Eugene E. Campbell
The Establishment of Zion in Retrospect
[p.327]Colonization and confrontation—the two themes announced in the introduction of this history—are even more central in retrospect since the colonizing process involved confrontation with arid land, great distances, native inhabitants, “Gentiles,” and officials and policies of the federal government. Most historians of Western America have pronounced the Mormon colonization of the Great Basin a success and have recognized Brigham Young as one of the great colonizers in American history. Indeed, Allen Nevins called him “the most commanding single figure of the American West,” and Herbert E. Bolton wrote, “Without his dauntless spirit, his genius for organization, his flair for practical affairs, and his dominating personality, he could not have held his people together, attracted new thousands of converts from Europe, inspired them with the courage necessary to undergo the hardships of pioneer life, and provided the economic basis necessary to sustain them in a most difficult and remote frontier.”
Much of Young’s success came from his hard-headed practicality, his determination to achieve economic independence, and his conviction that he was engaged in the work of the Lord and that God rules in human affairs. He never doubted the church would succeed. Individuals might falter and fail, enemies might attempt to destroy the kingdom, but God had decreed its ultimate triumph. In a letter to Orson Hyde, dated 28 July 1850, Young stated the basic philosophy which gave him courage and confidence despite overwhelming odds:
[p.328] We feel no fear. We are in the hands of our Heavenly Father, the God of Abraham and Joseph, who guided us to this land, who fed the poor Saints on the Plains with quails, who gave his people strength to labour without bread, who sent the gulls of the deep as Saviors to preserve (by devouring the crickets) the golden wheat for bread for his people, and who has preserved his Saints from the wrath of their enemies, delivering them from a bondage more cruel than that inflicted upon Israel in Egypt. He is our Father and our Protector. We live in his Light, are guided by his Wisdom, protected by his Shadow, upheld by his Strength.
Elizabeth Wood Kane, wife of Thomas L. Kane, personally observed Young’s actions over a period of two months while accompanying Young’s party on a trip from Lehi to St. George in 1872. Her report helps to explain his powerful influence in the daily lives of church members.
I strolled out on the platform afterwards, to find President Young preparing for our journey—as he did every morning afterwards—by a personal inspection of the condition of every wheel, axle, horse, and mule, and suit of harness belonging to the party. He was peering like a well-intentioned wizard into every nook and cranny, pointing out a defect here and there with his odd, six-sided staff engraved with the hieroglyphs of many measures; more useful though less romantic, then a Runic wand.… I was amused at his odd appearance; but as he turned to address me, he removed a hideous pair of green goggles, and his keen, blue-gray eyes met mine with their characteristic look of shrewd and cunning insight. I felt no further inclination to laugh. His photographs, accurate enough in other respects, altogether fail to give the expression of his eyes.
At Parowan, near the end of the journey, she wrote:
When we reached the end of a day’s journey, after taking off our outer garments and washing off the dust, it was the custom of our party to assemble before the fire in the sitting room, and the leading “brothers and sisters” of the settlement would come in to pay their respects.… They talked to Brigham Young about every conceivable matter, from the fluxing of an ore to the advantages of a Navajo bit, and expected him to remember every child in every cotter’s family. And he really seemed to do so, and to be at home, and be rightfully deemed infallible on every subject. I think he must make fewer mistakes than most popes, from his being in such constant intercourse with his people. I noticed that he never seemed uninterested, but gave an unforced attention to the person addressing him, which suggested a mind free from care. I used to fancy that he wasted a great deal of power in this way; but I soon saw that he was accumulating it.
[p.329] Surely this helps to explain the apparent paradox that was Brigham Young, for although he criticized, scolded, and threatened his followers, he also stayed close to them, remembered their names, listened to their problems, and from his own experience, his powers of observation, and his reservoir of common sense, gave them counsel and advice. And because he was so confident of himself and sincere in his devotion to the kingdom, they took the scoldings and threats as part of the package and followed him as their divinely inspired leader even if it meant taking another wife, moving to an uninhabited wilderness, or simply staying home and trying to live with the difficulties of everyday life in pioneer Utah.
Although Young was responsible for much of the success of Mormon colonizing efforts, he was aided by hundreds of lesser known leaders, some with abilities rivaling his own. Supported by strong counselors and a Quorum of Twelve Apostles, Young was able to call upon hundreds of men to serve as bishops. These local leaders carried the actual burden of colonizing the communities. They, in turn, were supported by the thousands of men and women who were converted to the church and who were willing to accept calls to “establish and build up Zion” in difficult and remote places. Every one of the 250 communities established during the Saints’ first twenty years in the Rocky Mountains had its roster of heroes and heroines who lived lives of incredible hardship, sustained only by their faith and the fellowship of the other committed Mormons in their settlements. As twentieth-century LDS apostle John A. Widtsoe has written:
Such achievements were not accomplished without failures and costly mistakes. Brigham did not learn to be a colonizer overnight. Much of the early colonization was done in a rather haphazard manner as compared with the later colonization programs in Utah’s Dixie and the communities established in Cache and Bear Lake Valleys.…
Despite such failures, the remarkable achievement of establishing 250 communities in a desert land and building up a self-sustaining economy in two decades cannot be gainsaid. The Mormon pioneers not only survived, but developed large scale irrigation techniques. They also built substantial homes and public buildings, established educational programs, and promoted activities in cultural arts as well as community recreation. It was a remarkable achievement which laid the foundation for the Mormon influence in western America, and to a lesser extent in the nation and many parts of the world.
