Mormon Footnotes on American History


“Where is Joseph Smith mentioned?” an LDS boy a few years ago brashly asked his high school history teacher. Pointing to the United States history textbook, the teacher rudely replied that the last page told all about Joseph Smith. The boy, quickly turning to the blank page in the back, felt hurt that anyone could say Joseph Smith was a blank page in history.

In our day the United States history textbooks not only discuss Joseph Smith and Mormonism but usually do so in a fair and objective tone. However, textbooks lack space and interest to tell about Latter-day Saints’ roles in some of America’s historically big events.

So, why not liven up your U.S. history textbook a bit? Why not add Latter-day Saint connections to some major events? Why not clip out these “Mormon footnotes” and attach them to one of those blank pages in the back of your history textbook? Then, find each footnote topic in your text’s chapters and put a number above and to the right of it, corresponding to the footnote numbers. With your footnotes in place, you can enjoy American history more and understand your LDS heritage better during this school year.

The Election of 1844 1

1 At the time of his martyrdom, Joseph Smith was an active candidate for the U.S. Presidency. Earlier, when he polled potential 1844 presidential candidates, only Henry Clay, Lewis Cass, and John Calhoun replied, and their views about the Saints’ civil rights were unsatisfactory. So Church leaders decided to back Joseph Smith for the presidency. They created the National Reform Party to run Joseph Smith for president and his counselor, Sidney Rigdon, for vice-president. Joseph’s platform, published in pamphlet form, advocated economic ideas taken from Henry Clay’s “American System,” and expansionist and abolitionist positions from the Liberty and Democratic parties, along with some of his own ideas. He called for economy in government, the annexation of Texas and Oregon, a strong national bank, a judicious tariff, prison reforms, paying slaveowners to free their slaves, a smaller House of Representatives, and U.S. presidents to have power to suppress mobs. But Joseph’s shocking martyrdom in June 1844 ended his party’s campaign. At the time of his death, about 300 LDS men, including most of the Quorum of the Twelve, were campaigning for him in the eastern United States. Joseph ran for office, not to win but to draw national attention to civil rights sought by the Saints after their expulsion from Missouri.

The Mexican War 2

2 When Congress declared war on Mexico in 1846, President James K. Polk authorized the recruiting of volunteer soldiers, including a battalion of Mormons. LDS leaders previously had asked the president to help them during their move west. Wanting the Saints to be loyal to the United States when they entered Mexican territory—Utah then belonged to Mexico—President Polk agreed to let LDS men enlist in General Stephen W. Kearny’s Army of the West. The Saints, camped in Iowa Territory, sent about 500 volunteers in a Mormon Battalion, who marched the long distance across Kansas, a corner of Colorado and Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona to southern California (about $12,000 of their pay benefited the LDS camps in Iowa). Luckily the battalion avoided war duty in central Mexico. The war ended two weeks before the battalion, reduced to about 350 men by illness, reached California. At San Diego and Los Angeles the men performed garrison duty until discharged in 1847. Most returned to Utah. Some reenlisted. The battalion’s importance to U.S. history is multiple. They performed one of the longest infantry marches ever done. They blazed a wagon and rail route between Santa Fe and southern California. They built a wagon road over Carson Pass in the Sierra Nevada mountains. They brought the first wagon from Los Angeles to Utah over Cajon Pass. They participated in the California gold discoveries. They gave the United States a land claim to southern Arizona that made possible the Gadsen Purchase (1853) of those lands.

The Donner Party 3

3 Late in 1846 the ill-fated Donner-Reed wagon company, bound for California, was trapped by snows in the Sierra Nevada mountains, in part because they suffered a two-week delay cutting a wagon road through the rugged Wasatch mountains into Utah—the wagon road the 1847 Mormon Pioneers used. (The “This Is the Place Monument” in Salt Lake City praises the Donners for cutting the trail into the valley.) In the Donner Party was Mormon Lavina Murphy and her family of four sons, three daughters, two sons-in-law, and three infants. Of the thirteen, only seven survived the snows. The California town of Marysville was named in honor of one of the Murphy survivors, Mary Murphy. Among the rescuers of the Donner survivors were LDS men then in California with the Mormon Battalion and from the ship Brooklyn’s company of Saints. Some battalion men, heading east over the Sierras early in 1847, helped bury the Donner dead.

