Joseph and Hyrum's Last Ride—A Ride of Courage

By Pamela Price

"I will die before I will be called a coward."—Joseph Smith

Photograph, by Barbara Newcome, of the sculpture, "Calm as a Summer's Morning," depicting Joseph and Hyrum Smith as they rode to Carthage, Illinois, before their martyrdom.

Joseph the Prophet knew that he could not get a fair trial at Carthage, but that he would be murdered while in custody if he surrendered to law officials to answer charges of committing riot in the case of the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor. Hoping to travel to Washington DC, the nation's capital, and seek justice, he fled across the Mississippi River to Iowa Territory. From there, on June 23, he wrote Emma his wife, declaring:

I do not know where I shall go or what I shall do, but shall if possible endeavor to get to the city of Washington. (RLDS History of the Church 2:770; see also Inez Smith Davis, The Story of the Church, 339)

Joseph's great-granddaughter wrote:

Joseph Smith had contemplated leaving Nauvoo and perhaps taking his case up to Federal authorities in Washington. (Inez Smith Davis, The Story of the Church, 338)

Joseph Smith Jr.
The Prophet Joseph Smith, who was martyred on June 27, 1844.

Joseph had traveled to Washington in 1840, where he had sought redress for the wrongs against the Church in Missouri. He had some knowledge of how he might go about appealing for help from government officials in Washington.

But his brethren in the Church called him a coward for leaving Nauvoo, and upon learning what they had said, Joseph said he would rather be dead than to be called a coward, so he returned to Nauvoo to surrender to law officials at Carthage, where he believed he would be murdered.

Elder Edmund Briggs of the Reorganized Church told of an interview he had in 1856 with Emma, Joseph's widow. Briggs wrote:

I then said to her [Emma]: "Did Joseph have any knowledge or premonition of his death before it took place?"

She replied: "Yes, he was expecting it for some time before he was murdered. . . . He was promised if he would go and hide from the Church until it was cleansed, he should live until he had accomplished his work in the redemption of Zion; and he once left home, intending not to return until the Church was sifted and thoroughly cleansed, but his persecutors were stirring up trouble at the time and his absence provoked some of the brethren to say he had run away, and they called him a coward, and Joseph heard of it and he then returned, and said, 'I will die before I will be called a coward.' (Edmund C. Briggs, Early History of the Reorganization, 83; The Saints' Herald 48 [February 20,1901]: 145)

Joseph and Hyrum returned to Nauvoo and made speedy preparations to go to Carthage and voluntarily surrender to Constable Bettisworth, who held a writ against them on a charge of riot for destroying the press, type, and fixtures of the Nauvoo Expositor.

W. W. Blair, President Joseph Smith Ill's counselor, reported conversations which he had with Joseph's widow, Emma, on two separate occasions. Blair wrote:

Emma and yourng David, born after Joseph's death
Emma and young David, born after Joseph's death

The late sister Emma, widow of Joseph the Seer, said to the writer and others, on the evening of April 6th 1860, that just prior to her husband's assassination, he told her the Church would be scattered from Nauvoo, and that when that took place she was to remain with the family in Nauvoo, or remove to Kirtland.

In 1866 the writer went to Nauvoo in company with Bro. I. L. Rogers and the late Wm. Marks . . . while there Sr. Emma related to us that when her husband was getting ready to go with John P. Green to Carthage, to place himself in the custody of the civil authorities, he exhibited much anxiety and uneasiness, starting and returning twice or thrice, remarking in the meantime that he was not yet at liberty to go. On returning the last time he requested Emma to call the family together, when he told them he should never see them again in the flesh, that his work was done. After this he prayed with them, blessed them one after the other, and predicted that Emma [who was four months pregnant] would bear a son. He then, also, told his wife the Church would be scattered from Nauvoo, and instructed her as before that the family should remain at Nauvoo, or go to Kirtland. (The Saints' Advocate 5 [July 1882]: 223–224)

The following statement is found in the Doctrine and Covenants:

When Joseph went to Carthage to deliver himself up to the pretended requirements of the law . . . he said: "I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as the summer's morning; I have a conscience void of offense, toward God, and toward all men—I SHALL DIE INNOCENT, AND IT SHALL YET BE SAID OF ME, HE WAS MURDERED IN COLD BLOOD."

The same morning, after Hyrum had made ready to go—shall it be said to the slaughter? Yes, for so it was—he read the following paragraph near the close of the fifth chapter of Ether in the Book of Mormon, and turned down the leaf upon it:

And it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord that he would give unto the Gentiles grace, that they might have charity. And it came to pass that the Lord said unto me, If they have not charity, it mattereth not unto thee, thou hast been faithful; wherefore thy garments shall be made clean.

And because thou hast seen thy weakness, thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father.

And now I, Moroni, bid farewell unto the Gentiles, yea, and also unto my brethren whom I love, until we shall meet before the judgment seat of Christ, where all men shall know that my garments are not spotted with your blood." (RLDS Doctrine and Covenants 113:4a–5c; LDS Doctrine and Covenants 135:4–5)

Hyrum Smith
Presiding Patriarch Hyrum Smith, martyred with his brother.

