- Historic Sites
From Poverty and Persecution to Prosperity and Power
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
“With an affable and dignified manner he manifests the unmistakable egotism of one having authority. In little ebullitions of earnestness he speaks right at people, using his dexter forefinger with emphasis, to point a moral. He treats the brethren with warmth, throwing his arm caressingly about them and asking carefully after the wives and babies.
“Provincialisms of his Vermont boyhood and his western manhood still cling to him. He says ‘leetle,’ ‘beyend’ and ‘disremember.’ An irrepressible conflict between his nominatives and verbs, crops out in expressions like’they was.’ ”
This able, energetic, earthy man became the absolute ruler and the revered, genuinely loved father figure of all Mormons everywhere. He used the church hierarchy as the instrument through which he ruled, and from among the church leaders he selected the captains and lieutenants he needed to carry out his purposes. But Young himself was a master of detail who kept in touch with everything. In his letters to his sons he constantly exhorted his progeny to observe, improve, work, and be useful. He held himself to those same exacting standards. Whenever he traveled, which he did frequently, he always knew a great deal about not only each town he visited but also many of the individuals who lived there. To a hard-working rural Mormon, it meant everything that the ruler of the church knew that Sister Eliza had had an unusually hard time after the birth of her sixth child, or that Brother Isaiah had been the principal carpenter in rebuilding the local church after it had suffered storm damage.
His visits to local communities were rustic versions of a royal progress. All of the townsmen put on their best clothes, buildings were decorated, the street strewn with flowers, the brass band played, and the school children sang:
Young could be ruthless and crude, but he had many qualities more notable than his most publicized achievement, which was the admittedly impressive catalog of his wives—ultimately he married twenty-seven women. The most reliable statisticians credit Young with fifty-six or fifty-seven children by sixteen of those wives. Even with the separate apartments that he maintained for them, Young’s ability to keep so many wives from quarreling and so many children from overwhelming him would in itself prove that he must have been a remarkable, not to say masterful, diplomat.
During the thirty years between the Mormons’ arrival in Utah in 1847 and 1877, Young directed the founding of 350 towns in the Southwest. A modern historian has remarked that the two most important forces in settling the intermountain West were the Union Pacific Railroad and the Mormon Church—two large, well-organized, and centrally directed institutions. In such a harsh geographic setting, the job could not possibly have been done by exclusive reliance upon the efforts of unorganized individuals.
How the process worked was illustrated by the founding of the town of Springville, southeast of Salt Lake. Although two Mormon militiamen discovered the site early in 1849, Brigham Young decreed that settlement must await the arrival of Bishop Aaron Johnson, who was to lead a wagon train across the plains to Utah during the summer of 1850. Johnson, who like so many of the early Mormons was of New England ancestry (Connecticut-born), was just the kind of proven leader to whom Brigham Young habitually turned when a difficult new task was at hand.
A Mormon since 1836, only six years after Joseph Smith had founded the denomination, Johnson had risen to successively higher responsibilities during the Mormons’ town-building in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois and during their exodus from Nauvoo. When the bearded bishop finally brought his train of 135 wagons safely to Salt Lake City, Brigham Young came to greet the newcomers and arbitrarily “cut out” the first eight wagons, announcing to their drivers that they were to go with Johnson to found Springville. From his own family Johnson, in turn, selected two of his wives and three of his sons to accompany him with this advance detachment.
The chosen site was a lovely one. Tall wild grasses covered a strip of virgin land that had the massive Wasatch Range of the Rockies at its back, and the glittering waters of Utah Lake before it, while Hobble Creek, flowing out from the mountain canyons, gave assurance of water for irrigation.
Under Johnson’s leadership, the necessary tasks were quickly assigned. Some were to harvest the wild grasses with scythes; others were to take axes and teams up into the mountains to bring out logs; while still others were to lay out a fortified settlement that would cover an acre and a half, big enough to shelter both settlers and domestic livestock from the possibility of Indian attack and the certainty of winter storms. Typical of the Mormons, one of the early buildings was a schoolhouse and another a structure large enough for dances and social gatherings, and presently for amateur theatricals, for the Mormons never let their New England heritage lead them into discouraging harmless pleasures and sociability.