Reformers, Zealots, and Dreamers
Communitarianism in western Illinois
See Illinois (unpublished)
For a time, western Illinois was the site of some remarkable experiments in group settlement and communal living. Two of these utopias—the Mormon and Icarian town of Nauvoo in Hancock County (which I wrote about here and here) and Bishop Hill (which I wrote about here and here)—remain obscure even in Illinois.
Some of this material appears in a different form in my book, Corn Kings & One-Horse Thieves.
It was not only in their ethnicity and nationality that the settlers of western Illinois were distinctive. Many brought with them new ideas and ideals. In the years before the Civil War the region shone like a beacon to reformers, zealots, and dreamers (not to mention a swindler or two) searching for a place to test social nostrums from theocracy to socialism. These pilgrims tested the limits of tolerance, and some left behind relics of their enterprises that are as strange in their way as any Indian mound village.
“Communitarianism combined with good business”
The Southerners who settled in the Military Tract up to the 1830s were utopians on a very small scale. They came to make a new world for their families, and western Illinois—which offered cheap land and a chance to farm without the competition from slave labor—was a good place to try it. Many of their new neighbors from Europe and the American “Old World” of New England were more ambitious. They tended to found towns, not just farms. New Englanders and New Yorkers established a half-dozen “colonies” on the prairie of western Illinois in the 1830s. Only one was a true colony in a legal sense. Most were land companies in which investors pooled resources for the purchase of land (usually government land, at $1.25 acre), which was then sold, proceeds from which sales supported the work of the community. Shares in the proposed town of Wethersfield in Henry County, for example, were sold to New Englanders at $250, which gave each title to 160 acres of prairie, 20 acres of woodland, and a town lot.
Town-building was hardly unusual in the region of the time; speculators founded dozens of them. However, the speculator’s motive was profit (and vanity) while the region’s colonists sought social as well as financial gain. Galesburg was born in 1835, when Presbyterian minister George Washington Gale circulated a prospectus among his parishioners in New York’s Mohawk Valley. His scheme called for the collection of money into a joint fund that would be used to buy land in the West. Investors would get title to land, and the right to send their children to a new manual labor college that would built on the site. The school would be supported by the sale of the rest of the land, whose value would appreciate as settlers built up the area. As Richard Lingeman noted in Small Town America, such projects had in common “communitarianism combined with good business”—a very Yankee sort of approach.
And—unusually for the Military Tract’s organized settlements—that is exactly the way it worked. For the first few years Gale’s investors lived in an encampment dubbed Log City while they built proper frame houses on the actual town site. (Log City stood near today’s Lake Storey, just north of Galesburg.) Many of those pioneers were able to retire a few decades later to lavish homes in a town that for a time in the latter 1800s stood with Springfield, Bloomington, and Rockford among the state’s larger burgs.
The founders had a larger aim, however, which was to redeem not only Illinois but the founders’ own brand of Christianity. The purpose of their new college was not merely to enhance real estate values but to train ministers who would go forth and light the spiritual darkness in which Illinoisans then dwelt. Those hopes were shared by a remarkable number of town builders in and near the old Military Tract. Another such settlement was set up in 1831 in Bureau County in Princeton by the Hampshire colony, organized in Northampton, Massachusetts; the town’s origins echo in the name of today’s Hampshire Colony Congregational United Church Of Christ. The Rockwell Colony of La Salle County was laid out in 1835 by an agent of colonists from Norwich, Connecticut.
Henry County attracted no fewer than five such settlements. Andover was one of the many land companies formed under the direction of Presbyterian minister Ithamar Pillsbury. In this case he collected $40,000 with which he bought 22 sections of land in western Henry county on which the village of Andover (named after the Massachusetts town) was laid out in 1841 in the New England style. (Andover's former colony square has now been transformed into the Andover Lake Park.) Named for its parent community in Connecticut, Wethersfield (it also appears in the record as Weathersfeld and Wethersfeld) was set about 22 miles east of Andover at the southern edge of the oddly named Barren Grove. Wethersfeld thrived, and counted about 130 residents within two years. The LaGrange colony (later the town of Orion) traced its beginnings to Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The Geneseo colony was organized in its namesake New York county in 1835, and settlers arrived under its aegis in northern Henry County shortly after. Nearby Morristown, between Geneseo and Orion, was first settled in 1836 by stalwarts from Congress Hall, New York.
