Southeast Missouri State University Press

Nauvoo, The Beautiful Place

Lisa Knopp

Nauvoo is encircled by a horseshoe bend in the Mississippi River in a part of western Illinois that some call “Forgottonia.” This town of about 1,100 people, 270 miles southwest of Chicago, and 190 miles north of St. Louis , can only be reached by a two-laned state highway or by boat. Yet, since the turn of the millennium, Nauvoo has drawn as many as 1.5 million visitors per year.1

The town has a remarkable past. In the 1840s, it was one of the twenty largest cities in the U.S., surpassing Chicago in size and economic importance.2 During the nineteenth century, it was the site of two utopias: one Mormon, one Icarian. In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints (LDS) and the Community of Christ received 133 divine revelations, including those calling for polygamy, baptism of the dead, and the construction of a grand temple on the bluff above the Mississippi. In Nauvoo, Etienne Cabet, the founder of Icaria, a French socialist experiment, sought to create a society free of poverty, ignorance, and injustice. The French, Swiss, Liechtensteinians, and Germans who immigrated to Nauvoo made it the oldest grape-growing and wine-making locale in Illinois. Until World War I, Nauvoo was known as the most German speaking town in the state. Any one of these facts could be developed into a narrative that would provide healthy summer tourism, even for a town that isn’t directly on the way to anywhere. But one narrative dominates, almost to the exclusion of all others.

In 1999, Gorden B. Hinckley, then president of the LDS Church, announced that the Nauvoo Temple, built in the 1840s and destroyed by arson and tornado, would be rebuilt on its original location. That year, the number of tourists to Nauvoo doubled. Most were Mormons. Thousands of LDS volunteers poured into Nauvoo to work at the temple open houses. Some of the tourists and volunteers liked what they saw and returned as LDS missionaries to lead tours of the historical sites or as temple workers to perform or assist with ordinances. Some returned as students at Brigham Young University’s Semester at Nauvoo. And some returned to buy property and live there. Most non-Mormon residents of Nauvoo are conflicted about this surge of interest in their home. They welcome the growth but question the effect of Mormon tourism. Others would just as soon forgo the crowds, the tourist dollars, and the new residents, and regain their quiet little town. When I told my parents that I was planning to write about Nauvoo, they expressed regret over how it has changed. “You won’t recognize it,” they said. “Now everything is Mormon.”

“Mormon tourism has brought a lot of money to that town,” I said. “It’s keeping it alive.”

“But at what price?” my mother asked.


December 29, 2005, I visited Nauvoo for the first time in over a decade. I drove from my home in Lincoln, Nebraska, across southern Iowa, and crossed the Mississippi at Burlington, Iowa, my hometown, 30 miles upriver from Nauvoo. From there, I drove south on Illinois State Highway 96, the Great River Road, and I passed through one drowsy, dispiriting little town after another—Gulfport, Carman, Lomax, Dallas City, Pontoosuc, Niota—each with a stagnant or declining population, each with empty buildings and little or nothing open on a Thursday morning except, perhaps, a convenience store. When I arrived in Nauvoo, the first thing that I noticed was the new temple, a five-story, 54,000-square-foot, Greek Revival, limestone box perched atop the bluff. Each of the 30 pilasters is adorned with sunstones, moonstones, and starstones, which represent the “Three Degrees of Glory” in Mormon afterlife. Those qualified to enter the temple do so through a triple-arched portico. A spire holds a golden figure of the angel Moroni 165 feet aboue the earth. The temple is hideously beautiful—or beautifully hideous—and disproportionately large for such a small town.

The second thing I noticed were people. The shops and restaurants on Mulholland Street, the main street through the business district, were open though quiet in the post-Christmas lull. Grandpa John’s Cafe, where I ate lunch, was packed. In front of the gleaming temple, a beautiful, dark-haired bride laughed as her groom picked her up in his arms and spun her in a circle, her white dress and veil billowing. A handful of people snapped pictures. Even on a cold, gray morning with the tourist season months away, Nauvoo was clean, bright, and alive.

At the LDS Visitor’s Center, the staff were preparing to meet with reporters from area newspapers about the release of a new movie commemorating the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth. So for the most part, I was alone with the exhibits. I studied the topographical map of Nauvoo in 1845, impressed that such a large and sophisticated city arose there, almost overnight. I was taken aback by a white, white statue of Joseph Smith kneeling during a vision, while a youthful and European looking God and Jesus stood on air in front of him. I marveled at the sunstone, which once topped a pilaster on the original temple, and the curious human face that it bore. I watched a film about the Mormon pioneers in Nauvoo that emphasized external threats but made little mention of the dissention within. After touring the Visitor’s Center, one might conclude that Nauvoo history began in 1839 with the arrival of the Mormons and ended in 1846 with their expulsion.


To understand the controversies swirling in Nauvoo around tourism, indeed, about how Nauvoo’s history will be presented and understood, one must know something of the history of both the town and those who built it.

