I’m excited to introduce historian Steve LeSeuer. Back in 1987, Steve wrote an amazing book called The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri. It won the best book award for the Mormon History Association. We’ll get more acquainted with Steve and learn more about his background. I was surprised to find out he was mapping Mormon history sites in Missouri as an undergrad.
Mapping Mormon History
Steve : I was looking for all of the references to Adam’s Altar, because, as you might know, listeners might know, that Lamar Barrett, one of his chief interests was Mormon history, geography, places and, he was interested in all the places in Mormon history and descriptions of them and he has written books.
GT: So, this is non-Book of Mormon geography.
Steve: Yes, this is real history.
Steve: Your listeners will like that, but, anyway, this was real history, and real places. I take that back, it’s real history as much as Adam’s altar, can be real history. But it was, at least the Mormons who settled there thought–they heard Joseph describe some stones as Adam’s Altar. So, we were interested in, “Well, where was this?” The descriptions, themselves, were quite different. Some people remembered, “Oh, yeah, there were these stones, and they were all set up together and in an altar. Others said, “Well, no, they were just scattered stones, but they had once been an altar.” So, the remembrances were quite a bit different, as well as the descriptions of some of the places. But Lamar didn’t care. He was just interested in, “What do we know? What did they say?”
Steve: So, it was a good start. From there, after I was finished with that, Lamar just me on for the whole year doing research in other topics, and including, in the summer, we went out and Lamar rented a BYU station wagon. He and I and Leland Gentry, and Max Parkin and Linden Cook, who was teaching at BYU at the time, and was also interested in Missouri history, the five of us drove out to Missouri. [We] went through the archives and county records and things there, places there, for two weeks doing research on the Missouri period. So, that was my background. After I finished that, I moved to the east. That’s why, when I did my master’s program, and it came time to write a thesis, I thought, “Well, here’s something I know a little bit about, so I’ll write about that.”
Writing the Book
Steve: I went and did my research at various county and libraries in Missouri. Then, in the evening, I’d drive back to Bill [Russell]’s house. [Bill is Community of Christ historian.] He’d get out the popcorn. He had one of those air poppers. He’d make some popcorn, and we’d sit around and talk Mormon history for a couple hours before it was time for bed. I did that for at least a week at his house. It was just a lot of fun.
GT: Bill is a riot. People will love him. I need to get him on my podcast, too. Well, cool. Then, let’s talk a little bit about the movie, before we dive into your book. The movie was called Trouble in Zion. Kenny Ballentine’s a friend of mine. I just kind of happened across him at the LDS Film Festival here in Orem, Utah. Tell us about your role there in the in the movie?
Steve: Well, let’s see. Basically, I answered questions, like I’m doing now. I talked about my book, but also my interpretations of the events there. Hopefully, you’ll give me a chance to talk about some of those. But, in any case, I just talked about my view of what the causes of trouble were, and how the events unfolded as they did. Also, I had a few, and still have a few disagreements with some Mormon historians about interpretation of some of these events.
GT: Right. That’s what we want to talk about. I’ve had Dr. Alex Baugh, who was also in that film. I’ve had him on my podcast. So, I’d like to see where you and he agree and disagree. So, that’ll be a lot of fun.
Steve: Okay. Fun for you, maybe.
GT: (Chuckling) I think fun for my audience, too.
After Joseph Smith declared that the New Jerusalem would be built in Jackson County, Missouri, the saints were kicked out of the county. How much of a role did that play in later hostilities? Historian Steve LeSueur says that things were relatively peaceful between 1834-1838, in large part due to the perceived Caldwell County compromise. But did Mormons really agree to it?
1832 Jackson County
GT: The one thing I noticed about your book is you focus a lot on–what, about 1836-1838 onward? You kind of briefly mentioned what happened in 1832 in Jackson County, Missouri. I think that played a big part in the Mormon reactions, especially in 1838. Do you want to give us a little bit of background on 1832, first, and then we’ll dive in?
Steve: Well, okay. I guess, I’ll just say, briefly, that the Mormons identified Jackson County, Missouri as their place of gathering to create Zion, as in the upcoming last days. After a time, the Jackson County citizens decided, “No, we don’t want the Mormons here and drove them out.” The Mormons did nothing wrong. They tried to obey what the local authorities wanted them to do. One of them, which was, “Alright, both sides, let’s give up your guns.” The Mormons did and the anti-Mormon vigilantes did not, and they got driven out of Jackson County.
Caldwell County Compromise
Steve: So, the crux of the conflict, the sticking point for Missourians, was their belief that the Mormons, in the creation of Caldwell County, the Mormons had agreed only to settle there.
GT: Okay. So, if Caldwell County had been larger, would there have been an issue? Do you think the Mormons would have agreed to stay within that larger County?
Steve: That’s a good question. I don’t know. All of this is somewhat vague or ambiguous, this idea of this agreement, because first of all, I found nothing, no mention of an agreement in any Mormon source whatsoever.
GT: Well, I know Dr. Alex Baugh had mentioned that he viewed it as kind of like an Indian reservation, the Mormon reservation, that this county was for, at least from the Missouri perspective, this county was for Mormons and stay out of everywhere else in the state. Is that a good representation?