A New City of Zion: Nauvoo
Western Illinois before the Civil War was a haven for refugees. The Native American peoples of the Illinois Confederation came here to escape the Iroquois, slaves to escape bondage, Erik Jansson the bishops. To that list must be added the Mormons of Joseph Smith. They became Illinoisans in 1839 only reluctantly, when five thousand Latter Day Saints landed at Quincy having fled for their lives from vigilantes in Missouri. Thus opened one of the most contentious chapters in Illinois history.
Smith resettled his Latter Days Saints on land upstream from Quincy in Hancock County, at a town site called Commerce on a flat at the foot of a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. Smith laid out a new “City of Zion”—neither their first or their last—and renamed it Nauvoo. The Missouri refugees were quickly augmented by converts from the U.S. and England. In 1842 Hancock County had a Mormon population of sixteen thousand, with more living nearby in Illinois and across the river in Iowa. Nauvoo itself at its peak had a population of some 12,000. It was an astonishing blossoming, to be matched only by Chicago in its speed, and it made Nauvoo one of the biggest cities in Illinois at the time. Nauvoo developed neither trade nor manufacturing, but was kept afloat by speculation and donations of converts. However shaky its economic foundations, however, the town was impressive testament to the Saints’ energy and determination.
Those Brass Plates
In the 1840s the old Military Tract became the home of followers of Joseph Smith, the self-styled prophet of the Mormons. The bible of the new church was Smith’s translation of the history of early peoples of the Western Hemisphere, which he said had been engraved in an ancient language on golden plates given him by an angel in 1827.
Local farmers eager to discredit Smith’s claims in 1843 etched characters from a Chinese tea box onto six brass plates. After artificially aging the plates with acid, they buried them with some bones in an Indian burial mound near Kinderhook, in Pike County. These treasures they later dug up as if they were just discovering them, in front of some of their Mormon neighbors.
The excited witnesses took the plates to Smith, who "translated" them, announcing in a Mormon periodical said that the bones belonged to "a person, or a family of distinction, in ages long gone by, and that these plates contain the history of the times, or of a people, that existed far—far beyond the memory of the present race." Long embraced by Mormon apologists as genuine for the confirmation they seemed to provide for Smith’s golden plates story, it was not until 1981 that Smith’s church acknowledged that the prophet had been taken in by a fraud. Smith’s critics, now as then, offer the episode as proof that it was Smith who was the fraud.
So vigorous a presence was bound to excite envy and fear. Smith and his followers had already proved to be difficult neighbors. The Mormons voted as a bloc at Smith’s direction, which in a state as evenly divided politically as Illinois gave the Mormons enormous leverage in even statewide races. They were eagerly courted by both Whig and Democrat politicians. But the Saints wielded their political power clumsily, or rather Smith did. Nor did their exclusiveness—they saw themselves as a chosen people—endear them to their gentile neighbors.
Nauvoo itself was the scene of nearly constant turmoil. The Mormons had been expelled from Ohio before their ouster from Missouri. Land speculation and wildcat banking were among the larger crimes alleged against them; Nauvoo also was a haven for ne’er-do-wells of the sort that congregate in any boom town. It was in Nauvoo that Smith promulgated such controversial doctrines as plural marriage and baptism of the dead, which scandalized not only non-Mormons but even some within his own church.
The unease with which its neighbors regarded the Mormons’ Kingdom on the Mississippi was aggravated by the privileged place it occupied within the Illinois commonwealth. Nauvoo was governed under a unique state charter that gave it virtually unlimited home rule. Nauvoo operated effectively as a state within the state, with its own courts and its own independent militia known as the Nauvoo Legion. Smith did not scruple to exploit these advantages; arrested at Dixon on a warrant charging treason against Missouri, he insisted that the charge be heard in Nauvoo, where his own Municipal Court quickly released him for want of evidence. When Smith’s opponents in Nauvoo published a newspaper which alleged that Smith misused money and courts and seduced women, Smith ordered the printing press smashed by his troops. Such incidents made wild rumors about Smith’s plans to take over the state using the Nauvoo Legion all too easy to believe.
