Even under the best of circumstances pioneering a wilderness is a wearisome, laborious task. In the Great Basin of the West, it was an unending struggle against drought, Indians, difficult travel conditions, poverty, scarcity of water power, excessive freight rates on merchandise brought overland, crickets, grasshoppers, and crop failures. Tragedies were frequent in the fight to secure a foothold in this vast, forbidding country.
One would think that under such conditions there would be little time for spiritual matters. But the Saints were ever conscious of the reason they had come to this region. It was not for adventure; nor was it to get rich. They had seen more than enough adventure in Missouri and Illinois, and the lands they had left were far richer than those of the valleys of the mountains. They had come to worship God and to build up his work.
Converts from the Nations
It was not uncommon for men suddenly to be called by the Church to go to distant lands as missionaries. Such labor invariably meant great sacrifice on the part of both the missionary and the family at home. While the father preached the gospel, the mother and children did the heavy chores, though they were frequently assisted by members of the priesthood who took time from their own work.
Converts in large numbers gathered to the colonies in the mountains. To assist the poor, the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company was formed in 1849, whereby those needing help might borrow money to care for their transportation, the money to be paid back as quickly as possible so that others might be benefited. The fund began functioning in 1850, and within the next thirty years it aided forty thousand people to get to Utah and did a business amounting to $3,600,000.
Before the coming of the railroad, it was impossible to find wagons enough to carry all those who wished to cross the plains. Some of them were so anxious to gather with the Church that they walked, pulling handcarts more than a thousand miles. Most of those who traveled in this way reached the Salt Lake Valley safely and as quickly as those who moved with ox teams.
But bitter tragedy struck two of the handcart companies. The story of these is tersely told in two markers standing in the sage-covered country of Wyoming near South Pass. One of them reads:
“Captain James G. Willie’s Handcart Company of Mormon emigrants on their way to Utah, greatly exhausted by the deep snows of an early winter and suffering from lack of food and clothing, had assembled here for reorganization for relief parties from Utah, about the end of October, 1856. Thirteen persons were frozen to death during a single night and were buried here in one grave. Two others died the next day and were buried nearby. Of the company of 404 persons 77 perished before help arrived. The survivors reached Salt Lake City November 9, 1856.”
While standing in that lonely, tragic spot one may easily imagine the sorry situation in which these emigrants of 1856 found themselves—a group of hungry men, women, and children huddled together in the midst of a bleak and desolate wilderness, weary from walking more than a thousand miles, many of them sick from exhaustion and insufficient food, the handcarts they had pulled standing beside the makeshift tents they had contrived to erect against the swirling snow.
These two companies had been delayed in their departure from Iowa City because their carts were not ready as expected. The authorities in Salt Lake City were not notified of their coming and consequently had made no preparations to see them through. When early storms caught them in the western country of Wyoming, they found themselves in desperate circumstances.
Fortunately, they had been passed on the way by returning missionaries traveling in a light wagon. Sensing the situation, these men pushed on to Salt Lake City with all possible speed. They found the Church in general conference, but when Brigham Young heard their story, he dismissed the meeting and immediately organized teams and wagons to go to the aid of the stricken emigrants. After pushing through harrowing experiences themselves, the rescue party reached the Willie company at Rock Creek Hollow. Leaving aid there, they pressed on to the Martin company some distance further east. The tragic experiences of these two companies were the most sorrowful in the entire movement of the Mormon pioneers.
If the story of the handcart pioneers is a sorrowful chapter in the history of the Church, how much more tragic is the story of the Indians in the history of America. The philosophy that the only good Indian was a dead one was all too often the creed of men of the frontier. In marked contrast with this was Brigham Young’s policy that “it was manifestly more economical and less expensive, to feed and clothe, than to fight them.” 1 His generous treatment of the Indians led Senator Chase of Ohio to remark that “no Governor had ever done so well by the Indians, since Wm. Penn.” 2
Respect for the natives arose out of the Book of Mormon. This volume declares that the Indians are descendants of Israel. Their progenitors are known in that volume as the Lamanites, and, in a prophetic vein, the book speaks of a hopeful future for these people.
But though the Mormons were patient and generous, there was occasional trouble. Herds of horses and cattle were a temptation the Indian often could not resist. The natives raided settlements, and two serious outbreaks involved large losses of property. However, in view of the vast territory that they settled, the Mormons had relatively little trouble with the Indians. The history of their relations with the natives demonstrates the wisdom of Brigham Young’s policy.
