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The First Ten Years in the West

From 1847 to 1857 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) established over 100 colonies in the West.  With the sustaining help of the Lord and by their own industry, the Saints established a strong refuge within the ten years.  The Saints strongly considered applying for statehood, calling themselves the “State of Deseret.”  (Deseret means “honeybee” and typified the industriousness of the Saints.)  With statehood, the people could elect their own officers.  The other choice was to become Utah Territory, to which the federal government would send appointees.  The Latter-day Saints were warned by those friendly to their cause that this would be an undesirable outcome.

mormon-religionThe petition for statehood by the Mormons was never given serious consideration by the federal government.  Congress was pre-occupied with slavery, slave states, and free states.

The Church’s best friend in Congress proved to be Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who had befriended Joseph Smith and the Saints during the Nauvoo period. Douglas, the chairman of the Senate committee on territories, graciously met with Dr. Bernhisel and promised to help take the petition through the legislative process. Although Congress willingly agreed to rapidly growing California’s petition for statehood, the slavery controversy prohibited serious consideration of the statehood petitions for sparsely populated Deseret and New Mexico. Senator Douglas decided to call for territorial status instead, to appease the South, which could not accept more senators from “free” states. He also changed Deseret’s name to Utah (after the Ute Indians) to avoid offending his colleagues, particularly Senator Thomas Benton of Missouri, who thought Deseret sounded too much like desert.

The Compromise of 1850 admitted California into the Union as a free state and “designated Utah and New Mexico as territories with the right to decide by popular sovereignty whether they would eventually become slave or free states. On 9 September 1850, President Millard Fillmore signed the bill creating the Utah Territory. Neither the Latter-day Saints nor the federal officials knew then that this action would begin forty-six years of mistrust and conflict before statehood was finally granted.”

The federal government selected officers for the territory, a mixture of Mormon and non-Mormon leaders.  Brigham Young was appointed governor and superintendent of Indian affairs.  He took the oath of office in February, 1851.   The non-Mormon officials from Washington were given a warm and celebratory welcome, but conflict began almost instantly.   Disdain for the Saints, and particularly their practice of plural marriage, was freely shared by the gentile government officials when they abdicated and departed for Washington in 1851. Brigham Young sent a letter to Washington defending the Latter-day Saints, and the officials were ordered to return to Utah or resign.  They resigned.

Brigham Young was reappointed governor in 1854, after none of the others assigned would take the job.  Meanwhile, the huge project of gathering the Saints moved forward.  In the early 1850’s there were more Latter-day Saints in Europe than there were in Utah.  (There were 30,747 Latter-day Saints in the British Isles in 1850 and 11,380 in Utah.)  Many of these new members were too poor to emigrate to the U.S. and then cross the plains to Utah.  Many European Saints paid all or part of their way, while others relied on the Perpetual Emigration Fund.  The PEF posted agents in Liverpool, England;  New Orleans, St. Louis, along the Missouri River and in eastern U.S. cities.

Mormon passengers traveled by ship for half a century and enjoyed a miraculous measure of safety, though voyages were difficult.  Ships were blessed and dedicated before departure.  The decision for Latter-day Saints to cut costs by crossing the plains with handcarts was enacted in 1856.  “Arriving at eastern United States seaports, they made their way by rail to the terminus at Iowa City, Iowa. There agents arranged for the preparation of handcarts designed for either pushing or pulling a load of one hundred to five hundred pounds of food and clothing. The first three companies, led by returning missionaries, heroically walked the plains, arriving safely in the Salt Lake Valley between 26 September and 2 October.”

The Martin and Willie handcart companies were stranded in blizzard conditions in Wyoming in October, 1856.  They had been counseled to wait out the winter in Nebraska, but in their zeal, proceeded onward.

General conferences were held semi-annually in Salt Lake City, and the Saints often traveled hundreds of miles to attend and to hear the messages from their prophet and apostles. In the Mormon general conference of October, this was Brigham Young’s sermon:

“The text will be, ‘to get them here.’ . . .

“I shall call upon the Bishops this day, I shall not wait until to-morrow, nor until next day, for 60 good mule teams and 12 or 15 wagons. . . .

“I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the celestial kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the plains.”

The response was impressive. Sixteen wagon loads of food and supplies were quickly assembled; and on the morning of 7 October, sixteen good four-mule teams and twenty-seven hardy young men (known as Brigham Young’s “Minute Men”) headed eastward with the first provisions. More help was solicited and obtained from all parts of the territory. By the end of October, two hundred and fifty teams were on the road to give relief.

Some of the rescued had to have limbs amputated because of frostbite.  They were taken in and nursed to health by the Saints in Utah.

In Utah’s first decade, almost forty thousand Saints emigrated to Zion.  They were welcomed as they came through Immigration Canyon, and treated to a feast.  Thereafter, they were helped in moving to settlements and finding gainful employment.

Throughout the Mormons’ first decade in Utah, when approximately one hundred smaller communities were being colonized, Salt Lake City was developing into a major center. It was a planned community purposely designed to be the hub of a widespread religious commonwealth in the Great Basin. It was unique in the West because of its equitable distribution of land, community farms and herds, public work projects, organized immigration, and controlled use of natural resources. Emphasis on public convenience rather than the profitable sale of prime public lots also permitted the building of unusually wide streets.

Brigham Young had seen the layout of Salt Lake City in vision, and he demanded that the downtown streets be wide enough to turn a mule team around.  The city is laid out in a grid system, with streets going straight from north to south and east to west.  From the center, each street increases by 100.  So an address might be 100 South 300 West.

In 1855 the Utah economy suffered because of poor crops and severe drought.  Many Latter-day Saints had focused on survival and progress, and Brigham Young perceived a spiritual lethargy among them.  He felt that the drought was caused by the Saints’ lack of faithfulness to the commandments of God.  He initiated a “reformation” among them.  Leaders went about preaching repentance and urging the Saints to commit to re-baptism.  By the summer of 1857, ten years after first entering the Great Basin, the Church was on a strong footing and was accomplishing the things it was restored to the earth to do.

*Parts of this article were adapted from the LDS Institute Church History Manual.

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