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Courtesy of Alexander L. Baugh
Before the LDS Church made improvements to the property, this was the northeast view of the Far West temple site, circa 1965.
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Courtesy of Intellectual Reserve
This is the northeast view of the Far West Temple site, taken by photographer George Edward Anderson in 1907.
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Courtesy Alexander L. Baugh/Lorene E. Pollard and LDS History Library
An aerial shot of the original public square at Far Westshows the locations of the temple site and the Community ofChrist meetinghouse.
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Courtesy of Alexander L. Baugh/Lorene E. Pollard and LDS History Library
Jacob D. Whitmer sold the original Far West Temple site property back to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1909.
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A monument to the city of Far West stands at thetemple site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
By Ron Soodalter
A new Garden of Eden was blossoming in Northwest Missouri. Joseph Smith led his religious group, the Mormons, to Far West, an area where they hoped to live in peace and tranquility.
But his vision ran smack into the resentment of prior settlers, and ultimately, Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs issued an executive order to drive out or exterminate Missouri’s Mormons.
It was the only such “extermination order” ever officially issued in the United States. Far West, once home to thousands, was deserted almost overnight. In the words of Jeremiah J. Morgan, the president of the Liberty Missouri Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Most towns boom and bust over oil or gold or silver; in the case of Far West, it was religion.”
The early days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly called Mormons from their sacred text, the Book of Mormon, were largely spent in a quest for a place where they could practice their religion in safety. In the early 1830s, founder and prophet Joseph Smith Jr.’s followers had traveled from Palmyra, New York, where he had established the church, to Kirtland, Ohio. There, dissension occurred in the ranks of the church, and while some elected to stay in Ohio, most, including Smith, migrated to Missouri. Smith was seeking what he called the City of Zion, where he could build the temple that would represent the headquarters of the Mormon religion. They attempted to settle in Jackson County in northwestern Missouri in 1831 but were driven out by the locals two years later.
In December 1836, in an effort to quell potential hostilities, the Missouri Legislature passed a law creating nearby Caldwell County specifically for Mormon settlement. Smith’s followers immediately began to build a city, which they named, appropriately, Far West.
It was not a haphazard undertaking. Foreshadowing the stunning organizational skills they would later bring to the deserts of Utah, the Mormons platted the city, laying out streets and a central city square, and established it as the seat of Caldwell County. They originally platted Far West to cover one square mile; it would soon grow to four times that size. Within two years, says Jeremiah, the city “blossomed from grassland.” Open fields soon transformed into the church’s thriving hub, and the cornerstones for the temple were laid in the central square. At its peak, Far West proper contained some five thousand people, with thousands more living on surrounding homesteads and farms. By 1838, the bustling city boasted two hotels, a blacksmith shop, a printing office, several stores and mills, and about 150 houses. Far West, it seemed, was ideally positioned to become the central location and gathering place for the Mormon Church.
Once again, however, conflict arose. Settlers in neighboring counties, many of whom had lived there long before the advent of the Mormons, objected to the fact that, as the Mormon population continued to grow, they spread beyond Caldwell County and built towns such as De Witt and Adam-ondi-Ahman in Carroll and Daviess counties, respectively. Earlier, Smith had preached that Missouri was the Promised Land and “the land of your inheritance, which is now the land of your enemies.”
Given the harsh treatment Smith and his followers received everywhere they had attempted to settle, perhaps it is not surprising that many viewed all non-Mormons as their enemies.
To their non-Mormon neighbors, the swiftly burgeoning Mormon population seemed to make the usurpation of private lands a very real possibility. The fact that the Mormons raised, armed, and trained its own militia did little to assuage the locals’ fears. The Mormons pointed to a simpler explanation for the trouble: religious intolerance.
The Mormons didn’t consider themselves either Catholic or Protestant, and they rejected the doctrines of both. Likewise, many Protestants and Catholics didn’t consider the Mormons to be true Christians.
