As we mentioned before, the Danites were initially aimed at dissenters within Mormonism. When did they turn outward toward Missouri troubles? Historian Steve LeSueur answers that question.
Missourians Worry about Danites
Steve: On the one hand, although we can’t pinpoint, for sure, “Well, this is the point.” In August, at the Gallatin Election Battle, as we call it, that’s where the Danites, in Daviess County, come together to fight the Missourians. There was a man by the name of William Peniston, who was running for office. He was a Whig running for a state representative. He wanted the Mormons vote. He campaigned heavily among the Mormons to get their vote. I think the Mormons maybe had about a third of the votes in in Daviess County, so, it was important to get them. But the Mormons were by and large Democrats. So, they weren’t going to support him. Once he figured that out, that he wasn’t going to get it, he and some of his supporters went to Gallatin and tried to stop the Mormons from voting there.
GT: Because, they were supposed to stay in Caldwell County.
Steve: Yes. I’m sure he would have been fine with the Mormons staying in Daviess, had they voted for him. I mean, that’s my opinion.
Steve: The sticking point, at least for him, right then, was, he wasn’t getting their votes.
GT: So, “I don’t want you voting for my opponent.”
Steve: In any case, before the vote started, and it appears that they had a voting booth, a building they went into. They probably went in and by voice vote, just said who they were going to vote for. So, before the poll opened, he liberally passed out the drinks to his supporters and then started bullying one of the Mormons, or one of his supporters did. When a couple of Mormons tried to step in, then more Missourians started clubbing them and then John Butler, seeing this, gave the Danites’ signal of distress and recognition and said, “Come on Danites. I’ve got a job for you.” John D. Lee, who was there, a Danite, said he didn’t know who John Butler was, but he recognized the Danite signal of distress there. And all of a sudden, all of these Mormons converged and, although they were outnumbered, were able to essentially hold their own and drive the non-Mormon brawlers from the field.
Many faithful LDS scholars have tried to distance Joseph Smith from the Danite raids that took place in Missouri. But how responsible was Joseph for Danite actions in Missouri? Historian Steve LeSueur answers.
Was Joseph Responsible for Danites?
GT: Tell us what you think about Joseph Smith’s involvement with the Danites was?
Steve: Well, one of the questions is, to what extent might he have been directing them or telling them what to do, or creating their the rules and laws? We don’t know. We don’t have any evidence that he was directly in those meetings telling him to do this or that. We just know that the things they did, he endorsed or approved of, and didn’t seem to take issue with. Except, there was one thing that some historians, now–I know, Alex has pointed out, and another historian by the name of Neymar. I can’t remember his first name. He has written about Avard and the Danites.
Steve: They have pointed this out, which is, that after the Gallatin Election Battle, the Danites organized in Far West and rode to Adam-ondi-Ahman, because they had heard that two Mormons had been killed and the Missourians wouldn’t let them be buried. So, they rode up thinking there were problems. Joseph rode with them. Now, several accounts say Joseph was the leader of this group, that he led them up. He was, obviously, with them. If you know Joseph Smith, some people [say,] “Well, he was just along for the ride.” Well, Joseph is never just along for the ride. I mean, Joseph is the leader of the Mormons, but they organized under the Danite generals, they rode up there to Adam-ondi-Ahman and they discovered that nobody had been killed. But there had been this brawl, and so they decided they would go visit Adam Black, who was one of the newly elected justices. They’d heard that he had been opposed to the Mormons, and they wanted to make sure that he would enforce the law and not be prejudiced against the Mormons.
Steve: So, they sent a group of Danite leaders to visit him, and they wanted him to sign a statement, saying that he would rule fairly in Daviess County. He was outraged, saying, “You have no right to come in and threaten me to do this. I’m a justice, I’ll be fair, but, this is outrageous.” They couldn’t get him to sign, despite threats from Avard and perhaps the others as well.
Steve: So, they left, and then they came back with Joseph and about 100 other Mormons. They surrounded the house, though Joseph said they were just there to water their horses, that Adam Black, apparently, had better water on his property than they had in the Grand River and around Adam-ondi-Ahman, at least that’s what they said. So, a whole company of Mormons now surrounds Black’s house, and he still won’t sign the paper. So, they say, “Well, would you like to talk to Joseph Smith?”
