Nauvoo is for the Birds!

By David Howlett. Thanks for being our guest at BCC, David!


In early June, I drove to Nauvoo, Illinois to teach an intensive three-week history course to the Community of Christ summer guides at the Joseph Smith Historic Sites. I soon made the acquaintance of an angry resident who lived near Joseph Smith’s Mansion House on Water Street. Walking from my apartment in the William Marks’ residence to the Community of Christ Visitor’s Center, I felt my hair brushed by what I thought was a large insect. To my surprise, I was being buzzed by a rather upset black and red-orange bird. Twice it buzzed me as I walked past its roost in a tree standing in the Mansion House yard. My experience was not unique. As I ventured into the visitor’s center, I found that my feathered pursuer had done the same to every one of the staff who venture to walk past its roost. The bird did not simply pick on lone wanderers like myself; it also attacked tour guests in large groups.

As a scholar-in-training who reads far too much in his subject area, I knew nothing about the species, gender, or protection status of the miscreant bird. However, after consulting the local Community of Christ staff and an online guide to Illinois birds, I found that our culprit was a simple red-winged blackbird–common in every way and considered a pest by some. According to the Illinois Natural Resources Information Network, red-winged blackbird males are extremely territorial and defend their territories “with aggressive defense, using song, displays and chasing, and protected their realms against other species as well.” In addition, the “species [is] polygamous in most cases.” Hmmm…an aggressive, territorial, polygamous male from common roots. Well, this is Nauvoo, after all!

As the weeks passed, the red-winged blackbird became increasingly bold. Things only escalated when an unnamed Community of Christ guide tried to scare the bird off by tossing rocks at it. (This unnamed guide had obviously not consulted the Community of Christ’s mission statement that proclaims, “We promote communities of love, hope, joy, and peace.”) Now the bird’s temper was up. It switched tactics from buzzing guests to hitting them with its body. A few amused guests would whip out their digital cameras and shoot pictures of the bird; others literally ran screaming toward the visitor’s center. Contemplating the bird’s actions, I wondered whether our fiend was seeking a “quest for refuge” or a “quest for empire”? The latter appeared to be true as the male blackbird began harassing guests who not only walked under its tree, but also those who walked on the other side of the street. In one instance, it attacked the father of a Community of Christ employee fifty yards from the Mansion House. The bird’s territorial influence was growing. A few harried guides began driving to work (I kid you not). Something clearly had to be done. As I left Nauvoo in late June to teach in Kirtland, the situation remained unresolved.

I vaguely remember reading a reference given by an LDS general authority that counseled people to “please do not hurt the birdies.” This piece of conservation advice was probably sound in our Nauvoo crisis. According to the same Illinois Natural Resources site as I previously consulted, red-winged blackbirds nest from May to early July; by late summer, they clump together in large groups and by October, they migrate to fairer fields where they can live in peace. In addition, the species is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Despite this protection, apparently Ohio residents eliminate the species from their fields with “shooting patrols and acetylene exploders.” Yikes! Perhaps this management practice is a bit too overzealous. After all, our aggressive fiend was simply our misunderstood friend trying to live out its measure of creation.

As I wrote this entry, I called my friends in Nauvoo to learn the status of our mutual acquaintance. It seems that after I left, the red-winged male found a different tree and then disappeared from sight. No further attacks were reported. Ahhh….so violence, in fact, does not solve all problems. (Take note of that, unnamed, rock-throwing Community of Christ guide!) In a bizarre reprise of sorts, our Nauvoo site director, newly arrived in July from Kirtland, Ohio, has been fending off a pesky barn swallow on his front porch. It seems as if the swallow is given to the same dive-bombing habit. So . . . when you visit Nauvoo, watch out for the birds.

Okay, so this story does not lead to a brilliant insight or question, but I am very interested in how pilgrims experience a sacred site and how they interact with site interpreters. What parts of site interpretation or site presentation has enhanced your visit to a Mormon sacred site (CofC or LDS)? What has been a pesky annoyance (like our feathered friend)? Please don’t worry about offending me. No holds are barred, and you can take your gloves off on this one.


  1. Mark Brown says:


    First, thank you for some well done and thoughtful posts. I appreciate your contributions here. And I find it interesting that you use the word *pilgrim* to describe someone who visits the historical sites. I’d never thought of it in those terms before, but I think you are exactly right.

    I’ve never been attacked by birds at Nauvoo, but I have swatted away mosquitoes that were about the size of birds. And visitors from out west who don’t know what chiggers are would be well advised to stay off the grass.

