It was late June 1846, 150 years ago. All but a few hundred poor Latter-day Saints and official Church trustees had left Nauvoo, Ill., as exiles to the West. About 12,000 Church members were fanned out throughout the entire length of Iowa. A few had even passed over to the west side of the
Missouri River into Indian Territory. Another 2,000 were dwelling temporarily in St. Louis.The year 1846 is recognized in American history as one of the most significant in the entire history of the republic. Major precedent-setting changes took place that year. But for the Latter-day Saints it was one of the hardest years ever. Yet nearly everyone was relieved to have left the states, although most of them were technically still within United States lands either in Iowa Territory or Indian Territory on the west side of the Missouri River. The Mormons were eager to find refuge in the West, probably in the Rocky Mountains, but perhaps some of them on Vancouver Island or on the Pacific Coast in California. They knew that it was a long road ahead before that would be possible. Already there had been untold suffering, including some deaths, and interminable delays as they tried to cross the 320 miles of Iowa from east to west.
The Latter-day Saints had experienced considerable frustration with the government of the United States. First, when they were unlawfully driven from their property by mobs in Jackson County, Mo., they appealed in 1834 to President Andrew Jackson and to the United States Senate for armed forces to protect them when they returned to live on their property. The president and his cabinet stated that a circumstance of this type was for the states to resolve, and that the president would only send in forces if the Missouri governor requested it. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri simply ignored the Mormon appeals. This was a historical period when states rights were considered equal if not higher than federal authority. Rarely did the federal government intervene to protect constitutional rights as has been the 20th century practice. Eventually in the 1860s the Civil War and the 14th Amendment would change this line of reasoning in the nation.
Second, after matters became even worse in Missouri and Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs expelled by force the Latter-day Saints from the state, the Prophet Joseph Smith went to Washington, D.C., in 1839 to confer with senators, congressmen, and President Martin Van Buren. With hardly an exception, Congress again ignored the Mormon pleas. President Van Buren, seeking re-election and not wanting to lose the vital electoral votes from Missouri, and also realizing that the states rights doctrine then prevalent in the country would make it difficult for him in any event, told Joseph Smith, "I can do nothing for you!"1
During the election year of 1844 when the gathered Saints were living prosperously in Nauvoo, Ill., but were despised and threatened still by enemies in Missouri and Illinois, Joseph Smith sought by letter to ascertain from five potential presidential candidates what their reaction would be to protecting them in their constitutional rights. Only Sen. John C. Calhoun from South Carolina and Sen. Henry Clay from Kentucky bothered to reply, and their responses were caustic and not favorable.2 A few months later, when Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered in cold blood, the federal government did not exercise the slightest interest in promoting the bringing of the perpetrators to justice as would happen in the country today. Furthermore, less than two years later some federal officials even helped spread rumors that the United States army would ambush the Latter-day Saints on American territory in the West.
The Latter-day Saints did have one friend in Washington, however. It was Congressman Stephen A. Douglas from western Illinois. As Illinois Secretary of State in 1840, he cooperated with the Mormons in establishing the favorable Nauvoo Charter. A year later as a circuit judge, he protected Joseph Smith from being mobbed and lynched in Monmouth, Ill. The Prophet and Judge Douglas cultivated a strong and trusting friendship. Mormon votes helped elect Douglas to Congress in 1842. Elder Orson Hyde, on a political mission to Washington in 1844, was again ignored by most federal officials. The striking exception was Congressman Douglas who promised to help the Saints facilitate their move west.3 But for the most part, United States officials appeared to be totally untrustworthy and mean-spirited toward the Latter-day Saints. Most government officials of that era indeed regarded Mormons as deluded fanatics.
Thus it was that when the Saints began their epic westward trek in the late winter and early spring of 1846 that they were glad to leave behind a country that had not served them well. They still loved and respected the Constitution, but for the time being they were happy to be gone. Hosea Stout, chief of Nauvoo's police force, recorded in his diary on Feb. 13, 1846: "But now the time for me to leave this gentile world of oppression & tyranny had come and I was now on my way to the remnant of the Lord in the wilderness to pass yet again through new scenes of want and peril."4
Eliza R. Snow penned a "Song for the Pioneers" while suffering in the cold and snow at Sugar Creek, Iowa, on Feb. 19. Her chorus, to be sung after each of six verses, reflects the poignant feelings of the Saints:
"Tho' we fly from vile aggression, We'll maintain our pure profession - Seek a peaceable possession, Far from Gentiles and oppression."5
Given these intense feelings, we cannot wonder why Elder Wilford Woodruff expressed suspicion when an army officer rode into the Mormon encampment and farm of Mount Pisgah on June 26. Elder Woodruff was the only member of the Church's governing Quorum of the Twelve at Mount Pisgah. The others, including President Brigham Young, were further west at the Missouri River. Wilford recorded in his journal:
"The camp was flung into some excitement this morning by the appearance of Capt. J[ames] Allen with 3 dragoons of the U.S. Army. I soon met Brother Huntington [the presiding officer at Mount Pisgah] and his council with Capt. Allen to enquire into his business. And he informed us he was sent by order of Capt. Kearny who had received word so he said by President [James K.] Polk to give the Mormons an invitation to raise 500 volunteers to assist the USA in the Mexican War. This was his pretention. I had some reasons to believe them to be spies & that the president had no hand in it."6
Three days later the other apostles heard about Capt. Allen's recruiting effort. Elder Orson Pratt wrote in his personal record:
"But another obstacle soon made its appearance, which seemed to completely hedge up our way from going any further this season; it was a call from the general government of the United States, upon the poor, persecuted exiled Saints, to send 500 men into the service of the army against Mexico. The United States had the barefaced injustice and inhumanity to require the Saints to go and fight their battles in their invasion of Mexico, after having suffered us to be driven from state to state unlawfully and unconstitutionally, with the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property; and after the martyrdom and cold blooded butchery of scores of our men, women and innocent children."7
Yet, the Latter-day Saints provided 500 of their strongest frontiersmen to the United States Army when Brigham Young gave the charge to do so. How did the participation of the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1847 come about?
Next week: The Mustering of the Mormon Battalion
- Bruce A. Van Orden is a member of the Church Pioneer Sesquicentennial Committee and a BYU associate professor of Church History and Doctrine.
1History of the Church, 4:24-41.
2James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), pp. 202-04.
3Ibid., pp. 193, 200.
4Juanita Brooks, ed., On the Mormon Frontier: The Diary of Hosea Stout 1844-1862, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press), 1964), 1:122. All spelling and punctuation for diary entries in this article have been standardized.
5Marueen Ursenbach Beecher, ed., The Personal Writings of Eliza Roxcy Snow (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995), p. 114.
6Wilford Woodruff's Journal in LDS Church Historical Archives for June 26, 1846.
7N. B. Lundwall, ed., Exodus of Modern Israel by Orson Pratt and Others (Independence, Mo.: Zion's Printing & Publishing Company, n.d.), p. 27.