On August 15, we’ll be hosting an open house at the home Nels and Emma built in 1887. It made the National Register of Historic Places last year. More details on that are available here.
In honor of Sesquicentennial Plus One, I’m devoting the Speaking of Idaho blog to my family’s history during August.
In 1857 Mormon convert Joseph Morris began seeing visions and getting messages from God. As this was in the tradition of the church, he felt he should get some recognition for being a chosen one. He began writing letters to church leader Brigham Young telling him of the visions and assuring the man that God had a plan for Young. He was to be second in command to Joseph Morris.
Brigham Young took little notice, never bothering to reply, though Morris continued to pester him with prophecies.
Morris began to gather disaffected Mormons around him and preach about God’s revelations. Some of the Mormons had been converted in faraway places such as Denmark. Their English was not good, and they were surprised and dismayed to learn about certain church practices such as polygamy when they found their way to Utah.
In 1861 Morris gathered his flock of about 300 believers in the newly named Church of the First Born at an old stockade called Kington Fort at what is now known as South Weber. As per the received wisdom of God, they planted no crops. What was the point? Jesus was on his way.
Jesus was delayed, several times, and as each appointment slid by with no savior, more and more Morrisites, which they were also called, grew disenchanted. Some of them felt they had not received supplies commensurate with what they had contributed to the commune upon their departure. Two men hijacked a Morrisite grain wagon to make things even. The Morrisites caught them and brought them back to the fort to be “tried by the Lord when he came.”
The wives of the captured men pleaded with the territorial government to intervene. Chief Justice John Kinney sent the U.S. Marshall with an order demanding their release. The Morrisites refused. So, Justice Kinney activated the territorial militia as a posse comitatus to arrest the Morrisite leaders. What became known as the Mormon Militia, led by Deputy U.S. Marshall Robert T. Burton, set out for Kington Fort. Once they arrived, Burton demanded the release of the men.
Morris refused, even with somewhere between 500 and 1,000 men gathered on the hills above the fort. When a 30-minute ultimatum came from Burton, Morris secluded himself to receive instructions from God.
The faithful gathered beneath a brush arbor to hear Morris tell them what God had told him. At that point a cannonball came bouncing into the fort and through the crowd, killing two women outright and shattering the jaw of a young girl.
The Morrisites held out for three days before finally surrendering. The surrender did not go well. In a final kerfuffle inside the fort, Burton shot and killed Morris. Others were also killed. The total tally of dead in the Morrisite War was 11, two of them militia members.
Emma Thompson, nee Just, and her parents were followers of Joseph Morris. George Thompson played a dramatic role during the surrender of the Morrisites. Here is the story in Emma's own words:
"We Morrisites thought that none of our number who were faithful could be killed. Even when Morris was shot and fell lifeless to the ground we did not think him dead. I saw the wadding fly back from his clothes and thought it was the bullets rebounding from him. We considered him invulnerable, or that if he should be killed he would be immediately restored to life. When Morris was killed my father sat upon his body saying, 'Now kill me, for I have nothing more to live for.'"
Fortunately, when Burton aimed his pistol at Emma's father, the gun misfired, giving other Morrisites the opportunity to drag George Thompson away.
Morris’s body was put on display in front of city hall in Salt Lake City. In the subsequent trial, in 1863, 66 Morrisites were convicted of resistance and fined $100 each. Seven were convicted of second degree murder.
Fortunately for the Morrisites a new governor had been appointed to oversee Utah Territory. Within three days of their conviction, he pardoned all the Morrisites.
Leaving Utah was high on the to do list for most Morrisites. A hundred or so went to Carson City Nevada. One hundred and sixty opted to try the newly formed Idaho Territory to the north.
The Morrisites were escorted north by a contingent of troops from the California Volunteers, a group of men who had signed up for the military so they could fight on the side of the Union in the Civil War, but who found themselves instead stationed in Utah, fighting Indians and protecting apostates. They were led by Colonel Patrick E. Conner.
The soldiers created Camp Conner, near the present day city of Soda Springs, while the Morrisites started a town they named after their fallen leader, Morristown. Morristown would last only a few years before being subsumed by the community of Soda Springs. Many of the Morrisites moved north to help in the founding of Blackfoot. Others, still, moved to Deer Lodge, Montana where their Church of the First Born continued into the 1950s.
I’m a descendant of the Morrisites who founded Morristown and settled in the Blackfoot area. I often present a one-hour lecture on the Morrisite War at various venues around Idaho. If you want to learn more about the Morrisites I recommend two books. The first is the definitive historical examination by C. LeRoy Anderson,PhD, called Joseph Morris and the Saga of the Morrisites. The second, written by my great aunt Agnes Just Reid, is called Letters of Long Ago. I also invite you to listen to my YouTube presentation on the Morrisite War. For information on my program, please contact me through my website.