The first to live near the bluff and peninsula that would become Nauvoo were mound-building Indians, who may have arrived as early as 200 BC. In historic times, the Illinois Indians dominated the area, but in the early seventeenth century, they were displaced by the Sauk and Meskwaki (Fox), who in turn had been displaced from their original home in the St. Lawrence River Valley by other tribes. The Sauk and Meskwaki grew corn and hunted near the banks of the Mississippi. Though the Treaty of 1804 transferred Sauk lands to the U.S. government, they were permitted to hunt near their former home. In 1805, the U.S. established an agricultural school and trading post in the area. In 1824, James White, a retired Army captain, bought land on the peninsula from the federal government. White traded with the Sauk and ran a “lightering” business, which transferred freight from steamboats onto flat boats, carried the cargo by land or water, so the steamboats could pass over the Des Moines Rapids—11 miles of dangerous limestone rocks in the river—and then reloaded the cargo. In 1830, a post office was established for the town of Venus, population 62. Later that decade, two towns were platted on the peninsula: Commerce and Commerce City, the population of which may have reached 200 before it crashed in the financial panic of 1837. Two years later, five thousand Mormons settled on the “Flats,” the low half-circle of land jutting into the Mississippi.3

The Mormons were followers of Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-1844), who Jon Krakauer describes as “one of the most remarkable figures to ever have breathed American air.” When he was a teenager, Smith received the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, the doctrinal foundation of the LDS and the Community of Christ churches, from the angel Moroni, son of the prophet Mormon. This book tells the story of Israelites who came to America about 600 bc, and of Christ’s visit to this continent following his resurrection.

After attending revivals in upstate New York during the winter of 1828-29, Smith tried to discern which of the many churches to join. Two “personages,” who identified themselves as God the Father and Jesus Christ, appeared to him and said, “They are all abominations in my sight. None of them are good.” Consequently on April 4, 1830, Smith started his own church. According to Krakauer, this new religion offered “a kinder, gentler alternative to Calvinism,” then the dominant type of Christianity, which taught that people were inherently evil and that God was inherently vengeful. Smith rejected the idea of original sin, insisting that God’s chosen, the Mormons, were virtuous people living in a wicked world; moreover, they could become gods, just as God had once been human. Also contributing to the success of Smith’s religion was its materialism: earthly wealth reflected spiritual standing; thus, Mormonism not only approved of but encouraged prosperity and consumption, a quintessentially American religion.

For the next couple of decades, Smith and his followers sought a home. But wherever they went, they met with disapproval, sometimes outright violence. People who initially welcomed the Mormons became hostile once they saw how quickly and completely their new neighbors established social, economic, and political dominion. Mormons believed that theirs was the one true religion and that all others were wrong, not an uncommon position for adherents of any religion; yet the Mormons went so far as to call themselves “Saints” and non-Mormons “Gentiles.” Smith had a vision which charged him to lead the saints from Palmyra, New York, to Kirtland, Ohio. In 1838, seven years after they arrived there, the Mormons were forced to leave. Just months after their arrival in northwestern Missouri where an entire county, Caidwell, was set aside for their use, the governor issued an “extermination order” against them. What led Missourians to war with the Mormons was their plan to build a Zion in Missouri which would draw converts from all over the world and that Mormons, though not abolitionists, refused to own slaves.

Following the Mormon War of 1838, Smith’s followers fled Missouri and gathered in Quincy, Illinois, 53 miles down river from Nauvoo. Dr. Isaac Galland, an agent for the New York Land Company, sold land to Mormon leaders on both sides of the river in what is now Lee County, Iowa, and Hancock County, Illinois, for $2.00 per acre, nothing down, no interest, and payments to be made over 20 years. Galland told Smith that the Mormons would receive warm hospitality in Iowa Territory and Illinois.4

In May 1839, Joseph and Emma Smith, their children, and his parents moved into the White “plantation” on the Flats. Smith renamed the town Nauvoo, a Hebrew word meaning “beautiful place” or “beautifully situated” from Isaiah 52:7 (“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news”), about the triumphant return of God’s people to Zion and the suffering servant turned victorious, references that Smith probably applied both to himself and the Zion that he and his Saints were building on the Mississippi. At Smith’s beckoning, converts from Europe, Canada, the U.S., and its territories poured into Nauvoo. Epidemics of malaria, typhoid, and typhus were common and deadly until the settlers dug a ditch at the base of the bluffs and drained the swampy peninsula. The ditch still drains water in Nauvoo State Park. By 1840, they had built about 250 block houses in the Flats.5 By 1845, Nauvoo had between 15,000 and 20,000 residents,6 a couple thousand homes, a half completed temple on the bluff, and lush gardens. Nauvoo, the Beautiful Place.

