Chapter Twenty-Eight: Utah in Isolation

Church History In The Fulness Of Times Student Manual, (2003), 352–367

When the Saints first arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, they were satisfied that they were isolated from their enemies and could build the kingdom of God in peace and safety. Brigham Young declared to members of the Pioneer Company on 24 July 1847, “If the people of the United States will let us alone for ten years, we will ask no odds of them.”1With the sustaining help of the Lord and by their own industry, the Saints established a strong refuge within the ten years. Success, however, did not come easily. Conflicts developed with government appointees, and great sacrifice was required to gather Church members to Zion and to colonize.

Organization of Utah Territory

Church leaders laid plans in 1848 to negotiate with the United States government for either statehood or territorial status. In March of 1849 an election was held to ratify officers for the proposed territory, and by early May a twenty-two-foot long petition containing 2,270 signatures was on its way to Washington, D.C., proposing the creation of an immense territory including all of what is now Utah and Nevada, portions of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Oregon, and a third of California, including a narrow strip on the Pacific coast taking in the port city of San Diego.

John M. Bernhisel, a medical doctor with political acumen, was chosen to take Deseret’s petition to the nation’s capital. En route to Washington from Deseret he met with several key politicians in the East and succeeded in soliciting considerable support for his project. In November 1849, Dr. Bernhisel met in Philadelphia with Wilford Woodruff and Colonel Thomas L. Kane, a close friend of the Church. A year earlier at the request of Brigham Young, Kane had been in Washington and had spoken with President James K. Polk and other leading officials about a territorial government for Deseret. He had found little sympathy for the Mormons in Washington and therefore recommended that Deseret apply for statehood. Under territorial status officials would be appointed by the president.

Kane told Wilford Woodruff, “You are better off without any Government from the hands of Congress than a Territorial Government. The political intrigues of government officers will be against you. You can govern yourselves better than they can govern you. … You do not want corrupt political men from Washington strutting around you with military epaulets and dress who will speculate out of you all they can.” Kane also recommended that Brigham Young be the governor because “His head is not filled with law books and lawyers tactics but he has power to see through men and things.”2

By the time Bernhisel met with Kane, Church officials in Salt Lake City had also concluded that they should direct their lobbying efforts toward becoming a state rather than a territory. They drew up a formal constitution for the State of Deseret, complete with the necessary elected officials, including First Presidency members Brigham Young as governor, Heber C. Kimball as lieutenant governor, and Willard Richards as secretary of state. Almon W. Babbitt was selected as a delegate to Congress, and he left in July with a draft of the constitution. Babbitt printed the document in Kanesville, Iowa, and then in December met Dr. Bernhisel in Washington.

Unfortunately, Deseret’s application for statehood was not given serious consideration. As Colonel Kane and Dr. Bernhisel quickly perceived, Washington officials were preoccupied with the conflict between the northern and southern states over the extension of slavery into the territory obtained in the war with Mexico. From December 1849 through September 1850 Congress vehemently debated slavery-related issues and showed little concern for the Mormon colony in the Great Basin.

The Church’s best friend in Congress proved to be Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who had befriended Joseph Smith and the Saints during the Nauvoo period. Douglas, the chairman of the Senate committee on territories, graciously met with Dr. Bernhisel and promised to help take the petition through the legislative process. Although Congress willingly agreed to rapidly growing California’s petition for statehood, the slavery controversy prohibited serious consideration of the statehood petitions for sparsely populated Deseret and New Mexico. Senator Douglas decided to call for territorial status instead, to appease the South, which could not accept more senators from “free” states. He also changed Deseret’s name to Utah (after the Ute Indians) to avoid offending his colleagues, particularly Senator Thomas Benton of Missouri, who thought Deseret sounded too much like desert.3

After lengthy debate, Congress completed a legislative package known as the Compromise of 1850, which, among other things, admitted California into the Union as a free state and designated Utah and New Mexico as territories with the right to decide by popular sovereignty whether they would eventually become slave or free states. On 9 September 1850 President Millard Fillmore signed the bill creating the Utah Territory. Neither the Latter-day Saints nor the federal officials knew then that this action would begin forty-six years of mistrust and conflict before statehood was finally granted.4

Bernhisel’s skill as a lobbyist became particularly important as President Fillmore considered appointment of officers for the new territory. Meeting with the president, Bernhisel stated, “The people of Utah cannot but consider it their right, as American citizens to be governed by men of their own choice, entitled to their confidence, and united with them in opinion and feeling.”5Fillmore, fearing that the Senate would not approve an all-Mormon slate, compromised and selected four Mormons (Young, Snow, Blair, and Heywood) and four others to the federally appointed slots. The appointees for the new territory of Utah were Brigham Young, governor and superintendent of Indian affairs; Broughton D. Harris of Vermont, secretary; Joseph Buffington of Pennsylvania, chief justice; Zerubbabel Snow of Ohio and Perry E. Brocchus of Alabama, associate justices; Seth M. Blair of Utah, U.S. attorney; Joseph L. Heywood of Utah, U.S. marshal; and Henry R. Day, Indian agent.

