A perfect community

Illinois has long been a destination for those seeking a better life. For thousands of years the rich farmland and agreeable climate drew Native Americans to the land between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. Pioneer settlers made their way west in search of new homes in the early years of the United States and southern African-Americans traveled north for new opportunities during the Great Migration of the early 20th century. They were just some of many.

Another group of idealists came to Illinois during the 19th century in search of the perfect community, a “heaven on the prairie” as historian Randall Soland termed it in his 2017 book. Though individually and ideologically quite diverse, these groups who sought to build a new way of life here in Illinois came to be known collectively as the Utopians. They were led by charismatic leaders who believed that through self-sacrifice they could find salvation and create a perfect community, and eventually re-make the entire world. Most were not ultimately successful, but all left their mark on Illinois history.

In 1839, Joseph Smith and his band of Mormons crossed into Illinois from Missouri. Smith had led his followers to Missouri after he was beaten, tarred and feathered in Ohio, but 1830s Missouri had not been all that hospitable either, particularly because of the Mormons’ anti-slavery views. Violence soon followed, and the Mormons were driven out by the state’s governor. More than 8000 Mormons would follow Smith and Brigham Young across the river to Illinois.

A small settlement upriver from Quincy named Commerce caught Smith’s eye. Soon the Mormons had moved into the town, which was re-named Nauvoo, after the Hebrew word for “beautiful” according to Smith.

Within a year there were 250 houses in the town, which was to be the hub of a series of planned communities in the area. Five years later, there were more than 10,000 residents and 2200 buildings. The center of the community was the limestone temple, which was completed in 1846, after more than a million dollars was raised for its construction. As the church grew and attracted converts from an economically-depressed England, Nauvoo grew with it: becoming the second largest city in Illinois by the mid-1840s.

After the travails the group had endured in Missouri, Smith asked the Illinois General Assembly and Governor Thomas Carlin for some special powers under the law. The town established its own court, which could issue writs to keep certain individuals out of jail: namely Smith who was still a wanted man in Missouri. Nauvoo also created its own militia, the Nauvoo Legion. Smith now led an armed force of as many as 3000 men. The community emerged as a united voting bloc with immense political power, helping, among others, Stephen Douglas in the early 1840s.

All this raised concerns among the Mormons’ neighbors, who already disapproved of their communal lifestyle and reports of polygamy. Tensions rose. Dissension also broke out within Nauvoo, and soon Smith was facing an insurrection. Violence threatened, and in 1844 Governor Thomas Ford called out the state militia. Smith was eventually arrested and jailed in nearby Carthage. Ford tried to personally mediate peace between the many clashing factions, but he failed. A mob stormed the jail and murdered Smith and his brother. Fears of an outbreak of open warfare in western Illinois did not come to pass, and the Smith brothers were buried after a public funeral in Nauvoo.

Brigham Young 
Things went downhill quickly for the Nauvoo community after that. The town’s charter was revoked in 1845 the same year the Nauvoo Legion was disbanded. After a brief power struggle Brigham Young emerged as the new leader. In February 1846 tensions rose again, and Young decided to move his followers out of Illinois, beginning the trek to Utah. Others fled to Texas and Wisconsin. Some of the last to leave were driven out by local militias in September. The temple burned to the ground in 1848.

As the last of the Mormons were departing, another group was arriving. The Icarians, a French sect which had already tried and failed to build a utopian community in Texas, came upon the still-intact but mostly abandoned town and decided to make it their new home. About 200 Icarians came to Nauvoo from New Orleans in 1849.

The Icarians set out to create a communal society: children lived together at their school (visiting families only on Sundays), all community members ate identical meals in a large communal dining hall, every house had the exact same furnishings and every community member dressed alike. There was no private property and everyone was assigned a job.

The Icarian community thrived briefly, but began to unravel in 1851 when its leader, Etienne Cabet returned to France to face fraud charges. When he came back to Nauvoo a year later, he found the members had strayed from his communal standards. Cabet attempted to crack down and re-impose his vision, but he was deposed by community members in 1855. Cabet’s loyalists were banished from the community in 1856, and the remaining residents struggled on for a couple more years, but a crop failure and a nationwide economic panic in 1857 sealed their fate. In 1860 the remaining Icarians departed for Iowa, where a few years later the community fractured again and eventually disbanded.

