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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
This theocratic state was first tested when the 1849 Gold Rush to California sent a stream of immigrants pouring through Salt Lake City. Most of the fortyniners were willing to sell their surplus clothes, tools, and furniture at a fraction of cost, and to buy flour at a dollar a pound or pay $200 for a horse or mule that normally sold for $25. For a time the Saints enjoyed unexpected prosperity, but at the price of the isolation they had sought, for a number of newcomers settled among them. As “Gentile” population increased, Brigham Young realized that his simple church government must be displaced by one more suited to the needs of Saints and non-Saints alike, and at the same time acceptable to the United States. In forming these plans Young had no thought of an independent republic, as his enemies charged; he was simply responding to the situation that had always forced frontiersmen to form their own states.
This became clear when a convention to deal with J. the problem met in March, 1849. Because Congress had failed to provide them with a civil government, they decided, they must form their own state. Deseret, they called it, from a term meaning honeybee in the Book of Mormon; its constitution was patterned after those of eastern states. When the constitution was ratified on March 12, 1849, an election named Brigham Young governor and placed other church officials in all offices. When the legislature met on July 2, it devoted its nine-day session to a petition begging Congress to accept Deseret as a state.
This reached Washington when Congress was so busy debating the extension of slavery into lands acquired from Mexico that the troublesome Mormon religious issue was temporarily overlooked. The Territory of Utah was created, with boundaries roughly those of Utah and Nevada today. Brigham Young was named territorial governor, with four of the officials under him Mormons and lour Gentiles. Time soon showed that these lour outsiders were powerless to meddle with Young’s benevolent rule. As in the past, his word was law.
The Saints were now free to build their desert Zion. I he first need was manpower, and to supply this converts must be lured to Utah. Wholesale missionary activities were launched in the autumn of 1849; within a lew months hundreds of zealous Mormons were laboring in England, France, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, and the Society Islands; over the next years the program was extended to the rest of Europe, the Far East, and Latin America. Wherever they went their special appeal was to the poor and the dispossessed; to them was offered not only salvation but Heaven on earth in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. The response was astounding. In England alone 32,894 converts were ready to depart by the end of 1851, while in the Scandinavian countries the appeal was almost as successful. To aid these flocks in reaching the place of gathering, the Mormons devised a system of wondrous efficiency. A Perpetual Emigrating Fund provided loans to all the needy. Central embarkation points were designated in each country, where converts were allotted space on ships. Each group was assigned a leader who cared for every detail of their lives. When the immigrants reached America, they were welcomed by agents who arranged passage to St. Louis; there other agents sent them on to Kanesville or Kansas City, where they were provided with teams and wagons and given instruction in plains travel.
As the tide rolled toward Utah, reaching 4,225 persons in 1855, the financial burdens on the Mormons became so excessive that Brigham Young decided to experiment with a cheaper method of plains travel. Why not, he reasoned, substitute handcarts for expensive covered wagons? Pushing these, immigrants could average fifteen miles daily, crossing the plains in seventy days. That autumn Mormon carpenters in Iowa began building carts, which were waiting by the hundreds when new arrivals began flocking in during the spring of 1856. On June 9 and June 11 the first two companies of 497 persons, with 100 handcarts, went rolling out of Iowa City. By September 26, 1856, they were in Salt Lake City, “somewhat fatigued,” but still buoyant and cheerful, having outdistanced every wagon train on the trail. A third party arrived safely on October 2.
Their happy fate was not shared by the other two “handcart brigades” that started west that summer. Delayed until carts could be completed for them, they did not leave until late in August. They intended to replenish their stocks at Fort Laramie, only to find supplies exhausted there. So they pushed into South Pass on such short rations that children and older persons gave out under the strain, further slowing progress. In this weakened state, the brigades were caught by early winter snows. Deaths were frequent as they inched through the drifts; of the thousand Saints in the two parties, 225 perished in one of the major disasters of overland travel.
Such sacrifices were not in vain, for the 8,000 converts who reached Utah during the decade enabled Brigham Young to rear a commonwealth that assured the Mormons security for all time to come. His plan was boldly ambitious: he would occupy every site that could be irrigated, every spot where mineral or forest wealth was available, every strategic approach, in all the Great Basin. With that giant empire in the hands of the Saints, they would be free to live their own lives without fear of further persecution.