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The period of Mormon settlement in and their ultimate expulsion from Missouri figures as one of the most tragic periods in the history both of Mormonism and America. The Mormon Church's experience in Missouri tested the American commitment to free exercise of religion, freedom to vote, and ultimately the ability of a democratic government to protect unpopular minorities. Mormons started gathering, as they called it, to Missouri as early as July of 1831, when Joseph Smith received a revelation designating Jackson County, Missouri as the center place for the gathering of the Church. Edward Partridge was appointed to stay and lead the Church there, while Newell K. Whitney replaced him in Kirtland as bishop.
The Church now had two centers, one in Ohio and now this new one in Missouri. Soon, more members of the Church lived in Missouri than in Ohio, even though the main leadership remained in Kirtland. The Mormons began buying land and establishing themselves in and around Independence in Jackson County. Many of the New York Mormons moved directly to Jackson County and never stayed in Ohio.
Early on, however, the local Missourians became wary of the newcomers. Most Missourians were southerners and pro-slavery; most Mormons were northerners and anti-slavery. The influx of Mormons threatened to unbalance the political situation and local non-Mormon government leaders feared the Mormons would become politically too powerful. By July of 1833, Missourians threatened to expel all Mormons. That same month, mobs attacked Mormons, tarred and feathered Mormon leaders and destroyed shops, homes, and the printing press that was being used to print Joseph Smith’s revelations. Mormon leaders agreed, under duress, that all Mormons would leave Jackson County, without compensation for their property, by April of 1834. Appeals to the government and the President of the United States went unheeded. This led Joseph Smith to launch the Zion's Camp march.
The Mormons found temporary refuge in Clay County, Missouri, but the residents made it clear that they could not stay. In 1836, the residents of Clay County voted to expel the Mormons, and the state government created Caldwell County for their home. The Mormons industriously built up new cities throughout Caldwell County, but their numbers swelled and they spilled over into Ray, Carroll, Clinton, and Daviess Counties.
Mobs continued to attack outlying areas, and some Mormons were fed up with running. A few of them organized defenses and retaliatory attacks. Sidney Rigdon, who had never fully recovered from his injuries sustained when he was tarred and feathered, delivered a fiery speech condemning the apostates and their enemies. Some took this as license to fight back. The battles escalated.
As the Kirtland Mormons began arriving in Far West, the new headquarters for the Church, in early 1838, the Mormons were again mobbed by those who feared their growing power and their unusual beliefs. Some feared the Mormons would vote as a block. In August of 1838, Mormons attempting to vote in the town of Gallitin in Daviess County were attacked and kept from the polls. Wild rumors spread and both sides expected a full out war. A group of Mormons calling themselves Danites led by a recent convert named Samson Avard, began to fight back without Joseph or the Church either knowing or approving what they were doing. Ultimately, many Danites were excommunicated. In October, Mormon Apostle David W. Patten was killed in a battle along the Crooked River in Ray County. Finally, on October 27, 1838, Governor Lilburn Boggs issued what later became known as the Extermination Order. It said, in part:
- 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. If you can increase your force, you are authorized to do so, to any extent you may consider necessary.
Though not enforced after the 1830s, the Extermination Order remained on the Missouri law books until 1976. Three days after the order, a mob of Missourians attacked Mormon settlers in the village of Haun's Mill and massacred dozens of men, women and children. On October 31, 1838, Joseph Smith and several others were arrested. The militia commanders illegally condemned the Mormon leaders to death, but Alexander Doniphan, a former state legislator and friend to Mormons, refused to allow it to be carried out, declaring that such action would be "cold-blooded murder." Moreover, he said, the militia could not condemn Joseph Smith, especially in absentia, because he was a civilian, and therefore had to be tried before a civilian court. Doniphan ensured that Joseph would have a chance at a trial. Joseph Smith and other leaders were imprisoned.
The Mormons were once more driven from their homes in the dead of winter. Brigham Young and the other members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles lead them to Illinois where kind people, especially the citizens of Quincy, took care of them. Joseph Smith and a few others were forced to languish in jail until April of the following year. They were not permitted to see their families or even to call witnesses on their behalf. After several abortive attempts at a trial, during a transfer to another jail, guards allowed Joseph Smith and the others escape to Illinois, where they rejoined their families.
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