29 God and Liberty

“God and Liberty,” chapter 29 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)

Chapter 29: “God and Liberty”

Chapter 29

God and Liberty

Cabin Burning

After the fall of De Witt, the men who laid siege to the town headed north to Adam-ondi-Ahman. In neighboring counties, other mobs began forming to attack Far West and the settlements along Shoal Creek, vowing to drive the Saints from Daviess to Caldwell County, and from Caldwell to hell.1 General Alexander Doniphan, an officer in the state militia who had provided legal help to the church in the past, strongly encouraged the Caldwell County militia, an official unit of the state militia composed mainly of Latter-day Saints, to defend their communities against enemy forces.

Knowing the Saints in Daviess County were in grave danger, Joseph and Sidney ordered the Caldwell County militia and other armed men to Adam-ondi-Ahman. Mounting horses, Joseph and Hyrum rode north with the group.2

On October 16, 1838, as the troops set up camp outside Adam-ondi-Ahman, a heavy snowfall blanketed the county. Downriver, Agnes Smith was settling in for the night. Agnes was married to Joseph’s youngest brother, Don Carlos, who was away. Aside from her two small daughters, she was alone in the house.

Sometime before midnight, a group of men broke into her house and surrounded her. Terrified, Agnes gathered up her daughters as the mob drove them out into the snow at gunpoint.

Without coats or blankets to keep them warm, Agnes and the girls huddled together as the men set fire to the house. The blaze spread quickly, throwing heavy black smoke into the night sky. Everything Agnes owned was soon engulfed in flames.

Agnes knew she had to flee. The safest place to go was Adam-ondi-Ahman, only three miles away, but it was dark, the snow was ankle-deep, and her girls were not old enough to walk far on their own. The journey would take hours, but what choice did she have? She could not stay at home.

Holding a daughter on each hip, Agnes trudged west as the mob drove more Saints into the snow and set fire to their houses. Her feet became wet and numb with cold, and her arms and back ached from carrying her children.

Soon she came to an icy stream stretching for miles in both directions. The water was deep, but not too deep to wade across. Getting wet was dangerous in weather this cold, but help was only a few miles away. Fording it was her only option if she wanted to get her daughters to safety.

Lifting the girls higher, Agnes waded into the creek until the current closed in around her and she was waist-deep in the water.3

Sometime in the early morning of October 17, Agnes and her daughters staggered into Adam-ondi-Ahman, desperately cold and weary. Other victims of the attack arrived in similar distress. Many of them were women and children wearing little more than their nightclothes. They said the mob had chased them off their land, torched their homes, and scattered their cattle, horses, and sheep.4

The sight of the refugees horrified Joseph. In his Fourth of July speech, Sidney had said the Saints would not go on the offensive. But if their enemies went unchecked, what had happened to the Saints in De Witt could happen in Adam-ondi-Ahman.

Hoping to weaken the mobs and bring a rapid end to the conflict, the Saints decided to march on nearby settlements that supported and equipped their enemies. Dividing their men into four units, church and militia leaders ordered raids on Gallatin and two other settlements. The fourth unit would patrol the surrounding area on foot.5

The next morning, October 18, was shrouded in fog. David Patten rode out of Adam-ondi-Ahman with a hundred armed men, bound for Gallatin.6 When they arrived in town, the men found it empty except for some stragglers who fled as the men approached.

Once the streets were clear, the men broke into the general store and filled their arms with goods and supplies the refugee Saints needed in Adam-ondi-Ahman. Several men emerged from the store with heavy crates and barrels, which they hefted onto wagons they had brought with them. When the shelves were empty, the men went into other shops and dwellings, taking quilts, bedding, coats, and clothing.

The raid lasted several hours. Once they packed away all they could carry, the men torched the store and other buildings and rode out of town.7

From the top of the hill overlooking Adam-ondi-Ahman, Saints could see a distant ribbon of smoke curling into the sky over Gallatin.8 Thomas Marsh, who had come to the settlement with the militia, dreaded such signs of conflict, certain the raids would turn the state government against the church and cause innocent people to suffer. Thomas believed Joseph and Sidney had exaggerated the threat of mob attacks in their fiery speeches and sermons. Even when the battered refugees had poured into the settlement, he had refused to believe that the attacks on their homes were anything but isolated incidents.