    For my part, I have had nothing but great experiences with your guides at Kirtland and Nauvoo. My favorite place in Nauvoo is the second floor of the red brick store. For us LDS, that room holds special significance (founding of the RS, temple ordinances, bestowal of priesthood keys upon BY and the 12), and I enjoy a few minutes of solitude there. Every time I’ve visited the store, your people have very courteously allowed me to go upstairs.

    David, what is it like for you to visit a site where the CofC does not have a presence (Liberty, Carthage, Palmyra, Sharon)? Do you leave those places feeling that they are part of your heritage, or not?

  2. David, thanks for the wonderful story. When my wife and I lived in Berkeley, there was a bird near our house who persistently went after my wife — but never anyone else that we were aware of.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve gone to a Mormon historical site. In recent years, it’s mostly been South American sites and U.S. history sites. With South American sites, regarding interpretation and presentation, you’re lucky if you get anything, and you take what you get. There’s more than one “National Museum of Unlabeled Pots” on the continent, unfortunately. With U.S. historical sites, though, I’ve noticed a creeping trend toward what I’d call cartoonish presentation, of which the Abraham Lincoln museum would be a good representative. To commemorate the man, apparently, we need lots of Disney Hall of Presidents-style speaking statues, a film on the eyes of Abraham Lincoln, and so forth. This kind of emphasis on emotion over information irritates me at historical sites, although I understand that making the site into a kind of theme park may be good for business…

  3. Mark Brown says:


    Good point re: Disneyesque presentations. I remember seeing a lifesize figure of Moroni gesture with his hands, move his jaw while speaking, and move his eyes to look at me. Holy cow, it seriously creeped me out. If that had happened to me as a child, I’d have had nightmares for a month.

    Fortunately, the visitor centers that have been recently re-done (Winter Quarters, Independence) have moved away from that. I think the exhibits are now more authentic.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I can’t recall any issues with CoC tour guides, who have been uniformly professional and helpful in their presentations. I do recall when there were some tacky statues of JS ordaining JS III in the red brick store, but I don’t think those have been up for a long time now.

    I do find it a little bit annoying that you can’t tour the CoC sites without first sitting through its film in the visitor’s center. (Or is that not still the case?) That one factor is what sometimes gives me pause in going to those sites. (Similarly I wouldn’t want to be forced to filter through the LDS visitor’s center before touring sites.)

  5. David Howlett says:

    #1–Mark–Yes, I do feel that sites like Palmyra, etc., are also my sacred sites, too. Much like my LDS guests at CofC sites, I do feel a bit of distance between myself and its interpretation, but I also enjoy hearing how a particular site is understood. Whenever I visit an LDS site, there is always an interesting decision to reveal up-front of what faith I am a member and where I work, or just go along and “pass” for LDS. Sometimes when I have done the former, guides have been less into proselyting; I’ve even had LDS guides who tried to point out things that they thought a CofC person wouldbe interested in (such as the place where JS III was born, etc.). On a few rare occasions, I have encountered open hostility by LDS guides, but this was simply an idiosyncracy of that particular guide. People do not always know how to deal with differences, and sometimes hostility is simply masking nervousness, too. In general, though, I have had really positive experiences at LDS sites.

  6. David Howlett says:

    #2–J. Nelson Seawright–It’s interesting that you should mention the Lincoln museum. My colleague, Barb Walden (site director at Kirtland) uses it as an example of new, controversial experiments in museum interpretation. She teaches a really neat course to the guides on museum studies issues, and exhibit issues are among them. Every year in Kirtland, the guides go on field trips to see how other museums in the region use artifacts, preserve sites, and interpret sites.

    Personally, I am not too thrilled by the Lincoln Museum’s high-tech emotive exhibits. They will be outdated in a matter of years, and the budget will not be there to replace them. Like all museums, they will have to live with their permanent exhibit decisions probably for at least a decade. From a pragmatic side, museum exhibitors are trying to draw in the general public with such exhibits (since museum going tends to be perceived as an elitist activity). Budget bottom lines are always part of the museum game. However, these new emotive exhbits just doesn’t do it for me.

  7. David Howlett says:

    #4–Kevin–Thanks for your observation. You bring up a good point, too, about how a group tries to control space and control the interpretation of a space. While Community of Christ generally thinks of its sites as accessible, historically responsible sites, we are really also trying to proselytize with our sites–or perhaps disseminate a discourse would be another way of stating it (the same as proselytizing). Traditionally, we think of proselytizing as one-way discourse, while this is contrasted with dialogue that goes two-ways. However, I see a lot of proselyting going on, too, in dialogue. (For goodness sake, I am trying to do this right now with my point!) So, CofC and LDS both seem to be controlling the discourse of a space and seek to rhetorically persuade others of their view of reality; they simply do it differently and have different views of what is “real”.

