Before there was J.C. Nichols or Loose Park, even before Seth Ward bought William Bent’s farm on 55th Street, a certain people lived around Sunset Hill.
John McCoy had not yet founded Westport, but they were there in 1832 to help his missionary father, Isaac, build his log cabin where looms today St. Luke’s Hospital.
And then they were gone.
“They” were the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ “Prairie Branch,” led by tough-as-nails Lyman Wight.
He’d homesteaded the edge of high grass just above Jennings’ Mill on Brush Creek, breaking sod — it took six heaving yoke of oxen — where today little dogs tug at leashes.
The high priest and his converts from back east had migrated to this new “Zion” for front-row seats at the Second Coming of Christ, promised by Joseph Smith to occur not far from downtown Independence.
A chunk of the Prairie Branch’s 516 scattered acres hugged the border, basically from Westwood Park to well south of the Carriage Club, handy for proselytizing among that lost tribe of Israel, the Lamanites — uprooted Native Americans.
Besides harboring warm thoughts toward these unfortunates, many Saints leaned abolitionist. Non-Mormon settlers grew hostile. Regarded as “besotted Philistines,” they felt disadvantaged politically and commercially by this fast-growing, closed and cohesive society.
Nor did it help that Smith told followers: “If ye are faithful, ye shall assemble yourselves together to rejoice upon the land of Missouri, which is the land of your inheritance, which is now the land of your enemies.”
So came an ungodly page in Missouri history.
Mobs, some led by the Rev. McCoy (a Baptist competitor for Indian souls), began whipping, tarring and feathering Mormons. In November 1833, the “Battle above the Blue” left a Saint and two Philistines dead.
In the flash of a few powder pans, the Mormons were forced out. Hundreds huddled on the Missouri River’s wintery banks awaiting boats; some Prairie Branchers fled south over sleeted ground. “I could easily follow on their trail by the blood that flowed from their lacerated feet on the stubble of the burnt prairie!” Wight recalled.
Five years later came the Mormon War, burnings and killings in Daviess and Caldwell counties and the “extermination order,” signed by Gov. Lilburn Boggs (wounded by an assassin later in Independence).
Perhaps 9,000 Saints regrouped at Nauvoo, Ill., but that didn’t work out, either. A mob killed Smith in 1844, and Brigham Young led the exodus to Utah three years later.
The Mormons’ attorney, Alexander Doniphan, won some compensation for their lost Jackson County properties, his fee paid with Prairie Branch acres, 220 of which were sold to William Bent, the Colorado trader.
Thus the sun set on that part of Zion above Brush Creek.