Conflict with the Non-Mormons

Throughout the fall and winter of 1850–51, fragments of information about the federal government’s action reached the Salt Lake Valley. Upon learning that he was appointed governor and assigned to take a census and establish legislative districts, Brigham Young got to work immediately after taking the oath of office on 3 February 1851. An election for other officials was held in August, the most important official elected being John M. Bernhisel, as territorial delegate to Congress.

The non-Mormon appointees arrived during the following summer. The first to come was Chief Justice Lemuel D. Brandebury, who had replaced Joseph Buffington after he had refused his appointment. The Saints charitably greeted Brandebury and entertained him with a banquet and several dances. Each of the other officials was accorded similar treatment. The last to come was Associate Judge Perry E. Brocchus, who told his traveling companion, Orson Hyde, that he would like to be considered for the position of congressional delegate from Utah Territory. When he arrived on 17 August, he was disappointed to learn of Bernhisel’s election.

Conflict between the Saints and the “Gentile” officials began almost immediately. The territorial secretary, Broughton Harris, accused Brigham Young of irregularities in handling the census and election, which technically could not be certified without the secretary. Mrs. Harris condescendingly referred to the Mormon men and their plural wives as hardly better than animals. Because of his alienation, Harris refused to turn over to Governor Young the territorial seal and the twenty-four thousand dollars appropriated for running the government.

In September, Judge Perry Brocchus asked Brigham Young for permission to speak in the Church’s general conference. After expressing gratitude for the kindness and hospitality of the Saints, he launched into a diatribe against the Mormons for their lack of patriotism and the immorality of their women (because of plural marriage). The audience was infuriated with Brocchus’s speech. President Young took the stand and rebuked Brocchus for his imprudent remarks. The two men later exchanged letters, which, instead of achieving accord, revealed an irreconcilable difference. From the non-member point of view, the Mormons were guilty of sedition for speaking harshly against the United States and its officials, they were a peculiar and immoral people because of their unusual marriage practices, and they were under the “un-American” political domination of their church leaders. The Latter-day Saints, on the other hand, felt justified in criticizing the United States for not redressing their grievances against Missouri and not bringing the murderers of Joseph and Hyrum Smith to justice. Furthermore, they pointed out that despite these injustices, they were loyal to the Constitution.

Brocchus, Harris, Brandebury, and Day left Utah on 28 September 1851. These “runaway officials” as the Saints called them, went to Washington, D.C., with highly colored stories about the Mormons, including the practice of plural marriage. They claimed they had been compelled to leave Utah because of the lawless acts and seditious tendencies of Brigham Young and the majority of the residents. Anticipating these charges, Governor Young wrote to President Fillmore setting forth his own view of affairs in the territory. He also sent Jedediah M. Grant to join John M. Bernhisel and Thomas L. Kane in Washington to represent the Church’s interest. After reading Governor Young’s letter and conducting a preliminary investigation, U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster ordered the “runaway officials” to return to their posts or to resign; they resigned.6

Back in Utah territorial business proceeded unhindered, and the laws previously enacted by the provisional State of Deseret were officially incorporated into territorial law. In honor of the president of the United States, the legislature created Millard County, christened its county seat Fillmore, and designated it as the future territorial capital. The most important legislative act, passed on 4 February 1852, gave original jurisdiction in both civil and criminal cases to local probate courts, which were presided over by Church officials. This, in effect, made it possible in most instances for these local courts to displace the federal courts, which were presided over by judges appointed by the president of the United States. This situation prevailed in Utah until Congress repealed the territorial statute in 1874. Meanwhile President Fillmore appointed officials who, because they did not criticize the Saints, were more to the citizens’ liking.7

In the fall of 1853, a tragedy brought sorrow to both Saints and Gentiles alike. Captain John W. Gunnison led a party of army topographical engineers to survey in the Utah Territory for the proposed transcontinental railroad. In October, a band of vengeful Indians, angered because members of a California emigrant train had killed one of their tribe and wounded two others, attacked Gunnison’s party, killing the commander and seven others. “The tragedy cast a gloom over all the ‘Mormon’ settlements” because Gunnison “was respected by all the people for his kindness and friendly feeling.” Even though Church members had no part in the killing, the image of the Church suffered from rumors that the Mormons had planned and ordered the awful deed.8

In 1854 at the conclusion of Brigham Young’s term of four years as governor, President Franklin Pierce refused the entreaties of the Utah citizens to reappoint him. Instead, he selected Colonel E. J. Steptoe as governor. Steptoe was in Utah on assignment to study the feasibility of a military road through the territory and to assist in capturing the murderers of the Gunnison party. Instead of accepting the governorship, Steptoe signed a petition that Brigham Young be reappointed; he then left for California. Pierce offered the position to others, but when they also declined he reappointed Brigham Young as governor.9

Gathering to Zion Accelerated

In spite of the seemingly all-consuming task of building a model city in their new Zion, Church leaders took on additional challenges. Few things were more urgent than spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ and preparing for the arrival of converted Saints. It was the goal of the Church to gather all members to the West. Missionary work was so successful first in Britain and then in various parts of the European continent, that in the early 1850s Church members there outnumbered those in Utah. For example, there were 30,747 Latter-day Saints in the British Isles in 1850 and 11,380 in Utah. As missionary success continued, it became a Herculean task to arrange for the emigration of so many people, particularly since most converts were poor.

