Following the Mormon expulsion from Missouri, someone made an attempt on Missouri Gov Boggs’ life. Most people think it was Porter Rockwell. What does historian Steve LeSueur have to say about the matter?
GT: Oh, except for I guess we forgot about the assassination of Governor Boggs. Actually, I wanted to get your opinions of Governor Boggs’ handling. I know you said in your book, by the end of his term, nobody liked him. He wasn’t a very good governor. Was he a pretty terrible governor? Would a different person have handled that better?
Steve 2:36:02 I’d say a different person probably couldn’t have handled it worse. So, yes, I would say that. In the book, I tried to let him speak for himself and explain, “Well, this is why I did this or that.” But, for the most part, as it turned out, he was prepared to send out troops early on, when he thought the Mormons were the cause of trouble. But it turned out that Atchison and his troops were able to solve things. So, Boggs didn’t come out. He didn’t need to. But, then later, as things started breaking down, Boggs continually heard reports from his generals, saying, “You need to come out here.”
Steve 2:36:51 The Mormons are not at fault. But the Mormons are in a desperate situation. They’re desperate people, and we could have a big war here, a big conflict. So, they asked him to come out. He didn’t come out. You could say, “Well, that it isn’t necessarily the governor’s job to call out troops and lead them out all the way out west, like that.” But that’s what he was asked to do.
Steve 2:37:23 Then likewise, when DeWitt was besieged, and the Mormons asked for help yet again, and he didn’t help them. Essentially, he left it up to local authorities, which, in essence, was no help. By that point, he knew it was no help. He defended himself by saying that the local authorities had solved it before. They could do it again. Also, I think he had become sort of a–a laughingstock is too strong, but he was criticized and ridiculed when he had first intended to come out. This was a month earlier, with troops. He called out troops, and they were disorganized, and, a lot of money was spent. Then, he just said, “Well, it looks like they solved the problem out there. We don’t have to do it.” So, he’s kind of laughed at for wasting money. Perhaps he didn’t want to look like that again. But, as it turned out, he eventually had to call out troops, and he was not hesitant to call out troops when they were [used] against the Mormons.
GT 2:38:41 So, would you say he was the worst governor of Missouri?
Steve 2:38:49 Well, I don’t know my Missouri history.
GT 2:38:52 There might have been one worse?
Steve 2:38:54 I don’t want to shortchange anybody. By the time he [Boggs] left office, he was not popular. No. As it turned out, he later went to California, and he became an alcalde. I think [al-cal-day] is how you pronounce it. [He was] some type of county leader or something like that. So, it’s interesting how people like that [moved on.] He still became a leader by moving someplace else, though not governor. Interestingly enough, Peter Burnett, who was a member of General Doniphan’s brigade, he went out to California, and he became the first Governor of the State of California.
GT 2:38:55 Okay.
Steve 2:38:55 Among other things, he was one of the Mormons’ lawyers after the Richmond hearing. So, he was at the grand jury hearing in Gallatin when the Mormons were there.
GT 2:39:54 Okay. Do you have any thoughts on the assassination attempt on Governor Boggs?
Steve 2:40:01 Just based on my knowledge, it’s not something I’ve looked into recently. So, if there’s been recent evidence, I don’t know of it. But the evidence seems to be that on the one hand, when you say the attempt, Porter Rockwell, a Mormon was accused of trying to assassinate Boggs, and Boggs was shot. He was shot and Porter Rockwell mysteriously happened to be in Independence at the time. [Rockwell] was arrested, tried by a jury and acquitted. They didn’t have enough evidence to convict him. You would think that this would be a jury that might be eager to convict a Mormon of something like this. But they didn’t.
Steve 2:41:04 So, on the one hand, there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive evidence [that Rockwell shot Boggs]. We haven’t uncovered any evidence about it. On the other hand, what was Porter Rockwell [doing there?] He had no business, really, in that town. There was no reason why he should have been there. [There was] no reason why any Mormon would have wanted to have been in western Missouri at that time. Excuse me for forgetting, I don’t remember which year that was. Was it 1842-43?
GT 2:41:31 I don’t remember either.
Steve 2:41:33 Anyway, the Mormons weren’t there. He had no reason to be there. There’s a story, likely apocryphal. But somebody asked Porter Rockwell, “Did you really try to attempt to assassinate Boggs?”
Steve 2:41:56 He said, “Well, if it had been me, it would not have been an attempted assassination.”
GT 2:42:01 [Porter implies,] “I would have done it. I wouldn’t have missed.”
Steve 2:42:04 Yeah, he would be dead.
GT 2:42:06 It seems like Alex Baugh said that it was like a buckshot pistol. It wasn’t something that would have killed him. It was like a BB gun kind of a thing. It was more to just to scare him. So, he thought, “Well, maybe Porter was trying to scare Boggs,” which, if that’s what it was, he certainly accomplished that. Alright, well, Stephen, this has been great. Is there anything we’ve missed?
