The Pioneers of Missouri and Illinois

A version of an address delivered Nov. 17, 1911, before the Memorial Meeting of the and Pioneers, originally published in The Utah Geological and Historical Magazine, January 1912.

By President Francis M. Lyman

The Pioneers of Missouri and Illinois
Francis M Lyman (1840-1916)

This title refers to the pioneers of Zion in Missouri and Illinois, not the initial settlers of either Missouri or Illinois. They weren’t “pioneers” in the sense of settling a wilderness, conquering a desert, or establishing a civilization. Their work resembled that of a missionary rather than a pioneer. The term “pioneer” may be appropriately applied to people striving to create Zion in Missouri in the restricted sense of “pioneer” as one who goes before and opens and leads the path for others who follow.

In this sense, there were four companies of Pioneers to Missouri: first, the Lamanite mission—which was also the Church’s first mission; second, the Church’s general missionary movement in search of Zion; third, an expedition for the redemption of Zion known as “Zion’s Camp;” and fourth, the “” movement to Zion led by the first Seven Presidents of the Seventies. It is not my intention to detail the practical history of these various Zion pioneer movements. I’m only going to talk about generalities.

To the very early Elders of the Church, two things seemed to stand out prominently in the Book of Mormon: (1) that the Nephite record contained a message to the Lamanites, or American Indians; and (2) that a great city was to be founded in the western hemisphere, the land of Joseph, to be known as the “New Jerusalem,” or Zion, the city of the pure in heart: “for this is Zion, saith the Lord, the pure in heart” (Doc. & Cov. Sec. 97:21).

Naturally, the earliest Elders of the Church were eager to expose this work to the House of Israel, to disclose to them the knowledge of their origin, the promises of the Father to them, and to learn the location of this glorious city of Zion to be built up unto the Lord in this new gospel era.

The men who were chosen to convey the Book of Mormon message to the Lamanites were Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, Peter Whitmer Jr., and Ziba Peterson.

The United States had been following up on its goal of relocating American Indians living east of the Mississippi to its limits west of Missouri for several years, until very large numbers of these native races had been located there by the time the Book of Mormon came out; therefore, the Lamanite mission naturally oriented its course to these tribes, stopping at some remnants of tribes in New York and Ohio along the way. It is impossible to say how successful this initial expedition to the Laminates was at this point. Because the results of mission activity initiated in this world and seemingly unprofitable here may be of incalculable worth in the spirit realm, the growth of the seeds thus sown may not only have been unseen by men but even unobservable by them.

But, judging by what can be seen here, and as men perceive things by their natural senses and human intelligence, no great things happened among the Indians as a result of that first mission; for no sooner had the brethren reached the Indian reservations in Indian land and begun proclamation of their message to the native races, and exposed them to the Book of Mormon, distrust of Indian agents and jealousies of sectarian priests stationed there arose. They moved to Independence, which was then just a frontier town with fifteen or twenty dwelling buildings, primarily made of hewn logs, a brick courthouse, and two or three merchant businesses. The settlement was primarily recognized as a point of departure and return for those expeditious of the American Fur Companies, whose agents operated in the far west, in the Rocky Mountain regions, along the Missouri River’s headwaters, and along the Columbia River’s valley, where they competed with the British Hudson Bay Company’s agents for fields of trade with the aboriginal races. The Lamanite mission wintered in Independence in 1830–1831, pursuing whatever jobs they could to keep themselves afloat, except for one of their number. Elder Parley P. Pratt walked from Independence to Kirtland, Ohio, through the frost and snows of that winter to report their labors and learn from the Prophet Joseph what else their mission could perform.

Meanwhile, the Church and the Prophet had relocated from New York to Kirtland, Ohio, where the Church’s body had congregated.
The work among the Lamanites had begun. However, the location for the city of Zion, the Latter-day New Jerusalem, was unclear, and the Elders at Kirtland were quite concerned about it. It was the beginning of March. 

In 1831, the Lord gave the Elders of His Church a revelation (Doc. & Cov. Sec. 45) commanding them to prepare themselves to go into the Western countries and gather their wealth to purchase an inheritance that would be assigned to them; “and it shall be called the New Jerusalem, a land of peace, a city of refuge, a place of safety for the saints of the Most High God.”

By the 7th of June, the Elders had gathered in Kirtland. The Lord had appointed them to go two and two by different routes through the western country, preaching along the way, and to meet in a conference to be held in Missouri, “upon the land which I will consecrate unto my people,” said the Lord, and if faithful, the Lord promised to make known to them “till the land of their inheritance.” Twenty-eight Elders embarked on this expedition, possibly dubbed “Seekers for the Place of the City of Zion.”

The majority of these brethren arrived in Independence in time for the early August conference. The of the Church, consisting of about sixty souls, traveled in a body first from Colesville, Broome County, New York, to Kirtland, Ohio, under the leadership of (father of “Uncle Jesse Knight”), and then from the vicinity of Kirtland, Ohio, to Independence, also under the leadership of Newel Knight. They came just a few days before the Prophet and his group and settled in Kaw township, roughly twelve miles west of Independence and currently within the Kansas City borders.