In Nauvoo, the charismatic Smith established a theocracy in which he was mayor, chief magistrate, lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Militia, newspaper editor, real estate promoter, grocer, and in 1844, U.S. presidential candidate. Religiously, Nauvoo was significant because Smith received his revelations there about baptism by proxy for dead relatives, rebaptisms, endowments of spiritual powers to initiates to priesthood, second anointings, and plural marriages (Smith may have had dozens of wives). And in Nauvoo, Smith received divine orders to build a fit dwelling place for the Lord. When Josiah Quincy, who would become the mayor of Boston in 1846, visited Nauvoo just weeks before Smith’s death, “General Smith,” as Quincy called him, took him to see the temple construction. To Quincy, the temple was “wonderful” though “indescribable,” since it was “like something Smith had seen in a vision [and] certainly cannot be compared to any ecclesiastical building which may be discerned by the natural eyesight.” Smith told Quincy that each of the “monolithic pillars” cost $3,000. The baptistry in the basement was “centered in a mighty tank, surrounded by twelve wooden oxen of colossal size.” Quincy judged that “the City of Nauvoo, with its wide streets sloping gracefully to the farms enclosed on the prairie, seemed to be a better temple to Him who prospers the work of industrious hands than the grotesque structure on the hill, with all its queer carvings of suns and moons.”

As in Ohio and Missouri, the saints and their beliefs rubbed their neighbors the wrong way, and the Gentiles retaliated. Orville F. Berry, an attorney in Carthage, the Hancock County seat, identified the two chief sources of such local resentment toward the Mormons. One was the treatment of criminals. When a county official arrested a Mormon for breaking the law, Smith’s court issued a writ of habeus corpus, which released the accused from the custody of the civil court. Another was freedom of the press. On June 7, 1844, the first and only issue of The Expositor, a newspaper founded by disfellowship Mormons, divulged Smith’s secret teachings on polygamy and the plurality of the gods. Smith and the Nauvoo City Council ordered the city marshal to destroy the press and burn all remaining copies of the newspaper, a violation of the First Amendment. On June 12, 1844, Thomas C. Sharp, a judge and the editor of the Carthage Gazette and The Warsaw Signal, prophesied that “war and extermination” were inevitable for the “infernal devils,” as he called his Mormon neighbors. Sharp’s chief complaint was that the Mormons voted as a block, throwing any Hancock County election in their favor. Sharp called for his readers to respond “with powder and ball.” Berry and Sharp offered valid explanations for a reasoned opposition to the Mormon majority. But the ferocious hatred that many locals felt was caused by something more visceral: jealousy over the Mormon’s material success and aversion to their “Otherness.”

Joseph and his brother Hyrum were arrested but soon released after a Mormon tribunal issued them a writ of habeus corpus. Then, a non-Mormon justice in Nauvoo exonerated the brothers of charges against them. Threats of violence against the Mormons increased. On June 18, Smith called up his militia and declared a state of martial law. Even though Joseph knew that he and Hyrum would be “massacred,” the brothers turned themselves in, were arrested on charges of treason, and put in the Carthage jail in the care of a local militia company, the Carthage Greys. The Warsaw Dragoons, another local militia company, stormed the jail, overcame the Greys, who did little to resist, and began shooting. Five men, including Sharp, were acquitted for the June 27, 1844, murders of the Smiths. The Prophet’s death wasn’t enough to quell the violence. In the months that followed, vigilantes burned the houses and crops of Mormon settlers, beat the men, and harassed the women and children.

In January 1845, the state legislature repealed Nauvoo’s charter and ordered the Mormons to leave. The Saints sold their properties for a fraction of what they were worth and built wagons to carry them far from Nauvoo. During their final months there, work on the temple continued at a feverish pace. Once special rooms in the temple attic were completed and furnished in November 1845, “the secret temple work” (i.e., the blessing of endowment, the sealing of plural wives, and adoptions by Church leaders of men in the priesthood and their families) continued day and night until February 1846. Then thousands of Mormons walked down Parley Street, the “Street of Tears,” and crossed the Mississippi into Iowa. Eventually they settled in Utah, far from Gentiles and U.S. laws. A few, such as Joseph’s wife Emma, their children, and his mother Lucy, remained behind, as well as those who would complete the work on the temple. At the Battle of Nauvoo the following September, an armed force drove out most of the remaining Mormons. Church officials sold the temple. In 1848, arsonists torched it, fearing that if the temple was still there, the Mormons would return.

In the May 2005 issue of the LDS youth publication New Era, Janet Thomas wrote, “After the Church members left to go west, Nauvoo faded into a small farming community.” Though Thomas’s statement isn’t historically accurate, it provides a fitting end to the story of Mormons in Nauvoo.

In 1849, the Icarians, under the leadership of Etienne Cabet, bought the Mormon structures, including what remained of the temple, and attempted to build their utopia there. The Icarians, who came from France, Germany, and Switzerland, sought to create an egalitarian community with no social classes, money, private property, poverty, or competition. The communal French-speaking Icarians may have seemed as odd to the people of Hancock County as the Mormons. But there were far fewer of them (though 2,000 passed through Icaria, never more than 500 lived there at one time), and unlike their predecessors, they lacked what Krakauer calls an attitude of “divine entitlement.” Cabet and his followers were converting the fire-damaged temple into a lecture and dining hall when a tornado toppled two walls and damaged a third. For safety reasons, Cabet ordered that the remaining walls be demolished. On the temple lot, the Icarians built a boarding school for their children, a communal dining hall, press, infirmary, pharmacy, and a library, purportedly the state’s largest. After Cabet lost his re-election bid for president of the colony in 1856, the group broke into two factions, one of which moved to St. Louis, the other to Corning, Iowa. By 1857, most Icarians had left Nauvoo.