The Utah War
Although the Mormons had little trouble with the Indians, they were to suffer from another source. On July 24, 1857, the inhabitants of Salt Lake City were celebrating the tenth anniversary of their arrival in the valley. Many of them had gone into one of the mountain canyons adjacent to the city for this purpose.
In the midst of the festivities, a dust-laden and weary horseman hurriedly rode to Brigham Young’s tent. He brought ominous news. The United States was sending an army to crush the Mormons! At least that was the story heard from the soldiers, who boasted of what they would do once they reached Salt Lake City.
This had come about largely because two disappointed applicants for government mail contracts had sent to Washington stories that Church members were in rebellion against the United States. As was later proved, their stories were absurd. Yet, on only the thin fabric of their tales, the President had ordered twenty-five hundred soldiers to put down a “Mormon rebellion.”
Though Brigham Young had properly been installed as governor of the territory, he had been given no notice of the coming of the troops. Not knowing what to expect, Church leaders made preparations. They determined that no other group, armed or otherwise, should again inhabit the homes which they had built. They concluded that if it became necessary they would make Utah the desert it had been before their arrival.
Men were dispatched to do what they could to delay the army and play for time in the hope that something might be done to turn the President from this madness. The prairie was burned and the cattle of the army were stampeded. The bridges which the Saints had built were destroyed and the fords dredged. But no lives were taken. Because of this carefully executed plan, the army was forced to go into winter quarter in what is now western Wyoming.
But the Church was not entirely without friends. Colonel Thomas L. Kane, brother of Elisha Kent Kane, the famed Arctic explorer, had become acquainted with the Saints when they were moving across Iowa and had witnessed the injustices they had suffered. He petitioned the President and received permission to go to Utah to learn the true state of affairs. Largely through his efforts, the President was persuaded to send to Utah a “peace commission” in the spring of 1858.
Brigham Young agreed that the army should be permitted to pass through the city, but should not encamp within it. And lest there should be any violations of this agreement, he put into effect the plan originally decided upon.
When the soldiers entered the valley they found the city desolate and deserted except for a few watchful men armed with flint and steel and sharp axes. The homes and barns were filled with straw ready to be fired in case of violation, and axes were ready to destroy the orchards.
The people had moved to the south, leaving their homes to be burned, as they had done on more than one occasion previously. Some of the army officers and men were deeply affected as they marched through the silent streets, realizing what their coming had meant. Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, who had led the Mormon Battalion on its long march and knew of the wrongs previously inflicted on these people, bared his head in reverent respect.
Fortunately there was no difficulty. The army camped forty miles southwest of the city, and the people returned to their homes.
A Man at Work
Joseph Smith had been succeeded by a man as peculiarly fitted in his day to lead the Church as the Prophet had been in his own. Brigham Young, called by some of his biographers “the modern Moses,” had led Israel to another Canaan with its Dead Sea. An interesting description of President Young is given by Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, who interviewed him in 1859:
“[Brigham Young] spoke readily … with no appearance of hesitation or reserve, and with no apparent desire to conceal anything, nor did he repel any of my questions as impertinent. He was very plainly dressed in thin summer clothing, and with no air of sanctimony or fanaticism. In appearance, he is a portly, frank, good-natured, rather thickset man of fifty-five, seeming to enjoy life, and to be in no particular hurry to get to heaven. His associates are plain men, evidently born and reared to a life of labor, and looking as little like crafty hypocrites or swindlers as any body of men I ever met.” 3
In 1860 the famed Pony Express was begun. Mail, which first had been carried from the East in slow, ox-drawn wagons, and later on the overland stage, now reached Salt Lake City in six days from St. Joseph, Missouri. The arrival of each pony was an event.
Not long after riders started delivering mail to the valley, news of tremendous significance reached the West. The Southern States had seceded from the Union. America was torn by Civil War. To members of the Church, this tragic news was confirmation of the prophecy issued by Joseph Smith on December 25, 1832. Though Utah was not a state, in loyalty she was tied to the Union. That loyalty was expressed by Brigham Young in the first message sent over the overland telegraph in October 1861: “Utah has not seceded, but is firm for the Constitution and laws of our once happy country.” 4
On May 10, 1869, the Union Pacific Railroad, building west from the Missouri River, and the Central Pacific, building east from California, met at Promontory, Utah. For the Saints this meant the end of isolation and ox-team journeys across the plains. It also meant a better understanding of the Church and its work, as thousands of curious visitors arrived to wit-ness the miracle that had been wrought in the desert. The picture that the cross-country traveler saw in these valleys was truly interesting. Here were scores of neat little cities, surrounded by irrigated fields, and beyond these, range lands well stocked with cattle. And on Temple Square in Salt Lake City was a great tabernacle and a partially completed temple.
