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The Whitmer Family in Missouri
Monuments to Witnesses

by Curtis Ashton

Three Witnesses Monument Richmond, Missouri. Courtesy of Church History Library and Archives.

Old Pioneer Cemetery, Richmond, Missouri

On a rainy day in November 1911, Junius Wells and 10 missionaries gathered at the old pioneer cemetery in Richmond, Missouri. There a great-granddaughter of David Whitmer unveiled a granite monument. The monument stands today where it was first unveiled—directly over Oliver Cowdery’s grave.

The monument honors the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon: Oliver Cowdery, his brother-in-law David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. Not far away, smaller headstones mark the graves of Oliver Cowdery’s father-in-law and mother-in-law, Peter and Mary M. Whitmer; their son Jacob Whitmer; and others in Jacob’s family.1 Other members of the Whitmer family are buried elsewhere in Missouri.2 Together these family grave markers and monuments help tell the story of one family during the turbulent Missouri period of Church history—a time that tried the faith of many Latter-day Saints. The monuments and markers also identify seven men of this family as witnesses to the Book of Mormon—a testimony that they maintained faithfully to the ends of their lives.

Jacob Whitmer is buried in the old pioneer cemetery in Richmond, Missouri, not far from his parents and Oliver Cowdery.
Jacob Whitmer is buried in the old pioneer cemetery in Richmond, Missouri, not far from his parents and Oliver Cowdery. Courtesy Church History Library and Archives.

The Whitmers Gather in Missouri

The first Book of Mormon witnesses to travel to Missouri were Oliver Cowdery and 21-year-old Peter Whitmer Jr. In 1830 they left Fayette, New York, to take the Book of Mormon’s message to American Indians living west of the Missouri River (see D&C 28:8–10; 32:1–3).

Establishing a mission among the American Indians proved unsuccessful, and the missionaries left western Missouri for Ohio. But by June 1832, Peter Jr. was back in Jackson County, Missouri, running a fine tailor’s shop in Independence.3 He became one of many Church members who settled in Missouri as part of a divine command to establish Zion prior to the Lord’s Second Coming. The rest of the Whitmer family also started to gather to Jackson County, and by 1833, the three generations of Whitmers in Missouri totaled 24 people.4 Most of the family lived near each other in what became known as the Whitmer settlement, a local branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Kaw Township outside of Independence. David Whitmer served as the presiding high priest of this branch.5

A sign at the Richmond Cemetery declares that David Whitmer was a Book of Mormon witness.

Violence in Jackson County

When the Lord commanded the Saints to settle in Jackson County, he instructed them to follow a legal, orderly procedure so that “the work of the gathering be not in haste, nor by flight” (D&C 58:51–56). The Whitmers followed this pattern, but other Saints did not. They simply moved to Missouri without any prior approval from Church authorities. Some Church members boasted to their neighbors about prophecies of a New Jerusalem and of restoring promised blessings to the American Indians. Some inhabitants of the county perceived these statements as threats to their land and to their way of life. When an editorial entitled “Free People of Color” appeared in The Evening and the Morning Star, a newspaper owned and operated by the Latter-day Saints, word circulated that the Mormons were conspiring to free African American slaves. The rumors sparked outrage among many citizens who were sympathetic to the practice of slavery.6 Some people began to see the steady influx of Mormons as a foreign invasion that would soon outnumber everyone else, and they sought ways to make these invaders leave their county.

These settlers first gathered against their Latter-day Saint neighbors in July 1833, damaging property in Independence and tarring and feathering two of their leaders. By October, their tactics became even more extreme. The Whitmers were right in the middle of the fighting. As one eyewitness later recalled: “On the 31st day of October a party of the mob came to the house of David Whitmer and drew his wife out of the house by the hair of the head and proceeded to throw down the house. They then went to other houses, throwing them down until they had demolished ten dwelling houses amidst the shrieks and screams of women and children.”7

Hiram Page died in 1855 and is buried in Ray County, Missouri.
Hiram Page died in 1855 and is buried in Ray County, Missouri.

During these violent days, Jacob Whitmer was shot in the hand, and his brother-in-law Hiram Page was severely beaten. The family fled across the Missouri River to Clay County. They found work where they could to meet their needs through the winter.

The following summer, Joseph Smith arrived in Missouri at the head of Zion’s Camp. At a conference in early July 1834, he called David Whitmer to preside over the second stake of the Church.8 David’s brother John was to serve as his assistant, and Christian Whitmer was called to the high council. Father Whitmer blessed his sons on this occasion in the name of the Lord.9

Eight Witnesses Monument in Clay County, Missouri, erected in 2014 by the Mormon Missouri Frontier Foundation.
Eight Witnesses Monument in Clay County, Missouri, erected in 2014 by the Mormon Missouri Frontier Foundation.

The Whitmers Stay in Missouri

The stay in Clay County, Missouri, was meant to be temporary for the Latter-day Saints. After about two years, most Church members moved north to Caldwell County. But before the Whitmers left Clay County, they buried three of their number. Among them were Book of Mormon witnesses Christian and Peter Jr.10 In memory of his two brothers-in-law, Oliver Cowdery wrote, “And though they have departed,It is with great satisfaction that we reflect, that they proclaimed to their last moments, the certainty of their former testimony. 11

Another Book of Mormon witness, John Whitmer, played a key role in helping the Church secure lands that became the city of Far West. Sometime in the summer of 1837, John built a house for his aging parents not far from his own. The Church in Missouri began to rebuild, and the Saints broke ground for a temple in Far West. But during this period of growth and optimism, tensions surfaced between members of the Whitmer family and Church leaders in Ohio. By the spring of 1838, David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery had lost confidence in Joseph Smith’s leadership. After discussion, the high council in Missouri voted to excommunicate David and Oliver, along with others who were dissatisfied with Joseph Smith. Some in the community took the matter one step further. Though not directed by Church leaders to do so, these men forced Oliver Cowdery, David and John Whitmer, and Hiram Page to leave Far West. That summer, the entire Whitmer family followed these exiles across the county line and out of activity in the Church.

