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Best Prepared Pioneers In The West

July 2024
17min read

Ably led by Brigham Young, the Mormons made an orderly march to Utah and created ‘Zion” with smooth efficiency

In all the history of the American frontier, only two bands of pioneers achieved near-perfect order while advancing westward and planting their settlements. One was made up of the Puritans who founded their wilderness Zion on the shores of Massachusetts Bay during the early Seventeenth Century. Welded into a tight-knit social group by a fanatical faith in their God and His earthly prophets, and sensing that the bleak land where chance had cast them could be tamed only by community effort, they showed few of the individualistic traits normal among frontiersmen; instead each subordinated his personal ambitions in the interest of the welfare of all.

This combination of religious zeal and a harsh natural setting similarly elevated group consciousness to a unique position among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, as they marched westward just alter the Mexican War to found their desert Zion on the shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Inspired, as had been the Puritans, by heavenly hopes and earthly disappointments, the Mormons strikingly demonstrated that the orderly conquest of the West was possible.


Persecution drove the Mormons westward. Joseph Smith, their prophet, had aroused popular ire when, as a youth in upper New York State, he told neighbors of visits from God and the Saviour and of Their divine message that he had been selected to reveal the one true religion to man. So intense was feeling against him that in 1831 he had led his few converts to the little hamlet of Kirtland in northern Ohio. With hard times following the Panic of 1837 attacks began again. Once more Smith guided the faithful westward, this time to northwestern Missouri. And once more mobs soon were at their heels as the governor branded them “public enemies” who must be “exterminated or driven from the State, il necessary, for the public good.” This time Smith guided his followers eastward into Illinois, where he secured a charter for a new Mormon city of Nauvoo that made him virtually sovereign.


Once more the Saints knew peace as they built their city on a tongue of land projecting into the Mississippi. Here gathered the faithful from all the East arid from England. Most came from settled agricultural areas or from England’s industrial slums; Mormonism’s appeal was to the submerged classes, who were promised not only salvation but the chance to begin life anew amidst the plentiful opportunities provided by a virgin land. This emphasis on a gospel of practical living helps explain the remarkable unity with which they faced renewed persecutions.

These began in 1844, when Nauvoo was Illinois’ largest and most prosperous city, with 15,000 contented Saints within its gates. When Joseph Smith received his last revelation, which allowed certain Mormons to practice polygamy, some Saints branded him a fallen prophet and denounced him to the world. Smith retaliated by sending the Nauvoo marshal to destroy the presses of a newspaper established by his enemies, the Nauvoo Expositor; they, in turn, signed warrants asking for the Prophet’s arrest. Joseph Smith surrendered to the civil authorities meekly enough and was taken to a jail in nearby Carthage. There, on June 27, 1844, he and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob. This touched off a mass outbreak. In all that part of Illinois mobs roamed the countryside, threatening to launch a mass attack on Nauvoo. Once more the decision must be made: should they defy their tormentors or flee to still a newer land?

Fortunately this decision rested on an individual remarkably well equipped to provide the correct answer—the president of the Council of Twelve Apostles of the Church, Brigham Young. Young was 43, with a stocky body tending to corpulence, fleshy features, sharply pointed nose, and thin, close lips. His long sandy hair, slightly stooped walk, and somber clothes, “neat and plain as a Quaker’s,” created the impression of a commonplace farmer rather than a religious leader. This ordinary exterior hid a mind that was sharp and incisive, a remarkable memory, an indomitable will, and great powers of leadership. Few men were as well equipped to lead the Mormons to a new land.

To Young there was only one answer to the problem facing his people. They could find repose only by fleeing to an isolated and unwanted spot far beyond the settlements. The most isolated area in all the West lay beside the Great Salt Lake, where towering mountains blocked access from the east and arid deserts from the west and south. Water for farming must be available there, Young knew; John C. Fremont’s account of his 1842 expedition spoke of streams fed by perpetual mountain snow and of “good soil and good grass, adapted to civilized settlements.” There ihe Saints would find their haven. So Brigham Young decided; and, in mid-September, 1845, the Mormons promised the Illinois authorities to vacate Nauvoo the following spring in return for immunity from persecution until then.