Ground had been broken for the temple in 1853 and a stone quarry opened in Little Cottonwood Canyon twenty miles south of the city. Hauling the granite, however, posed a serious problem. During the early years of construction, four yoke of oxen required four days to make a round trip in hauling each of the huge foundation stones.
When the army came to Utah, the excavation was filled and the foundation covered to give the site the appearance of a newly plowed field. Construction was not resumed until the policy of the government had been determined.
The work on the temple was executed with great care. Brigham Young, in directing the construction of the temple, had said, “When the Millennium is over, … I want that Temple still to stand as a proud monument of the faith, persever-ance and industry of the Saints of God in the mountains, in the nineteenth century.” 5
While the temple in Salt Lake City was under construction, similar structures were being built at St. George, 325 miles south; at Manti, 150 miles south; and at Logan, 80 miles north.
In 1863, while work was going forward on the Salt Lake Temple, construction of the Tabernacle on Temple Square was also begun. It has since become one of the most famous buildings in America.
In dimension, the Tabernacle is 250 feet long by 150 feet wide and 80 feet high. The problem of building a roof over this area was serious because neither steel rods, nails, nor bolts were available. First, the forty-four buttresses of sandstone were laid up. These were to become in effect the walls of the building, with doors between. Each of these pillars is twenty feet high, three feet wide, and nine feet through. On these was constructed the huge roof, formed by building a vast bridgework of timbers in lattice fashion. These were pinned together with wooden pegs and bound with rawhide to prevent splitting. This trusswork occupies a space of ten feet from the inside plastered ceiling to the outside roofing. No interior pillar supports the roof.
As a fitting complement to this vast auditorium, Brigham Young requested a magnificent organ. The assignment was given to Joseph Ridges, an organ builder who had joined the Church in Australia. Wood for the organ was hauled by ox team three hundred miles to Salt Lake City from Pine Valley, near St. George, and was laboriously shaped by skilled artisans.
With the completion of the building and the organ in 1867, a choir was organized. This was the beginning of the famed Tabernacle Choir, which has become known through-out the world for its weekly broadcasts from Temple Square and through its concerts in many nations.
The Death of Brigham Young
In 1875 the President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, visited Utah. On his arrival in Salt Lake City he was driven through streets thronged with people. He had accepted as true the falsehoods that were still circulated in the East concerning the Saints, and while passing long lines of rosy-cheeked children who were waving and cheering, he turned to the governor, who was his host, and asked whose children they were. “Mormon children,” the governor replied. To this the President remarked, “I have been deceived!” 6
Brigham Young by this time was a man seventy-four years of age. He was in good health, but the trial of the years was telling on him. Life had been a constant struggle from the time he had joined the Church in 1833. In summing up the results of that struggle, he wrote an article for the editor of a New York paper in response to a request for a summary of his labors:
“I thank you for the privilege of representing facts as they are; I will furnish them gladly at any time you make the request. …
“The result of my labors for the last 26 years, briefly summed up, are: The peopling of this Territory by the Latter-day Saints of about 100,000 souls; the founding of over 200 cities, towns and villages inhabited by our people, … and the establishment of schools, factories, mills and other institutions calculated to improve and benefit our community. …
“My whole life is devoted to the Almighty’s service, and while I regret that my mission is not better understood by the world, the time will come when I will be understood, and I leave to futurity the judgment of my labors and their result as they shall become manifest.” 7
The end of his labors came on August 29, 1877. A few days earlier he had fallen seriously ill. His last words as he lay dying were a call to the man he had succeeded—“Joseph! Joseph! Joseph!” 8
1. CHC 4:51.
2. History of Brigham Young 1847–1867 (Berkeley, Cal.: MassCal Associates, 1964), pp. 159–60.
3. Horace Greeley, An Overland Journey (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963), pp. 183–84.
4. Deseret News, 23 Oct. 1861, p. 189.
5. Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 10:254.
6. CHC 5:504–5.
7. In Preston Nibley, Brigham Young: The Man and His Work, pp. 490, 492.
8. See Susa Young Gates and Leah D. Widtsoe, The Life Story of Brigham Young (New York: Macmillan Company, 1930), p. 362.