By Dale Eldon Chidester John Madison Chidester, the second son of John Peck Chidester and Mary Ann Gifford was born the 22nd of January 1809 in Pompey, Onondaga, New York He was unaware, as any child would be at that age, that another child named Joseph Smith, born in 1805 would one day change John s and millions of other children‘s lives, Nor that in that same future, John would travel thousands of miles -from his birth place, face nature at some of its extremes with little protection, confront mobs, Indians and governments and always remain faithful to the work started by this Joseph Smith. All of this was in the future as John lay in his mother’s arms
John’s father, a doctor, died when John was only seven months old. This at times meant orphanages or cruel stepfathers but John was very lucky because his grandparents, David and Mary Chidester, with whom he lived awhile,1 and Jeremiah and Phoebe Gifford helped care for he and his older brother David Starr with love and financial aid. Polly, his mother, had said at the death of her husband, “That she could never love another man.” She had loved him that much. But two years later she remarried a widower named George Darrow who had 6 children of his own.2 George proved to be a considerate husband and stepfather.
At an early age, like other boys, John was apprenticed and learned both the carpentry and millwright trades. This apprenticeship probably consisted of being signed over to a craftsman for up to seven years receiving an education, room and board.
The western movement during the early 1800’s was in full swing and John’s family was to be affected. John’s Aunt Betsy Chidester Pratt and her husband Jared Pratt had moved into the Erie County in New York along with other families from the location. The stories that came back of rich soil, forests, and plenty of farm land encouraged the family. George Darrow and Polly with their family moved to Monroe County in the territory of Michigan. There they settled in the Summerfield Township, which is a section of the County and not a town. It is not know if John moved with his family or was still apprenticed.3
It was during this time of John’s life that a new church started around Palmyra, New York, Joseph Smith, the before mentioned boy had a vision in the Spring of 1820 that shaped a new American religion. A personal visit by God, The Father and Jesus Christ, His Son left Joseph with the knowledge that God’s Church must be restored to the earth. The next ten years would see Joseph receiving new scriptures, Gods Priesthood being restored, and finally on April 6, 1830 the formal organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
While this was happening John was busy. Years later he would record that he met and married Mary Josephine Parker in New York on the 28th of December 1829.4 Mary had also at a young age lost her mother and had gone to live with her grandparents Eli and Polly Hull. She stayed there for at least several years. Later her father Joshua Parker would marry a Sina Smith. This new mother Sina would teach Mary, who was also known as Polly, through the first years of her married life and was there with her for her first child.5 This romance between John and Mary lasted through 9 children, two other wives, and the test of time.
Shortly after they were married John and Mary moved into the Summerfield Township, Monroe, Territory of Michigan, in an area that would become Petersburg. Here they bought property, built a farm, and started raising a family when their first child was born, John Peck the 23rd of December 1831.
The L.D.S. Church was also growing between the years of 1830 and 1834. On September 26, 1830 the first Mormon missionaries were sent to preach the gospel to the world. Some of the first ones went to the Indian Nations on the western boundaries of the United States and on the way they started a small branch of the Church that would grow to become the Mormon city of Kirtland Ohio where the first Mormon temple would be built. Other missionaries would called by the Church in Jure of 1831 to spread the gospel across the United States and gather the believers to Kirtland and to the New Zion in Independence, Missouri.
The Chidesters in Michigan were caught up in the movement when Mormon Elders came to the Summerfield area. John and Mary both listened to their teaching, talked with their families, and decided together to join the Church, and were baptized and confirmed by Joseph Wood and David Patten the 24th of June 1832.6 The following winter John was ordained an Elder, probably on the 23rd of February 1833 by Joseph Wood.7 John then sold his farm in Michigan on a large term contract and John, Mary and their infant son set of on the first of many treks.8 It seems they were either heading for Kirtland along the shores of the Great Lakes or were Just looking for a Mormon community. They traveled as far as Florence, Huron, Ohio, where an L.D.S. branch was located. Here a daughter was born on the 18th of February 1834 and she was named Eunice.
As the Church grew with the flow of converts, it faced growing antagonism from those who resented the Church’s beliefs and its growing local political power. Many of the Mormons had settled in the area around Independence, Missouri, here they built there homes and tried to create their own heaven on earth, which to them, would be called Zion. Part of this idea was to encourage Mormons to move into the area. This growth of outsiders in an area that never liked the political, philosophical, or social outlook of the Mormons caused problems. Where once the Saints had been welcomed into Independence, in 1831, by 1833 they were faced with mob action. Theses mobs became so large and violent that the Mormons were left homeless. The hatred of these many mobsters became so intense that the Mormons were forced out of their communities north into Clay County, Missouri. Here they were accepted as refugees, until they could find someplace else to move.
