The Mormon War - 1858
The Utah War: Nearly bloodless, but still painful
The battles began miles ahead of the army's arrival in SLC
James Buchanan assumed
the American presidency in March 1857 burdened with illness, plagued by
office seekers and faced with civil war in Kansas. And he had to deal
with the "Utah problem."
For many Americans, the Mormon kingdom, with its polygamy and
perceived hostility to outsiders, was an abomination, "a filthy nest of
social vipers, hissing at all morality, defying all law," in one
editor's words. Inflamed by exaggerated charges from disgruntled
officials and dissidents newly returned from Utah, the nation demanded
Utah's citizens were equally upset but blamed the other side. Had
not Washington inflicted corrupt officers upon Utah? "Snarling
puppies," Brigham Young called them, "they impose on us more than we
are willing to bear."
Utah's settlers did lack government services provided to others:
reliable mail, land ownership and protection from Indians. And so,
frustrated by the nation's territorial system, Utah demanded statehood
and threatened to declare independence should it be denied.
Utah's belligerent petition reached Washington in the opening days
of the new administration. Appalled by what he saw as treasonous
rebellion, Buchanan appointed a new governor for Utah, to be escorted
to his post by a 2,500-man army prepared to enforce federal law.
And so the Utah War of 1857-1858 - a conflict at least 10 years in
the making - was launched.
Looking back nearly 150 years after the U.S. Army's march on the
Utah Territory, we adopt the historians' label of the "Utah War," in
place of the outdated "Johnston's Army" or the dismissive "Buchanan's
Blunder," neither of which accurately reflects the breadth and severity
of the conflict.
Although there were only minor skirmishes between scouting parties,
the war was not the bloodless farce of popular perception. Men froze to
death, died of disease, were shot and hanged and bludgeoned in
little-known atrocities. The hardships of war also affected Mormon
women, children and the elderly.
Mormons rally: In the years leading up to the war, both sides felt
wronged, and both sides felt their actions were justified. Utahns
complained that Buchanan had not investigated charges of violence or
judicial irregularities before sending the army; Buchanan had indeed
consulted many who had been to Utah, but without recognizing that the
testimony of failed officials might be colored by personal resentment.
As president, Buchanan had authority to establish a military
department in Utah. Mormons, not officially informed of the army's
mission before its march, remembered past sufferings at the hands of
uniformed mobs - they had been driven from Missouri and Illinois - and
assumed the worst.
Tradition has it that the Mormons' first hint of trouble came during
a Pioneer Day picnic in Little Cottonwood Canyon, when four horsemen
thundered like Paul Revere into the midst of the party with word that
the army was coming. That dramatic announcement may have been staged,
but it rallied the people into an organized defense of Utah Territory.
The Nauvoo Legion - Utah's militia - took stock of its armaments,
drilled its units and began fortifying Echo Canyon, the army's presumed
route into the city. With their men in the mountains, Mormon women went
into the fields to bring in the heaviest harvest Utah had ever known.
And on Sept. 15, 1857, Young placed Utah under martial law, requiring
passes for all travelers into and out of the territory and forbidding
armed forces from "invading" Utah.
Those forces, assembled at Leavenworth, Kan., set out for Utah with
three major handicaps: First, the army was essentially without a
leader. Its original commander, Gen. William S. Harney, had been
reassigned to quell disturbances in Kansas. The army was under the
temporary command of Col. Edmund Alexander, an ineffectual man called
"the old woman" by his troops.
Second, the army was far below its 2,500-man allotment. Desertions
by those not anxious for a long wilderness march exceeded even the
army's "normal" high desertion rate.
And third, the army left the frontier far too late to safely cross
the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Their departure date of July
18 was even later than that of the ill-fated Willie handcart company,
whose Mormon pioneers suffered so cruelly on the plains of Wyoming the
year before. Disaster was almost inevitable.