Despite these challenges, with the organization of the Perpetual Emigrating Fund (PEF) in 1849, the remaining Saints at the camps in Iowa were brought into the valley by 1852. Attention could then be given to gathering the many thousands of Church members in Europe. Friends and relatives in Utah played an important part in gathering the European Saints. Church leaders encouraged friends and family members to contribute cash, or items that could be converted to cash, to the PEF office in Salt Lake City, which in turn directed the agents abroad to send the persons named under the care of the company. Most immigrants, however, did not come totally by way of PEF funds. Many European Saints paid all or part of their own way.10

The PEF employed various agents along the route to the Great Basin to assist the immigrating Saints. The agent in Liverpool, England, chartered ships and assembled and instructed prospective emigrants. During the first few years, the emigrants sailed to New Orleans, where another representative met them and booked passage up the Mississippi River to St. Louis. A third agent arranged transit up the Missouri River about five hundred miles to an outfitting post, where a final agent prepared them for the overland journey to Utah. In 1855 the New Orleans-Mississippi River route was abandoned for health reasons in favor of entry into the United States at Philadelphia, New York, or Boston, where immigrants traveled by rail either to St. Louis or another railhead farther west. The entire journey usually required eight or nine months.11

In over half a century of sea travel, the Saints “experienced only one sea disaster, the wreck of the American bark Julia Ann .”12Twenty-eight members of the Church were aboard the Julia Ann, which set sail from Australia bound for San Francisco. Five people lost their lives when the ship encountered strong winds that swept them into a coral reef. “The Saints and some masters attributed this remarkable safety record to the hand of Providence and the fact that ships were often dedicated and blessed before embarking on an emigrant voyage. Many of these vessels were eventually lost at sea, but not while carrying Mormon passengers.”13

A grasshopper plague during the summer of 1855 seriously jolted the economy in Utah, and even with the donations from the Saints, the PEF was in financial difficulty. Church leaders therefore sought a way to cut the costs of immigration.14Brigham Young wrote to Franklin D. Richards, the European mission president, in September 1855: “We cannot afford to purchase wagons and teams as in times past, I am consequently thrown back upon my old plan—to make hand-carts, and let the emigration foot it, and draw upon them the necessary supplies, having a cow or two for every ten. They can come just as quick, if not quicker, and much cheaper—can start earlier and escape the prevailing sickness which annually lays so many of our brethren in the dust.”15A general epistle by the First Presidency giving detailed instructions on handcart travel was read at the October 1855 general conference but was not acted upon until 1856. It was estimated that using handcarts would reduce emigration costs by a third to a half for each person. Consequently many more people could come to Zion through the available PEF funds.

Immigration during 1856 was unusually large with many of the Saints crossing the plains for the first time by handcart. Arriving at eastern United States seaports, they made their way by rail to the terminus at Iowa City, Iowa. There agents arranged for the preparation of handcarts designed for either pushing or pulling a load of one hundred to five hundred pounds of food and clothing. The first three companies, led by returning missionaries, heroically walked the plains, arriving safely in the Salt Lake Valley between 26 September and 2 October.16Elder J.D.T. McAllister, who helped the first company get outfitted, composed a merry song, which the handcart emigrants sang as they crossed the plains:

Ye Saints that dwell on Europe’s shores,
Prepare yourselves with many more
To leave behind your native land
   For sure God’s Judgments are at hand.

Prepare to cross the stormy main
Before you do the valley gain
And with the faithful make a start
   To cross the plains with your hand cart.


Some must push and some must pull
   As we go marching up the hill,
As merrily on the way we go
   Until we reach the valley, oh. 17

Like those who preceded them, the handcart companies had their share of adventure and trial. A rescue of six-year-old Arthur Parker occurred as the first handcart company was en route on a forest trail between Iowa City and Florence, Nebraska. One day Arthur, who had been ill, sat down unnoticed to rest along the trail. The company traveled on until a sudden storm came up, and they hurriedly made camp. Finding that Arthur was not with the children, they began an organized search. After two days of searching, the company was forced by dwindling supplies to move on. Brother Parker went back on the trail alone to search for his son. As he left, his wife gave him a bright red shawl. If the son were found dead, the father was to wrap him in the shawl; if alive, he was to wave the shawl as a signal to the watchful family.