Thomas rarely agreed with Joseph anymore. The previous year, when he had gone to Kirtland to prepare the apostles for the mission to England, Thomas had been disappointed to learn that the mission had started without him. The Lord counseled him to be humble and not rebel against the prophet. Yet he had continued to question the success of the British mission, and he doubted it would thrive without his leadership.

Later, after moving to Missouri, his wife, Elizabeth, had argued with another woman over an agreement they had made to exchange milk for cheese-making. After the bishop and high council heard the case and ruled against Elizabeth, Thomas had appealed the case to Joseph and the First Presidency. They too had decided against her.9

The incident had bruised Thomas’s pride, and he struggled to hide his resentment. He grew angry, and he wanted everyone else to be angry. Twice already Joseph had asked him if he was going to fall away. “When you see me leave the church,” Thomas had replied, “you will see a good fellow leave.”10

It was not long before he saw only the worst in the prophet. He blamed Joseph for the crisis in Missouri and found fault with his response to the violence. He also knew others who felt the same way, including fellow apostle Orson Hyde, whose faith had faltered again after returning from England.11

Shortly after the raiding parties returned to Adam-ondi-Ahman, reports arrived that mobs were closing in on Far West. Alarmed, the Saints’ forces hurried back to Caldwell County to protect the town and their families.12

Thomas returned with them, but not to defend the town. Instead, he packed his belongings and left Far West under the cover of night. He believed divine punishment was about to rain down on Joseph and the Saints who followed him. If the mob or the government leveled Far West, he thought, it was because God willed it to happen.13

Traveling south, Thomas wanted to get far away from Missouri. But before he left the state, he had a document to write.14

As raiding and fighting raged across northern Missouri, Charles Hales was lost. After leaving De Witt, he had roamed the prairie, unsure if the road he was on led to Far West. Weeks had passed since he had last seen his family. He had no way of knowing if they had made it to Far West, nor if they were safe from mobs.

The best he could do was keep moving, avoid any direct confrontations, and hope he found someone who could point him in the right direction.

One evening he saw a man harvesting corn in a cultivated field. It looked like the man was alone and unarmed. If he was unsympathetic or hostile to the Saints, the worst he could do was chase Charles off his property. But if he turned out to be friendly, he might offer a place to sleep and something to eat.

Approaching the farmer, Charles asked if he could shelter him for the night. The farmer did not answer the question but instead asked if Charles was a “Mormon.”

Knowing it could cost him a meal and a warm place to sleep, Charles said he was. The farmer then said he had nothing to offer him and told him he was a long way from Far West.

“I am a perfect stranger in the county,” Charles told the farmer. He said he had lost his way and could not walk any farther. His feet were blistered and sore. It was sunset, and he had another cold night on the prairie ahead of him.

The farmer appeared to take pity on him. He told Charles that some men had stayed at his house during the siege of De Witt. They belonged to the mob and had made him swear never to let a Latter-day Saint stay with him.

But he then told Charles where he could find shelter nearby and gave him directions to Far West. It was not much, but it was all he could offer.

Charles thanked the man and set off again in the fading light.15

On the night of October 24, Drusilla Hendricks peered fearfully out the window of her home in Caldwell County. In nearby Far West, the Saints were on the alert. Their raids in Daviess County had caused many of their allies in the Missouri militia to turn against them and blame them for the whole conflict.16 Now, a few miles to the south of Drusilla’s house, a mob had started setting wildfires, turning the prairie black with smoke.17

With uncertainty in the air, Drusilla and her husband, James, prepared to abandon their house and flee to Far West. Knowing food might be scarce in the coming weeks, they picked and shredded cabbage from their garden and layered it with salt to make sauerkraut.

They worked well into the night. Around ten o’clock, Drusilla and James went into the yard to find a stone to weigh down the cabbages and keep them submerged in the brine. Walking behind James, Drusilla could see his tall form clearly in the dim moonlight. She was struck by how tall he was—and startled when the thought came to her that she might never see him stand so tall again.

Later, after the work was finished and Drusilla and James had gone to bed, their neighbor, Charles Rich, knocked at the door. The mob had attacked settlements to the south, he reported. Families of Saints had been driven from their homes, and two or three men had been beaten and taken prisoner. He and David Patten were now organizing a rescue party to take them back.

Drusilla arose and lit a fire while James fetched his horse. She then grabbed James’s pistols and placed them in the pockets of his coat. When he returned, she picked up his sword and carefully fastened it to his waist. Donning his overcoat, James said goodbye and climbed on his horse. Drusilla then handed another gun up to him.

