Mormon heritage

The Mormons are one of the most fascinating home-grown dissenting groups in American history. They played a dramatic role in Illinois state history. Here we present an idea that intrigues us, from a June 2022 lecture by Dr. Nancy Davis (Curator Emeritus, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution) concerning the possible engagement of the Mormons at Nauvoo with the town of New Philadelphia, which is a hallmark of the African American heritage route proposed by our project. Dr. Davis’ conceptualization of the multiply colonized landscape of western Illinois between 1836-1946 suggests a layered tourism route based on African American and Mormon interaction or at least proximity.

New Philadelphia (45 acres, platted in 1836) existed in a context of nearby settler communities, just as the Mormons in Nauvoo (est. 1839) inhabited – however briefly – a landscape of neighboring pioneer settler communities. They were separated by a distance of less than 70 miles. Nauvoo was located along the Mississippi River and New Philadelphia was about 20 miles to the east of it. Western Illinois offered rich soil and the convenience of the Mississippi River as a commercial conduit.

During the early 1800s Illinois was being “unsettled” with Native American tribes being dispossessed and expelled from their ancestral territories. This process of alienation was exacerbated by President Andrew Jackson and Congress’ promulgation of “bounty land warrants” in today’s Midwest, given to the veterans of the War of 1812 (a practice that originated during America’s Revolutionary War, originally for land in Ohio). Whether veterans migrated to their new land or sold their lots to others, the result was the same, a de-indigenized landscape with the Mississippi River as the new country’s effective settlement boundary.

Illinois’ military bounty lands became available in 1817, the year before official statehood. Free Frank McWorter, who had bought himself out of slavery, acquired a quarter-section of land (160 acres) in the Illinois military tract of Hadley township in Pike County. Eventually he acquired 500 acres. Free Frank and his family (whose freedom he purchased) were the first settlers in the township. They farmed and raised livestock, the goods from which were transported on the Mississippi River. Other consumer goods arrived and left by road and train in addition to the river. The market town of New Philadelphia prospered, attracting African-Americans as well as European-Americans to settle there.

Nauvoo was also established within the Illinois military tract, its Mormon residents taking advantage of affordable property values in the existing small town of Commerce (which they renamed Nauvoo) and, like the McWorters, also fleeing persecution and oppression. New Philadelphia and Nauvoo were both refuges from hostile social and legal practices.

By 1844 Nauvoo had more than 12,000 residents, some of whom were converts from England. Nauvoo had a larger population than Chicago at the time and it was the largest city in Illinois.

It can be speculated that the McWorters and their New Philadelphia neighbors were aware of Nauvoo. We don’t know if New Philadelphia traded with Nauvoo or supplied the city with goods yet it should be noted that Nauvoo did not have a market center, suggesting that Nauvoo engaged with other communities for the provisioning of some of its needs. Newspaper items discovered by the New Philadelphia Archaeological Project speak about Solomon McWorter, son of Free Frank and Lucy, shipping his apples north to Wisconsin via the Mississippi River. With that being the case, it is inescapable that he would have seen Nauvoo en route, with its temple standing atop the bluff of the city.

Whereas a relationship between Nauvoo and New Philadelphia is possible but unsubstantiated, it is historically known that there were several smaller Mormon settlements in Nauvoo’s area. Morley or Morleytown existed from about 1840 until the Mormons left Illinois. They produced goods and serviced Nauvoo. Arguably more interesting is Mormontown (Mormon Town) (near today’s Griggsville and Pittsfield) and only about fifteen miles east of New Philadelphia.

With Nauvoo established, in 1841 Joseph Smith undertook construction of a temple with the physical labor of all able-bodied men in the Mormon community. The Mormon temple was, in its time, the largest structure north of St. Louis and west of Cincinnati. Anyone traveling on the Mississippi River could not have missed seeing the temple, which stood on an elevation in Nauvoo.

In 1844 Charles Lambert, a talented, converted stone cutter from England, designed and carved thirty decorative pilasters for the temple, each with a stone sun face on the capitals to convey a celestial kingdom. Only three sun stones survive.

Facing violent hostility from nearby locals because of their growing political power and controversial religious practices, in the winter of 1846 most Mormons in Nauvoo fled back across the Mississippi River to undertake a dramatic trek across the western United States, ultimately arriving in Utah and founding Salt Lake City. Two years later arsonists burned the temple and a tornado in 1850 completely demolished it. In 1966 excavations began in Nauvoo to recover and restore the original Mormon settlement, leading to the emergence of the field of historical archaeology in the United States.

The large, extended McWorter family remained in Illinois, but when a railroad deliberately looped around New Philadelphia in 1869 rather than stopping in it, the commercial underpinning of New Philadelphia was severely damaged and eventually the town was abandoned, to become a ruin by the early 20th century.

Most Mormons left Nauvoo but other people sought their own “paradise on earth” at this place. The Icarians – a utopian communal society – saw an opportunity to purchase land cheaply in Nauvoo from the fleeing Mormons. In 1849-1850 Icarians had migrated up the Mississippi River from their first and failed attempted settlement in Texas along with the French founder of their community, Etienne Cabet. Like the Mormons before them, the Icarians hoped to develop a community along their own ideological lines and without fear of persecution from others. When Icaria flourished, there were more than 500 community members in Nauvoo. But by 1856 Icaria started to succumb to internal dissent and various Icarians left to found their own Icarian communities elsewhere in the U.S.

Thus, Nauvoo became a multicultural town – albeit much smaller – composed of Mormons who had not fled, some Icarians (two of whom started a winery still functioning today), and others.

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