All that winter preparations for the migration went on. In early February a pioneer band crossed the frozen Mississippi to Iowa, there to build Camp of Israel as the first of a string of way stations across that territory. Others followed, amidst snow and sleet and diilline rain. By lune, Nauvoo was a deserted city.


As Saints poured into Camp of Israel through that spring of 1846, another stream moved out of the camp to begin the march westward. In this journey across Iowa, Brigham Young first displayed the organizing genius that endowed the Mormon migrations with an order and roml’ort unrivaled in the history of overland trails. He explained his system on Februarv 17, 1846, when he called his followers together. They would move, he told them, not as a group but in a series of small parties. He would start westward with the first band at once, with others following at regular intervals. All must keep strict order and live in peace with the people they met; young men must seek work along the way to buy food and equipment. Then, with iioo wagons, he started westward toward the Missouri.

As this pioneer group moved across Iowa, Brigham Young ordered halts at set intervaJ.s to build rest camps for those who would follow. At Garden Grove. 155 miles from Camp of Israel, a major way station was constructed; when the party moved on, some were left to plant crops so that later migrants would have food. Again, in the valley of the Lewis River, they stopped to build Mount Pisgah, with buildings, planted fields, a gristmill and shops. By June 14, 1846, Young and his pioneers were at the Missouri, where ihey laid out a third principal encampment. This was christened Winter Quarters, because here the Mormons would spend the winter before moving on to the Far West.

So well had Brigham Young and his pioneers labored that the caravans which followed their trail experienced few difficulties. The first left Camp of Israel on March 1, 1846, “without confusion, without hurrying or even discord”; others followed at regular intervals until they formed a giant procession 300 miles long. Each wagon train, following Young’s instructions, was divided into “hundreds” or “fifties” under a captain; these in turn were subdivided into “tens” controlled by a lieutenant who kept order, settled disputes, and supervised the day’s march and nightly encampment.

Rarely in history had a mass migration been accomplished with so little difficulty. Of hardship, of course, there was plenty; not even Young’s genius could control the weather or ease the pangs of hunger among those too poor to buy food. But scarce a word of complaint was heard. By autumn all 15,000 were safe in Winter Quarters, or in one of the way stations of Iowa.

The winter tried their patience. Huddled in drafty cabins or tents, they seldom had enough fuel or food, while a plague that spread among them carried oft no less than 600 before spring. Yet little heed was paid these discomforts, for all were too busy planning the migration that would begin in April. Few emigrants began their journey westward as well versed in the arts of travel as did the Saints.

The first group started west on April 9, 1847—a “pioneer band” of 143 men, three women, and two children, led by Brigham Young. All had been carefully selected for endurance and skills; most were between thirty and fifty years of age, while a proper proportion of farmers, artisans, and craftsmen assured efficiency in founding their settlement. As they moved out of Winter Quarters they followed a rigid schedtde. Each morning a bugle sounded at five o’clock, to be followed by prayers and breakfast while draft animals grazed. Another bugle blast signaled the start of the day’s march. The caravan moved forward in single file except, in dangerous Indian country, when a double column was used. At 8:30 each evening the train halted alter wheeling the wagons into a circle; after supper and prayers, the whole camp was asleep.

With such an efficient organization, the pioneer band moved rapidly. As they passed through South Pass they heard disquieting news; first an old trapper and then the mountain man Jim Bridger warned them that the valley of the Great Salt Lake was an arid desert that would support nothing but cactus and sagebrush. Near the Green River they met Elder Samuel Brannan, a Mormon leader who had taken 238 Saints to California by sea the year before, and who had come eastward now to urge them to follow him into the San Joaquin Valley. Once more Brigham Voting refused to be deterred. “God has made the choice—not Brigham Voting,” he patiently explained. Nor did a single Saint raise his voice in protest.


