The purpose of Zion's Camp has often been misunderstood, even by friendly historians. This "camp," which was not military, except in the sense that all western immigrations of the day were made in such orderly fashion, was not for the purpose of seizing and holding the possessions of the Saints in Jackson County. The facts were that the attorneys for the Saints had been advised by State authorities, notably the attorney general, that it would be useless to restore these lands to their owners unless some steps were taken to secure the safety of both settlers and property. He suggested, emphatically seconded by Alexander Doniphan, attorney, that if enough of the Saints were concentrated in Missouri to form a regiment of militia, to be known as "Jackson Guards," and given state arms and an arsenal, they would not be molested. Complying with this suggestion, Zion's Camp was organized, but it soon became apparent to the originators of the plan, that more trouble, and not less, would result. Convinced of the futility of the plan, they made known their fears to the church representatives, who promptly disbanded the camp.
But there were other objectives. The Saints at Kirtland were anxious to help their destitute brethren in Missouri, who they knew were more or less dependent upon the charity of the people of Clay County who numbered little more than the refugees whom they had taken in. Food, clothing, seed, implements, and all manner of supplies were needed that spring. These were to be carried to the sufferers by Zion's Camp. Almost all such things were carried overland in those days, even money. The land agent at Lexington was in the habit of putting the gold he received for land in grain sacks, loading it onto a wagon, and with a trusty Negro servant, starting out through the wilderness to deposit it with the government agent in St. Louis. He was never molested. Zion's Camp carried money, and no small quantity of it, for should their representatives get a settlement such as they profoundly desired with the Jackson County settlers, they would need money to buy out the claims of their enemies there.
Therefore missionaries had been sent out in all directions from Kirtland to gather up men and supplies. There were several women and children in camp, too. The men started, marching from Kirtland on the first of May, 1834, organized of course in the sort of military order then customary to a greater or lesser degree in all westward-going caravans. Accurate diaries were kept on the trip by Joseph Smith and Heber C. Kimball, so their route can be followed quite exactly for a great part of the way. The names of all the men, the few women and children, are a matter of record. Upon their return to Kirtland the members of the first quorum of seventy were chosen from the ranks of Zion's Camp.
A number of men were left in Kirtland to work upon the Temple with Sidney Rigdon in charge. The events of the trip were all quite trivial in their nature until they met Lyman Wight and Hyrum Smith with their company and supplies, gathered from branches at Florence, Ohio; Pontiac, Michigan; Huron County, Michigan, and a branch in Illinois called the Ritchey Branch, as well as from other neighborhoods where scattered members lived. The two camps joined at Salt River, Missouri, where a group of Saints known as the Allred Branch was located. Here they camped in the woods near a spring of water and held preaching services before they moved on. At this point Lyman Wight was put in charge on account of his military experience in the War of 1812.
From the camp on Salt River, Parley P. Pratt and Orson Hyde were sent to wait upon Governor Dunklin at Jefferson City, and request him to call out a sufficient military force to reinstate the Saints in their homes in Jackson County. The governor readily admitted the justice of the request, but expressed fear that such a procedure would result in Civil War and bloodshed.
