By EDWARD HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Quincy's historic role as a safe haven for thousands of Mormons who fled Missouri under the threat of death in early 1839 will be the focus of a program at 2 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Gardner Museum of Architecture and Design, Fourth and Maine.
Sponsored by the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County, the free program will feature a talk by Byron Holdiman, director of the teaching with primary sources program at Quincy University. He will discuss what took place during the winter of 1838-39 when an estimated 5,700 Mormons sought and received refuge in Quincy while escaping persecution in Missouri.
Reg Ankrom, executive director of the historical society, said the Feb. 24 event was timed to coincide fairly closely with the 174th anniversary of the date when Emma Smith, the wife of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, walked across the frozen Mississippi River at Quincy with her four children on Feb. 22, 1839.
Joseph Smith at the time was being held in a jail cell in Liberty, Mo., for his role in the so-called "Missouri Mormon War of 1838," which took place over a period of months as the Missouri militia battled with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The war erupted from religious intolerance by those who resisted the Mormons' efforts to establish settlements at several locations in Missouri.
On Oct. 27, 1838, Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued an executive order banishing the Mormons from Missouri. So a great exodus began, and Quincy became a prime destination for many because the city had a reputation for tolerance.
According to Ankrom, many of the Mormons arriving in Quincy camped out in makeshift tents in what is now Washington Park until they were welcomed into the homes of local residents.
Ankrom said local residents responded to an advertisement in the Illinois Bounty Land Register -- a predecessor newspaper to The Quincy Herald-Whig -- inviting Quincy citizens to a public meeting at the courthouse for the purpose of "devising ways and means for the permanent relief of the distress existing among the strangers who have lately been driven from Missouri."
According to historical accounts from Herald-Whig news archives, the Mormons stayed in Quincy until May of 1839 when Joseph Smith -- who escaped from the Liberty jail and came to Quincy in April of that year -- led the refugees northward to Hancock County. That's when the Mormons settled in a small community along the shore of the Mississippi River named Commerce, later renamed Nauvoo.
Five years later, as opposition surfaced against the Mormons settling into that area, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were arrested for smashing the press of an anti-Mormon newspaper. In June of 1844, a mob of vigilantes attacked the Carthage Jail and killed both men, leading to more months of tension and fighting in the Hancock County area.
Finally, the Mormons -- led by Brigham Young -- made their famous exodus from Nauvoo in 1846 and headed across the plains by wagon train to Utah, now the world headquarters for the LDS church.
Quincy's role as a safe haven during the Mormon relocation has never been forgotten by members of the church.
"Quincy is well known and a beloved city to the Mormons," Holdiman said in a press release issued by the historical society. "Go to the western Rocky Mountain states and mention that you are from Quincy and see how many people already know all about Quincy and where it is."
Holdiman's presentation will include some of the words and stories passed along by Mormon refugees who came through Quincy and expressed gratitude for the hospitality shown them and their families.
According to the press release, Holdiman is a Mormon himself and developed an interest in the church's early 19th century history while working on a genealogy project for a class at Brigham Young University. He discovered one of his ancestors had lived in Nauvoo and was with those who accompanied Brigham Young to Utah before the Saints departed Western Illinois.