Governor Boggs vs. the Mormons

Last week, on July 24th, the state of Utah and Mormons everywhere celebrated Pioneer Day, the anniversary of the 1847 arrival of the Mormons to the Salt Lake Valley. I’ve been reading newspaper articles reporting on various celebrations from all over the country. One from Puyallup, Washington got me curious. In the article, while briefly chronicling LDS history, the freelance journalist wrote this:

“The Saints had been despised, unwanted and hunted down. Orders had been issued to shoot them on sight and their prophet Joseph Smith had been murdered by an Illinois mob in June 1844. The Saints knew if they stayed in Illinois, their days were numbered.”

I wondered about the “orders…issued to shoot them on sight” and so I googled “shoot Mormons on sight.” I found an abundance of comments from Mormons repeating the claim:

“…one of my great-grandmothers several times removed was forced to flee Missouri after Governor Lilburn Boggs issued an extermination order, basically making it legal to shoot Mormons on sight”

“FACT: Up until the 1970’s it was legal in the state of Ohio to shoot a Mormon on sight!!!”

“At one point, the governor of Missouri even issued an ‘extermination order,’ which mandated that any Mormons who refused to leave the state were to be shot on sight.”

“An extermination order is issued by a person in governnmental control. When Gov. Milburn Boggs did that it made it legal to shoot a Mormon on sight, man, woman, or child. Not sure if there was a bounty or not, but it was legal to mass murder. It was open season on Mormons.”

“Legal to mass murder”? Hmmm….

The “Extermination Order” issued by Governor Boggs on October 27, 1838 was this:

Headquarters of the Militia,
City of Jefferson, Oct. 27, 1838.

Gen. John B. Clark:

Sir:–Since the order of this morning to you, directing you to cause four hundred mounted men to be raised within your Division, I have received by Amos Rees, Esq. of Ray county, and Wiley C. Williams, Esq. one of my aids, information of the most appalling character, which entirely changes the face of things, and places the Mormons in the attitude of an open and avowed defiance of the laws, and of having made war upon the people of this State. Your orders are, therefore, to hasten your operations with all possible speed. The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace–their outrages are beyond all description. If you can increase your force, you are authorized to do so to any extent you may consider necessary. I have just issued orders to Maj. Gen. Willock, of Marion county, to raise five hundred men, and to march them to the northern part of Daviess, and there unite with Gen Doniphan, of Clay, who has been ordered with five hundred men to proceed to the same point for the purpose of intercepting the retreat of the Mormons to the north. They have been directed to communicate with you by express, you can also communicate with them if you find it necessary. Instead therefore of proceeding as at first directed to reinstate the citizens of Daviess in their homes, you will proceed immediately to Richmond and then operate against the Mormons. Brig. Gen. Parks, of Ray, has been ordered to have four hundred of his Brigade in readiness to join you at Richmond. The whole force will be placed under your command.

I am very respectfully,
your ob’t serv’t,
L. W. Boggs, Commander-in-Chief

This executive order was officially rescinded on June 25, 1976. Was it, therefore, “open season on Mormons,” “legal to shoot Mormons on sight,” and “legal to mass murder” in the state of Missouri for 138 years?

No.

What did the “extermination order” actually call for? Language is somewhat fluid, so we need to understand what words meant when they were said or written. Consider the definition of “exterminate” from Webster’s 1828 Dictionary:

EXTERMINATE, v.t. [L. extermino; ex and terminus, limit] Literally, to drive from within the limits or borders. Hence,

1. To destroy utterly; to drive away; to extirpate; as, to exterminate a colony, a tribe or a nation; to exterminate inhabitants or a race of men.

2. To eradicate; to root out; to extirpate; as to exterminate error, heresy, infidelity, or atheism; to exterminate vice.

The emphasis of the word had to do with driving out, not with killing. LDS Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith understood that the intention of the “extermination order” was a call for the displacement of the Saints. He explained, “…this action was a concerted effort on the part of state officials, to…cause them [Church members] to be driven from the state” (Church History and Modern Revelation, 3:155).

