“Tried Long Enough,” chapter 28 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 28: “Tried Long Enough”
August 6, 1838, was Election Day in Missouri. That morning, John Butler rode to the town of Gallatin, the seat of Daviess County government, to vote.1
John had been a Latter-day Saint for a few years. He and his wife, Caroline, had moved to a small settlement near Adam-ondi-Ahman that summer. He was a captain in the local militia and a Danite.2
Founded just a year earlier, Gallatin was little more than a cluster of houses and saloons. When John arrived at the town square, he found it teeming with men from around the county. A polling place had been set up in a small house on the edge of the square.3 As men filed in to cast their votes, campaigners mingled with the crowd outside.4
John joined a small group of Saints standing apart from the main group. Attitudes in Daviess County had never favored the Saints. After Joseph had established a stake in Adam-ondi-Ahman, the settlement blossomed and more than two hundred houses had been built. The Saints could now influence the county vote, and that angered many other settlers. To avoid problems, John and his friends planned to vote together and return home quickly.5
As John approached the polling place, William Peniston, a candidate for state representative, climbed on top of a whiskey barrel to make a speech. William had tried to court the Saints’ vote earlier that year, but when he learned that most of them favored the other candidate, he lashed out against them.
“The Mormon leaders are a set of horse thieves, liars, and counterfeiters,” William bellowed to the men gathered nearby. John grew uneasy. It would not take much for William to turn the crowd against him and his friends. Most of the men were already angry with them, and many had been drinking whiskey since the polls opened.
William warned the voters that the Saints would steal their property and overwhelm their vote.6 They did not belong in the county, he said, and had no right to take part in the election. “I headed a mob to drive you out of Clay County,” he boasted, turning to John and the other Saints, “and would not prevent you from being mobbed now.”7
More whiskey passed through the crowd. John heard some men curse the Saints. He started to back away. He was over six feet tall and powerfully built, but he had come to Gallatin to vote, not fight.8
Suddenly, a man in the crowd tried to punch one of the Latter-day Saints. Another Saint leapt to his defense, but the crowd knocked him back. A third Saint grabbed a piece of lumber from a nearby woodpile and clubbed the attacker across the head. The man fell close to John’s feet. Men on both sides grabbed clubs and pulled out knives and whips.9
The Saints were outnumbered four to one, but John was determined to protect his fellow Saints and their leaders. Spotting a pile of fence rails, he grabbed a thick piece of oak and rushed to the fight. “Oh yes, you Danites,” he cried out, “here is a job for us!”
He clubbed the men attacking the Saints, measuring each swing to knock his opponents down, not kill them. His friends fought back as well, improvising weapons from sticks and rocks. They knocked down anyone who rushed at them, ending the fight after two minutes.10
Catching his breath, John looked out across the town square. Wounded men lay motionless on the ground. Others were slinking away. William Peniston had jumped off his whiskey barrel and fled up a nearby hill.
A man from the crowd approached John and said the Saints could vote now. “Put down your stick,” he said. “There’s no use for it.”11
John gripped the fence rail tighter. He wanted to cast his vote, but he knew he would be trapped if he went into the small house and tried to vote unarmed. Instead, he turned around and started to walk away.
“We must take you prisoner,” another man called out. He said some of the men John had struck would probably die.
“I am a law-abiding man,” John said, “but I do not intend to be tried by a mob.” He mounted his horse and left town.12
The next day, John rode to Far West and told Joseph about the fight. Reports of deaths at Gallatin were spreading rapidly through northern Missouri, and mobs were preparing to attack the Saints. Fearing John would be a target for retaliation, Joseph asked him if he had moved his family out of Daviess County yet.
“No,” said John.
“Then go and move them directly,” Joseph told him, “and do not sleep another night there.”
“But I don’t like to be a coward,” John replied.
“Go and do as I tell you,” Joseph said.13
John left immediately for home, and Joseph soon rode out with a group of armed volunteers to defend the Saints in Daviess County. When they arrived in Adam-ondi-Ahman, they learned that no one on either side of the fight at Gallatin had died. Relieved, Joseph and his company stayed the night with Lyman Wight.
The next morning, Lyman and an armed band of Saints rode out to the home of Adam Black, the local justice of the peace. Rumors claimed that Adam was rallying a mob to come after the Saints. Lyman wanted him to sign a statement saying that he would guarantee fair treatment of the Saints in Daviess County, but Adam refused.