John Whitmer’s grave is in Kingston, Caldwell County, Missouri—not far from Far West. Courtesy Church History Library and Archives.

The expulsion of the Whitmers from Caldwell County meant that they were not a target during the armed conflict that took place there in the last months of 1838. Most of the family stayed in Richmond or neighboring settlements in Ray County. John Whitmer was able to buy back property in Far West just as the main body of Latter-day Saints were leaving the city. He lived on his farm there for the next 38 years, taking care of the land dedicated for a temple.12

The Return of Oliver Cowdery

None of the Book of Mormon witnesses in the Whitmer family ever denied their experiences with the golden plates. Yet of the five men who left the Church in 1838, only one asked to come back.

Monument to the Three Witnesses, 1911. Kathryne Schweich, a great-grandaughter of David Whitmer, unveiled the monument. Courtesy Church History Library and Archives.

Oliver Cowdery was rebaptized on November 12, 1848, near Kanesville, Iowa. That winter he and his family traveled from Iowa to Richmond, Missouri, to visit the Whitmers before going west in the spring. Oliver became ill and died at the home of Peter and Mary Whitmer in 1850. He was surrounded by family, including David Whitmer and Hiram Page. As he lay dying, Oliver asked to be raised so he could speak. He bore fervent testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. David Whitmer related that after Oliver had finished his testimony, he “died the happiest man I ever saw.”13

The seven Book of Mormon witnesses in the Whitmer family are buried in Missouri

Three Witnesses Death Year Burial Place
Martin Harris 1875 Clarkston, Cache County, Utah
Oliver Cowdery 1850 Mormon Pioneer Cemetery, Ray County, Missouri
David Whitmer 1888 Richmond Cemetery, Ray County, Missouri
Eight Witnesses    
Christian Whitmer 1835 Clay County, Missouri
Jacob Whitmer 1856 Mormon Pioneer Cemetery, Ray County, Missouri
Peter Whitmer Jr. 1836 Clay County, Missouri
John Whitmer 1878 Kingston, Caldwell County, Missouri
Hiram Page 1852 On his farm, Ray County, Missouri
Joseph Smith Sr. 1840 Nauvoo, Illinois
Hyrum Smith 1844 Nauvoo, Illinois
Samuel H. Smith 1844 Nauvoo, Illinois

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Footnotes

[1] Oliver Cowdery married Elizabeth Ann Whitmer on December 18, 1832.

[2] One child, Nancy Whitmer, died as an infant and was buried in New York.

[3] He even made a suit for the newly elected lieutenant governor, Lilburn W. Boggs.

[4] Peter Jr. married Vashti Higley in October 1832, and Oliver Cowdery married Elizabeth Whitmer two months later, in December. In February 1833, John Whitmer married Sarah Jackson, a new convert from Ohio. Between June 1832 and July 1833, Jacob Whitmer and his wife had a daughter named Ann, and Peter Jr. and his wife had a daughter named Kate.

[5] The Whitmer Branch was also known as the Timber Branch or Branch Number 3 (). “see “Letter from John Whitmer, 29 July 1833,” in Joseph Smith Letterbook 2, 56, josephsmithpapers.org

[6] The substance of the article was to explain existing Missouri statutes respecting the immigration of those who were already free citizens (see “Free People of Color,” The Evening and the Morning Star, July 1833, 218–19). Editor W. W. Phelps tried to stem the misunderstanding caused by his ambiguous title by printing a broadside extra four days after his editorial (see The Evening and the Morning Star, Extra, July 16, 1833), but the damage was already done.

[7] Clark V. Johnson, ed., Mormon Redress Petitions: Documents of the 1833–1838 Missouri Conflict (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1992), 526; spelling, capitalization, and punctuation standardized.

[8] The meeting minutes indicate that the conference began on July 3 and would resume on July 7. John Whitmer’s account gives July 8 as the date (see Ronald E. Romig, Eighth Witness: The Biography of John Whitmer [Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2014], 244).

[9] “Minutes and Discourse, circa 7 July 1834,” in Minute Book 2, 43, josephsmithpapers.org.

[10] John and Sarah Jackson Whitmer lost an infant daughter in 1834. Christian was ill during the expulsion from Jackson County, and his body never fully recovered. He passed away in 1835. Peter Whitmer Jr. died of consumption in 1836.

[11] Oliver Cowdery, “The Closing Year,” Messenger and Advocate, Dec. 1836, 426.

[12] The Church purchased the Far West temple lot from John Whitmer’s descendants in 1909.

[13] Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt interview with David Whitmer, 7–8 September 1878, draft report 17 Sep 1878, Church History Library, Salt Lake City. Quoted in Scott H. Faulring, “The Return of Oliver Cowdery,” in Oliver Cowdery: Scribe, Elder, Witness, John W. Welch and Larry E. Morris, eds. Provo, Utah: The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2006), 351.