Joseph and Hyrum and about fifteen others, all riding horses, left Nauvoo on Monday, June twenty-fourth, at six-thirty in the morning. They rode up the hill, and as they passed the Temple, Joseph paused and is reported to have stated,

This is the loveliest place and the best people under the heavens; little do they know the trials that await them. (LDS History of the Church 6:554)

After almost three and a half hours in the saddle, they arrived at Albert G. Fellows' farm, which was four miles west of Carthage. There they were met by Captain Dunn and about sixty militiamen, who presented an order from Governor Thomas Ford, demanding that the Nauvoo Legion surrender all state arms in its possession. To this Joseph agreed. It is reported that the Prophet then turned to his company and prophesied:

"I am going like a lamb to the slaughter, but I am calm as a summer's morning. I have a conscience void of offense toward God and toward all men. If they take my life I shall die an innocent man, and my blood shall cry from the ground for vengeance, and it shall be said of me 'He was murdered in cold blood!' " (ibid., 555)

Joseph and his company were requested to accompany Captain Dunn and his men to Nauvoo to collect the arms. Saddle-weary they arrived back at Nauvoo at two-thirty. Joseph requested that Governor Ford's order be complied with, and by six o'clock the arms had been reluctantly surrendered. It was on this return trip that Joseph told Emma to call together their four children—Julia, Joseph III, Frederick, and Alexander. As bravely as he could, the young Prophet told his wife and children, and probably his mother Lucy, who was living with them, that he would never see them again in this life.

Joseph went out the door. There was the stamping of prancing horses, the commands of the horsemen, and the creaking of saddles as Joseph and others mounted their horses to start again for Carthage. They began their journey by traveling north on Main Street. As they rode along, Joseph said to his companions:

"Boys, if I don't come back, take care of yourselves; I am going like a lamb to the slaughter." (ibid., 558)

It was a beautiful time of day; the warm sun was low in the West, and after leaving Nauvoo, the road went past Joseph's farm, where he loved to visit and take Emma and their children on carriage rides. His daughter Julia especially liked to go with him. His eyes lingered over the fertile scene of plowed ground and lush green grass and trees. He studied the scene as they passed by, and as they were leaving the farm behind, he turned again and again in his saddle to look back as if he were unable to part with the view. Some of the men remarked about his looking back, and Joseph replied by asking:

"If some of you had got such a farm and knew you would not see it any more, you would want to take a good look at it for the last time." (ibid., 558)

Inez Smith Davis wrote:

A group of his friends accompanied the Prophet on horseback part of the way to Carthage, unwilling to part with him, for what they felt might be the last time. Josiah Ells was one of these, and he often told of overhearing Joseph say to his brother Hyrum, who rode at his side, "Well, Brother Hyrum, we must go and lay our heads upon the sod. The mob want blood, and blood they will have. And if they do not have ours, they will kill our women and children." They had stopped at a spring for a drink of water, and when all were refreshed, he [Joseph] turned to his friends and said gently: "You, brethren, need not go further and expose yourselves to useless danger." Reluctant and sorrowing, they turned back. (The Story of the Church, 341)

It was nine o'clock before they again reached Albert Fellows' farm, where they were met by Captain Dunn that morning. Here they stopped to rest and eat food which they had brought with them. While they were stopped, Captain Dunn and his company, with the Nauvoo Legion arms in their possession, joined with Joseph and Hyrum and escorted them the remaining four miles into Carthage. Weary and sad, Joseph, Hyrum, and their company arrived at five minutes until midnight. It had been seventeen and one-half hours since they had set out that morning for Carthage, a distance of twenty-six and one-half miles. Because they were forced to go back to Nauvoo, they had ridden more than seventy miles that day.

On their way to Hamilton Tavern, where they were to be quartered that night, they passed the town square, which was crowded with troops who were drinking and celebrating the surrender of Joseph and Hyrum to authorities. More than 1,400 troops were congregated at Carthage, including the Carthage Greys, the McDonough County troops, and others. As Joseph and Hyrum arrived, they passed by the militiamen who yelled, cursed, and threatened to kill the "Mormons" in a most barbaric manner.

Upon arriving at Hamilton's tavern, they learned that their bitterest enemies, a group of conspirators and apostates from Nauvoo, were staying there also. They were the publishers and promoters of the Nauvoo Expositor. These included William and Wilson Law, the Higbees, and Joseph Jackson, who was talking freely of murdering Joseph and Hyrum (see LDS History of the Church 6:560).

The long, long day had been stressful and sad, but Joseph and Hyrum's faith in God and in the Restored Gospel had not wavered. They were brave and courageous men of God who were ready to lay down their lives as a testimony to the truthfulness of the Gospel, and to appease those who were threatening to exterminate the Saints. They could have saved their lives by fleeing from Nauvoo, but they chose instead to go to Carthage. The ride to Carthage was indeed one of courage.

(Vision 55 [February 2007]:3–4)