Later that day, Joseph and more than a hundred Saints returned to Adam’s cabin. Sampson Avard, a leader of the Danites in Far West, took three of his men into the house and tried to force the justice of the peace to sign the statement. Adam again refused, demanding to see Joseph. At that point the prophet joined the negotiations and settled the matter peacefully, agreeing to let the justice write up and sign his own statement.14
But the peace did not last long. Soon after the meeting, Adam demanded that Joseph and Lyman be arrested for surrounding his cabin with an armed force and intimidating him. Joseph avoided arrest by asking to be tried in his home county of Caldwell rather than Daviess, where so many of the citizens were outraged at the Saints.15
People throughout northern Missouri, meanwhile, called meetings to discuss the reports from Gallatin and the rising numbers of Saints settling among them. Small mobs vandalized church members’ homes and barns in Daviess County and targeted Latter-day Saint settlements nearby.16
To calm tensions, Joseph returned to Daviess County in early September to answer the charges against him. During the hearing, Adam admitted that Joseph had not forced him to sign the statement. Even so, the judge ordered the prophet to return in two months for a trial.17
The Saints had some allies in the Missouri government, and soon the state militia was mustered to disperse vigilante groups. But people in and around Daviess County were still set on driving the Saints from their borders.
“The persecutors of the Saints,” Joseph wrote to a friend, “are not asleep in Missouri.”18
On the last day of August, Phebe and Wilford Woodruff rode along a white sandy beach not far from her parents’ house in Maine. It was low tide. Waves rolled in from the Atlantic Ocean and crashed on the shoreline. In the distance, not far from the horizon, ships passed silently by, their heavy canvas sails billowing in the breeze. A flock of birds circled overhead and alighted on the water.
Halting her horse, Phebe dismounted and collected seashells that lay scattered in the sand. She wanted to take them with her as a keepsake when she and Wilford moved west to Zion. Phebe had lived near the ocean for most of her life, and shells were part of the landscape of home.19
Since his call to the Quorum of the Twelve, Wilford had been anxious to get to Missouri. His recent visit to the Fox Islands had lasted only long enough to urge the small group of Saints to go with him and Phebe to Zion. He returned to the mainland disappointed. Some members of the branch had agreed to go with them. Others—including Justus and Betsy Eames, the first people baptized on the islands—were staying behind.
“They will all see their folly when it is too late,” Wilford said.20
But Phebe was not especially eager to go, either. She had loved living with her parents again. Their home was comfortable, warm, and familiar. If she stayed in Maine, she would never be far from family and friends.21 Missouri, on the other hand, was fifteen hundred miles away. If she left, she might not see her family again. Was she ready to make that sacrifice?
Phebe confided her feelings to Wilford. He was sympathetic to her anxiety about leaving family, but he did not share her attachment to home. He knew, as she did, that Zion was a place of safety and protection.
“I would go to the land of Zion or wherever God sent me,” he noted in his journal, “if I had to forsake as many fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters as could stand between Maine and Missouri—and subsist upon boiled herbs on the way.”22
Through September, Phebe and Wilford waited for the Fox Islands branch to come to the mainland and start their journey west. But as each day passed and the branch members did not appear, Wilford became impatient. It was getting late in the year. The longer they delayed their journey, the more likely they were to encounter bad weather on the road.
Other circumstances were making Phebe more hesitant to leave. Their daughter, Sarah Emma, had come down with a severe cough, and Phebe wondered if it was wise to take her on such a long journey in cold weather.23 Then an exaggerated report of the election-day brawl in faraway Daviess County appeared in the local newspaper. The news startled everyone.
“It will not do to go,” neighbors told Phebe and Wilford. “You will be killed.”24
A few days later, about fifty Fox Islands Saints arrived, ready to journey to Zion. Phebe knew it was time to leave, that Wilford had to join the Twelve in Missouri. But she felt the strong pull of home and family. The road to Missouri would be hard, and Sarah Emma’s health was still frail. And there was no guarantee that they would be safe from mobs once they arrived in their new home.
Still, Phebe believed in the gathering. She had left home to follow the Lord before, and she was willing to do it again. When she said goodbye to her parents, she felt like Ruth in the Old Testament, forsaking home and family for her faith.