So, Joseph comes into the house, and Joseph is very nice. He said, “Well, listen. We’ve had trouble with mobbers, people. My people are upset. They would really like it if you’d sign this document. It would just make them feel a lot better.”
Black was still pretty mad, and, apparently, he said, “Well, this guy, here, Avard, he’s threatening to kill me or cut my throat or something.” And Black asks Joseph, “Is that what you’re like?”
Joseph says, “No, no, no. I don’t agree to any kind of that rough stuff. That’s not my nature. We’d really like you to sign this statement that we have.” Finally, Black says, “Well, I’ll write one of my own.” So, he writes his own statement to the effect of, “I, Adam Black, will not form a mob,” or come against them.” I can’t remember exactly what he said. But he signed his own statement, and everybody left. So, that was that. Then, after that, the Daviess County Missourians, including Adam Black, went to Richmond and filed statements that the Mormons were threatening. That contributed to the animosity against the Mormons.
Steve: Now, back to your question: who’s to blame? You were asking me earlier who was to blame? Well, the Missourians are to blame, for wanting the Mormons to leave, but incidents like this didn’t help. But now I’m answering your question regarding Joseph Smith’s, leadership and the Danites. So, he’s up there. He was up there with the Danites, but he tells Black, “I’m not going to threaten you. I’m not like him [Avard].” Then, after this, we don’t know when, but sometime after this, Avard is no longer a general in the Danites. He has been, it appears, demoted, and he’s now just a surgeon. He’s been demoted.
GT: The doctors killed more people than they saved sometimes.
Steve: So, in any case now, some historians Alex Baugh, and this other historian, they’ve interpreted this as, Joseph didn’t like Avard’s demeanor. Joseph wasn’t out to threaten people, and so that’s why Avard was demoted. So, it’s said that Joseph had him demoted. So, the question is, who is the leader of the Danites? Is it Avard or is it Joseph? Who demoted Avard?
GT: It wasn’t Avard. (Chuckling)
Steve: No, it wasn’t. Joseph isn’t in these meetings directing every little thing, but it is to Joseph the Danites look for leadership and it’s to him they’re swearing allegiance. If one of them crosses him, then he’s demoted. Earlier, the original leader of the Danites, Jared Carter, he was demoted for criticizing something Sidney Rigdon said. So, again, if the Danites are in charge of themselves, why is Joseph stepping in to demote people? In any case, that is why, in this very indirect way, I say, essentially, Joseph’s in charge in Missouri. He’s not a member of the state militia, but, when the Mormons call out their militia, and especially at the end of the conflict, it’s Joseph they look to. It’s Joseph who calls them out. It’s Joseph they look to for leadership.
 Steve misspoke. It was Jared Carter, not Gideon, who was an early Danite leader.
Apostle David Patten was the first LDS martyr, killed in the Battle of Crooked River trying to rescue LDS hostages from a Missouri militia. Exaggerated reports that Mormons had wiped out an entire Missouri militia were not true but caused Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs to issue the Extermination Order which said that Mormons must be treated as enemies and driven from the state. Historian Steve LeSueur gives more details about these events.
Battle of Crooked River
Steve: While Bogart, who’s really kind of an unprincipled man, he goes beyond his orders and he goes into Caldwell County, as well, and threatens the Mormons there and disarms the Mormons in the southern part of Caldwell County. He captures two of the spies. He knows they’re spies, and he captures them. He captures a third man at the house where they’re staying, and he takes them and there’s some threats of, “Let’s put these guys to death.” So, other spies who watched this happen, ride back to Far West. and say, “All right, they’ve just taken three prisoners and they’re threatening to kill them.” So, that’s when David W. Patten raises his force of men. They ride down to Crooked River, where Bogart is camped. You have the Battle of Crooked River on October 25. Again, the Mormons are going down there to free the prisoners. They’re not going down to attack Richmond. They’re going down to free the prisoners.
Steve: Meanwhile, the evidence from the prisoners is, “Ah, they’re probably going to be let us go.” This is afterwards, but the Mormons didn’t know that. Again, Bogart was not a very principled man. So, the Mormons attack Bogart’s troops at Crooked River to free the three hostages. Three Mormons are killed, one Missourian is killed, but the Mormons drive the Missourians from the ground. The Missourians think they’re wiped out. They scatter. As they’re reporting what happens, it’s like, “I’m the only guy who survived.” But the thing is, that’s what the Mormons thought, too. When you read the accounts of Hosea Stout, and some others, they also thought they just wiped these guys out.
