Commerce was a near-wilderness when Joseph Smith brought his followers there in 1839. They had been driven from their prosperous settlements in Missouri by violent frontier mobs suspicious of the Saints’ religion and New England antislavery background and fearful of their sympathy for the Indians, their rapid growth, and their unified voting power. Appeals by the Saints to the Missouri governor had brought an order to leave the state or face extermination.
Here they hoped to find peace. Joseph named the land they had purchased “Nauvoo,” which he said was from the Hebrew meaning “a beautiful place, connoting rest.” In spite of poverty and recurring bouts of malaria, they drained the swampy land, planted crops, and began to build a city. In six years, Nauvoo became one of the two largest cities in Illinois, a close rival of Chicago.
The state legislature granted the Saints a city charter. (A young legislator named Abraham Lincoln voted for it.) It gave Nauvoo the right to have a university, an independent judiciary, and a unit of the state militia. Soon it had all three, and the people felt safe in their rapidly growing city. Converts came from the East and the South, from England and Canada. No one thought about the comment Heber C. Kimball had made when he first saw the town site: “‘It’s a very pretty place, but not long abiding home for the saints.'”