Best Prepared Pioneers In The West

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In each community farming was the principal occupation. At times—as during 1855—black crickets devastated the fields; at others bitter winter winds carried off cattle or ruined crops. But these near-disasters were forgotten as orchards bloomed, cattle multiplied, and wheat production skyrocketed from 107,702 bushels in 1850 to 384,892 bushels a decade later.

Industry was as important to the Mormons as agriculture if they were to win economic independence, but here they were less successful. Mormons built sawmills and gristmills, opened a pottery works, and began textile production. Others erected a small blast furnace near Parowan, where iron ore was discovered, but not even the dedicated devotion of the Saints could overcome the handicaps that faced them, and by 1856 mining was at a standstill. The industrial development of Utah was forced to wait until capital and manpower were available in larger quantities.

The Saints were not destined to enjoy their newwon isolation long. Friction and interference from the East were inevitable. To Americans, the Saints were immoral eccentrics bent on establishing their own commonwealth; to Mormons, their fellow countrymen were persecuting bigots plotting the complete destruction of Mormonism. Distrust mounted when official United States surveyors, seeking a route for a transcontinental railroad, entered Utah Territory. Rumors that their purpose was the destruction of all land titles hardly assured them a cordial reception, yet trouble might have been avoided had not a party under Captain John W. Gunnison been attacked by Indians in 1853, with a loss of eight men. The Mormons had no part in this massacre, but this the people of the United States refused to believe.

These incidents prepared the way for a major conflict over control of Utah. Brigham Young’s tight little monopoly was challenged in 1855 when three federal judges were appointed for the Utah Territory. When they reached the territory Mormons continued to take their cases to the county courts while the federal judges presided over empty rooms. In the spring of 1857 tne7 hurried back to Washington breathing fire at every step. Brigham Young was a ruthless dictator who employed a band of “destroying angels” to stamp out all who disobeyed him.

In this inflammatory atmosphere, President Buchanan decided the time had come to assert federal authority over the Saints. On May 26, 1857, he ordered an army of 2,500 men under Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston to march against Utah. News of its coming sent the Mormons into a flurry of fear and preparation. They believed that the soldiers were coming to kill them, destroy their property, and ravage their wives. Guerrilla attacks on Johnston’s approaching forces began in late September, 1857, when the troops were twenty miles east of Fort Bridger. Every stray animal was driven off by Mormon bands, trains of wagons loaded with food were put to the torch, and the grass burned for miles around. Not until November 17, 1857, did the army struggle into Fort Bridger amidst a blinding snowstorm; Johnston then ordered his men into winter camp.

The harm was done, however, for the army’s approach had raised tensions among the Mormons so high that panic rather than reason governed their reactions. The result was the Mountain Meadows Massacre. This occurred in the southern part of the territory, where the Saints were visited by a band of 140 emigrants bound for California. Traveling with the party was a group of “Missouri Wild Cats” who abused Indian converts, turned their cattle into Mormon fields, killed chickens with their bull whips, and shouted profane insults at Mormon women. Near Cedar City their inexcusable conduct aroused the Indians to the point of attack. This came on September 7, 1857 when the emigrants were camped in an open valley named Mountain Meadows. Seven were killed before the red men were beaten back and a barricade of wagons formed. Then the two forces settled down for what promised to be a long siege.

While this went on, both sides sought aid. Three emigrants tried to slip through the lines, but two were cut down by the Indians, and the third, William Aiden, was killed by a fanatical Mormon. The Indians were more successful. A delegation hurried to the home of John D. Lee, a farmer who had worked among them as a missionary. Lee, instead of trying to restrain the red men, sent a message to Cedar City asking for reinforcements. Fifty men responded. On September 10 these Saints gathered to decide their course: should they help the emigrants or aid the Indians?

The memory of insults shouted by the Missouri Wild Cats, the tensions of the hour, and the fear that they would be blamed for the murder of William Aiden carried the day. Every emigrant must be killed, they decided, to prevent news of that murder from reaching California. The next day their grim plan was put into effect. John Lee entered the camp with word that a safe passage had been arranged through the Indian lines. As the emigrants marched out the Mormons began firing, killing the men while the Indians were given a free hand with the women and children. Within a few minutes 120 persons lay dead, while seventeen children had been saved. Before scattering, the Saints bound themselves to spread the tale that the whites had been massacred by red men.

The American people, however, laid the Mountain Meadows Massacre at the door of the Mormon Church. President Buchanan asked for four additional regiments to be sent to Utah. These warlike gestures only drove the Mormons to more fanatical resistance.