Steve 2:42:40 Well, let’s see. [There are] just a couple of perhaps minor things. But I’ll mention them. As you look at the events, as I mentioned earlier, as they unfolded, it was not a “giant conspiracy” of the Missourians or this large group of Missourians that said, “We’ve just got to get the Mormons out of here.” Rather, it was sort of one thing after another of each side reacting to the other, each side thinking the worst of the other. There were, you know, the things that went on among the Mormons that some Mormons were unhappy with, that the people we call dissenters, and people who testified at the Richmond hearing, they have been denigrated as apostates and liars, and people who are just bitter.
Steve 2:43:41 But actually, to a large degree, Mormon historians now place a lot of credit, that is belief, in what they said. Now, this is aside from Sampson Avard. These people are different from Avard, even though they get lumped in as “He’s a dissenter. They’re a dissenter.” Or, “He testified, they testified.” They actually opposed Sampson Avard. That’s why they were dissenters, because they opposed Danitism. But, in any case, one of the things we’ve learned from these events is there were some things going on in Mormonism with the Danites and other things that we’ve talked about, that disturbed dissenters and disturbed Mormons. “We shouldn’t be doing this.” Another thing, too, about the Missourians is a lot of them were sympathetic to the Mormons. It was just, again, as the events unfolded, eventually, those Missourians who were sympathetic to the Mormons came to believe that “Oh, they are in rebellion, just like everybody’s been saying.” Actually, I take that back. General Alexander Doniphan, and David Atcheson, they did not say they’ve been in rebellion just like everybody said. What they said is, they’ve been goaded. They used the word goaded. They’ve been goaded by mob after mob until now the Mormons have taken up arms, and the Mormons have become aggressors.
GT 2:45:15 So interesting. It seems like you’re pretty fair handed with this as far as assigning blame a little bit everywhere.
Steve 2:45:22 I’d like to be. Tell that to Alex.
GT 2:45:27 (Chuckling) Oh, I will do that.
Steve 2:45:35 By the way, I joke. In preparation for this interview, I re-read [Alex Baugh’s] dissertation.
GT 2:45:42 Okay.
Steve 2:45:45 So, there are places we disagree with each other. But they are interpretations, as opposed to outright fictions or something of that nature. Hopefully, he believes the same thing of me: “Yes, yes. Steve has got his facts right. But we’re interpreting them differently.
GT 2:46:09 Well, I enjoyed the back and forth. I know not many people saw Trouble in Zion. I thought it was a great movie. We actually had a ward activity, Kenny Ballentine came out, and that was great. I wish that was still available on Amazon. I guess I have a rare copy now.
Steve 2:46:29 How did the people in your ward react to it?
GT 2:46:38 They were fine with it. Yeah. I mean, they thought it was fair. I think Kenny really tried to show both sides: your side, Alex’s side. I loved the descendent of William Peniston on there. That was pretty interesting to see him on there and some of those Missouri folks. I know Kenny is still doing some stuff, but I don’t think he’s doing a lot of documentaries anymore.
Steve 2:47:07 Does he live near you?
GT 2:47:08 No. He’s in California. He came all the way to Utah for that. That was nice, while he was promoting that movie. I would say go watch it. I’m going to talk to Kenny and say “You need to put that on YouTube or something. Let people see it, because nobody can see it anymore. I’m pretty sure I was looking on Amazon and they’re out of stock. I think he’s sold out of all his DVDs, but I have one, and an autographed poster too.
Steve 2:47:38 Yeah, well, you have a collector’s item then.
GT 2:47:42 Yes, definitely. So, Stephen LeSueur, I really appreciate you appearing here on Gospel Tangents. I’m going to have to get you to sign my book somehow. We’ll figure that out.
Steve 2:47:52 I’d be glad to.
GT 2:47:53 Alright, thanks again.
Steve 2:47:54 I’ll sign both of them.
GT 2:47:55 Alright. Thanks. I hope you enjoyed our conversation with Stephen LeSueur. Steve, thanks so much for talking to me about your amazing book: The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri. Hopefully you’re going to come to MHA. Like I said, I’ve got two of these. So, hopefully I can get them both signed. I’ll try to give one of them away, because I don’t need two. I only need one. Anyway, thanks again, Steve. I really appreciate it.
LeSueur, Stephen C. The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.
LeSueur, Stephen C. “”High Treason and Murder”: The Examination of Mormon Prisoners at Richmond, Missouri, in November 1838.” Brigham Young University Studies 26, no. 2 (1986): 2-30.
LeSueur, Stephen C. “The Danites Reconsidered: Were They Vigilantes or Just the Mormons’ Version of the Elks Club?” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 14 (1994): 35-51.
LeSueur, Stephen C. “The Community of Christ and the Search for a Usable Past.” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 22 (2002): 1-24.
LeSueur, Stephen C. “The Mormon Experience in Missouri, 1830-39,” pp. 87-112, in Excavating Mormon Pasts: the New Historiography of the Last Half Century, eds., Newell G. Bringhurst and Lavina Fielding Anderson, Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2004.
LeSueur, Stephen C. “Missouri’s Failed Compromise: The Creation of Caldwell County for the Mormons.” Journal of Mormon History 31, no. 2 (2005): 113-44.
LeSueur, Stephen C. “Mixing Politics with Religion: A Closer Look at Electioneering and Voting in Caldwell and Daviess Counties in 1838.” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 33, no. 1 (2013): 184-208.