19th Century Brigham Young Joseph Smith Latter-day Saint History

Was Zion’s Camp a Failure?

Zion’s Camp was neither a folly committed by Joseph Smith nor an effort to march into Jackson County to get land back.

Zion’s Camp—also known as the Camp of Israel—was a formative experience in the life of 28-year-old Joseph Smith. However, like the Law of Consecration, it’s a pioneer experience rife with misunderstanding. In this interview, historian Matt Godfrey separates fact from fiction and discusses the purpose of Zion’s Camp.

Read Matt Godfrey’s book about Zion’s Camp published by History of the Saints.

Table of contents

Introduce Zion’s Camp: 1834 March of Faith.

Glenn Rawson and Dennis Lyman of History of the Saints contacted me a few years ago about doing a book on Zion’s Camp. They wanted a heavily illustrated book in the same mode as ones they had done on the Saints in Quincy, Illinois, or on the Mormon Battalion.

They asked if I would serve as the general editor. I then contacted Brent Rogers, Andrea Radke-Moss, and Alex Baugh about contributing to the volume and they agreed. I think they have contributed some wonderful essays to the book—scholarly, but accessible to the average church member.

The majority of participants did not see the camp as a failure.

I wrote a couple of the articles as well, so the book consists of five essays—one on the recruitment and formation of the camp, two on the camp’s journey and disbandment, one on the women and children who went on the camp, and one on how participants remembered their experience on the expedition.

The history of Zion’s Camp is covered in this book by historian Matthew C. Godfrey.

What was Zion’s Camp?

Zion’s Camp was an expedition that Joseph Smith put together in 1834 to follow instructions given to him in revelations that became Sections 101 and 103 in the Doctrine and Covenants.

The Saints had been driven out of Jackson County, Missouri, and Joseph wondered how they would regain their lands. Section 101 provided a parable in answer to that question. The parable detailed how a nobleman’s lands had been overrun by an enemy, leading him to appoint a servant to call up the strength of the Lord’s house to reclaim the land.

Section 103 explained that Joseph Smith was the servant. So Joseph and others recruited individuals to travel with them to Missouri.

The plan was that after reaching Missouri, the group would ask Missouri Governor Daniel Dunklin to call out the state militia to restore the Saints to their Jackson County lands. Once the state militia had disbanded, the members of Zion’s Camp would remain in Missouri to protect church members from being driven out again. The camp would serve as a protective and defensive force, not as a group that would go on the offensive.

How far did Zion’s Camp march?

It was nearly 1,000 miles to march from Kirtland to Clay County, Missouri, and most of the group traversed this on foot. According to some reports, the group sometimes covered as much as 40 miles a day, leading to blistered and bloody feet.

How many children were in Zion’s Camp?

We don’t have an exact number, but Andrea Radke-Moss’s research indicates that there were at least nine children on the expedition. Six of these traveled with Joseph Smith’s contingent from Kirtland, Ohio; the other three came with the Michigan contingent recruited by Hyrum Smith and Lyman Wight.

Lyman Littlefield was a 14-year-old boy who traveled with the camp. He remembered on one occasion feeling bad because the men wouldn’t let him participate in military drills with them.

As he sat on a rock feeling sorry for himself, Joseph Smith came up to him, laid his hand on his head, and said, “Well, bub, is there no place for you?”

Lyman later recalled:

This recognition from the man whom I then knew was a Prophet of God created within me a tumult of emotions. I could make him no reply. My young heart was filled with joy to me unspeakable.

Lyman Littlefield

He never forgot the kindness Joseph showed him.

What was Zion’s Camp referred to at the time, and when did the name “Zion’s Camp” come to be used in reference to it?

At the time the expedition occurred, and for several years thereafter, the camp was known as the Camp of Israel. This was based on Section 103, which stated that Joseph Smith would lead the expedition “like as Moses led the children of Israel” (D&C 103:16).

When Heber C. Kimball wrote his account of the expedition in 1840, he called it “the camp of Zion.”

