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.
The Mormons also disagreed with the government on how to deal with Native Americans. The Mormons saw them as lost Biblical peoples, the Lamanites, and forged bonds based on bringing them into the Mormon fold. They weren't out to exterminate them. Indeed, they had strong bonds as "first cousins, six hundred or so generations removed." They also played tribes against the federal government, seeking to ally with the Indians against the army, settlers, and outsiders. The government and non-Mormon settlers were suspicious of a Mormon-Indian alliance, particularly one that could harass the wagon trains and control access to the country. Young alarmed settlers throughout the West when he traveled into the Oregon Country to treat with the Indians himself, in violation of federal law.
Young also sent settlers into California, the Southwest, and the Oregon Country to set up outposts. He talked with the Hudson's Bay Company and the British government about the possibility of setting up shop in Canada. He saw advantage in creating a hostile environment for non-Mormon emigrants who passed through or wintered over in Utah. He made sure they didn't stay but their valuables did, as they were sometimes forced to pay heavy fines on trumped-up charges. Young wanted Utah for the Mormons exclusively. At the same time, he mounted PR and lobbying efforts designed to improve the image of Mormons back East.
At home, he whipped up anti-government sentiment among his people. The culmination of this came when Young directed the massacre of a wagon train of passing "Gentile" settlers from Missouri at Mountain Meadows. The Mormons attempted to make it look like an Indian attack, but it was organized and led by Mormon militia, with assistance from some alleged Paiutes. It was an assertion of control, an act of pure terrorism. In Utah, there was one power with control over life and death. The Mountain Meadows massacre was the largest, but not the only, act of executing outsiders. There was a clear message for Gentiles: if you came to Utah, you better have protection, but safety in numbers was no guarantee.
The government did not like where all this was headed. As a territory, Utah belonged to the U.S., but Young was clearly headed toward seceding and forming Deseret as an independent nation. President James Buchanan, later accused of having failed to prevent Southern secession, this time acted more boldly and sent a huge federal military force to subdue Utah under the command of one of its best officers, Albert Sidney Johnston, later a famous Confederate general who died from friendly fire at the battle of Shiloh. The idea of a future Confederate officer acting as the point of the sword for federal control is not without irony.
Moving on Utah was a huge undertaking, one that Young thought the government incapable of. It was rather audacious, not to mention expensive, to send nearly one third of the peacetime Army over a thousand tortuous miles to subdue a renegade religious leader. But the stakes were high: Young had shut down the overland routes and threatened to repel the U.S. "invaders." The government could not cede control to him. Nor could they brook interference with Indian policy, nor let the nation be sundered by a private party.
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