BCC Papers 6/2, Weeks, The Last Days of Joseph Smith

Full paper here.

Zebulun Q. Weeks, The Last Days of Joseph and Hyrum Smith: A Chronology (Introduction)

But heroic like demi-gods they firmly trod the road to death and glory

-Dan Jones

The sources for the final three weeks, from the publication of the Expositor to the murder of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, are plentiful, perhaps more so than any other event in Church history.  To get a good sense of most of the important details for these three weeks one only need look at the History of the Church by Joseph Smith, volume six (430-630), which is a compilation of diary entries by Joseph Smith and his scribes, City Council minutes, letters, journals, newspaper articles from the Times and Seasons and Nauvoo Neighbor, and other sources; and volume seven (1-243), which contains the account by John Taylor, and excerpts from Governor Thomas Ford’s History of Illinois, from the journals of Willard Richards and Wilford Woodruff, and many other and sundry notes, affidavits, letters, minutes, and journal entries.  These two volumes contain most of the primary material for these events.  All of these are found in the Church Archives.

When the primary source from which the History of the Church was taken is not accessible or unretrievable, I have given the citation from the History of the Church (HC).  Willard Richards, George A. Smith and Wilford Woodruff are the three Church historians primarily responsible for the compilation of all this material.  For information on how George A. Smith and Wilford Woodruff got together missing information on these few weeks see Dean C. Jessee’s article “Return to Carthage: Writing the History of Joseph Smith’s Martyrdom” (The Journal of Mormon History, 8 [1981], 3-19).  But the most complete analysis of the writing of this history, and in particular of these few weeks, the manner and purpose of the selections and their primary sources, can be found in Howard Searle’s dissertation, “Early Mormon Historiography,” (UCLA, 1979), in chapter six (200-336).  He explains how Willard Richards took extracts from journals and newspaper entries and many other sources and would put them into a first person account, as if from Joseph Smith’s pen (see p. 236 for an example from Heber C. Kimball’s journal).  He traces the composition of the History of the Church both before and then after Joseph Smith’s death; he gives the long history of its authors, and their methods, ending with its final editor B.H. Roberts and its publication in the twentieth century.

The primary sources for these three weeks can be divided up into several different categories: journals, reminiscences or accounts remembered after the fact, legal documents, letters, newspaper articles, city council minutes, and published articles.  Joseph employed scribes to record his translations, revelations, sermons, dictations, letters, and almost anything else he wished to be written down.  Searle lays out all of the early accounts both pro and contra Mormonism, and has a list of the twenty four scribes and ghost writers for Joseph from 1829-1844 (149-150).  Most of the history of the church was kept by these scribes, who would record events, keep minutes of conferences and meetings, and many other documents.  Searle lists all of the books kept by Joseph’s scribes, which consisted in revelation books, diaries (six of them), patriarchal blessings, minutes, municipal and city council minutes, Church Relief Society and Priesthood council minutes, and even minutes for the Nauvoo Legion.[1] Willard Richards was Joseph’s personal secretary from 1841-1844 and he kept Joseph’s private journal in the first person.  Much of his journal consisted of very short notes which he intended to fill out later, but were left empty by his death.  George A. Smith, later historian of the Church, filled in these gaps.[2]

Of the personal journals which document these last three weeks of the Prophet’s life the most important are those kept by Willard Richards, John Taylor, and Dan Jones.  For the information covering the last four days of Joseph’s life, we get most of our information from those who were with him: the three mentioned above, and from Cyrus Wheelock, John Fullmer, Stephen Markham, and from some other less significant sources, such as letters from Dimick Huntington, Edwin Woolley, William W. Phelps, and John Smith.[3] Dan Jones published his account first in Welsh in Wales, then later wrote an English version as a letter to Thomas Bullock in 1855.[4] John Fullmer’s account also appeared in print in England before ever seen at the Church Historian’s office.[5] Cyrus Wheelock’s important twenty-page letter was sent to George A. Smith in 1854 (December 29).[6] Stephen Markham reported his experience at Carthage jail in a letter to Wilford Woodruff on June 20, 1856.  Some of these accounts have been published in separate editions; others can be found scattered about in the compilation found in the sixth and seventh volumes of the History of the Church.  The other important documents mentioned above, such as the writs served upon Joseph Smith, the letters to and from Carthage and Governor Ford, the minutes and deliberations of the City Council and Joseph and his friends, can all be found in the History of the Church.