In June of 1844 Smith and his brother Hyrum were shot and killed by a mob at the jail in Carthage, the county seat eighteen miles away. A subsequent murder trial ended in acquittals; it became clear that juries of neither Nauvooites or non-Mormons would convict anyone accused to violence against the other. The legislature repealed the Nauvoo charter, which left the city without a government. This exposed Nauvoo to both the depredations of its enemies and the edicts of church leaders.
The Mormons remained at Nauvoo for two years after Smith’s death, a period of escalating threats, rumors, court fights, and the rushing to and fro of armed men that has come to be known as the Mormon War. Mob violence erupted more than once in and around the city. In the fall of 1845 a mob one or two hundred strong began burning the houses of Mormons in the countryside, the culmination of the campaign by local anti-Mormons to drive the Mormons out of the county; Mormons were accused of retaliating by driving away the cattle and stealing the crops of their opponents from their fields. By the following June an anti-Mormon force of about four hundred lay siege to Nauvoo, and by mid-July the local papers were reporting that an open state of war between Mormon and anti-Mormon forces existed in the county.
It was plain that the only solution to the violence was for the Mormons to leave Illinois. In February of 1846, Brigham Young, who had taken over as head of the church after Smith’s death, led four hundred families west across the frozen Mississippi in the first wave of an exodus that would eventually see the Saints re-established in Utah. Nauvoo was largely empty by late summer, when sporadic violence broke out, a “Battle of Nauvoo” that lasted several days before the city surrendered to a seven-hundred-man posse. The remaining Mormons were guaranteed protection until they could move across the river.
Historians’ debate over these events has been less violent than the Mormon War but scarcely less intense. The first wave of scholarly opinion tended to be anti-Mormon; Theodore Pease, writing in 1918 in the second volume of the Centennial History of Illinois, made plain his view that the establishment of an essentially theocratic state was a “terrible . . . excrescence on the political life of the state.” He also justified the vigilantism of western Illinoisans, stating, “The machinery of state government was then, it must be remembered, but a slight affair; and to enforce the will of public opinion, the resort to private war, though to be deplored, was inevitable.”
Opinion since Pease’s day has tended to be more sympathetic to the Mormons. If Smith failed to respect the wall between church and state, so did many of his opponents, who wielded local militias as a weapon on behalf of Christian orthodoxy. Scholars also note that the "republican ideology" embraced by non-Mormons—many of them anti-statist Southerners—put them at odds with the "theocratic and collectivist" outlook held by the Mormons.
In the current phrase, what happened in western Illinois in the 1840s was a culture clash. (One of the many scholarly books on the era is titled Cultures in Conflict: A Documentary History of the Mormon War in Illinois.) Culture however cannot be easily separated from religion; to believers like the Mormons, religion is culture. The Saints have tended to see the Illinois experience as simply another instance in which they were victimized by religious bigotry, Terry L. Givens asserts that Mormonism's heterodoxies pose a persistent and inimical threat to "traditional" Christianity, which in the latter months of their Illinois inflamed in their foes something like religious hysteria.
The Mormon War was in military terms not much of a war—a few skirmishes and one incident of cannon fire that mainly frightened the local cows. But it was clear that without the moderating effect of state officials, the potential for something like civil war had been real enough. The dispute recalled the Black Hawk War of 1832 insofar as aggression was fueled in part by greed for land and hysteria about alleged atrocities (although the offenses of the Mormons were mainly against propriety and property rather than the persons). The Mormons themselves drew comparisons between their fate and that of the Indians, likening the expulsion of the Mormons from Missouri to the expulsion of the Cherokee from to the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) during the winter of 1838–1839. Non-Mormon opinion has largely come around to that view; in 2004 Illinois’s lieutenant governor lead a delegation to Utah to deliver a General Assembly resolution expressing sorrow for the state’s role in what its authors described as early religious hate crimes committed against the Mormons.
Phalanxes and Icarians
Not all the founders of intentional communities in western Illinois builders were Yankees. The first French in the region had contented themselves with preparing Indians for a better life in the next world, through the agency of Jesuit missions. Later French immigrants came west to make a better world of this one. Beginning in 1843, followers of utopian theorist Charles Fourier founded several colonies or “phalanxes” in the Midwest. Fournier had concocted a peculiar mix of communalism and free love as an alternative to capitalist society. The first phalanx in Illinois was set up in Bureau County, in 1843, followed by one in Fulton County. None of the experimental communities last more than a few months, idealism being as unpalatable a diet to most Illinoisans in the 1840s as it is today.