“The Bill of Rights was still a new document at this time,” explains Jeremiah, “and an American culture founded on a rigidly Protestant core had serious problems with other religions.”
On Independence Day in 1838, Mormon church leader Sidney Rigdon delivered a speech that reflected his people’s deep frustration with the persecution they had suffered earlier in Jackson as well as the growing enmity on the part of their non-Mormon neighbors. In the speech, which came to be called the July 4th Oration, he stated:
“We warn all men in the name of Jesus Christ, to come on us no more forever. For from this hour, we will bear it no more, our rights shall no more be trampled on with impunity. The man or the set of men, who attempts it, does it at the expense of their lives. And that mob that comes on us to disturb us; it shall be between us and them a war of extermination; for we will follow them till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us.”
This manifesto went far to anger an already resistant non-Mormon community. To make matters worse, disaffected Mormons, known as “dissenters,” left the fold and carried with them tales of outrageous Mormon conduct. They spoke of death threats against all within the church who questioned the word of Smith. The stories grew more lurid in the telling and served to further inflame the locals. Inevitably, as harsh feelings grew on both sides, violence erupted.
The first disturbance occurred on Election Day, August 6, 1838, at the polling place in Gallatin, Daviess County, where locals attempted to prevent Mormons from voting. Although no one was seriously injured, the incident marked the beginning of what has come to be known as the Mormon War.
Soon, militia forces on both sides—many no better than mobs of armed vigilantes— began burning and pillaging one another’s towns in the neighboring counties. Blood was first spilled in an armed conflict on October 25 at Crooked River, south of the Caldwell County line. When the smoke cleared, the Mormon militia had driven the locals from the field at a cost of three Mormons and one Missourian dead. As often occurs, the death toll was grossly exaggerated as the story of the skirmish was told and retold. By the time it reached Missouri Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs, it was said that half the Missourians had perished under the Mormons’ sabers and guns.
The Mormons had a long-standing and powerful enemy in Boggs. He had served as a state senator and lieutenant governor during the period in which the Mormons first settled in Missouri, and he had been instrumental in driving them from Jackson County. Elected governor in 1836, the same year in which the Missouri legislature created Caldwell County, he brought his considerable political clout to bear in opposing the settlement of Far West and its environs. As he saw it, the Mormons were in armed rebellion against the state and wreaking havoc on the homes and persons of his fellow Missourians. In response, Boggs issued Missouri Executive Order 44, also known as the “Mormon Extermination Order,” and called out a 2,500-man militia to enforce it. The order, signed two days after the Crooked River fight, stated that the Mormons “must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace.”
Three days after the order was issued and quite possibly before they knew about it, a force of 250 local vigilantes crossed into Caldwell County and opened fire on a group of thirty or forty Mormon men, women, and children at the town of Haun’s Mill. No quarter was given to those who attempted to surrender; men were slain, and in some cases, their bodies were mutilated. In one instance, a ten-year-old boy was dragged from his hiding place and murdered on the premise that “nits will make lice.” In all, seventeen Mormons perished. Not one of the attackers was ever brought to trial.
When word of the outrage—and of Boggs’s order—reached Mormon communities, most of the residents fled to Far West for protection.
The commander of the state militia, Maj. Gen. Samuel D. Lucas, marched his men to Far West and besieged the city. He demanded the surrender of the Mormon leaders and of all weapons. Those Mormons who had borne arms against the state were ordered to sell or surrender their property to compensate the state for mustering the militia and to leave Missouri. When Smith and four of his leaders rode to Lucas’s camp under a truce flag to discuss terms, they were arrested. Realizing the situation was hopeless, Smith sent word to Far West ordering the city to surrender. The Mormon War was over.
Lucas immediately convened a court martial and tried and condemned Smith, along with his four compatriots. He ordered his subordinate, Gen. Alexander W. Doniphan, to shoot them in the Far West square at nine o’clock the next morning. Doniphan, in direct defiance of his superior, gave a reply that has forever endeared him to the Mormon Church:
“It is cold-blooded murder. I will not obey your order. My brigade shall march for Liberty to-morrow morning, at eight o’clock, and if you execute those men, I will hold you responsible before an earthly tribunal, so help me God!”