Months before Governor Boggs issued his order, LDS leader Sidney Rigdon gave a speech in which he told the Latter-day Saints,

“And that mob that comes on us to disturb us; it shall be between them and us a war of extermination, for we will follow them, till the last drop of their blood be spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us; for we will carry the seat of war to their own houses, and their own families, and one party or the other shall be utterly destroyed–Remember it then all Men.”

Sidney Rigdon spoke of spilling blood; Governor Boggs did not. In fact, Governor Boggs later stated that he had hoped to curb the Mormon insurrection without bloodshed, thinking his call for several thousand troops would “awe them into submission.”

As a side note, as I researched this topic, I found it interesting that late LDS Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, in his little book Truth Restored, wrote of this time, “…mobs [against the Mormons] menacingly rode through the Mormon communities, determined to wage ‘a war of extermination'” (page 57). Mr. Hinckley used terminology directly from Sidney Rigdon’s speech, not from Governor Boggs’ order; yet he did not tell his readers about the initial warning issued by that Mormon leader. He did not mention that Joseph Smith’s right-hand man uttered those fightin’ words.

Another fact that is important to note regarding the action mandated by the 1838 “extermination order” is that it was issued as a military order. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism explains,

“Boggs, acting in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Missouri militia, ordered General John B. Clark to March to Ray County with a division of militia to carry out operations against armed Mormons. The order described the Mormons as being in ‘open and avowed defiance of the laws, and of having made war upon the people of this State.'” (Volume 1, “Extermination Order”)

This was in consequence of (among other things) the October 25th Battle of Crooked River, in which an armed company of Mormon men attacked state troops. The situation in upper Missouri continued to escalate until Joseph Smith’s surrender on November 1, 1838, bringing the Mormon War in Missouri to an end. Some believe it also ended the binding force of the “extermination order” as that was a military order given to direct troops in a time of war.

Whatever the case, the “extermination order” never gave people wholesale permission to “shoot Mormons on sight” in Missouri or anywhere else. Mormons have a skewed view of the Missouri persecutions and Governor Boggs’ “extermination order” as demonstrated by the comments quoted above. Misinformation and false assertions abound, whipping up indignation all around. Consider this comment left by someone at a web site dedicated to “Archiving Early America”:

“Hundreds of Mormons were beaten, lynched, murdered, looted, tarred and raped under color of Executive Order Number 44 [the so-called “Extermination Order”].”

This is just not true, plain and simple. History does not support this assertion, yet Mormons believe and repeat these things, all the while building their senses of identity and foundations of faith on yet one more faith-promoting deception.

About Sharon Lindbloom

Sharon surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus Christ in 1979. Deeply passionate about Truth, Sharon loves serving as a full-time volunteer research associate with Mormonism Research Ministry. Sharon and her husband live in Minnesota.

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21 Responses to Governor Boggs vs. the Mormons

  1. Michael P says:

    Interesting…

    I hadn’t seen these facts before, and if true, this kind of makes you really wonder what other myths Mormons believe. This is even more interesting given the context of how they like to point out supposed lies against them…

  2. Andrea says:

    Didn’t JS flee Missouri back to Illinois because he was accused of being a conspirator in the attempted murder of Gov. Boggs? I may not be remembering that right, please correct me if I’m wrong.

  3. Sharon Lindbloom says:

    Andrea,

    The attempted assassination against Governor Boggs happened in May, 1842 — three years after Joseph Smith left Missouri. However, Joseph, was arrested for the shooting, but was later discharged. Joseph’s bodyguard, Porter Rockwell, was also arrested. He was imprisoned in Missouri for nine months, but was then released without trial. Later, Rockwell boasted to his friends that he had indeed shot Governor Boggs.