GT: And nobody died. Well, you said one died.
Steve: One died, and there were several injured.
GT: Isn’t this an issue? Was this kind of a ruse to pull the Mormons out? It sounds like you [and Alex disagree.] It seems like, if I remember right, Alex Baugh said that the Missourians had these three Mormon prisoners, and they wanted to draw the Mormons out.
Steve: They were baiting them?
Steve: I don’t think so. No, I think, based on the reports they had, that the were truly afraid of an attack by the Mormons. After all, the Mormons had attacked Daviess County. They had heard from Marsh and Hyde, among other dissenters, that the Mormons had violent, aggressive, intentions. They thought they were just defending against them. They took the spies. They had heard about the spy company. They weren’t supposed to be there, the spies. They had bad intentions. So, yeah, I think they were just operating under their own assumptions of what the Mormons’ intentions were.
GT: So, you’re saying the Missourians, they have these three spies, and then they were just trying to defend the border?
Steve: Yes, yeah. Just to be clear, I think two of them were spies. The third person was at the house where the spies were, and so for whatever reason, they took him as a prisoner, as well.
GT: Okay. Then David Patten attacks and ends up dying in the attack.
Steve: That’s right. Then, these guys scatter, that is, Bogart’s company.
GT: But, the Mormon prisoners are rescued, right?
Steve: Yes. In fact, when the Mormons showed up, Bogart put the men on the front line, apparently, so they’d be shot first, if shooting occurred. One of them was shot and injured, but he recovered and the other two got away.
GT: Like human shields?
Steve: Yes, it’s unclear exactly where he put them, but they were in the front somewhere.
Steve: The Missourians have all sorts of beliefs about the strength of the Mormons. The Mormons can bring a lot of soldiers to bear. They can overwhelm any one county, easily. So, now with this new information about the battle, they send a new dispatch out, begging, telling Boggs about this. So, now Boggs, he’s already heard about Daviess County and he’s calling out the troops because of reported Mormon burning and plundering in Daviess County He’s called out, like 2500 troops. Now, he gets this other dispatch about the Mormons attacking Bogart and apparently threatening the rest of western Missouri. Then, he issues his extermination order. This is why he says something to the effect of, “Now we’ve received even worse news than we thought,” and it puts everything in a new light. So, now the Mormons must be treated as enemies of the state, and exterminated or driven from the state.
GT: What day was that order issued?
Steve: I think it was the 27th.
Sadly this order was a pre-cursor to the Hawn’s Mill Massacre, which we will discuss next week. What are your thoughts on the Missouri period?
Caution: oversimplified explanation below:
It was the Wild West and Mormons were a part of it. They probably didn’t deserve much of the persecution the endured. They probably dished out more violence than was warranted too. I’m not convinced that opposition to the Mormons had much to do with religion per se. But when your religion involves political and commercial alliances you’re going to have enemies. Polygamy didn’t help.
David McCullough”s biography of Harry Truman described the involvement of Truman’s father in Missouri politics a few decades later (John Anderson Truman 1851-1914). Election day was still a contact sport with each team fighting to get its players into the polling place and to keep the other team out.
Polygamy wasn’t an issue in Missouri. Joseph didn’t practice polygamy in Missouri at all.
Missouri was always a powder keg. I heard a story before the Mormons came, that a Missouri mob in Jackson County threw a judge in jail so he wouldn’t interfere in the land auction. It was the wild west even before the Mormons got there.
Rick B: You may be right about polygamy not being a factor in Missouri. I guess I’m uncertain as to when polygamy (or the roots of polygamy) actually began. I know some people here erroneously believe that JS didn’t practice it at all and that it began under Brigham Young. Others believe it started AFTER the sealing power was restored which is obviously incorrect too. Maybe it wasn’t a factor in Missouri. But then again, the Church has always minimized polygamy as a contributing factor in its opposition and it has always exaggerated how much other people care about doctrinal differences. I wonder why other Christian denominations (and there were many) weren’t met with the same level of violent opposition as were the Mormons. You think we got tarred and feathered over our views on the Atonement or 3 kingdoms?
