“Spokes on the Wheel: Early Latter-day Saint Settlements in Hancock County, Illinois,” Ensign, Feb. 1986, 62
Even the casual student of LDS history has heard of Nauvoo, the “City Beautiful.” While much is known about Nauvoo, relatively little is known about other Latter-day Saint settlements in Hancock County. Joseph Smith’s vision of settlement was not limited to Nauvoo. On 1 March 1843 he said: “There is a wheel; Nauvoo is the hub: we will drive the first spoke in Ramus, second in La Harpe, third Shokoquon, fourth in Lima: that is half the wheel. The other half is over the river.”1
In his wheel-hub-spoke analogy, Joseph Smith referred to some, but not all of the LDS settlements in Hancock County. Before describing those communities, however, let us consider some basic information concerning Hancock County itself.
Created 13 January 1825 from unorganized territory attached to Pike County and named for John Hancock, the county had no seat until 1833, when Carthage became the county seat. Hancock County has an area of 797 square miles; it is bounded on the north by Henderson County, the east by McDonough County, the south by Adams County, and the west by the Mississippi River. Its towns are small, and the landscape is essentially rural, with lush cornfields interspersed with soybean fields.
The Latter-day Saints either planned or established seventeen communities in Hancock County besides Nauvoo. Of these, Ramus (Webster and Macedonia) and Lima are what I would call major colonies. Other settlements, such as Plymouth, Green Plains, Golden’s Point, Yelrome (Tioga), and Camp Creek I would designate minor colonies. There were also “missionary towns”—places where the Saints lived among nonmembers, whom they hoped to convert to the gospel. Such towns include Carthage, Bear Creek, La Harpe, and Fountain Green. Several other small settlements surrounded Nauvoo like suburbs—Stringtown, Mormon Springs, Rocky Run, Sonora, and Davis Mound. One settlement the Saints planned never came into being. This town, to be called Warren, might be called a “paper town.”2
In organizing the planning and settling of the towns around Nauvoo, Joseph Smith consciously tried to avoid the problems the Saints had experienced earlier with a centralized settlement plan. In New York, Ohio, and especially Missouri, the Saints had suffered persecution. On more than one occasion they had been encouraged to disperse their settlements and thereby blend into the surrounding population.3 It was during the 1840s that they began to establish such a pattern.
The settlements in Hancock County and their projected purposes offer us a glimpse of Joseph Smith as an empire builder and a colonizer. The Hancock County towns, especially when considered along with LDS settlements in other parts of Illinois and Iowa, constitute an extensive network of settlements. Looking at these settlements, we can consider Joseph Smith as a forerunner of Brigham Young, the great colonizer of the Utah period. It is possible that Brigham Young learned about empire building and colonization from Joseph Smith, just as he learned how to move the pioneers across the plains while marching with Joseph in Zion’s Camp. Journals, minutes of meetings, local histories, and other sources can tell us much about this often-neglected phase of Church history, as well as about Joseph Smith, the colonizer.
Of the two major colonies, Lima and Ramus, most of the information available concerns Ramus. Ramus, also known at various times as Macedonia or Webster, is located approximately twenty miles east of Nauvoo, eight miles south of La Harpe, and eight miles north of Carthage, the county seat. The town was established entirely by Latter-day Saints and was an important settlement in the plans developed by Joseph Smith.
The establishment of Ramus was largely the work of the Joel H. Johnson family. This family had settled in Carthage before Commerce (Nauvoo) had been chosen as a settlement. As a result of the missionary work of Joel Johnson and others, several families along Crooked Creek joined the Church.4 Soon the Crooked Creek Branch was organized, and a site for a town was chosen. The residents of the area named their town Ramus, a Latin term meaning branch, which may indicate the strong interest of the early Saints in ancient languages.
The town is located in beautiful farming country. The soil is rich, black, and fertile. Those who live in the area today raise corn, soybeans, and hogs.