  4. Andrea says:

    Thank you for the info Sharon! 🙂

  5. mobaby says:

    It is interesting that the only “extermination order” came from Sidney Rigdon. His language gives context to what the Governor of Missouri was facing – a group of people issuing threats of war and spilling blood. Thinking about it, there are many different religious groups at that time (and since then) in the US with non-mainstream views such as the Shakers, Unitarian Universalists, Christian Scientists, Quakers, Amish, etc. and nothing approaches the sort of antagonism between the government of the State of Missouri and the Mormons is seen anywhere else. It would be simplistic to say “they just didn’t like the Mormons” – there has to be a context to what happened if you think about it. The US is very tolerant of different faiths – there has to be reasons behind what happened. The Governor did not just wake up one day and say “I don’t like what those Mormons believe, let’s arm and go after them.” That would make no sense and does not make any sense when you observe the peaceful religious diversity seen throughout the rest of the country. I am sure there has been and will be religious tension in other situations in the US, but nothing yet has come close to what we see here. If for some bizarre reason my church (or some other religious group) starting issuing threats of war I am sure the government would respond (as they should). If the government did not respond they would not be fulfilling their duty to protect.

  6. germit says:

    MOBABY: Wow, you hit the sweet spot with that post, but I’m guessing the LDS won’t find it so sweet. Great post, and I have only the upmost respect for LDS historians, R.Bushman comes to mind, who try and present the context for the actions of ALL parties involved. “Publicist history” does no one a favor, including the LDS church itself. Many on the gov’t side stepped outside their moral and ethical responsibility, but the situation was not nearly (as far as I can tell) as one sided and lopsided as the above quotes would have us believe. The truth has a way of coming out. With Rigdon’s comments hanging in the air, and the number of armed LDS at 1000 or better, something had to be done. More proof that theocracies, esp. armed ones, don’t work so well in the U.S. I’m thinking your post is going to strike a nerve or two. GERMIT ps: DOF, are you lurking, sleeping, or on a mission??

  7. S.Faux says:

    Sharon:

    If my house were to be infested with termites and I called the exterminator, I would hope there would be an implicit understanding that I was not interested in any attempt to drive the critters away. I would want them dead. I would want the exterminator to live up to his/her title.

    So, you can define “extermination” anyway you want, but I think Bogg’s extermination order deserves its unique status in the annals of the history of the United States. It was simply a violation of the U.S. Constitution, and it is something this country should NEVER have to endure again.

  8. Sharon Lindbloom says:

    S. Faux,

    I agree that both extermination threats/orders — from the Mormons and from the Governor — were wrong. Yet the definition of “exterminate” should not be overlooked. Today, of course, we do understand “exterminate” to primarily mean, “to kill.” But this was not so in 1838, and that is when the order was given. Because the LDS Church and Church members perpetuate the ideas that the United States Government ordered Mormons killed and it was legal in Missouri to “shoot Mormons on sight,” this is an important detail of which people need to be aware.

    Thanks for your input.

  9. Jeffrey says:

    I’m willing to admit that I haven’t done any research on this besides the 15 minutes I took to read some articles online about it all, but here’s my take on it.

    There was much “heat” between the government and the Mormons. From both sides, so no party is exactly innocent. I’m willing to bet that both sides started bothering one another little by little, until they started throwing heavier fists at one another. Some quotes by Mormon Leadership, even Joseph Smith himself show that they didn’t exactly have peace in mind. They were ticked off at the government and lashing out at them, causing the no-nonsense government to lash back.

    Boggs used the word exterminate, and while I believe it was his hope to subdue the civil unrest without people dying, he still left the door open of “by any means necessary” by using that word and not further clarifying. I do believe as Sharon does that the word exterminate meant something less lethal back then as it does now.

    As far as “Mormons are kill on sight”, I would like to see a source in which that statement is used. Thats oversensationalizing the extermination order. I don’t think that was ever in the mind of government authority, however I wouldn’t doubt it was in the mind of some individuals fighting for the government

    From what I researched, I don’t think either party was innocent and I believe it got completely out of hand. It didn’t need to go that far. I’m wondering if it was persecution by citizens that caused this uprising among the Mormons, and the government stepped in without trying to understand both sides of the story. Anyone know if this was the case? Or did it all start between government and Mormons?

  10. GRCluff says:

    I have family journals, published in 1899 that address this issue. Here is a quote, for example:

    The almost universal feeling throughout the land was to exterminate the Mormons; which led men to act more like demons than like human beings or Christians. Christian ministers and divines participated in, and were, in many instances, the main instigators of the persecutions.