Although they succeeded in confronting the physical challenges posed by the land, the pioneers’ confrontation with the Indians, the [p.330] “Gentiles,” and the federal government was less successful and left many unsolved problems by the end of the 1860s. Of these three, the Indian problem was the most nearly solved, but the solution was not one the settlers could be proud of. Although Mormon leaders advocated a policy of fairness in dealing with the Indians and tried to teach them civilization and the Mormon gospel, they were unsuccessful in winning many to their program. The Saints needed the land occupied by the Indians and did not have the time or patience to work cooperatively with the native inhabitants.
During their first three years in the Great Basin, the Mormons asserted the right to occupy Indian lands without compensation, advocated extermination of noncooperative tribes, and recommended removal of the Indians to some other area. Young’s famous 1851 statement that “it is cheaper to feed the Indians than to fight them” came only after considerable fighting had taken place. Such an attitude revealed Young’s pragmatism, although he also felt a religious obligation to reclaim them from their “fallen” condition and to make them self-sufficient neighbors. To achieve this goal he instituted Indian farms, called on his people to settle near them to teach them the art of husbandry, and sent missionaries among them to teach them Mormonism. He also took vigorous action to end the Indian slave trade and encouraged his people to adopt Indian children as a means of helping them. These programs failed to help the majority of native inhabitants, and church leaders were soon entangled in the Walker and Black Hawk wars and were working with federal officials in reservation programs. Despite the Mormon leaders’ goodwill toward the Indians, the gap between the two cultures was too great, and the time allowed for accommodation too short for successful cooperation.
Unfortunately for the Indians, they also became victims of the struggle between the Mormons and the federal government. Washington officials, fearful that Mormons were using government funds to enhance their own goals, refused to give the Indians the help that both Mormon and non-Mormon agents recommended. By 1869 the Indians were reduced in numbers and property and were either settled on undesirable reservation lands or in small groups on the outskirts of Mormon communities, living off the charity of people who occupied their lands.
The result of the confrontation with non-Mormon “Gentiles,” including official representatives of the federal government, was that the Mormon became more withdrawn and distrustful of outsiders. [p.331] Sizable numbers of Gentiles had come to the territory, at times comprising 10 to 15 percent of the population: miners after gold in California, settlers and traders along the Oregon and California trails, appointees of the federal government with dependents, Johnston’s army with its civilian hangerson, the California volunteers at Camp Douglas during the Civil War years, transcontinental railroad builders, union organizers of miners, and ministers shepherding the Gentile flocks and reclaiming “misguided Mormons.”
Many of these people were only temporary residents and moved on without becoming seriously involved with the Mormons. Some admired the Mormon accomplishments and spoke highly of their character. But beginning with the “run-away officials” of 1851, Gentiles in the region resented Mormon attitudes and practices and sent a steady stream of critical reports, both official and unofficial, to the East. Mormon leaders responded defensively, and, at times, their rhetoric sounded threatening. They succeeded in polarizing the population, pitting the “outsider” minority against the Mormon majority. This antagonism reached serious proportions by the late 1860s. Anticipating the completion of the transcontinental railroad, church leaders in 1868 instituted their “defensive economy,” which called on church members to trade only with fellow Saints and thus threatened the prosperity of the Gentile merchants. The Godbeite movement organized a number of prominent Mormons in criticizing the “defensive economy” and calling on the church leaders to end their opposition to the federal government and their exclusive attitudes towards the non-Mormons. Some of the Godbeites joined with non-Mormons to form a political party to oppose church domination of politics and published a newspaper to champion their cause.
At the same time, a reform-minded Congress was attempting to force the Mormons to abandon their theocratic government and the practice of plural marriage. There were even threats of sending another U.S. Army to force Mormon compliance with U.S. laws. The 1860s closed with the church well established as far as colonization was concerned but seriously threatened by confrontation with non-Mormons in Washington, D.C.
Frederick Jackson Turner has asserted that the frontier environment had a profound impact on westward moving Americans, causing them to forsake their former ways and making them more democratic, self-reliant, and individualistic. But the Mormons, confronting the frontier, seemed to become more theocratic and group oriented. Group loyalty became a prized trait, and willingness to sacrifice personal comforts and desires to build the kingdom admired attitudes. [p.332] In addition to their common faith, most Saints had the shared experience of crossing the Great Plains and participating in a colonizing venture they believed would prepare them for the Second Coming. The result was a unique class of Americans, with conflicting loyalties, attitudes, and practices that made them suspect by fellow Americans. Dominated by religious leaders who believed that every aspect of life, including political and economic matters, should be in harmony with theocratic principles of the Kingdom of God and who defended the practice of polygamy, the Latter-day Saints almost invited criticism and persecutions.
Despite the difficulties of the environment and the opposition of outsiders, the Mormon pioneers built a solid establishment during the first two decades that was able to survive and grow into the successful church and culture so prominent a part of the American West today.