B. F. Withers, Letter, Natchez, Adams Co., MS, to JS, , Hancock Co., IL, 28 Dec. 1841; handwriting presumably of B. F. Withers; one page; JS Collection, CHL. Includes address, postal notations, postal stamp, endorsement, and docket.
Bifolium measuring 9⅞ × 7⅞ inches (25 × 20 cm). The upper left corner of each leaf bears a circular embossment containing the now-illegible name of the paper’s manufacturer. The paper is ruled with twenty-seven blue horizontal lines. The first page is inscribed, whereas the second and third pages are blank. The letter was trifolded twice in letter style, addressed, sealed with a red adhesive wafer, and postmarked. The letter was torn when opened, and some wafer residue remains. The letter was refolded several times for filing.
The letter was endorsed by , who served as JS’s scribe from December 1841 until JS’s death in June 1844 and served as church historian from December 1842 until his own death in March 1854. The document was docketed by , who served as a clerk in the Church Historian’s Office (later Church Historical Department) from 1853 to 1859. It was listed in an inventory that was produced by the Church Historian’s Office circa 1904. By 1973 the document had been included in the JS Collection at the Church Historical Department (now CHL). The document’s early docket as well as its inclusion in the circa 1904 inventory and in the JS Collection by 1973 indicate continuous institutional custody.
See the full bibliographic entry for JS Collection, 1827–1844, in the CHL catalog.
On 28 December 1841 B. F. Withers of Natchez, Mississippi, penned an enigmatic letter to JS in , Illinois. In the communication, Withers proposed an alliance between the —a contingent of the militia—and a “secret association of Gentlmen” in order to mount an unspecified expedition that would result in “honor & wealth” for its participants.
Little is known about Withers or the context surrounding the letter’s creation. Withers described himself as “an entire stranger” and disclosed little personal information about himself. The letter was mailed from Natchez, a town located on the banks of the over six hundred miles downriver from . Withers’s occupation is unknown, but antebellum Natchez was the commercial locus of the area’s burgeoning cotton industry and slave trade. Withers described himself as an agent of a secret association, but it is unknown what organization he purported to represent. Withers’s awareness of the Nauvoo Legion suggests that he had at least some knowledge of affairs in Nauvoo. JS was the head of the Nauvoo Legion and received the commission of lieutenant general from Illinois governor in February 1841. Though Withers invited the Nauvoo Legion to join in an expedition, he did not disclose the intended purpose or destination of the expedition. It is possible that “B. F. Withers” was a pseudonym for a person or persons antagonistic to JS and that the offer was a ruse.
JS likely received the letter in January 1842. The letter was endorsed by JS’s scribe , who noted that the replied to the communication on 8 February 1842. At the time, the mayor of was . The reply is not extant.
Contemporary census data and newspaper reports do not document a “B. F. Withers” living in Natchez during this period, though they do identify other individuals with the last name of Withers. (See, for example, 1840 U.S. Census, Natchez City, Adams Co., MS, 11; and “Thieves Arrested!,” Natchez [MS] Courier, 18 July 1840, .)
Census (U.S.) / U.S. Bureau of the Census. Population Schedules. Microfilm. FHL.
See Anderson, Builders of a New South, 20–30; Barnett and Burkett, “Forks of the Road Slave Market at Natchez,” 169–187; and Smith, “Settlement of Great Consequence: The Development of the Natchez District, 1763–1860,” chap. 2.
Anderson, Aaron D. Builders of a New South: Merchants, Capital, and the Remaking of Natchez, 1865–1914. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013.
Barnett, Jim, and H. Clark Burkett. “The Forks of the Road Slave Market at Natchez.” Journal of Mississippi History 63, no. 3 (Fall 2001): 168–187.
Smith, Lee Davis. “A Settlement of Great Consequence: The Development of the Natchez District, 1763–1860.” Master’s thesis, Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, 2004.
Bennett, History of the Saints, 19; “Rules of Order of the City Council,” Times and Seasons, 1 Feb. 1842, 3:686.
Bennett, John C. The History of the Saints; or, an Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism. Boston: Leland and Whiting, 1842.
Times and Seasons. Commerce/Nauvoo, IL. Nov. 1839–Feb. 1846.
Natchez Mi[ssissippi] Dec 28th. 1841
Majr. Genl. Jos. Smith
As the agent of a large and respectable secret association of Gentlmen associated together for the purpose of [blank] I am required to ask of you first, whether or not the Mormons would not prefer building their in a better and a richer country than you now occupy, and where you would not only remain free from molestation, but would in a short time in all probability become the rulers of the Land
Secondly— whether or not the officers & privates of the would unite with our association in an expedition which if successful would secure to all engaged honor & wealth, and whose united strength we believe cannot fail of success— I feel that although an entire stranger to you the importance of the subject matter of this letter is a sufficient apology for my sending it, and as it is written in good faith and for the mutual benefit of both parties I trust it will be answered punctually and candidly— should you be disposed to form the proposed alliance, on rec[eip]t of your answer our expedition and plans so far as matured, together with our strength which exceeds yours shall be fully made known to you— in conclusion permit me to express the high regard and esteem I have for yourself—
In his 1835 work Democracy in America, French traveler and historian Alexis de Tocqueville opined, “In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used, or more unsparingly applied to a multitude of different objects, than in America.” Fraternal societies such as Freemasonry, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and the Improved Order of Red Men flourished in the United States by the 1840s. The largest of these groups, the Freemasons, boasted more than eighty thousand members in the United States by 1822. (Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2:31; McClenachan, History of the Most Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons in New York, 342; Hackett, That Religion in Which All Men Agree: Freemasonry in American Culture, 90.)
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Translated by Henry Reeve. 2 vols. London: Saunders and Otley, 1835.
McClenachan, Charles T. History of the Most Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons in New York from the Earliest Date. . . . Vol. 2. New York: Grand Lodge, 1892.
Hackett, David G. That Religion in Which All Men Agree: Freemasonry in American Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.
The Saints had discussed the construction of a temple in Nauvoo since early 1840 and had laid a cornerstone on 6 April 1841. (“A Glance at the Mormons,” Alexandria [VA] Gazette, 11 July 1840, ; Discourse, ca. 19 July 1840; “Celebration of the Anniversary of the Church,” Times and Seasons, 15 Apr. 1841, 2:375–377.)
Alexandria Gazette. Alexandria, VA. 1834–1877.
Times and Seasons. Commerce/Nauvoo, IL. Nov. 1839–Feb. 1846.