The Utah War

Bloodless resistance 150 years ago held government troops at bay until peace prevailed

On July 24, 1857 — 150 years ago this month — President Brigham Young was celebrating with Salt Lake Valley settlers in Big Cottonwood Canyon, to the east of present day Sandy, Utah. Observing it as a holiday, much as Utah residents and Church members elsewhere do today, they were commemorating the entrance exactly a decade earlier of the pioneers into the valley.

In the midst of the celebration, Abraham Smoot, mayor of Salt Lake City, having hurried home from a journey back east, approached President Young. Mayor Smoot had some ominous news: A U.S. Army force of 2,500 troops was approaching Utah Territory to put down a supposed Mormon rebellion and replace President Young as territorial governor.

The news was not altogether unexpected, as rumors had been circulating, stemming from years of tension and conflict between settlers and federally appointed territorial officials. Reporting to administration in Washington, the office holders bore tales of Mormon defiance.

"With no telegraph line to provide instant news, (Brigham) Young first learned the crisis was coming to a head when copies of eastern newspapers got through the snowbound mountains at the end of May," Ronald W. Walker, BYU history professor, said on May 25 of this year during a panel presentation at the Mormon History Association Conference in Salt Lake City.

His fears confirmed, and not wanting to dampen the merriment, President Young waited until nightfall, then informed the celebrating settlers of what he had learned.

Thus began the culmination of a series of events illustrating the consequences that sometimes result from miscommunication or hindered communication, cynicism, prejudice, distortion, mistrust and political intransigence.

Eventually resolved with no loss of blood in military battle, what came to be known as the Utah War was costly to both sides, with no real victor. But the saga has elements of heroism. It can be seen in the unified resolve of the Saints under the leadership of President Young to abandon and burn their settlement rather than let it fall prey to what they regarded as yet another instance of government-sponsored oppression. And courage was shown in the benevolent actions of Col. Thomas L. Kane, friend and benefactor of the Mormons since the days of their trek to the Salt Lake Valley, who used his influence with the federal government to mediate a peaceful resolution.

Soon after founding their valley settlement, the Latter-day Saints had appealed to the U.S. government for statehood — and the attendant right of democratically elected self-government. What they got instead was territorial government, bringing with it a slate of federal appointees including the governor, territorial judges and marshal.

President Young was appointed first territorial governor, but

other appointees were less palatable to the Mormon settlers. Interpreting unity among Church members as a "theocracy" in defiance of federal authority, these appointees endeavored to change the culture and, when rebuffed, sent unfavorable reports to the national government in Washington, D.C.

In his Mormon History Association presentation, Brother Walker, noting that revisionist historians have blamed the tension on the eccentricity of Mormonism, cast the matter in a broader context, saying that the doctrine of popular or squatter sovereignty was widely acclaimed in the western territories, not just in Utah. This doctrine held that a community was ready for self-government from the moment it was settled. "For Mormons, haunted by their experience with hostile magistrates in the American West, popular sovereignty was tailor-made," he said.

One federal appointee in particular, Associate Judge William W. Drummond, alienated the residents by attacking the jurisdiction of the territory's probate courts and by bringing a prostitute with him as his mistress, at times having her sit on the bench with him. Arrested for sending his servant to horsewhip a man who had made unfavorable public comments about him, Drummond was freed on bail, then fled from the territory. His resignation letter to U.S. President James Buchanan contained a number of general and specific allegations against President Young and the Mormons.

All this occurred against a political backdrop in which the national Republican Party, founded in 1854, had urged Congress to prohibit in the territories "the twin relics of barbarism: polygamy and slavery." As a newly elected U.S. President, James Buchanan, a Democrat, was sensitive to the sentiment and vowed to replace Brigham Young as territorial governor in Utah.

In justifying sending the armed force to Utah, "Buchanan accepted the lies, misrepresentations and unexamined charges of carpetbaggers and reprobates," said Thomas G. Alexander, BYU professor of American history emeritus, at the Mormon History Association Conference.

The U.S. president sent no prior notification about his intent to replace Brigham Young as governor or about the approach of the troops and he, in fact, suspended mail service to the territory.

