Old Pioneer Cemetery, Richmond, Missouri
On a rainy day in November 1911, Junius Wells and 10 missionaries gathered at the old pioneer cemetery in Richmond, Missouri. There a great-granddaughter of David Whitmer unveiled a granite monument. The monument stands today where it was first unveiled—directly over Oliver Cowdery’s grave.
The monument honors the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon: Oliver Cowdery, his brother-in-law David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. Not far away, smaller headstones mark the graves of Oliver Cowdery’s father-in-law and mother-in-law, Peter and Mary M. Whitmer; their son Jacob Whitmer; and others in Jacob’s family.1 Other members of the Whitmer family are buried elsewhere in Missouri.2 Together these family grave markers and monuments help tell the story of one family during the turbulent Missouri period of Church history—a time that tried the faith of many Latter-day Saints. The monuments and markers also identify seven men of this family as witnesses to the Book of Mormon—a testimony that they maintained faithfully to the ends of their lives.
The Whitmers Gather in Missouri
The first Book of Mormon witnesses to travel to Missouri were Oliver Cowdery and 21-year-old Peter Whitmer Jr. In 1830 they left Fayette, New York, to take the Book of Mormon’s message to American Indians living west of the Missouri River (see D&C 28:8–10; 32:1–3).
Establishing a mission among the American Indians proved unsuccessful, and the missionaries left western Missouri for Ohio. But by June 1832, Peter Jr. was back in Jackson County, Missouri, running a fine tailor’s shop in Independence.3 He became one of many Church members who settled in Missouri as part of a divine command to establish Zion prior to the Lord’s Second Coming. The rest of the Whitmer family also started to gather to Jackson County, and by 1833, the three generations of Whitmers in Missouri totaled 24 people.4 Most of the family lived near each other in what became known as the Whitmer settlement, a local branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Kaw Township outside of Independence. David Whitmer served as the presiding high priest of this branch.5
Violence in Jackson County
When the Lord commanded the Saints to settle in Jackson County, He instructed them to follow a legal, orderly procedure so that “the work of the gathering be not in haste, nor by flight” (D&C 58:56). The Whitmers followed this pattern, but other Saints did not. They simply moved to Missouri without any prior approval from Church authorities. Some Church members boasted to their neighbors about prophecies of a New Jerusalem and of restoring promised blessings to the American Indians. Some inhabitants of the county perceived these statements as threats to their land and to their way of life. When an editorial entitled “Free People of Color” appeared in The Evening and the Morning Star, a newspaper owned and operated by the Latter-day Saints, word circulated that the Mormons were conspiring to free African American slaves. The rumors sparked outrage among many citizens who were sympathetic to the practice of slavery.6 Some people began to see the steady influx of Mormons as a foreign invasion that would soon outnumber everyone else, and they sought ways to make these invaders leave their county.
These settlers first gathered against their Latter-day Saint neighbors in July 1833, damaging property in Independence and tarring and feathering two of their leaders. By October, their tactics became even more extreme. The Whitmers were right in the middle of the fighting. As one eyewitness later recalled: “On the 31st day of October a party of the mob came to the house of David Whitmer and drew his wife out of the house by the hair of the head and proceeded to throw down the house. They then went to other houses, throwing them down until they had demolished ten dwelling houses amidst the shrieks and screams of women and children.”7
During these violent days, Jacob Whitmer was shot in the hand, and his brother-in-law Hiram Page was severely beaten. The family fled across the Missouri River to Clay County. They found work where they could to meet their needs through the winter.
The following summer, Joseph Smith arrived in Missouri at the head of Zion’s Camp. At a conference in early July 1834, he called David Whitmer to preside over the second stake of the Church.8 David’s brother John was to serve as his assistant, and Christian Whitmer was called to the high council. Father Whitmer blessed his sons on this occasion in the name of the Lord.9
The Whitmers Stay in Missouri
The stay in Clay County, Missouri, was meant to be temporary for the Latter-day Saints. After about two years, most Church members moved north to Caldwell County. But before the Whitmers left Clay County, they buried three of their number. Among them were Book of Mormon witnesses Christian and Peter Jr.10 In memory of his two brothers-in-law, Oliver Cowdery wrote, “And though they have departed, It is with great satisfaction that we reflect, that they proclaimed to their last moments, the certainty of their former testimony.”11
Another Book of Mormon witness, John Whitmer, played a key role in helping the Church secure lands that became the city of Far West. Sometime in the summer of 1837, John built a house for his aging parents not far from his own. The Church in Missouri began to rebuild, and the Saints broke ground for a temple in Far West. But during this period of growth and optimism, tensions surfaced between members of the Whitmer family and Church leaders in Ohio. By the spring of 1838, David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery had lost confidence in Joseph Smith’s leadership. After discussion, the high council in Missouri voted to excommunicate David and Oliver, along with others who were dissatisfied with Joseph Smith. Some in the community took the matter one step further. Though not directed by Church leaders to do so, these men forced Oliver Cowdery, David and John Whitmer, and Hiram Page to leave Far West. That summer, the entire Whitmer family followed these exiles across the county line and out of activity in the Church.
The expulsion of the Whitmers from Caldwell County meant that they were not a target during the armed conflict that took place there in the last months of 1838. Most of the family stayed in Richmond or neighboring settlements in Ray County. John Whitmer was able to buy back property in Far West just as the main body of Latter-day Saints were leaving the city. He lived on his farm there for the next 38 years, taking care of the land dedicated for a temple.12
The Return of Oliver Cowdery
None of the Book of Mormon witnesses in the Whitmer family ever denied their experiences with the golden plates. Yet of the five men who left the Church in 1838, only one asked to come back.
Oliver Cowdery was rebaptized on November 12, 1848, near Kanesville, Iowa. That winter he and his family traveled from Iowa to Richmond, Missouri, to visit the Whitmers before going west in the spring. Oliver became ill and died at the home of Peter and Mary Whitmer in 1850. He was surrounded by family, including David Whitmer and Hiram Page. As he lay dying, Oliver asked to be raised so he could speak. He bore fervent testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. David Whitmer related that after Oliver had finished his testimony, he “died the happiest man I ever saw.”13
|Three Witnesses||Death Year||Burial Place|
|Martin Harris||1875||Clarkston, Cache County, Utah|
|Oliver Cowdery||1850||Mormon Pioneer Cemetery, Ray County, Missouri|
|David Whitmer||1888||Richmond Cemetery, Ray County, Missouri|
|Christian Whitmer||1835||Clay County, Missouri|
|Jacob Whitmer||1856||Mormon Pioneer Cemetery, Ray County, Missouri|
|Peter Whitmer Jr.||1836||Clay County, Missouri|
|John Whitmer||1878||Kingston, Caldwell County, Missouri|
|Hiram Page||1852||On his farm, Ray County, Missouri|
|Joseph Smith Sr.||1840||Nauvoo, Illinois|
|Hyrum Smith||1844||Nauvoo, Illinois|
|Samuel H. Smith||1844||Nauvoo, Illinois|