From its inception Mormonism has had a troubled and controversial history. Much of the disagreement about the Mormon past has centered on the person and character of Mormonism's founder, Joseph Smith. Many histories (the most famous of which is Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History) have portrayed him as a fraud and manipulator, while devout Mormon histories have insisted he was a courageous prophet and martyr for the truth. Donna Hill's more recent Joseph Smith: The First Mormon presents him as a visionary who was frequently wrong and who used deception at various points in his career, but who honestly believed in his own divine calling.
Having been raised Mormon, I became disillusioned as a young adult to discover that many aspects of the devotional history were wrong. What disillusioned me more, though, was that the current hierarchy of the church has declared war on intellectuals, and has branded as heretics loyal Mormon historians who have tried to take a more nuanced view of the Mormon past.
I have found it an on-going personal struggle to examine and reevaluate my Mormon heritage with an open mind. In my religious upbringing, we were taught that you must either view Joseph Smith as a true prophet, or that you must believe he was a complete villain. The Mormon worldview doesn't tend to accomodate shades of gray. Even now, as I intellectually tell myself there are many possible interpretations of the past, and even though I am capable of analyzing almost any other topic with more openness and dispassion, when it comes to the Prophet Joseph, it is hard to keep myself from slipping into this old "either/or," love-him-or-hate-him mentality.
But I feel driven to try to break out of this. The following timeline is my own attempt to piece together for myself a somewhat "objective" Mormon history. It presents an outline of the facts that, from my readings, I personally find most plausible and well established, and does so in a visual format that helps me get a sense of how Mormon history has unfolded geographically and chronologically. Presenting this on the Internet in HTML format also makes it easy for me to revise the timeline or add new pieces as my understanding evolves. (I've provided an annotated list of books that I've read to help me pull this together.)
True objectivity is, of course, never possible. But we can do our best to confirm what we know from as many reliable sources as we can, and to retain an open mind when we can't. And keep trying.