Another Frenchman was behind another attempt to provide an alternative to capitalism. Etienne Cabet of Dijon was, among things, a journalist and a lawyer. Neither is the sort of person thought capable of prescribing the good society today, yet Cabet attracted many followers from the idealistic middle class made uneasy by the capitalism of the early 1800s. Cabet preached communism, broadly defined, which led French authorities to convict him of treason. Cabet drew up a model for a new society drawn variously from Sir Thomas More's Utopia and the work of Robert Owen, the Welsh reformer whose New Harmony colony in Indiana had failed a few years before. Cabet appropriately expressed his plans for a perfect society as a work of fiction, a novel titled Voyage en Icarie (1840), a sort of French Looking Backward.
Cabet and his followers emigrated to the U.S., and first tested his doctrine in 1848 in a settlement in Texas. Cabet established a second colony in Illinois, at the old Mormon town of Nauvoo, renting buildings that had been abandoned when the Mormons fled to Utah territory three years before. The Icarians, as the group’s members were known, built a few buildings of their own, most famously a school made of stone scavenged from the ruins of the Mormon Temple. As had happened in Texas, disputes rent the new project, and when he was not re-elected president in 1856, Cabet and nearly 200 followers left Nauvoo for East St. Louis, where he died not long after. The Icarian Colony at Nauvoo carried on determinedly but futilely until 1860.
Unlike the Mormon theocracy that preceded it in Nauvoo, the Icarian experiment was not so unconventional that it aroused the bigoted to suppress it nor so successful that it aroused the propertied to appropriate it. And while they did not create a new society, the Icarians did add both an exotic chapter to the already crowded history of early Nauvoo and an equally exotic industry to its economy. Several of the colony members, joined by German, Swiss, and Irish settlers in the area, introduced grape growing to local agriculture. Icarian Emile Baxter planted his first vineyard in 1857; the Baxter Winery on East Parley Street is still in operation, which makes it the oldest winery in the state of Illinois.
This rich past sustains the town even today. A house built by Mormons in the 1840s—remodeled by Icarians, later owned by the Rheinberger family, now serving as the Nauvoo State Park Museum—features a press room and the only Nauvoo wine cellar open to the public. The state park also is the location of the oldest recorded concord grape vineyard in Illinois; planted in 1851, the vineyard is still producing fruit. Icarian Living History Museum on East Parley Street occupies an 1846 house later occupied by Icarians. There is a Center for Icarian Studies at Western Illinois University.
The Janssonites of Bishop Hill
While the founders of such towns as Andover and Galesburg saw religion as a means to better community, the founders of the Military Tract’s one true colony saw a new community as the means to establish a better religion. Swede Erik Jansson was the son of peasants. His education was the Bible, and he filled the space left by his lack of schooling with visions of God. Jansson’s sermons attracted followers who saw in him a second Christ. One Christ was enough for Sweden’s state-backed Lutheran Church, and Jansson was arrested more than once. Eventually he and of his more ardent followers fled Sweden for Illinois.
In 1846 the Janssonites traveled to Henry County, to a spot on the bank of Edwards River about twenty-five miles from Galesburg. There they set about building a new, more perfect community of believers—or rather, a community of more perfect believers. They gave their new town an English version of the name of the town where Jansson was born. Just getting to the site tested the resolve of the Janssonites, who had to walk, in those pre-railroad days, the 160 miles from Chicago.
Bishop Hill was a colony in a literal sense, operating under a charter granted by the Illinois General Assembly. Property was owned by and held for the benefit of all, with control delegated to seven trustees. About 400 faithful joined Jansson there at first, and before it dissolved in 1861 Bishop Hill was home to more than one thousand. Like the Icarian community in Nauvoo and the Fournier phalanxes, the Janssonite colony was run on vaguely communist principles, in this case of scriptural origin. Like Christ and his disciples, the Bishop Hill settlers worked, ate, lodged, and worshipped together. They applied the same principles to farming—usually a prescription for disaster, but not here. Calkins described their method: “The fields were cultivated by small squads working in a sort of military formation, moving across the terrain and performing all operations in unison . . . emphasizing in this humble way the cooperative principles of their undertaking.” They also died communally, as happened in the first frightful winter and again, in 1849, when cholera invaded the village.
