Question: Did Joseph order Jonathan Dunham, head of the Nauvoo legion, to rescue him?

FAIR Answers—back to home page

Question: Did Joseph order Jonathan Dunham, head of the Nauvoo legion, to rescue him?

There is little good evidence from the extant documents that Joseph attempted to have the Nauvoo Legion rescue him

Fawn Brodie claimed that Joseph Smith was panicking at Carthage Jail, and wrote an order to Jonathan Dunham (head of the Nauvoo legion), telling him to attack the jail and "save him at all costs" [1]

There is little good evidence from the extant documents that Joseph attempted to have the Nauvoo Legion rescue him. By contrast, he repeatedly ordered the militia to stay home and his followers to avoid assembling. He repeatedly expressed resignation as to his fate, and just prior to his martyrdom was seeking to add more legal help to his hearing two days distant—a strange choice if he expected to be liberated by the militia.

The entire tale sounds more like gossip or grumbling among a few who felt that the Mormons militia could have rescued Joseph if given the chance

That Dunham would receive orders from Joseph and refuse to follow them seems incredible. It would also be strange for Stout to be the only primary source to learn of such orders. Why would Dunham tell anyone that he had refused an order from the prophet? Why would he tell Stout, a fierce supporter of Joseph? Why did others not hear of this and report it? Why was Dunham not blamed by other LDS members later?

Stenhouse tells the story, and claims that the order was found discarded on the ground—again, this seems incredible. Why would Dunham dispose of such an incriminating bit of evidence so carelessly? If it was found, why did Brigham Young or other Church leaders never hear of, mention, or save it? The entire tale sounds more like gossip or grumbling among a few who felt that the Mormons militia could have rescued Joseph if given the chance.

Dunham's death was reported in William Clayton's diary as follows:

Daniel Spencer has returned from the West. He brings word that Brother Jonathan Dunham died of a fever.[2]

Thus, the attribution of Dunham's death to suicide occurs later. Even if the suicide claim is accepted, Oliver Huntington's witness says that it was because Dunham felt guilty for being unable to fortify Nauvoo adequately before Joseph went to Carthage for the last time.

The weight of evidence cannot, at present, sustain the claim that Joseph commanded the Nauvoo Legion to come rescue him.[3] Errors, miscitation of sources, and typographical problems have further clouded this issue.

The critics and their sources: There are two basic 'streams' of this theory

The first derives from Fawn Brodie (1945):

Other authors have followed Brodie. Abanes (One Nation Under Gods), for example, merely quotes Brodie as his source. Denton simply repeats the claim without acknowledging Brodie as the source.

Brodie's evidence derives from two sources:

  • Allen J. Stout, manuscript journal, 1815-89, p. 13.
  • T.B.H. Stenhouse, Rocky Mountain Saints: a full and complete history of the Mormons, from the first vision of Joseph Smith to the last courtship of Brigham Young (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1873), 164n..

Brodie says that Stout's story "is confirmed" by Stenhouse, but Stenhouse mentions no names.[4]:n.94

New wrinkle: Hofmann forgeries

The second evidential stream draws on the first, but adds a new wrinkle. This wrinkle is one of the Hofmann forgeries.[5] Mark Hofmann forged the supposed letter from Joseph to Dunham, and it was published in a collection of Joseph's personal writings before the forgery was discovered.

Despite the fact that the document is a forgery, some authors have continued to use it. For example, D. Michael Quinn used it as evidence as late as 1994, and cites the Jessee transcript of the letter (cited above):

The morning of 27 July, Smith sent an order (in his own handwriting) to Major-General Jonathan Dunham to lead the Nauvoo Legion in a military attack on Carthage "immediately" to free the prisoners. Dunham realized that such an assault by the Nauvoo Legion would result in two blood baths—one in Carthage and another when anti-Mormons (and probably the Illinois militia) retaliated by laying siege to Nauvoo for insurrection. To avoid civil war and the destruction of Nauvoo's population, Dunham refused to obey the order and did not notify Smith of his decision. One of his lieutenants, a former Danite, later complained that Dunham "did not let a single mortal know that he had received such orders."