The Latter-day Saints created a Church organization in this beautiful area as well. What had been called the Crooked River Branch became the Ramus Stake. Although smaller than the stakes later established in Utah, it was organized as they would be, with its own stake presidency. Hyrum Smith organized the Ramus Stake on 15 July 1840, with Joel H. Johnson as stake president.5
The members of the Ramus stake built their own meetinghouse—an unusual practice in the early days of the Church. Most Church meetings were held in homes or out-of-doors. In Nauvoo, for example, conferences of the Church were held on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi in an area called “the grove.” The building erected by the Saints in Ramus may have been the earliest meetinghouse built by members of the Church. The present Webster Community Church was built in 1897 on the site of the earlier LDS meetinghouse.6
Joseph Smith frequently visited Ramus. He stopped there en route to other destinations, held Church conferences, convened courts, and visited relatives. What were perhaps his most celebrated visits occurred in 1843. On 1 April 1843, Joseph Smith, Orson Hyde, and William Clayton traveled to Ramus. After spending the night at the home of Benjamin F. Johnson, they held a meeting the next morning at ten o’clock. During his remarks Elder Orson Hyde taught two points of doctrine that the Prophet considered false—that the Savior would appear on a white horse as a warrior, and that the Father and the Son dwell in the hearts of men. Later, while eating lunch at Sophronia Smith McCleary’s home, the Prophet informed Orson Hyde that he was going to correct some errors in Orson’s sermon. These corrections, given later that day, are now found in section 130 of the Doctrine and Covenants. There Joseph Smith taught, “When the Savior shall appear we shall see him as he is. We shall see that he is a man like ourselves.” (D&C 130:1.) He also stated that “the idea that the Father and the Son dwell in a man’s heart is an old sectarian notion, and is false.” (D&C 130:3.)7
Joseph Smith returned to Ramus on 16 May 1843. That evening at the Johnson home, he gave the family instructions on the priesthood. These instructions are found in the first four verses of section 131 [D&C 131:1–4]. Verses 5 and 6 [D&C 131:5–6] were part of a sermon the Prophet delivered the following morning. The remaining verses were given in response to a sermon delivered by Samuel A. Prior, a Methodist minister.8
The Saints living in Ramus saw Joseph Smith not only in his prophetic role, but also in his role as a family man and member of the community. It is a well-known fact that Joseph Smith liked to wrestle. Indeed, he took pride in his prowess in that sport. He also frequently engaged in the frontier sport of stick pulling. On one visit, the Prophet pulled sticks with Justus A. Morse, the strongest man in Ramus, and beat him using only one hand. Later, during the same visit, Joseph Smith wrestled with William Wall, the most expert wrestler in Ramus, and threw him.9
One of the Prophet’s closest friends, Benjamin Johnson, lived in Ramus, as did two of the Prophet’s sisters—Sophronia and Catherine. The records indicate that he frequently ate meals with them and stayed in their homes.
One rather startling fact emerges from the study of Ramus. It is commonly believed that all the members of the Church left Hancock County in 1846, when the Saints began their exodus west. But not all the Saints left at that time. In fact, some remained in Ramus until 1850.10 Apparently, not all the people of Illinois persecuted the Latter-day Saints. Once the large body of Saints had left and the perceived threat was removed, the populace let the remaining Saints live in peace.
Yelrome, or Morley’s Settlement, was located twenty-five miles south of Nauvoo and approximately three miles north of Lima. Although Lima is technically in Adams County, it was so close to the Hancock County settlements that for all intents and purposes it can be included with them. Indeed, Lima, when combined with the minor colonies of Yelrome and Bear Creek, was one of the two major LDS colonies in Hancock County. It was also referred to by Joseph Smith as one of the “spokes on the wheel.”
Isaac Morley was the first member of the Church to settle in the area that was later to be called Yelrome. Seeking refuge in Illinois after being driven from Missouri in 1839, the Morleys purchased a partially completed cabin, which they furnished and made suitable for a home. A few other Saints joined them, and Yelrome began to grow.