In the Wasatch Mountains, on July 12, Brigham Young took to his bed with mountain lever, but he ordered Oison Pratt to take 23 wagons and push on. Hy July 14 this advance party was wending its way between the red-walled cliffs of Echo Canyon; it climbed steadily upward, then crossed the summit to plunge into the narrow defile of Emigration Canyon. As this broadened near its western outlet, the Saints had their first glimpse of their lutine home. There was little in the sight to gladden their hearts. They saw only “a broad and barren plain hemmed in by mountains, blistering in the burning rays of the midsummer sun. No waving fields, no swaying forests, no verdant meadows … but on all sides a seemingly interminable waste ot sagebrush.”

Orson Pratt and eight others entered the valley on the morning of July 22, 1817. Turning northward, they camped on the banks of a dear stream which they called City Creek. The sun-baked earth shattered their plows at first, but when they flooded the ground they could plant with ease. By the time Brigham Young and the rest of the pioneer band arrived on July 24, all were busily planting potatoes or building a dam across the creek to turn more water onto the land.

The second caravan readied the valley on July 29, and a month later the third arrived, with 566 wagons and 1,500 men, women, and children. When migration ended that fall some 1,800 Saints lived on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, while 108 of the men had returned to Winter Quarters with Brigham Young to arrange the next year’s migration.

That first year would have tried the souls of a less devout people. Only 29 cabins had been built before winter struck; the rest of the Mormons lived in tents or dugouts or canvas-covered wagons. Food was so scarce that the daily family ration of a handful of grain was supplemented with wild mustard, roots of the sego lily, thistles, and soup made from old oxhides.

With the spring of 1848 their spirits revived as all turned to planting the 5,000-acre “big field” laid out the year before. But again late was unkind. Late frosts killed part of their crop; in June swarms of black crickets descended in such multitudes that all seemed lost. In this darkest moment the Saints’ prayers were answered when clouds of sea gulls appeared to gorge on the insects, but half of all that had been planted was already destroyed. Even the crops that survived withered and died amidst the searing drought of July and August. By autumn, some were beginning to grumble that their leaders should forsake this “dry. worthless locality” for the greener lands of California or Oregon.

This was the situation that faced Brigham Young when he returned from the East on September 20, 1848. To one of his abilities, both the problem and its solution were clear. The Saints, he realized, had relied too much on God and too little on themselves. They coidd prosper only by constant effort: this, moreover, must be a joint effort, for the forces of nature were too powerful to be combated by individuals. This realization launched one of the most successful co-operative experiments in all history.

During that autumn. Young revealed his program to his followers. No longer, he told them, could each person live where he chose or farm as he wished. Instead they would dwell together and work together under the leadership of their church. Their homes would be in a great city that would follow a plan he and the Twelve Apostles had devised. This was of magnificent proportions. In the center was the Temple Square of ten acres; about this, wide streets marked off blocks of the same size, each divided into eight lots lor houses and gardens. These were surveyed by a committee under Brigham Young that fall, and each family assigned a plot. Work began at once on both homes and a giant temple. By the time winter struck most families were living in snug adobe houses while fences had been built by co-operative effort, irrigation ditches dug beside each street, and trees planted everywhere.


Brigham Young also laid down principles that would govern farming. There would be no sale of land, and no private ownership of streams or timber or anything else essential to the social welfare. Instead each person would be given just the amount of land that he could till most effectively. A vigorous young man with a large family might be assigned forty or eighty acres, while an older farmer whose children had left home would be allotted only ten acres. All farming would be done in tiers of fields laid out around Salt Lake City. Nearby would be a band of five-acre plots for young artisans and mechanics who had little time to cultivate the soil; beyond would be ten-acre lots for those with larger families; and beyond these farms of from twenty to eighty acres.