Army roadblocks: Watching the army's progress, Mormon guerrillas on
the Plains burned grass for miles to weaken its horses, beef cattle and
draft animals. They burned the Mormon outposts of Fort Supply and Fort
Bridger to deny the army convenient shelter. They stampeded cattle and
drove off horses and mules. In one case, the army recalled their mules
with a bugle signal, and the returning animals brought Mormon mounts
with them. In the iconic moment of the Utah War, a band led by Lot
Smith burned three federal trains - 78 wagons laden with food and
clothing for the army - after first allowing teamsters to remove
These tactics and October's harsh weather tolled heavily on the
federal troops. Thousands of hungry animals mired in the snow and died
in subzero winds. The men suffered as well, both from harsh physical
conditions and from a lack of effective leadership as they wandered
back and forth through western Wyoming, led by a commander who could
not make up his mind where - or even if - to go into winter quarters.
On Nov. 4, the army's new commander, Col. Albert Sidney Johnston,
finally reached his troops. He recognized instantly that his weakened
men could not force their way through Utah's mountains to take Salt
Lake City that season. Instead, he led them to winter quarters,
preparing for a spring campaign and waiting for reinforcements.
The crippled army then endured two weeks of forced marches toward
the blackened walls of Fort Bridger. More animals died of hunger. A few
men, on reduced rations, died of exposure before the army crossed into
Utah (which for several more years still included the southwest corner
of today's Wyoming), and built Camp Scott near old Fort Bridger.
A week later Utah's new governor, Alfred Cumming of Georgia, arrived
under escort of Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke, who had led the
Mormon Battalion 11 years earlier.
Enemy on the outskirts: Although they were no longer on the trail,
life was far from easy for the troops. The food was terrible and there
wasn't much of it. Lacking work animals, the men had to muscle sleds
and wagons to bring in firewood. Continued Mormon harassment required
soldiers to stand constant guard at lonely pickets far from their tents
Military drills continued throughout the winter. Capt. Randolph B.
Marcy left Camp Scott with 60 men to bring fresh animals from New
Mexico; their valiant mission was accomplished under what may have been
the most arduous winter conditions ever faced by the U.S. Army.
In their free time, the men gambled, drank and wrote letters
grumbling about conditions, or boasting about imaginary battles with
Mormons, or keeping a stiff upper lip for the sake of their families.
Courts opened for business, with grand juries drawn not from Utah
residents but from camp followers. One grand jury handed down
indictments for treason against Brigham Young, the entire Utah
Legislature, and every Mormon whose name could be culled from memory or
On the Mormon side, a few men were assigned to watch the federal
encampment and report any unexpected movement. The rest of the Nauvoo
Legion returned home to care for their families and thresh the heavy
grain harvest. Salt Lake City was remarkably calm that winter, with the
usual round of parties, theatricals and church services. Except for
regular militia drills and the oft-expressed resolve not to submit
again to the wrongs of Missouri and Illinois, Utah showed no sign of a
people at war with an army encamped little more than 100 miles away.
Public opinion in the East, which had at first supported the Utah
expedition, now turned sour. The press asked why military leaders had
not arranged to reinforce and resupply the beleaguered soldiers before
real suffering occurred. They demanded to know the total cost of the
expedition. Some who had urged the sending of an army in the spring
were now asking why Buchanan had not first sent an investigative
commission to Utah.
Buchanan remained committed to his military policy, but also sought
a way to resolve the conflict quickly and cheaply. One such opportunity
presented itself in the person of Thomas L. Kane of Philadelphia, a
longtime friend of the Mormons but also a well-known political figure
with personal and party ties to prominent Democrats.
Kane offered to go to Utah and negotiate a peaceful solution. While
Buchanan gave Kane no official commission and no public endorsement, he
did offer lukewarm encouragement and did nothing to prevent Kane's
Kane embarked on his voyage just as 1858 began, traveling by ship to
Panama and by wagon across the isthmus, then by ship to California and
by horseback to Utah, arriving in Salt Lake City on Feb. 24. He
shuttled between Salt Lake and Camp Scott, consulting with leaders on
both sides. Kane arranged for Gov. Cumming, escorted only by a servant
and not by a military guard, to enter Salt Lake City and be peacefully
recognized as governor.