This “Colesville Branch” was made up of the Prophet’s first friends and converts; some of them, particularly the Knights, befriended him even before the Book of Mormon was translated, and the Church was formed.

“The meeting with our brethren, who had long awaited our coming,” he remarks, “was lovely, and drenched with many tears.” 

The gathering of brethren in unity felt wonderful and delightful. But the question on everyone’s minds was where the city of Zion would be built. Where will the Temple be built, to which all nations will flock in the end times? In response to these worrying questions, the Lord said:

“Hearken, O ye elders of my Church, saith the Lord your God, who have assembled yourselves together according to my commandments, in this land, which is the land of Missouri, which is the land which I have appointed and consecrated for the gathering of the saints:

“Wherefore this is the land of promise and the place for the City of Zion.

“And thus saith the Lord your God. if you will receive wisdom, here is wisdom. Behold, the place which is now called Independence, is the center place, and a spot for the temple is lying westward, upon a lot which is not far from the courthouse.”

Following this understanding of the land of Zion, the city, and the Temple, the job of laying the foundation for Zion was completed quickly.

On the 2nd of August, the Prophet aided the Colesville Branch of the Church in laying the first log for a home in Kaw Township as a foundation of Zion, the log being carried and laid by twelve men in honor of the twelve tribes of Israel. At the same time, Elder Sidney Rigdon consecrated and dedicated the land of Zion for the gathering of the Saints.

The Prophet then dedicated the Temple site, which was a little west of Independence, on the 3rd of August.

The appointed meeting was convened on the 4th of August—the conference scheduled months earlier in far-off Kirtland, Ohio, and to which the Elders had journeyed across four states—nearly a thousand miles—to attend. It was held in the presence of the Colesville Branch of the Church at Brother Joshua Lewis’ private residence in Kaw township.

The funeral of Polly Knight, wife of Joseph Knight and mother of Newel Knight, took place on the 7th. While en route to Zion, her health had been declining for some time, but she refused to halt along the road, despite her friends’ pleas, because her only desire seemed to be to see the land of Zion and place her foot there. Her heart’s desire was granted. She yearned to stand on that soil and be buried there, as she had mentioned many times along the trek. This death and funeral added a note of sadness to these lovely, peaceful days spent discovering Zion.

The Prophet and 10 of the elders began their journey back to Ohio on the 9th of August, bringing the first chapter of the history of Zion’s foundation to a close.

Men of that time, even the Zion Pioneers, could not comprehend the value of that chapter, as the Lord himself stated:

“Blessed is he that keepeth my commandments, whether in life or in death; and he that is faithful in tribulation, the reward of the same is greater in the kingdom of heaven, he cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation. For after much tribulation cometh the blessings.”

The Lord then goes on to explain why He had brought them to the location of the City of Zion, which can be stated as follows:

  1. For the Lord’s servants to bear witness to their obedience:
  2. To have the privilege of laying the foundations of Zion;
  3. For them to be able to record the location of the City of Zion in all of their future visits;
  4. The testimony of these things would come from “the City of God’s Heritage.”

One of the elders who traveled on his mission in search of Zion was Ezra Booth, a man of intellect and knowledge. When he returned to Ohio in September 1831, he announced his apostasy from the Church. He published a series of nine letters in which he ridiculed and criticized these various occurrences of the establishment of Zion.

The meeting with the Lamanite missionaries was a painful letdown for Booth; he had anticipated seeing many Indians—whole tribes of them—converted, but there were none; the meeting with the Prophet was “glorious and drenched with many tears.”

The Prophet “It was a season of joy to those present and afforded a glimpse of the future, which time will yet unfold to the satisfaction of the faithful,” according to Booth, who scorned the laying of the first log for a house by twelve men in honor of the twelve tribes of Israel as a foundation for Zion.

Booth mocked the dedication of the Temple site, saying to the Prophet, “The scene was solemn and impressive.”

The gathering on the 4th at Brother Lewis’ residence, to which the Elders had traveled a thousand miles, enraged Booth; according to the Prophet, “the Spirit of the Lord was there.”

The glory of lowly beginnings is a mystery to most persons. They scorn the acorn, oblivious that the giant oak is shrouded in the tiny seed. So, in ancient times, few men beheld the grandeur, brilliance, and glory of God—Deity in fact—in the child at Mary’s breast; but there, in that babe, was “all the fullness of the Godhead bodily,” to be developed in the Father’s manner and time. So, in August 1831, the beginning of God’s Western Zion—the founding of the Capital of the Christ’s Empire in the Western Hemisphere—began in these straightforward and homely procedures of the Church’s Elders!

At the time, the Lord’s aim in this activity was not so much to start a city as it was to begin the instruction of a people, as the record of events clearly shows. The people then had a greater need for education in the things of the latter-day kingdom—to come to know themselves and the world—than they did for a metropolis.