For hours Brother Parker retraced their route, calling, searching, and praying for his helpless little son. At a mail and trading station he learned that a farmer and his wife had found Arthur and helped him. For three days Ann Parker and her children watched and waited, and the entire company prayed for little Arthur. On the third day as she looked back along the trail she saw her husband in the distance. He was waving the shawl. Ann sank to the sand. She slept that night for the first time in six days.18

Twiss Birmingham, also a member of the first handcart company, recorded that the company averaged about twenty-five miles a day pulling the handcarts. On 3 August 1856, Twiss recorded in his journal: “Started at 5 o’clock without any breakfast and had to pull the carts through 6 miles of heavy sand. Some places the wheels were up to the boxes and I was so weak from thirst and hunger and being exhausted with the pain of the boils that I was obliged to lie down several times, and many others had to do the same. Some fell down. I was very much grieved today, so much so that I thought my heart would burst—sick—and poor Kate—at the same time—crawling on her hands and knees, and the children crying with hunger and fatigue. I was obliged to take the children and put them on the hand cart and urge them along the road in order to make them keep up.”19

As the Saints prepared for general conference in Salt Lake City in October 1856, everyone assumed that the arrival of the third handcart company ended the immigration that year. But Franklin D. Richards, who had come into the valley two days prior to the conference, announced that two more handcart companies and two ox-cart supply trains were still on the plains and desperately needed food and clothing to finish the journey. The Willie and Martin companies had started late from Liverpool and were further delayed in Iowa City awaiting the construction of new handcarts. Because the wood for these carts was not properly seasoned, extensive repairs were necessary in Florence, Nebraska, which further slowed them down.

One of their leaders, Levi Savage, had urged the Saints to remain at Winter Quarters until spring, but he was voted down by the enthusiastic but naive immigrants. Brother Savage then declared, “Brethren and sisters, what I have said I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help you all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, will suffer with you, and, if necessary I will die with you. May God in his mercy bless and preserve us.”20In early October the immigrants were toiling through the middle of Wyoming, where each member’s scant allotment of clothing gave little comfort in the frosty mornings.21

When Brigham Young learned that these companies were still on the plains, he spoke to the Saints who had gathered for general conference. The meeting was actually held on 5 October, one day before the conference officially convened. Brigham Young said:

“The text will be, ‘to get them here.’ …

“I shall call upon the Bishops this day, I shall not wait until to-morrow, nor until next day, for 60 good mule teams and 12 or 15 wagons. …

“I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the celestial kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the plains.”22The response was impressive. Sixteen wagon loads of food and supplies were quickly assembled; and on the morning of 7 October, sixteen good four-mule teams and twenty-seven hardy young men (known as Brigham Young’s “Minute Men”) headed eastward with the first provisions. More help was solicited and obtained from all parts of the territory. By the end of October, two hundred and fifty teams were on the road to give relief.23

Meanwhile early snows trapped the Willie Company a few miles east of South Pass and the Martin Company further back near the last crossing of the North Platte River. Relief parties finally found the Willie Company on 19 October and the Martin Company nine days later. Some rescuers looking for the Martin Company had even turned back thinking that the immigrants must have found some kind of winter quarters. The Saints in both companies were freezing, listless, and near starvation. Scores of them were already dead, and even after help arrived, nearly a hundred more died.24

One of the first to find the desperate Martin Company was the hardy Ephraim Hanks, who had killed and butchered a buffalo on his way. Ephraim recalled, “I reached the ill-fated train just as the immigrants were camping for the night. The sight that met my gaze as I entered their camp can never be erased from my memory. The starved forms and haggard countenances of the poor sufferers, as they moved about slowly, shivering with cold, to prepare their scanty evening meal was enough to touch the stoutest heart. When they saw me coming, they hailed me with joy inexpressible, and when they further beheld the supply of fresh meat I brought into camp, their gratitude knew no bounds.”25

Bringing the suffering immigrants into the valley was difficult. Many of the women were widowed and the children orphaned. Several could not walk because of frozen feet and legs. When shoes and stockings were removed from the feet of fourteen-year-old Maggie Pucell and her ten-year-old sister Ellen, the skin came off. The dead flesh was scraped off Maggie’s feet, but Ellen’s were frozen so badly that amputation just below the knees was necessary. The Willie Company arrived in Salt Lake City on 9 November, and the Martin Company dragged into the city before cheering Saints on 30 November. In December, members of the independent wagon trains, who had rested at Fort Bridger, reached the valley.26

Over two hundred members of the two ill-fated handcart companies died before they could reach Zion. More people died in these two companies than in any other immigrant group in the United States. The fault was not in the method of travel, but was the result of a combination of many unusual and largely unforeseen circumstances. In subsequent years the Church sponsored five more handcart companies, and each of them arrived in the valley without undue hardship.