    Not ouly the men of the Church suffered and were slain, but the women and children were cruelly murdered, and the whole people driven from the State at the point of the bayonet.

    This is an exact quote from people who WERE PRESENT. The lack of clarification or apology from Gov. Boggs means he cleared endorsed the activities he started.

  11. GRCluff says:

    Here’s another quote:

    When we moved to Nauvoo the girls, who were usually from Missouri, used to tell me what they had suffered. One girl said after they had gone to bed, they heard a dreadful noise on thier house top. The roof was soon torn off and swearing, drunken men carried her father off, and drove her mother and children into the streets where hey found many other people. They had to hide in the woods. An awful storm came and their baby died from exposure.

    Another girl said when her sister was out milking one evening two men rode up with swords on their pant-legs, and pistols in their hands. One shot down the cow and jumping from his horse cut a strip of hide down the back of the dying cow and tied his horse to it while he came up to the house and ordered her mother to take her brats and leave the country at once. Many of our people were killed outright, and many more died from fright and exposure.

  12. mobaby says:

    GRCluff – I am sure everything you have posted happened. What is lacking is the context in which it happened. How did society in Missouri get to that point? What led up to the tension between Mormons and others? As I said earlier, people of a variety of religious beliefs have lived in this country in relative peace with one another – and I am sure there were other religious minorities at that time in Missouri. What went awry in this situation? I don’t believe the blame lies completely with one side – but if tensions rose and resulted in the Mormons responding by issuing threats against others – threats of war, then I can see how an armed militia threatening bloodshed would provoke a response by the government. Rigdon seems to have been speaking of extermination as death or bloodshed, while the Governor clearly gives the goal of driving the Mormons from the state. I think his main goal of “exterminating” the Mormons was to crush the uprising and militant tensions that they were inciting as evidenced by Rigdons statement. Crushing their will for violence or driving them from the state if necessary if they will not relent. I have no doubt that both sides overstepped their bounds (as always happens in “war”), but given the situation, the Governor most likely had to act. I don’t think Gov. Boggs started the situation – he responded to an ongoing problem.

  13. GRCluff says:

    The ongoing problem was– Missouri was a slave state and Mormons were open abolitionists. Can you continue to defend Gov. Boggs now?

    At that point in time, JS had not entertained any ideas on pologamy. It was the unpopular political views for the state, not religious view sthat were being questioned.

    Gov. Boggs was defending his political position on slavery by killing the opposition. Do you still need to defend him?

  14. Sharon Lindbloom says:

    More historical information about this time in LDS history is available in a Mormon Coffee blog posted July 4, 2007 — find it here: http://blog.mrm.org/2007/07/fourth-of-july-in-far-west-1838/

  15. Michael P says:

    Cluff,
    I am not an expert by any means on this time period, but your explanation seems overly simplistic. Threatening the entire religion because they were abolotionsis? I know the issue was hot, and high tension surrounded it, but I have a really hard time buying this very simplistic and white-washed version of history.

    My understanding is that the Mormon were also provacative, and really forced their way into things and turned a lot of people off by there methods and religion. I expect that the Governor of Missouri reacted after things had escalated on both sides, Mormons no more innocent than the state.

    A bried historical comparison: the start of WWI, where we in the west blame Germany but truth told the war broke out after many years of military build up and rising tensions. One isolated instance, the assassination of the archduke, and the tensions boil over.

    Rigdon’s comments speak of the Mormon ideology and your hands are not clean.

  16. Arthur Sido says:

    GRCluff,

    “At that point in time, JS had not entertained any ideas on pologamy.” The order was signed October 27, 1838. According to D&C 132, Smith was not only entertaining ideas on polygamy, it has been “revealed to him”:

    Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Nauvoo, Illinois, recorded July 12, 1843, relating to the new and everlasting covenant, including the eternity of the marriage covenant, as also plurality of wives. HC 5: 501–507. Although the revelation was recorded in 1843, it is evident from the historical records that the doctrines and principles involved in this revelation had been known by the Prophet since 1831.

    Not saying that was the driving force behind the order, but lets keep in perspective here that Smith was “entertaining ideas” about polygamy seven years prior to this time.

