Best Prepared Pioneers In The West


In all the history of the American frontier, only two bands of pioneers achieved near-perfect order while advancing westward and planting their settlements. One was made up of the Puritans who founded their wilderness Zion on the shores of Massachusetts Bay during the early Seventeenth Century. Welded into a tight-knit social group by a fanatical faith in their God and His earthly prophets, and sensing that the bleak land where chance had cast them could be tamed only by community effort, they showed few of the individualistic traits normal among frontiersmen; instead each subordinated his personal ambitions in the interest of the welfare of all.

This combination of religious zeal and a harsh natural setting similarly elevated group consciousness to a unique position among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, as they marched westward just alter the Mexican War to found their desert Zion on the shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Inspired, as had been the Puritans, by heavenly hopes and earthly disappointments, the Mormons strikingly demonstrated that the orderly conquest of the West was possible.


Persecution drove the Mormons westward. Joseph Smith, their prophet, had aroused popular ire when, as a youth in upper New York State, he told neighbors of visits from God and the Saviour and of Their divine message that he had been selected to reveal the one true religion to man. So intense was feeling against him that in 1831 he had led his few converts to the little hamlet of Kirtland in northern Ohio. With hard times following the Panic of 1837 attacks began again. Once more Smith guided the faithful westward, this time to northwestern Missouri. And once more mobs soon were at their heels as the governor branded them “public enemies” who must be “exterminated or driven from the State, il necessary, for the public good.” This time Smith guided his followers eastward into Illinois, where he secured a charter for a new Mormon city of Nauvoo that made him virtually sovereign.


Once more the Saints knew peace as they built their city on a tongue of land projecting into the Mississippi. Here gathered the faithful from all the East arid from England. Most came from settled agricultural areas or from England’s industrial slums; Mormonism’s appeal was to the submerged classes, who were promised not only salvation but the chance to begin life anew amidst the plentiful opportunities provided by a virgin land. This emphasis on a gospel of practical living helps explain the remarkable unity with which they faced renewed persecutions.

These began in 1844, when Nauvoo was Illinois’ largest and most prosperous city, with 15,000 contented Saints within its gates. When Joseph Smith received his last revelation, which allowed certain Mormons to practice polygamy, some Saints branded him a fallen prophet and denounced him to the world. Smith retaliated by sending the Nauvoo marshal to destroy the presses of a newspaper established by his enemies, the Nauvoo Expositor; they, in turn, signed warrants asking for the Prophet’s arrest. Joseph Smith surrendered to the civil authorities meekly enough and was taken to a jail in nearby Carthage. There, on June 27, 1844, he and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob. This touched off a mass outbreak. In all that part of Illinois mobs roamed the countryside, threatening to launch a mass attack on Nauvoo. Once more the decision must be made: should they defy their tormentors or flee to still a newer land?

Fortunately this decision rested on an individual remarkably well equipped to provide the correct answer—the president of the Council of Twelve Apostles of the Church, Brigham Young. Young was 43, with a stocky body tending to corpulence, fleshy features, sharply pointed nose, and thin, close lips. His long sandy hair, slightly stooped walk, and somber clothes, “neat and plain as a Quaker’s,” created the impression of a commonplace farmer rather than a religious leader. This ordinary exterior hid a mind that was sharp and incisive, a remarkable memory, an indomitable will, and great powers of leadership. Few men were as well equipped to lead the Mormons to a new land.

To Young there was only one answer to the problem facing his people. They could find repose only by fleeing to an isolated and unwanted spot far beyond the settlements. The most isolated area in all the West lay beside the Great Salt Lake, where towering mountains blocked access from the east and arid deserts from the west and south. Water for farming must be available there, Young knew; John C. Fremont’s account of his 1842 expedition spoke of streams fed by perpetual mountain snow and of “good soil and good grass, adapted to civilized settlements.” There ihe Saints would find their haven. So Brigham Young decided; and, in mid-September, 1845, the Mormons promised the Illinois authorities to vacate Nauvoo the following spring in return for immunity from persecution until then.

All that winter preparations for the migration went on. In early February a pioneer band crossed the frozen Mississippi to Iowa, there to build Camp of Israel as the first of a string of way stations across that territory. Others followed, amidst snow and sleet and diilline rain. By lune, Nauvoo was a deserted city.