Water was as essential as land in that arid country. That Brigham Young could devise a workable irrigation system was truly remarkable, for the practice was completely foreign to the Anglo-American tradition; yet that put into operation during the autumn of 1848 was so efficient it might have been planned by a modern engineer. A main irrigation ditch was built by cooperative effort, leading from the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon through the farming lands. Side ditches were then dug. When they were completed, water was allotted each user in rotation. In the use of water, as in the use of land, exacting supervision by the church assured society protection from greedy individuals.

This closely knit economic structure could operate successfully only if the governmental system provided absolute controls. The theo-democracy that Brigham Young proclaimed in 1848 simply extended the rule of the church hierarchy over civil affairs. At its pinnacle was Young himself. Directly responsible to the president was the quorum of Twelve Apostles, which supervised spiritual affairs, and the presiding bishopric, which ruled the temporal world of the Mormon community. These governed the large geographic units, the “stakes,” and the smaller “wards” into which each stake was divided. The bishop in each ward helped his people establish their homes, advised them on plowing or rearing their families and settled disputes among them.

This theocratic state was first tested when the 1849 Gold Rush to California sent a stream of immigrants pouring through Salt Lake City. Most of the fortyniners were willing to sell their surplus clothes, tools, and furniture at a fraction of cost, and to buy flour at a dollar a pound or pay $200 for a horse or mule that normally sold for $25. For a time the Saints enjoyed unexpected prosperity, but at the price of the isolation they had sought, for a number of newcomers settled among them. As “Gentile” population increased, Brigham Young realized that his simple church government must be displaced by one more suited to the needs of Saints and non-Saints alike, and at the same time acceptable to the United States. In forming these plans Young had no thought of an independent republic, as his enemies charged; he was simply responding to the situation that had always forced frontiersmen to form their own states.

This became clear when a convention to deal with J. the problem met in March, 1849. Because Congress had failed to provide them with a civil government, they decided, they must form their own state. Deseret, they called it, from a term meaning honeybee in the Book of Mormon; its constitution was patterned after those of eastern states. When the constitution was ratified on March 12, 1849, an election named Brigham Young governor and placed other church officials in all offices. When the legislature met on July 2, it devoted its nine-day session to a petition begging Congress to accept Deseret as a state.

This reached Washington when Congress was so busy debating the extension of slavery into lands acquired from Mexico that the troublesome Mormon religious issue was temporarily overlooked. The Territory of Utah was created, with boundaries roughly those of Utah and Nevada today. Brigham Young was named territorial governor, with four of the officials under him Mormons and lour Gentiles. Time soon showed that these lour outsiders were powerless to meddle with Young’s benevolent rule. As in the past, his word was law.

The Saints were now free to build their desert Zion. I he first need was manpower, and to supply this converts must be lured to Utah. Wholesale missionary activities were launched in the autumn of 1849; within a lew months hundreds of zealous Mormons were laboring in England, France, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, and the Society Islands; over the next years the program was extended to the rest of Europe, the Far East, and Latin America. Wherever they went their special appeal was to the poor and the dispossessed; to them was offered not only salvation but Heaven on earth in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. The response was astounding. In England alone 32,894 converts were ready to depart by the end of 1851, while in the Scandinavian countries the appeal was almost as successful. To aid these flocks in reaching the place of gathering, the Mormons devised a system of wondrous efficiency. A Perpetual Emigrating Fund provided loans to all the needy. Central embarkation points were designated in each country, where converts were allotted space on ships. Each group was assigned a leader who cared for every detail of their lives. When the immigrants reached America, they were welcomed by agents who arranged passage to St. Louis; there other agents sent them on to Kanesville or Kansas City, where they were provided with teams and wagons and given instruction in plains travel.

As the tide rolled toward Utah, reaching 4,225 persons in 1855, the financial burdens on the Mormons became so excessive that Brigham Young decided to experiment with a cheaper method of plains travel. Why not, he reasoned, substitute handcarts for expensive covered wagons? Pushing these, immigrants could average fifteen miles daily, crossing the plains in seventy days. That autumn Mormon carpenters in Iowa began building carts, which were waiting by the hundreds when new arrivals began flocking in during the spring of 1856. On June 9 and June 11 the first two companies of 497 persons, with 100 handcarts, went rolling out of Iowa City. By September 26, 1856, they were in Salt Lake City, “somewhat fatigued,” but still buoyant and cheerful, having outdistanced every wagon train on the trail. A third party arrived safely on October 2.


