“We Weep When We Remember Zion”: Early Latter-day Saints as Refugees

David W. Grua

Franklin D. Richards was only 17 years old when the Saints were driven from their Missouri homes.

On the afternoon of October 31, 1838, tensions ran high in Far West, the principal Mormon settlement in Caldwell County, Missouri. Just south of the city, Major General Samuel D. Lucas met with a Latter-day Saint delegation to discuss the order that Governor Lilburn W. Boggs had issued on October 27, 1838. “The Mormons must be treated as enemies,” Boggs had declared, “and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace.”1 Although Lucas commanded 3,000 Missouri militiamen and had the governor’s order in hand, he desired to resolve the crisis without further bloodshed. But Lucas was firm: the Latter-day Saints as a body would be required to depart Missouri or face the consequences.

Reports of the meeting between Lucas and the Mormon delegation spread rapidly through Far West. “We have the promis that but little blood will be shed at this time, but God only knows how we are to be delivered,” wrote 33-year-old Albert Perry Rockwood to fellow Church members in Holliston, Missouri, after hearing the news.2 Sustained by his faith, Rockwood and thousands of other Latter-day Saints left their homes in reluctant compliance with the governor’s orders and made the arduous journey to Illinois. Rockwood kept a detailed journal recording his experiences as a refugee and mailed copies of the journal to his friends and relatives in Holliston, who were anxious for news of their loved ones. Two other Latter-day Saints with ties to Holliston—Franklin D. Richards and Elizabeth Haven—likewise described their experiences in letters to relatives. The writings of Rockwood, Richards, and Haven reveal how these Latter-day Saint refugees dealt with tragedy and maintained family ties in the midst of a maelstrom. They also show the kindness of strangers who helped Church members to recover from the trauma of the Missouri expulsion.

Scattering of the Saints

Following the conflicts between the Mormons and other Missourians in Jackson County and Clay County earlier in the decade, in 1836 the Missouri legislature created Caldwell County as a place for Latter-day Saint settlement in the state. In April 1838, Joseph Smith received a revelation commanding that “Far West should be built up spedily, by the gathering of my Saints.” In addition, the Lord promised to reveal other locations “in the regions round about” for Church settlement.3 Although many non-Mormons expected Church members to confine their settlement to Caldwell County, Church members began settling southwest of Caldwell in De Witt, Carroll County, as well as in Adam-ondi-Ahman, Daviess County, north of Far West. 4

Albert Perry Rockwood had been a member of the Church for just over a year when he arrived in Missouri in the fall of 1838, just as the conflict between the Saints and other Missourians began to escalate. Rockwood wrote to Church members in Holliston: “As our religion is different from all others, we receive different treatment from the world.” In particular, he noted it was the practice of gathering “that excites the indignation of our enemies & they are determined to prevent it.”5 In early October, anti-Mormon vigilantes began a siege of De Witt, warning the approximately 40 families living there to leave voluntarily or face the consequences. After petitions to civil and militia authorities for protection were denied, Church members realized that the crisis could only be resolved by capitulating to the mob’s demands or through bloodshed, and in mid-October the Saints evacuated the city.6

Reports quickly spread that the vigilantes, armed with a cannon, would next turn their attention to Adam-ondi-Ahman. Rockwood described how the Saints responded by organizing the “armies of Israel”—a private Latter-day Saint military force—to defend Church members in the absence of reliable state militia protection. The “armies of Israel” sought to preemptively secure Daviess County by burning suspected vigilante havens, confiscating goods as war appropriations, capturing the cannon, and expelling anti-Mormons from the county.7 Rockwood recorded approvingly on October 23 that the Saints’ “Northern Campaign” had been conducted without spilling “a drop of blood” or firing a gun.8

The anti-Mormons soon responded, taking prisoners and attacking isolated Mormon settlements.9 On October 30, in eastern Caldwell County, between two and three hundred rogue militiamen attacked the Latter-day Saint settlement at Hawn’s Mill, killing or fatally wounding 17 Mormon men and boys.10 Rockwood doubtless knew that his letter would be painful reading for his friends in Massachusetts, especially the Richards family, Rockwood’s relatives through marriage.11 As Rockwood described the Hawn’s Mill massacre, he noted that “among the killed was Brother Phinehas Richards[’s] son that was about 15 years of age.”12 Richards’s son, George, had gone ahead with relatives to Missouri, arriving at Hawn’s Mill just two days before the massacre.13 “Pages of history do not record such scenes of cruelty among civilized people,” Rockwood wrote, “save among Pirats.”14