Hearing of their distress, Joseph Smith sent a call for men to aid and defend beleaguered Church members. John and Mary heard the call and obeyed. When Joseph Smith called for volunteers starting on the 24th of February, John seems to have enlisted readily. So packing his wife and children, John was ready and willing to assist his Church.
Between the 1st and 9th of May several bodies of men left Kirtland and headed for New Portage, now part of Akron, Ohio. Here was the rendezvous set by Joseph for the organization of the Camp. From John’s testimony he was with the leading groups of men that had met at New Portage and were waiting for the prophet. After placing 130 men, a few women and children and twenty baggage wagons into proper marching order the Camp set out. They were to march nearly 900 miles through Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Then when they reached Missouri they were to be ready to fight for their brethren, in fact making them an army.
The daily routine of Zion’s Camp was like most armies. The men themselves unless they were sick marched along side the wagons over the roads that varied from hot and dusty to cold and muddy. Many carried not only guns but knapsacks and it was not unusual to march 35 miles a day. This despite blistered feet, heat, heavy rains high humidity, hunger and thirst. At night armed guards were posted around the camp. At 4:00 A. M. the trumpet sounded for the men to get up. Each company had a prayer and then they worked at their given assignments, such as cutting wood, hunting, etc.
Feeding the camp was a problem, often the only thing to eat was limited quantities of coarse bread, rancid butter, cornmeal mush, strong honey, raw pork, rotten ham and maggot-infested bacon and cheese. Often the men and the few women and children went hungry.
The camp was never without problems. They were threatened by the towns they pass through, water was bad, and even members of the camp rebelled against Joseph. Cholera broke out in the camp and over 60 people would contract it and 14 died.
As the camp arrived in Missouri local conditions would not permit their use. The Governor of Missouri, who said he would support Zion’s Camp, backed down on his word and would not permit the Camp in nor would he help the Saints driven from their homes. Faced with open civil war against the Saints if Zion Camp continued, and following a revelation, Joseph disbanded the Camp. To many the Camp seemed wasted time, but from the ranks of Zion’s Camp many of the Churches future leaders would be chosen. John, it seems, was one of those men who gain much from the experience of the Camp. His testimony would remain strong through out his life. He also finally met the prophet he had chosen to follow. He recorded his impressions of Joseph in these words:
“My first recollection of seeing the Prophet Joseph Smith was at a place about sixty or seventy miles from Kirtland, where two companies of Zion’s Camp met. My impression on beholding the Prophet and shaking hands with him was that I stood face to face with the greatest man on earth. I testify he was a prophet of God. “
“Zion’s Camp in passing through the state of Indiana had to cross very bad swamps, consequently we had to attach ropes to the wagons to help them through, and the Prophet was the first man at the rope in his bare feet. This was characteristic of him in all times of difficulty.”
“We continued our journey until we reached the Wakandaw River, having traveled twenty-five miles without resting or eating. We were compelled to ferry this stream; and we found on the opposite side of it a most desirable place to camp, which was a source of satisfaction to the now weary and hungry men. On reaching this place the Prophet announced to the Camp that he felt impressed to travel on, and taking the lead, he invited the brethren to follow him.
“This caused a split in the Camp, Lyman Wight and others at first refused to follow the Prophet, but finally came up. The sequel showed that about eight miles below where we crossed the river a body of men were organized to come upon us that night.”
“When we reached Salt Creek, Missouri, the Allred settlement had prepared a place to hold a meeting in. Joseph and Hyrum Smith and others were on the stand at the meeting when two strangers came in and were very anxious to find out which of them were Joseph and Hyrum, as they had pledged themselves to shoot them on sight. But the Prophet and his brother slipped away unobserved, being impressed that there was danger of their lives being taken.”9
After the disbanding of Zion’s Camp most of the men returned to Kirtland and other locations where their families waited. Some were requested to stay in Missouri by Joseph. Because of this request John and his family settled at Liberty, Clay, Missouri. Possibly John made the trip back to Kirtland and then returned to Liberty.10 Here it was recorded that it was voted on and carried that Daniel Stephens and John M. Chidester would receive recommends to go forth to preach the gospel.11 John never got the chance to preach. The Mormons were not to stay here long as mob action once again threatened the Saints in Missouri. One story about John during this time period must have been well known because it showed up in his obituary, “At one time during the Missouri mobbings he was caught by the mob and condemned to death by hanging, for, as they said, the theft of a horse. Endeavoring by threats to make him own to the stealing, they only succeeded in arousing his indignation until he undauntedly informed them that the first one who laid his hands on him he would “lay out.” The sympathy of part of the mob
was aroused in his behalf and they swore with an oath such a brave man should be set at liberty.12
The people who had let the Mormons move into Clay County never wanted the Mormons to settle there, they were just being kind. When it looked as if the Mormons might stay they were asked, very pointedly to leave. Faced with the possible start of further mob action, the decision to leave was made. The early fall of 1836 saw the Saints leave their newest homes and flee to the northern part of Ray County, Missouri. John and Mary were not in this movement. Mary had a third child born on the 30th of August 1836 and named her Mary. 3ohn’s wife’s health was not goad during this pregnancy and the baby was born sickly and weak, with Mary to weak to nurse the child properly.13 Faced with being forced out of their homes, the constant fear of violence and the lack of protection from the elements John did the best he could for his wife, new child and the rest of the family, but it was not enough. The infant Mary, according to family tradition, died as a result of the mob actions February 11th, 1837. These illnesses and death must have been the reason the Chidesters did not move to the new city of Far West, Missouri until after the first of 1837.