Unlike the other colonies in the region, the history of Bishop Hill was illustrated. Colonist Olof Krans in midlife recorded what he recalled of Bishop Hill’s founding days, in a series of paintings that made up a sort of diary of the past written in oil. Krans did not celebrate the land, as conventional landscape painters did, but the diligence with which the Swedes at Bishop Hill collectively changed it. (The State of Illinois’s collection of more than ninety paintings by Olof Krans may be seen in the Bishop Hill Museum on the southern edge of the village.)
The Swedish colonists were sensible people and they recruited people—smiths, carpenters, and others—with the skills needed to build a town. Some twenty commercial buildings were put up, some of exceptional quality. In addition to their food the colony’s fields yielded flax (for linen-making) and broom corn. One year the sale of brooms—Illinois was a dusty paradise, and the market for brooms was robust—cleared $30,000, a handsome return for the time and place.
Alas, like many a thriving family, the colony squabbled over money. The Bishop Hill trustees stupidly speculated with money, and colonists also hired themselves out for work on a railroad and took payment in stock in a line that never ran. Janssen died in 1850, shot through the heart, in the county courthouse in nearby Cambridge; his murderer was a fellow Swede who had married Jansson’s sister, apparently not happily. (Jansson’s body reportedly lay in state without being embalmed, as members expected him to rise and walk again; after three days of warm weather, what rose from the bier was not the corpse, and he was buried.) Bishop Hill lived on as a colony for another eleven years and for another century after that as just another western Illinois small town, much reduced in vigor, until the colony’s rebirth as an historic site. (For more about that, see below.)
Obnoxious to the neighbors
All of Forgottonia’s experimental communities had traits in common beyond failure. They tended toward the communistic, most owed inspiration to religion (all did, if under “religion” one includes crackpot socialism), and most owed allegiance to a charismatic leader. As for their often hostile relations with neighbors, many threatened many of their neighbors in this world and the next. New Englanders’ attitude toward the West melded economic imperialism with missionary zeal. Historian James Davis notes that the residents of Wethersfeld, founded in Henry County in 1836, hoped to reap not only “the establishment of temperance, justice, charity, and other moral characteristics” but also “a good crop of converted Catholics.” The good Lutherans of Bishop Hill, seeking to emulate Christ in every way, sent twelve apostles, in pairs, to convert the countryside. This was not a gesture likely to be well received by people jealous of their own freedom to worship what and how—indeed if—they chose.
The missionary impulse took political form too. Calkins notes about early Galesburg, “It made itself obnoxious to its Knox County neighbors in such matters as Sunday observance, temperance and slavery, on all of which it took an extreme position.” No wonder that those neighbors retaliated politically when it came time to choose a new county seat or where to put railroads. No wonder, as Davis states, that so few people wanted them as neighbors that the concentration of Yankee colonies in Henry County delayed settlement of the county.
It was internal ruckuses, however, that doomed most of the intentional communities in antebellum western Illinois—doctrinal disputes, fights over money, jealousies of a dozen kinds. The Bishop Hill colony was legally dissolved in 1861, its members turning first to Methodism, with many later becoming Second Day Adventists. Galesburg developed an “anti-trustee” political faction representing the younger, working-class element that had grown estranged from the founding elites; the elites were themselves sundered by sectarian squabbles and abolitionism. Among the Icarians at Nauvoo, the dispute was generational—a not unusual problem among American immigrants before and since.
As noted, the Bishop Hill and Icarian colonies dissolved. Wethersfield ended up being first out-developed and later absorbed by Kewanee, and Andover’s Massachusetts Presbyterians were submerged by a tide of Swedish Lutherans. Rockwell prospered at first, but in 1838 the colonists all took sick—malarial diseases—and many died; thus weakened, the town was killed off when the nearby town of LaSalle was chosen as the terminus of the new I&M Canal from Chicago. Today Morristown is merely a place name on the map, and a test of historians’ knowledge of local trivia. Only Galesburg achieved its original purpose and survived the transition to a self-sustaining town.
The efflorescence of social experimentation in the old Military Tract in the quarter-century after 1835 was remarkable, and it is tempting to look for some special quality in the soil or the drinking water that might explain it. The causes, alas, are mundane. The availability of cheap land is one factor; another is the near-absence of official impediments. Western Illinois simply was an easy place to flee to at a moment when the world was something that visionaries in America and Europe wished to escape. ●
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A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
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