The two brethren rejoined the camp as they were entering Ray County and made their report. In the meantime on the 16th at the call of John F. Ryland, circuit judge, a meeting was held at Liberty. He suggested that either one party or the other sell their lands. John Corrill and A. S. Gilbert answered that the Saints were unwilling to sell their lands "which you well know would be like selling our children into slavery."1
However, an agreement was drawn up on June 16, signed by Samuel C. Owens, Richard Fristoe, Thos. Hayton, Sr., and seven others offering to buy the Mormon lands. This document was presented at a meeting held in Liberty which has been described by a nonpartisan, Judge Josiah Thorpe:
There were a good many speeches made, and our friends from Jackson were very rabid. Samuel Owens, James Campbell, Wood Noland, and five or six others whose names I can't call to mind all had more or less to say. Owens being the chief speaker, spoke with force and energy and in a way to arouse the passions rather than allay them, although it had been decided by all that inflammatory speeches should not be made, and anyone departing from that rule should be called to order and set down; but it was plain to be seen that all that was done or said was all on one side; and very little mercy manifest for the Latter Day Saints. . . . Well, they wrangled and they jawed, until Colonel Doniphan . . . who had been a listener ... arose and began to shove up his sleeves (his manner when a little warmed up) and commenced his remarks in a rather excited tone, when the chairman or someone called him to order, saying he was giving too strong vent to his feelings; and it was calculated to raise an excitement in the crowd, whose feelings were then almost ready to boil over. The Colonel pulled his sleeve up a little higher and told them "that was what he got up for--to give vent to his feelings." I wish I could give his speech, but, if I recollect, he advocated the right of citizen and individual responsibility, and was opposed to Judge Lynch and mob violence; was in favor of law and order; the law was made for the punishment of evildoers and to protect the law abiding, and should be strictly enforced.2
That changed the trend of the meeting. It was nearly sundown when the meeting adjourned. Now the Jackson County men, armed to the teeth, yet professed to be afraid to stay in Liberty, afraid of the vengeance of the "Mormons." "They were bound to return, and would not be prevailed upon to stay," although they professed to believe if they went, it being in the night, the Mormons would lay in ambush and attack them with a force sufficient to kill the whole outfit, yet they went, taking their lives in their hands, as it were and got safely to the ferry, little thinking what would be their fate before they reached the other shore. There was rather an overload for the boat to take all of them, but they feared to leave any on this side, lest the Mormons might come upon them before the boat could return for them, and so they all got aboard, Everett, the ferryman, assuring them there was no danger. They hadn't got more than half way over before they found that the water was coming into the boat so fast there was no help--they were bound to sink. Owens and one or two others couldn't swim. Campbell (being a good swimmer, having often swum the Missouri River) began to fix and instruct the others how to manage their horses, to let them have their own way and not attempt to use the bridle, and they would take them to the shore. They had kept the oars going while the boat was filling with water, and had gained until they thought they were almost to the other shore. Campbell, feeling no uneasiness for himself, had got them all started, encouraging and telling them how to do, and after watching them until they were some distance and all appeared to be getting along finely, he left the boat, after standing on it until the water was waist deep. The ferrymen, all good swimmers, left every man to himself; strange to say the two best swimmers were drowned--Campbell and Everett; the owner of the ferry. The latter got within twenty or thirty steps of shore, when his wife asked him how he was making it; he answered, "All right," but in a minute or two they heard him no more. . . . It was thought that Campbell and him must have taken the cramp as it was no trouble for either of them to swim the river. Their bodies were recovered two or three days afterward some distance down the river, lodged in a rock heap.... Owen's life was prolonged only to be taken by the Spaniards at the battle of Chihuahua.3
This incident added fuel to the flames, for Jackson people4 in some occult fashion blamed the sinking of the ferryboat on the Mormons; the Saints with equal fanaticism talked of judgments.5
In the meantime the camp of Zion advanced slowly over the prairies until on June 18th they pitched their tents one mile from Richmond, passing through the town early the next day. That evening they went into camp on an elevated piece of ground between two branches of Fishing River.
Here they believed themselves miraculously saved from destruction, as a mob was gathering near Williams Ferry on Fishing River with the intent to cross the river and attack the camp. But a storm came up, and the river swelled by torrents of rain prevented the crossing. Those who attempted to cross were forced to return to their Jackson County homes. In the meantime the travelers with little inconvenience except tents blown down, took refuge in an old meeting house through the night.
The company left the old church,6 on the 20th, and continued five miles on the prairie. Here the Fishing River revelation was received on the 22d of the month.
