The Making of John Moses Browning

When I wrote Ode to Browning, I wondered aloud how a Mormon kid from Ogden, Utah, could become the world’s most influential gun designer. That muse was not an idle thought. Last week I visited the Nauvoo, Illinois home and shop of John Moses’ father, Jonathan, and the story became clear. In Illinois I delved into an ugly period of American history that many people would rather forget. A history of renegade militias and mob justice, human rights violations and unlawful detentions, slavery and prejudice, abuse of governmental power and government sanctioned murder. And guns.

Jonathan Browning was born in Summer County, Tennessee, in 1805. After years of apprenticeship, he established himself as a blacksmith and, later, lock and gunsmith in the town of Quincy, located on the Mississippi River in the westernmost reaches of Illinois. There he earned a reputation for craftsmanship and innovation including a “sliding breech”Harmonica gun of his own design.

Respected in the community, Jonathan Browning was elected Justice of the Peace. In that capacity he sometimes boarded circuit lawyers who traveled to county seats thought the region to represent clients. On at least two occasions he hosted a lanky young Illinois attorney named Abraham Lincoln.

In Quincy, papa Browning also came into contact with Mormon refugees fleeing Missouri. Tensions between Mormons and Missourians began shortly after church members began moving into the “Show Me” state in 1831. Many of the new settlers were converts to the church from England, Scandinavia or – worse – northern states, and were appalled by the southern institution of slavery. The number of Mormons grew quickly. Before long, it became apparent to native Missourians that the Mormons were becoming a powerful political force that was a threat to their future as slave owners.

The locals formed militias and mobs to harass the Mormon interlopers. By 1836, Mormon militias had been disarmed as part of a negotiated truce. Thus unprotected, mob violence against Mormons increased until church members were driven from their homes and relegated to live within a single county – undesirable for farming – in the northern part of the state. Furthermore, they were forbidden from voting “no more than negroes,” according to one Missourian.

Tensions finally came to a head after one of the Mormon’s principle antagonists, Lilburn Boggs, became elected Governor. Following a clash known as the Battle of Crooked River, Governor Boggs issued the infamous Missouri Executive Order 44, which stated that “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven form the sate if necessary for the public peace.” (NB: this order, issued October 27, 1838, was not rescinded until June 25, 1976.)

At the time of their expulsion from Missouri, Mormons accounted for nearly half the population of the state.

Five thousand displaced Mormons found refuge across the river in Quincy. Although the flood of exiles vastly outnumbered Jonathan Browning and his fellow Quincy residents, they took the Mormons in, fed them, and housed them until spring. Furthermore, the city council resolved:

That the [governor] of Missouri, in refusing protection to this class of people when pressed upon by an heartless mob, and turning upon them a band of unprincipled Militia, with orders encouraging their extermination, has brought a lasting disgrace upon the state over which he presides.

It is not now known precisely what role Jonathan Browning had in caring for the Mormon refugees or what his relationship to the church was at that time, but we do know that a few years later he traveled to Nauvoo, Illinois, a town the Mormons established about fifty miles upriver, in order to meet the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, Jr. Browning was impressed enough that he converted to the faith and relocated his home and business to Nauvoo.

Nauvoo was a religious boom town that swelled to more than twelve thousand residents within seven years time – rivaling Chicago in population. After an initial honeymoon, relationships between the Mormons of Nauvoo and their Illinois neighbors began to fail. In 1844, Smith was arrested and killed in his prison cell by a mob consisting primarily of off-duty militia members.

After the assassination, agitation against the Mormons continued. Vigilante militias and mobs organized themselves for a “wolf hunt” wherein Mormons were the wolves. The Mormons formed a powerful militia of their own, the 2000 man Nauvoo Legion, armed with .69 caliber US Model 1816 flintlock muskets and a smaller number of .54 caliber Harpers Ferry Model 1803 rifles.

The Nauvoo Legion could protect the Mormon citizens living within the city, but could do little for church members scattered on farms throughout the surrounding countryside. Farmers moved their families to the city and Nauvoo turned into a city under seige. Illinois’ governor intervened to protect the Mormons, but the harassment continued. Eventually the State legislature revoked Nauvoo’s city charter, effectively disbanding the Nauvoo Legion and requiring the return of government-issued arms. Defenseless, the Mormons were forced, once again, to abandon their homes and relocate in the dead of winter (1845-46).

Jonathan Browning and his family were among those forced from their homes. At the request of Brigham Young, who by then was acting as the head of the church, Browning set up a temporary shop in Iowa to repair and manufacture guns for Mormons that were beginning their trek westward along the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City.

In 1852, Jonathan Browning finally migrated to the Utah territory, settling in the city of Ogden. Jonathan accepted the church practice of polygamy and a few years after arriving in Utah, John Moses was born to one of his father’s three polygamist wives. When old enough, the Browning scion began working side-by-side with his father. Of those years John Moses once observed, “We ridiculed some of the guns we fixed, and I damned some of them when Pappy wasn’t near, but it never occurred to us to make better ones. He was too old, and I was too young.”

Although John Moses Browning did not live through the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, the “Mormon War in Illinois” in 1846, or suffer the crossing of the great plains and Rocky Mountains, he was born into a culture informed by those experiences. And he was still a young boy when war once again came upon the Mormons.

In 1857, President James Buchanan sent troops to Utah to quell what he called a Mormon Rebellion – an action that the national press eventually dubbed “Buchanan’s Blunder.” Ostensibly, Buchan sent the troops in to stop the Mormon practice of polygamy, which the church publically first acknowledged in 1852, but the reality was more complex.

Mormons asserted their right to practice polygamy under the principle of popular sovereignty, the same democratic principle that was being asserted by southern states to justify the practice of slavery. If the Utah Territory was denied its right to popular sovereignty over the practice of polygamy, then southern states too could lose their right to determine the slavery issue for themselves. In other words, polygamy – a practice universally reviled in the north and south – was muddying the legal and ethical waters of the far more controversial practice of slavery. So, Buchanan ham-fistedly accused the Mormons of rebellion so that he could forcibly take polygamy issue off the table and restore the delicate balance between north and south, thereby postponing a larger civil war.

Federal troops marched into Salt Lake City and Mormon leaders went underground. After an awkward year, Brigham Young was replaced as territorial governor by a non-Mormon and a fort was built for a contingent of 2500 federal troops placed under the new governor’s command. Thus began a decades long cat and mouse game between polygamist church leaders and the U.S. Army. Meanwhile, the young  son of a polygamist gunsmith patiently perfected his gunmaking skills.

Mob violence and war after war shaped the society into which John Moses Browning was born, he lived with the ever-present dangers of frontier living, and for much of his life, federal troops posed an existential threat to the family in which he was raised. Is it any wonder he craved weapons that were more reliable, more accurate and faster? The Mormon Church persisted in the practice of polygamy until 1890. By that time John Moses Browning was working under contract with the Winchester Repeating Arms Company and was well on his way to becoming a firearms legend.