbering some 8,000 then by estimates) were driven to Illinois — uncompensated for the property, livelihoods, and lost loved ones they left behind.
After the failure of their first Zion, the Mormons would again attempt to build a religious oasis, but they would be no more welcomed by the established citizenry in the free state than they had by their old pro-slavery neighbors. Yet, the saints persisted — as did their paramilitary tradition. Whatever their fears, they were not to be intimidated or dissuaded from their convictions, and because of theirs, the non-Mormon members of these communities would betray democratic principles and resort to violence to resist the influx. For both, the gun was a greater comfort than the law; for neither was it a healing, reassuring balm.