Legend has it that viticulture began in Nauvoo in the 1830s when the Catholic priest Johannes Alleman planted grape roots there.7 In the early 1850s, John Bauer, the son of a Bavarian winegrower, and John Tanner from Switzerland introduced winegrowing to Nauvoo. One of the earliest wineries belonged to Alois Rheinberger from Liechtenstein.8 But it was the descendants of the Icarians who made Nauvoo one of the foremost grape-growing and wine-making regions in the center of the country. Emile Baxter, who joined the Icarians in 1855 and remained after the colony disbanded, kept an eight-acre vineyard and in 1857, established a winery. Baxter died in 1895, but his sons continued his work as Baxter Brothers. During Prohibition, they sold fruit instead of wine; following the repeal of the eighteenth Amendment, theirs was the first Illinois winery to reopen. When Emile’s son Cecil died in 1947, his was the only winery in the state. In 1987, Kelly Logan, Emile Baxter’s great-great-grandson, bought the business, now called Baxter’s Vineyards.9

Nauvoo’s principle industry, in addition to winemaking, was cheesemaking. In the 1930s, Oscar Rohde, a professor at Iowa State University, create a recipe for blue cheese that used cow rather than goat milk. Rohde bought the building that had once housed the Schenk Brewery and converted it into a cheese factory. This was an ideal place, since the limestone caves in the bluff beneath the former brewery provided the constant temperature needed to properly age the cheese. In 1937, the Nauvoo Blue Cheese Factory opened. This factory eventually became the U.S.’s second largest producer of blue cheese, the winner of several international awards, and Nauvoo’s largest employer.10

 To celebrate its two unique industries, each Labor Day since 1937, Nauvoo has hosted a grape festival that includes an annual pageant, “The Wedding of the Wine and the Cheese,” which is also staged in Rochefort, France. When my father was a child, his family went to the festival each year to watch the parade and to picnic in Nauvoo State Park. As a member of the Keokuk High School band, my mother marched in the Grape Festival Parade several years.

My childhood memories of Nauvoo are of going there with my paternal grandmother to buy apples and grapes, or going to Hotel Nauvoo, a restaurant in a spacious house built on the bluff during the Mormon Era, with my great aunt Pertsie or my parents. Homemade bricks from Joseph Smith’s General Store, some bearing finger indentations, were used to repair a wall in the hotel in 1879. And my father made wine from Nauvoo grape juice.

The people and the community of Nauvoo have not faded since the Mormon exodus, nor are they defined by farming.


Because the earth is thickly layered with the sacred and temporal stories of different groups of people, the meaning and interpretation of a single place has become increasingly complicated. It’s as if all the world is Jerusalem, where one historical site, say, the Temple Mount, Haram Es Sharif, a raised platform in the Old City, is sacred to the followers of three religions for different yet overlapping reasons. The Temple Mount is sacred for Jews because it was the site of the first and the second temple, and it is the spot where Abraham offered his son as a sacrifice to Yahweh. It’s significant for Christians because it’s the site of the second temptation, where Satan asked Jesus to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple so angels could catch him, thus proving his Messiahship. Haram Es Sharif, Islam’s third holiest site after Mecca and Medina, is sacred to Muslims because of its association with Abraham, David, and Solomon, and more importantly, because from there, Muhammad ascended into heaven. One site, three histories and meanings. The control of this site, under Muslim authority since the twelfth century, is hotly contested.

What privileges one historical narrative and the associations of one group of people over that of others? Mormon history dominates in Nauvoo for several reasons. One is the sheer size of the community that lived there in the 1840s. For the past 160 years, Nauvoo’s population has remained but a fraction of what it was during the Mormon years. Another reason is that with almost six million members in the U.S., the LDS Church, the nation’s fourth largest denomination, and the Community of Christ, with 130,000 members in the U.S., are alive and well. The Icarian movement, however, never had a wide following and was dissolved in 1898. While Nauvoo had a Native American and German American past, the stories of these groups are memorialized and celebrated in many other Midwestern places. But Nauvoo, the site of a Mormon utopia, the holy city, the New Jerusalem, the City of Joseph, is unique. Also contributing to the success of Mormons at promoting their history in Nauvoo is that they are judged cultic or heretical by evangelical Christians, and sexist, racist, and homophobic by progressives. An outcast status goes far in creating group identity and resolve. And the LDS Church is wealthy enough to invest $30 million in a new temple in Forgottonia.