Wilford Woodruff used the term “Zion’s Camp” in an 1845 letter published in the Times and Seasons. After the Saints departed Nauvoo for the Great Basin in 1846 and 1847 in what was called the Camp of Israel, the name “Zion’s Camp” seems to have come into use more frequently.

What sources did you use for the book?

Unfortunately, there are not an abundance of contemporary records about the Camp of Israel, although we do have some letters, revelations, and other documents that touch on it. Many sources related to the Camp of Israel are reminiscences from the participants.

One contemporary document that I find particularly intriguing is a financial account for the camp, which lists how much each member of the expedition contributed to the general fund that was used for camp supplies, food, etc. This account was published in Documents, Volume 4, of the Joseph Smith Papers.

About 170 individuals are listed as contributing to the general fund, so that gives us a good list of the majority of participants in the camp (which numbered about 230 men, women, and children).

Matthew Godfrey discusses financial documents from the Camp of Israel found in Documents, Volume 4: April 1834–September 1835.

What are popular Zion’s Camp misconceptions?

Zion’s Camp was intended to take back land

I think the biggest misconception about Zion’s Camp is that the group was supposed to march into Jackson County, Missouri, and take the Saints’ lands back itself. This was not what it was intended to do.

Instead, the group believed that Governor Dunklin would call up the state militia and restore the Saints to their land. Once that had been done, Dunklin would be unable to keep the state militia mustered solely to protect the Saints, so the members of Zion’s Camp would remain in Jackson County to keep church members from being expelled again.

Zion’s Camp was a mistake

Because this was the true purpose of the camp, it disabuses another misconception of the camp—that it was an unrealistic folly on the part of Joseph Smith. Joseph really did believe Dunklin would call out the militia (officials in Dunklin’s administration had hinted at this, although the governor himself had never communicated it), so he was acting under that assumption.

Who died of cholera in Zion’s Camp?

There were thirteen members of the expedition who died:

  1. John S. Carter
  2. Albert Fisk
  3. Seth Hitchcock
  4. [Seth] Warren Ingalls
  5. Edward Ives
  6. Noah Johnson
  7. Jesse B. Lawson
  8. Robert McCord
  9. Erastus Rudd
  10. Jesse J. Smith
  11. Elial [Eliel] Strong
  12. Eber Wilcox
  13. Betsy Parrish.

In addition, at least two Church members living in Missouri died: Sidney Gilbert and Phebe Murdock, who was only six years old.

How many future prophets were in Zion’s Camp?

There were two future prophets in Zion’s Camp. Both Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff participated in the Camp of Israel. Wilford had only been a member of the church for five months when he went on the journey, and it was the first time he had interacted with Joseph Smith.

Does Zion’s Camp rank very highly on a list of the most formative experiences of Joseph Smith’s life?

I am not sure that we have anything from Joseph Smith himself saying that Zion’s Camp was a formative experience, but I think it was very important in his development as a leader.

Remember that when the expedition occurred, Joseph was only 28 years old and would continue as the leader of the church for another ten years. So this was at the relative beginning of his leadership.

I think he very much enjoyed associating with the members of Zion’s Camp, some of whom he did not really know before the expedition, and I think it gave him a good sense of who he could trust. It also gave him experience with dealing with individuals, such as Sylvester Smith, who were recalcitrant, and I think that helped him later in his life.

What did Brigham Young say about Zion’s Camp?

Like most participants in the Camp of Israel, Brigham Young regarded his participation as a transformative event in his life—one that solidified his testimony of the Gospel and of God’s presence.

In a discourse he gave in 1853, he said that after he returned to Kirtland from the expedition, a Church member asked him what he gained from participating since the expedition didn’t accomplish anything. Brigham replied that he had gained knowledge, presumably from observing how Joseph Smith led the company and from his own experiences.

Brigham continued:

I would not exchange the knowledge I have received this season for the whole of Geauga County; for property and mines of wealth are not to be compared to the worth of knowledge.

Journal of Discourses, 2:10

Who is a lesser known figure from Zion’s Camp you feel is deserving of greater recognition?

