Mormons battle to become independent, free

Christopher Banner

By A Contributor

Bigler and Bagby tell us in their introduction to “The Mormon Rebellion” that the Mormon migration to Utah, the establishment of the independent State of Deseret under Brigham Young, and President James Buchanan’s insisting that Utah was actually a part of the U.S., did not go quite as we have been told. They fill in details and tell us of some of the less glorious, even horrifying, history of the movement by availing themselves of sources that had been sequestered for perhaps 150 years by the Mormon church, officially the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. That the church would now permit the release of such documents rather than keep them hidden or destroy them is an indication of how much it has changed since Young’s days of absolute rule.

The church was founded in New York in 1830 by Joseph Smith, and because of its unorthodox beliefs and its vigorous missionary program, it was driven first to Ohio, then to Illinois and Missouri. Smith was killed in Carthage, Ill., in 1844, and the church split into factions, with Young becoming the leader of the largest group.

In 1847,  to get away from the persecution, the Saints, as they called themselves, began their migration to Utah, where Young established an independent theocracy, the Kingdom of God, with himself as its head. In 1850, President Millard Fillmore appointed Young governor and superintendent of its Indian affairs. Young proceeded to drive all federal appointees, including land surveyors, out of Utah. Further, anyone who disagreed with him, Mormon or Gentile, might be killed or just disappear. Thus he became an absolute ruler who made or approved all governmental and judicial appointments, laws, and generally ran things as he saw fit. 

The Indians were important because the Mormons believed that they were the descendants of the Biblical character, Jacob. They were also a force to be reckoned with because they occupied and controlled the land surrounding the Great Salt Lake area.  Young sent missionaries to as many tribes and bands as he could, hoping thereby to convert them to the faith that they had lost so many generations ago, and also to gain them as allies in case of difficulties with the U.S.

Mormon converts migrated to Deseret by any means they could, including hauling their few possessions in handcarts, which led to many sacrifices, privations, and deaths that came from the arduous journey. When the survivors arrived, they found a land which was difficult to wrest a living from, not the land of milk and honey that they had been led to expect. They also found that they were allowed little control over their own affairs. These and other issues led to hard feelings and dissention. In 1856, after having received word that Deseret was not going to be admitted as a state, Young instituted a bloody reformation and worked to establish a truly separate nation.

Tensions arose between Young and the U.S. government as Young tried to extend his total control over an area that reached from Colorado to the Pacific, and Idaho to Mexico, which meant that he would control, or try to control, the traffic of the western migration. He sought to deny travelers any food, lodging or other help, and called for Indian raids on wagon trains. Perhaps the most famous raid was the September 1856 Mountain Meadows Massacre of about 120 travelers; subsequent investigations have shown that it was Mormons, not Indians, who did the killing, but that was not what people believed at the time.

In 1857, President Buchanan decided that he had had enough of Young’s rule. In what people described as “Buchanan’s Folly,” he declared a state of rebellion, asserted legitimacy of the territory of Utah, appointed a different governor and set of officials, judges and land surveyors, and sent them west with the U.S. Army’s Utah Expedition to enforce his will. Young replied by raising the Nauvoo Legion to fight them off. 

The Army had to travel more than 1,000 miles on foot to reach Utah, which took a lot of time and stretched it to its limits; the Mormons endured great deprivations to raise and support their legion, which led to further dissatisfaction among the saints. Both armies had difficulties with getting needed supplies. Neither side really wanted to shed blood in this very unequal confrontation, and so no engagements occurred.

Time passed until winter snows came and shut down shipments and maneuvers. During the winter, many people, horses and mules on both sides perished, leaving the survivors severely weakened and demoralized. 

By spring, the sides had negotiated a settlement, and the federal appointees were able to travel to Salt Lake City under armed guard and assume their positions, though Young and his followers were less than welcoming and cooperative.

The actual space that the “war of rebellion” takes in the totality of “The Mormon Rebellion” is relatively small, with the rest setting the background for the battle that never was, and telling us what happened afterwards. The book is interesting reading, though it gets a bit detailed at times.

Bigler and Bagley are independent historians who have obviously put a lot of time into their research, as is indicated by their twelve page bibliography. They have written several other books on the Mormons and the history of the West.

Christopher Banner is a Manhattan resident.

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