Yelrome is Morley spelled backwards, with an extra “e” for good measure. The name may have originated from an early penchant of the Saints to spell backwards. (The Council of Fifty was also called “Ytfif.”) Yelrome also had other names: Morley Town, Hancock Settlement, Tioga, and Bear Creek. The name Bear Creek has often been a source of confusion, since it was also the name of another LDS settlement located along the stream. (The settlement of Bear Creek was also called Knowlton’s Settlement to further distinguish it from Yelrome.) The small town where Yelrome once was located is called Tioga, a name that may also have LDS origins, since one of the early Latter-day Saints who lived there was Alpheus Cutler from Tioga County Pennsylvania.11
The names of the people who lived in Yelrome in the 1840s constitute a genealogical treasure chest. In addition to the Morleys and the Cutlers, many other members of the Church settled in the town, including Thomas Hickenlooper, Lucy Morley Allen, Orville Southland Cox, William Critchlow, Harriet Hawkins Critchlow, Enos Curtis, Edmond Durfee, William Garner, Anna Nash Gifford, and Solomon Hancock.12
The Saints in this community came from a wide variety of economic, social, and educational backgrounds. Isaac Morley employed twelve men and sold his barrels in Quincy. Another Saint, Frederick Cox, ran a chair-making shop. Isaac Morley’s daughter, Cordelia, taught school.13
When a branch of the Church was organized at Yelrome, the members sustained Isaac Morley as branch president, with Frederick Cox and Edward Whiting as counselors. Later, when the Yelrome Branch became part of the Lima Stake, the stake had 424 members.14
Members of the Church in Yelrome had almost as many opportunities to hear the Prophet Joseph Smith speak as the members in Ramus did. On Sunday, 14 March 1843, the Prophet preached on the subject “Salvation through Knowledge,” teaching that “knowledge through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the grand key that unlocks the glories and mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.”15
While the residents of Yelrome had their share of blessings, they also had problems with persecution. As pressures against the Saints in Hancock County increased, Yelrome became the target of mob attacks. Yelrome was vulnerable to attack for several reasons. First, it was located on the outskirts of Hancock County and was rather isolated. Second, it was situated between Warsaw on the north and Adams County on the south—both of which contained strong anti-Mormon elements.
The people of Yelrome were especially vulnerable to attack because of the presence of the noted anti-Mormon leader Colonel Levi Williams, who lived in Green Plains, about ten miles distant.
Whatever the reasons, trouble came in great measure. On 14 February 1845, Isaac Morley arrived in Nauvoo with news of the arrest of five brethren on false pretenses. By September, reports from Yelrome indicated that mobs had burned some LDS homes in the vicinity. An editorial in the Times and Seasons in November 1845 reported that nearly two hundred buildings had been burned. Many of these buildings belonged to settlers in Yelrome. On Saturday, 15 November 1845, a mob shot and killed Elder Edmund Durfee, a resident of Yelrome. Members of the mob later boasted that they killed Durfee over a bet of a gallon of whiskey that they could kill him with one shot.16
The savage attacks against Yelrome attracted not only the attention of the Saints, but of nonmembers as well. Describing these events, Governor Thomas L. Ford wrote:
“At a Mormon settlement called Morley a few miles from Nauvoo, a band of incendiaries, on the night of September 19th began operations. Deliberately setting fire to the house of Edmund Durfee, they turned the inmates out-of-doors and threatened them with death if they did not at once leave the settlement, Durfee they subsequently killed. The mob continued its nefarious work until Morley was in ashes, and its people homeless.”17
The problems at Yelrome did not occur until relatively late in its history, with most of the mob activity taking place in 1845 and 1846. But the people of Yelrome were not the only ones who suffered. Similar incidents happened among other LDS settlements in Hancock County.
The missionary town of La Harpe was located twenty-five miles east of Nauvoo and eight miles north of Ramus. La Harpe had been settled by the time the Saints arrived, and they remained a minority in the town.