As hard as it was to leave, she placed her trust in God and climbed into the wagon.25
In late September, twenty-one-year-old Charles Hales arrived with a company of Canadian Saints in De Witt, Missouri. One of thousands answering the call to gather to Zion, he had left Toronto with his parents and siblings earlier that year. De Witt was seventy miles southeast of Far West and provided wagon trains a place to rest and resupply before pushing on to Caldwell County.26
But when Charles arrived, the town was under siege. About four hundred Saints lived in De Witt, and neighbors in and around the settlement were pressuring them to move out of the area, insisting they go by October 1 or face expulsion. George Hinkle, the leader of the Saints in De Witt, refused to leave. He said the Saints would stay and fight for their right to live there.27
Feeding tensions in De Witt were rumors that Danites were preparing to wage war against the Missourians. Many citizens had begun to mobilize against the Saints and were now camped on the outskirts of De Witt, ready to attack the town at any moment. The Saints had sent an appeal to Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs for protection.28
Most of the Canadian Saints pushed on to Far West, anxious to avoid conflict, but George asked Charles to stay and defend De Witt against mobs. As a farmer and musician, Charles was more accustomed to a plow or trombone than a gun. But George needed men to build up fortifications around De Witt and prepare for battle.29
On October 2, the day after the Saints’ deadline to abandon the settlement, the mob started shooting at them. At first, the Saints did not return fire. But after two days, Charles and some two dozen Saints took positions along their fortifications and fired back, wounding one man.
The mob charged the fortifications, sending Charles and the others scrambling for cover in some log homes nearby.30 The mob blocked roads going into De Witt, cutting the Saints off from food and other supplies.
Two nights later, on October 6, Joseph and Hyrum Smith slipped into town with Lyman Wight and a small band of armed men. They found the Saints nearly out of food and other provisions. Unless the siege ended soon, hunger and sickness would weaken the Saints before the mob had to fire another shot.31
Lyman was ready to defend De Witt to the end, but after Joseph saw how desperate the situation was, he wanted to broker a peaceful solution.32 He was sure that if any Missourians were killed in the siege, mobs would descend on the town and wipe the Saints out.
Joseph sent a plea for Governor Boggs’s help, enlisting a friendly Missourian to carry the appeal. The messenger returned four days later with news that the governor would not defend the Saints against attacks. Boggs insisted the conflict was between them and the mob.
“They must fight it out,” he said.33
With enemies assembling in nearly every nearby county, and the Saints receiving no reliable support from the state militia, Joseph knew he had to end the siege. He hated to give in to the mob, but the Saints in De Witt were exhausted and desperately outnumbered. Defending the settlement further could be a fatal mistake. Reluctantly, he decided it was time to abandon De Witt and retreat to Far West.
On the morning of October 11, the Saints loaded up what little property they could carry in wagons and set out across the prairie.34 Charles wanted to go with them, but another Canadian Saint, who was not yet ready to leave, asked him to stay behind and help him. Charles agreed, expecting that he and his friend would quickly be able to catch up with the rest of the Saints.
But after they finally slipped out of town, his friend turned back when his horse gave out. Unwilling to stay any longer in hostile territory, Charles set off alone and on foot over the unfamiliar prairie. He headed northwest, in the direction of Caldwell County, with only a vague idea of where he was going.35
On October 15, a few days after the De Witt Saints arrived in Far West, Joseph called together every man in town. Hundreds of Saints had retreated to Far West, fleeing mob activities across northern Missouri. Many of them now lived in wagons or tents scattered throughout the town. The weather had turned cold, and the Saints were cramped and miserable.36
Joseph could see the situation was spiraling out of control. He was getting reports that their enemies were gathering from all directions. When mobs had attacked them in Jackson and Clay counties, the Saints had tried to bear it meekly, retreating from conflicts and relying on lawyers and judges to restore their rights. But where had it gotten them? He was tired of the abuse, and he wanted to take a bolder stand against their enemies. The Saints were out of options.
“We have tried long enough,” Joseph cried out to the men around him. “Who is so big a fool as to cry, ‘The law! The law!’ when it is always administered against us and never in our favor?”
Years of stolen land and unpunished crimes against the Saints had left him with little trust in politicians and lawyers, and the governor’s unwillingness to help the Saints only reinforced that view. “We will take our affairs into our own hands and manage for ourselves,” Joseph said. “We have applied to the governor, and he will do nothing for us. The militia of the county we have tried, and they will do nothing.”
He believed the state itself was no better than a mob. “We have yielded to the mob in De Witt,” he said, “and now they are preparing to strike a blow in Daviess.” He refused to let anything else be taken from the Saints.37
They would defend themselves, the prophet declared, or die in the attempt.38