As thousands of Utahns prepare to load the family van or climb aboard a tour bus headed for the new LDS temple in Nauvoo, Ill., they'll be passing through territory so steeped in Latter-day Saint history that it can't all be seen in one trip.
Still, much of it can't be "seen" at all at least not yet. But at least three separate groups are working to change that, researching and marking such historic locations as Haun's Mill and lesser-known settlements and burial sites.
While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has invested millions in land and improvements at major historical sites such as Palmyra, N.Y.; Kirtland, Ohio, and Nauvoo, interest in even some fairly obscure sites is so great that archaeological digs and historical monuments are springing up like prairie dogs around the Midwest.
The Mormon Historic Sites Foundation, the Missouri Mormon Frontier Foundation and the John Whitmer Historical Association are all private, nonprofit, volunteer organizations dedicated to literally "unearthing" old artifacts and information that has, to date, remained unheralded. Membership is nonsectarian and includes history buffs from a variety of faiths, including Restorationists, Church of Christ, Latter-day Saints and those affiliated with what was formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Others have no faith affiliation.
Alex Baugh, an assistant professor of church history at Brigham Young University and a member of two of the groups, said their efforts have taken on new vigor since LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley announced in 1999 that the Nauvoo Temple would be rebuilt.
For example, an exploratory archaeological dig this summer, co-sponsored by MMFF and JWHA, will take place at Haun's Mill June 10-21. The events that happened there in October 1838, on Shoal Creek in eastern Caldwell County, Mo., were a turning point for early church members.
Seventeen of them were killed there, along with a non-Mormon friend, in October 1838 by elements of the Missouri militia in an unprovoked attack. The massacre ultimately led to the infamous "extermination order" expelling the Latter-day Saints from the state. From there, they eventually settled across the Mississippi River and built the city of Nauvoo.
A mill stone at the site inscribed with paint noting the massacre was photographed in 1907 by western photographer George A. Andersen, but over time the exact location of the events has been lost. Association members have made "several attempts to survey the site over the past two years seeking to better understand the community's physical layout and perhaps relocate the Haun's Mill well site," where some of the bodies were placed, according to the groups' Web site.
In cooperation with the two groups, a stone marker commemorating the massacre was recently placed at a park in Breckenridge, Mo., reminding readers of the continuing need for greater tolerance and understanding between people of all faiths.
An organized brush-clearing effort was also mounted by the two groups in March at the site, and archaeologist Paul DeBarthe will lead the scheduled dig.
DeBarthe will oversee an ongoing dig at an early Mormon home site south of the Far West cemetery June 24-28. Under way for the past three years, the dig has involved local high school students and other volunteers. College students who participate can earn credit from Graceland College of Lamoni, Iowa, for their participation in the excavations.
Another large-scale project was completed in May 2000. The Missouri-Mormon Walking Trail was a cooperative effort between the city of Independence, Mo., and the MMFF. Trail walkers will see 14 marked sites along the trail, with plaques based on drawings by a local artist that illustrate LDS history in the area during the 1830s.
The sites "fill important gaps in depictions of church history," according to the foundation. The trail begins at the Temple Lot, across from the north entrance to the RLDS Auditorium, where the first of 14 sidewalk plaques has been installed. Brochures are available from the city offices, or by calling the LDS Visitors Center, 816-836-3466.
Baugh said he sees "sites going up all over," some done by the foundations, and others taken on by descendants of early Latter-day Saints. "There's a real keen interest in family kinds of things," he said. Some families have worked with the foundations, as in the case of a new marker in Webster, Ill., formerly known as Ramus, which was the largest LDS settlement outside Nauvoo at one time.
That project was spearheaded by a family who had ancestors there, in cooperation with the MHSF, Baugh said. "Today there are only 45 people living there, yet you go out and there is this nice Mormon marker." Located seven miles from Carthage, Ill., visitors to the town can find "Mormons buried all over in the cemetery, including Joseph Smith's sister."
Tioga and Quincy, Ill., are just two of a variety of other places early Latter-day Saints are now commemorating, with a monument in Quincy's Washington Park that rivals a city marker commemorating the place where the Abraham Lincoln debated challenger Stephen Douglas during their race for the presidency of the United States.
"Lots of these families are going back to their roots and wanting to acknowledge that their ancestors played a role there," Baugh said. "It's been going on for a while, but now it's just mushrooming. And that's a good thing."
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