Cumming arrived just in time to witness the most dramatic episode of
the Utah War: Faced with the knowledge that the army would inevitably
enter the settlements in the spring, the Mormons withdrew from Salt
Lake City and all northern towns, taking refuge in Provo and other
Cumming was greeted by the sight of families, with their household
goods piled on wagons and their livestock trailing behind, fleeing
southward. All the stored wheat, all the church records, the benches
from the tabernacle, the Deseret News press, and the doors and
windows from all of the houses, along with every other salvageable
article, had been cached or sent south.
A city abandoned: Historians differ in their assessment of this
move. Were the Mormons abandoning Utah for new settlements elsewhere?
Was Brigham Young merely prudent in removing women and children from
the immediate reach of an invading army? Or was it a bid for sympathy
from Americans in the East who would be horrified at the thought of
helpless women and children driven from their homes by American
By the time Buchanan's official peace commissioners arrived in Utah
with power to negotiate a settlement and bearing a pardon for actions
committed by Utah's defenders, the move south was complete. The army
entered Salt Lake Valley on June 26, 1858, to find an eerily deserted
city. A few men watched from behind empty buildings, ready to burn the
city if one soldier broke ranks to steal so much as a single peach from
a Mormon orchard.
It took hours for the army to march through, strung out as they were
along the road, but Johnston had drilled and disciplined the troops so
well that they passed without incident, first to camp near the Jordan
River and eventually to build Camp Floyd west of Utah Lake.
The displaced Mormons returned to their homes by the end of July
1858. Aside from some verbal sparring and a few rowdy incidents between
soldiers and civilians - generally minor, but including one murder -
Mormon settlers and their military neighbors tended to ignore one
Camp Floyd was closed at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.
The troops marched home, some to continue their service with the
U.S. Army, some to join Confederate units. They left behind comrades
who had married Mormon girls, an economy greatly strengthened by the
infusion of federal dollars, and memories that have faded but have
never quite died.
Ardis E. Parshall is a Salt Lake City-based historian who writes
for the The Tribune's "Living History" Sunday feature.
The Brink of War
By David Roberts
Smithsonian magazine, June 2008
One hundred fifty years ago, the U.S. Army marched into Utah prepared to battle Brigham Young and his Mormon militia.
July 24, 1847, a wagon rolled out of a canyon and gave Brigham Young,
president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, his first
glimpse of the Great Salt Lake Valley. That swath of wilderness would
become the new Zion for the Mormons, a church roughly 35,000 strong at
the time. "If the people of the United States will let us alone for ten
years," Young would recall saying that day, "we will ask no odds of
them." Ten years to the day later, when the church's membership had
grown to about 55,000, Young delivered alarming news: President James
Buchanan had ordered federal troops to march on the Utah Territory.
then, Brigham Young had been governor of the territory for seven years,
and he had run it as a theocracy, giving church doctrines precedence in
civil affairs. The federal troops were escorting a non-Mormon Indian
agent named Alfred E. Cumming to replace Young as governor and enforce
federal law. In their long search for a place to settle, Mormons had
endured disastrous confrontations with secular authorities. But this
was the first time they faced the prospect of fighting the U.S. Army.
June 26, 1858, one hundred fifty years ago this month, a U.S. Army
expeditionary force marched through Salt Lake City—at the denouement of
the so-called Utah War. But there was no war, at least not in the sense
of armies pitched in battle; negotiators settled it before U.S. troops
and Utah militiamen faced off. On June 19, the New York Herald
summarized the non-engagement: "Killed, none; wounded, none; fooled,
retrospect, such glibness seems out of place. The Utah War culminated a
decade of rising hostility between Mormons and the federal government
over issues ranging from governance and land ownership to plural
marriage and Indian affairs, during which both Mormons and non-Mormons
endured violence and privation. The tension was reflected in the
fledgling Republican Party's 1856 presidential platform, which included
a pledge to eradicate the "twin relics of barbarism—polygamy and
slavery." To look back at this episode now is to see the nation at the
brink of civil war in 1857 and 1858—only to pull back.