The next day, Doniphan transported Smith, Rigdon, and four others to Richmond to face a court of inquiry on charges ranging from robbery, larceny, and perjury to arson, treason, and murder. The court ordered them bound over for trial, whereupon they were driven to Liberty and confined in the stone jail. After a four-month confinement, however, they escaped, purportedly with the help of their guards.
The old Liberty jail no longer stands, but the site is currently owned by the Mormon Church and features a state-of-the-art visitor’s center and museum. The main attraction is a cutaway reconstruction of the jail built on the original floor that features mannequins representing Smith and his fellow leaders.
By the time Smith escaped custody, Far West and the surrounding countryside were practically devoid of Mormons, as most of the former settlers made their way to Illinois searching once again for the perfect place for the City of Zion.
The so-called Mormon War might have ended in 1838, but there was a final act to the drama. On the night of May 6, 1842, Boggs, who had recently been elected again to the state senate, sat reading a newspaper by the window of his home when four blasts from outside sent buckshot into his skull, throat, and neck. Boggs hovered near death for some time—in fact, a premature obituary appeared in a local paper—and his doctors all but gave up hope. However, the redoubtable Boggs made a stunning recovery and, shortly thereafter, moved across the country to California, where he served in the state assembly. He lived nearly eighteen years after being shot.
Suspicion for the assassination attempt fell on Mormon pioneer and notorious gunman Orrin Porter Rockwell. Eight years earlier, Smith had created a secret fraternal order known as the Armies of Israel. They acted as vigilantes or, as some claimed, enforcers, and came to be referred to as the Danites. Much has been written about the Danites, but little is actually known of their inner workings.
Allegedly, Smith and his successor, Brigham Young, used them to avenge offenses against the church from without and to punish transgressors within. Of all the Danites, also called Avenging Angels, Porter Rockwell was the most feared, and for good reason. He was an accomplished slayer of men, and according to the Salt Lake Tribune, he had “participated in at least a hundred murders.” Friend and bodyguard to both Smith and Young, Rockwell inspired such terror among Mormons and non-Mormons alike that mothers would threaten their children with a visit from him if they didn’t behave. No proof, however, could be found to link Rockwell to the shooting of Boggs, and the crime goes unresolved to this day.
Meanwhile, Smith and most of his followers had settled the city of Nauvoo, Illinois, which eventually grew to a population of twenty thousand. Once again, however, violence erupted, this time from dissidents within the church as well as from non-Mormons. Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were arrested in Carthage, Illinois, and charged with treason. On June 27, 1844, a mob with blackened faces stormed the jail and shot the brothers to death. No one was ever convicted of the crime.
Following Smith’s murder, the Nauvoo city charter was revoked, and with it the Mormons’ right to raise a militia. By 1846, with mob violence on the rise and no means to protect themselves, the Mormons left Illinois and pointed their wagons west toward desert land that no one else wanted. That land would become the state of Utah.
Today, the site of Far West, the city that was conceived and constructed to serve as the heart of the Mormon Church, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It consists of a chapel—operated by a splinter faith known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the RLDS, or simply Community of Christ—and a recreated country store that sells gifts, souvenirs, and books.
Half a mile away in what was once the city square are the cornerstones of the temple that was never built. A monument also stands at the temple site, detailing the history of the area. The old shops and homes are long gone, cannibalized and carried off to the next settlement or simply destroyed by 175 years of summers, winters, and prairie winds.
Although the citizens of Far West have long since departed, the city’s spirit remains. Perhaps the last word on Far West should come from Jeremiah Morgan:
“We hate to call it a ghost town, because it still holds a place in the Mormon consciousness. ‘Ghost town’ indicates that everything’s dead; we don’t feel that way about Far West.”