Friday, March 19, 2010

1838 Mormon War in Missouri

Stephen C. LeSueur. The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri. University of Missouri Press. 1987.

This book attempts to present a balanced analysis of a conflict that has been heavily influenced by one-sided partisanship. To the Missourians at the time, all evil originated from the Mormons. At times multiple Mormons were "sentenced" to the death penalty, while no non-Mormons were even tried in courts. (This in spite of non-Mormons having killed many more people.) The Mormons, on the other hand, viewed themselves as peace-loving victims of mob violence. The truth, however, lies somewhere in between.

At the core, the problem seemed to be people taking sides, unable to respect the other sides point of view. Many non-Mormons would claim to not be upset with the Mormon religion and to respect many individual Mormons. However, they distrusted Mormons as a group. The Mormons saw the non-Mormons as thugs intent on driving them out of their land.

In a way, both sides were right and both sides were wrong.

The Mormons started an internal "police" group, the Danites to help police their own membership as well as protect others. The non-Mormons created vigilante groups and called on the army to help their cause.

It only took a few small sparks to get things out of hand. A drunken brawl on election day, where Mormons were attacked set the Mormons off. The Danite group then encouraged the destruction and looting of the town. This led to the army getting called in and finally the "Crooked River" battle. The battle was only a minor skirmish, with one non-Mormon and a few Mormons being killed. However, the non-Mormons were freaked out, and there were reports of many non-Mormons being killed. This led to a great overreaction, an extermination order from the Governor, a massacre of Mormons at Haun's Mill, and the eventual eviction of all Mormons.

The battle is a story of how the "media" can assert a powerful influence on outcomes. Seemingly small events were magnified out of proportion, leading to more violence and bloodshed. Even the 'peacemakers' found themselves forced to one side. To victors also went the spoils. Massive looting (sometimes under the guise of the law) took place. Could the sides have resolved the conflict peaceably? The author of the book thinks the conflict would have happened regardless. However, if the sides had been able to communicate better with each other, there may have been a chance. (After all, everyone looked so much alike that face painting or handkerchiefs were sometimes used to tell the sides apart.) Good leadership from the Governor could have probably help avert the crisis. However, it was not forthcoming.

Could this be similar to some of the conflicts we see today, such as the war on terrorism or illegal aliens. Immigrants are often attacked because they are seen as "different". Long term residents want the land to themselves. When immigrants are Muslim or Arab, terrorism is used as an excuse. I guess 170 years has not been enough for the country to really learn how to live with people that are different.

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