In the 19th century, many settlers in the Pacific Northwest feared the Mormons. As the Civil War began, pioneers and traders in the Oregon Country worried that the removal of federal troops from the West would leave them open to Indian attack, but also possible Mormon invasion.
That seems preposterous now. The march of Latter Day Saints from Salt Lake to Seattle? Even at the time, some thought these were the fevered fantasies of paranoid pioneers. But what was the basis for them?
As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it's worth remembering the conflict that engaged the American military in an act to prevent secession that occurred on the eve of that war. In their excellent new book The Mormon Rebellion: America's First Civil War 1857-58 (University of Oklahoma Press, $34.95), scholars David L. Bigler and Will Bagley tell a mostly forgotten history of religion and politics, secession and treason, and how the federal government acted in order to prevent the breakup of the Union long before the guns fired on Fort Sumter. It is also a book with reminders for our own time, and it puts a major event in our nation's history back into view with modern scholarship.
The gist of the story is this: Driven out of states like Illinois and Missouri, the founder of their religion, Joseph Smith, murdered by a mob, the Mormons moved to the Great Basin. By Manifest Destiny and treaty with Mexico, this was American soil, inhabited by Indians and traversed by settlers heading farther west. No one had really settled there in numbers until the Mormons, headed by Brigham Young, who claimed it in the name of God. Here was to be the Mormon homeland, called Deseret.
Depending on how you looked at it, this was just another part of the great migration of Americans and immigrants westward, something to be celebrated as part of the building of the country. Or, it was the fulfillment of religious prophecy, a continuation of the reordering of man to fulfill the will of God. Or, it was the case of a fanatical religious cult with an abominable practice, polygamy, digging in on a key piece of American real estate that lay across the overland routes of westward expansion.
The United States eventually created the Utah Territory in 1850, a vast area comprising the present-day states of Utah, Nevada, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado. As The Mormon Rebellion outlines, Brigham Young had mixed feelings about being part of the United States. While Young controlled the territory with almost absolute power, he weighed how he could maintain control over his people and his promised land, while recognizing federal authority. Americans, after all, had persecuted his people.
Young got the appointment as territorial governor, and he held power over the federal presence in the territory. If the government appointed judges or marshals, Young created a local court system to circumvent them. Instead of allowing government Indian agents to control relations with the Indians, Young took matters into his own hands. Mormon agents made their own alliances with the Indians. Young also raised his own military, the Nauvoo Legion, to protect Mormon interests. In a short time, the U.S. Territory became an extension of Young and his church, increasingly at odds with and independent from the U.S. government.
These were complicated times too, with sectional conflict back in the states and territories like "Bleeding" Kansas. Utah joined the debates over states rights, the extension of slavery into the territories, and who got to decide whether territories were slave or free. Could Congress tell people how to live, or was it up to the locals? The hard-working people of Utah weren't interested in slaves, but they did want to write their own rules on marriage, which gave them common cause with southern secessionists even while most people North and South, if they could not agree on slavery, condemned plural marriage as immoral.
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