Their happy fate was not shared by the other two “handcart brigades” that started west that summer. Delayed until carts could be completed for them, they did not leave until late in August. They intended to replenish their stocks at Fort Laramie, only to find supplies exhausted there. So they pushed into South Pass on such short rations that children and older persons gave out under the strain, further slowing progress. In this weakened state, the brigades were caught by early winter snows. Deaths were frequent as they inched through the drifts; of the thousand Saints in the two parties, 225 perished in one of the major disasters of overland travel.

Such sacrifices were not in vain, for the 8,000 converts who reached Utah during the decade enabled Brigham Young to rear a commonwealth that assured the Mormons security for all time to come. His plan was boldly ambitious: he would occupy every site that could be irrigated, every spot where mineral or forest wealth was available, every strategic approach, in all the Great Basin. With that giant empire in the hands of the Saints, they would be free to live their own lives without fear of further persecution.

In each community farming was the principal occupation. At times—as during 1855—black crickets devastated the fields; at others bitter winter winds carried off cattle or ruined crops. But these near-disasters were forgotten as orchards bloomed, cattle multiplied, and wheat production skyrocketed from 107,702 bushels in 1850 to 384,892 bushels a decade later.

Industry was as important to the Mormons as agriculture if they were to win economic independence, but here they were less successful. Mormons built sawmills and gristmills, opened a pottery works, and began textile production. Others erected a small blast furnace near Parowan, where iron ore was discovered, but not even the dedicated devotion of the Saints could overcome the handicaps that faced them, and by 1856 mining was at a standstill. The industrial development of Utah was forced to wait until capital and manpower were available in larger quantities.

The Saints were not destined to enjoy their newwon isolation long. Friction and interference from the East were inevitable. To Americans, the Saints were immoral eccentrics bent on establishing their own commonwealth; to Mormons, their fellow countrymen were persecuting bigots plotting the complete destruction of Mormonism. Distrust mounted when official United States surveyors, seeking a route for a transcontinental railroad, entered Utah Territory. Rumors that their purpose was the destruction of all land titles hardly assured them a cordial reception, yet trouble might have been avoided had not a party under Captain John W. Gunnison been attacked by Indians in 1853, with a loss of eight men. The Mormons had no part in this massacre, but this the people of the United States refused to believe.

These incidents prepared the way for a major conflict over control of Utah. Brigham Young’s tight little monopoly was challenged in 1855 when three federal judges were appointed for the Utah Territory. When they reached the territory Mormons continued to take their cases to the county courts while the federal judges presided over empty rooms. In the spring of 1857 tne7 hurried back to Washington breathing fire at every step. Brigham Young was a ruthless dictator who employed a band of “destroying angels” to stamp out all who disobeyed him.

In this inflammatory atmosphere, President Buchanan decided the time had come to assert federal authority over the Saints. On May 26, 1857, he ordered an army of 2,500 men under Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston to march against Utah. News of its coming sent the Mormons into a flurry of fear and preparation. They believed that the soldiers were coming to kill them, destroy their property, and ravage their wives. Guerrilla attacks on Johnston’s approaching forces began in late September, 1857, when the troops were twenty miles east of Fort Bridger. Every stray animal was driven off by Mormon bands, trains of wagons loaded with food were put to the torch, and the grass burned for miles around. Not until November 17, 1857, did the army struggle into Fort Bridger amidst a blinding snowstorm; Johnston then ordered his men into winter camp.

