The Empty Streets of Nauvoo


A non-member discovers the “glittering city” deserted and the retreating Saints destitute.

Although he never became a member of the Church, Thomas Leiper Kane was a great friend of the Latter-day Saints in their struggles against religious persecution. Many times he helped find solutions to misunderstandings between the government and the Mormon pioneers. He served honorably in the United States Civil War and later directed the development of mines and the construction of a railroad in Pennsylvania, where he had been born in 1822. In a March 26, 1850 lecture to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, he described a 1846 visit to Nauvoo, Illinois—just after the mob had expelled the remnant of the Saints and captured the city. This article is extracted from that lecture.

Before reaching Nauvoo, Kane described the area of Iowa through which he traveled by boat and horsedrawn carriage as being a sanctuary for “horse thieves, and other outlaws.” He said he grew tired of seeing “everywhere sordid, vagabond and idle settlers; and a country marred, without being improved, by their careless hands.”

I was descending the last hillside upon my journey, when a landscape in delightful contrast broke upon my view. Half encircled by a bend of the river, a beautiful city lay glittering in the fresh morning sun; its bright new dwellings, set in cool green gardens, ranging up around a stately dome-shaped hill, which was crowned by a noble marble edifice, whose tapering spire was radiant with white and gold. The city appeared to cover several miles; and beyond it, in the back ground, there [were well-tended fields]. The unmistakable marks of industry, enterprise and educated wealth, everywhere, made the scene one of singular and most striking beauty.

Kane obtained a small boat and rowed across the river to the city’s shore.

No one met me there. I looked, and saw no one. I could hear no one move; though the quiet everywhere was such that I heard the flies buzz, and the water ripples breaking against the shallow of the beach. I walked through the solitary streets. The town lay as in a dream, under some deadening spell of loneliness, from which I almost feared to wake it. For plainly it had not slept long. There was no grass growing up in the paved ways. Rains had not entirely washed away the prints of dusty footsteps.

Kane walked through workshops where materials of wood, leather, and iron were stacked ready for use, and equipment and tools lay where they had been left by the craftsmen. He then walked into well-cared-for gardens; examined fruits, vegetables and flowers; and helped himself to a drink from a well.

No one called out to me from any opened window, or any dog sprang forward to bark an alarm. I could have supposed the people hidden in the houses, but the doors were unfastened; and when I timidly entered them, I found [cold] ashes white upon the hearths, and had to tread tiptoe, … to avoid rousing irreverent echoes from the naked floors.

Bedroom of the Jonathan Browning house

Bedroom of the Jonathan Browning house. Browning, a convert to the Church, invented one of the earliest automatic rifles.

On the outskirts of the city was the graveyard. But there was no record of the Plague there, nor did it in anywise differ much from other Protestant American cemeteries. Some of the mounds were not long sodded; some of the stones were newly set, their dates recent, …

Kane said that beyond the houses fields upon fields of grain lay rotting on the ground with no one to harvest it. As he walked around the suburbs at the southern edge of the city, he made two important discoveries.

Houses looking out upon the country showed, by their splintered woodwork and walls battered to the foundation, that they had lately been the mark of a destructive cannonade. And in and around the splendid Temple, which had been the chief object of my admiration, armed men were barracked, surrounded by their stacks of musketry and pieces of heavy ordnance. These [men] challenged me to render an account of myself, and why I had the temerity to cross the water without written permission from a leader of their band.

Though these men were generally more or less under the influence of ardent spirits [alcohol]; after I had explained myself as a passing stranger, they seemed anxious to gain my good opinion. They told me the story of the Dead City: that it had been a notable manufacturing and commercial [center], with 20,000 population; that they had waged war with its inhabitants for several years, and had been finally successful only a few days before my visit, in an action fought in front of the ruined suburb; after which, they had driven them forth at the point of the sword. The defence, they said, had been obstinate, but gave way on the third day’s bombardment. They boasted greatly of their prowess, especially in this Battle, as they called it; but I discovered they [could not agree on the details]; one of which, as I remember, was that they had slain a father and his son, a boy of fifteen, not long residents of the fated city, whom they admitted to have borne a character without reproach.

Kane was then shown around the “massive sculptured walls of the curious Temple,” which the invaders had vandalized. He was shown various features of the building including the baptismal font, “a large and deep chiselled marble vase or basin, supported upon twelve (life-size) oxen, also of marble.”

They permitted me also to ascend into the steeple, to see where it had been lightning-struck on the Sabbath before; and to look out, East and South, on wasted farms like those I had seen near the City, extending till they were lost in the distance. Here, … close to the scar of the Divine wrath left by the thunderbolt, were fragments of food, cruses of liquor and broken drinking vessels, …

It was after nightfall, when I was ready to cross the river on my return. The wind had freshened since the sunset; and the water beating roughly into my little boat, I headed higher up the stream than the point I had left in the morning, and landed where a faint glimmering light invited me to steer.

Here, … sheltered only by the darkness, without roof between them and the sky, I came upon a crowd of several hundred human creatures, whom my movements roused from an uneasy slumber on the ground.

Nauvoo’s Times and Seasons complex(click to view larger)

Nauvoo’s Times and Seasons complex where that newspaper, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, a hymnbook, and several other books were published between 1839 and 1846.

