Religious Freedom on the Trail

Mormans in the Great Basin

The lands of the Great Basin, around the valley of the Great Salt Lake where once roamed the Ute Indians, were dry and unfruitful until the coming of the Mormons. With patient toil and the introduction of irrigation, the desert bloomed. They called the land Deseret, and they dreamed of founding a new nation.

The Mormon Church began during an emotional and religious era. Believers hold that eighteen-year-old Joseph Smith was visited by the Angel Moroni, told of the location of a set of golden plates buried in the earth, and set about translating them. This Book of Mormon included a history of American Indians, who were portrayed as being the descendants of a lost tribe of ancient Hebrews.

Officially begun in 1830 as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, the new sect caused considerable social polarization. The Saints were persuasive and able to win many new disciples; Gentiles not of the faith were loud with skepticism, criticism, and ridicule.

The great westward migration of the Mormons began in 1831 when Smith envisioned Kirtland, Ohio, as a place to organize an isolated commune. Within two years they were in Independence, Missouri. The locals were not tolerant of the Mormons’ communalism or abolitionist views. They were again forced to move, first to Far West, Missouri, then in 1839 to Commerce, Illinois, which the faithful renamed Nauvoo. Although the Mormons did not hold a political majority in Illinois, they voted reliably and thus held the balance of power. The Illinois legislature gave Nauvoo a liberal charter, allowing Mormons unrestricted police powers and complete control of the courts.

The sect continued to attract new followers during this period, including a large number of immigrants from the eastern states and from Europe, most of whom were women. This meant that unlike other frontier settlements, women often outnumbered men in Mormon communities. The practice of polygamy was mere gossip until 1843, when Smith publicly advocated the practice. There was a sharp division among the Saints over the question of polygamy. Smith was attacked in the pages of a Mormon newspaper and came to fear for his safety. He surrendered himself to a Carthage sheriff for protection, but on June 27, 1844, a mob broke into the jail and killed him.

Upon the death of Smith, church elders returned immediately from missionary journeys around the world to elect new leadership. Brigham Young was chosen to lead the faithful. Unlike Smith, Young had a strong pragmatic streak and did not often resort to revelations to make decisions.

His first decision was to leave Nauvoo. Young wanted to go west, but Oregon and California were ruled out as the settlers there were of the same mindset as those in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. He came to the decision to start the Great Migration in the spring of 1846 without having a firm destination in mind.

In 1847, an all-volunteer company left in search of Zion. They followed the Platte River, paralleling the Oregon Trail to Fort Bridger, and crossed the Wasatch Range into the Great Basin. When the Great Salt Lake Valley came into view, Young gazed upon the valley, recognized it as a place he had seen in a vision and said, “It is enough. This is the right place. Drive on.” History has shortened his words to, “This is the place.”

A second emigrant party left three months after the first group. Young met them halfway on his journey back to organize the third party for 1848. This was the largest group in the Great Migration of the Mormons, with over 2400 Saints braving the four month trip to newly-founded Salt Lake City.

A territorial government was set up in 1850 for Utah with Brigham Young as governor, but to the Mormons it remained the State of Deseret. The decade of the 1850s was marred by friction between federal and territorial officials. President Buchanan eventually declared Utah to be insurrectionary, and in 1857 replaced Young as governor with a federal appointee named Alfred Cumming.

A U.S. Army detachment from Fort Leavenworth under General Albert Sidney Johnston escorted the new governor. Anxiety was high, and plans to destroy Salt Lake City were developed and almost carried out. Johnston’s army was sabotaged en route as Mormons stole supplies, destroyed wagons, set grass fires, and even burned Fort Bridger. Able negotiations allowed the Army to enter the city unmolested. The new governor made himself acceptable to the Mormons, and the $15 million expeditionary force was able to return to Kansas.

In the meantime, hundreds of converts from Europe were arriving in the New World. Not enough wagons could be secured, so handcarts were constructed to bring the 1300 immigrants to Salt Lake City. Five companies left Nebraska in 1857. The first three arrived safely, but the last two left late and were hit hard by winter weather in the Rockies. They were met by a rescue party, but many Saints died huddling for shelter from the wind and snow near Devil’s Gate.

Although the Mormons didn’t celebrate the idea of “rugged individualism” we often associate with pioneers, they proved to be able trailblazers and established a highly successful desert community which flourishes to this day.