Everybody knows that the Mormons are centered in Utah. Few know how they got there, or why. It wasn’t in order to establish the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
The Mormons entered history in 1830, in upstate New York, when a man named Joseph Smith published The Book of Mormon and founded the Church of Christ. The little church attracted converts, and Smith sent out missionaries. As it grew, Smith moved it westward, relocating first in Ohio, then in Missouri. But soon Mormons and their neighbors were feuding, and in the fall of 1838, the church – now numbering some 8,000 – was forced to leave Missouri and relocate in Illinois, where they promptly began to build the city of Nauvoo. The church grew rapidly, fueled in part by immigration from Europe. But again, within a few years, there was trouble with their neighbors. In 1844, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob.
Brigham Young, who had been a close associate of Smith’s, and who was senior apostle of the Quorum of the Twelve, assumed the leadership of what was now called the Latter Day Saints, and decided to move west yet again, in an attempt to get beyond the reach of further persecution. He led them first to Nebraska, then, in 1847, to the vicinity of the Great Salt Lake, which he named Deseret, and which we know as Utah.
It was a meticulously planned operation. Young’s group was small and fast-moving, selected from among those in the temporary settlements they had constructed in Nebraska and Iowa. When he had selected their new site, he sent another 2,000, bidding them to do the work needed to support the thousands yet to come. So, they established farms, grew crops, and in general established preliminary settlements.
And then the Mormon community began to gather from all ends of the earth. Beginning in 1848, trains of emigrants followed the California Trail and the Oregon Trail to Fort Bridger in Wyoming, then took the trail to the Great Salt Lake. The Mormons organized a complete evacuation from their previous homes, leaving no one behind. By 1860, more than 43,000 Mormons had traveled this route.
The Westerns that portray wagon train emigrations never show people pulling or pushing handcarts, and yet about 3,000 of the Mormon pioneers came west doing just that. Those carts, pulled or pushed by two, three or four people, could carry up to 100 pounds of food, bedding, etc., and were no slower than the ox-drawn wagons that accompanied them carrying more food and supplies. These handcart pioneers, once they arrived in the valley, were given jobs and accommodations by individual Mormon families until they could become established. (One feature of their migration that shows both their sense of community and their enterprising spirit is the system of ferries run by the Mormon pioneers along the Mormon Trail. The ferries were free for Mormon settlers, but others paid a toll.)
Having failed to build Zion within the confines of American society, the Mormons began to construct a society in isolation, based on their beliefs and values. The cooperative ethic that Mormons had developed over the last decade and a half became important as settlers branched out and colonized a large desert region now known as the Mormon corridor. The Mormon villages were governed by bishops and were viewed as commonwealth. From 1849–52, the Mormons greatly expanded their missionary efforts overseas, and Young’s presidency (1847–77) saw more than 70,000 converts arrive.
But the country the Mormons had left behind caught up with them. After the Mexican War, the New Zion was no longer beyond the borders of the United States, but was again included within U.S. territory. Year by year, tensions between Mormons and their neighbors escalated, largely as a result of accusations involving polygamy and Young’s theocratic rule, until in 1857, President James Buchanan sent an army to Utah. A brief, mostly bloodless, conflict ensued, and was resolved by Young agreeing to step down as governor and be replaced by a non-Mormon. But of course he remained the power behind the throne until his death in 1877.
The one thing everybody knows or thinks he knows about Mormons is that they practiced polygamy. But what they may not know is that every wife was established in her own house, and no man was allowed more wives than he could afford to maintain. For single women without brothers or fathers to support them, plural marriage made economic sense, and in a culture strongly rooted in a sense of communality, it made social sense as well. However, the practice of plural marriage was never universal, and was finally abandoned in the years between the Civil War and the end of the century.