  8. David Grua says:

    My first experience with an RLDS historic site was the Kirtland Temple in the mid-1980s. I had just moved to Cleveland with my parents from a small Utah town, and as a 5 year old I had never even heard that there was another church that claimed that JS was a prophet. I remember being fascinated by the architechture of the House of the Lord, although nothing from the guide’s presentation has stuck in my mind. However, I clearly recollect how jarring it was for me to walk up to the upper floor of the Temple and fix my eyes on a row of portraits–Joseph Smith, Jr., Joseph Smith III, Frederick M. Smith, and so on. In my naive 5 year old mind I couldn’t believe that another church had taken my prophet and connected him with men not named Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, etc. My feathers were a bit ruffled, to continue the metaphor. Clearly my perceptions of the CoC “other” have matured over the years, and I no longer feel this crisis of identity when I read old RLDS texts (or new CofC ones). But that traumatic memory from my childhood is engrained into my psyche.

    On a less personal note, David do you have any news on when Haun’s Mill is going to get attention? I heard from Alex Baugh that it should be soon. Additionally, do you foresee the site being interpreted in the same light as Mike Riggs’s 2001 Haun’s Millstone marker, as a result of miscommunication and a feeling of powerlessness on the part of the Missourians in the face of Mormon aggression?

  9. David Howlett says:

    #8–David–Thanks for your story! I am sitting in the CofC Library Archives as I type, so I was able to get an answer to your question from a friend who is also here. John Hamer, the executive director of JWHA, told me that, yes, there is a monument in the works through a cooperative effort between the CofC and Mormon Historic Sites Foundation. The monument has a design and also a text (I assume worked out between all of the parties), but there are a few hold-ups on the project.

    First, the monument really needs to be very solid. Local high school kids in the region like to go to the site , drink, and vandalize anything put up. Since the site is isolated and there can not be a person there 24/7, the monument has to be able to withstand punishment.

    Second, and just as serious, is the issue of the location of important archeological remains at the site. Despite repeated archeological digs at the site, no one knows where the well is located (presumably, it wold contain the bodies of those killed). The last thing one wants to do is build a concrete monument directly over what could be this site without knowing it. So, things are held up a bit while these two issues are resolved.

  10. Mark Brown says:

    Does the CofC actually own that piece of ground on Shoal creek? I always thought it was just some farmer’s corn field.

    I drove out there once and got there right before dark. A carload of local high school age kids was there, and they told me that, among the locals, going to the mill site on Halloween is a kind of scary tradition. The massacre happened on October 30.

  11. David Grua says:

    Thanks for the update. So we may have a repeat of what happened while constructing the Mountain Meadows monument, when the bodies of the victims were found during construction. Luckily, I don’t think we’ll have as much of a controversy at Haun’s Mill as what ensued at Mountain Meadows.

  12. David Howlett says:

    #10–Mark–Yes, the CofC owns the site of Haun’s Mill, though I am not sure how much of the land it owns surrounding the site. Unfortunately, I do not know off-hand when the site was purchased, but it had to have been sometime ago (probably in the 1920s). Perhaps the Mike Riggs’s Far West history site would say?

  13. David Elliott says:

    A couple years ago my wife and I did an LDS Church history bus tour with 35 other “pilgrims”. One of the stops was the Kirtland Temple, where our guide was Lachlan Mackay, the COC historic sites director. His presentation was unusually informative and well-balanced, and he patiently answered a ton of construction-related questions from my wife and me, who both work in the trades. At the conclusion of his remarks, he asked us to join him in singing “The Spirit of God”. A nice inclusionary touch, and easily one of the highlights of the entire trip for us.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    There is a guy working on a documentary on the ongoing relationship and tensions between Mormons and Missourians. He tried to show a clip at Sunstone, but technical difficulties made it not work so well. But one shot that did come across was a really poignant one: a picture of the Haun’s Mill Site Marker, just riddled with bullet holes.

  15. David Grua says:

    Kevin (#14) – Do you know the name of that individual and any way to contact him? I’m writing my thesis on the Missouri persecutions in Mormon memory and would love to talk to him.

  16. My first visit to a church sacred site came this summer when my husband, parents, and I visited the Joseph Smith birthplace in Sharon, VT. My parents aren’t members but agreed to come thinking (as my husband and I did), that it would be an interesting historical site.