Utah War was catastrophic for those who suffered or died during it, and
it was catalytic in advancing Utah along the slow but eventual path to
statehood," says Richard E. Turley Jr., assistant church historian and
recorder of the LDS Church.
Kent Powell, managing editor of the Utah Historical Quarterly, notes
that Abraham Lincoln warned, in 1858, that "a house divided against
itself cannot stand," referring to the United States and slavery. "The
same comment could have been applied to Utah," says Powell. "Just as
the nation had to deal with the issue of slavery to ensure its
continuation, so did the Territory of Utah have to come to an
understanding and acceptance of its relationship with the rest of the
nation was unable to put off its reckoning over slavery. But the
resolution of the Utah War bought the LDS Church time, during which it
evolved as a faith—renouncing polygamy in 1890, for example, to smooth
the way to Utah statehood—to become the largest home-grown religion in
American history, now numbering nearly 13 million members, including
such prominent Americans as Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, Senate
majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada and hotelier J. W. Marriott Jr. At
the same time, anti-Mormon bias persists. Last December, in an effort
to make voters more comfortable with his Mormon faith, former
Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, then a Republican presidential
contender, declared like the Catholic John F. Kennedy before him: "I am
an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my
religion." In a Gallup Poll taken after Romney's speech, 17 percent of
respondents said they would never vote for a Mormon. Roughly the same
percentage answered similarly when Romney's father, Michigan Governor
George Romney, ran for president in 1968.
now, issues rooted in the era of the Utah War linger. Last September,
when the LDS Church formally expressed regret for the massacre of some
120 unarmed members of a wagon train passing through Utah on September
11, 1857, the Salt Lake Tribune published a letter comparing the events
to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A raid this past April
by state authorities on a fundamentalist Mormon compound in Texas
returned the subject of polygamy to the headlines (though the sect
involved broke from the LDS Church more than 70 years ago).
the late 1850s, Mormons believed that the world would end within their
lifetimes," says historian David Bigler, author of Forgotten Kingdom:
The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896. In addition, he
says, "they believed the forefathers who wrote the American
Constitution had been inspired by God to establish a place where His
kingdom would be restored to power. The Mormons believed their own
kingdom would ultimately have dominion over all the United States." At
the same time, the American nation was pursuing a "manifest destiny" to
extend its domain westward all the way to the Pacific. The continent
was not large enough to accommodate both beliefs.
conflict had been building almost from the moment Joseph Smith, a
religious seeker, founded his church in Palmyra, New York, in 1830.
Where other Christian churches had strayed, Smith preached, the LDS
Church would restore the faith as conceived by Jesus Christ, whose
return was imminent. The next year, Smith moved with about 75
congregants to Ohio and sent an advance party to Missouri to establish
what they believed would be a new Zion.
agrarian democracy Americans were building, both land and votes
mattered. Non-Mormons felt threatened by the Mormons' practices of
settling in concentrated numbers and voting as a bloc. The Missouri
Mormons were forced to relocate twice in the mid-1830s. In Ohio, an
anti-Mormon mob tarred and feathered Smith in 1832, and he left the
state in 1838 after civil lawsuits and a charge of bank fraud followed
the failure of a bank he had founded. By the time he arrived in
Missouri that January, non-Mormons were assaulting Mormons and raiding
their settlements; a secret Mormon group called the Sons of Dan, or
Danites, responded in kind. That August, Missouri Governor Lilburn
Boggs issued an order to his state militia directing that the Mormons
"be exterminated or driven from the State for the public peace." Two
months later, 17 Mormons were killed in a vigilante action at a
settlement called Haun's Mill.