Far West was in the northern part of Ray County that became a haven for the Saints in December of 1836. This section was organized into Caldwell County and Far West became its central city. With the aid of hundreds of families like John and Mary’s the whole county became a beehive of industry. Far West grew rapidly. In April of 1837 a Church Conference was held there and site for a temple chosen. The corner stones were set on the 4th of July 1837 and converts from all parts of the country added to the growth of the area.
The final spurt of growth came after the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society. This bank, formed in Kirtland, failed not only because of a general national depression, but because of heavy land speculation by members of the Church. Joseph was blamed, he had warned against this very thing, apostasy became a plague, even to the point of sword and guns being brought into the Kirtland Temple. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were driven out of the city in January of 1838 and were followed by all those still faithful to Joseph in what warn called Kirtland Camp. All of these members had arrived around Far West by the next summer. So the spring of 1838 found the population of Far West at over 5,000 people, a very large frontier town. It had over 150 houses, 4 dry good stores, 3 groceries, 6 blacksmith shops, 2 hotels and a printing establishment.14
John’s family grew with the town. It was a matter of pride, it is said, that at this time Joseph Smith lived across the street from John and that his children played with the Prophet’s children.15 He was ordained a 70 in the 5th Quorum by Joseph Young February 25, 1937,16 and he wrote a small history of himself at that time.17 And a child named Jared was born on the 18th of March 1838. He, like his sister Mary, was born with frail health. His life was short, but it was long enough to span the time it took for lawless mobsters and immoral politicians to drive the Saints from their homes again and from the state of Missouri.
The differences in religion, political philosophies such as slavery, life styles between the older settlers and the Saints and the fact that the Saints were plain guilty of the unforgivable crime of being different triggered the coming tragedy. August 6, 1838 was election day in Gallatin, Davis, Missouri. A group of older settlers (not in age but having been in the area longer) decided that the Mormons had no right to vote. So they gathered, armed with clubs, to stop the Mormons. A fight broke out when those same Mormons insisted on their constitutional rights. There were a few cracked heads and the Mormons voted.
When the news of the fight spread, all hell literally broke loose. Mobsters from across the state gathered in “legal” Militia to protect their rights and attacked the Saints quite openly, with murders, rapes, tarring, and burnt and destroyed homes. No government help for the Mormons was offered nor given when it was asked for. The Mormon town of DeWitt was attacked and placed under siege between the 21st of September to the 11th of October. After the town surrendered and attacks on the Saints in smaller towns increased, places like Adam-ondi-Ahman, Gallatin and Millport were evacuated, and their residents moved into Far West.
Some Saints tried to stay in their homes which caused more problems. Some were kidnapped and the Mormon Militia tried to rescue them on October 25th. During the attempt a fire fight broke out with the mobsters holding the victims. This fire fight cost lives on both sides, including the man who confirmed John, David Patten, now a member of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve. The kidnapped members were set free and the Mormon Militia went home. (It is likely that John was a member of this Militia simply because of his friends being there, and because later he would enlist as an officer in the Nauvoo Legion.)
The infamous Governor Boggs of Missouri, hearing of the battle, and hating the Saints for his own reasons, issued, on the 27th of October, the most repulsive edict, ever written by a long list of corrupted American politicians. This “Extermination” Order gave legal permission to ether drive the Saints from the state or to kill them. This permission to kill was carried out first on the 30th of October when over 200 mobsters attacked the small town of Haun’s Mill. When they left the town was in flames. Every male they could find had been shot or hacked to death with bladed weapons. Seventeen Mormon men had been killed and mutilated without mercy and 12 more were severely wounded.