The harm was done, however, for the army’s approach had raised tensions among the Mormons so high that panic rather than reason governed their reactions. The result was the Mountain Meadows Massacre. This occurred in the southern part of the territory, where the Saints were visited by a band of 140 emigrants bound for California. Traveling with the party was a group of “Missouri Wild Cats” who abused Indian converts, turned their cattle into Mormon fields, killed chickens with their bull whips, and shouted profane insults at Mormon women. Near Cedar City their inexcusable conduct aroused the Indians to the point of attack. This came on September 7, 1857 when the emigrants were camped in an open valley named Mountain Meadows. Seven were killed before the red men were beaten back and a barricade of wagons formed. Then the two forces settled down for what promised to be a long siege.

While this went on, both sides sought aid. Three emigrants tried to slip through the lines, but two were cut down by the Indians, and the third, William Aiden, was killed by a fanatical Mormon. The Indians were more successful. A delegation hurried to the home of John D. Lee, a farmer who had worked among them as a missionary. Lee, instead of trying to restrain the red men, sent a message to Cedar City asking for reinforcements. Fifty men responded. On September 10 these Saints gathered to decide their course: should they help the emigrants or aid the Indians?

The memory of insults shouted by the Missouri Wild Cats, the tensions of the hour, and the fear that they would be blamed for the murder of William Aiden carried the day. Every emigrant must be killed, they decided, to prevent news of that murder from reaching California. The next day their grim plan was put into effect. John Lee entered the camp with word that a safe passage had been arranged through the Indian lines. As the emigrants marched out the Mormons began firing, killing the men while the Indians were given a free hand with the women and children. Within a few minutes 120 persons lay dead, while seventeen children had been saved. Before scattering, the Saints bound themselves to spread the tale that the whites had been massacred by red men.

The American people, however, laid the Mountain Meadows Massacre at the door of the Mormon Church. President Buchanan asked for four additional regiments to be sent to Utah. These warlike gestures only drove the Mormons to more fanatical resistance.


That further bloodshed was avoided was due to the intervention of a self-appointed peacemaker. Thomas L. Kane, a Philadelphia lawyer, had been a staunch friend of the Mormons since the Nauvoo persecutions interested him in their plight. During the winter of 1857–58 he offered himself as mediator to President Buchanan, and was allowed to conduct negotiations on his own authority. He reached the Saints’ capital on February 25, 1858, and there had little difficulty persuading Brigham Young to receive the newly appointed territorial governor, Alfred Gumming, provided the army did not enter the valley. Thus armed, Kane hurried to Colonel Johnston’s headquarters at Fort Bridger, where he convinced Governor Gumming to return with him. The two men, accompanied only by two servants, arrived at Salt Lake City on April 12, 1858. Brigham Young received them warmly; the new governor was told that his authority would be respected and every aid tendered him in his duties. But when Gumming told 4,000 Mormons assembled in the Tabernacle that Colonel Johnston’s army must be allowed to occupy their land, the harm was done.

Suddenly, almost unaccountably, panic swept northern Utah. Throughout the land families packed their belongings, loaded their wagons, and started south toward safety. In all some 30,000 persons joined this mad rush; within two months northern Utah was deserted save for bands of men left behind to fire buildings and crops when the enemy appeared.

As news of this move filtered east, a rapid reversal of sentiment occurred there. Overnight the Saints became martyrs, ready to sacrifice all they possessed toworship God in their own way. This shift in opinion, combined with Governor Cumming’s friendly reception by Brigham Young, convinced President Buchanan that peaceful gestures should be made. On April 6, 1858, he offered full pardon to all Mormons who would submit to the authority of the United States, and at the same time hurried two peace commissioners westward. After two days of negotiations, it was agreed that the army should enter Utah but camp at least forty miles from Salt Lake City, and that the territory should accept civilian officials.

Thus did the tragic and useless “Mormon War” come to an end. On June 26, 1858, Johnston’s troops marched through the deserted city on their way to Camp Floyd, where they remained until called east by the outbreak of the Civil War. From that day on the Mormons were allowed to develop their desert Zion in peace; for while Gentile governors might sit over them, their true leader was Brigham Young. His genius had transformed Utah Territory from a barren desert to a thriving frontier community; his leadership in the future would help mold the higher civilization that was Utah’s destiny.

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