The Mormon Migration
The Early LDS Church
At the time of his revelations, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith, worked as a farmer in the state of New York. In 1830, he and his followers founded the new religion and published the first edition of the Book of Mormon. But Smith’s revelations evoked fear and anger in many of his neighbors, and in 1831 he and his new church moved to Kirtland, Ohio. They set to work building a temple for sacred ordinances, developing a missionary program, and recruiting new followers. Mormons also settled farther west in Missouri, where they made plans for a temple and a community of Zion.
Persecution by non-Mormons continued to mount in both Ohio and Missouri, fueled largely by the church’s polygamist practices, the prosperity of its members, and the Latter-day Saint claim that it was the “true” church. Missourians disliked the Mormons’ antislavery views, as well. Violence by gangs of armed men eventually forced church members to flee for their lives.
The winter of 1838–1839 found Joseph Smith in jail on treason charges and many church members without homes or legal protection. The Missouri Mormons made their way east to Illinois, not knowing where else to go. Brigham Young, a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, directed this exodus, foreshadowing the much longer migration he would lead eight years later.
Nauvoo the Beautiful
The Mormons purchased a large tract of swampy land along the Mississippi River in Illinois and set to work draining swamps and building a city. Joseph Smith, allowed to escape from the Missouri jail, named the Mormons’ new home Nauvoo—a Hebrew word for “the beautiful location.” Despite extreme poverty and the inability to secure reparations for the losses they had suffered in Missouri, the Mormons succeeded in building an attractive city. A magnificent temple, begun in 1841, rose above Nauvoo. Despite their success, the Mormons continued to face virulent opposition from those who objected to their religion.
Smith, who had withstood tarring and feathering, among other punishments, met his death in 1844 at Carthage, Illinois. He had voluntarily surrendered to authorities to stand trial for treason, but a mob stormed the jail and killed Smith and his brother Hyrum in a hail of bullets. Opponents thought that the Mormons would disband on the death of their leader. When they did not, their crops and houses were destroyed and their livestock was driven off. Brigham Young, who succeeded Smith, realized the Mormons would never find peace in Illinois. He and other leaders began looking toward the vastness of the West. They hoped the remote Rocky Mountains would provide a sanctuary from mobs and politicians. Plans for departure from Nauvoo began in the autumn of 1845.
Attacks against Nauvoo’s citizens made life so difficult that they had to evacuate the following February despite severe winter weather. Homes, businesses, the temple, and most personal possessions were left behind as the Saints crossed the Mississippi into Iowa. (Mobs later took over the town and desecrated the temple; not a single stone of the structure is in its original position today.) The group slowly pushed westward through the snow and mud. Faith, a spirit of sharing, and competent leadership enabled them to survive.
Brigham Young thought it best not to press on all the way to the Rocky Mountains that first year, so the group spent a second winter on the plains. Dugouts and log cabins housed more than 3,500 people at Winter Quarters, near present-day Omaha. By the early spring of 1847, the leaders had worked out plans for the rest of the journey. The Salt Lake Valley, an uninhabited and isolated region, would be their goal. Mountain men encountered on the journey gave discouraging descriptions of this place as a site for a major settlement. Samuel Brannan, a Mormon who had settled on the West Coast, rode east to meet Brigham Young and present glowing reports of California. But Young wouldn’t be swayed from his original goal. On July 24, 1847, Young arrived at the edge of the Salt Lake Valley and announced, “This is the right place.”
The City of Zion
The pioneers immediately set to work digging irrigation canals, planting crops, constructing a small fort, and laying out a city. Nearly 2,000 more immigrants arrived that same summer of 1847.
These early citizens had to be self-sufficient; the nearest outposts of civilization lay 1,000 miles away. Through trial and error, farmers learned techniques of irrigating and farming the desert land. The city continued to grow—immigrants poured in; tanneries, flour mills, blacksmith shops, stores, and other enterprises developed under church direction; residential neighborhoods sprang up; and workers commenced raising the religious structures that still dominate the area around Temple Square.
The Colonization of Utah
Soon other areas in Utah were colonized: In 1849–1850, Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City took the first steps in exploring the rest of the state when they sent an advance party led by Parley P. Pratt to southern Utah. Encouraging reports of rich iron ore west of Cedar Valley and of fertile land along the Virgin River convinced the Mormons to expand southward.
Calls went out for members to establish missions and to mine the iron ore and supply iron products needed for the expanding Mormon empire. In 1855, a successful experiment in growing cotton along Santa Clara Creek, near present-day St. George, aroused considerable interest among the Mormons. New settlements soon arose in the Virgin River Valley. However, poor roads hindered development of the cotton and iron industries, which mostly ended when cheaper products began arriving on the transcontinental railroad.
