An Iowa Sheriff Comments on the Mormons in Nauvoo, Illinois


Nauvoo, Illinois, as seen across the Mississippi River from Iowa in the 1840s.

In 1995 I published with John E. Hallwas a documentary history about the Mormon experience in Illinois in the 1840s. The book, Cultures in Conflict: A Documentary History of the Mormon War in Illinois (Utah State University Press). In this book we published several key documents relating to the conflict between Mormons and non-Mormons on the frontier. The document I am featuring here is a fascinating account by Hawkins Taylor written in 1876 that comments on the Mormons in Nauvoo. He had been born on November 15, 1811, in Kentucky, but within a year or two his family had moved to southern Indiana, where he grew up. He had only three months of formal schooling, but was literate enough to consider studying law. In 1831 he went to Missouri, working in Hannibal, but quickly moved on to the lead mine country of Galena, in the northwestern part of Illinois. In 1834 he married his cousin, Melina Walker, and the next year took her to the hamlet of West Point, near Fort Madison, Iowa Territory. In 1837 Taylor was appointed justice of the peace, and the next year he was elected to the Iowa Territorial Legislature. In 1839 he was elected sheriff of Lee County, Iowa Territory, and moved to its county seat, Fort Madison.

As the sheriff of Lee County, across the Mississippi River from Nauvoo, Taylor was not directly in the Mormon conflict taking place in Illinois, but he was certainly opposed to the sect. He also had to deal with law enforcement concerns relative to the Saints, and he thought that theocratic Nauvoo, with its powerful city charter and strong military presence, served as a haven for outlaws who had joined the church and used Mormon non-cooperation with outside officials to protect their illegal activities. Whether some of the incidents that Taylor describes in this autobiography represent actual situations or someone’s mistaken perceptions of them, they illustrate the difficult situation beginning to develop between the Mormon and non-Mormon communities in western Illinois. The original of Taylor’s autobiography is available at the Archives, Western Illinois University Library, Macomb, Illinois.

*****

In August [1839], I was elected sheriff of the [Lee] county, by a handsome majority, after a hot contest. At that time there was nearly 150 Mormon votes in the county. I got the majority of that vote. By law, I had to live at the county seat. So I moved to Fort Madison. It was a hard office. The county was large, extending along the Mississippi about 40 miles and up the Des Moines River about 30 miles. With Nauvoo the Mormon town across the river (Mississippi) in Illinois, opposite Montrose in Iowa with Keokuk at the foot of the rapids, then a men wrecker town. There were but a few hundred people in the place, and all engaged in the lighting of freight over the rapids. Amongst the numbers was the worst class of men that could be found, murderers and gamblers and thieves of every class. Some of them had belonged to Murral’s Clan of desperadoes. . . .

During the time I was sheriff, the Mormons built up Nauvoo. The town was situated at the head of the Mississippi rapids, in a great bend of the river. It was an old town called “Commerce,” but had but a few hundred people when the Mormons first settled there in 1839. The Mormons bought out the principal settlers and changed the name of the town to Nauvoo and laid out the new town to embrace a territory of some three miles in extent on the river and back from the river from the extreme level of the flat, being in the shape of a half moon. The main street was 200 feet wide and over two miles long, running from a point on the river to the river at the point four miles above, following the river. The ground rose gradually from the river to a point probably 100 feet above the land on the river and then ran back level to the prairie.

Historic rendering of Nauvoo Temple from the 1840s.

It was the most beautiful townsite that I ever saw. The temple was built on the high ground about the middle of the town plat and was a perfect building, built of cut stone 85 by 135 feet and 99 feet high, with a tower, 30 feet by the width of the building, 40 feet high, with a spire running up to 185 feet all told, with stairs to the top of the spire. The basement was 20 feet high, about half underground with one story about 10 and the other 30 feet. In the basement was a baptismal fount of dressed gray limestone, resting on twelve oxen, but out of stone except the points of the horns, which were natural horns and the likeness was perfect in size and shape, legs, ears, and horns, that at first sight you take them to be alive. The next story was the great audience hall, with a pulpit at both ends and changeable seats. The other rooms were never fully finished. On the top of the wall under the cornice, were thirty two faces, cut out of stone. They were about 3 feet broad and 5 feet high and at a height of 90 feet, they looked perfect likenesses. . . .