Mormons moved next to Illinois, founding the town of Nauvoo there in
1840 under a charter that gave the city council (which Smith
controlled) authority over local courts and militia. This settlement
grew to about 15,000 people, making it the biggest population center in
the state. But in 1844, authorities jailed Smith in the town of
Carthage after he destroyed a Nauvoo newspaper that had alleged he was
mismanaging the town and had more than one wife. At that point, Smith's
polygamy was acknowledged only to the LDS Church's senior leaders. In a
raid on the jail, an anti-Mormon mob shot the church founder to death.
He was 38.
episodes in American religious history parallel the barbarism of the
anti-Mormon persecutions," historian Fawn Brodie wrote in her 1945
biography of Smith. At the same time, she added, the early Mormons'
relationships with outsiders were characterized by "self-righteousness"
and an "unwillingness to mingle with the world." To non-Mormons in
Illinois, Brodie wrote, "the Nauvoo theocracy was a malignant tyranny
that was spreading as swiftly and dangerously as a Mississippi flood."
Amid continuing harassment in Illinois, the Mormons prepared to leave.
Smith's death, the LDS Church's ruling council, the Quorum of the
Twelve Apostles, took control of church affairs. The lead apostle,
Brigham Young, a carpenter from Vermont and an early convert to
Mormonism, eventually succeeded Smith. In February 1846, he led the
beginnings of an exodus of some 12,000 Mormons from Illinois,
determined to establish their faith beyond the reach of American laws
and resentment. Brigham Young biographer Leonard J. Arrington has
written that Young and other church leaders knew about the Great Salt
Lake Valley from trappers' journals, explorers' reports and interviews
with travelers familiar with the region.
time, most of what would become the American Southwest belonged to
Mexico, but Young believed that that nation's hold on its northern
frontier was so tenuous that the Mormons could settle there free from
interference. In the spring of 1847, he led an advance party of 147
from an encampment in Nebraska to the Great Salt Lake Valley, arriving
that July. Over the next two decades, some 70,000 Mormons would follow;
the grueling journey would be one of the defining experiences of the
February 1848, Mexico sealed its defeat in the Mexican-American War by
signing the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ceding to the United States
what is now California, Nevada, Utah, Texas and parts of Arizona, New
Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. Just six months after arriving in their
new Zion, the Mormons found themselves back under the authority of the
preserve self-rule, church leaders quickly sought official status,
petitioning Congress in 1849 first for territorial status, then for
statehood. The land they sought was vast, running from the Rockies to
the Sierra Nevada and from the new border with Mexico all the way to
present-day Oregon. Congress, guided in part by the struggle between
forces opposing and condoning slavery, designated a Utah Territory, but
not before reducing the area to present-day Utah, Nevada, western
Colorado and southwestern Wyoming.
status gave the federal government greater authority over Utah affairs
than statehood would have. But President Millard Fillmore inadvertently
set the stage for a clash with his choice for the new territory's chief
executive. In 1850, acting partly in response to lobbying from a lawyer
named Thomas L. Kane, a non-Mormon who had advised Mormon leaders in
previous ordeals, Fillmore named Brigham Young governor of the new Utah
ran the Utah Territory much as Smith had run Nauvoo, and conflicts
between religious and secular authorities soon re-emerged. The Mormon
leaders were suspicious of both the character and intent of federal
appointees, such as a judge who was found to have abandoned his wife
and children in Illinois and brought a prostitute to Utah. And over the
next seven years, a succession of federal officers—judges, Indian
agents, surveyors—came to the territory only to find that the governor
would circumvent or reverse their decisions.