  • Citing: "Joseph Smith to Jonathan Dunham, 27 June 1844, in Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, xxv, 616-17; History of the Church, 6:529. Volume 6 link referred to this order but neither quoted nor summarized it....Allen J. Stout journal, 13; also T. B. H. Stenhouse, The Rocky Mountain Saints...,164n, told the incident without naming Dunham."[6]:141


There is no mention in History of the Church that Joseph wrote a letter to Dunham urging him to come to their rescue

We note too that the History of the Church citation is also in error; Quinn transposed two numbers; the correct citation is 6:592. Despite this claim, there is no mention in History of the Church that Joseph wrote a letter to Dunham urging him to come to their rescue. Joseph wrote several known letters to Dunham, none of which supports Quinn's claim. The History of the Church entry reads:

"Willard Richards made copies of the orders of Joseph Smith as Mayor to Marshal John P. Greene, and as Lieut.-General to Major-General Jonathan Dunham."

These are clearly the letters referred to earlier in the History of the Church (see 6:493), which say nothing about rescuing the prisoners at Carthage.

Quinn goes on to claim that:

However, another former Danite took self-inflicted retribution for the death of Joseph Smith. When Nauvoo Mormons learned that Jonathan Dunham had ignored the prophet's direct order to lead the Nauvoo Legion in a rescue at Carthage Jail, some called him a "coward and traitor." Others dismissed him as a "fool and idiot."....[6]:179

He here uses the same citation as before: the Jesse volume, with its forged Hofmann document.

Quinn's retraction and the error's perpetuation

In 1995, Quinn wrote a letter in which he acknowledged his reference to the forged document and included and explanation:

While vacationing in California during January, I received a telephone call informing me that my newly published book Mormon Hierarchy had cited a Hoffman-forged letter to Jonathan Dunham in the source notes. I'll spare you my immediate reaction, but it was stronger than "Oh hell!"....

The only parts of the Dunham letter I used were the variant date (a day later than History of the Church) and the word "immediately," but during my rushed revision of this passage I mistyped the month in my narrative. I should have caught my misstatement that Joseph Smith wrote these orders a month after his June death, but I never saw that error. Nor did I see the typographical error of transposing the page-number citation in History of the Church for the letter.[7]

Quinn continues to insist on his misreading of the History of the Church entry (see discussion above), only correcting his typographical error in the citation (6:592 instead of 6:529).

Quinn ignores that he also claimed (without evidence save from the forgery) that the writing was "in his [Joseph's] own handwriting."

Errata for Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith--available by 1986-1987. See Bennett, "Hofmann's last bomb."

Quinn went on to claim that he could only locate this information in Silitoe and Roberts' 1988 volume Salamander. While the information is available in Salamander (see pp. 110, 132, 282, 547, and plate 37), this was not the only source available. The letter's forged status was also discussed in Dialogue 21/4 (Winter 1988): 170. BYU Studies included a long list of forged documents and other material related to the Hofmann forgeries in 1989, including the Dunham letter.[8]. Curtis Bench produced an errata sheet for Dean Jesse's book Personal Writings of Joseph Smith in 1986-1987.[9]

Quinn made corrections for the 1997 printing of Origins of Power. However, his publisher issued the New Mormon Studies CD-ROM in 1998, but still included Quinn's erroneous 1994 version in this digital product.

Quinn: distorting another source

Quinn tries to provide extra proof by writing that:

Later general authority Seymour B. Young (who had survived the Haun's Mill massacre) recorded a different story he learned from another former Danite. Ever since the martyrdom, Dunham "seemed to grieve over the matter" of not rescuing the prisoners at Carthage, and the anniversary of the prophet's death pushed him into despair. A month later he persuaded "a friendly Indian" (Dana) "to kill and bury him."[6]:179

For this claim, Quinn appeals again to Stenhouse (who, as noted above, mentioned no names and could have had no personal knowledge of these events), and to an Oliver B. Huntington statement, in Seymour B. Young diary, 23 May 1903, LDS archives. But, this supposed confirmation turns out to be nothing of the sort. Dean Jessee wrote, in a review of Quinn's work that

