Most members of the Church know that in the early 1830s the Saints were situated in Kirtland, Ohio, and in Jackson County, Missouri. Few know, however, that in 1831 a branch of more than one hundred members was established in the small community of Winchester, Randolph County, Indiana.
Levi Hancock and Zebedee Coltrin, the first missionaries to visit the area, gathered many converts during the summer of 1831. Brother Hancock, who had been taught the gospel and baptized by Elder Parley P. Pratt in 1830, often relied upon his heritage as a descendant of John Hancock, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, to help him teach the gospel in Winchester. Zebedee Coltrin, age twenty-six, left his wife and children just a month after his baptism to serve a mission. Elders Hancock and Coltrin were two of only thirty missionaries who taught the gospel in Indiana in 1831, but they met with great success.
Levi Hancock wrote in his journal:
“We then went to Winchester in Randolph County, and stopped at the county seat on the head waters of the White River. We saw there a school master and introduced the Gospel to him. He was so well pleased with the message that he spread the news as fast as possible and called a meeting. After the meeting he wanted to be baptized, so we went to the water with him and baptized him. Soon after this we were happy to hear that nearly all the people wanted to hear us so we went to the courthouse and got permission to hold a meeting there. After this meeting we were able to baptize several others. … We continued to preach here in the region and around about, until we had raised a large branch of the Church … and in a short time we had … about one hundred members.” (Autobiography of Levi Hancock, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.)
But anger from other community residents, who felt threatened by a new religion they did not understand, followed the missionary success. One day a group of men, who were gathered at the tavern door, stopped the missionaries and handed them a letter that said in part:
“You must leave this place before tomorrow [at] 10 o’clock.”
The missionaries had a meeting planned for the next morning at 11:00 o’clock to teach several local farmers the gospel. After some consideration, they decided to ignore the letter and remain in town. Elder Hancock recorded the events of that meeting in his journal:
“The next morning Sunday came and we were prepared for the worst. It was my turn to speak and I sang too. Zebedee gave the prayer. Bill Walker placed himself at the door and looked as surly as a bull; he was my friend. He said nothing, but something said to me, that I should not be hurt. So I commenced talking and soon forgot myself and said what came to my heart. I mounted the bench and walked in among the same crows who had written that letter. I said, ‘You wrote to warn me to leave this place before then, but you see I am still here. … My father fought for liberty you now enjoy, and you want to deprive me of the liberty that rightly belongs to me. … I am a cousin to the first man who signed the Declaration of Independence. Now, if you want to reveal anything to me, come on, I am ready.’ Nothing was said, so I sat down, and Zebedee then took hold of the subject and gave a good sermon. He opened the door for baptism. We felt the spirit of the Lord there with us. After the meeting we went to the water and baptized seventeen of that crowd, who the day before were going to mob us.” (Ibid.)
The crisis passed, and the Winchester branch continued to grow. In November 1831, Oliver Cowdery, John Whitmer, and Thomas B. Marsh—who were on their way from Ohio to Missouri—stopped in Winchester to coordinate the affairs of the Church. A conference, which is believed to have been the first in the state of Indiana, was held in Winchester on 29 November 1831. Subsequent conferences were held on November 30 and on December 1, 6, and 7.
During the next few years, many of the Winchester Saints moved to Missouri. Henry Sample, a tanner, was among the first to go. Called on a mission by the Prophet Joseph Smith to go to Missouri to make shoes for the Saints, Henry sold his land and tannery and left.
Research has identified about half the early members of this branch. Many of them lived in the little community of Deerfield a few miles north of Winchester. It was recorded that missionaries preached one of their first sermons in Daniel Mock’s barn in Deerfield.
On 17 May 1834, the 205 members of Zion’s Camp passed through Richmond, Wayne County, Indiana—twenty-five miles south of Winchester—on their trek from Ohio to Missouri. The Richmond Palladium carried the story of their arrival in the Saturday, 24 May 1834 edition:
“Mormonites. On Monday morning last, a caravan of about 200 Mormonites with a long train of wagons, passed through this place on their way to the ‘Far West.’ There were but few women among them, and the men were generally (if not all) supplied with firearms. A stout, hardy looking set of fellows they were too, and many of them quite intelligent. From their equipment it has been suspected that they intend joining the defending of their brethren in Jackson County, Missouri.”
The Prophet Joseph Smith was with the group, and when Zion’s Camp again passed through Richmond on 27 July 1834 on their return trek to Ohio, the Prophet visited Winchester after a short stay in Richmond. Seventeen-year-old George A. Smith recorded in his journal the events that took place when Zion’s Camp arrived in Richmond:
“We all arrived at Richmond, Ind. The Richmond newspaper published that day had announced to the world the astounding news that Joe Smith, the Mormon leader, had had a battle with the mob in Jackson County and had been wounded in the leg. The limb had to be amputated, and three days later he died of mortification. Joseph and Hyrum visited the editor, but had difficulty to convince him he was not really dead. Here our party separated, making different routes.” (Journal of George A. Smith, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.)
The Prophet Joseph headed north toward Winchester to visit the Saints and assure them that he was alive. The Bowen family lived on Arba Pike near Winchester at that time, and family tradition says that Joseph Smith visited the Bowen house. The only other written record of the Prophet’s visit in 1834 is found in the memoirs of E. Caroline Hawkins Clark, written when Caroline was eighty-eight years old. She wrote:
“When I was thirteen years old, I went to work away from home to get calico to make me a dress and a sun-bonnet. I worked for Burkett Pierce on the Mississinewa river near where Deerfield now is.
“While I was working there, Joe Smith, the first Mormon, came to Randolph county and raised a colony of converts in Wayne and Randolph counties. … And he baptized them in the Mississinewa, near Deerfield. I was there and saw the whole performance. He baptized them in the night by torch-light. They marched to the river with torches. Some carried horns to blow. They had torches on both banks of the river and some up in the trees.” (Excerpt from unpublished memoirs of E. Caroline Hawkins, quoted in “Mormons Led by Joseph Smith through City in May of 1834,” Winchester News-Gazette, 22 Sept. 1984.)
Most of the Saints from Winchester moved to Missouri and went west with the main body of the Church. Reminders of the few Church members who remained still linger in the area. Several tombstones in local cemeteries are decorated with two books. Since this is not a typical or a known symbol among those who study gravestones, it is possible to speculate that these two books represent the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Another indicator is the old Nauvoo School located in Deerfield. When the log schoolhouse, which had been built in 1832, became outdated, residents replaced it with a new brick school in 1879 and named it the Nauvoo School.
However, by the end of the 1830s, the majority of the members of the Winchester Latter-day Saint group had moved to Jackson County, Missouri. The branch, which for many years had been the largest in the state of Indiana, faded and eventually disappeared. Today about twenty members of the Church live in Winchester, Indiana, and attend the Greenville Branch in the Dayton Ohio Stake.