Mormon History

Fascination With Westward Migration of Cult - 1826

  Wayne Sentinel May 26, 1826


Modern Pilgrims. -- In the Summer of 1818, a company of people, calling themselves Pilgrims, appeared descending the Mississippi, in flat boats. By their own account, they started from Lower Canada, in a company consisting of eight or ten. In Vermont they recruited twenty or thirty; in the state of New-York several more -- and when they reached Cincinnati, their numbers amounted to about sixty.

Their leader, a Canadian, by the name of Bullard, (called also by his followers, the Prophet Elijah,) was of a diminutive stature, with a club foot. Before he began his mission, he had a severe spell of sickness, when he fasted 40 days, (as he said, and his disciples believed;) after which he recovered very suddenly, by the special interposition of the Divine Spirit, and being filled with enthusiasm, he declared that he was commanded to plant the church of the Redeemer in the wilderness, and among the heathen. -- From these notions, thus imbibed, and which he instilled into his followers, they believed themselves capable of fasting 40 days; accordingly when they committed themselves to the current, the Prophet enjoined a 40 days' fast. The people becoming sick and in great distress from hunger, this severe commander found it necessary to remit, in some degree, the rigor of his injunction, and he permitted the taking of flour broth through a quill, because he received his food in this way after his long sickness and fast, when he could not open his jaws; and which had the vivifying effect taken by him for supernatural power or inspiration. But as the gruel allowed was very meagre, being simply flour and cold water, debility, misery, and death attended the experiment. Yet with faith and hope they persisted.

In this wretched situation, they arrived at Pilgrim's island; which derives its name from this fact; at which place they were fallen in with by a barge belonging to Nashville, whose crew, detesting the conduct of the prophet and his seconds, who watched and governed the timorous multitude, gave two or three of the leaders a sound drubbing with the pliant cotton wood switch.

They next landed at the Little Prairie. The prophet's staff, which by the direction of its fall had hitherto pointed out the way, now stood still; and he declared that here he was commanded to settle and build a church; but Mr. Walker, who owned the soil, and resided in this solitary spot, forbid the undertaking. This was accounted persecution -- yet they continued seven days, during which, several died, among whom were children, which were placed on the beach by their parents, at the command of Elijah, when, exposed to the scorching sun, they wallowed holes in the sand while they struggled away the agonies of death. While here laboring under sickness and persecution, it seems they began to suspect that they were forsaken by the divine spirit, and that no more miracles could be wrought for them. Hence they commenced the cry of "Oh, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!" when, by assisting each other, the vociferating cry was not intermitted for three days and nights.

They stopped further down at a desert place, when six or eight more died, whose bones still lie on the shore uncovered; and all who remained, when they arrived at Helana, were objects of terror and compassion. The hospitable inhabitants furnished them a plentiful supply of milk and more nourishing gruel, for taking which every one was provided with a piece of reed cane.

Their boat next struck upon a sand-bar near the mouth of the Arkansas. The prophet, his brother, and other leaders being dead, the remnant dispersed into the settlements, and down the river in the passing boards.

From the time the party entered the Mississippi, their numbers decreased daily by death or desertion. And when they made their final landing, only about 15 remained. One disciple eloped at the Little Prairie, with all the cash belonging to the company. One child was rescued and here raised. Several individuals who were dispersed in various directions, are now comfortably settled, but it is supposed that more than half their number died on the pilgrimage.

This fete of folly and delusion, is perhaps worthy of notice, as furnishing a striking instance of the blindness of credulity -- the wilderness of fanaticism, and the miserable propensity of the mind, to believe itself possessed of powers which do not belong to humanity. 

Note 1: The above article must have originally appeared in the Western Balance (of Franklin, TN?), in about late April of 1826. See the New York City Telescope of May, 6, 1826 for another reprint. For more on Isaac Bullard and his "Pilgrims" in retrospective accounts, see the articles, "The Pilgrims" in the Oct. 5, 1822 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, "The Mormon Delusion" in the June 24, 1831 issue of the Vermont Chronicle, and Zadock Thompson's "Fanatical Sects," in his 1842 History of Vermont, (summarized in the notes attached to an 1817 article.)

Note 2: For contemporary accounts about Isaac Bullard's "Pilgrims," see the Salem Register of Sept. 15, 1817, the Boston American Baptist Magazine of May 17, 1818, and the Chillicothe Weekly Recorder of Nov. 5, Nov. 12, and Nov 26, 1817. None of these reports came late enough to relate Bullard's purported 1818 murder of the Pilgrims' children on the shore at Little Prairie (now Caruthersville, Pemiscot Co.), Missouri -- however, in an 1817 report, Bullard was said to have fled from Quebec province, after having poisoned the child of one of his followers, "by command of the Lord," rather like his other followers' children were put in a dire situation, "at the command of Elijah."

Note 3: The story of Bullard and his followers' 1817 stop-over at Woodstock, Vermont is summarized in David M. Ludlum's 1939 book, Social Ferment in Vermont, pp. 242-244. Although the Joseph Smith, Sr. family had departed Vermont by the time the Bullard Pilgrims arrived on the scene, Oliver Cowdery's Grandfather, (William Cowdery, Sr.) then lived in Woodstock and Oliver himself lived in an adjoining county (see area map). It is not unlikely that members of the Cowdery family had some first-hand knowledge of Bullard's cult.

Note 4: In a 1997 article entitled "Joseph Smith's Testimony: The First Vision and Book of Mormon Evidence," Mark Stepherson has this to say about the cult and its possible influence on early Mormonism: "Isaac Bullard was noticed and had the public mind excited against him. He wore nothing but a bearskin girdle and a beard. He gathered his "pilgrims" into a community near the Smith's old home in Vermont. When the community moved west, they likely followed the same road the Smith family used when moving to New York. Isaac Bullard taught free love, but I wonder how many members were women willing to practice free love with their leader, a man who regarded washing as a sin and bragged that he had not changed clothes in seven years?"