“Don’t get shot in the back,” she said.18

Almost as soon as Charles Hales stumbled into Far West, he was asked to join the rescue party. Although he was exhausted and footsore, Charles borrowed a horse and gun and set off with forty other men.19

They rode south, gathering men from outlying settlements until their force numbered around seventy-five. The prisoners were being held in a camp along the Crooked River, twelve miles from Far West. Among the men riding with Charles was Parley Pratt, the apostle who had baptized him in Canada.

The night was dark and solemn. The only noises they heard were the rumble of hooves and the clanking of weapons in their scabbards and holsters. In the distance, they could see the glow of prairie fires. Now and then a meteor flashed overhead.20

The men arrived at the Crooked River before dawn. As they neared the enemy camp, they dismounted and formed into companies. “Trust in the Lord for victory,” David Patten said once they assembled. He ordered them to follow him to the ford on the river.21

Charles and the other men marched silently up a low hill until they could see campfires along the river. Cresting the hill, they heard the sharp voice of a sentry: “Who comes there?”

“Friends,” said David.

“Are you armed?” asked the sentry.

“We are.”

“Then lay down your arms.”

“Come and get them.”22

“Lay them down!”

In the confusion that followed, the sentry fired at the Saints, and a young man standing near Charles doubled over as the bullet struck his torso. The sentry retreated instantly, scrambling down the hill.23

“Fight for liberty,” David shouted. “Charge, boys!”

Charles and the men raced down the hill and formed lines along a road and behind a row of trees and hazel brush. Below them, men in the camp were rushing from their tents and taking cover along the riverbank. Before the rescue party could fire a volley at the camp, they heard the enemy captain cry out, “Boys, let them have it!”24

Enemy fire whistled harmlessly over Charles’s head, but James Hendricks, who had taken a position along the road, took a bullet to the neck and slumped to the ground.25

“Fire!” David Patten cried, and the morning erupted with gunshots.

As men from both sides reloaded their weapons, an eerie quiet rested on the battlefield. Charles Rich cried out, “God and liberty!” and the Saints echoed him again and again until David Patten ordered another charge.

The Saints stormed down the hill as the Missourians fired another round before retreating across the river. As he charged, David caught sight of a stray man and chased after him. The man spun around and, glimpsing David’s white coat, fired point-blank at the apostle. The ball tore through his abdomen and he fell.26

With the Missourians scattered, the skirmish was over. A member of the camp and one of the Saints lay dead on the field. David Patten and one other Saint were dying.27 James Hendricks was still conscious, but he could not feel anything below his neck.28

Charles Hales and most of the men in the party were unhurt or had only minor injuries. They searched the enemy camp and found the captured Saints. They then carried James and David up the hill to a wagon with the rest of the wounded.

By sunrise, the Saints were back on their horses, riding north to Far West.29

Exaggerated reports of the skirmish at the Crooked River arrived at the desk of Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs soon after the fighting ended. Some reports claimed the Saints had massacred fifty Missourians in the fight. Others said the death toll was closer to sixty. With so many rumors spreading about the battle, Boggs had no way of knowing what had actually happened.

In times of frontier conflict, hastily organized militias often looked and acted like lawless vigilantes. That morning, the Saints had attacked not a mob, as they had supposed, but a company of Missouri state militia. And that was considered insurrection against the state.30

A longtime resident of Independence, Boggs had supported the Saints’ expulsion from Jackson County and had no desire to protect their rights. Yet he had stayed neutral in the fight so far, even when both sides begged for his help.31 As reports of Latter-day Saint aggression spread, citizens across the state wrote him, urging action against the Saints.

Among the letters and statements that crossed the governor’s desk was an affidavit from a church apostle, Thomas Marsh, claiming that Joseph intended to overrun the state, the nation, and ultimately the world.

“It is believed by every true Mormon that Smith’s prophecies are superior to the law of the land,” Thomas warned.32 Attached to the affidavit was a statement from Orson Hyde attesting to its truth.33

The documents gave Boggs everything he needed to make a case against the Saints. Soon after the confrontation at the Crooked River, he ordered several divisions of Missouri militiamen to quell the Latter-day Saint forces and bring the Saints into submission. He also issued an executive order to the general in charge of the First Division of Missouri troops.

“Information of the most appalling character,” the governor wrote on October 27, 1838, “places the Mormons in the attitude of an open and avowed defiance of the laws and of having made war upon the people of this state. Your orders are therefore to hasten your operations with all possible speed. The Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state.”34