Forced to leave the State of Missouri by order of the governor, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (commonly called Mormons or Latter Day Saints) began streaming into Illinois and the then Iowa Territory in the harsh winter of 1838-39. Most of the Mormons went to the vicinity of Quincy, Illinois . As the town of Quincy began to fill to its limits, other Mormons began looking for other places to settle, many huddling in the burned out remains of Fort Des Moines in present day Montrose, Iowa.
Seeing the desperate situation of the Mormons, a land speculator named Isaac Galland approached members of the faith about several of his tracts. Receiving the offer with joy, Joseph Smith purchased the southern end of the peninsula and a large portion of Montrose, Iowa in early 1839. Ewing's cabin was once again made use of, this time by Joseph Smith, himself. By the end of that year Smith had been able to purchase much of the area of Commerce and Commerce City, and Mormons came en mass. In 1840, the area generally known as Commerce had a population of nearly 2,900 people.
Not everything in the new community was bliss, however. Most of the southern end of the peninsula was swamp, and malarial mosquitoes infested the area. With hundreds of men out of work and scores dying from malaria, Joseph Smith organized a massive public works project to drain the swamp. Digging, blasting and picking their way from present day White Street south to the Mississippi River along Durphy Street, the Mormons drained the nearly 800 acre swamp, and made the entire Nauvoo Peninsula inhabitable. This canal was dug eight feet deep and eleven feet across for nearly three-quarters of a mile, and is still existent today, forming the western boundary of the Nauvoo State Park.
Commerce was finally achieving what it was dreamed to be, but again the name did not suit its settlers. In 1840 the name was again changed, this time to Nauvoo, a Hebrew word meaning "beautiful." Fearing a repeat of what they had suffered in Missouri, the Latter Day Saints pushed for and received a charter for Nauvoo, granting the city power to raise its own militia — answerable to no one outside Nauvoo but the governor; a university; broad legal protection; and many other economic benefits. At that time, Illinois was nearly equally divided between Democrats and Whigs, and the Mormons were seen as the swing vote in any statewide election, and thus nearly every politician in the state courted their vote. With Nauvoo's increasing size came more businesses, and before long it had become the largest and best business district north of St. Louis.
By 1844, Nauvoo's population topped 10,000, with construction being the major industry. In addition to massive housing demands, Nauvoo also had two large public projects under construction: a beautiful limestone temple on the hill, towering over the entire community, and a four-story hotel at the river's edge. The city teamed with activity from blacksmiths, gunsmiths, lumberyards, brick and rope makers, and shopkeepers, women's and youth organizations, Masonic Lodges, and a university.
As with all large towns, particularly those on the edge of the frontier, Nauvoo attracted many less desirable people, some of whom claimed membership in the Mormon faith. This was the age of the river pirate, and horse thieves and banditti roamed the prairies of Illinois. Fearing that they would be subject to the same kinds of spurious prosecutions the Saints had received over the short 10 years since the faith was founded, nearly anyone claiming membership in the Mormon Church was given a safe haven at Nauvoo, without regard to evidence or testimony from outside the city limits.
Some area residents soon became troubled over Nauvoo becoming a safe haven for thieves and robbers, its booming size, and great economic and political power. The Whig and Democratic political parties were joined in Hancock County by a third party, the Anti-Mormon Party. This group was determined to repeal the Nauvoo Charter and drive the Mormons from Illinois. Hearing the same feelings expressed in Illinois that had caused terrible persecutions in Missouri, the Mormons only became firmer in their convictions, and soon a tit for tat war had begun.
In the spring of 1844 some of Joseph Smith's most trusted followers broke from him, and determined to expose his secret practice of polygamy and break up the political influence of Nauvoo on state politics. These dissenters purchased a printing press and published their first issue, with all of its content being an exposé of Joseph Smith. Three days later on Monday, June 10th, the Nauvoo City Council called an emergency meeting and declared that the newspaper was a public nuisance, ordered all copies gathered up and burned, and the press destroyed.
Within days the county was on the verge of civil war, with armed bands everywhere. Joseph Smith, as mayor of Nauvoo, declared martial law within the city, preventing armed men from going out or coming in to town. When news of the situation reached Governor Thomas Ford, he immediately ordered out the state militia and went to Carthage to see the situation for himself. After reaching Carthage, Ford called for Smith and the Nauvoo City Council to surrender themselves to stand trial for the destruction of the press. Under a promise of protection, Joseph Smith and a few of the council members surrendered themselves on 24 June. Three days later, with the governor gone to Nauvoo, a group of Warsaw militia stormed the county jail and there killed Joseph Smith, his brother Hyrum, and wounded a third man, with a fourth man in the room escaping injury.
At the death of Joseph Smith the county was gripped in terror in fear of Mormon retaliation. Instead of retaliating, the City of Nauvoo was silent. With the Mormons not returning action, and the governor having gone back to Springfield, the Anti-Mormon Party organized a series of raids against outlying Mormon settlements. By the summer of 1845 the hostilities had progressed to shooting on both sides, and armed groups were again roaming Hancock County. With his immediate attention focused on another outbreak of violence in the southern part of the state, Governor Ford called out the State Militia to again quell the hostilities. This time the Mormons, now under the leadership of Brigham Young, agreed to leave the state and abandon Nauvoo the coming spring.
With their temple nearly completed, the Mormons began to put it to use in the winter of 1845-46. In February of 1846, word came to Brigham Young from Governor Ford that the United States Army might try to prevent the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo into Indian, British or Mexican territory. Fearing his people would be trapped, Young ordered many of the community's leaders to immediately evacuate the city, with the majority of the Saints to follow when the weather was better.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1846, there was a continual procession of wagons crossing the Mississippi River on anything that could get them across. By September the town that had once been home to more than 20,000 people had been reduced to less than 2,000. Impatient to get the remainder of the Mormons from Nauvoo, the Anti-Mormon Party again marshaled their forces and attacked the city that now had only the poorest and weakest Mormons and approximately 200 new citizens. A full-scale battle ensued, with cannon, rifle, and musket called into use. After two days of battle, a peace delegation from Quincy arranged the terms of surrender for the City of Nauvoo. Given an hour to pack what belongings they could, the remaining Mormons were forced from Nauvoo at the point of bayonet.
Two years after the Mormon expulsion from Nauvoo, their beloved temple was set ablaze by an arsonist. Two years after that a tornado toppled the north wall of the structure that had been weakened from the intense heat of the blaze. The Nauvoo City Council, fearing someone could be killed if the remainder collapsed, ordered the final demolition of the building in 1867.
The memory of Nauvoo remained dear to the hearts of the Latter Day Saints, and in 1853 the first group of Mormon "tourists" came to Nauvoo before making their great trek to Salt Lake City. For more than a century Mormon missionaries on their way east and immigrants on their way west stopped in Nauvoo.