Responding to the news heard at the July 24 celebration, Church leaders in August 1857 issued a proclamation to the citizens, declaring: "We are invaded by a hostile force, who are evidently assailing us to accomplish our overthrow and destruction…. The government has not condescended to cause an investigating committee, or other persons to be sent, to inquire into and ascertain the truth, as is customary in such cases…. Our duties to ourselves and families requires us not to tamely submit to be driven and slain, without an attempt to preserve ourselves."

President Young mustered the territorial militia (called the Nauvoo Legion) and ordered no grain or other staples be sold to passing emigrants.

Meanwhile, by means of an emissary, President Young contacted Col. Kane asking him to intervene with the government.

In September, President Young proclaimed martial law in the territory and instructed bishops in the communities to prepare to burn everything if necessary.

Earlier that month, Captain Stewart Van Vliet of the Quartermaster Corps arrived in Salt Lake City to obtain food and forage for the approaching army, the first official word to reach the territory. He was treated with courtesy, but did not succeed in making the arrangement. Returning to Washington, he advocated reconciliation.

By the end of the month, Gov. Young dispatched about 1,100 militia men under the command of Gen. Daniel H. Wells to South Pass in present-day Wyoming, where they were to prepare for the army's coming. Led by Major Lot Smith, a Mormon Battalion veteran, 44 raiders carried out instructions to harass the troops, burn supply trains, stampede cattle and set fire to the forage. They also burned two key outposts: Fort Bridger and Fort Supply.

They were so successful that, by the time the commanding officer, Albert Sidney Johnston, arrived in November, the army was forced to winter over near the burned-out Fort Bridger under miserable conditions.

Meanwhile back east, support for this "Utah Expedition" was waning. By year's end, Col. Kane, Capt. Van Vliet and Utah congressional delegate John M. Bernhisel prevailed with President Buchanan to send Col. Kane unofficially to Utah. Arriving in February, he was joyfully received by Church leaders. He persuaded them to allow the replacement governor, Alfred Cumming, to enter the city, albeit without military escort.

In March, Col. Kane approached the encamped U.S. troops. Dismissing his Nauvoo Legion escort, he entered the camp alone; a bullet from one of the guards nearly hit him. Incensed, Col. Kane brushed aside Col. Johnston's apology and engaged Alfred Cumming in conversation, convincing the newly appointed governor he would be safe if he rode into Salt Lake City without military escort.

Doing so, Gov. Cumming was graciously received by President Young, who transferred the records and seal of the governor's office to him.

Still mistrustful of government intentions, Brigham Young and the Latter-day Saints continued the execution, already begun, of a massive "Move South."

Richard D. Poll, a former history professor at BYU, now deceased, wrote: "President Young announced on March 23, 1858, that all settlements in northern Utah must be abandoned and prepared for burning if the army came in. The evacuation started immediately. Though at first perceived as likely to be permanent, the Move South was transformed into a tactical and temporary maneuver soon after word came that Kane had persuaded Cumming to come to Salt Lake City without the army. Still, in numbers at least, it dwarfed the earlier Mormon flights from Missouri and Illinois: about 30,000 people moved 50 miles or more to Provo and other towns in central and southern Utah. There they remained in shared and improvised housing until the Utah War was over" (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, p. 1500).

Dogged by increasing criticism over what has gone down in history as "Buchanan's Blunder," the U.S. President sent a peace commission to the territory. Commissioners Ben McCulloch and Lazarus W. Powell carried an offer of amnesty on condition that the Latter-day Saints reaffirm their loyalty to the government.

Church leaders eventually accepted the offer. Under terms of the agreement, the army marched peacefully through the city and then established a garrison to the west and south of the city called Camp Floyd. Soldiers were stationed there until the beginning of the Civil War in 1861.

The "Utah Expedition" was a costly endeavor for the federal government and a needless adversity for the Latter-day Saints.

It cast a pall over the territory, causing the wartime hysteria that led to the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre in September 1857.

And, as pointed out in Brother Poll's Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry, it strained capital and morale, interrupted and weakened the missionary effort in Europe and curtailed immigration.

"With no telegraph line to provide instant news, (Brigham) Young first learned the crisis was coming to a head when copies of eastern newspapers got through the snowbound mountains at the end of May."