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Was your ancestor really a bodyguard for the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith?

SHARE Was your ancestor really a bodyguard for the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith?

SALT LAKE CITY — Shadrach Roundy was a loyal friend of Joseph Smith.

As an early convert of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Roundy witnessed many of the events that affected the Saints from New York to Illinois and never wavered in his faith or desire to protect the prophet, as well as his successor, Brigham Young.

One family account indicates Roundy accompanied Joseph Smith to Monmouth, Illinois, for a trial.

On another occasion, the Prophet was warned of trouble coming his way. He asked Roundy and another man to stand guard at his gate in Nauvoo. While on duty, Roundy used a hickory cane and calm reasoning to dissuade a large group of men from forcing their way into the Smith home, according to Roundy's life history in Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia.

"His love for the prophet was so great that he would have given his own life freely in defense of his beloved friend and brother," the narrative reads.

Thanks to family stories and histories like these passed down over generations, Roundy is one of many early Latter-day Saint men whose descendants proudly proclaim was a bodyguard for Joseph Smith.

A recent Flash.vote poll posted on the I am LDS Facebook page asked people if they've ever been told an ancestor was a bodyguard for Joseph Smith. Of the more than 425 who voted, 53 percent said yes. The post received numerous comments with names of ancestors and how they defended the Prophet.

But was your ancestor really a bodyguard for the Prophet? If so, what did being one of Joseph's bodyguards entail? Does a list of these men exist in church records?

Jeffrey D. Mahas, a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers project, can appreciate such claims. He grew up hearing stories about several ancestors who served as bodyguards for Joseph Smith, including one named Roswell Stevens. While Mahas has found references to Stevens being a bodyguard in written histories, he has yet to find his ancestor's name on any list or related church history document.

For starters, the term "bodyguard" was not used in that era, although there is at least one instance where the prophet appointed men as his "life guards," Mahas said.

"I think this is a claim that’s really common," Mahas said. "But if you go back … look at (Joseph's) journals and financial records, you are not going to find people listing out a calling or occupation as 'bodyguard.' I think a lot of the claims of being a bodyguard have come from participation in several different organizations that existed during Joseph’s lifetime."

Zion's Camp

After Zion's Camp arrived in Missouri, Joseph Smith handpicked 20 men to serve as his "life guards," according to an account by Heber C. Kimball. He appointed his brother, Hyrum Smith, as captain of the group, with George A. Smith as Joseph's armor bearer. There is not a list of the 20 men, but Kimball recorded he was part of the group, and Joseph Smith's history reports that Roger Orton served as a captain of 10 men, Mahas said.

"It’s conceivable if your ancestor went on Zion’s Camp, whether they were in the group of 20 or not, it’s likely they would have seen part of their mission as guarding or defending Joseph," Mahas said. "As the story is passed down, pretty soon it becomes 'he was Joseph's bodyguard.'"

The Danites

Another example could be the Danites, Mahas said.

When the Saints were living in the Missouri settlements of Far West and Adam-ondi-Ahman in 1838, some leaders and members formed a group they called the Danites. The group's mission was to defend Mormons and their property against Missouri mobs and former church members who had turned hostile, according to an article on LDS.org.

"We don't have a list of names for the Danites. We know from sources that one of the chief purposes of the Danites was to defend the First Presidency," Mahas said. "Again, it’s conceivable, it gets passed down in the family lore as it was my mission, my job, to defend Joseph, especially when the Missouri War breaks out and you start to have fighting."

Nauvoo Legion

It's possible that some bodyguard claims stem from participation in the Nauvoo Legion, Mahas said.

There is a list of legion members in February 1841 on JosephSmithPapers.org that includes names like Charles C. Rich, Albert P. Rockwood, Stephen Markham, Hosea Stout, Thomas Grover, John L. Butler, Alpheus Cutler, Reynolds Cahoon, Shadrach Roundy, Vinson Knight, Samuel H. Smith and others.

A group of about 12 men within the Nauvoo Legion were assigned to be Joseph's guards, but this was most likely an "honorary position," Mahas said.

"I don't know how much they are going around guarding Joseph like the Secret Service protects the president," Mahas said.

Before being excommunicated, John C. Bennett was a major general in the Nauvoo Legion. There is a case in Joseph Smith's history where during a Nauvoo Legion parade people allege Bennett wanted to or tried to assassinate Joseph, but his honor guard never left his side, Mahas said.

"It was written later and there are no contemporary records," Mahas said. "I don't know how accurate that story is."

On several occasions, some or all of the Nauvoo Legion was called into service, in large part to defend Joseph, Mahas said.

In June 1843, Joseph was arrested by enemies in an attempt to extradite him back to Missouri for trial. Several members of the Nauvoo Legion were mustered to rescue the Prophet and escort him back to Nauvoo.

In 1844, right before Joseph Smith was taken to Carthage Jail, he declared martial law and several members of the Nauvoo Legion were activated.

"The whole reason they are guarding Nauvoo is largely to protect Joseph," Mahas said. "I think there is at least a possibility of a Nauvoo Legion component to the claim of being one of Joseph's bodyguards."

Nauvoo police force

Most bodyguard claims likely come from service in the Nauvoo police force, Mahas said.

In 1842, peace in Nauvoo began to dissolve as Mormon dissenters and Missourians threatened harm or legal action against Joseph Smith. Nauvoo's city government countered by becoming one of the first cities in the United States to form a police force, an idea that likely came from England. They initiated a "night watch" in May 1842, a "city watch" in January 1843, and later that year, a 40-man police force charged with protecting the city, Mahas said.

"Why does Nauvoo need a police force?" Mahas said. "It’s because they are scared people are going to come take Joseph."

