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Best Prepared Pioneers In The West
Ably led by Brigham Young, the Mormons made an orderly march to Utah and created ‘Zion” with smooth efficiency
October 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 6
The second caravan readied the valley on July 29, and a month later the third arrived, with 566 wagons and 1,500 men, women, and children. When migration ended that fall some 1,800 Saints lived on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, while 108 of the men had returned to Winter Quarters with Brigham Young to arrange the next year’s migration.
That first year would have tried the souls of a less devout people. Only 29 cabins had been built before winter struck; the rest of the Mormons lived in tents or dugouts or canvas-covered wagons. Food was so scarce that the daily family ration of a handful of grain was supplemented with wild mustard, roots of the sego lily, thistles, and soup made from old oxhides.
With the spring of 1848 their spirits revived as all turned to planting the 5,000-acre “big field” laid out the year before. But again late was unkind. Late frosts killed part of their crop; in June swarms of black crickets descended in such multitudes that all seemed lost. In this darkest moment the Saints’ prayers were answered when clouds of sea gulls appeared to gorge on the insects, but half of all that had been planted was already destroyed. Even the crops that survived withered and died amidst the searing drought of July and August. By autumn, some were beginning to grumble that their leaders should forsake this “dry. worthless locality” for the greener lands of California or Oregon.
This was the situation that faced Brigham Young when he returned from the East on September 20, 1848. To one of his abilities, both the problem and its solution were clear. The Saints, he realized, had relied too much on God and too little on themselves. They coidd prosper only by constant effort: this, moreover, must be a joint effort, for the forces of nature were too powerful to be combated by individuals. This realization launched one of the most successful co-operative experiments in all history.
During that autumn. Young revealed his program to his followers. No longer, he told them, could each person live where he chose or farm as he wished. Instead they would dwell together and work together under the leadership of their church. Their homes would be in a great city that would follow a plan he and the Twelve Apostles had devised. This was of magnificent proportions. In the center was the Temple Square of ten acres; about this, wide streets marked off blocks of the same size, each divided into eight lots lor houses and gardens. These were surveyed by a committee under Brigham Young that fall, and each family assigned a plot. Work began at once on both homes and a giant temple. By the time winter struck most families were living in snug adobe houses while fences had been built by co-operative effort, irrigation ditches dug beside each street, and trees planted everywhere.
Brigham Young also laid down principles that would govern farming. There would be no sale of land, and no private ownership of streams or timber or anything else essential to the social welfare. Instead each person would be given just the amount of land that he could till most effectively. A vigorous young man with a large family might be assigned forty or eighty acres, while an older farmer whose children had left home would be allotted only ten acres. All farming would be done in tiers of fields laid out around Salt Lake City. Nearby would be a band of five-acre plots for young artisans and mechanics who had little time to cultivate the soil; beyond would be ten-acre lots for those with larger families; and beyond these farms of from twenty to eighty acres.
Water was as essential as land in that arid country. That Brigham Young could devise a workable irrigation system was truly remarkable, for the practice was completely foreign to the Anglo-American tradition; yet that put into operation during the autumn of 1848 was so efficient it might have been planned by a modern engineer. A main irrigation ditch was built by cooperative effort, leading from the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon through the farming lands. Side ditches were then dug. When they were completed, water was allotted each user in rotation. In the use of water, as in the use of land, exacting supervision by the church assured society protection from greedy individuals.
This closely knit economic structure could operate successfully only if the governmental system provided absolute controls. The theo-democracy that Brigham Young proclaimed in 1848 simply extended the rule of the church hierarchy over civil affairs. At its pinnacle was Young himself. Directly responsible to the president was the quorum of Twelve Apostles, which supervised spiritual affairs, and the presiding bishopric, which ruled the temporal world of the Mormon community. These governed the large geographic units, the “stakes,” and the smaller “wards” into which each stake was divided. The bishop in each ward helped his people establish their homes, advised them on plowing or rearing their families and settled disputes among them.