I had the privilege of attending the wedding of someone I trained in my mission in the Kansas City temple about eight years ago. While in town for the festivities, I visited the Liberty Jail site run by the LDS church. I was all in at this time.
It was so refreshing! The sister missionaries were very open and frank that the Saints really blew it in MO. They moved in and essentially told the locals that God wanted them to have the land to build Zion and that God would find a way to give it to them. That didn’t sit too well with the locals clearly. The Mormons were bad neighbors in this regard from day 1. It really was nice to hear these sisters not play the victim card and recognize they were partly to blame for what happened. Of course in the jail replica they did show how horrid the conditions were and I suppose that’s fair. The entire thing felt so balanced to me. If you really stop and think about it, the early saints were bad neighbors everywhere they settled until secluding out west. And you raise a good point that other religions co-existed much better than our pioneer ancestors. That’s an important point.
As to polygamy, it’s so complicated. Did it really start in Kirtland with Fanny Alger for example? Perhaps rumors and gossip about it were part of the equation in MO. Who can say.
Thanks Rick for another great interview. Very insightful.
Yes Chadwick, I agree. I went to Liberty Jail in 2019 I believe, and the missionaries clearly stated the problems and noted Joseph was jailed for treason. It was much better than some LDS sites I’ve been to in the past.
Josh, I encourage you to check the videos so you don’t make errors in your comments. As for polygamy, yes, the Fanny Alger affair has generally been dated to between 1834-36 in Ohio. I think very few historians go with 1834, the majority probably 1835 (even Brian Hales), but others like Don Bradley and Blake Ostler want to put it to after the temple dedication in March/April 1836. The reasons for putting it that late for Don, is that if Fanny was pregnant as Don alleges, the timing of her showing signs of pregnancy and getting thrown out by Emma makes better sense during the summer of 1836, which everyone mostly agrees with Fanny’s move out of Kirtland. So there are good reasons for putting it that late, but Don’s co-author Brian Hales thinks 1835 is more likely. Of course Mark Staker says the sealing power was restored with the Melchizedek priesthood (1829-1831 at the latest) so he says even if we want to go with the 1834 date for Alger, Joseph had the sealing power and the point is moot. So that’s the basic summary of the Ohio period Fanny Alger affair. I don’t want to get lost in those details since they aren’t really pertinent to Missouri, but there’s your quick summary of the Ohio polygamy issues.
So you may ask what were the issues in Missouri, if not polygamy? We mentioned that last week in part 2: slavery and control of county government. In 1832, WW Phelps published an article welcoming free blacks to the state in the article “Free People of Color.” Missouri slavery proponents were as crazy as current gun rights/NRA members and went crazy, destroying the Mormon press, despite Phelps immediate retraction the next day. It didn’t matter. Missouri was a slave state, and they wanted only black slaves here, not free blacks. So that was the first issue. Mormons moving to Jackson County were coming in such numbers that if it continued, it was obvious Mormons (who voted in a bloc) were going to take over county government and maybe impose alchohol restrictions and other Mormon ideas. So yes, this was a big political issue. Imagine if a group of Muslims, or Jews, or Sikhs, or any other religious minority came to your county and got large enough to start electing their members. You’d hear talk of sharia law, etc. and people would complain and get violent to prevent them from taking over government. It’s the same thing.
Joseph didn’t practice polygamy in Missouri at all, so it just wasn’t an issue to Missourians. (It did come up at Oliver Cowdery’s excommunication trial about the “girl business” with Fanny, but Joseph was acquitted of that by LDS Missouri leaders and Oliver was exed.) Joseph didn’t try to take more wives again until he escaped to Nauvoo and set up a government that would protect him. So polygamy was a non-issue in Missouri. The real issues in Missouri were that Mormons were suspected of supporting abolition (they weren’t strict abolitionists, but not really in favor of slavery either), and that Missourians didn’t want Mormons to control any county government except Caldwell County, which was essentially gifted to the Mormons after they were kicked out of Jackson County. When Mormons in other counties (Daviess, Ray, etc) voted, Missourians viewed the act of voting as a threat. Steve and I talk about voting rights in several episodes. So yes, Missouri had some interesting dynamics, but polygamy was not an issue in Missouri. Polygamy wasn’t a big issue until Nauvoo and the Utah period.
Rick B.: thanks for the detail and history.