Steve: Yes, and I would say yes, though, it was, again, vague in that. At the time, the Mormons were negotiating for Caldwell and that would have included what became Daviess County. Mormons were soon settling in Daviess County. This is John Butler, and later, Lyman Wight. They went up there and the Daviess County citizens, some of them did immediately protest and say, “We don’t want Mormons here. You should leave.” The Mormons didn’t leave. Eventually, it died down. Mormons kept coming and they became integrated, somewhat, into Daviess County. That is, the local store owner in Gallatin, a man named Jacob Stollings, sold them goods on credit, and they got help with their crops. They became great friends with this guy, Josiah Moran, who became a state senator from there. He helped them on a number of occasions. So, they sort of became integrated, and the furor whatever it had been died down. So, they were fine there. My interpretation, or my belief, is that as long as the Mormons largely confined themselves to Caldwell, and they were just sort of scattering in other places, the Missourians seemed to be fine. It was when large-scale settlements started moving into places that the Missourians got nervous. So, that’s why–is it this reservation? They could only settle there, nowhere else? Sort of, but you know…
GT: But, if they kept their numbers small Missourians wouldn’t have said anything. But it was when they started getting big in other counties, that’s when Missourians started to protest.
Steve: Yes. In my book, what I tried to focus on was here we had in the end of 1836, the county is created. For almost a year and a half, 1837 and into 1838, there’s pretty friendly relations between the Mormons and their neighbors. It seems like this compromise of creating Caldwell has solved the problem. The Mormons, you have your own county, and so they there was friendly relations. Just about everybody agrees on that. But the friendly relations sort of rested on this idea that the Mormons will keep themselves, at least largely, to Caldwell County.
GT: I mean, isn’t that a constitutional? I know the Constitution wasn’t viewed the same way as it is today. But wouldn’t that be a constitutional violation of Mormons rights, that they have to stay in one county, and they can’t expand into other places?
Steve: Yeah, absolutely.
GT: But, of course, the Missourians didn’t really care about that. They were like, “We gave you this place. Stay there.”
Steve: Yeah, again, it was a compromise. It was an imperfect one, which is how compromises are. But the idea was, yeah, that this will, hopefully solve the problem. It did, until in March of 1838. Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon come from Kirtland. They’re sort of driven from Kirtland.
Peace in Caldwell County
GT: Well, it’s interesting to me. So, you’re saying that from what? 1834 to March of 1838, was a relatively peaceful time in Missouri. Is that correct?
Steve: I’d say, 1834 to 1836, we often call that the Clay County period. But it was relatively peaceful there until, again, the Mormons started growing in large numbers, and Joseph and the Mormons were going to make another military expedition, and then the Clay County citizens got annoyed and afraid. But, essentially, after Clay County was created…
GT: After Caldwell County.
Steve: Yes, Caldwell County, I’m sorry. It was relatively peaceful. I can say that the Missourians, some of them, helped the Mormons with their crops, sold them goods on credit. It was good business, of course, but any case…
GT: Right. So, 1836 until March of 1838, was relatively peaceful.
Missourians believed the Caldwell County compromise limited Mormons to one county. But did Mormon really agree to that? Is it constitutional?
Following the Kirtland Bank failure in Ohio, Joseph Smith fled Kirtland and came to Missouri. Then things started to fall apart there as well. Historian Steve LeSueur talks about both Missouri vigilante mobs, as well as the Danites, an extra-legal force with at first was designed to keep Mormons in check.
GT: Well, that’s why I want to get my time period right. So, Joseph came to town. The Danites form. [They] kick Oliver, and the Whitmers out, basically. So, at this point, the Danites were only going after former Mormons, like Oliver. Is that right? They weren’t going after Missourians yet.
Steve: Correct. They were strongly encouraging Mormons, so not dissenters, but, they were encouraging all the other Mormons to comply with Joseph’s revelations and directions. So, throughout July, this is what they were doing, this encouraging, which, again, some Mormons felt was a little too strong.
GT: But, this was raising concerns among Missourians.
Steve: Yes, it was starting to. At what point it started to, I don’t think, to my knowledge, not in July.
Steve: Alright, the Danites form. To our knowledge, Joseph has nothing to do with the forming of the Danites. But the question is, does he approve or disapprove of what they did? This is the first thing to look at. As we know, the Danites formed. They drove the dissenters out of Far West. He had no problem with that, and, in fact, this was in June, that they’re driven out. At the Fourth of July celebration in Far West, the Danite generals, Sampson Avard and, I think, Elias Higbee, and maybe another, they sat on the reviewing stand with Joseph Smith, as honored guests. They were identified as Danite generals. The Danites marched in the parade. So, clearly, Joseph approves of who they are and what they’re doing. Some of his most loyal followers joined the Danites, both in Far West and then later in in Adam- ondi-Ahman. So, does Joseph have any reason to disapprove of these people there? They are his loyal followers. They are enforcing orthodoxy. Among the things that the Danites tried to do was to get the Mormons to obey the law of consecration.
Steve: Then, later, in the election, they [the Danites] went to the First Presidency to draw up a list of candidates to vote for and then after the First Presidency chose the list. The Danites went out and distributed the ticket to the Mormons in Caldwell County. So, was Joseph the leader of them, telling them that? To our knowledge, or rather from sources, just about every source agrees that in these early days, it was Sampson Avard, who was the main leader, and that Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, went into one or two meetings, and spoke to them and endorsed what the Danites were doing. So, was he the leader? Well, their purpose was to obey Joseph. Their purpose was to enforce his policies. So, the question of, was he the leader? Did he direct them on everything that they did? Probably not. But he was the person they looked up to and were trying to enforce his policy.
How involved was Joseph with the Danites? We’ll get more into that next week.
One more thing. Mormon History Association meetings are June 2-5 in Logan, Utah. Are you coming? I’d love to meet you because I’ll be there.