Mormon History

Escaping from the United States - 1847

God’s Promised Land in the American West

American Heritage

By Alexander Burns

July 24, 2007

Isolated from the outside world by deserts and mountain chains, its valleys dry and hot, not visibly suited for human settlement, the Great Basin of Utah hardly looked hospitable. But for nearly 150 pioneers, its arid landscape held the future. “This is the place,” their leader, Brigham Young, declared on July 24, 1847—160 years ago today. Young had set out with his party of Mormon believers from Nauvoo, Illinois, as the head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, determined to create a home in the West for their highly controversial religion.

He and his coreligionists had been driven out of several states, ostracized and sometimes physically attacked. Here they hoped to secure a place for Mormonism to grow and prosper beyond the influence of American intolerance. Arriving, on that summer day in 1847, at the site of present-day Salt Lake City, the members of Young’s expedition were the vanguard of a Mormon exodus from the Midwest.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not even two decades old. Its founder, Joseph Smith, had started the religion in 1830, when he was 24, after, he said, having a series of divine visions in upstate New York. As he described it, an angel gave him directions to a set of buried gold tablets containing the scriptural underpinnings of the new faith. When he published his transcription of the writings on the tablets, The Book of Mormon, he began to win converts. One of them was Brigham Young, who left the Methodist church to become a Mormon in 1832. However, most Christians in upstate New York rejected Smith’s ideas. As tensions rose between Mormons and non-Mormons (known as “gentiles”) alarmed by the church’s rapid growth, aggressive missionary efforts, advocacy of polygamy, and growing political strength, Smith led his followers first to Ohio and Missouri and then to Illinois. In Carthage, Illinois, he and his brother, Hyrum, were killed by a mob while in prison awaiting trial in 1844 after they ordered an anti-Smith newspaper’s presses destroyed.

Taking over the church after its first prophet’s murder, Brigham Young realized that Illinois was as hostile to Mormons as were their previous places of residence, so the faithful had no choice but to relocate again. Mormon religious history has suggested that the decision to head for the Great Basin was abrupt and guided by divine inspiration. It is clear, however, that there was a great deal of premeditation involved, and Utah was not the only destination Young considered. He contemplated Texas, California, and Vancouver Island (in present-day British Columbia) as well, among other places.

He interviewed trappers and traders who had traveled through the West. He met with the celebrated mountaineer Jim Bridger. He consulted a guidebook written by a traveler named Lansford Hastings, and he closely read the explorer John Frémont’s journal. In August 1846 Young wrote to President James K. Polk to inform him that the Mormons were moving to the Great Basin, and he detailed his very deliberate reasoning. The territory there, he wrote, “will require hard labor and consequently . . . will be coveted by no other people, while it is surrounded by so unpopulous but fertile country.”

Young’s description was more accurate than he might have expected. The scorching heat, combined with the high salt content of the earth, as much as 35 percent, ensured that crop cultivation would be a serious challenge. The Great Basin had enough streams for irrigation-based agriculture, but only, as Young wrote, with “hard labor.” Furthermore, the group he brought west with him could not, by itself, build Salt Lake City. It amounted to just 143 men, 3 women, and 2 children. So after establishing a preliminary settlement during the summer of 1847, he returned to the site of modern-day Omaha, Nebraska, to prepare a second wave of migration. Many more would follow, including migrants who walked the whole way, dragging their belongings behind them in handcarts.

Under Young’s watchful eye, the settlement in the Great Basin began to expand. Like everything about the Mormon migration, Salt Lake City was carefully planned. It was laid out according to Joseph Smith’s description of a Mormon holy city, on a strict grid with broad streets 132 feet wide, 10-acre blocks, and a centrally located administrative complex. An impressive tabernacle was constructed, along with an ostentatious home for Young himself. In March 1849, less than two years after the Mormons’ arrival, a church convention declared that the settlement had reached the point of applying for statehood. The state would be called Deseret, an expansive territory stretching from the Rockies to the Sierra Nevada and from present-day New Mexico to Oregon. Congress declined to recognize Deseret but declared Utah a territory, of which Brigham Young became the first governor.

Clashes over the Mormon practice of polygamy as well as fears of a Mormon theocracy revived the old tensions between Mormons and gentiles, and in 1857 President James Buchanan dispatched 2,500 federal troops to the Utah Territory to oust Brigham Young as its governor. Over time, though, the passage of migrants across North America, coupled with the strengthening of a transcontinental infrastructure, made it possible for Salt Lake City to endure as a Mormon oasis. When the Union Pacific Railroad was completed, at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869, the distance between the Mormon city and the rest of the United States shrank dramatically.

In 1856, reflecting on his faith’s relocation to Utah, Brigham Young said, “I do not wish men to understand I had anything to do with our being moved here; that was the providence of the Almighty. . . . I never could have devised such a plan.” But in fact the migration had been planned with skill and brilliant long-term vision. The present-day strength of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints testifies to the historical success of Young’s effort. And the possibility that the United States may soon elect a Mormon President shows just how rapidly and fully that once marginal and radical colony ultimately integrated into American life.

Alexander Burns, an undergraduate at Harvard College, is a frequent contributor to and is editor-in-chief of The Harvard Political Review.