The “faint glimmering light” that had guided him came from a candle that provided poor illumination for a woman tending a man dying of fever. Two little girls, sobbing, sat in the darkness nearby. Kane was to discover that this was a typical scene.

Dreadful, indeed, was the suffering of these forsaken beings. Cowed and cramped by cold and sunburn, alternating as each weary day and night dragged on, they were, most of them, the crippled victims of disease. They were there because they had no homes, nor hospital nor poor-house nor friends to offer them any. They could not satisfy the feeble cravings of their sick; they had not bread to quiet … hunger cries of their children. Mothers and babes, daughters and grandparents, all of them alike, were [camped] in tatters, wanting even covering to comfort those whom the sick shiver of fever was searching to the marrow.

These were Mormons, famishing, in Lee county, Iowa, in the fourth week of the month of September, in the year of our Lord 1846. The city—it was Nauvoo, Illinois. The Mormons were the owners of that city, and the smiling country round. And those who had stopped their ploughs, who had silenced their hammers, their axes, their shuttles and their workshop wheels; those who had put out their fires, who had eaten their food, spoiled their orchards, and trampled under foot their thousands of acres of unharvested bread; were [now] the keepers of their dwellings, the carousers in their Temple, whose drunken riot insulted the ears of their dying.

The party encountered by me at the river shore were the last of the Mormons that left the city. They had all of them engaged the year before that they would vacate their homes, and seek some other place of refuge. It had been a condition of a truce between them and their assailants; and as an earnest of their good faith, the chief elders … , with their families, were to set out for the West in the Spring of 1846. It had been stipulated in return, that the rest of the Mormons might remain behind in their peaceful enjoyment of their Illinois abode, until their leaders, with their exploring party, could with all diligence select for them a new place of settlement beyond the Rocky Mountains, in California, or elsewhere, and until they had opportunity to dispose to the best advantage of the property which they were then to leave.

[But] the enemy had only waited till the emigrants were supposed to be gone on their road too far to return to interfere with them, and then renewed their aggressions [against the Saints remaining in Nauvoo].

The Joseph Smith family may have used this log cabin

The Joseph Smith family may have used this log cabin while adding to the Joseph Smith Homestead, their first home in Nauvoo. The cabin has been reconstructed by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Photo by Dick Brown.

Kane said that during the truce while the Saints were still allowed to remain in Nauvoo, they worked on the temple.

Strange to say, the chief part of their respite was devoted to completing the structure of their … beautiful Temple. Since the dispersion of Jewry, probably, history affords us no parallel to the attachment of the Mormons for this edifice. Its erection had been enjoined upon them as a most sacred duty: they were proud of the honor it conferred upon their city, when it grew up in its splendour to become the chief object of the admiration of strangers upon the Upper Mississippi. Beside, they had built it as a labor of love; they could count up to a half-million [dollars] the value of their tithings and free-will offerings laid upon it. Hardly a Mormon woman had not given up to it some trinket or [money saved]: the poorest Mormon man had at least served a tenth part of his year upon its walls; … Therefore, though their enemies drove on them ruthlessly, they succeeded in parrying the last sword-thrust, till they had completed even the gilding of the angel and trumpet on the summit of its lofty spire.

The completed temple was dedicated in May 1846. With the sacred rites of consecration ended, the Saints emptied the structure of anything of value, and anything that could be desecrated by the mobs.

[The work] went on through the night; and when the morning of the next day dawned, all the ornaments and furniture, everything that could provoke a sneer, had been carried off; and except some fixtures that would not bear removal, the building was dismantled to the bare walls.

It was this day that saw the departure of the last elders, and the largest band that moved in one company together. The people of Iowa have told me, that from morning to night they [the Saints] passed westward like an endless procession. They did not seem greatly out of heart, they said; but, at the top of every hill before they disappeared, were to be seen looking back on their abandoned homes, and the far-seen Temple and its glittering spire.

Prior to his visit to Nauvoo, Kane had observed the westward-bound Saints at work and at play in the Camps of Israel. He was impressed that they were honest and sincere in their testimonies of the gospel. He expressed amazement at the sacrifices many of them made and at the love that existed in the camps in spite of the hunger and hardships the Saints suffered. In later years, he made three visits to the Saints in Utah, where he was very welcome. His last visit, in 1877, was at the death of Brigham Young to whose “masterly guidance,” he said, the Saints were indebted for their prosperity. Hours before his own death in 1883 in Pennsylvania, he asked his wife to send “The sweetest message you can make up to my Mormon friends—to all, my dear Mormon friends.”

[photo] Marble portrait of Thomas L. Kane. Background: City plan of Nauvoo.

[illustration] “The Battle of Nauvoo,” by C. C. A. Christensen.

[photo] Background: The Mississippi River at Nauvoo.

[illustration] “The Nauvoo Temple,” C. C. A. Christensen

[illustration] “Nauvoo, Illinois,” 1859 painting on tin by John Schröder, some thirteen years after the Saints had left the city. The large white structure on the hill was the shell of the desecrated Nauvoo Temple damaged by mobs, storm, and fire.

[photo] Thomas L. Kane as an officer during the United States Civil War.