“You fell victim to one of the classic blunders: Never get involved in a land war in Missouri!”
— Thomas B. Marsh, President of the Twelve (paraphrased quite roughly)
In the first century of American independence, 1776-1876, the United States expanded from a (baker’s) dozen colonies huddled along the eastern seaboard to a federation of thirty-eight states spanning the continent. The reality on the ground was even more impressive than the changes to the map. Maps, after all, had long since covered the continent with European claims. But while the 18th century New France (that filled maps between Montreal and New Orleans) was largely ephemeral, the U.S. from Ohio to the Pacific in 1876 was comprehensively surveyed, systematically divided into 160-acre square sections, and thoroughly settled.
It’s hard to overstate the importance cheap land played in fueling this remarkable transformation. Land appropriated by the federal government from unwilling natives and sold to settlers for scant dollars an acre was the essential ingredient. But there was much more to the recipe. The brilliance of the system was its ability to self-replicate, not just at the state level (where new sovereign states west of the Appalachians took their place as equals to the original colonies), but also at the county level. As new territory was opened to settlement, western counties that replicated the structure of eastern counties were organized and settlers moved in and assumed positions in the new county structure. Essentially, settlement was built on a franchise model. As long as the frontier expanded, young and ambitious men had the ability to move west and become the local “franchisees” for the U.S. county in their new area.
The early Mormon experience can hardly be understood divorced from this context. The Mormon desire to build up Zion (“on this, the American continent”) resembled the desire of most Americans leaders on the frontier to build up their own town and county franchises. Although inspired by the prophecies of Ezekiel and John, the plats for the Mormon city of Zion closely resembled the plats for all American cities — grids which applied rectangular perfection upon the landscape, quite without regard to hills or ravines. And, as with their secular American counterparts, Mormon zionic experiments worked best when fuelled by the presence of cheap land. In the 1831-37 period, building up Zion in Kirtland was problematic because the local county franchise was already well established. Improved land cost $20 per acre or more and the Saints gathering to Ohio incurred massive debts to acquire it. In Missouri, by contrast, virgin land could be bought from the government for $1.25 per acre, and then improved by personal labor for substantial profit. The economic reality meant that more Mormons gathered to Missouri in the 1830s than to Ohio, despite the fact that church headquarters, the prophet, and the temple were all in Ohio, and despite the fact that opposition to the Saints in Missouri was much more violent, much earlier.
Land was the leaven and the local franchise was the dough, but any market system produces winners and losers. Nearly anyone could improve their $1.25 per acre homestead to a viable $20 per acre farm given enough of their own time and sweat. But if your ambitions were a little higher, much greater fortunes could be made if your land could be platted as a town and the lots subdivided and sold individually. In theory, your $1.25 per acre investment could return $1,000 per acre or more. Thus, the stakes were real.
When the church in Kirtland collapsed amid its many debts in 1837, Joseph Smith and other church leaders moved to Missouri and took direct control of the church there. Although the Missouri Saints had been unable to return to the lands in Jackson County since their expulsion in 1833, they had negotiated a compromise, whereby the state of Missouri gave them their own county, Caldwell County, in 1836. This was not a legal agreement — no law made Caldwell Mormon — but it was an understanding that kept the peace. Moreover, it gave Mormons a considerable degree of autonomy. They owned the local county franchise. This gave them the power of self-government, from their own militia, to their own justices, their own schools, and their own representatives to the state legislature. Indeed, the much vaunted (and much misinterpreted) later Nauvoo charter hardly did more than give the city of Nauvoo the same power that a normal county, like Caldwell County, enjoyed.
Of course, in 1838 (unlike 1840), Joseph Smith didn’t have the counsel of someone as experienced as John C. Bennett to explain that reality. Instead of consolidating the Saints’ power base, the First Presidency immediately abrogated the agreements of Missouri church leaders and began to expand outside of Caldwell County. The two major thrusts were the towns of Adam-ondi-Ahman in Daviess County and DeWitt in Carroll County. Adam-ondi-Ahman, founded by Joseph Smith on June 25, 1838, was perfectly sited at the center of Daviess County. Had the town survived, it surely would have eclipsed Gallatin as county seat. If Adam-ondi-Ahman controlled the county franchise, the owners of lots in the Mormon town would have become winners, while the non-Mormon losers would hold title to worthless lots in the abandoned plat of Gallatin.
In a recent article in BYU Studies, Jeffrey N. Walker has shown that timing was everything in the Daviess County conflict.* Walker illustrates that the enemies of the Saints were aware of (and profited because of) an important deadline. In the bulk of Daviess County, federal lands were to be auctioned on November 12, 1838. Anyone who settled the land prior to the auction had a preemption right — essentially, they were able to squat on land, improve its value to $20 or more per acre, and still buy it from the government on November 12 for the minimum price of $1.25 per acre. However, because of the events of the Mormon Missouri War, Mormons were ultimately prevented from buying the lands they had settled and improved in Daviess County. Walker shows that these valuable lands were instead bought by enemies of the Saints for the same undervalued price of $1.25 per acre.
Walker has consequently (and I think convincingly) argued that the motivation for dispossessing the Saints was economic. Mormons weren’t persecuted because of their religion, they were robbed to make a buck. Land was in question and land was everything.
But what Walker fails to mention is that the Mormons were also aware of the auction deadline when they moved into Daviess County. And long before the Mormons were driven from the county and prevented from exercising their own preemption rights, the Mormons acted on their knowledge of the looming deadline by attempting to acquire the preemption rights of their enemies. Crossing the county border on October 15, 1838, the Mormon militia from Caldwell County illegally entered Daviess County and thus became a “mob.” The Mormons subsequently sacked and burned to the ground the non-Mormon settlements of Grindstone Fork, Millport, and Splawn’s Ridge, along with the county seat of Gallatin. By the end of October (well before the November 12 deadline), Mormon mobs succeeded in driving all the non-Mormon settlers from Daviess County.
Of course, this victory for the Saints was temporary. However much the tactical actions of the Mormon mobs in Daviess County in 1838 paralleled the actions of the non-Mormon mobs in Jackson County in 1833, the fundamental strategic reality couldn’t have been any more different. The Jackson County Mormons may have had no one to call upon for support other than their distant coreligionists in Kirtland, but the Daviess County non-Mormons had an entire state (including an extremely sympathetic governor) to call upon for aid. As apostles Thomas B. Marsh and Orson Hyde, who witnessed Mormon mob activity in Daviess County, quickly realized, church leaders had fallen victim to one of the classic blunders. The Mormons had gotten themselves involved in a land war in Missouri. And once started, the war was one they quickly lost.
* Jeffrey N. Walker, “Mormon Land Rights in Caldwell and Daviess Counties and the Mormon Conflict of 1838: New Findings and New Understandings,” BYU Studies 47:1 (2008), 4-56.