Efforts to develop Nauvoo into a site that would draw tourists and pilgrims began early in the twentieth century. In 1903, the LDS church bought the Carthage Jail, then a private residence. In 1909, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (RLDS), now the Community of Christ, began acquiring and restoring the Joseph Smith historic sites. In 1937, the LDS Church purchased part of the temple lot and the building that once housed their newspaper, The Times and Seasons. In 1938, it restored the Carthage Jail and continued to purchase portions of the temple block as they became available.11

Nauvoo Restoration, Inc. (NRI), the non-profit foundation that has restored the buildings on the Flats to something close to their former condition, had its beginnings in the 1920s when J. LeRoy Kimball, who was attending college in Chicago, went to Nauvoo to see the house in which his great-grandparents had lived. Kimball’s grandfather, Heber C. Kimball, had been Brigham Young’s first counselor and one of the twelve original apostles. In 1954, J. LeRoy Kimball, then a Salt Lake City physician, bought and began renovating his ancestor’s home. In 1962, he established NRI, with himself as president. The new organization went to work excavating the site of the temple and several other Mormon buildings. In 1971, the LDS Church opened a visitor’s center in Nauvoo. In 1982, NRI, then run by the LDS Church, dedicated 16 nineteenth-century buildings that it had restored on the Flats. Then, Nauvoo averaged 200,00 to 250,000 visitors per year, mostly a mix of tourists from Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri or Mormons from Utah. I toured the buildings in the late 1970s and again in the mid 1990s. On the latter visit, I stood in the Browning House and Gun Shop crowded with Saints pilgrimaging from New York to Utah and the Mormon historical sites between and listened to the family stories they told each other about this gunshop, the artifacts within, and Nauvoo in general. For them, it was a highly charged landscape, the site of sacred, familial, and corporate history. They, too, loved Nauvoo.

In 1998, the LDS Church bought St. Mary’s 1874 priory and 1957 girls’ boarding school that occupied the former temple site from the Sisters of St. Benedict. In 1999, LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley announced that the Church would reconstruct the Nauvoo Temple on the original site. The City of Nauvoo and the LDS Church reached an agreement under which the latter would provide a city planner for two years and pay the City almost $471,000 up front for infrastructure. Now, the “Williamsburg of the Midwest” includes almost 40 restored historic buildings and the $30 million temple, each tax exempt since they are church properties.

While most other small towns on the Upper Mississippi River are losing population, Nauvoo’s rose from 1,063 in 2000 to 1,155 in 2005, a 9.3% increase. But these numbers don’t tell the whole story. The Mormon population of Nauvoo rose from 178 in 1999 to about 900 in 2004, and continues to grow.13 In other words, Mormons are moving in and non-Mormons are moving out.

Some of Nauvoo’s non-Mormon residents are resentful of these changes. Just prior to the opening of the temple, Colleen Ralson, then director of the Christian Visitor’s Center in Nauvoo, told The San Francisco Chronicle that “many feel that the Mormons will reoccupy the town.” She pointed to the fact that the hardware store was bought by the LDS and turned into an LDS bookstore and that Nauvoo’s largest motel is Mormon-owned. And she didn’t like the way Mormons act. “It’s their attitude, their arrogance: ‘This is my town—I will do what I please’.” Jane Langford, owner and editor of Nauvoo’s weekly newspaper, The New Independent, told MSNBC about a “master plan” that involves the LDS church raising property prices in Nauvoo until long-time residents are forced out. “I think it’s been thought out for years, and I think that they will get control of the city council and the school board within five years, and you’ll see a big drop in prices.” Langford told Time magazine that the Mormons “want to take back Nauvoo, and since they can’t do it with guns, they are doing it with money.” What these women are saying about the return of the Mormons is that, at its deepest level, there is a fear of being over-powered by people whom they see as too different and of losing their homes through economics or reconstruction—just as many in Hancock County felt in the 1840s.

Real estate prices in Nauvoo are high for that part of Illinois. According to, the estimated medium value of a house or condominium in Nauvoo in 2005 was $84,200. Twenty miles away in Carthage, the county seat (population 2,725), it was $70,900. Fifteen miles away in Dallas City (population 1,055), it was $57,700. Time reports that in 2000, a house in the Flats that not so long ago would have sold for $20,000, now goes for $250,000. Just as property values have risen sharply, so too have property taxes. While Rustin Lippincott, Nauvoo’s exuberant Director of Tourism from 2004 to 2008, dismissed the conspiracy theories, he acknowledged the effect of real estate prices. “Everything goes up with real estate,” Lippincott said. “A working class family can’t come to Nauvoo.” Consequently, Nauvoo’s director of tourism lived in Fort Madison, Iowa. Lippincott said that for the most part, the only people who can afford to move to Nauvoo are those who have sold a house in another, costlier part of the country and see real estate prices in Nauvoo as “dirt cheap.”