Two lists on JosephSmithPapers.org, one dated Dec. 29, 1843, and the other March 1-Dec. 31, 1843, include names and titles such as Jonathan Dunham, captain and high policeman; Charles C. Rich, 1st. Lt; Hosea Stout, 2nd Lt; Shadrach Roundy, 3rd Lt.; John Pack, Ensign; John D. Lee, 2nd Orderly Sgt.; Levi Hancock, fifer; and Richard Sprague, drummer.

The Church History Library also has documents that appear to be pay stubs for members of the Nauvoo police force, with payment authorized by the signature of Joseph Smith.

"They are keeping order in Nauvoo, but the open secret is one of their main purposes is to defend Joseph," Mahas said. "You even have people complaining to the City Council that their tax dollars are going to pay for Joseph’s private security force."

After Joseph Smith's death, the police force expanded from 40 men to a couple hundred. They primarily guarded the Nauvoo Temple, church leaders' homes and patrolled the city. There are more records of what the police force was doing after the prophet was martyred, Mahas said.

Some will find their ancestor's name on the list while others may not, but this is where most bodyguard claims will originate from, Mahas said.

"You have to do some digging … but you could easily see someone saying he was in the Nauvoo police force," Mahas said. "You might not find anything, like me with Roswell Stevens, but that doesn't mean (your ancestor) didn't serve."

A few good men

One figure in early church history who stands out in the conversation of Joseph's bodyguards is Orrin Porter Rockwell, also known as "the destroying angel."

Rockwell joined the church as a teenager in New York and followed the Saints across the country to Utah. His close association with Joseph Smith has been well documented, including Joseph's promise to Rockwell that "no bullet or blade" would harm him if he remained faithful and didn't cut his hair.

Rockwell was one of a few men who accompanied Joseph on trips or assisted him while in hiding. He also served Brigham Young in a similar capacity.

One example is Joseph's journey to Washington, D.C., in 1839-40. He was accompanied by Sidney Rigdon, Elias Higbee and Rockwell. It's not recorded, but it's not likely that Rockwell was invited for his political connections or because he was an eloquent speaker, Mahas said.

"I think Porter Rockwell is probably there to protect Joseph," Mahas said.

When Joseph went to Carthage Jail, he asked Rockwell to stay behind in Nauvoo and watch over Emma and the children.

"Joseph clearly has a fondness for Porter Rockwell, but not much is documented," Mahas said.

Stephen Markham did go with Joseph and others to Carthage Jail, but he left to run an errand for Joseph and was not permitted back in the jail. Men with bayonets forced him on to his horse and stabbed his legs. But Markham left behind his large hickory cane, nicknamed the "rascal beater," and John Taylor used it to defend the small group when the mob rushed the jail, according to an LDS.org article.

A group of men identified as "the Prophet’s bodyguard," shared in the context of escorting Joseph's body from Carthage back to Nauvoo, is found in the History of the Church, Vol. 7. Names listed include "Alpheus Cutler (capt.), Amos C. Hodge, James Allred, Thomas Grover, Reynolds Cahoon, Shadrack(h) Roundy, John Snyder, Christian Kreymer, Lewis D. Wilson, William Marks, James Emmet, John L. Butler, Samuel H. Smith, Edward Hunter, herald and armor bearer."

A lesser-known example of dedicated friendship in a bodyguard-related way occurred in August 1842 when Joseph was in hiding. The prophet dictated a blessing on all of the individuals who helped him while in hiding and it was copied in the Book of the Law of the Lord.

The Book of the Law of the Lord is a special book that functioned as a combination journal for Joseph, copy book for revelations and a tithing record. Members whose names appeared in this book were considered worthy to enter the temple, so it's significant, Mahas said.

In the blessing, Joseph named several men, including Erastus Derby, John D. Parker, Amasa Lyman, Wilson Law, Henry G. Sherwood, Joseph B. Nobles and Samuel Smith, among others, who one could say acted as bodyguards or supported the prophet while was in hiding, Mahas said.

There is one line in the blessing that Mahas says gives hope to anyone who can't document their ancestor as a bodyguard of the prophet.

"While I call up in remembrance before the Lord these men, I would be doing injustice to those who rowed me in the skiff up the river that night, after I parted with the lovely group; who brought me to this my safe and lonely and private retreat," the blessing reads. "Brother (Jonathan) Dunham and the other whose name I do not know."

The dust clears

Mahas believes a lot of stories about early Saints serving as bodyguards for Joseph Smith started to appear in the late 19th century and early 20th century, as that first generation of the church was beginning to die. Everyone loved and admired the Prophet, and the term "bodyguard" implies a close bond or brotherly friendship, Mahas said.

"We all want to feel close to and claim association with Joseph. We all want that connection," Mahas said. "I think that’s the reason this idea still holds sway. There are so many Latter-day Saints who can trace their roots back to Nauvoo and like this claim because it implies you have this intimacy with Joseph."

Mahas said the main takeaway is if your family history says your ancestor was a bodyguard for the prophet, "he probably did something as part of one of these organizations to protect Nauvoo," he said. "Then again, we don't have a record of everything."

Shadrach Roundy may not have been as closely associated with Joseph Smith as the term bodyguard implies today, but two of his descendants, Delin Roundy and Becki Bronson, still hold him in high esteem.

"He was a righteous man," said Roundy, who lives Panguitch.

"It doesn't change how I view Shadrach," said Bronson, a resident of Cedar City. "Regardless, I am proud of his faith more than anything else."

People with questions about their Mormon ancestors can ask questions or validate claims by visiting history.lds.org and clicking on the "ask us" button.