The Mormons’ deadly conflicts with Missouri residents during the 1830s have been covered well by historians. It led to the expulsion of Latter-day Saints from the state. There were faults on both sides, although via sheer numbers and influence, it was a battle the young Mormon church would lose.
The violence is posited — in part truthfully — as the result of native Missourians worried about the mostly emigrant Mormons achieving political power as “abolitionists.” Mormons say it was due to “religious intolerance,” others cite growing political power, arrogance and secretiveness from the Mormon emigrants that worried longtime residents. (This perception was not helped by some incautious meanderings on the state of free blacks by Mormon W.W. Phelps in a church publication.) I think more insight on “the Mormon War in Missouri” has been offered in a fascinating article in the new issue of The Journal of Mormon History. It’s titled “Some Savage Tribe”: Race, Legal Violence and the Mormon War of 1838.”
The author, Brooklyn, N.Y., lawyer T. Ward Frampton, argues convincingly that racism has been overlooked as a major reason for the violence, particularly such savage incidents as the Haun’s Mill Massacre, in which a Mormon boy and elderly Mormon were murdered after the initial shootings. In all, 18 were murdered by the mob of 250.
But getting back to Frampton’s article: He writes that there were three elements of racism exercised by the Missouri opponents of the Mormons. The first is one that other historians have agreed; that the Mormons, being Eastern immigrants, would be favorable toward abolition. These fears, Frampton argues, easily escalated into racist fears that the presence of Mormons would lead to a slave revolt as well as conflict with American Indians, with Mormons as confederates! As Frampton notes, in 1839, prior to the infamous extermination order that was issued, Missouri Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs received letters claiming ‘”there is a deeply laid scheme existing among these fanatics’ to unite with ‘immense numbers of Indians of various tribes … & work the general destruction of all that are not Mormons.” Boggs also received reports that Mormons were actively working with Indians to attack white non-Mormons.
With the Mormons established by Missouri opponents as allies of races the settlers despised, there was a second pernicious type of racism inflicted on the Mormons. As Frampton explains, the Mormons themselves, despite their white, eastern U.S. background, became regarded as “non-white” by their hostile neighbors. (It merits noting, as Frampton does, that the Mormons’ boasting that they were a chosen people, placed by God in Missouri, did not help assuage racist passions during the conflict.)
But, as Frampton shows, there are too many incidents in which Missourians used a racial context in trying to deny Mormons the vote. As the author writes, describing a violent incident in 1838, he quotes early Mormon leader Sidney Rigdon, who stated that Missourian Richard “(Weldon) swore that the Mormons were no more fit to vote than the d–d niggers” (sic). As Frampton adds, “as early as 1833, … the old settlers of Jackson County made clear their intentions to drive the new immigrants from the county, they took pains to cast the Mormons as akin to blacks.” (Frampton notes that the doctrine of Mormons being members of the tribe of Ephraim, and of “Israelite lineage,” as opposed to their depictions of non-Mormons as “gentiles” contributed to the strife that led to racial attacks on the new church’s members.”)
The third element of racism against the Mormons in Missouri is the most violent. As Frampton explains, it involved anti-Mormon Missouri militiamen painting their faces red or black before attacking Mormon settlements. Frampton writes, “these accounts consistently depict the painted Missourians as acting with a special depravity, suggesting that one function of such racial performativity was to open up a broader range of ‘acceptable’ conduct during the brutal conflict.” As Frampton adds, in that era of conflict, “whiteness (in contradistinction to the savagery of blacks and Indians) implied some minimal degree of restraint.” As a result, as one mob violence witness attested, ‘”With their faces painted in horrid Indian Style,’ the mobs suddenly became capable of committing unspeakable acts of violence,’” writes Frampton.
The Haun’s Mill Massacre (spelled Hawn’s in Frampton’s article) provides evidence for this specific racism, in which Missourians dehumanized themselves to kill Mormons who they considered worthy of the same contempt for living as they held for as Indians and blacks. The murder of Sardius Smith, 10, demonstrates the racism involved. As Frampton notes, witnesses to the murder testified that the boy “Smith was hiding among the bodies of recently slain Mormons when he was discovered by a Missourian. The militiaman placed the muzzle of his gun to the boy’s head, declared ‘Nits will make lice,” and proceeded to blow off the upper part of Smith’s skull.”
The term “Nits will make lice” is extremely significant. As Frampton explains, it was a “phrase generally reserved for the killing of Indian children.” The militia/mob that attacked the Haun’s Mill settlement, with painted faces, were attacking individuals who they had dehumanized into the same racial prejudice that they assigned Indians. Frampton adds: “A late-nineteenth century Church history based largely on personal accounts, for example, commented that ‘it was openly avowed by the men of Missouri that it was no worse to shoot a Mormon than to shoot an Indian. …‘”
The murder of the Mormon child Sardius Smith, and other militia/mob depravities, support that claim.
Elements of racism cast the Mormon settlers as equal to blacks and Indians in the eyes of their Missouri neighbors. That sentiment eventually extended as far as the governor’s mansion, and to the many militias that overwhelmed the Missouri Mormons, forcing their expulsion from the state.