More than a century passed before restoration efforts began on what was left of Nauvoo. In 1962, leaders in the LDS church began purchasing and restoring properties in the old town. A few dozen houses and stores were restored and opened to the public. In 2002 a rebuilt 54,000 square foot temple was completed after more than three years of work and $65 million.

The Icarians meanwhile did not leave quite as much of a footprint in Nauvoo. Many of their records found their way into a collection at Western Illinois University in nearby Macomb. But they did leave their mark. Part of their settlement’s economy was based on vineyards and production of wine. Those vineyards continue to be an important part of the Nauvoo community today, and their legacy is remembered in Nauvoo’s annual Grape Festival every Labor Day weekend.

Nauvoo, 1855 
Today the town which once was the second-largest in Illinois has a population of just over 1100, but is visited by as many as 250,000 tourists every year. It is home to a State Park that is renowned for scenic vistas, hiking and fishing.

Just before Young began the Mormon exodus to Utah, the first of a group of 1200 Swedish settlers set out for Illinois. Eric Jansson had clashed repeatedly with leaders in Sweden’s Lutheran Church, and had even been imprisoned more than once in Sweden by 1846. Finally, after yet another arrest, Jansson escaped, faked his death and led his followers to America.

The 1200 Janssonists pledged all their property to the community as they made their way to their new home in Illinois. Jansson envisioned a “New Jerusalem” at a place called Bishop Hill near the present-day town of Galva in northwestern Illinois.

To survive the first winter in Illinois, the Janssonists built mud caves within a copse of oak trees and engaged in backbreaking labor to scratch up enough food to endure the harsh season. Nearly 100 did not make it. Jansson required his followers have a rudimentary education which did not extend beyond the elementary level. He also required them to learn English, so that they might serve as missionaries to convert those around the community. A second harsh winter depleted the community’s population even more, as around 200 left for less difficult surroundings. More were lost to a cholera epidemic.

The Bishop Hill community began to finally find its footing in 1849 when brick buildings were constructed and the members began to master the task of farming in Illinois. Bishop Hill’s economy prospered, as residents raised and sold cash crops, while constructing a hotel, a larger church, shops and a dormitory. The community expanded to more than 4000 acres of farmland and over 500 residents. By 1857, Bishop Hill was producing 150,000 yards of cloth and carpet for sale. The group largely avoided politics, but they backed Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and some members volunteered for service in the Union Army during the Civil War.

But as with many small settlements in this era, the railroad would prove a serious obstacle, as it bypassed Bishop Hill and allowed cheaper manufactured commodities from the east coast to crowd them out of the market. Jansson was killed in 1850 during a clash with his cousin Charlotta’s husband. The same 1857 economic crisis which had doomed the Icarians also struck a lethal blow against the Janssonists; a crisis made worse by the revelation that Jansson’s successor as leader had been frittering away the community’s money on shaky investments.

The Bishop Hill community came apart gradually between 1858 and 1862, with community members working out a system to re-claim their personal property. Many of the settlers moved to Galva, but some remained behind in Bishop Hill. Some of their descendants are among the 104 residents who still reside in the small town. Several of the original buildings still stand in what is now Bishop Hill State Historic Site. It is also the home of the grave of its founder, Eric Jansson. The artwork of one of the original settlers, Olof Krans, is on display in a gallery in the Bishop Hill museum.

In late September, Bishop Hill celebrates Jordbruksdagarna, a Swedish agricultural festival. The celebration features Swedish delicacies, costumed interpreters and lots of music and demonstrations of life in the time of the Janssonists.

Harvesting with Grain Cradles, Olof Krans 
Nauvoo and Bishop Hill were hardly the only utopian communities in Illinois. Another attempt resulted in the founding of the town of Zion in Lake County, and other such communities were attempted throughout the state. Illinois was only one of many states in which utopians sought to achieve the perfect society; many similar communities were to be found in Indiana, Ohio, New York and other states around the same time period.

A different kind of planned community emerged just outside Chicago in the late 1800s when railroad car manufacturer George Pullman sought to build a town for his workers. It briefly flourished and then failed. Today, the former Pullman community is a National Park, which marks not only the history of the planned community itself but also its important history in the civil rights movement.

Today some of the utopian communities in Illinois still exist as historical and educational sites. They give visitors the chance to learn about the time when thousands of people chose locations in Illinois for their attempt to create a perfect world.