PROVO — The more Jeffrey N. Walker learns about the goings-on in Missouri during the time the Mormons were being systematically driven out, the more he believes the expulsion was driven more by greed than fear of a new religious philosophy.
Walker spoke recently at the 2012 BYU Campus Education Week on "Solving the Puzzle of Mormon Land Rights in Missouri" and backed up his theory with a number of original documents.
Walker is currently the associate managing editor and series manager of the Joseph Smith Papers for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is also the co-editor for the project's legal and business series as well as trustee and treasurer for the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation. He is an adjunct professor in the Department of Church History and Doctrine and in the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU, where he teaches courses on the Prophet Joseph Smith and the law.
Introducing his topic, Walker said it is sometimes assumed that Joseph Smith had little experience or expertise in business and legal matters. Walker pointed out that there's record of more than 220 lawsuits filed against the LDS Church and Joseph Smith during the time of rising conflict.
Walker said he, as a practicing attorney, finds one lawsuit all consuming and difficult to manage. Joseph not only did manage the multiple issues, but managed them well.
Walker went on to examine the reasons behind the Mormon expansion and subsequent expulsion from Missouri in the fall of 1838.
He said the issue of land ownership is frequently overlooked as a significant issue at a time when "land was king of the frontier."
Homesteaders could acquire large tracts of land for $1.25 an acre by simply "proofing up" and making application to the land offices (which were overstretched by the demand).
The federal government was interested in selling land owned by the original colonies to make money to pay down the national debt. The government offered the land for a cheap price.
But while homesteaders moved in and tried to claim their reward, people in the East tried to maintain control.
There were survey issues and ego issues. Often a homesteader would live for years on a piece of land before ever having the opportunity to pay for and secure the land. Preemption rights (a kind of temporary deed) served as sort of a title for the land until formal deeds could be obtained.
Hyrum Smith, John and Jacob Whitmer, Edward Partridge and William W. Phelps were among those aggressively engaged in homesteading in Daviess and Caldwell counties.
"Right out of the gate however," Walker said, "the Mormons never thought they would stay in Caldwell County."
At one point, the government tried to push the Mormons into a kind of reservation area.
As preemption rights matured, three men — Finis Ewing, Daniel Dunkin and Lilburn Boggs — moved in to claim Mormon lands, positioning themselves in powerful jobs and manipulating critical deadlines and legal procedures along the way.
"If they could get the Mormons driven out, they could get all lands entitled to preemption," Walked said. "People would get the (improved) land without toil."
In total, 15,000 Mormons were driven from more than $2 million in property.
Eighty acres bought for $100 was worth $1,225.
"I do think we've underestimated the issue of land," Walker said. "The timing was right for a land grab."
There are other underlying, multi-faceted issues such as cultural differences and policies concerning slavery that play into the history as well, he said. "Everything is more complicated than we think."
Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with 35 years experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.