This installment of the JI’s Mormons and Natives Month comes from Paul Reeve, associate professor of history at the University of Utah and frequent guest blogger at the JI.
In every instance where Mormons faced growing animosity from outsiders and tension escalated between Mormons and their neighbors, accusations of a Mormon-Indian conspiracy were among the charges. The Mormon expulsions from Jackson County, Missouri, from Clay County, Missouri, and from the state of Missouri altogether, along with their exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois, and the later Utah War were all events notably marked by claims that Mormons were combining with Indians to wage war against white America.
Outsiders did not always see war and conspiracy, however, when they conflated Mormons with Indians. Sometimes the conflation was in the search for a solution to the Mormon problem. Such was the case in early 1845 as residents of Hancock County, Illinois cast about for a resolution to their increasingly untenable situation. As my contribution to JI’s Mormons and Natives theme month, I offer below an excerpt from my book project, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (Oxford). It describes a little known effort following the Murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith to find a peaceful resolution to the tension between “old settlers” in Hancock County and the Mormons. It is an interesting episode in its own right; but beyond the details of the story, larger themes emerge, a tangled weave of Mormon and Indian threads which outsiders sometimes used to blur the distinction between the two groups and justify discriminatory policies against both.
Within seven months of the murder of the Smith brothers, one minor political figure, William P. Richards from Macomb, Illinois, fifty miles East of Nauvoo, offered a potential solution to the mounting tension between the Mormons and Hancock County residents. In February 1845, Richards proposed a plan patterned after the Indian Removal Act (1830) from the previous decade. This time the correlation between Mormons and Indians moved in a new direction, toward a potential resolution of the Mormon problem that was based upon the Indian solution. In light of the continuing strain between Mormons and outsiders, a condition that Richards believed was “on the very eve of violent and bloody collision,” he offered a plan. His proposal called for a land “Reserve to be set apart by Congress for the Mormon people exclusively,” a place where they would be “safe from intrusion and molestation.” He called for a twenty-four mile square section of land, North of Illinois and West of Wisconsin, bordering the western edge of the Mississippi River, to be “forever set apart and known and designated as the Mormon Reserve.” With a design reminiscent of Indian reservations, Richards’ proposal authorized the president to appoint and the Senate to ratify a “superintendent” to administer the reserve and ensure that only Mormons settled there. They would be allowed to draft a constitution for themselves, so long as it did not violate the U. S. Constitution, and thereby enjoy a measure of freedom and self-determination.
As the proposal circulated locally, Richards defended it and met with Mormon leaders to cultivate their favor. The initial response from the Mormons was positive, although one leader believed that twenty-four square miles was inadequate space for the growing number of Mormons. Richards was not opposed to a larger reserve or to other potential locations in Oregon, Texas, or land west of Indian Territory.
In making his case, Richards noted that the Indian Removal Act established a precedent for such a land reserve. It was a policy for the Indians that he deemed “at once enlightened and humane.” It moved them to a country where they were “secure from future intrusion” and put them in possession of homes that were “sure and permanent.” Richards admitted that it was “not very complimentary to the Mormons to place them in the same category” as the Indians, but his focus was upon a peaceful solution to the Mormon problem and he believed that the example of Indian removal offered exactly that. As he saw it, removing the Mormons to land “set apart for their exclusive occupancy and use” would eliminate the threat of outside persecution. With persecution eliminated as a binding force among Mormons internally, Richards predicted “their present rampant religious zeal would evaporate in a single generation and the Sect as such, become extinct.” If they stayed at Nauvoo, he feared the opposite, “constant turmoil, collision, outrage and perchance,–extensive bloodshed.”
It was an echo from President Andrew Jackson’s justifications for the Indian Removal Act (1830). Jackson, in his 1830 State of the Union Address, argued that providing the Native Americans land West of the Mississippi River and far removed from outside interference was a humane option designed to save the Indians from extinction. “The waves of population and civilization are rolling to the westward,” he argued, and the Indian Removal Act would send the Indians “to a land where their existence may be prolonged and perhaps made perpetual.” To save the Indian from “perhaps utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home.”
Beyond a period of local discussion and debate, Richards’ plan did not generate enough interest nationally to garner serious consideration. It did nonetheless indicate the persistent ways in which some outsiders linked Mormons to Indians, not just as a danger, but also in the search for a solution. It further demonstrated how dramatically Mormons were deemed different, a people so distinct, so potentially hostile to American democracy, that they required physical separation, ostensibly to preserve them from the crush of civilization but in reality to preserve civilization from the threat of Mormon savagery.
Rather than an organized “reserve,” Illinois citizens banished the Mormons to their own fate, an expulsion from “civilization” to a new refuge in northern Mexico among “savage” bands of Great Basin Indians. In light of the earlier accusations surrounding the Missouri expulsions, the Mormons found themselves in an ironic bind. As Brigham Young put it, Missourians had accused them of the “intention to tamper with the Indians” and so removed them from that state and their relative proximity to the Indians. Then, ten years later, he said, “it was found equally necessary . . . to drive us from Nauvoo into the very midst of the Indians, as unworthy of any other society.” It was an absurd contradiction for the Mormons, one in which they recognized their own marginalization alongside Native Americans, people whom they were supposed to simultaneously stay away from for fear of conspiracy and live amongst for lack of whiteness