    Unfortunately the experience was horrifically cringe inducing. The very nice, senior missionary wife/tour guide asked my parents if they were members. I don’t know if this altered the “tour” any, but the guide spent the rest of the tour bearing her testimony to my parents….”Here are some admiring quotes from 19th century newspapers about Joseph Smith…of course I know that JS was more than just an admirable man, I know he was God’s prophet, and I know he restored the gospel.” “So that is the story of Joseph’s leg operation, I know this story shows the kind of courage that Joseph would need in order to be God’s prophet. “Here is a picture of Joseph and Emma. I know Joseph was a kind and loving husband.” (At this point I was strongly tempted to ask where the pictures of his other wives were, but I suppressed the imp in me). And then at the end the guide bore her whole testimony to my parents. I was rather flabbergasted. There was very little history in the tour, just some cotton candy sweet stories, and testimony. It was all terribly awkward.

    My other big beef with the site was that it is out in this beautiful woodsy area, perfect for reflection. But this aspect is ruined by Mo Tab music booming from the trees (there are speakers hidden in the surrounding forest). Oh so cheesy and unnecessary.

    I apologize for this rant, but I was just so disappointed with the whole thing. I was hoping my parents might feel the spirit, but instead the tour was so in your face that there was no time to let down your guard to do so.

    Interestingly there was a NYT article a few weeks ago where the non-Mormon travel writer went to Palmyra to see the sites and the pageant. He had a very similar experience to the one I described, and felt “shell-shocked.” I hope the church reevaluates how they run these sites. I understand they want to make them faith promoting, but if I went to a Catholic historical site, I would not expect the guide to bear their testimony about the trueness of the pope, and the power of the Spirit to let me know it was true.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    David, his name is Kenneth Ballantine, his film is Consecrated, and you can read about him and his work at session 341 of the Sunstone Program.

    To contact him, I would go through the Sunstone office.

  18. David Grua says:

    Thanks Kevin.

  19. California Condor says:

    At this point I was strongly tempted to ask where the pictures of his other wives were, but I suppressed the imp in me

    That would have been quite a disarming curveball for the senior missionary.

  20. When I visited the Palmyra sites years ago, a tour guide was telling the story of Joseph finding the plates. He asked a bunch of little kids on the tour somethin glike “Joseph saw a big rock and lifted it up. Do you know what he found under there?” One of the kids, he couldn’t have been more than 8, said “A salamander!” That was the best church history tour ever.

  21. David Howlett says:

    #16–Katie–It is unfair for me to comment directly on LDS sites, but I do know that several different departments in the LDS church shape how a site is interpreted–and these departments often have different purposes in mind.

    As an outside observer, I would say that the primary reason for LDS sites is not really for proselytizing (few outsiders understand the insider language used at sites), but rather for the “perfecting of the saints”–member identity formation.

    Incidentally, I had lunch yesterday with a good friend in the Restoration Branches (fundamentalist RLDS). He told me that his favorite part of his recent visit to Kirtland had been the Johnson farm (operated by the LDS church). He really liked the experiential element of the tour, also. I often get such a response from Restorationist who like the first-person testimony as opposed to the third-person historical narrative at CofC sites. People go to sites for different reasons, then.

  22. “A salamander!”


    I think that there is a lot confusion with the CofC Temple in Independence. Growing up in the area, there is a general sense among Latter-day Saints (in my experience) that the CofC is completely missing the boat (mostly projection the modern endowment rituals on to it). Even though that is anachronistic, I do tend to think that a developmental history from the “endowment of power” to the temple of peace might be very helpful in helping Mormons understand what is going on there (not that this should be the CofC’s primary concern).

  23. David Howlett says:

    #22–J. Stapley–That is a very helpful comment. I think most CofC people do not know much about the Kirtland endowment other than that people had spiritual experiences, saw angels, felt the Holy Spirit in a mighty way, etc. We spend a lot of time on it in class with our guides in both Kirtland and Nauvoo, but it would be helpful to explain what the temple is today. When most CofC leaders go to the D&C to explain the temple, they start with revelations from 1968 onward–mostly missing how there is continuity with older practices. Perhaps we could work on this? As much as I talk about “change” as a historian who wants to narrate how things develop, there are definite precedents and continuities in our CofC past that organically birth who we are today. Thanks for your insight!

  24. David,

    My dad was a volunteer tour guide at the CofC Nauvoo sites earlier this summer, and stayed in the William Marks home, too. And he mentioned to me something about that bird as well! So apparently the encouragement “not to hurt the birdies” has been felt across the Restoration. :-)

  25. David Grua (6) – I know this thread is dead and buried, but if you happen to see this – email me at at gmail .


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