  17. germit says:

    All LDS listeners: the point Mobaby seems to be making is that everyone is well served to try and understand how these tragedies happened, and how things escalated. Painting the governor, or the mormons for that matter, in the worst possible light, does no one any favors. Sooner or later, the discussion of mormon use of force is going to wander a thousand miles west, and I am NOT just talking about Mountain Meadow. Call this a red herring all you want, but this gets at the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of escalation reg. the mormons and not hundreds of other sects or groups. I think the core issue is the LDS idea (now abandoned, I think) of establishing a physical, tangible, kingdom of God NOW, peacefully if possible, but when provoked…..As I’ve said: I don’t think the LDS are hanging on to this understanding of Zion anymore, but it was very real back in ’38. NOTHING justifies the extreme violence done to LDS, or anyone else in these conflicts. GERMIT

  18. Andrea says:

    Cluff wrote,
    “Missouri was a slave state and Mormons were abolitionists.”

    Can you help me out with where you got that info from? Cuz here’s what I’ve read:
    “I do not believe that the people of the North have any more right to say that the South shall not hold slaves, than the South have to say the North shall…. the first mention we have of slavery is found in the Holy Bible…. And so far from that prediction being averse to the mind of God, it [slavery] remains as a lasting monument of the decree of Jehovah, to the shame and confusion of all who have cried out against the South, in consequence of their holding the sons of Ham in servitude.”
    – Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church, v. 2, p. 438

    “‘Are the Mormons abolitionists?’ No, unless delivering the people from priestcraft, and the priests from the power of Satan, should be considered abolition. But we do not believe in setting the negroes free.
    – Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church, v.3, p. 29

    To paraphrase Cluff, can you continue to defend JS/Missouri Mormons now? What trick will you pull out of The Vault of Persecutions next?

  19. Michael P says:

    I think the line was given as a faith promoting line, Andrea. GRCluff took it at face value, and did not look into the matter.

    There is most certainly more going on here than they let on, probably more than they know.

    I hope they take what they see here and verify.

  20. naturalverities says:

    Fascinating discussion, esp. as I just finished reading the mesmerizing first-hand account of the Missouri/LDS “war” by LDS member and “traitor” Reed Peck. His explanation of how things could have gone so far wrong is to lay the blame squarely at the feet of J. Smith and S. Rigdon. Far West was thriving at the time while Kirtland OH was a fiscal fiasco. Smith and Rigdon arrived in Far West with a mountain of obligations and swiftly moved to “consecrate” “surplus” properties of prosperous members, forming a “Danite” police force to suppress dissent by violence if necessary. Rigdon also began preaching conquest as noted above. Tensions with Gentile neighbors mounted. Danites invaded the Gentile town of Dewitt but were forced to leave by the arrival of local militia in superior numbers. With the pretext of defending brethren against Gentile hostility, Danite bands began looting and burning Gentile farms and villages. Missouri responded by sending militia to keep peace but Mormons were incited by false reports to attack the militia. Up to this point Boggs had been under the impression that the Mormons were the threatened group, but as reports came in from those who had abandoned their holdings and fled the Danite gangs, Boggs realized his error and gave the infamous extermination order. Fortunately, major bloodshed was averted as Smith saw reason and sued for a treaty of “compromise”, the terms of which included property restitution and the departure of the Saints from the state (and thus from “Zion”). Tragically, the retaliatory spirit subsequently caused unofficial militia bands to commit horrible atrocities against innocent Saints (E.G. at Hawns Mills), NOT by Boggs’ order. Peck’s eye-opening manuscript can be found here: http://www.mormoninformation.com/reedpeck.htm

  21. mlfurm says:

    Sharon, your historical accounts contradict your claim about a milder definition of the word ‘exterminate.’ Simply because a Webster dictionary of the time defines the word as such does not mean that is the way people used and thought of the word. If ‘exterminate’ did not mean kill/shed blood then why would Sydney Rigdon have used it in such a way. No one listening to him would have understood what he meant. Exterminate meant kill then just as it does now and you should stop spinning things to meet your agenda. Was “Googling” the phrase “Shoot on sight,” really your primary source of info for this piece?

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