Emma's Bravery When Crossing the Mississippi

By Pamela Price

Emma Smith Crossing the Mississippi, by Virginia Brown

Emma Smith Crossing the Mississippi
By Virginia Brown

This painting by Virginia Brown depicts "a time of great suffering and heroism upon the part of early Saints, a time in which they were forced to flee from Far West, Missouri, to Illinois through bitter cold and snow in the dead of winter." It "shows Emma and her four children as they neared the end of that long, cold, tortuous journey. She finished her escape from Missouri by walking across the frozen Mississippi, and reached the eastern shore at Quincy, Illinois, where at last a warm welcome awaited her and the children." (Excerpts from the article below by Pamela Price.)

A Crucial Moment in the History of the Latter Day Saints Who Were Driven from Missouri

This painting by Virginia Brown brings to remembrance a time of great suffering and heroism upon the part of early Saints, a time in which they were forced to flee from Far West, Missouri, to Illinois through bitter cold and snow in the dead of winter. They were driven out of the state of Missouri because they refused to deny the Restoration Gospel which the Lord had restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1830. Having received many evidences of the truth of the gospel, they chose to be banished from their homes and from the state, rather than deny the faith. As a result, about twelve thousand Saints were forced to leave (many at gunpoint) between December l838 and the spring of 1839. Joseph Smith and other Church leaders were imprisoned and the Saints were left to travel the one hundred forty miles across northern Missouri as best they could. Some traveled in wagons and others on foot over primitive roads, often sleeping out-of-doors in the snow. Emma, the Prophet Joseph's faithful wife, was one of those valiant Saints who suffered through that ordeal.

Virginia's painting shows Emma and her four children as they neared the end of that long, cold, tortuous journey. She finished her escape from Missouri by walking across the frozen Mississippi, and reached the eastern shore at Quincy, Illinois, where at last a warm welcome awaited her and the children.

The "Missouri Mormon War"

The Saints had been driven out of Independence and Jackson County, Missouri, in 1833. They then moved across the Missouri River to the towns of Liberty and Richmond, and in 1836 were allowed to occupy Caldwell County. Many people were being converted to the Church in the East, and were gathering quickly into Caldwell County and surrounding areas. Their increasing numbers and rapid progress in establishing farms and villages caused the Missouri "settlers" to fear that the Saints would outvote them and control the state politically. Then too, a majority of the Saints were northerners opposed to slavery; while the settlers were southern slave owners in this period just twenty-three years before the Civil War began. These factors, along with the intensity of religious feelings of the times, culminated in what is known as the "Missouri Mormon War," in which approximately three hundred Saints lost their lives.

When violence erupted in October 1838, Missouri's governor, Lilburn Boggs, mustered thousands of state militiamen, and issued an extermination order that "The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State" (RLDS History of the Church 2:216–217).

Events happened quickly after Boggs issued the "extermination order." The Livingston County Militia massacred nineteen Saints at the village of Haun's Mill on October 30, 1838; and on the same day Major General Samuel Lucas of Jackson County (a long-time enemy of the Saints) marched against the village of Far West, the headquarters for the Church, with 2,500 militiamen, armed with state-supplied cannons and rifles. Joseph and Hyrum Smith and other Church leaders were imprisoned and the Saints were forced to surrender their weapons. Then the mobocratic militiamen, with their intense hatred for the Latter Day Saints, were in complete control of Far West. Men, women, and children were abused, women were raped, and their farm animals on which they depended for food and milk were slaughtered and other food supplies cut off. Their property was stolen, their homes ransacked and pillaged, and through the weeks that followed, the Saints were driven from their warm hearths into the wild winter storms.

(A more complete story of the trials of the Saints during this period is recorded in The Restoration Story, pages 99–117; The Story of the Church, pages 261-287; and RLDS History of the Church 2:185–351.)

The Church Leaders Were Imprisoned

After being taken captive, Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and four others were imprisoned throughout the winter in the jail at Liberty, Missouri.

