A Place in the West, 1847–1877

The thirty years of Brigham Young’s presidency extended from the Nauvoo exodus through a period of relative peace and important growth for the Church. Freed from the threatening mobs of preceding years, the Saints established more than 350 successful communities in the North American West and Church membership more than tripled in size (to about 150,000). Brigham Young won the respect and confidence of the Saints, directed the colonizing activities, and became the first governor of the Utah Territory. The Saints implemented religious programs introduced by Joseph Smith and subsequent prophets created new auxiliary organizations for young people. And missionary work expanded to new parts of the globe.

At the time of the departure from Nauvoo in 1846, approximately fourteen thousand members were living in western Illinois and eastern Iowa. The immediate challenge for Church leaders was to help relocate almost the entire city of Nauvoo and to transport the thousands more Saints in scattered branches elsewhere to a new gathering place. This amazing mass migration continued for a half dozen years and then extended over half a century more.

Moving a family across 1600 kilometers of unsettled plains and mountains was an arduous and expensive task. Not everyone could get the resources necessary to purchase a wagon, oxen, and the supplies needed for the three month trip. In 1849, Brigham Young invited members in Utah to donate funds and supplies to assist. This was the beginning of the Perpetual Emigration Fund, which continued until 1887. European and American Saints borrowed as needed from the fund to finance their migration. Then when they were able to do so later, they repaid the loan to replenish the revolving fund.

Between 1856 and 1860, more than three thousand people (a third of the emigrants), walked to Utah from the end of the railroad lines at Iowa City, Iowa, hauling their supplies in handcarts that they pushed and pulled across the rolling plains, accompanied by a few wagons in each party to carry heavier baggage.

In the first year of operation, the fourth and fifth handcart companies, headed by James G. Willie and Edward Martin, left late in the season because of delays in obtaining handcarts. These hardy pioneers were caught in an early snowstorm on the plains of Wyoming. When Brigham Young heard of the delay, he collected food, clothing, teams, and wagons for their relief. Both companies were rescued, but only after more than two hundred, about one-fifth of the total party had frozen to death. The last group reached their destination at the end of November.

New immigrants arriving in Salt Lake City were greeted by President Young or other General Authorities and were then treated to a feast by the members of the city wards. Local families hosted the immigrants until they could find a permanent home. Some were directed to distant settlements or assigned to help colonize new areas, while others obtained a plot of land and work in Salt Lake City.

The two thousand pioneers who reached the Salt Lake Valley by the autumn of 1847 enjoyed a relatively mild first winter. However, flour was scarce, and vegetables hard to obtain. As spring arrived, the settlers turned to the Sego Lily and other roots and greens to save them from hunger. In March they planted seeds for the 1848 harvest, which would be especially critical. Drought and late spring frosts damaged many crops. Late in May black crickets swarmed upon the maturing wheat and tender spring crops. Efforts to drown, mash, or burn the invading insects seemed futile. The pioneer families reaped a reduced harvest that year, but it would have been much worse had it not been for the flocks of sea gulls that swept in from the islands of the Great Salt Lake. The birds gorged themselves on the crickets and saved much of the needed crop. The Saints knelt in gratitude to God for his timely intervention.

The second winter (1848–49) lashed out at the Mormon settlers with severity. Both the Saints and their livestock suffered greatly. Firewood was difficult to obtain and food supplies dwindled. Some families boiled rawhide for nourishment. Those who had surplus food shared generously with others less fortunate and the colony survived.

During the gold rush of 1849, many westward bound travelers stopped in Salt Lake City before the last part of their journey across the desert. The Saints benefited directly from these travelers by offering services such as blacksmithing and by selling or trading fresh livestock. More importantly, overburdened goldseekers and merchants traveling west sold surplus clothing, implements, and tools at greatly reduced prices. Because of this trade, Utah’s frontier economy received a needed boost, and the Church was soon able to call upon its members for a renewed emphasis on missionary work.

Many converts had come from northern Europe during the Nauvoo years and this area continued to produce converts. But in the 1850s the elders began preaching in Latin America, the islands of the Pacific, Asia, India, and South Africa.

At the October general conference in 1849, President Young called missionaries to southern California, Tahiti, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, France, Germany, and England. Elders Lorenzo Snow and John Taylor directed the efforts in central and southern Europe, Elder Erastus Snow in Scandinavia. The following year, Elder Parley P. Pratt headed a delegation to South America and George Q. Cannon led a small group to Hawaii. In 1851, missionaries began the work in Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania. In 1852, a special conference in August sent elders to preach in Gibraltar, Malta, Prussia, South Africa, Jamaica, China, Thailand, Ceylon, and India. In virtually every instance, the missionaries met formidable opposition. Outside northern Europe, they made few converts. For most of the new missions of the 1850s, conditions were not yet right for preaching the gospel. Those that did succeed were among the European immigrants and Polynesian natives of Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii.

