Fear of Mormons and the new U.W. president

Fear is unjustified today, but it's a part of Pacific Northwest history. Did you know Brigham Young once considered Vancouver Island for the Mormon homeland?

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Brigham Young

Fear is unjustified today, but it's a part of Pacific Northwest history. Did you know Brigham Young once considered Vancouver Island for the Mormon homeland?

That the new University of Washington President Michael Young is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is getting headlines and generating discussion. Joel Connelly of the Seattlepi.com writes that Young's hiring will be a "test of whether Seattle really is a bastion of 'diversity' and 'inclusiveness.' Face it: Secular liberalism is orthodoxy here. The Young appointment has a set of ripples if not yet rumbles...." Connelly goes on to cite examples of questions about Young's faith over at The Stranger.

Those rumbles also include commenters at the Seattle Times, many of whom object to a Mormon in our mist. The Times reports that "many comments posted by readers ... were so against that faith that a TV station and newspaper in Salt Lake City took note. 'Michael Young is now the target of vicious anti-Mormon slurs in the state of Washington,' said a newscast from the ABC affiliate in Salt Lake City, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is headquartered."

While Connelly suggests by example that the core of religious intolerance is likely to come from liberal Seattle secularists (he mentions two recent campaigns where religion became an issue, Tim Burgess's Seattle City Council race and Susan Hutchinson's recent King County Executive race), two things should also be noted.

One is that Seattle and the Pacific Northwest have a very high resident population, not just liberals, who are skeptical about organized religion. Second, while there are no doubt liberals who will disparage Mormonism, its history, origins, and doctrines, some of the most anti-Mormon people are people of deep religious faith. Many Christian fundamentalists, evangelicals, and other Christians don't believe Mormons are in fact Christian at all.

I remember the complaints aired by state Sen. Pam Roach when she was running in the GOP gubernatorial primary in 1996. Roach, a Mormon, was incensed at the criticism she was receiving from the Ellen Craswell religious-right cohort, a case of Republicans of faith eating their own over religious apostasy.

For many "nones," atheists, secularists, or people who follow off-beat spiritual paths, while they might think the precepts of other religions  are preposterous in the details, my experience is that they tend to be mostly sympathetic with religious minorities of any kind. As Connelly points out, it might be considered by a few to be a political liability to be Christian in some Seattle circles, but it's less about doctrine than whether your Christianity serves right-wing politics or not. My hunch is that for the most part, toward faith itself, there is apt to be sympathy from people out of the religious mainstream who have shared the struggle to pursue their faith (or lack of it) without interference, a large part of the Mormon story.

Interestingly, Mormons, nationally, are a small minority representing less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, half the number of people who identify as atheists and agnostics, according to a Pew survey.

There's an interesting history of anti-Mormon feeling in the Pacific Northwest. I'm not suggesting that this consciously informs any current hostility, real or anticipated, toward Mormons here, because it is history mostly forgotten. But it is background worth knowing. During the settlement period of the Pacific Northwest, at the time of the Oregon Trail, the founding of Seattle, and the last Indian wars, there was significant fear of Mormons here.

When Federal troops were ordered back East during the Civil War and frontier volunteers in Oregon and Washington Territory were asked to take their place manning local forts and cavalry units, many settlers worried both about Indian attacks and a possible invasion of Mormons. The Confederacy was raising on army, but the Mormon's already had one comparatively close, the Nauvoo Legion, to protect its interests.

A Mormon takeover of the Northwest seems like paranoia now. But things had been greatly unsettled in Utah Territory. In 1858, President James Buchanan had declared the Mormons in open rebellion against the United States and worried that Brigham Young was establishing a secessionist, polygamist theocracy in U.S. territory. The U.S. Army was sent in to impose federal authority. 

There was the possibility of outright war, and there were a number of raids, skirmishes, and even massacres of non-Mormon settlers, the largest and most notorious being the Mountain Meadow massacre of 1857 during which a group of Mormon militia, aided by Paiute Indians, attacked, deceived, and wiped out a passing California-bound wagon train that had been disarmed after stopping for assistance. Some 120 people were murdered. Tim Egan has a fascinating chapter on this in his book of essays on the West, Lasso the Wind, calling it "the worst carnage even inflicted on a single band of overland emigrants in the entire 19th century expansion of the West."

