David W. Patten’s Rifle, Watch, and Powder Horn

8 July 2019

Museum Treasures

Before sunrise on October 25, 1838, David W. Patten donned this watch and carried his rifle and powder horn, intending to rescue three Latter-day Saint hostages from renegade Missouri militiamen.

Before sunrise on October 25, 1838, David W. Patten donned this watch and carried his rifle and powder horn, intending to rescue three Latter-day Saint hostages from renegade Missouri militiamen. By the day’s end, he had attained two goals: he had freed his brethren, and he had died a martyr’s death. He’d once told the Prophet Joseph Smith that he had prayed for the honor of martyrdom, to which the Prophet lamented, “When a man of your faith asks the Lord for anything, he generally gets it.”1

Patten had seen the blessings of faith in his life as he often healed the sick through priesthood blessings. Abraham O. Smoot once became so ill while traveling with Patten that he could no longer ride his horse. Patten laid his hands on Smoot’s head and blessed him. Smoot recalled, “Every bit of pain left me . . . in the twinkling of an eye. . . . I don’t recollect that [Patten] ever failed in his importuning to heal the sick.”2

Patten was baptized in 1832, became an Apostle three years later, and settled in Far West, Missouri, in 1836. By 1838, he was serving jointly with Thomas B. Marsh as temporary president of the Church in that state. Later, he served as assistant to Marsh alongside Brigham Young3 until Joseph Smith relocated to Far West.

In April 1838, Joseph Smith received a revelation regarding Patten: “Verily thus saith the Lord: It is wisdom in my servant David W. Patten, that he settle up all his business as soon as he possibly can, and make a disposition of his merchandise, that he may perform a mission unto me next spring.”4 Impending events soon showed the wisdom of Patten being counseled to settle his affairs, though he would not serve a mission the following spring.

That fall, Patten found himself amid the growing conflict between local Missourians and Mormon settlers as Church members poured into the area. Caldwell County had been created for Mormon resettlement, but not all Mormons were choosing to move there. Latter-day Saints were poverty stricken after the Panic of 1837 and the resulting failure of the Church’s bank in Kirtland, Ohio.5 Hence, many incoming families opted to settle in newly formed Daviess County, which had not yet been surveyed in 1838. In Daviess County, settlers could apply for a land claim and begin improving the land while waiting for surveyors to arrive and complete their work. These preemption rights, as they were called, gave the impoverished Saints time to farm, make money, and save up income before purchasing land.6

Mormon settlements spreading outside of Caldwell County boundaries alarmed Missouri residents, who feared the imminent loss of political control. Missourians’ dissatisfaction with the migration into their counties escalated into violence on August 6, 1838, when mobs attacked the Latter-day Saints in Gallatin on election day, preventing them from voting. Later that fall, mobs laid siege to the Mormon settlement of De Witt. When the Saints petitioned the state government for aid, Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs responded that the conflict was between the mob and Mormons and that they might “fight it out.”7 Such a response necessitated the Saints’ abandoning De Witt. Their leaving spelled success for the mobs and emboldened the Church’s enemies to harass other Latter-day Saint settlements.

Latter-day Saints in Caldwell and Daviess Counties responded by forming their own militias.8 David W. Patten became a militia leader and in this role further demonstrated his faith—his brave attitude earned him the nickname “Captain Fear Not.”9 He was a logical choice to lead what would become a fatal rescue mission in late October, when Missouri militiamen assigned to patrol the county line crossed into Caldwell County and took three men captive. Rumors flew that the men would be executed.

Gift of William Samuel Garn, Parlee Strickland, Mary Mason, and Elna Davis

In the early morning hours on October 25, 1838, 75 men gathered into two companies, with David W. Patten leading the first. Patten’s company stumbled into an ambush while fording Crooked River at dawn. Missouri militiamen opened fire on Patten’s men as the sun rose. The skirmish yielded several injuries on both sides and four deaths—one Missourian and three Latter-day Saints.10

David W. Patten, the man who had so often brought heavenly healing to others, was not to receive that miracle for himself. His men carried him to a home near Far West, where he died, earning the tragic title of the first apostolic martyr in the latter days.11 At his funeral, Joseph Smith said, “There lies a man that has done just as he said he would—he has laid down his life for his friends.”12

Mementos of that day are displayed at the Church History Museum and are apt symbols of Patten’s sacrifice. The watch he wore on the battlefield is a reminder of his mortal time cut short before he reached age 40. The rifle is made of curly maple wood, also known as flamed maple because of its stripes reminiscent of fire. Patten’s fiery faith led him to fear not and offer his all in defense of his brethren.