The horrifying news of the massacre arrived the same day followed by General Lucas and his mobsters turned State Militia. With them entered the final act of the Missouri Tragedy. Six to eight hundred Saints, (here again I believe John was with these men) formed a fortified line to the south of the city in a show of strength. It was to accomplish nothing. Their own commander, Colonel George Hinkle, on the 31st, held a parley were he turned Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Parley P. Pratt and other leaders of the Church over to General Lucas and his mob. Then to finish his act of betrayal, Hinkle marched the Mormon Militia out of their positions on the 1st of November and had them lay down their arms.
The City of Far West was burnt, its men beaten, some killed, its women raped, and its leaders imprisoned or driven into hiding. The Saints were ordered, under pain of death, to leave the state. Under the direction of Brigham Young these wrenched people left their homes in Far West in the middle of winter, leaving tracks of blood in the snow. Many left the state then and all were out of the state by the middle of April 1839.
According to family tradition John stood by the side of Joseph through this time period as a body guard and that he was with Joseph when he was betrayed by Colonel Hinkle.18 The story goes that he followed Joseph through his being taken to Independence, then to jail in Richmond where he stayed with other prisoners during the mockery of a trail that lasted 13 days. One night in the middle of November the Mormons lay in their Jail listening to the guards blaspheme, swear, and brag about their murders, and rapes of the Mormon people. Parley P. Pratt tells how he could scarcely refrain from speaking when Joseph suddenly rose to his feet. There he was shackled and unarmed, but in a voice of thunder he roared:
“SILENCE, ye fiends of the infernal pit. In the name of Jesus Christ I rebuke you, and command you to be still; I will not live another minute and bear such language. Cease such talk, or you or I die THIS INSTANT!”
“He ceased to speak. He stood erect in terrible majesty. Chained and without a weapon; calm, unruffled and dignified as an angel, he looked upon the quailing guards, whose weapons were lowered or dripped to the ground; whose knees smote together, and who shrinking into a corner, or crouching at his feet, begged his pardon, and remained quiet till a change of guards.”19
Here again, according to family legend John was near to his prophet.20 Joseph and others would escape in April, Pratt and others in the summer, and the last of the Mormons would be free by October. All this suffering for the crime of defending themselves.
John’s family had not left the area of Far West with the rest of the Saints. Jared was not well and if legend is true John was with Joseph. The family stayed when all friends had gone and only lawless animals dressed as humans surrounded them. They stayed, apparently faithful to the Church until Jared died at Far West on the 11th of October 1839.21 The major body of the Church had settled at what would become the City of Nauvoo, Illinois, When Joseph arrived their in May of 1839 he gave the spirit to start again. Homes and farms were being built when John and his family arrived sometime in November. John would sign, with others a list of the cost of worldly goods lost in Missouri, John’s being $2660.00, the price of two farms.22 No one, I’m sure, tried to count the cost of the anguish and loss of loved ones. The United States did nothing, the Government of Missouri paid about $2,000.00 total for the Churches loses.
Nauvoo was literally raised out of the swamps to become a “City Beautiful”. It became for a few years a Mormon refuge, and a home. John and Mary built their home on an acre plot of land described as block #34 lot 4.23 It was located on the northwest corner of the intersection of Hyrum and Woodruff Streets. Here six months before the City of Nauvoo received its charter, another son, named David, was born the 5th of June 1840.
John prospered in Nauvoo, although he had lost everything in the Missouri exodus. The family was happy. John P. now sixteen was working with his father as a carpenter and turner. The other children were healthy and growing. And John and Mary were involved in the start of the Nauvoo Temple in April of 1841 and as John worked on the building Mary cooked, cleaned and sewed for the work crews.24
John was also active in other areas. He paid taxes, in 1842 he listed his personal properties that were worth tax purposes as $30 of oxen, $30 wagon, and $30 of other items. He signed his name to two petitions, one to remove a house used as a hotel at the Nauvoo Landing and another to extend Knight Street. And he applied to be a member in the Masonic Lodge in Nauvoo on December 21st, 1843. He was accepted on January 18, 1844.25 Belonging to the Masonic Lodge was very common in the period of time the Saints were in Nauvoo. There were at least two lodges in operation and both Joseph and his brother Hyrum were members in good standing of their lodge.
Around 1842 John was called on a mission for his Church. He accepted, (at this time you went without funds depending on the good will of others to feed and shelter you) and was sent to his home state of Michigan. He was able to convert his mother, and a half-sister and half-brother that same year.26 The paradise in Nauvoo couldn’t last with mobsters still thirsting for blood and government officials either hostile or indifferent. For protection the Nauvoo Legion was formed and John joined it ranks. A few months after his 6th child was born, Joshua on February 1st, 1834, John was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant of the 2nd Cohort, Nauvoo Legion in June of 1843.27 Here again as officers in the Legion stood guard on Joseph’s home and went on patrols around the country side John was protecting his prophet.