In the 1870s and early 1880s, the LDS Church sent out calls for members to colonize lands east of the Wasatch Plateau. Though at first the land looked harsh and barren, crops and orchards eventually prospered with irrigation.
An Agrarian Paradise
By the end of the 19th century, the small agricultural settlements in Utah—mostly free of Gentile influence—had by and large become the utopian religious communities envisioned by the religion’s founders. Various tenets of the faith dictated nearly all aspects of life, from the width of the streets to social customs. Cultural homogeneity was greatly stressed; farmers and ranchers were discouraged from living on their land and encouraged instead to live in towns within range of the church. For a period, the church encouraged full-fledged communal and cooperative farm towns as the ideal social structure.
The Mormons were hardworking farmers and managed to convert an unyielding desert into a land of abundance. Streams were diverted into irrigation canals, and acres of orchards and fields blossomed. Little farm towns, all laid out with uniform street grids, were planted with trees and flowers; substantial homes of stone announced the prosperity of the LDS way of life.
The internal structure of the church—the ward (the parish) and stake (the diocese)—became the organizing principle of all religious and social life. Nearly all the social events of a small community were sponsored by the church. The overlap between church and civic authority was nearly complete.
The Road to Statehood
After many years of persecution, the early Latter-day Saints realized the importance of self-government. However, when the Mormon pioneers arrived in their new homeland of Zion, the land actually belonged to Mexico. However, after victory in the Mexican War in 1848, the United States took possession of a vast territory in the American West, including the land that would become Utah.
The LDS Church quickly assessed the positive benefits that statehood would bring the new territory, and in 1849 a convention was called “to consider the political needs of the community.” The convention created the proposed state of Deseret, which encompassed a great swath of the West, including all or parts of the current states of Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of southern California. The convention wrote a constitution, elected officials (Brigham Young was elected governor), and sent a delegate to the U.S. Congress. However, the House of Representatives declined to admit the delegate from Deseret, and the statehood was effectively quashed. In fact, LDS-dominated Utah would find it exceedingly difficult to attain statehood. Nearly 50 years would pass before Utah would finally become a state.
The federal Senate did pass legislation naming Utah as a territory in 1850; however, a number of factors—especially the thorny cultural and moral issues surrounding polygamy—worked to exacerbate tensions between the new territory and the federal government.
In 1857–1858, the U.S. government sent a 2,500-man army to occupy Salt Lake City and remove Brigham Young from the governorship (accompanying the army was Alfred Cummings, whom President Buchanan had selected as territorial governor). The army reached Salt Lake City to find it newly deserted, and Cummings assumed the governorship, ending at least in theory Utah’s flirtation with theocracy. Cummings soon made peace with the Mormons, and residents returned to Salt Lake City.
Second and third attempts at statehood for Deseret were met with defeat in Washington and actually seemed to stir up anti-Mormon sentiment: Congress quickly passed legislation prohibiting polygamy in the territories. The same legislation also sought to unincorporate the LDS Church.
The building of the transcontinental railroad through Utah in the 1860s decreased Utah’s isolation from the rest of the United States; however, greater contact with the outside world also meant increased Mormon-Gentile hostility. In 1874, Congress passed a bill effectively disenfranchising LDS-controlled district courts. In 1879, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld legislation that made the practice of plural marriage a criminal offense. Subsequent federal legislation made it illegal for polygamists to vote, hold public office, or serve on juries. The result was persecution and pursuit of avowed polygamists, many of whom were forced into hiding or exile in Mexico. The federal government’s anti-Mormon campaigns also had the effect of empowering the territory’s non-Mormon minority far beyond its small power base.
In 1890, LDS president Wilford Woodruff issued the startling proclamation that henceforward he advised his brethren “to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.” The new doctrine was published across the country, and while many doubted the proclamation’s sincerity, it signaled a major shift in direction for the statehood movement. Finally, in 1894, Congress passed the Enabling Act, which set forth the steps Utah had to follow to achieve statehood (the act stipulated that the state constitution declare polygamy be banned forever). In 1896, President Cleveland proclaimed Utah the 45th state.
It’s helpful to remember the long and rancorous disputes between Utah’s LDS population and the federal government in the 19th century when trying to understand the state’s fervid, ongoing antigovernment tendencies. In some ways, the state’s anger over the establishment of the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument is just an example of Utah’s long memory of perceived past injustice.
© W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell from Moon Utah, 9th Edition