"has been so much in the habit of exercising his will which is supreme
here, that no one will dare oppose anything he may say or do," Indian
agent Jacob Holeman wrote to his superior in Washington, D.C. in
1851—in effect going over Young's head (Young was also the territory's
superintendent of Indian affairs). Surveyor General David Burr reported
that Young told him federal surveyors "shall not be suffered to
trespass" on Mormon lands. Through the mid-1850s, federal appointees
returned East frustrated or intimidated or both, and some of them wrote
books or articles about their travails. Anti-Mormon sentiment spread,
inflamed particularly by reports of polygamy.
then, the practice of plural marriage had expanded beyond Joseph
Smith's inner circle, and word of it had been passed by non-Mormon
emigrants passing through Utah, where the evidence was in plain view.
"During the first few years after their arrival in Utah," writes Young
biographer M. R. Werner, "the fact that the Mormons practiced polygamy
was an open secret."
Mormons' embrace of plural marriage was based on a revelation that
Smith said he had received. (It was written down in 1843, but most
historians agree that Smith had begun taking multiple wives earlier.)
With the example of polygamous biblical patriarchs such as Abraham and
Jacob in mind, Smith concluded that "the possession of more than one
wife was not only permissible, but actually necessary for complete
salvation," Werner writes. Brigham Young, who took his first plural
wife in 1842, after 18 years of monogamy, maintained that he had been a
reluctant convert: "I was not desirous of shrinking from any duty, nor
of failing in the least to do as I was commanded," he wrote in a
reminiscence that would be collected in the church compendium Journal
of Discourses, "but it was the first time in my life that I had desired
the grave." (By the time he died, at age 76 in 1877, he had taken 55
wives but shared no "earthly life" with 30 of them, according to
Arrington.) For years Young and other church leaders had dismissed
allegations of plural marriages as calumnies circulated by enemies, but
by the early 1850s, such denials were no longer plausible.
August 29, 1852, at a general conference of Mormons in Salt Lake City,
the church leadership publicly acknowledged plural marriage for the
first time. Orson Pratt, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles,
delivered a lengthy discourse, inviting the members to "look upon
Abraham's blessings as your own, for the Lord blessed him with a
promise of seed as numerous as the sand upon the seashore." After Pratt
finished, Young read aloud Smith's revelation on plural marriage.
disclosure was widely reported outside the church, and the effect was
to quash any hopes the Utah Territory might have had for statehood
under Young's leadership. And conflicts between Young's roles as
governor of the territory and president of the church would only become
April 1855, at the Mormons' spring conference, Young called on some 160
men to abandon home, farm and family and head into the wilderness
surrounding the Utah settlements to establish missions among the Native
Mormon cosmology, Indians were the descendants of a fallen ancient
patriarch, and church officials said they were undertaking the missions
to convert tribes on their borders to their faith and to improve their
welfare. But Garland Hurt, recently arrived in Utah as an Indian agent,
was suspicious. In a confidential letter to the head of the Bureau of
Indian Affairs in Washington, he wrote that the missions were actually
intended to teach the Indians to distinguish between "Mormons" and
"Americans"—a distinction, he added, that would be "prejudicial to the
interests of the latter." The few historians who have studied these
three missions disagree over their purpose. But irrespective of Young's
intentions, correspondence to and from the missionaries, held in LDS
archives, reflects rising tension between Mormons and the non-Mormon
first of the missionaries left Salt Lake City in May 1855. One band of
men rode more than 350 miles north, into what is now Idaho—beyond
Young's legal jurisdiction. Another headed 400 miles southwest—again,
beyond Utah's boundaries—to the site of present-day Las Vegas, in the
New Mexico Territory. A third pushed 200 miles southeast, to what is
now Moab, Utah.
August, Young wrote to the Las Vegas missionaries, working among
Paiutes, to congratulate them on the "prosperity and the success which
has thus far attended your efforts" and to exhort them to start
baptizing the Indians and to "[g]ain their confidence, love and esteem
and make them feel by your acts that we are their real friends." In
all, the missions would report baptizing scores of Indians. (What the
Indians made of the ritual was not recorded.)