Colonization Expands

When immigrants arrived in Salt Lake City, they were usually met as they emerged from Emigration Canyon and escorted to a city block named Emigration Square. Brigham Young or some other Church leader welcomed them, and wards in the city treated them to a well-deserved celebration feast. After a few days of being cared for by the local Saints, these new arrivals were sent to other communities or were given land and work in the Salt Lake City area. Especially in the early years, the immigrants were usually assigned a location, often based on a correlation between their skills and the needs of the various communities. Between 1847 and 1857, over one hundred towns were founded and colonized.27

Following the work of Parley P. Pratt’s Southern Exploring Company in 1849–50, Church leaders began establishing communities along the “Mormon Corridor” on the line of mountains leading southwestwardly toward southern California. The first of these were Parowan, an agriculture center, and Cedar City, the headquarters of the “iron mission,” both founded in 1851. By 1853 nearly all the sites recommended by the Southern Exploring Company had been settled.

San Bernardino, in southern California, was also founded in 1851. It was designed to serve as a base of supplies and a receiving station near a Pacific port. Elders Amasa Lyman and Charles C. Rich of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles presided over the colony, which grew to some seven thousand people by 1857. Plans to bring the European Saints around South America’s Cape Horn and through San Bernardino up the Mormon Corridor to Salt Lake City never materialized because ships could not be chartered. Some of the Saints from Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific islands, however, did come via San Bernardino. Brigham Young eventually came to doubt the wisdom of having such a large center in California. In 1857 members of the colony were called home, partly because federal troops were approaching Utah and partly because the colony was experiencing internal dissension and problems with non-Mormon neighbors. Some residents of San Bernardino did not respond to the prophet’s direction and remained in California.

The expansion of the settlements was also influenced by missionary work among the Indians. Soon after the founding of Cedar City, groups were sent to explore the Virgin and Santa Clara rivers, and in 1854 men were sent to work among the Indians of that region. The missionaries not only taught the gospel, but also tried to help the Indians build homes and learn better agricultural methods. Missionaries were also assigned to establish Indian missions in Las Vegas, Nevada, at Elk Mountain on the Colorado River near present-day Moab, Utah, and at Fort Lemhi on the Salmon River in central Idaho. The Elk Mountain mission, while experiencing some success among the Utes, was abandoned in 1855 because fighting erupted between the Utes and Navajos, and some Indians attacked the missionaries. The settlers in Las Vegas and Fort Lemhi were recalled by Brigham Young in 1858. A primary reason for closing the fort was an attack by the Shoshone Indians upon Fort Lemhi, which resulted in the death of several of the missionaries.

The Church set up two outposts near the point where the Oregon and Mormon trails divided. The purposes of the outposts were to supervise access to Utah from the east and to serve as supply stations for immigrants. Brigham Young wanted to purchase Fort Bridger from mountain man Jim Bridger, but when Orson Hyde led a group of colonists to the fort in 1853, Bridger and his companions refused to sell. Disappointed, but not discouraged, the brethren set up a new colony, Fort Supply, approximately twelve miles to the south. Here they did missionary work among the Indians. In 1855 the Church was finally able to buy Fort Bridger from owners Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez. The two outposts provided supplies for both Mormon and non-Mormon travelers.28

The final outlying settlement formed during these first ten years was Carson Valley in present-day western Nevada (still part of Utah Territory in the 1850s). Brigham Young sent Elder Orson Hyde there in 1855 to act as probate judge and to organize a county government. In 1856 some 250 people were called to colonize the beautiful valley and to proselyte and civilize the Indians. Difficulties soon arose, however, with non-Mormons who fretted at the political control and cultural influence of the Church. Discovery of gold in the area added to the problems, and in 1857 the colony was disbanded.

Despite problems with outlying settlements, several factors assured the general success of the Church’s colonization efforts. It was rare for individuals or groups to start their own settlements. Most of the sites were preselected and settled under Church auspices. Sites were carefully chosen to ensure adequate water, fertile soil, access to other important resources, and safety from Indian attack. Furthermore, large numbers of capable men headed up the colonies. Hundreds of bishops, presiding elders, and stake presidents directed the building of individual towns and villages and acted as civil officials as well as spiritual advisers. Many men served one, two, three, or more decades in these assignments. The lifeblood of the colonies was the thousands of immigrants who arrived each year. In Utah’s first decade, almost forty thousand Saints emigrated to Zion.29

There were different methods of obtaining personnel for the colonies. Brigham Young selected families whose names were then presented during general conference when new colonies were announced. Occasionally idle brethren who gathered on streets were assigned to serve missions or colonize. In the winter of 1855–56 for example, while court was in session, scores of men filled the council house to watch the proceedings or simply milled around. After several weeks of this, Brigham Young sent his clerk Thomas Bullock “to take their names, for the purpose of giving them missions, if they had not anything to do of any more importance.” From the names, President Heber C. Kimball selected thirty men to go to Las Vegas, forty-eight to Fort Bridger and Fort Supply, and thirty-five to go to Fort Lemhi. Others were assigned to the lead business near Las Vegas, and some were called to the East Indies. At other times Church officials designated the leaders and authorized them to select or recruit families. Not everyone was enthusiastic about the assignments, but in most instances these calls were accepted and viewed as a test of religious commitment.30