The Mormons bought very little of the ground on which they laid out their town. It was what was known as military land and held by Mormons and the title to a very large tract had been long in litigation. The town was laid off in 4 acre blocks minus streets and alleys and the blocks were divided into four lots. The streets were wide and ran at right angles. The alleys were 20 feet wide, so that each lot contained nearly an acre.

Joe [Smith] selected each lot for the occupants, the best ones on Main streets he sold at $300 and the poorest he gave away, but each person felt proud that brother Joseph had selected his home for him.

At that time nearly all of the Mormons were from New England and most of them mechanics of the first quality, so that they had an abundant supply of all kinds of workmen and Joe did not allow them to use either spirits of any kind, tea or coffee, nor tobacco, all were required to work. Each family was required to farm and cultivate their lots, to keep a cow, and with milk, the poorer class could make a living on their acre of ground.

Joe Smith and other leaders were followed with indictments from Missouri, charged with all classes of crimes. The result was, they had to hide from the officers. The whole country was shocked at the cruel manner in which the Mormons had been driven from Missouri. They were all Democrats. The legislature of Illinois was overwhelmingly Democratic and then, with the full help of the Whigs, gave Nauvoo a city charter with legislative forms, such as no other city ever had. They also chartered the Nauvoo Legion, a military organization that was afterwards very troublesome and did much harm.

The last address of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo.

Joe Smith was elected mayor and the twelve apostles constituted the council. They at once organized a government of their own and set the Missouri writs at defiance. If an arrest was made, he was released by Joe under a writ of Habeas Corpus. The result was that Nauvoo became a refuge for thieves of all kinds.

Nauvoo, within a few years grew to be a city of 20,000, and in everything but their religion and moral practices, was a model city. The homes were all painted, there was no idling, no profanity or drunkenness, but they held that they were the chosen people of the Lord, that all things belonged to the Lord. Under the old Josiah dispensation, each person was required to give one tenth of his substance to the Lord. Each man was required to work every tenth day on the temple or pay for the hire of a substitute. Besides this, several hundred men were hired to work on the temple. These men had to be fed. To do this, they lived on the Smith cattle, sheep, and grain of all kinds, all taken to the temple, consecrated and then given to the Lord’s workmen on the Lord’s temple, as they claimed.

The people had no remedy. The Mormons were the majority in the county and had all the officers of importance. If a writ was taken out, the officer was whittled out of the city. The process of whittling out an officer was a follows; A great tall man by the name of [Hosea] Stout was the captain of the Whittling society, and he had about a dozen assistants. They all had great bowie knives and would get a long piece of pine board and get up close to the officer and pretend to be cutting the pine board, but would cut over it and cut near the officer. In the meantime, small boys would get tin pans, old bells and all sorts of things to make a noise with and surround the officer. No one would touch or say a word to him, but the noise drowned all that he would say. The result would be that he would get out of the city as soon as possible and never come back again. The Mormons would send teams out, loaded with what they found and take it before the eyes of the owner. Farmers were forced to sell out their farms for whatever they could and went away.

Nauvoo was infected at that time with a great number of thieves, who would cross over to Iowa and commit depredations and embark to Nauvoo. I would go over and arrest them and bring them back, the Mormons allowing me to do it. Bill Smith, the brother of Joe the Prophet, acting with me. . . .

