I am tracing my Mormon pioneer roots because my story began with those who came before.
Besides the religious traditions of native tribes, Mormonism is only a handful of religions birthed in America.
Many Latter-Day Saints converts like Daniel sold homesteads, businesses, livestock, and personal belongings to follow the prophet, Joseph Smith. Following his commandment, they searched for a place to build Zion, a city worthy of Christ’s second coming.
Mormons saw themselves as separate and apart from other Christian traditions and tried to withdraw from secular society. Keeping to themselves, they wanted to practice their distinct faith traditions and avoid worldly temptations.
Unfortunately, instead of being left to practice their faith peacefully, the saints faced intense mistreatment for nearly fifteen years before beginning their mass exodus to Utah. The persecution against them included ridicule, harassment, physical violence, vandalization of holy temples, plundered homes, burned farmlands, and livestock killing. In some places, runners would travel through the county, alerting communities the Mormons were coming.
Local governments made efforts to prohibit Mormons from voting. They were forced to live in certain areas and told to keep to themselves. In the Mormon Missouri War, the governor called the militia to put down the “Mormon uprising.” After surrendering, the saints had to sign property and other valuables to cover the war’s cost.
Missouri’s Governor Boggs’ Executive Order 44 gave Mormons six months to leave or face forcible removal. Seen as an extermination order, some saints who sold their property were taken advantage of by locals who knew the short timeline saints had to liquidate all they owned. Leaders of the church faced arrest.
Their beloved prophet, Joseph Smith, was murdered in Carthage jail while awaiting trial. Shot in the back while trying to flee the assassination attempt by an angry mob.
Initially, locals ignored the Mormons living among them, even though they saw them as religious oddballs. As the number of saints grew, they became a threat. Mormons voted as a bloc when allowed to vote, giving them political power, which made towns uneasy.
The Mormon belief they are God’s chosen people, led by a living prophet, may have come across as zealous and arrogant. Polygamy, the practice of taking plural wives, was the scandalous cherry on top. Rumors exacerbated already tense situations. One townsperson justified killing even the youngest saints by saying, “nits grow into lice.”
Some Mormons wore the persecution they faced as a badge of honor. Proof they were God’s chosen few. Others unsuccessfully tried to get the law to intervene on their behalf. They asked for help to regain their property, support their right to vote, bear arms, and choose where to live.
While some Mormons fled, others fought back. A few created a secret organization called the Danites. The Danites vowed to do whatever it took to protect their way of life. Some Mormons retaliated with violence by killing, burning farms, and causing locals to fear for the safety of their homes and families.
Daniel and his family’s stable life in Canada starkly contrasted with their life as a Mormon family in America. The escalating backlash forced the Wood family to move through Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and Missouri. Ever hopeful, Kirtland, Far West, Nauvoo, or Kanesville could be the town of peace their prophet envisioned.
Sometimes it took months for their wagon, burdened down with all they owned, to move from one place to another. While waiting to build a cabin, they might live out of their wagon with another Mormon family or under the open sky. Once a winter storm arrived before their log cabin was complete. The woolen blankets and hand-made quilts on beds they made on the ground under branches of a bare tree got soaked from the snow that fell.
Daniel joined a rescue mission called Zion Camp to help saints reclaim land illegally taken in Missouri. This mission failed, but most of the men who volunteered received prominent leadership roles in the church. Daniel’s ordination into the Quorum of the Seventy, a leadership group within the church, may have been his reward. He helped build the temple in Nauvoo, Illinois, and later stood guard to protect it from those wanting to burn it to the ground.
Being hated taught Daniel not to show fear. Once, while traveling alone on horseback, he stood his ground against an angry mob. Although he didn’t want trouble, his finger was steady on the trigger just in case. He became known as the brash, bold, and salty Canadian convert.
