The stone remains of a Mormon “thicket fort” marking their 1838 confrontation against Missouri militia narrowly averted absolute oblivion in June, 1993. Dirtwork for a new water structure on the Frank Smith farm northwest of Gallatin commenced before the historical site became known.
Trees and brush were already scraped off the hill on the south bank of the Grand River, southwest across from Adam-ondi-Ahman. By chance, however, the hazelnut thicket described in old Mormon history books was left undisturbed.
Land had been cleared on its north side and brush piled to its south, but the small circular ring of sunken rock still was recognizable as an ungroomed marker to Missouri’s notorious Mormon War episode. Luckily, impounded water will not cover the old fort so that it could — at least for a while longer — continue its fortotten vigil.
The historical site was never properly mapped. Considerable damage to the fort site and three stone ledge “firing walls” occurred over the years, especially during the 1950s when the Mormon fort was dug up without the landowner’s knowledge or permission. Some gun parts were reportedly found at that time. Foundation rocks were dislodged and pushed toward the fort’s center and left. Authentic records describing the fort are sketchy.
Local historian David Stark knows the area well. As a boy growing up on a farm nearby, David often hunted the thicket and knew about the significance of the stones. The “fort” was never an imposing structure. Most significantly, the 8×12 structure had a stone floor. Firearms, some no doubt obtained illegally by the Mormons, were buried under this floor, thus making an arsenal central to the defense of Adam-ondi-Ahman. Some stones once cut for positioning are still in evidence.
This site was probably selected for convenience. In the fall of 1838, the McDonald ford across the Grand River was less than a mile away. Tall prairie grass usually dominated most hilltops, thus probably allowing for a clear view for advancing Missouri militia. Rocks for building defense structures no doubt were plentiful.
One of the first references to the site can be found in the RLDS Church History Vol. 2, page 169, which relates the aftermath and fears following an election day brawl in Gallatin. That account relates that “the brethren, not having arms, thought it wisdom to return to their farms, collect their families, and hide them in a thicket of hazel brush, which they did, and stood sentry around them through the night, while the women and children lay on the ground in the rain.”
The hazelbrush site is believed to be the same spot where the fort was later built.
Speculation today has the fort as originally built on a stone foundation below ground level. Logs were probably mounted on top, probably no more than kneeling level. The fort had no roof and seems very small today.
The defense structure was hastily made during a brief 3-week period after Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued his infamous Extermination Order in an attempt to rid this state of the Mormons.
As a boy growing up on a nearby farm, David Stark saw the cut stone still evenly placed comprising the fort’s floor. The floor was completely bare at that time with no brush or weeds sprouting between stone cracks. This could have indicated that a cavity existed under the floor, but Mr. Stark, like so many others, was not aware of the site’s significance nor was he keenly interested in such details at that time.
Today Mr. Stark can still retrace the location of a stone wall leading northwest from the fort to a privy located along the creek where an earthen dam will soon impound water. Two firing walls were constructed across the creek leading to the crest of a hill west. The firing walls were irregularly parallel, about 75 to 80 yards apart. These breaklines, still evident in Smith’s hay field, soon may be overtaken by spreading fescue.
In 1951 when Mr. Stark first recalls, the firing wall still stood three rocks high. He speculates that their location was of convenience, using rock easily positioned by horse or mule teams in the haste to erect a defense. A third firing wall was erected slightly behind the fort, leading eastward. It was marked by a hedge row fence until the recent dirtwork.
Today, anyone happening into the rock hole might speculate that it once was a hand-dug well rather than a fortress. But regardless of its appearance, the rocks moved in disarray and left untouched for decades still mark the place where the Mormon War officially ended in the Daviess County surrender on Nov. 8, 1838.
Written by Darryl Wilkinson, Gallatin North Missourian, June 9, 1993.