October 1, 1855, letter to a friend, John Steele, an interpreter at the
Las Vegas mission, suggested another motive. "If the Lord blesses us as
he has done," he wrote, "we can have one thousand brave warriors on
hand in a short time to help to quell any eruption that might take
place in the principalities." (In 1857, the Utah militia, under Young's
command, would number about 4,000.)
following summer, Young counseled secrecy to another church leader,
John Taylor, president of the New York City-based Eastern States
Mission (and, eventually, Young's successor as president of the
church). "[M]issionaries to the Indians and their success is a subject
avoided in our discourses and not published in the 'News,'" he wrote on
June 30, 1856, to Taylor, who was also editing The Mormon, a newspaper
widely read by Eastern Mormons. "Wherever any thing comes to hand no
matter from what source it would be well to carefully look it over and
draw your pen through all such as you might deem it wisdom not to
1857, non-Mormon newspapers from New York to California had begun
reporting that the Mormons were seeking the Indians' allegiance in case
of a clash with the United States. Some accounts were based on
briefings from officials who had returned to Washington; others, based
on gossip, tended toward a more alarmist tone. For example, on April
20, 1857, the National Intelligencer, a Washington newspaper, put the
number of the Mormons' Indian allies at 300,000, even though the total
Indian population of the Utah Territory appears to have been 20,000 at
most. Young would characterize press coverage generally as "a prolonged
howl of base slander."
none of the missions lasted. The southeast mission collapsed within
four months after a skirmish with Utes; the Las Vegas mission followed,
having shifted its focus from conversion to an abortive attempt at
mining lead. The northern mission, called Fort Limhi, operated among
the Bannock, Shoshone and others until March 1858.
time Young led his senior aides on an expedition there in April 1857,
almost every federal official had left Utah. In Washington, a new
president faced his first crisis.
Buchanan, a Democrat, had defeated the Republicans' John Frémont and
the Know-Nothings' Millard Fillmore in the 1856 election. He assumed
the presidency in March 1857 preoccupied with the fight over whether
Kansas would enter the Union as a free or slave state. But within
weeks, reports from those who had fled Utah and strident petitions from
the territorial legislature for greater influence over the appointment
of federal officials turned his attention farther west.
Young's term as territorial governor had expired in 1854; he had served
on an interim basis since. Buchanan, with his cabinet likening the Utah
petitions to a declaration of war, decided to replace Young with Alfred
Cumming, a former mayor of Augusta, Georgia, who was serving as an
Indian-affairs superintendent based in St. Louis. He ordered troops to
accompany the new governor west and to enforce federal rule in
Utah—but, for reasons that are not clear, he did not notify Young that
he was being replaced.
found out in July 1857, a month that brought a series of shocks to the
Mormons. The Deseret News reported that Apostle Parley Pratt had been
killed in Arkansas by the estranged husband of a woman Pratt had taken
as his 12th wife. Rumors circulated that federal troops were advancing,
prompting Apostle Heber C. Kimball to declare, "I will fight until
there is not a drop of blood in my veins. Good God! I have wives enough
to whip out the United States." Mormons traveling from the
Kansas-Missouri frontier brought word that federal troops were, in
fact, headed for Utah, leading to Young's announcement on the tenth
anniversary of his arrival in the Great Salt Lake Valley.
in this heated atmosphere that, six weeks later, a California-bound
wagon train that included 140 non-Mormon emigrants, most of them from
Arkansas, made camp in a lush valley known as Mountain Meadows, about
40 miles beyond the Mormon settlement of Cedar City. Just before
breakfast, according to an account by historian Will Bagley in Blood of
the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, a
child among the emigrants fell, struck by a bullet. As a party of men
with painted faces attacked, the emigrants circled their wagons.