There are, of course, many other important primary and secondary sources.  Carthage Conspiracy, by Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill (Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1975), and its bibliography and footnotes have many more documents that give the perspective of the mob, and citizens of Carthage and other communities, and of course all of the information and documents one could wish for on the trial of the murderers of Joseph and Hyrum.  William Law, by Lydon W. Cook, (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book Co., 1994), is an autobiographical essay by William Law of those tumultuous times preceding the assassination, with an interview and correspondence of the same.  John Hay, a citizen and witness to events in Carthage, wrote an article years later recounting another version of events: “The Mormon Prophet’s Tragedy,” published in the Atlantic Monthly (Dec., 1869).  Dallin H. Oaks’ article on “The Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor,” published in the Utah Law Review, volume 9 (Salt Lake City, 1964-65), on pages 862-903, details the legality of the City Council’s decision to declare the Expositor a “nuisance” and to destroy it.   Glen M. Leonard’s Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, A People of Promise (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 2002), includes some much needed background and a good bibliography for these events.  The Nauvoo Legion: A History of the Mormon Militia by Richard E. Bennett, Susan Easton Black, and Donald Q. Cannon (Oklahoma: U. of Oklahoma Press, 2010), gives us much valuable matter from the perspective of the Legion and its members.

There were many causes for the murders of the Prophet and his brother, but causes must not be confused with pretexts.  Pretexts are often catalysts, and therefore can be considered final or ultimate causes in the sense of time.  This chronology has decided to take a short view of the final days of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, beginning with the catalyst or pretext for their murder, the publishing of the Expositor, happening three weeks before.  It does not pretend to causes.  It is only a short account, brief and hurried, minute by minute, of the most important things that led to the culmination of this tragedy.  I use the word tragedy on purpose, not pathetically, but rather as fulfilling the definition and end of that literary genre.  For tragedy it is, from the hamartia committed by Joseph Smith, when he decided to declare the Expositor a “nuisance”, to his presentiments, predictions, and positive foreknowledge of his approaching death, to the sudden reversal of events when he had crossed the Mississippi on his way to the Rocky Mountains, only to be accused of cowardice and to return knowing that it was death to come back, and then with Ford’s coming to Nauvoo and addressing the city and rebuking and insulting the crowd at the very moment that the Prophet and Hyrum were murdered.  Irony, missteps, pride, ignorance, sorrow, pity, fear—all find their place in this tragedy.  It is for this intent that the chronology has been written, to get pity for Joseph and Hyrum into us and the fear that it could happen to us.

Not only do we find the character of Joseph most fully drawn here, but also the type of persecution he and his people constantly underwent, the farce and framing of the legal battles Joseph so often fought, the love of Joseph for his friends and for his people—all, and much more, can be found in these last three weeks.  It is the best place to understand Joseph, if that be possible, for as he said of himself a few months prior to his death: “You don’t know me; you never knew my heart.  No man knows my history.”[7]

[1] Searle, 158-61.

[2] Searle, 167-68.

[3] See Dean C. Jessee’s “Joseph Smith’s Martyrdom,” Journal of Mormon History, 8 (1981), 11 (fn. 15).

[4] Jessee, 9; also Dan Jones’ “The Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith,” intro. Ronald D. Dennis, BYU Studies, 24 (Winter,1984).

[5] See Jessee, 6 (fn. 8).  It was published first in 1855 in Liverpool as a pamphlet, then later sent as a letter to George A. Smith in 1854.

[6] Jessee, 7 (fn. 9).

[7] From King Follett discourse, HC 6: 317.


  1. Hopefully the JSPP will still include an annotated transcript of the “Manuscript History of the Church,” which should make sorting out all the various sources much easier. I also understand that Vogel’s forthcoming version of the “History of Joseph Smith” will elucidate the sources.

    I’m interested in the authors choices for including and excluding material in the chronology.

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