The name of Jacob B. Backenstos is not a household name in Mormon history, but during the 1844-1845 period, he was one of the few "gentiles" the Latter-day Saints could trust as he championed their cause.
Backenstos moved to Hancock County in the early 1840s, apparently at the invitation of Judge Stephen A. Douglas. B.H. Roberts notes that Douglas "imported" Backenstos from Sangamon County to take the office of circuit court clerk at Carthage. (A Comprehensive History of the Church 2:468, footnote.)He did a conscientious job at that post and, as he matured in the office, showed promise of reaping greater political rewards.
It is not certain when Backenstos first became involved with the Latter-day Saints. Early on, however, Jacob attended a wedding of singular importance to him. It was the wedding of his brother William Backenstos, whose bride was the niece of Joseph Smith, and Joseph himself performed the ceremony.
When the Prophet was martyred, Jacob, then a newly elected state representative from Hancock County, became more and more intrigued by the courage of the Mormons.
When Hancock County anti-Mormons petitioned the state of Illinois to revoke the Nauvoo city charter, both Backenstos and Almon W. Babbitt (a member of the Church and a lawyer) spoke strongly against the proposed action.
Brigham Young commented: "Mr. Jacob B. Backenstos delivered a speech in the House of Representatives . . . against the Senate bill for the unconditional repeal of the Nauvoo Charter, wherein he ably set forth the injuries and persecutions suffered by the citizens of Nauvoo." (History of the Church 7:349.) Elder Elias Smith, observing the proceedings in person, noted that Backenstos "pleaded like an apostle for the rights of his constituents." (HC 7:363.)
In summing up the efforts of Backenstos and Babbitt, Brigham Young wrote: "Mr. Backenstos had appealed to the sense of justice, equal rights, patriotism and humanity possessed by the members of the House of Representatives in vain. His colleague Mr. Babbitt and himself had done their duty." (HC 7:368.)
Though Backenstos lost that battle, he returned to Hancock County in time to relinquish his role as representative and campaign for the office of sheriff. He won that special election by a margin of better than 3 to 1 (2,334 votes to 750 for his closest opponent). His total was bolstered by an almost unanimous Latter-day Saint vote.
Pressure against the sheriff was immediately applied by the anti-Mormon faction. On April 4, 1845, Brigham Young commented on their arrogance: "The mob left notice with Sheriff Backenstos of Carthage to leave (town) by three p.m. today. The Jack Mormons the name then attached to non-members sympathetic to the Latter-day SaintsT say they will defend him and are gathering a company for that purpose. Backenstos says he will not be driven, but will stand his ground. . . ." (HC 7:390.)
The mob began a series of cowardly acts, and systematically began burning out the saints who lived in isolated areas.
The sheriff did his best to sustain the beleaguered saints and maintained close contact with the Church leaders. Evidence of this intimacy is indicated in Brigham Young's May 9, 1845, notation: "I met with the Twelve in council, also Elders N.K. Whitney and W.W. Phelps, and J.B. Backenstos." (HC 7:408.)
The burnings continued unabated. To stem the tide of destruction, Backenstos sought help from all possible sources. On Monday, Sept. 15, 1844, "Sheriff Backenstos went to Warsaw and tried his best to summon a posse to stop the burning but could not raise one. Forty-four buildings have been burned by the mob," Brigham Young reported. (HC 7:444.)
That same afternoon President Young received a letter from the sheriff stating that he (Backenstos) was unable to raise law and order citizens to quell the mob. He then requested that the Latter-day Saints hold 2,000 well-armed men in readiness for emergency service.
Backenstos' friendship with the Mormons brought a violent reaction from the anti-Mormon faction. The following day (Sept. 16, 1845) Backenstos arrived in Nauvoo "in great haste and somewhat excited," declaring that the mob had driven him from his house in Carthage the day before. (HC 7:446.) He had again gone to Warsaw to stay overnight.
For a second time he received no encouragement from the populace there. In fact, Backenstos found that people of Warsaw were so enraged at him for trying to help the Latter-day Saints that there was a real question as to whether the sheriff would leave town alive.
Backenstos finally had prevailed upon an "influential mobocrat" to escort him out of town. After some four miles, the escort left Backenstos, cautioning the sheriff that there was mischief afoot: in fact, his escort said ominously, there "were deep plans laid to kill him." Backenstos, who was driving a one-horse buggy, knew his rig would be no match for potential assassins on horseback: they could overtake him easily.
Sure enough, shortly after his escort left, Backenstos saw a band of 10 to 20 horsemen rapidly overtaking him. Three men broke in front of the pack and further closed the gap between themselves and Backenstos. As he raced to keep ahead of his foes, Backenstos met Orrin P. Rockwell and John Redding, who were escorting to Nauvoo a group of Mormons who had been burned out of their homes. Backenstos commanded the two Latter-day Saints "in the name of the people of the state to protect him." Rockwell was only too happy to oblige.
Later, Backenstos found his authority almost completely neutralized by Gov. Thomas Ford's appointment of Major W.B. Warren and a 400 troop detachment. Warren and his men imposed what was, in effect, martial law on the area and local politicians bowed to Warren's wishes and largely ignored Backenstos. To Warren's credit, he did try to enforce the laws fairly and, as the Mormons hurriedly prepared to leave the state, Warren kept the anti-Mormons at bay, repeatedly threatening to withdraw his troops from the county and leave them in the hands of Backenstos. . . . (HC 7:531.) It was a fate none of them wanted.
When the Latter-day Saints left the county for the West, Backenstos lost his support base. He left the area and joined the U.S. Army in its fight against Mexico. He was appointed captain in a rifle company, then was promoted to major and finally elevated to the rank of lieutenant colonel "for gallant and meritorious conduct in (the) battle of Chapultepec, where he was wounded." (Oregon Statesman, Oct. 6, 1857.)
In 1849, Backenstos went to Oregon with his regiment. In 1851, he resigned his command, after being involved in a dispute with an army surgeon. For some years thereafter, Backenstos was principally engaged in loaning money and purchasing claims. In so doing, he amassed considerable wealth.
But all was not well with him. After an altercation with a neighbor, he became chronically depressed. He settled his business, paid his debts, gave his wife his war scrip, and intimated to her that he might take his own life. True to his threat, Backenstos threw himself into the Willamette River on the night of Sept. 26, 1857, and died of drowning.
Thus, the life of one of the Latter-day Saints' most constant friends tragically ended.