a five-day siege, a white man bearing a white flag approached the
emigrants. Mormons, he told them, had interceded with the attackers and
would guarantee the emigrants safe passage out of Mountain Meadows if
the Arkansans would turn over their guns. The emigrants accepted the
wounded and the women and children were led away first, followed by the
men, each guarded by an armed Mormon. After half an hour, the guards'
leader gave the order to halt. Every man in the Arkansas party was shot
from point-blank range, according to eyewitness accounts cited by
Bagley. The women and older children fell to bullets, knives and
arrows. Only 17 individuals—all of them children under the age of
decades afterward, Mormon leaders blamed Paiute Indians for the
massacre. Paiutes took part in the initial attack and, to a lesser
degree, the massacre, but research by Bagley, Juanita Brooks and other
historians has established that Mormons were culpable. Last September,
on the 150th anniversary of the event, Mormon Apostle Henry B. Eyring,
speaking for the church, formally acknowledged that Mormons in southern
Utah had organized and carried out the massacre. "What was done here
long ago by members of our Church represents a terrible and inexcusable
departure from Christian teaching and conduct," Eyring said. A
"separate expression of regret," he continued, "is owed to the Paiute
people who have unjustly borne for too long the principal blame for
what occurred during the massacre."
September 1857, Cumming and about 1,500 federal troops were about a
month from reaching Fort Bridger, 100 miles northeast of Salt Lake
City. Young, desperately needing time to prepare an evacuation of the
city, mobilized the Utah militia to delay the Army. Over several weeks,
militiamen raided the troops' supplies, burned the grass to deny forage
to the soldiers' horses, cattle and mules, even burned Fort Bridger.
November snowstorms intervened. Snowbound and lacking supplies, the
troops' commander, Col. Albert Sidney Johnston, decided to spend the
winter at what was left of the fort. The Mormons, he declared, have
"placed themselves in rebellion against the Union, and entertain the
insane design of establishing a form of government thoroughly despotic,
and utterly repugnant to our institutions."
spring thaw began in 1858, Johnston prepared to receive reinforcements
that would bring his force to almost 5,000—a third of the entire U.S.
Army. At the same time, Young initiated what has become known as the
Move South, an exodus of some 30,000 people from settlements in
northern Utah. Before leaving Salt Lake City, Mormons buried the
foundation of their temple, their most sacred building, and planted
wheat to camouflage it from the invaders' eyes. A few men remained
behind, ready to put houses and barns and orchards to the torch to keep
them out of the soldiers' hands. The Mormons, it seemed, would be
exterminated or once again driven from their land.
they were neither is due largely to the intervention of their advocate
Thomas Kane. Over the winter of 1857-58, Kane had set out for Utah to
try to mediate what was being called "the Mormon crisis." Although his
fellow Pennsylvanian President Buchanan did not provide official
backing, neither did he discourage Kane's efforts. Kane arrived in Salt
Lake City in February 1858. By April, in exchange for peace, he had
secured Young's agreement to give way to the new governor. Many in the
public, given Buchanan's failure to notify Young and the Army's delayed
arrival in Utah, began to perceive the Utah expedition as an expensive
blunder undertaken just as a financial panic had roiled the nation's
economy. Buchanan, seeing a chance to end his embarrassment quickly,
sent a peace commission west with the offer of a pardon for Utah
citizens who would submit to federal laws. Young accepted the offer
same month, Johnston and his troops marched through the deserted
streets of Salt Lake City—then kept marching 40 miles south to
establish Camp Floyd, in present-day Fairfield, Utah. With the Army no
longer a threat, the Mormons returned to their homes and began a long
and fitful accommodation to secular rule under a series of non-Mormon
governors. Federal laws against polygamy targeted Mormon property and
power through the 1870s and '80s; Wilford Woodruff, the LDS Church's
fourth president, issued a formal renunciation of plural marriage in
United States government used polygamy as a wrecking ball to destroy
the old theocracy," says historian Bigler. "By 1890, Mormons were
hanging on by their fingernails. But when Wilford Woodruff delivered
his manifesto repudiating polygamy, he went further: he said that from
now on, Mormons would obey the law of the land." Statehood for Utah
followed in 1896.Their dreams of dominion over, the Mormons began to
enter the American fold.
David Roberts is the author of the forthcoming Devil's Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy.
WORD FAITH INDEX