Many of the elders who returned to Utah in the mid-1850s were called to defend the political rights of the Latter-day Saints. In 1856, certain territorial officers appointed by the United States reported falsehoods to U.S. President James Buchanan. He believed their reports and sent the U.S. Army to Utah to stop the supposed rebellion. He also sent Alfred Cumming to replace Brigham Young as territorial governor.

When Governor Young learned of the President’s action, he feared that the approaching army would become a mob in Utah, shooting innocent residents and destroying property, as uncontrolled state militia men had done years before. So he ordered the Saints to evacuate northern Utah. Thousands packed their belongings into wagons and traveled south beyond Salt Lake City. He also instructed the territorial militia to delay the approaching U.S. Army without endangering the lives of any of the soldiers.

In winter, when the army finally arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, Governor Young met with his replacement and, together with Thomas L. Kane, a mediator friendly to the Church, they resolved the misjudgments that had been made in Washington. The Saints returned to their homes, and Governor Cumming won their respect as a just administrator.

The 1860s and 1870s brought continued expansion. In Mormon settlements where almost everyone was a member of the Church, life centered around ward activities—ward socials, dances, dramatic presentations, and choirs. (Wards varied greatly in size and until the 1860s, they were without auxiliaries with the exception of some Sunday Schools for children.) The bishop played a central role in community life. He supervised the ward teachers who in turn helped him oversee temporal duties; managing the use of scarce irrigation water, handling community livestock herds, cleaning and caring for the meetinghouse, and looking after the needs of widows. At weekly sacrament meetings, the speakers were as likely to advise the townspeople on practical matters such as mending fences and hauling firewood as they were to preach a gospel sermon.

The isolation of Latter-day Saint communities ended rather abruptly in the 1860s when soldiers stationed near Salt Lake City discovered rich deposits of silver and gold. Prospectors flocked to Utah in large numbers and introduced a new social influence into the largely Mormon population. The influx of outsiders increased when the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. The railroad quickly replaced the wagon train as the chief means of cross-country transportation. Both freight and passengers could now reach Utah in relative ease. The era of pioneering ended.

But the availability of eastern goods threatened Utah’s self-contained economy, and Church leaders responded with economic programs designed to build the territory’s ability to be self-sufficient. During the late 1860s, Brigham Young started what came to be known as the cooperative movement. Each ward was encouraged to organize a cooperative store plus other businesses of appropriate local specialty—a livestock herd, a broom factory, a tannery, or a cheese factory. Members purchased shares of stock in these ward companies and the entire community benefited as the local economy grew. However, most of these enterprises could not compete successfully in quality or price with imported goods, and eventually were disbanded or sold to major stockholders.

In the mid-1870s, Latter-day Saints felt the need to increase Church activities aimed at reaching youth and strengthening the home. Relief Societies were reorganized in 1867. Then under President Young’s direction, the Relief Society established Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Associations in all the wards, and in 1875, the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association was inaugurated. The Sunday School, organized only through local initiative until this time, became a Church-wide program in 1867 under the direction of Elder George Q. Cannon.

The growing solidarity of the Church was symbolized in part by its building program. The Salt Lake Tabernacle, begun in 1863, was sufficiently completed by October 1867 to hold general conference beneath its arch-roofed dome. In 1871, Brigham Young directed the Saints in St. George, Utah to begin a temple to serve southern Utah and Nevada. The aging prophet presided at the dedication of that temple in April 1877. He dedicated sites for the Logan and Manti temples that same spring, only months before his death. The St. George Temple was the first temple completed since the exodus from Nauvoo more than twenty years before. (The Endowment House on Temple Square in Salt Lake City had served temporarily during these years of pioneering.)

Tabernacle on Temple Square

Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, begun in 1863. Photo by Charles R. Savage taken prior to tabernacle’s completion in 1867.

It was only with concerted devotion and sacrifice that the Latter-day Saints completed these early temples. Four days after Brigham Young arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, he broke ground on a spot selected for a temple. Although he supervised much of its early construction, he did not live to see its completion after forty years. His fellow apostle, President Wilford Woodruff, presided over the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple in April 1893.

[photo] Original tabernacle on Temple Square, completed in 1852. Photo by Marcena Cannon.

[photo] President Brigham Young selected this site for the Salt Lake Temple 28 July 1847. Then on 14 February 1853, he broke ground and Heber C. Kimball dedicated the site. Photo of groundbreaking and site dedication taken by Marcena Cannon.