Once Daniel traveled to a gristmill to have his crop ground into flour. The mill was far enough away the trip required him to sleep in his wagon overnight. After grinding the grist, Daniel began heading home. On his way, he met a fellow Mormon, Brother Downs. Brother Downs warned him the men in town were preparing for war against the Mormons. The townspeople must have known of Daniel, for they swore they would get him. Realizing he was among his enemies, Daniel asked Brother Downs if he would take Daniel’s wagon through town and let Daniel borrow his horse. The man agreed. Instead of taking the road through town, Daniel detoured through the wild prairie, allowing God to direct him through the unfamiliar land. Once past the village, he returned to the main road and met with Brother Downs. They exchanged the wagon for the horse, and Daniel continued home. He was deeply grateful for his church brother, who helped him escape.
Daniel found ways to gain the trust of locals, who were often wary of doing business with Mormons. He convinced a merchant to loan him five dollars in one new town. They agreed on a day for the loan to be repaid. Daniel took the five dollars directly to a different merchant and asked him to change the five dollars into smaller coins. Without spending any, Daniel took the cash home and waited. On the morning the loan was due, he returned to the original merchant and used the coins to repay his debt. Daniel was then viewed as an honest man, allowing him more opportunities to borrow.
They lived in one city entirely under the control of a mob intent on making life unbearable for the Mormons. The mob would not allow Mormons to leave or enter the town to trade or get supplies. Daniel noticed the mob targeted well-dressed men who appeared to be Mormon. Those dressed more casually were assumed to be locals and allowed to travel freely. Daniel began wearing ragged clothes to blend in. He even sewed a red patch onto the shoulder of an old coat, which may have been a mark of belonging to the local militia. Using this disguise, Daniel skillfully traveled in and out of town. He also stood in line getting rations of food and supplies not meant for Mormon families.
Daniel saw some saints become disheartened and question membership in the church. He did not want doubt seeping into the hearts of his family. Prayer, scriptures, and other written words like Parley P. Pratt’s “A Voice of Warning” sustained him. Even though Daniel was angry at the unfair treatment of Mormons, he didn’t seek revenge. He believed in the scripture where God says, “Vengeance is mine, and I will repay.” His faith didn’t waver even though he described feeling like a wild beast being hunted in the forest. His family often heard angry chants outside their home telling them to leave. Many nights Daniel and his oldest son Henry protected the home outside while Mary gathered the children close indoors.
During the years of persecution and wandering, Daniel also suffered personal grief and joy. His mother, Elizabeth, died in Canada. His oldest son Henry died from pneumonia he caught while guarding the Nauvoo temple alongside his father. His wife Mary gave birth to twin daughters, Mary and Catherine, who only lived long enough to be christened. Harriet, their first child, was born in America. The marriage of his oldest daughter Rebecca and the birth of her son, Daniel’s first grandson, were reasons to celebrate.
Growing up, I learned about the persecution the saints faced. Through Sunday School lessons and church hymns, I grew to be proud of the tough, faithful people who didn’t back down from what they believed.
I wonder why the suffering the Mormons endured didn’t make them more sympathetic to others’ suffering, specifically those with black skin. Black people were also denied the right to vote, told where to live and how to spend their days, and were not allowed weapons of defense. Like Mormons, black people knew they could not rely on the law.
Daniel bravely stood up for his faith but did not stand against the abomination of slavery. His moral backbone and sense of righteousness led him to break the law but not rail against the law of one man owning another. For a man who valued freedom, he seemed unable to see those who never tasted freedom.
While Daniel’s whiteness allowed him to don a disguise that permitted him to blend in and provide for his family, there was no disguise a black man could wear to do the same.
Words collected in stories about him describe him as a good man, loyal, brave, faithful, creative, hardworking, and resilient. Yet, I could not find any evidence he did anything to end the suffering or degradation of black men, women, and children.
In one journal, Daniel described arguing with a non-Mormon who was worried about whether Mormons had abolitionist leanings in their sympathy towards enslaved people. Daniel eased the townsperson’s fear by saying those rumors were untrue. He went on to say; a real Latter-Day Saint would not preach on meddling in the messy business of slavery. Was he blind to the immorality of slavery, or as distasteful as it is to admit, did he agree black bodies needed white masters?