Before leaving the state, Emma Smith visited Joseph at the jail several times. On at least two of those visits she took Joseph Smith III, then a boy of six. Joseph III later recalled his father's captivity at Far West, a visit to him in Liberty Jail, and the exodus with his mother from the state of Missouri. Joseph III declared:

I remember vividly the morning my father came to visit his family after the arrest that took place in the fall of l838. When he was brought to the house by an armed guard I ran out of the gate to greet him, but was roughly pushed away from his side by a sword in the hand of the guard and not allowed to go near him. My mother, also, was not permitted to approach him and had to receive his farewell by word of lip only. The guard did not permit him to pass into the house nor her to pass out, either because he feared an attempt would be made to rescue his prisoner or because of some brutal instinct in his own breast. . . .

I remember that later I visited the jail at Liberty when my father and others . . . were confined. . . . There is a memory of accompanying my mother on another visit to the jail, and it was upon the occasion of one or the other of these visits that my father, with another, laid hands upon my head and blessed me, as his eldest son, to the blessings which had come down to him through the blessings of his progenitors [to later succeed him in the prophetic office]. . . . The circumstance itself was indelibly fastened upon my memory. (Saints' Herald, November 6, 1934, p. 1414)

The Preservation of the Inspired Version of the Scriptures

With the Prophet imprisoned and the militia occupying Far West, mobocracy was rampant. Joseph and Emma's home, a little two-roomed house near the town square, was searched and pillaged more than once. Fortunately, some very important Church documents, including the manuscript of the Inspired Version, were not in Joseph's home, but were in the possession of Joseph's secretary, James Mulholland. Elder Mulholland became concerned for the safety of the Church papers after the mob searched Joseph and Emma's house and the home of Mulholland's father-in-law. He knew that if any papers belonging to Joseph or pertaining to the Church could be located by the militiamen, they would be confiscated. Since it was public knowledge that he was Joseph's scribe, Mulholland feared the Church documents would be taken from him. To insure their safety, he placed them in the care of his wife's sister, Ann Scott, a devout young Church member. Ann later wrote her testimony of "Spiritual Reminiscences," in which she told of giving the precious Church documents to the Prophet's wife just prior to her departure from Far West. Ann Scott Davis wrote:

Persecution by the mob began that very winter [1838-39], and they frequently searched my father's house, and were very insulting in their deportment. They also searched other houses of the Saints, including that of President Joseph Smith, who at the time was confined in Liberty Jail. Joseph's confinement in prison, coupled with the ruthless invasions of the mob, caused his scribe, Elder James Mulholland, to seek a place of safety for important church papers in his possession. Among the papers in Mulholland's keeping was the manuscript of the Inspired Translation of the Bible, the revelation on the rebellion, etc., etc.

Bro. Mulholland requested me to take charge of these papers, as he thought they would be more secure with me, because I was a woman, and the mob would not be likely to search my person. Immediately on taking possession of the papers, I made two cotton bags of sufficient size to contain them, sewing a band around the top ends of sufficient length to button around my waist; and I carried those papers on my person in the daytime, when the mob was round, and slept with them under my pillow at night. I cannot remember now the exact length of time I had those papers in my possession; but I gave them to Sister Emma Smith, the prophet's wife, on the evening of her departure [from Far West] for Commerce [Nauvoo]. (Ann Scott Davis, Autumn Leaves 4:18)

The Perilous Journey

Pressure from the militia-mob continued throughout the winter, which caused many Saints to flee to Illinois amid hazardous weather conditions. Emma Smith was among those suffering refugees. She was fortunate to have a driver for her team of horses and a wagon to carry her, the children, some of her household goods and of course, the precious Church documents. Joseph III recorded some of his memories of the long journey from Far West. He stated:

Of the exodus from Missouri before reaching the Mississippi at Quincy I have one recollection which is definite and clear. That is of our arrival at a log farmhouse at the side of the road, along in the afternoon. As the team stopped it was assailed by a pack of dogs, but the farmer, coming to the door, told us not to fear for they would not hurt anyone. In answer to our inquiry as to whether he could keep us overnight he said, "Certainly," and bade us enter.