Brenda Logan and her husband Kelly Logan, the great-great-grandson of Emile Baxter, own Baxter’s Vineyards and Winery on Parley Street, the Street of Tears, the oldest vineyard and winery in continuous operation in Illinois. The Logans also own Carol’s Pies, Treasures Gift Shop, and Nauvoo Cheese, Inc. Kelly, the viticulturist, and Brenda, the wine maker, produce 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of wine per year from their 14-acre vineyard. The rising price of real estate following the rebuilding of the temple troubles Brenda Logan. Until then, Nauvoo had been a bedroom community, with Nauvooans commuting to jobs in Quincy, Keokuk, Fort Madison, and Burlington. But now, people are leaving to live in less costly towns such as Hamilton, Illinois, about 10 miles downriver. Older residents, who long complained about the influx of Mormons, are selling their houses to the newcomers at inflated prices and moving away with the profit. Young people leave town, just as they used to, but the difference is that now, because of the temple crowds, they’re not returning in their 30s and 40s as they used to.

One might think that the higher taxes and real estate prices would be offset by tourist income, but that isn’t the case. Logan says that the Mormons who come to Nauvoo are on a religious pilgrimage in search of their history and religion. Some are affluent, but most are not. They may sleep twenty people to a single hotel room and buy food at the grocery store rather than patronizing local restaurants. Some have the expectation that everything should be free for them. Nauvoo could work, Logan says, if the tourists were more willing to put money into the community in the form of gas, restaurant meals, and souvenirs.

Lippincott was sympathetic about Mormon interest in Nauvoo. “The LDS want to come back and remember their history. Many of there doctrines got started here. They want to be good neighbors and invigorate their history at whatever costs. They’re willing to pay the high prices.” But what about the non-monetary cost of this reinvigoration? What struck me about the LDS missionaries that I spoke to is how little interest they had in Nauvoo beyond its Mormon history, or what their presence had done to the town in terms of economic stability and communal history and identity. When I told them that I had grown up in Burlington, that my mother’s people came from Keokuk and Montrose, and that I’d long  been familiar with Nauvoo, they did not respond with expressions of commonality, as I expected. Perhaps they couldn’t imagine or acknowledge that Nauvoo is dear to or home to others. Or perhaps they’ve never forgiven us for the bloodshed and bigotry that their ancestors encountered there.

When the LDS Church knocked down St. Mary’s Priory and Academy and the blue cheese factory, two Nauvoo landmarks, it seemed as if the LDS were trying to erase everyone’s history but their own. It may appear that way, Lippincott said, but that’s not the case. Some of the nuns at St. Mary’s told him that with the rising cost of education, declining enrollments, and the worsening condition of the building, it was just too expensive to keep the school open. Once, St. Mary’s was the most prominent building in Nauvoo, and its large auditorium was frequently used for local events. When I was a teenager, “Nauvoo,” was all we had to say to communicate a girl’s fate, since St. Mary’s was where “troubled girls” were sent for education and discipline. Some local people pooled their money to buy the convent so that the LDS couldn’t. But the package that LDS officials offered the Benedictines was better. After the LDS Church bought the priory and academy, they knocked them down so that people would have an unobstructed view of the temple.

The cheese factory is a similar story. ConAgra Foods of Omaha purchased Nauvoo Blue Cheese in an effort to buy out its competition. Then ConAgra sold the company to the conglomerate Saputo, Inc. of Montreal. Production at the factory ceased in 2003, terminating the employment of 65 workers. Saputo only wanted the Nauvoo Blue Cheese trademarked name, so the empty building went on the market for $1 million. No one in town needed such a large building; because it contained mold and asbestos, it could never again be used for food production. “A terrible building. An eyesore,” Lippincott says. “The LDS Church was the only viable entity.” The Church bought it, knocked it down, and planted grass. What Lippincott emphasizes is that the LDS Church repurchased property that had once been theirs.

Repurchased, the prefix “re” meaning “again, anew, back, or backward.” The LDS had “bought again” land that had been theirs before they were driven from it by their Mormon-hating neighbors. In Nauvoo, the LDS were recovering, recapturing, regaining, repossessing, reclaiming, and returning to.

Nauvoo’s “drawing card,” says Logan, is the LDS sites. The Icarians, the winery, the river, and the Hotel Nauvoo complement it. But LDS tourism can’t stand alone. It needs a town to provide infrastructure—roads, sewers, police force, fire and rescue equipment. In other words, Mormon tourism needs Nauvoo. And since Nauvoo hasn’t the industry or other types of tourism to sustain itself, it needs the Mormons.

Reciprocation. To give or feel something mutually or in return.


Before I left Nauvoo on December 29, 2005, I visited the Joseph Smith Homestead. This had long been my favorite part of Nauvoo since it is positioned on the outer cusp of the peninsula just feet from the river, offering a wide view of the river and Montrose. Bald eagles, their white heads bright against the gray sky, soared overhead. Hundreds of Canadian geese stood on the ice, honking. Cardinals, red-bellied woodpeckers, nuthatches, sparrows, and other backyard birds flitted in the trees.

The Smith Homestead, the oldest building in Hancock County, had been a two-room log cabin, one room up and one room down, where Joseph and Emma Smith, their children, and Joseph’s parents had lived. To this, the Smiths added two rooms up, two down, and a spring house. When I visited the homestead in the late 1970s, the river had been closer. But in 2005, what separated the Smith’s yard within the fence and the river were scruffy wetlands.