The camp then marched toward Liberty on the 23d, taking a circuitous route around the head of the Fishing River to avoid the deep water. When within five or six miles of Liberty they were met by General Atchison and other friends and warned against entering Clay County as per their agreement with Clay County citizens. So the camp turned to the left, crossed the prairie to A. S. Gilbert's residence, and camped on the bank of Rush Creek7 in "Brother Burket's" (sometimes given as Burghart's) field. Here cholera broke out the night of the 24th and thirteen in all died and were buried one-half mile from the camp by their brethren on the bank of a small stream which empties into Rush Creek. Sometimes the men in the very act of performing last rites over their dead brethren would be stricken themselves. The burials were, of necessity, hasty and without coffins, the bodies simply wrapped in blankets and carried on a horse-sled to their last resting place.
Disease and deformity in that day were to the average religious person, visitations of God's wrath upon erring humanity. The Saints, even their leaders, accepted the belief of the time without question, especially in the cases of such scourges as Asiatic cholera which occasionally swept through the country.
The Saints of the camp, resigning themselves to God's will, did not think of the infested communities through which they had traveled where the heart chilling chant of the Negro slave driving the death-cart, "Bring out your dead. Bring out your dead!" had become a familiar sound on the almost empty streets. A horrible and sickening stench now rose from the dooryards where many loved ones were stealthily buried rather than be surrendered to the public death carts. Spring branches and streams were polluted with the dead. In these places the little caravan of Zion's Camp accepted water and food, or bought it as they traveled along, for, alas, they did not know as we do today "you can eat and drink cholera, but you cannot 'catch' it." In 1884, Robert Koch, the founder of bacteriology, after isolating the bacilli of anthrax and tuberculosis, turned his attention to cholera and discovered the cholera vibrio, and another world-wide scourge bowed its head before science, and disappeared from the civilized world. For the cholera vibrio has many enemies--an hour in the sunshine kills it, acid destroys it, drying makes it sterile, and it can only flourish by getting somehow from the intestine of one human being to another.
Four times during the 19th century, cholera had circumnavigated the globe, leaving its home in the crowded, unsanitary parts of the Orient to make its ravages pandemic. In 1832 it appeared in Missouri--in Palmyra, 105 people died in two weeks. In the three epidemic years 1832, 1833, and 1834, Carrollton lost one in every 16 of her populace. No one in this enlightened age can believe that a God of love would select Asiatic cholera for the punishment of minor camp regulations--for cholera was a terrible thing. He who walked the streets at noonday was often a struggling, screaming victim before nightfall, and at midnight a loathesome corpse. Dr. Victor Heiser in his An American Doctor's Odyssy tells of walking along the streets of Manila as late as the year 1905, and seeing a man ahead of him leap into the air, and then fall back sprawling on the ground, and says he knew that even before he reached him, the man would be dead of cholera. "Gentleman, cholera, is a disease the first symptom of which is death," said one doctor to his class. Although the terrific toxin of cholera soon stopped the heart of its victim, yet an eternity of suffering was crowded into the few hours of agony that followed the sudden crises of the disease, and a cholera victim never lost consciousness until the merciful end came.
This was the horror that stalked Zion's Camp on the night of June 24, 1834. In a few days the disease spread into the Gilbert home. Algernon S. Gilbert died and one other of his family.
Here on Rush Creek the camp was disbanded in deference to the wishes of the citizens of Clay County, and Joseph Smith dispatched to Messrs. Thornton, Doniphan and Atchison the following note:
Rush Creek, Clay County, June 25, 1834.
Gentlemen: Our company of men advanced yesterday from their encampment beyond Fishing River to Rush Creek, where their tents were again pitched. But feeling disposed to adopt every pacific measure that can be done, without jeopardizing our lives, to quiet the prejudices and fears of some part of the citizens of this county, we have concluded that our company shall be immediately dispersed and continue so until every effort for an adjustment of differences between us and the people of Jackson has been made on our part that would in anywise be required of us by disinterested men of republican principles.
I am respectfully, your obedient servant,
Joseph Smith, Jr.
The last days of June were spent by the Prophet with his friends in western Clay County, and it was while there he crossed the river into Jackson in secret at night that his feet might stand, for what was to be the last time, upon the "goodly land."