One of the oldest towns in Hancock County, La Harpe was founded in 1836. The first settler in the area was Abraham Brewer, who came in 1830. Major William Smith and Marvin Tryon founded the town in 1836, naming it Franklin. It was later renamed La Harpe after Bernard de La Harpe, a French adventurer and fur trader in the company of the French explorer La Salle.18
The earliest LDS settler, Erastus Bingham, arrived in La Harpe in 1839.19 Bingham and other Saints began doing missionary work and formed the nucleus of a branch of the Church. The Saints’ missionary work flourished; one of the missionaries was Zenos H. Gurley, who reported that he baptized fifty-two people in six days.20
Erastus Bingham, Zenos Gurley, and other Church members succeeded in converting a number of influential members of the community of La Harpe. One of the leading citizens of La Harpe was Lewis Rice Chaffin, a merchant, farmer, landowner, gristmill operator, and postmaster. But after joining the Church, he became the object of persecution. To avoid problems with those who were persecuting the Saints, he had been grinding grain for his fellow believers during the night. One night a mob caught him in the act. One man said: “If you grind a grain of flour for the Mormons, we will blow your brains out!” Chaffin replied: “Let me grind my own toll.” The mob retorted with taunts and foul language, but they left him to grind all the grain he had brought.21
Dr. George Coulson, another leading citizen of La Harpe, also joined the Church while living there. Dr. Coulson and his family had moved to the area in the mid-1830s, building a log cabin on Main Street and erecting the building that later became the first schoolhouse in La Harpe.22 Missionaries, local Church members, and visiting Church leaders were all welcomed at the Coulson home in La Harpe.23
The growth of the Church caused by immigration and missionary work led to the creation of a branch at La Harpe on 17 April 1841. This branch was part of the Ramus Stake. (Ramus was less than ten miles south of La Harpe.) Church leaders from Nauvoo frequently visited the La Harpe Branch. On 17 November 1841, for example, Elders Brigham Young and Willard Richards visited La Harpe.24 Later, on 1 April 1843, Brigham Young and John Taylor visited La Harpe.25 Apparently the Saints at La Harpe did not forget such visits, for they visited John Taylor while he lay wounded at Carthage in June 1844.26
La Harpe and other LDS settlements in Hancock County often served as way stations for missionaries and Church leaders as they traveled. Charles C. Rich’s group stopped at La Harpe on a return trip to Nauvoo in July 1843.27 William Clayton and Stephen Markham stopped briefly at La Harpe on their way to Dixon, where they warned Joseph Smith of his impending arrest.28 At another way station, Plymouth, Joseph Smith’s brother William operated a hotel.
Life in the suburbs of Nauvoo was similar to that in the colonies and missionary towns. In the settlement known as Stringtown, three miles east of Nauvoo, the remains of a stone blacksmith shop can be seen alongside the road two miles east of the Nauvoo-Colusa High School.
About seventy-five members, some five or six families, resided in Stringtown. Many of them were converts from England who had given all their money for the construction of the Nauvoo temple in exchange for a few acres of land east of Nauvoo. Since they had little money, they lived “on a shoestring”—hence the name Stringtown for their settlement.29
The nature of the relationship between the Saints in these Hancock County communities and their neighbors varied considerably, depending upon time and place. There is evidence of amicable relations as well as hostility. Entries in Samuel Gordon’s diary of 1845, written at Montebello, indicate no feelings of animosity as he describes the Saints.30 On the other hand, the letters of Linus and Abigail Wilcox of Durham show strong evidence of hatred toward the Saints, one stating that “desperate diseases require desperate remedies and Mormons have diseased the state.”31 Yet even as late as 1846, the Church members in Hancock County had both friends and enemies among their neighbors.
When Joseph Smith talked about “spokes on the wheel,” he was referring to only part of a larger colonization effort. The LDS settlements mentioned here are only a fraction of those the Prophet planned to colonize. When one takes into account all of the settlements in Hancock County, as well as Latter-day Saint settlements in other parts of Illinois, the role of Joseph Smith as colonizer comes into focus. But even this limited study provides us with an opportunity to understand a neglected but significant chapter in early Church history.