The homestead at the edge of the peninsula and the grand mansion a little further inland, to which the family moved in 1843, are the sites of competing narratives. Following Smith’s death, a controversy developed as to who should succeed him as church president. Some believed that Smith had designated his eldest son, Joseph Smith III, to be his successor. Yet Joseph III was only 11 at the time of his father’s death, too young to lead a church. Some wanted James Strang or Granville Hedrick or Sidney Rigdon or one of the many others who claimed to be the rightful heir. While most eventually followed Brigham Young, the head of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles formed shortly after Smith’s death, dozens of sects with other leaders would name Smith and his Nauvoo revelations as foundational, as their religious point of origin in this world.

After her husband’s murder, Emma Smith and Brigham Young had had bitter disagreements over her rejection of polygamy and how to untangle what was church property from what Emma believed was her husband’s inheritance for his children. After Young and his followers began their trek to what is now Utah, Emma, her children, and Joseph’s mother Lucy remained behind in the almost empty town. In 1847, Emma married Major Lewis C. Bidamon, a non-Mormon. They lived in the mansion house and attended the Methodist Church. In 1860, Joseph III accepted a call to lead a newly organized church. In 1872, the church that he headed added “Reorganized” to its name to distinguish it from the Utah Latter-day Saints, who at that time were practicing polygamy. In 1909, the RLDS began acquiring the Smith historic sites.

After touring the LDS Visitor’s Center, the Cultural Hall, and the Scovill Baker where missionaries delivered well-rehearsed speeches and led tightly controlled tours, I had decided to continue my explorations without an official guide. Yet the only way to gain access to the homestead, Smith’s general store, hotel, and the mansion was through a tour. I walked south on Main and east on Parley to the Community of Christ’s Joseph Smith Historic Center, where I paid for a tour.

My guide, Irene, answered my questions with depth and ease, and she didn’t proselytize. Her story of Smith and his followers revealed an understanding of geography and economics that included and extended beyond Mormon Nauvoo. At the same time, she delved more deeply into the story of Nauvoo than anyone or anything I’d seen or heard that day. During Smith’s time there, Lumber Street had run between Water Street and the river, which meant that there had been an entire block of land between the homestead and the water’s edge. Then, there had been a wooded island in the middle of the river and the treacherous eleven-mile stretch of shallow and rocky riverbed between the confluence of the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers near Keokuk to the head of the rapids at Nauvoo and Montrose.

Irene said that some of the hostility that the Mormons experienced was economically inspired. Thomas Sharp, the editor of The Warsaw Signal, was not only fearful of a Mormon political majority but wanted the businesses that served the steamboats to be centered in Warsaw rather than Nauvoo. Irene said that as a result, Sharp “fomented animosity” toward the Mormons in his column.

In 1877, the federal government dug the 7.6 mile long Des Moines Rapids Canal. No longer did one have to lighter in order to pass over the rapids. When Lock and Dam 19 at Keokuk began operating in 1913, it brought the river closer to the Smith homestead, creating confusion as to where the Smith family graves were located. After the martyrdom, Joseph’s and Hyrum’s bodies had been taken from Carthage to Nauvoo for a wake and burial. Given the anti-Mormon sentiments of some of the locals, Emma and church officials feared that the Smith brothers’ bodies would not be safe in the ground, so they hid them between the basement walls of the Nauvoo House, the Smiths’ hotel, and provided sand-filled coffins for the funeral. When construction of the Nauvoo House resumed in 1845, Emma secretly buried the bodies beneath the spring house southwest of the homestead. Emma, who died in 1879, was never sure of the exactly location of her husband’s and brother-in-law’s graves. By 1928, the dam had caused the river water to back up to the point where it seemed that the graves might be in danger. That year, Frederick Madison Smith, president of the RLDS Church, hired a surveyor to locate the unmarked graves of his grandfather and great uncle so they could be given a proper burial. After the surveyor found the bodies, they were moved a few feet and their presence marked with gravestones. Joseph’s brothers, parents, and wife are also buried near the spring house.

In the 1950s, the Army Corps of Engineers built a berm around Smith’s hotel, now used as a hostel for Community of Christ youth retreats. Nonetheless, when the river floods, water laps at the hotel foundation. When Irene arrived in Nauvoo in 1997, the river had been closer. Now because of silt deposition, it’s farther away. The Corps won’t dredge the channel because of objections by farmers. The swampy, silty area which should be filled with cattails, reed canarygrass, rushes, and sedges, and host to a rich diversity of wildlife, is now well established with purple loosestrife, a noxious weed in Illinois and several other states. This Eurasian perennial prefers damp, disturbed soils, like those near a river or lake that has recently flooded. Loosestrife is a varying plant, growing two to nine feet tall; the clustered spikes of flowers may be white, pink, red, magenta, or purple. The dense, impenetrable stands that loosestrife forms may edge out all native plants and animals, with the exception of bees and butterflies who like the nectar, and red-winged blackbirds who nest in the loosestrife branches but won’t eat the seeds. Since each plant produces thousands of seeds per year and plants can arise from buds on lateral root stalks, purple loosestrife has defied attempts to control or eradicate it. Irene regretted the plant’s invasive, competitive nature, yet she finds it beautiful in the early summer when the silty area is nothing but purple blossoms.

