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Governor Thomas Ford
and the Nauvoo Riots

Doug Moeckel
Washington School, Peoria

The Mormons are members of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who believe the church has been restored by divine means in modern times. Joseph Smith founded the church in April 1830. He moved his following to Nauvoo, Illinois in 1838. Thomas Ford was the governor of Illinois at a time when difficulties arose with the Mormon settlers.

Ford's gubernatorial term began in 1842 when he defeated Joseph Duncan. Ford had been a lawyer and served with honor as a circuit judge. Ford was widely respected. One of the reasons was Ford's series of confrontations with Joseph Smith. Ford and Smith first met as the result of a warrant Governor Carlin of Missouri issued for Smith's arrest as a fugitive from the law in Missouri. Smith tried to test the warrant in federal court. Smith's plan ended when Governor Ford had a warrant issued for Smith's arrest as a fugitive from law in Illinois. Smith was jailed in Missouri, but Judge Pope, a good friend of his in the federal court, proved both warrants invalid, and discharged Smith from jail.

In 1844 Ford again confronted Smith. Smith and the Mormons were accused of destroying an anti-Mormon Nauvoo paper, the Expositor. On June 23, 1844, Ford wrote a letter to Smith demanding that "well informed and discreet persons," capable of expressing Mormon views on the destruction of the Expositor, be sent to him. Two Mormon representatives went to Carthage to meet with Governor Ford. John Taylor, one of the representatives, claimed of the anti-Mormons in Nauvoo that "the towers are filled with a perfect set of rabbles and rowdies" and that they "seem to be holding a great saturation, whooping, yelling and vociferating as the bedlam had broken loose." Taylor went on to say that Joseph and his brother Hyrum had already been tried once for wrecking the Expositor and could not be tried again. Taylor also asked it the state militia could be sent to Nauvoo to protect Joseph and the people of his town from anti-Mormons. Ford told Taylor he would protect Nauvoo only if the Smiths turned themselves in.

Both of the spokesmen returned to Nauvoo with a letter from Ford to Smith. Ford explained "your conduct in the destruction of the press was a very gross outrage upon the laws and libels of the people." He also demanded that any and all of the Mormons who were guilty of the destruction of the press come to Carthage and surrender to the law. Governor Ford threatened the Mormons with the militia to enforce the law. Joseph and Hyrum Smith decided it would be best to turn themselves in and avoid the mobs of angry anti-Mormons.

Joseph and Hyrum Smith arrived at Carthage the next day, June 25. Ford had a warrant prepared and served, charging Smith with treason. When Smith was taken to the cell on the second floor at the Carthage jail, Ford went there and met with the Mormon leader. They were able to agree on everything that Ford discussed with the representatives, except the destruction of the Expositor. Ford explained that a free press is important in the United States and should not be jeopardized. Smith complained that the paper was filled with lies written by anti-Mormon vagabonds. After several hours, they finally agreed that Smith was wrong. Later that day, Dan Jones, the cellmate of the Smiths, overheard a group plotting to kill Smith when Governor Ford left. Jones warned Ford of the plot, but Ford responded that he was unnecessarily concerned for the safety of his friends. Ford left it at that and prepared to depart.

State militiamen at Carthage were disbanded except for three groups. Two groups were left in Carthage to control the anti-Mormon mobs. Ford and the third company left for Nauvoo to urge a surrender of state arms still there. In Nauvoo further problems arose with anti-Mormons; thus, Ford left the third

Governor Thomas Ford resigned his seat on the Illinois Supreme Court to run on the Whig ticket in 1842.


company there to protect the people of Nauvoo. Ford feared for his life and went to Quincy. There he learned that Joseph and Hyrum Smith had been killed on June 26, 1844.

Governor Ford continued to be respected by many of his contemporaries. Difficult times with Joseph Smith and the Mormons, however, caused Governor Ford to take measures that some have questioned many years later.[From Newton Bateman, A Complete History of Huncock County; F. M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History; C. Carmen, The Farm Boy and the Angel; R. B. Flanders, Nauvoo; L. K. and V. T. Avery Newell, Mormon Enigma; Theodore C. Pease, Centennial History of Illinois.]


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