Perpetuation of a Myth: Mormon Danites in Five Western Novels, 1840–90
In Caldwell County, Missouri, during the spring and summer of 1838, there had been instances of vandalism, theft, and terrorism against Mormon settlements. Mormons, fearing a repeat of the occurrences in Jackson and Clay counties, from which they had been driven by force and political maneuver in 1833 and 1836, were determined not to lose their properties again. Therefore, over the period of eight to sixteen weeks, a small group of Mormon men met in private homes to plan defensive tactics against “gentiles” and dissenting Mormons.
The initial targets of these Brothers of Gideon, as they called themselves, were Mormon “dissenters”—several leaders who, by violating economic or moral codes, had given “aid and comfort” to the enemy, anti-Mormon mobs. A more general purpose for the band then emerged—direct retaliation against the anti-Mormon terrorists. After recruiting additional members, the band included as many as three hundred of the estimated two thousand Mormon men in Missouri. Many Danites, as they came to be called, were simultaneously members of the Mormon wing of the state militia, a fact which confused the identities and purposes of the two groups. One Danite member even claimed that their plunder was deposited in the cooperative storehouses maintained by Mormon bishops.
Sampson Avard, founder of the Danites, was arrested for these illegal activities and brought to a preliminary hearing of charges in November 1838. There he claimed to have been following orders from the Mormon First Presidency). Although witnesses sympathetic to the Mormons denied this, other witnesses were hostile, and the First Presidency spent the winter in jail waiting for trials which never came. By testifying against the Church leaders, Avard escaped conviction.