The mission of the men of Zion's Camp was not yet finished. They were to organize a high council in Zion and met at the home of Lyman Wight for that purpose. Lyman Wight was at the time living on the great farm of Michael Arthur, who has been designated as "the friend to man" by the voice of the earlier Saints. He was a Southerner, a slaveholder, and his farm assumed almost the proportions of a plantation. Here he had employed a number of the Saints and provided for their families in true patriarchal style. Lyman Wight was engaged in building him a new brick house. Others, notably Robert Rathbun, were to build the iron work, and Mr. Durfee the woodwork for a new mill, the first mill in Clay County to be run by an inclined wheel, a great improvement over primitive methods.8
Michael Arthur championed the cause of the Saints not without cost to himself. He had previously found a ready market in Jackson County for the flour from his mill and the whisky, manufactured on his plantation, but when that fall he sent one of his trusty Negroes across the river with a load of flour and whisky, his Jackson County neighbors mounted the load with axes, cut the barrels to pieces and let the flour and whisky out on the ground (though any mob wasting the latter article in such fashion in 1834, seems incredible).
Arthur's losses in goods and prestige with his neighbors did not deter him from his acts of friendship for the exiled Saints, which were in an especial manner useful to them when he later served in the legislature of the State.
It was in this man's yard that the high priests gathered on July 3, 1834, to organize the high council,9 one of the most momentous acts of the men of Zion's Camp, similar to the high council organized in Kirtland.
David Whitmer was at this time ordained as president of the church in Zion with two counselors, or assistant presidents, W. W. Phelps and John Whitmer. The ordination of Whitmer as "president in Zion" led to much contention in later years as to the exact office he held. Though such a conclusion may be questioned, an examination of the business done by Whitmer and his council suggests such work as was later done by a "stake president" and his counselors. David Whitmer took immediate charge of the scattered Saints of "Zion." Although it was not wisdom to hold meetings in Clay County, he appointed elders to visit in the homes. His teachings were strongly for peace. He asked all the Saints to refrain from voting at the coming election, that those who had so kindly sheltered them might retain the reins of government. All the council seemed agreed that the ministers should "teach the disciples how to escape the indignation of their enemies, and keep in favor with those who were friendly disposed," and the letter composed by the council and addressed to the Saints cannot be too highly commended for the kindly wisdom of its teaching. "Lest any man's blood be required at your hands, we beseech you, as you value the salvation of souls, and are within, to set an example worthy to be followed by those without the kingdom of our God and his Christ, that peace by grace, and blessings by righteousness may attend you till you are sanctified and redeemed." Dated Clay County, August 1, 1834. These were the teachings of the exiled Saints in 1834.10
1 Church History, Volume 1, pages 492-496; Times and Seasons, Volume 5,
pages 1488, 1489.
2 Thorpe's Early Days in Missouri.
3 Thorpe's Early Days in Missouri, letter 16.
4 In a statement signed by three survivors of the accident, Samuel C. Owens, S. V. Noland, and T. Harrington printed in the Farmers and Mechanics Advocate, St. Louis, Missouri, July 3, say under date of June 17: "We are confident that the boat struck something. Our impression at the time were, and still are, that something had been done to the boat to sink her, as it was known that the committee from this county would cross at that point on last night." This statement gives the loss as five, two of them ferrymen.
5 Times and Seasons, Volume 6, pages 1089-91, "The angel of the Lord saw fit to sink the boat."
6 Heman C. Smith, in a letter to Honorable D. C. Allen of Liberty, says he is quite satisfied that the location of this old church was where the present old Baptist Church is situated on the south side of the road between Excelsior Springs and Prathersville (letter of August 7, 1917).
7 Rush Creek heads about two miles northwest of Liberty and empties into the Missouri River near Missouri City, seven miles southeast of Liberty.
8 Judge Josiah Thorpe, Early Missouri Days, letter 8.
9 Times and Seasons, Volume 6, pages 1109, 1110; Church History, Volume 1, pages 503-5.
10 Times and Seasons, Volume 6, pages 1123, 1124; Church History, Volume, l, page 532 ff.