Mansfield, Ohio is just a small city on the edge of the Midwest, and in many ways it is just like any number of other places on the map, but it has long been one of the unique crossroads of the US, and has a most interesting way of intersecting with American History.
One of these moments had to do with the Mormons, and their epic series of migrations across the country—because they walked through Richland County and right through the Square in Mansfield.
Mormon Genesis (in 100 words or less)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints originated in western New York state after their prophet, Joseph Smith, had a series of visions culminating in his discovery of a manuscript that he translated into English and published in 1828 as the Book of Mormon.
From the very beginning when the young faith began attracting believers, it also drew terrific and violent opposition. Their subsequent story was a sequence of persecutions wherever they went, as the Saints were passed along from town to town like a hot potato clear across the country till they landed in Utah, where they took root and grew into the prosperous world-wide denomination we know today.
When the Mormons were chased out of New York, the first place they got a foothold was in Kirtland, Ohio—5 miles from Lake Erie and 22 miles east of downtown Cleveland. Thinking they were safe and that Kirtland was their new home, the colony of around 2,000 Saints built their first Temple there in 1836. Two years later a mob chased the leaders out of town, and the rest of them left during the summer in the first major Mormon migration. This took place in 1838 when 500 Saints picked up and moved to Missouri in a three-month hike.
This colossal undertaking is remembered in church history books as Kirtland Camp. The route that the wagon train took to get out of Ohio went across Richland County, and right through the Square in Mansfield.
July 16, 1838
The Saints went across our part of the state on what would eventually become Old Route 30, passing through Wooster, Jeromesville, and Hayesville. They camped outside of Mifflin before entering Richland County, and the official log of their journey noted that when they pulled into their Mifflin camp on Saturday night July 14, “This was the first day since leaving Kirtland, that they did not break one or more wagons.” It must have seemed a blessing indeed since they were traveling with 59 wagons, 97 horses, 22 oxen and 69 cows. And one bull.
Sunday the 15th was spent in worship and rest, and early Monday morning the 16th they set off west toward Mansfield.
It was quite obvious to the Saints that everyone along the route they traveled was well alerted in advance to their coming, as they were met with sight-seers the entire way. Some were just curious, others overtly antagonistic and taunting. The ones most noted, in the many diaries kept along the way, were the folks who came out to encourage the weary travelers on their journey.
Approaching the county seat of Richland they were warned repeatedly not to try to pass through Mansfield, or there would be bloodshed.
Three miles outside of town the County Sheriff met them, and arrested a couple of the travelers on charges related to a Kirtland banking fraud. The Sheriff, too, tried to talk them out of going through Mansfield.
After all these warnings and threats, it was with great trepidation that the vanguard of Saints trod up the Park Avenue East hill toward the Square.
At the Court House
There was a crowd waiting on the Square in Mansfield, armed and dangerous. With rifles, pitchforks, and glowering faces, a belligerent mob lined both sides of the road. And no one said a word.
It was the silence that was so menacing. As wagon after wagon rolled past, men on horses, families on foot, the only sounds separating the wary Saints from the fierce, scowling townsfolk was the clop of horse footfalls, the squeal of wooden wheels.
And, of course, the cannon.
A small contingent of veterans had pulled the old town cannon out into the grass behind the Court House, and shot it off every few minutes to watch the horses jump. There was a drummer there too, tapping out a slow military dirge like a battle was pending, or the dead were being counted.
It was a savagely tense and hair-trigger, tightrope passage through the center of town, when everyone was afraid to breathe, and the scales of chaos could have easily tipped in any direction. But there was no violence in Mansfield. That was the miracle.
The caravan of wagons, livestock and Mormons was over a mile in length. They moved 16 miles that day—from the Mifflin area to the outskirts of Ontario. They set up camp in the field of a friendly farmer named Frederick Cassel, and after they left there the next morning the whole curious moment in American History faded into obscurity.
The field where 500 Saints camped no longer carries crops, and has reverted to the prairie growth and small trees typical of untended lands in Richland County. There is nothing there today that in any way recalls the evening when the great Mormon Migration stopped there to catch its breath, and it has been many generations since anyone in Springfield Township remembered the place where their landscape once intersected with the National Story.