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When the Mormons began colonizing the Rocky Mountains during the mid-nineteenth century, more than mere geography had changed for them. In the Great Basin, they were no longer outcasts but “pioneers.” Although the term initially referred to members of the 1847 advance company, Mormons who made the journey later the same year also came to be known as the “Pioneers of ’47.” And by the 1870s, virtually everyone who had “gathered to Zion” before the completion of the transcontinental railroad could lay claim to the title “pioneer.” It became a symbol of Mormonism, embracing such qualities as courage, dedication to the cause, physical endurance, resoluteness, ingenuity, and faith. Even those who ridiculed Mormon beliefs admired the Saints’ pioneering accomplishments. This “pioneer heritage” has become a source of pride and unity in Mormon culture.
Some historians have suggested that the Mormons’ pioneer experience in the American West made possible the survival and future expansion of their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a desert environment demanding ingenuity, and with little outside “interference” during the first generation, the Mormons established their church on a solid foundation from which they could successfully meet later problems ranging from the federal polygamy persecutions of the 1880s to the civil rights and identification crises of the 1960s.
Nineteenth-century developments in America, and to a lesser degree in Europe, provide important contemporary context for the [p.2] Mormon experience in the Great Basin. The Saints’ migration from Nauvoo, Illinois, to the Rocky Mountains began early in 1846, the “Year of Decision,” according to Bernard DeVoto. The Oregon controversy with Britain would be settled later that year, but difficulties with Mexico would soon lead to war. The subsequent enlistment of a battalion of more than 500 Latter-day Saint men, known as the Mormon Battalion, as part of the United States Army would force the pioneers to halt temporarily on the banks of the Missouri River. Large-scale migrations to Oregon and California also marked the year, and before its close the tragic Donner-Reed party would become marooned in the Sierra snows after blazing a route through the Wasatch Mountains into the Salt Lake Valley which the Mormons would follow the next year.
In April 1847, when Mormon leader Brigham Young’s pioneer contingent left Winter Quarters (near present-day Omaha, Nebraska) for the Great Basin, the U.S. war with Mexico was still undecided. In fact, federal troops began advancing into the interior of Mexico on the same day the Mormons left Winter Quarters. However, troops did not enter Mexico City until 14 September 1847, almost two months after the Mormons arrived in the Great Salt Lake Valley. California was subdued by early 1847, and members of the Mormon Battalion served as occupation troops; but ownership of Upper California, including the Rocky Mountain Great Basin, would not be decided until after the Mormons began to settle there.
The California discovery of gold in January 1848 would lead to important changes in the Far West, the nation, and the world. Ironically, the discovery ended Mormon dreams of isolation and indirectly dimmed hopes of political autonomy. The gold rush of 1849 brought such a sizable population to California that the region’s application for statehood could hardly be denied. This led to the Compromise of 1850, which gave statehood to California and made Utah a territory, subject to federally appointed officials. The resulting conflict between Mormon leaders and federal officials postponed Utah statehood for forty-five years and ultimately threatened the existence of the Latter-day Saint church.
The popular sovereignty formula proposed as a solution to slavery in the territories kept the Mormons in the national spotlight. When the Republican party linked the Mormon practice of polygamy with slavery in 1856 as “twin relics of barbarism,” prejudice against the Mormons increased, making it easy for disgruntled federal officials to convince national leaders that the Saints were disloyal citizens in rebellion against federal authority. The resulting [p.3] “invasion” of the territory by the U.S. Army in 1857 and ensuing Mormon resistance created a confrontation that could have ended Mormon civilization in the Great Basin. Fortunately, the difficulty was settled peacefully.
National involvement in the Civil War would give the Latter-day Saints a few years of respite, but after the war, a Congress bent on reconstructing the South also found time to try to “reconstruct” the Mormons. Although the Wade, Ashley, Cragin, and Cullom bills, designed to “Americanize” the Mormons, would fail to pass both the House and Senate, they were warnings of things to come.
The transcontinental railroad, delayed by the Civil War, was completed with the help of the Mormons. And with the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, on 10 May 1869, the early pioneering period of the Mormons came to an end.
Throughout these twenty years, thousands of Mormon converts poured into the territory. Many came from the British Isles, Scandinavia, and other parts of Europe. These were only a fraction of the millions of emigrants who left Europe as a result of the overpopulation and social dislocation following industrial growth and political upheavals. But the Mormon emigrants wanted not only to better themselves economically and socially but also to build their Kingdom of God in preparation for the second coming and millennial reign of Jesus Christ. By 1869, nearly 100,000 Mormons had colonized the Great Basin and contiguous areas, establishing about 250 towns. But their leader, Brigham Young, had only a few years to live, and their existence as a legal institution was being threatened. Only time would tell whether the foundations of the kingdom they had helped to establish could withstand federal opposition while nurturing the changes necessary for survival and growth.
When the pioneers first began plowing the soil of the Great Salt Lake Valley in mid-1847, they were in Mexican territory which might or might not eventually belong to the United States. Still, Mormon leaders spoke confidently of becoming part of the Union. Apparently they made no contact with Mexican officials about colonizing the region, although they knew enough of Mexican policies to realize that they would be expected to become Roman Catholics. They were primarily concerned with finding a place of refuge and isolation for their followers and were confident that they could deal with the question of national allegiance later.
The story of Mormonism’s two-fold struggle—the colonization of the Great Basin and surrounding areas as a place of refuge and the confrontation with desert, Indians, and federal officials as the [p.4] Saints tried to establish their Kingdom of God within the geographical and political structures of the United States—forms the subject of this book. Details about immigration, Mormon missionary endeavors in various parts of the world, and social and cultural developments during this period are discussed only in passing.
What follows is an interpretation of a major movement in the history of the American West. It is a story which, I believe, needs to be understood both by Latter-day Saints, who may recognize reasons for their heritage of persecution, and by non-Mormons, who may not understand the pride Mormons feel in their pioneer heritage and the possessiveness they sometimes exhibit for the Great Basin area. If nothing else, such an understanding can lead to tolerance—a necessary first step toward a fuller appreciation of the Mormon community which is today made up of so many diverse elements. [p.4]