In his treatment of Joseph Smith's death, Quinn refers to the statement by Allen Stout that Joseph, in Carthage Jail, had ordered Jonathan Dunham, commander of the Nauvoo Legion, to bring the legion and rescue him; and that Dunham did not respond (p. 141). Quinn quotes Seymour Young's 1903 conversation with Oliver Huntington, reporting that Dunham "seemed to grieve over the matter" of failing to rescue Joseph; depressed, Dunham persuaded a friendly Indian to kill and bury him (pp. 179-80). But Quinn has altered the Young conversation with Huntington to support Stout's story that Joseph had sent for the Nauvoo Legion. According to Young, Huntington informed him that, in the spring of 1844, Joseph told Dunham to fortify Nauvoo so the Saints could make a stand against their enemies. Dunham's depression after the martyrdom was over his failure to complete the fortification; he felt that had he done so, the Prophet might not have had to go to Carthage in the first place.[10]:167

Jessee makes no mention of Quinn's further difficulties in using the forged Hofmann document years after its status as a fraud was revealed. Thus, the case for Joseph's order to Dunham rests only on Stout's account. Stenhouse mentions the story, but he was in England at the time. He could have had no independent confirmation.

This does not stop Quinn from later, in his timeline, acting as if his entire scenario is well-proven:

28 July. Jonathan Dunham, despondent about disobeying Smith's orders to rescue him from jail, commits suicide. Later disclosures indicate that Dunham, who was a captain of Nauvoo's police, major-general of the Nauvoo Legion, and a Council of Fifty member, accomplished the suicide by asking a native American friend (Lewis Dana, fellow member of the Fifty) to "kill and bury him."[6]:652

No references are provided, a deficiency which reviewers have noted.[11]

Joseph's orders to Dunham

June 17, 1844: Joseph issued three letters of instruction which impacted Dunham. The first was to John P. Greene, marshal of the city:

SIR.—Complaint having been made to me on oath that a mob is collecting at sundry points to make an attack on this city, you will therefore take such measures as shall be necessary to preserve the peace of said city according to the provisions of the charter and the laws of the state; and with the police and the Legion, see that no violent set is committed. General Dunham is hereby instructed to act with the Marshal in keeping the peace, according to law.

The second two letters addressed Dunham directly:

Complaint having been made on oath that a mob is preparing to make an attack upon this city and citizens of Nauvoo, and having directed the Marshal to keep the peace, you are hereby commanded to order the Nauvoo Legion to be in readiness to assist said Marshal in keeping the peace, and doing whatever may be necessary to preserve the dignity of the state and city....

You are hereby instructed to execute all orders of the Marshal, and perform all services with as little noise and confusion as possible, and take every precaution to prevent groups of citizens, &c., from gathering on the bank of the river, on the landing of boats or otherwise, and allay every cause and pretext of excitement as well as suspicion, and let your operations be efficient and decided.[12]:493

On June 18, 1844 Joseph declared martial law

On the 20th Joseph said, "I went with my staff and Major-General Dunham to the prairie, to view the situation of the ground, and to devise plans for the defense of the city, and select the proper locations to meet the mob, and made arrangements for provisions for the city, instructing my agent to pledge my farms for the purpose."[12]:507 On the evening of the 22nd, Dunham was instructed to have the legion cohorts use entrenching tools to prepare the city's defense.[12]:528

On June 22, 1844 Joseph instructed Dunham by letter to prepare the city for defense

Joseph wrote to Dunham,

You will proceed without delay, with the assistance of the Nauvoo Legion, to prepare the background [Eastern part] of said city for defense against an invasion by mobs, cause the Legion to be furnished with tents, and make your encampment in the vicinity of your labor.[12]:532

On June 24, 1844 Joseph instructed Dunham to comply with the governor's order for the Nauvoo Legion to return state arms

Joseph instructed Dunham to comply with the governor's order for the Nauvoo Legion to return state arms.[12]:556 The next day, Joseph and Hyrum surrendered themselves and went to Carthage.

Joseph returned to surrender himself to the Illinois governor, Thomas Ford, after being appealed to by Emma and others

Joseph was safely away in Iowa with Hyrum. He returned to surrender himself to the Illinois governor, Thomas Ford, after being appealed to by Emma and others. Emma reported that Joseph said, "I will die before I will be called a coward."[13]

Joseph also remarked that "If my life is of no value to my friends [those in Nauvoo who were urging him to return for fear of the mob] it is of none to myself....if they had let me alone there would have been no bloodshed but now I expect to be butchered. Hyrum likewise remarked that "We had better go back and die like men." And, on the way out of Nauvoo to Carthage, Joseph was reported to say, "I go like a lamb to the slaughter."[14]

Joseph's attitude in Carthage

On 25 June, Joseph wrote a letter to Emma from Carthage

Joseph wrote,

There was a little mutiny among the "Carthage Greys"; but I think the Gov. has & will succeed in enforcing the laws. I do hope the people of Nauvoo will continue placid pacific & prayerful.