The leadership for each new settlement was carefully selected, and persons were chosen to supply the wide variety of useful talents and skills required to build a new town. Farmers were the mainstay of most settlements, but carpenters, millwrights, mechanics, cabinetmakers, plasterers, painters, brick makers, masons, dam builders, weavers, tailors, tanners, surveyors, butchers, bakers, schoolteachers, musicians, wagon makers, wheelwrights, and others were also needed. The typical settlement was carefully designed to encourage close-knit social life and religious activity. The center square was set apart for a meetinghouse, which served as both church and school. Typically, communities were laid out in square blocks separated by wide streets. Each family had acreage in town for a garden, a small orchard, and sheds for poultry and livestock, but the main planting and the herding of cattle took place outside the village.31

Many of the unsung heroines of the colonization effort were the women who went to the new outposts. In most Latter-day Saint communities there was an almost equal balance of men and women. Women colonists did nearly as many traditionally male jobs as they did domestic chores. The sisters labored next to their husbands building homes, laying chimneys, chinking cracks, mudding the outside of log houses, and plastering and painting the inside. Women dug irrigation ditches, plowed, planted, harvested, chopped wood, stacked hay, and herded and milked cows.

Often Mormon women carried a heavier load than other western pioneer women because their husbands, fathers, and brothers were frequently away on missions or other Church assignments, and the managing of the family resources fell to the women and the older children. All of this was in addition to their normal duties of cooking and canning, drying fruit, grinding wheat, washing, ironing, quilting, sewing, darning, spinning, weaving, making soap and sugar, preparing for weddings, attending funerals, maintaining and beautifying homes, raising children, and attending to Church duties. Some women had additional home-based employment to help the family survive economically. They sewed, took in laundry, and made and sold butter, cheese, dried fruit, rag carpets, shoes, hats, yarn, cloth, candlewick, and candles. Others taught school or were midwives. The sisters cooperated with each other in the settlements, since few homes were totally self-sufficient.32

Growth of the Church in Early Utah

Throughout the Saints’ first decade in Utah, when approximately one hundred smaller communities were being colonized, Salt Lake City was developing into a major center. It was a planned community purposely designed to be the hub of a widespread religious commonwealth in the Great Basin. It was unique in the West because of its equitable distribution of land, community farms and herds, public work projects, organized immigration, and controlled use of natural resources. Emphasis on public convenience rather than the profitable sale of prime public lots also permitted the building of unusually wide streets.

General conferences were held semiannually in Salt Lake City, and the Saints often traveled hundreds of miles to attend. Conferences were a time of reunion and socializing and became one of the important symbols of Latter-day Saint unity. These conferences were held in the Old Tabernacle, which was dedicated on 6 April 1852 by President Willard Richards. The Old Tabernacle was also used for regular Sunday services attended by Brigham Young and other Church leaders. Most of the sermons delivered at the conferences and the Sunday meetings were recorded in the Church’s official newspaper, the Deseret News, founded in 1850; many of them, beginning in 1854, were compiled annually in England in the Journal of Discourses.

As part of his aim for economic self-sufficiency for the Saints, Brigham Young directed the building of tithing houses or bishops’ storehouses in every community. These served as supply sources for most goods needed by the Saints. Many people donated one day of labor in every ten toward various Church projects. Most common, however, was the payment of tithing “in kind.” Farmers brought chickens, eggs, cattle, vegetables, and home manufactured goods to the tithing houses. About two-thirds of the tithing donated at local offices went to the general tithing office in Salt Lake City for general Church needs.

From the beginning of their settlement in the Great Basin, the Saints exhibited interest in education and cultural life. During the first winter in Salt Lake City, a single school class for children was taught in a tent. Later Church leaders directed every ward to establish a school. The University of Deseret was created by the legislature of the provisional State of Deseret in 1850. That same year the Deseret Dramatic Association was organized, which performed several plays annually. Lorenzo Snow organized the Polysophical Society in 1852 to encourage people of all ages to study and develop themselves in all fields of thought and endeavor. He created the word polysophical when he could not think of an appropriate title for the organization.

“The society met weekly in Lorenzo’s home, where the members were treated to wide-ranging intellectual fare that included commentaries on scientific and philosophical subjects interspersed with instrumental and vocal music selections, readings, poems, and essays. Nor was it unusual for parts of the programs to be presented in languages other than English.”33In general, social life centered around the ward. Ward socials, dances, and dramas, and even some music clubs, contributed to the feeling of community among the Saints. Other associations that developed in the 1850s were the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society, the Deseret Theological Association, and the Horticultural Society.