Two years pass in Missouri, and the saints are physically pushed from Jackson county, where they must seek sanctuary among strangers, numbering in the thousands; their homes, 200 of them, are burned or otherwise destroyed, their crops are ravaged, and they are not allowed to occupy the property they have purchased. A relief mission known as “Zion’s Camp” is organized, consisting of 214 men, a few women, and children. 

Four states are crossed once more, for a distance of about a thousand miles. The journey was incredible, full of dramatic events and exhilarating adventures. However, instead of marching into Jackson county victorious, reinstating their exiled brethren on their lands and maintaining them there despite the Jackson mob, they discover that the task is beyond them when they arrive near the county’s borders; cholera has broken out among them, many are afflicted, a number die in great agony, and the camp is disbanded. 

Some people stay in Missouri to find properties on the outskirts of the Promised Land, while others migrate to the east. The world yells “failure.”

“Well, what did you gain on this pointless excursion with Joseph Smith?” a Latter-day Saint in Kirtland asked on the street. 

Brigham Young replied, 

“All we went for. I wouldn’t give up the experience I obtained on the journey for all of Geauga County’s wealth.” 

Kirtland was located in the county at the time. The fundamental goal of Zion’s Camp, without a doubt, was to give the brethren experience.

The Quorum of the Twelve and the First Quorum of the Seventy were constituted about a year later, and when they were finished, the Prophet said:

“Brethren, some of you are angry with me because you did not fight in Missouri; but let me tell you. God did not want you to fight. He could not organize His kingdom with twelve men to open the gospel door to the nations of the earth, and with seventy men under their direction to follow in their tracks, unless he took them from a body of men who had offered their lives, and who had made as great a sacrifice as did Abraham.”

The objective of the Lord’s organization, known as Zion’s Camp at the time, was not so much to redeem Zion as it was to produce men—men for particular missions, the mission of being God’s witnesses for the truth of the New Dispensation in all the globe—men who could know themselves and whom the world could know and trust because they had given their all in sacrifice to the cause they represented.

Furthermore, the men who made up Zion’s Camp were preparing for future events in which the experience gained through a thousand-mile trek by teams and camping would be quite useful to the more than two hundred men who took part. More than a score of them in that company were leaders—captains and lieutenants—in two momentous Exodus: the first, four years in the future, involving the evacuation of twelve thousand people from Missouri to Illinois; and the second, twelve years later, including the removal of more than twenty thousand Latter-day Saints from Illinois to the Rocky Mountains.

The “Journey of Kirtland Camp,” in which a company of 529 souls gathered in 105 families, made the voyage in their wagons through four states, covering more than a thousand miles, camping along the way, and finding all manner of methods to feed themselves for the four months of that summer that it took to make the journey from Kirtland to Adam-ondi-Ahman, was doubtless of equal import and purpose to this. Kirtland Camp made its way to Missouri. Early in October 1838, just in time to be pushed out of the state with the rest of the Saints during the awful winter of 1838-1839.

In light of this conclusion, Zion’s Camp’s journey and sacrifices seem pointless! It was all for naught if the objective of these and subsequent activities was to settle Missouri lands, to pioneer the regions of Zion.

Put into practice what dozens of captains God was developing in this Kirtland Camp expedition for the Church’s Greater Exodus from the United States into the desert, which is only eight years away! Unsurprisingly, the escape from Nauvoo and the accompanying trip of thirteen hundred miles through a desert wilderness went so well. It was in the hands of seasoned leaders who had traveled between Kirtland, Ohio, and Missouri, and then from Missouri to Nauvoo, Illinois, as part of several prior pioneer movements.

All of these early Church initiatives, if understood as movements for the pioneering of Zion, in the sense of establishing the city and subduing the territories for an inheritance for the Saints, must be regarded as sad failures. These movements were not failures if they were viewed from the perspective of determining the location of the City Zion, the “New Jerusalem” of the western world, the capital of the Church of Christ, so that the Elders of the Church and the Church could bear witness of the future sanctuary of God in the land of Zion until the time came to build the City and Temple. 

However, if he adds the concept that God was looking for men and a people in these many pioneer movements, rather than a people looking for a landed inheritance, then these pioneer movements must be regarded as spectacularly successful. Through the experiences gained in those early years of the Church, all of which are carefully recorded and elaborated in our histories, and through the experiences of the Church in subsequent years, in Nauvoo and in these mountain valleys of the intermountain west, God has been preparing a people to redeem Zion. When the Lord’s time comes, and through the experiences that He and the world have been giving the Saints in Missouri, in Nauvoo, and in these mountains, God has been seeking His unique Zion—a Zion more important than a locality, a city, or land, however glorious they may be: God’s Zion—the Zion that he is seeking—is more especially a people; for this is Zion, saith the Lord, “the pure in heart” and it is more important that God finds and keeps them, than that they see and establish a City; and this He is doing—bless the Lord!

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