I don’t know if I could target just one. One of the essays in the book is Andrea Radke-Moss’s exploration of the women and children who went on the camp. Outside of Andrea’s work, the women and children have really been overlooked when talking about the expedition.

There were not many women or children who went with the group, but Andrea does a wonderful job of explaining who they were and some of the challenges and difficulties they faced both on the expedition itself and in their later lives.

One woman who I think deserves more recognition is Jane Clark. Jane was likely a single woman, and she appears to have been living in the Eugene, Indiana, branch. When the Camp of Israel came through Indiana, Jane contributed $50 to the expedition, which was a significant sum at the time. Only John Tanner, who gave $170, and Ruth Vose, another single woman from New England who gave $150, contributed more to the camp.

Jane has largely been lost from the historical record, but her generosity should be remembered.

Do records provide any insight into how camp members perceived the experience differently over time?

It’s a bit hard to trace how perceptions of the camp changed over time, mainly because we have so few contemporary records from participants. However, it is interesting to me how the perception of some of the experiences that we associate with Zion’s Camp changed—or at least developed.

Zion’s Camp at the Fishing River

One example is the storm at Fishing River that occurred after a mob threatened to attack the camp. Charles C. Rich provided what appears to be the only contemporary account of the storm, and he just said, “it commenced raining at dark and rained and liteniged and thunderd to exceed all an alarm of an atack but no attack.”

Heber C. Kimball’s 1840 account expanded this account. Kimball explained how a group of men came into the camp and told participants they would “see hell before morning.” Not long after they left, Kimball said, “a small black cloud” began “rising in the west; and not more than twenty minutes passed away before it began to rain and hail.” “The thunders rolled with awful majesty,” he continued, “and the red lightnings flashed through the horizon.” The storm was so powerful, Kimball said, that it was “as though the Almighty had issued forth his mandate of vengeance.”

Kimball portrayed the storm as one God sent to protect the camp from the attack of the mob. After Kimball’s account was published in the Times and Seasons, most other participants depicted the storm in the same way. As Lyman Littlefield, who was only fourteen years old when he was on the journey, stated nearly sixty years later, “We understood that the Almighty had sent that storm for the special preservation of Zion’s Camp.”

This shows how the storm became locked in participants’ memories over time as an example of divine intervention and protection.

Was Zion’s Camp a failure?

If you look at what the camp’s objectives were—to see the Saints restored to their Jackson County land and then protect them from further attack—then yes, it failed. Governor Dunklin did not call out the state militia, and the Saints were not restored to their lands.

However, it is interesting to me that the majority of participants did not see the camp as a failure.

Instead, they depicted it as a formative event in their lives where they clearly saw God operating on their behalf and where they were able to see Joseph Smith’s leadership up close. At least for most participants, the expedition was not a failure but a period of spiritual growth for them.

What do you think would have been some of the most challenging aspects of the expedition for you personally if you went back in time?

Well, certainly some of the conditions that the camp faced would have been difficult. They sometimes walked between 30 and 40 miles a day, and some participants remembered blisters on their feet breaking and filling their boots with blood. There were also times, especially when the group were crossing extensive prairies, where they had little food and little water.

So these physical conditions would have been difficult.

I think the best insight I’ve received from studying Zion’s Camp is to try to be less like Sylvester Smith in my life. The majority of camp participants took the difficult conditions in stride and did not complain, but Sylvester was constantly complaining about everything, including Joseph Smith’s leadership. I fear that at times in my life, I am like Sylvester—I complain about the circumstances I’m facing rather than just dealing with them gracefully. So I hope to be able to get the “Sylvester” out of my system.

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About the author

Matthew C. Godfrey is the Senior Managing Historian for Outreach and Engagement in the Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He also serves as General Editor of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Godfrey holds a PhD in American and public history and has published numerous works about early Latter-day Saint history, including History of the Saints: Zion’s Camp, 1834: March of Faith.

Further reading

Zion’s Camp resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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