The Church organization also adapted to the expanding community of Saints in Utah. Each settlement had at least one ward, which was presided over by a bishop. The bishop supervised both temporal and spiritual activities in the community. Preaching meetings were held each Sunday, and fast meetings were held one Thursday each month with members asked to contribute money saved by fasting. Block teaching was inaugurated. Block teachers were either adults from the Aaronic Priesthood or acting teachers from the Melchizedek Priesthood who visited the families in the ward and exhorted them to good works. Boys had not usually been ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood, but by January 1854 Wilford Woodruff recorded, “We are now beginning to ordain our young sons to the lesser priesthood here in Zion.”34

The most dramatic religious event of the 1850s was the reformation of 1856–57. While the new communities were being settled, many members of the Church had drifted into spiritual lethargy as they struggled to survive on the frontier. During their first decade in the West, most Saints had concentrated on temporal affairs and had often neglected individual spiritual matters. The need for a reformation became especially apparent in 1856 when the effects of rapid immigration into Utah and the severe drought and grasshopper plague of 1855 combined to threaten the economic stability of Utah. Many Saints wore threadbare clothing and were on the verge of starvation. Church leaders taught that these conditions had come about partly because of the Saints’ laxity in keeping the commandments.35

In 1856 the First Presidency commenced a reform movement. Leaders traveled throughout the territory preaching repentance with unprecedented fervor. Second Counselor Jedediah M. Grant in particular stirred many congregations with his enthusiastic sermons. Special reformation missionaries preached and called upon congregations to repent. Block teachers took a list of questions about moral behavior into the homes. Saints everywhere were called upon to rededicate themselves to the Lord and his commandments through rebaptism. Church leaders led the way. Elder Wilford Woodruff characterized the reformation: “The spirit of God is like a flame among the Leaders of this people and they are throwing the arrows of the Almighty among the people. JM Grant is pruning with a sharp two edged sword and calling loudly upon the people to wake up and repent of their sins. The Elders who have returned are full of the Holy Ghost and power of God.”36

The reformation had a positive effect upon the Saints. Religion and moral practices once again took prominence in their lives. They demonstrated by rescuing the stricken handcart companies that they truly cared for each other and could successfully organize to meet emergencies. By the summer of 1857, ten years after first entering the Great Basin, the Church was on a strong footing and was accomplishing the things it was restored to the earth to do.

Time Line



Significant Event


Saints established over one hundred colonies in the West

Sept. 1850

Utah became a territory with Brigham Young appointed as governor

Sept. 1851

“Runaway officials” left Utah Territory

Summer 1855

Drought and grasshopper plague hurt Utah economy

Fall 1856

“Reformation” began

Oct.–Nov. 1856

Heroic rescue of Willie and Martin handcart companies

John M. Bernhisel

John M. Bernhisel (1799–1881) was born and raised in Pennsylvania. He studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. After joining the Church he was called to serve as a bishop in New York in 1841.

After the Saints had established a home in the Rocky Mountains, Bernhisel was chosen to represent them as a delegate to Congress. He served in this office for four consecutive terms (1851–59). He was reelected in 1861 and served until 1863, when he retired from public office.

Thomas L. Kane

Thomas Leiper Kane (1822–83) was one of the great philanthropists of his time, helping those in prison, the Quakers, and also the Saints for almost forty years. From 1861 to 1863 he fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union, and he was wounded several times.

Four months after Thomas L. Kane died of pneumonia, Elder George Q. Cannon performed his temple work for him in the St. George Utah Temple.

map of Deseret

The proposed state of Deseret

old state capitol in Fillmore, Utah

Initially the leaders of the Church preferred a geographically centralized location for the territorial capital. Thus, Fillmore was chosen in October 1851. The capitol building, designed by Truman O. Angell, was started in December 1851 with only the south wing being completed by March 1857.

The territorial legislature first met here in December 1855. Only the one session was held in Fillmore. It was decided to hold the legislative sessions in Salt Lake City until the federal government provided enough funds to complete the building.

If the money had been appropriated and President Young’s plans followed, the building would have included wings to the east, west, and north. These would have then been connected by a central rotunda with a dome. The south wing has been used as a place for religious meetings, a school house, a city and county civic center, a theater, a jail, a dance hall, and finally as a museum.

Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society

world map with sea routes

Sea routes of Mormon emigration

Ephraim K. Hanks

Ephraim Knowlton Hanks (1826–96) was ordained a seventy while living in Nauvoo, where he labored on the Nauvoo Temple. He served in the Mormon Battalion. After going to Utah he carried the United States mail between Salt Lake and the Missouri River, a distance of over twelve hundred miles. Ephraim crossed the plains over fifty times in seven years. Three years prior to his death he was ordained a patriarch by Brigham Young, Jr.

Handcart companies


Crossed Plains

1. Edmund L. Ellsworth


2. Daniel D. McArthur


3. Edward Bunker


4. James G. Willie


5. Edward Martin


6. Israel Evans


7. Christian Christiansen


8. George Rowley


9. Daniel Robinson


10. Oscar O. Stoddard


map of Mormon Corridor

The route through southern Utah across Nevada and into southern California was known as the Mormon Corridor. A string of settlements or forts along this route provided shelter and protection for the traveler all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

stone wall at Cove Fort

Cove Fort was begun in 1867. Ira Nathaniel Hinckley was called by Brigham Young to leave his home in Coalville in 1867 and build the fort along Cove Creek between the settlements of Fillmore on the north and Beaver on the south. A day’s journey from either town, the fort provided protection for travelers.