I had seen purple loosestrife elsewhere, so I could imagine how the peninsula would look in June: a blue sky, gray water, burbling red-winged blackbirds, and a field of waving purple wands. The vast purple swatch made me uneasy: it pointed to something beyond itself. Perhaps it told a story of displacement, of the Illinois Indians being displaced by the Sauk and Meskwaki, who in turn were displaced by Galland, White, and the early residents of Venus and Commerce, who in turn were displaced by the Mormons, who in turn were displaced by their “gentile” neighbors and immigrants from other countries, who in turn are being displaced by Mormons, returning to reclaim what had been theirs some 160 years ago. And then I imagined this jut of land as it should be: not dominated by a single plant that crowds out all of the others, but a rich, diverse place of bulrushes, cattails, reeds, bitterns, rails, ducks, geese, hawks, wrens, turtles, muskrats, frogs, toads, and other creatures, each appearing in its season, each an integral part of the ecosystem of this beautiful place.


1. Several sources put Nauvoo tourism at 1 to 1.5 million, including Jan Dennis in “Mormon Temple a Tourism Draw for Tiny Nauvoo.” However, the Website of the Nauvoo Tourism Office puts the figure at 250,000 and 300,000 visitors per year.

2. “Frequently Asked Questions,” Beautiful Nauvoo.

3. “Exploration and Settlement,” Beautiful Nauvoo.

4. Susan Easton Black, “Isaac Galland: Both Sides of the River.”

5. “Timeline,” American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith.

6. “Frequently Asked Questions,” Beautiful Nauvoo.

7. “The Most German Speaking Town in Illinois,” Beautiful Nauvoo.

8. Thomas Pinney, History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition.

9. “Baxter’s History,” Baxter’s Vineyards.

10. “Industry and Prohibition,” Beautiful Nauvoo.

11. “Restoration,” Beautiful Nauvoo.

12. Ibid.

13. Mike Brunker, “Animosity Simmers in a River Town: Mormon Roots and Mormon Resentment.”

Works Cited

“Baxter’s History.” Baxter’s Vineyards.

Berry, Orville F. “The Deserted City.” In Inez Smith Davis, The Story of the Church: A History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and of its Legal Successor, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 3rd edition. Independence, Missouri: Heritage Publishing House, 1943.

Black, Susan Easton. “Isaac Galland: Both Sides of the River.” The Nauvoo Journal 8.2 (Fall 1996): 3-9.

Brunker, Mike. “Animosity Simmers in a River Town: Mormon Roots and Mormon Resentment.” MSNBC. August 9, 2004.

Carroll, Dennis J. “Fear of a Mormon Return: Illinois Town’s Fundamentalists Feel Threatened by Giant Temple.” The San Francisco Chronicle. April 29, 2002.

Dennis, Jan. “Mormon Temple a Tourism Draw for Tiny Nauvoo.” USA Today. August 22, 2006. 08 22 mormon temple tourism_x.htm.

“Exploration and Settlement.” Beautiful Nauvoo. Nauvoo Tourism Office.

“Frequently Asked Questions.” Beautiful Nauvoo. Nauvoo Tourism Office.

“Industry and Prohibition.” Beautiful Nauvoo. Nauvoo Tourism Office.

Krakauer, Jon. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. New York: Random House, 2004.

Lippincott, Rustin. Telephone interview. January 16, 2006.

Logan, Brenda. Telephone interview. January 20, 2006.

“The Most German Speaking Town in Illinois.” Beautiful Nauvoo. Nauvoo Tourism Office.

Pinney, Thomas. History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition. University of California Press: Berkeley, 1989.

Quincy, Josiah. “Joseph Smith at Nauvoo.” Figures of the Past From the Leaves of Old Journals. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883. 376-400.

“Restoration.” Beautiful Nauvoo. Nauvoo Tourism Office.

Sharp, Thomas C. “The Time is Come!” The Warsaw Signal. June 11, 1844. In Uncle Dale’s Old Mormon Articles. http://www.sidney-rigdon.cornlabraodhu/IL/sign1844.htrn#0611.

“Stats About All US Cities.” City-Data.

Thomas, Janet. “Nauvoo: On the Banks of the Mississippi.” New Era. May 2005. RCRD&locale=0&sourceId=52386e11057fb010VgnVCM1000004d8262Oa.

“Timeline.” American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith. PBS documentary.

Van Biema, David. “History: Nauvoo, Ill.: The Invasion of the Latter-day Saints.” Time. July 10, 2000.



Lisa Knopp has published four collections of essays, including The Nature of Home (2002) and Interior Places (2008) from the University of Nebraska Press. Several of her essays have been cited as “notable essays” in the Best American Essays series. She is currently associate professor in English at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

© Lisa Knopp