- Historic Sites
From Poverty and Persecution to Prosperity and Power
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
There were difficult early years at Springville when poor crops reduced the pioneers to eating thistle roots, pig weed, red root, and sego bulbs, but by the time Johnson died in 1877, worn out from too many years of multivarious duties, the town had long been a decided success. Johnson had been bishop, judge, brigadier general of local militia, philanthropist to all in need, and “head of all the public affairs,” as his son expressed it. Family tradition has it that his children numbered fifty-five and his wives either eleven or thirteen. (A slight uncertainty, where the numbers are so high, can easily be forgiven.)
Most of the towns that Young caused to be founded were in arid regions that required irrigation systems and the careful use of limited supplies of water, timber, and good land, needs which the Mormons fulfilled in their own, almost revolutionary manner. For the United States as a whole this was an age of unrestrained laissez faire, in which the primary standard of judgment was private profit rather than community need, but the Mormons immediately placed social values ahead of individual desires. Towns were planned according to the old New England pattern: the residences and their attendant kitchen gardens were clustered in the middle of the town, so that the people would be close to neighbors, the school, and the church building, while the irrigable crop lands were out in the more open country beyond the settlement, and the pasture lands were still farther away. Water was declared by Brigham Young to be the property of all the people rather than private property, and was to be distributed through an irrigation system built under church leadership and by the labor of the people who would be using it. Use of the water was tied to the land that needed it and was regulated by the local people, so that water monopoly was impossible. When disputes about water arose, they were usually taken to the local bishop of the church ward for his mediation or arbitration, instead of spending time and money to file suit in the courts.
In declaring water to be the property of the whole community, and in working out this simple pattern for use, Young and his people were discarding several centuries of Anglo-American precedents developed under the common law for use in a humid climate. Elsewhere in the West a great deal of expensive litigation could have been avoided if lawyers and legislators had been more willing to throw away Blackstone’s Commentaries and follow the example set by the unsophisticated but pragmatic Mormons.
In Brigham Young’s eyes, building towns and irrigation systems was not enough. The Mormons had always wanted to make themselves economically self-sufficient, so that they would not be at the mercy of the nation’s non-Mormon majority when they needed supplies. Once they had become settled in Utah and had survived the difficult first years, they began a remarkable if unsuccessful drive to create all kinds of industries and services. Factories, mills, an iron foundry, express and teamster services, local railroads, cooperative stores, woolen mills, cotton growing, and a sugar-beet industry were examples of ventures that Young persuaded the faithful to finance through drafts upon the local congregations to supply money, labor, draft animals, and raw materials. Unfortunately, these subsidized ventures were, at best, high-cost enterprises producing for a limited market, and after the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, cheaper, better-finished goods flooded in from the Middle West and East to wipe out such of the Mormon experiments as had not already failed of their own unsoundness.
The sum total of all these efforts suggests how and why the Mormons were able to hold together and indeed to grow steadily in numbers and resources through the difficult and crucial years of the i85o’s, i86o’s, and i Syo’s. They were united by accepting an unusual faith; they were led by a remarkable man who headed a theocracy that penetrated every aspect of daily life and could normally count upon obedient responses to its directives; and they were addicted to cooperative, communitarian ways of meeting all challenges. But in addition to these forces from within, they were strengthened in their loyalty to the church by the periodic attacks made upon them by the United States government, which in turn was responding to the hostile public opinion constantly being whipped up by reformers, newspaper editors, politicians, and women’s organizations. In 1857 President James Buchanan, who was soon to vacillate over coercing the seceding Southern states, did not hesitate to send the United States Army into Utah under the command of the future Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston to compel the Mormons to accept federal rule and federal law. Inevitably, a morbidly illogical act of retaliation took place: the “Mountain Meadows Massacre” of September, 1857, in which more than one hundred members of a Gentile emigrant train passing through Utah were slaughtered, almost certainly by Mormons in alliance with friendly Indians. This event, which Mormon historian Juanita Brooks has called “one of the most despicable mass murders of history,” was an aberration, a paranoid reaction that might have been expected of a harassed and persecuted people whose local leaders had been driven to the equivalent of a wartime hysteria by the “invasion” of federal troops. In any case, the massacre did nothing to alleviate tensions between the Mormons and the national government.