One day, late in the fall of 1840, George Miller, an old friend of mine who had lived at McConnel [Macomb], Illinois, and was then an elder in the Presbyterian Church there, but who joined the Mormons and was made a bishop, the next in authority to the Prophet Joe Smith, came in great haste to Fort Madison for an attachment for a flatboat load of onions and potatoes, then lying at the head of the rapids, supposed to belong to a man by the name of [George M.] Hinkle. Hinkle had been one of the Mormon twelve in Missouri, was a learned man as Joe Smith’s scribe. When Smith saw that the Mormons would be obliged to leave Missouri, he sent Hinkle with his carriage and a load of his choice books up to Iowa for safety. The horse carriage and books at that day of low prices were worth twelve or fifteen hundred dollars. Hinkle settled near Muscatine in Iowa and appropriated to his own use the books and carriage and repudiated Joe and his doctrine at the same time and established a church of his own, similar in doctrine to the Mormon. But he, like Tilden and other reformers of the present day, was virtuous. Every dollar that he had was stolen, but that only showed the importance that he should be a reformer. That fall, in company with a Rockafeller, he built a flat boat and loaded it with potatoes and onions to run to St. Louis or New Orleans. He feared the “Danites” of the Mormons, knowing that they would kill if they could catch him. So he figured a plan. In the middle of the boat to hide. The Mississippi was very low. The boat was as deep as could cross the rapids, following the channel. The day they got to the head of the rapids, it was too windy to cross, and while the boat was lying at the bank and no men in sight, Hinkle popped his head out of his hiding place to look around, when he was recognized by a little Mormon girl.

Miller at once went for a writ and the sheriff to attach the property for the debt due the Prophet. I at once went with Miller and attached the boat and served the writ on Hinkle. I have never seen a man worse scared than Hinkle was when I arrested him. The boat had been watched by a lot of Danites. All the time Miller had been gone and he expected to be murdered by them. Rockafeller claimed the boat and load was his own. This put me in a bad situation. It was just at the edge of winter. A freeze would ruin the load. I finally arranged that Rockafeller give a bond to pay the debt if the boat and contents were established to be Hinkle’s. When this was done, I released the boat. It was then about 8 o’clock p.m. and full moon and as clear and still as it could be. Hinkle begged me to stay in the boat all night. Said the Mormons would kill him if I did not. He then begged me to remain in town all night. I told him that I had to go to Keokuk that night and laughed at him for his fears. I told him that if any man molested him that I would see that he was properly punished, but that did not quiet him. I got my supper and went on to Keokuk and just as I got there, Hinkle’s boat landed. When he found that I would not remain in town, he pulled out and crossed the rapids. He said he knew he would be killed if he stayed, and preferred to be drowned rather than murdered by the Danites. Hinkle and Joe Smith both took the bankruptcy act that ended this suit. I never got my fees. It was a mystery how his boat ever crossed the rapids without sinking, but Hinkle knew the character of the Danites. . . .

I believe that I was the only officer that ever took a prisoner from Nauvoo without being whittled out, but the Mormons were anxious to keep on good terms with the people of Iowa, while they were at war with Missouri and Illinois. Bill Smith, Joe’s brother, always helped me to take off prisoners. I was at Nauvoo a great deal. Few people came to Fort Madison from the east that did not want to go to Nauvoo to see Joe Smith and the temple. I had more business in that section than in any other part of the county, so that I was there every few days during the summer at least, . . .

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3 Responses to An Iowa Sheriff Comments on the Mormons in Nauvoo, Illinois

  1. Thank you for this article. I haven’t read the book you co-authored with Hallwas, but as a former resident of McConnel, it is interesting to read Taylor’s perspective.

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  2. He also had to deal with police officers issues comparative to the Team, and he thought that theocratic Nauvoo, with its highly effective city rental and strong army existence, provided as a destination for prohibits who had signed up with the cathedral and used Mormon non-cooperation with outside authorities to secure their unlawful actions.

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  3. Right here is the perfect blog for anyone who hopes to understand this topic. You know a whole lot its almost tough to argue with you (not that I actually would want to…HaHa). You certainly put a fresh spin on a subject which has been written about for a long time. Great stuff, just excellent!

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