N.B. Governor Ford has just concluded to send some of his malitia to Nauvoo to protect the citizens, & I wish that I they may be kindly treated. They will co-ope=rate with the police to keep the peace of the city The Governors orders will be read in hearing of the police & officers of the Legion, as I suppose.[15]

Joseph hopes Mormons will remain "placid, pacific, and prayerful." He notes that the state militia will keep peace in Nauvoo—a sure obstacle to any attempt to call out the militia.

Joseph wrote to Emma, from Carthage (8:20 am) on 27 June 1844 asked her to tell Dunham to instruct people to stay home

...I want you to tell Bro Dunham to instruct the people to stay at home and attend to their own business and let there be no groups or gathering together unless by permission of the Gov— they are called together to receive communications from the Gov— which would please our people, but let the Gov. direct. —Bro Dunham of course, will obey the orders of the Government officers, and render them the assistance they require....I am very much resigned to my lot knowing I am Justified and have done the best that could be done give my love to the children[16]

Joseph is here forbidding assembly of the people, a necessary prelude to any attempt to rescue him or Hyrum.

Joseph's last letter to was to lawyer Orville H. Browning on 27 June 1844

Joseph's last known letter was to an attorney he wished to add to his legal defense:

Myself and brother Hyrum are in Jail on [a] charge of Treason, to come up for examination on Saturday morning 29th inst. and we request your professional services at that time, on our defence without fail....P.S. There is no ground of action, for we have not been guilty of any crime; neither is there any just cause of suspicion against us when facts are shown but certain circumstances make your attendance very necessary.[17]


  1. Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 392.
  2. William Clayton and George D. Smith (editor), An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1995), xxx (entry dated [citation needed]).
  3. Note that Bushman ignores the claim about a private letter to Dunham: Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 548.
  4. D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Signature Books, 1994), {{{pages}}}.
  5. Allen D. Roberts, "'The Truth is the Most Important Thing': The New Mormon History According to Mark Hofmann," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 no. 4 (Winter 1987), 92. See also second edition of Jessee's Personal Writings where he lists the five forged documents that have been removed (p. xix).
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Signature Books, 1994), {{{pages}}}.
  7. "D. Michael Quinn's Responses To Questions About Use of Sources in the 1994 Publication of Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power," (9 February 1995). off-site
  8. Anonymous, "The Mark Hofmann Case: A Bibliographical Guide," Brigham Young University Studies 29 no. 1 (Winter 1989), 104–124. off-site
  9. "Mark Hofmann Forgeries in Personal Writings of Joseph Smith. Edited by Dean C. Jessee; reproduced in Rick Bennett, "Hofmann's Last Bomb Blew the Lid Off Mormon History," blog post and podcast (9 October 2017).
  10. Dean C. Jessee, "review of The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power," Journal of Mormon History 22:2 (Fall 1996): {{{start}}}.
  11. "In a work where source notes are taken as seriously as they are in this book, it is unfortunate that they were not included in appendices 6 (Biographical Sketches) and 7 (Selected Chronology). The careful student needs to be able to weigh the evidence for the extensive and sometimes sensational information that is given here." - Jessee, review of Mormon Hierarchy, 167–168.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 History of the Church. Volume 6 link
  13. Elder Edmund C. Briggs, "A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856," Journal of History [Reorganized] 9 (October 1916): 453-54; cited by Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill, Carthage Conspiracy, the Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1979), 27 n. 65. ISBN 025200762X.
  14. Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill, Carthage Conspiracy, the Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1979), 17. ISBN 025200762X. Sources cited are: (a) History of the Church, 6:549. Volume 6 link (b) "Journal of Wandle Mace," 144 (c) Editor, "Editorial," Times and Seasons 5 (15 July 1844), 585. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  15. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 603-604.
  16. Jessee, Personal Writings, 611.
  17. Jessee, Personal Writings, 612.