On October 29 1838, a militia of 250 men under Colonel Thomas Jennings rode into Caldwell County, Missouri, from the east. Their destination was the Mormon settlement at Haun’s Mill, where the riders knew at least 40 families were encamped. The leaders of the community, quickly realising that their visitors were in no mood for discussion, hastily retreated to the blacksmith’s store. For the next few hours a battle raged between the two parties. It was an unequal contest and a bitter one – the well-armed militia were indisposed to show mercy and as the sun set that day the community mourned at least 17 of its menfolk. Not one of the raiding party was ever prosecuted.
The ‘battle’ of Haun’s Mill was the culmination of what became known as The Missouri Mormon War of 1838. It was a conflict between church and state, a dispute between one deeply religious community, the Mormons, and their less fervent, mainly protestant neighbours. Lasting a matter of months, what started as a brawl at an election rally in the city of Gallatin, Daviess County, quickly escalated into a full-scale shooting war, with militia groups from both sides roaming the Missouri countryside burning and pillaging each other’s communities. The conflict ended that November with Mormon church elders in court facing charges of high treason.
Violence in nineteenth-century America cast a long shadow; the state frequently pursued and engaged in gun battles with outlaws. But it was not in the habit of attacking and prosecuting religious communities. Governor Lilburn Boggs’s draconian Missouri Executive Order 44, declaring unequivocally that the Mormons were to be ‘exterminated’ or driven out, using a militia of 2,500 men, has echoes of the state persecution suffered by the French Huguenots in sixteenth-century France.
The Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, was founded by Joseph Smith of New York in 1830. They, like their French predecessors, lived in times of tangible hostility to minorities. In pre-Civil War America idiosyncratic groups like the Mormons experienced a similar level of hostility and resentment to Native Americans, Irish Catholics and African Americans.
Echoing the Huguenots, Mormons lived by a set of distinct beliefs, customs and dress codes that marked them out as being different. They read text from their own bible, The Book of Mormon. In contrast to their protestant neighbours, Mormons placed great importance on the education of their children; the community’s smart dress code often stood in stark contrast to the more ‘lived-in’ appearance of its more gentile neighbour. Like the Huguenots, the church’s followers were successful entrepreneurs with significant holdings in property and land. Such interests and the profits from them were rarely shared with the wider community. Envy and resentment were never far away.
Many Missourians were simply alarmed by the sheer speed at which the Mormon church expanded. The Huguenots in France slowly but surely built up their community over centuries. The church founded by Joseph Smith in 1830 in Kirtland Ohio started with a few hundred followers and eight years later, with the Mormon War at an end, 10,000 of Smith’s followers crossed the border into Illinois.
The local inhabitants of North West Missouri might have tolerated this explosion in numbers if the Mormons had lived quietly by themselves like the Amish, the Shakers and other alternative groups. But Smith’s followers went there in the firm belief the land was theirs by divine right and they were not shy about saying so. Nor were they reticent in trying to convert the entire population to what they considered to be the one true faith. Protestant clergy did not appreciate their centuries-old religion being undermined. Local landowners took grave exception to these incomers trying to convert their African-American slaves and subvert the whole concept of slavery. Those officials administering native American affairs suspected the Mormons of not only trying to convert the tribes to their faith but also of trying to form a political alliance.
If the Mormons had stayed out of politics they might not have had to move four times in seventeen years. But followers who had firmly established themselves in every facet of society, including the judiciary, the police and the army, enthusiastically and loudly exercised their vote. They also did so en masse, with a clear goal, in the eyes of non-believers at least, of establishing their own theocratic state, their ‘Kingdom of God’. For non-adherents of the faith, this was a step too far.
Despite all this tension and all these issues, conflict could still have been avoided. But the Mormons had one character flaw not evident in the Huguenots, Amish or any other religious group. They would not compromise easily and they weren’t afraid to retaliate with force. Many shared their leader’s predilection for capital punishment. Some, such as church elders George Smith and Sidney Sheldon, strongly favoured bloodletting. When a Mormon militia opened fire on state troopers at Crooked River less than a week before the battle at Haun’s Mill, it is little wonder that Colonel Jennings and his force arrived at the mill in no mood for compromise.