The day after the massacre, Rockwood described the Saints’ anxiety upon learning of Governor Boggs’s order. “The Governour has long since refused us any aid, but he has now come out openly against us, and given leave for all to go against the Mormons.”15 Ultimately, Rockwood and the other Saints resigned to the reality that they would need to leave Missouri. “The Governor and all our enemies are determined that we shall not gather together, but shall be scattered or exterminated (at least from the state).”16

A Martyr in the Cause of Zion

On December 8, 1838, with his feet covered in blisters, 17-year-old Franklin D. Richards entered Caldwell County, passing through Hawn’s Mill on his way to Far West. Richards believed he was just a few weeks behind his younger brother, George, who had gone ahead with other relatives to join with the Saints in Missouri. At Hawn’s Mill, Franklin learned of the massacre that had occurred just weeks earlier. As he pushed on toward Far West, Richards stopped a man and asked if he knew George Richards. The man responded that George Richards was numbered among those killed at Hawn’s Mill. Doubtless in shock, Franklin Richards pushed on to Far West and quickly located his Rockwood and Haven relatives and his uncle, Levi Richards.17

Writing to his parents, Phinehas and Wealthy Richards, Franklin gravely reported, “It becomes my painful duty to say that brother George is numbered among those that are shot.” Obviously in pain, he described the killings at Hawn’s Mill as “the most horrible massacre . . . that has blackened the pages of Church history in these last days.”18 Franklin later learned more about his younger brother’s last moments. George had offered to stand guard just as the mob descended upon the small Latter-day Saint community and was therefore among the first killed. The bodies of the slain Latter-day Saints had been interred in an unfinished well that served as a mass grave because circumstances did not permit a proper burial.19

Reflecting on these experiences, Richards explained to his parents with a hint of understatement, “We have been greatly dissapointed in our calculations.” Rather than finding his younger brother alive in northwestern Missouri, the place appointed for the gathering of the Saints, Franklin instead found tragedy. After traveling from Massachusetts to Missouri, Governor Boggs’s order would require him to move again.20 To his younger brother, 13-year-old Samuel, Franklin confessed that his “faith was tried in a degree and somewhat shaken,” but through constant prayer, his “doubt all fled.” Although he was more than 1,000 miles away from home, he assured his family that “the religion of Christ [is] a great comfort in some lonesome hours.”21

God Has Opened Their Hearts to Receive Us

“O! how Zion mourns, her sons have fallen in the streets by the cruel hand of the enemy and her daughters weep in silence. It is impossible for my pen to tell you of our situation, only those who feel it, know.” So wrote 19-year-old Elizabeth Haven to her cousin Elizabeth Howe Bullard on February 24, 1839. Haven had been in Quincy, Illinois, for just a few weeks, likely traveling to the Illinois town with her sister, Nancy, and brother-in-law Albert Perry Rockwood.22 Haven explained that the Saints had been “driven from the places of gathering out of the state [of Missouri] from houses and lands in poverty to seek for habitation where they can find them. . . . The stakes of Zion will soon be bereft of all her children.” Seeing a parallel between the Mormons’ expulsion from Missouri and the ancient Israelites’ exile in Babylon, Haven wrote that “by the River of babylon we can sit down, yes, dear E, we weep when we remember Zion.”23

Although the Saints were sorrowful and anxious in their scattered condition, Haven explained that Quincy was a refuge for them. About 12 families crossed the Mississippi River daily and found shelter and employment in the town. She noted that the residents of Quincy had donated more than $400 to the impoverished Saints. “God has opened their hearts to receive us. . . . We are hungry and they feed us, naked and cloathed us. The citizens have assisted us beyond all calculation.” Haven, speaking for thousands of Latter-day Saint beneficiaries of the kindness of Quincy’s residents, prayed that “heavens blessings rest upon them.”24

The Saints were in Quincy for only a matter of months in 1839, but the town provided a measure of stability for the displaced Church members.25 Haven wrote to her cousin that while “it would seem that Zion is all destroyed,” in fact, “it is not so, the work of the Lord was on the march.” Although the Saints’ tribulations had caused many to be “sifted out of the church,” others “have been rooted and ground in love and are the salt of the earth.”26

After spending the winter imprisoned in a Missouri jail, Joseph Smith arrived in Quincy in April 1839, where he reunited with his family and the Saints.27 Although grateful to the people of Quincy for caring for exiled Church members, Joseph realized that the Saints would need a more permanent home. Along with other Church leaders, the Prophet started a new settlement about 45 miles north of Quincy in Commerce, which was later called Nauvoo. Elizabeth Haven reported in the fall of 1839 that Joseph spoke of Commerce as “a place of gathering” for Church members.28 After enduring the traumatic expulsion from Missouri and finding temporary refuge in Quincy, the Saints found a new home in Nauvoo.