Mother and we children went in, leaving someone, whom I seem to remember as Jonathan Holman, to care for the team. This team was composed of two large black horses, one called Charlie and the other Jim. . . .

The farmhouse was what was called a double log house that is, it had two large rooms built separately but connected by a large open space closed up on one side and roofed over like the house. In this space were stored grain, produce, different kinds of harness, saddles, implements, and other things pertaining to farm life in Missouri.

The farmer was a sturdy man and gave us a hearty welcome. The weather was cold, but there was a great fire in one end of the living room and we were soon very comfortable. We had supper and afterwards beds were made, some on the bedstead and some on the floor, which we were permitted to occupy. We slept cozily in the warmth of that big fire as it gradually waned to a bed of coals.

We had an early start next morning, but of other incidents connected with the long journey of crossing the State I have little memory until we reached the river. The weather had become extremely cold and the river was frozen over, so that we crossed upon the ice. (Saints' Herald, November 6, l934, p. 1416)

Crossing the Frozen River

Crossing the Mississippi River was a serious matter. The ferries (the usual method of crossing) could not operate because the river was frozen. But the question facing them was whether or not the ice was thick enough to support two large horses and the heavy wagon. If not, it could mean death by drowning. Therefore, Emma chose to walk with her little ones across on the ice, keeping a safe distance between her family and the wagon. Joseph III recalled the crossing with these words:

Charlie, the more intelligent animal of the team, was hitched to the tongue of the wagon and the driver, walking behind him, held the end of the tongue in his hand, guiding the horse across. This was considered the safest way to make the crossing for it was feared the ice might not be strong enough to bear the weight of the double team and the loaded wagon.

Carrying in her arms my brothers, Frederick and Alexander (the latter born the preceding June), with my sister, Julia, and myself holding onto her dress at either side, my mother walked across the frozen river and reached the Illinois shore in safety. This, then, was the manner of our passing out of the jurisdiction of a hostile State into the friendlier shelter of the State of Illinois, early in 1839. (ibid.)

At the time they crossed the river, Joseph III was six years of age, Julia (an adopted daughter) was seven, Frederick was two, and Alexander eight months old. Emma's last effort to reach the end of the perilous journey and the safety of the Illinois shore was a dramatic and crucial moment in Church history; for clinging to Emma's skirt was Joseph III, the future prophet of the Church; and she was carrying Alexander, a future apostle, presiding patriarch, and member of the First Presidency. Around her waist, beneath her skirt, she wore the waistband given to her by Ann Scott. She could feel the weight and bulkiness of papers beneath her skirts, and knew that the manuscript of the "Inspired Translation" of the Bible, and other valuable Church documents, were safe from the mobs at last. God had brought her, the children, and His Scriptures to safety.

Joseph III, in telling of their arrival in Illinois, quoted from a history, Recollections of the Pioneers of Lee County [Illinois], which was published in 1893 by Inez A. Kennedy of Dixon, Illinois. Over eleven pages are given to the life of Emma Smith. Joseph III, when telling of their arrival in Illinois, chose this quotation from page ninety-nine.

She found a hospitable welcome at the home of a family by the name of Cleveland, where she remained during the long winter, sad, but trusting, and in faithful expectancy waiting for her husband's relief and delivery from bonds. When at last he was free, she welcomed him with a wife's rapture, and was ready to begin again the life of devotion to his happiness as she had ever been. (Saints' Herald, November 6, 1934, p. 1416)

(Vision 19 [April 1995]: 9–11)

"While I have powers of body and mind; while water runs and grass grows; while virtue is lovely, and vice hateful; and while a stone points out a sacred spot where a fragment of American liberty once was, I or my posterity will plead the cause of injured innocence, until Missouri makes atonement for all her sins."

— Joseph Smith (RLDSHistory of the Church 2:711)

The above painting is available for purchase at the Restoration Bookstore and online.