“Brigham Young Mustering His Forces"

November 28, 1857

artist unknown

“Brigham Young Mustering His Forces"

Presidential Administration, James Buchanan; Religion, Mormon Church; Sexual Morality, Polygamy; U.S. Military, Local Militia; Wars, Mormon War/Utah War; Women, Religion; Women, Wives;

Young, Brigham;

American West; Utah;

No caption.

After Brigham Young, the Utah governor and Mormon Church leader, resisted federal authority, President James Buchanan sent federal troops to the Utah Territory during the winter of 1857-1858 in order to install a non-Mormon governor and uphold law and order.  This cartoon pokes fun at the Mormons and their practice of polygamy (having several wives simultaneously) by showing Young and other Mormon men arming their many wives to fight the “Mormon War” (or “Utah War”).

Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church, in the early 1820s in western New York State.  Smith’s claim to have received a divine revelation to restore the original church, along with his personal charisma, attracted thousands of adherents to the faith.  Mormon leaders encouraged adult male followers to practice polygamy, which combined with other factors to produce friction between the Mormon community and their neighbors.  The Mormons were forced to flee to Ohio, then Missouri, and back to Illinois, where Smith was murdered in 1844.  Two years later, his successor, Brigham Young, led the Mormons across a thousand miles of unsettled territory to the Great Salt Lake, where they established their own state of Deseret.  In 1850, Congress created the territory of Utah, and President Millard Fillmore appointed Young the governor.

The Utah Territory soon numbered 40,000 Mormons, but non-Mormons were officially discouraged from settling there.  Young, as leader of both the Mormon Church and the Utah territorial government, made no distinction between church and state, and refused to allow the legislative and judicial branches to act independently of his authority.  In December 1856, Mormons broke into the law offices of Judge George Stiles (an excommunicated Mormon), burning his books and stealing his records.  Judge W. W. Drummond accused the Mormons of poisoning his predecessor.  Both federal judges returned to Washington in early 1857, claiming they had been prevented from carrying out their official duties.  The Mormons countered that the judges had attempted to commit land fraud. 

The situation in Utah produced a rare instance of unity between Northerners and Southerners through their collective call for federal action against the Mormons, even gaining the support of those who opposed federal intervention against slavery.  Senator Stephen Douglas, Democrat of Illinois, tried to explain why his concept of “popular sovereignty,” which allowed territorial voters to legalize slavery, did not apply to polygamy in Utah.  The new Republican Party spoke against the “twin barbarisms” of slavery and polygamy.  Newspapers reported acts of violence against non-Mormons (some true, some false), while ex-Mormon F. G. J. Margetson’s sensational exposé, Horrors of Mormonism, became a best seller.

In May 1857, President Buchanan named Alfred Cumming, a non-Mormon, to replace Young as the territorial governor of Utah, and a slate of non-Mormons to other administrative and judicial positions.  In order to protect the federal appointees and uphold law and order, Buchanan authorized Colonel Albert Sydney Johnston and 2500 federal troops to accompany the officials to Utah.  Along the way, Mormon raiders destroyed 74 wagons of army supplies, stampeded the army’s horses and cattle, and burned the Utah grasslands, forcing Johnston’s men to spend a harsh winter at Fort Bridger, about 100 miles northeast of Salt Lake City.  The raid turned out to be the only “battle” of the “war.”  There were, however, numerous deaths among the federal soldiers due to the deprivation and cold.  In southern Utah, a group of Mormons attacked and killed 137 non-Mormons bound for California (the Mountain Meadows Massacre).

Congress authorized 3000 federal troops under General Winfield Scott and two volunteer regiments to proceed to Utah, while the Mormons armed 1000 men.  Young considered burning the existing communities and permanently moving the Mormons to a new settlement until scouting parties discouraged the idea.  However, in late March 1858, 30,000 Mormons left their homes temporarily in northern Utah and relocated 50 miles south to Provo.  Meanwhile, Thomas Kane, a sympathetic non-Mormon, had convinced Buchanan to send him unofficially to Utah to negotiate a settlement with the Mormons.  In April, Young surrendered the governorship to Cummings, and in June, the Mormons accepted a presidential proclamation of amnesty and agreed to the stationing of an army garrison in Utah (not near Mormon settlements). 

Although a full-scale crisis was averted, tensions between Mormons and the federal government continued for decades.  Congress outlawed polygamy and other forms of plural marriage in 1862, which the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld in 1879, and disfranchised polygamists in 1882.  In 1890, the Mormon Church announced that it no longer condoned the practice of polygamy, and in 1896 Congress finally admitted the Utah Territory to statehood.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Brigham Young Mustering His Forces"
June 17, 2024

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