In the big picture, the Mormons were playing a key role in Western settlement, yet their policy of polygamy (since officially abandoned) was almost universally condemned and made their role as a spear point of Manifest Destiny problematic. Their vision of the state, or nation, of Deseret included much of the Great Basin, but extended into present-day Oregon and Idaho. Mormon traders, settlers, and posts played an important role for those following the trails that populated the region. People relied upon Mormon assistance, yet also feared their motives and leadership.

The dispute with the federal government fanned regional paranoia, especially when combined with Indian uprisings and attacks (such as the original Battle in Seattle, 1856). The government believed that Mormons were "stirring up" Indians to attack non-Mormons (as at Mountain Meadows); the Mormons believed the U.S. Army was likewise encouraging Indians to attack Mormon outposts, as when the Bannock destroyed the Mormon's Fort Lemhi in Idaho in 1858.

The Mormons, persecuted, had had their leader, Joseph Smith, murdered by a mob in Missouri and were forced out of Illinois. They decided to make their home west of the Rocky Mountains. One of their original ideas had been to head not to Utah, but all the way to Vancouver Island, which had been discussed by Young and others as early as 1844, and in that they had been encouraged by an Illinois politician named Stephen Douglas. English Mormons later petitioned the British on this cause. The Vancouver Island Colony, described as being near the mouth of the Columbia River, was remote and thought to have good potential for farmland. The Mormon headquarters would be sited at Nootka.

They opted instead for Utah, but the Vancouver Island option come up again during the Utah War a decade later. According to historians Richard Bennett and Arran Jewsbury in their article in BC Studies (Winter, 2000), "The Lion and the Emperor: The Mormons, the Hudson's Bay Company, and and Vancouver Island, 1846-1858," Young again considered Vancouver Island in the event the American government forced another Mormon exodus.

It was not the only option: there was discussion of evacuating to the Southwest, or north into Montana's Bitterroot Valley. The Vancouver plan had some appeal. The colony has been eager for settlers, especially in the face of the growing numbers of Americans in the region which had already caused the British to cede territory north of the Columbia River. Second, a large population of anti-American partisans might be of help if relations with the U.S. soured in the future. The San Juan Islands boundary, for example, was then still in dispute. Even so, once arrived, the British recognized that the Mormons would not easily be dislodged if trouble arose between them and their hosts, as was now happening in Utah. 

In the end, the Hudson's Bay Company, which ran the Vancouver Island colony, was against the Mormons coming in. One communique reported that "The presence of these lawless and immoral people is, in the opinion of the Governor and Committee, most undesirable." In 1858, the British Ambassador to the U.S., Lord Napier, warned the colony "to be prepared for the possible contingency of an invasion by the Mormons."

A once-possible migration was now seen as an invasion. The Vancouver option died when Young and the Mormons achieved a settlement with the U.S. government.

There was an impact on the frontier psyche. Settlers here were caught up in the machinations of governments and prey to international political tensions. The territories were a kind of no-man's land that could be seized or controlled by anyone with the power to do so, including foreign governments, native tribes, criminal elements, or religious utopians.

Conspiracies and violence fed paranoia in vulnerable populations far from government assistance. Depending on where you stood and when, the Mormons were seen alternately as an advance guard for American interests, but also by some as a population who put their faith in each other above loyalty to race, country, morality, or their fellow Americans.

The story of the mainstreaming of Mormonism into American life is extraordinary, but it is not ancient history. Reaching back 150 years, the birth of the Pacific Northwest and the settlement of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Idaho and Montana is streaked with both the promise and enterprise of Mormon faith, but also fear of its shadow. 

None of this excuses religious prejudice today, but the historical context is worth looking at in light of the Northwest's general ambivalence about religion, and distrust of religion-driven politics.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.