Each wall of the fort was one hundred feet long, with the walls being four feet wide at the base and narrowing to two feet at the top. The walls were eighteen feet high.

On 13 August 1988 the deed to the historic fort was presented to the Church. The fort is now used as a visitors’ center.

Thomas Bullock

Thomas Bullock (1816–85) served many years in the Church as a clerk in one capacity or another. He was a clerk to Joseph Smith and then to Brigham Young. He was also the clerk of the pioneer camp that entered the Salt Lake Valley on 24 July 1847. An ordained seventy, he served two missions to England—in 1842 and again in 1856.

Deseret News

The Deseret News was first published 15 June 1850 in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was published as a weekly paper until 10 December 1898. The Deseret Semi Weekly News was published 8 October 1865 until 12 June 1922. The Deseret Evening News, a daily newspaper, began publishing 2 November 1867. On 15 June 1920, Evening was dropped from the masthead, and it has been called the Deseret News since that time.


The Brigham Young schoolhouse, located east of the Beehive House, was where President Young’s children and a few of the neighbor children attended school.

printed list of worthiness questions

Questions that block teachers asked the Latter-day Saint families they visited

Show References


  1.   1.

    In Journal of Discourses, 5:226.

  2.   2.

    In Wilford Woodruff Journals, following 31 Dec. 1849 entry, LDS Historical Department, Salt Lake City; spelling and capitalization standardized.

  3.   3.

    See Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 5, 21, 27 Mar. 1850, Historical Department, Salt Lake City.

  4.   4.

    This paragraph is derived from Eugene E. Campbell, “Governmental Beginnings,” in Richard D. Poll, et al., eds., Utah’s History, 2d ed. (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1989), p. 157.

  5.   5.

    In Journal History of the Church, 16 Sept. 1850.

  6.   6.

    See Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History, 27th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974), pp. 392–94.

  7.   7.

    Derived from Campbell, “Governmental Beginnings,” pp. 163–64.

  8.   8.

    Smith, Essentials in Church History, p. 406n.

  9.   9.

    Derived from Campbell, “Governmental Beginnings,” pp. 164–65.

  10.   10.

    Derived from Gustive O. Larson, “The Mormon Gathering,” in Poll, Utah’s History, p. 180.

  11.   11.

    Derived from Larson, “Mormon Gathering,” p. 180; James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976), p. 284.

  12.   12.

    Conway B. Sonne, Saints on the Seas: A Maritime History of Mormon Migration, 1830–1890 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1983), p. 78.

  13.   13.

    Sonne, Saints on the Seas, p. 58.

  14.   14.

    Derived from Allen and Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, p. 284.

  15.   15.

    “Foreign Correspondence,” Millennial Star, 22 Dec. 1855, p. 813.

  16.   16.

    Derived from Larson, “Mormon Gathering,” p. 181.

  17.   17.

    In LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion (Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1960), p. 272.

  18.   18.

    See Treasures of Pioneer History, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1952–57), 5:240–41.

  19.   19.

    “To Utah—By Hand,” American Legion Magazine, in Eliza M. Wakefield, The Handcart Trail (Sun Valley Shopper, 1949), p. 13.

  20.   20.

    In Hafen and Hafen, Handcarts to Zion, pp. 96–97.

  21.   21.

    Derived from Larson, “Mormon Gathering,” p. 182.

  22.   22.

    “Remarks,” Deseret News, 15 Oct. 1856, p. 252.

  23.   23.

    Derived from Hafen and Hafen, Handcarts to Zion, pp. 124–25.

  24.   24.

    Derived from Hafen and Hafen, Handcarts to Zion, p. 135.

  25.   25.

    Hafen and Hafen, Handcarts to Zion, p. 135.

  26.   26.

    Derived from Hafen and Hafen, Handcarts to Zion, p. 138.

  27.   27.

    Derived from Allen and Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, pp. 285–86.

  28.   28.

    Previous four paragraphs derived from Allen and Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, pp. 266–67.

  29.   29.

    Previous two paragraphs derived from Eugene E. Campbell, “Early Colonization Patterns,” in Poll, Utah’s History, pp. 144, 149.

  30.   30.

    Letter from Heber C. Kimball to his son William, in “Foreign Correspondence,” Millennial Star, 21 June 1856, p. 397.

  31.   31.

    Derived from Allen and Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, p. 269.

  32.   32.

    See Ann Vest Lobb and Jill Mulvay Derr, “Women in Early Utah,” in Poll, Utah’s History, pp. 337–56.

  33.   33.

    Francis M. Gibbons, Lorenzo Snow: Spiritual Giant, Prophet of God (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1982), p. 73.

  34.   34.

    Wilford Woodruff Journals, 31 Jan. 1854; spelling and capitalization standardized.

  35.   35.

    Previous six paragraphs derived from Allen and Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, pp. 272, 275–79.

  36.   36.

    Wilford Woodruff Journals, 9 Oct. 1856; spelling standardized.