The California Gold Rush 4

4 Several discharged Mormon Battalion men, told by Brigham Young to stay in California for the winter of 1847–48, found jobs at Sutter’s Fort. Working with Sutter’s foreman, James Marshall, they helped with and witnessed the gold discovery. One Saint, Henry Bigler, is famous for his diary that recorded the find: “Monday, January 24. This day some kind of mettle that looks like gold was found in the tailrace.” Unlike other Sutter employees who rushed to the streams to seek gold, the Mormons stayed to fulfill their labor contracts. They and other Saints joined the gold hunt, and California’s Gold Rush country received names proving they were there, such as Mormon Island, Mormon Road, and Mormon Bar (sandbar). Meanwhile, Forty-niners hurrying to California poured through Utah and produced a money miracle for the Saints there by selling goods at low prices to lighten California-bound wagons, buying Mormon products and supplies, and paying for winter lodgings. Nearly $250,000 income from the Forty-niners and the Gold Rush helped the Church create new industries and colonies and pay for poor Saints to immigrate to Utah.

The Pony Express 5

5 Utah territory, which then included Nevada, contained almost half of the 2,000-mile-long Pony Express trail and some of its most difficult terrain and dangerous stretches. The company hired many LDS men and boys who fit its high standards—employees took an oath “before the great and living God to not use profanity or liquor, not to quarrel, and to be honest.” Such LDS frontiersmen as Howard Egan, “Doc” Faust, and Bolivar Roberts manned isolated Pony Express relay stations. Of the Express’s ten dozen riders—supposed to be rugged horsemen weighing less than 125 pounds—no less than two dozen were teenage or young adult Latter-day Saints, including William Frederick Fisher, Howard R. and “Ras” Egan, and George Washington Perkins. The main problems the LDS riders told about were night riding over dangerous trails, Indian attacks, bandits, slippery trails and deep snows in winter, loneliness, and fatigue. Salt Lake City’s Main Street station was four days’ ride from Sacramento, California, and six from St. Joseph, Missouri. Whenever riders brought important news from “the States,” the weekly Deseret News issued an extra, called the Pony Dispatch, to keep the Saints up-to-date. The Pony Express mail moved between Utah and “the States” a week faster than stagecoach mail. The end of the Pony Express service came in 1861, caused by the transcontinental telegraph line, which LDS work crews helped to construct.

The Civil War 6

6 In 1832 the Lord told Joseph Smith that the United States would soon suffer a civil war, starting with a rebellion in South Carolina (see D&C 87). Just before his death in 1844 Joseph reaffirmed the prophecy. Because the war would bring “the deaths and misery of many souls,” the Lord warned Saints to “stand in holy places.” When South Carolinans attacked Fort Sumter in April 1861, starting the Civil War, Saints in the eastern states decided it was time to move to safety in Utah. Among Utah Saints were converts from both northern and southern states. The Church’s position toward the war was to affirm loyalty to the Union. But leaders and Saints knew the war was a fulfillment of the 1832 prophecy and believed the bloodshed was in part a punishment of the American Republic for wrongs and deaths the Saints had suffered within its borders. During the war, President Lincoln asked Brigham Young for and received LDS patrols to protect U.S. mail shipments across Wyoming against Indians and Confederate agents. Ironically, while southern states were seceding, Utah Territory tried in 1862 to gain admission into the Union as a state and was kept out by Congress.

The Transcontinental Railroad 7

7 The golden spike connected railroad tracks from east and west which Mormon muscles helped to build. Brigham Young, wanting to keep Gentile construction gangs out of Utah, contracted for the Saints to grade the ground, lay track, dig tunnels, and build bridges and trestles. To fill the contract, LDS bishops called men on “labor” missions to form track crews. When the job was done, the railroads failed to pay the promised six million dollars owed the Church, but they did donate some railroad equipment which the Church used to build branch line railroads in Utah. The transcontinental railroad helped reduce the price of eastern goods sold in Utah and transportation costs to and from Utah. By train, missionaries reached their mission fields quicker, and immigrants reached Utah easier—the pioneer era of wagon trains came to an end. Trains brought an influx of Gentiles to Utah. LDS leaders, fearing outside influences brought by the railroads, launched several retrenchment programs, including what became the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association, Relief Societies, and ZCMI Stores (Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institute) to guard the Saints against unacceptable dress styles and unfair Gentile competition with Utah industries.

A Nation of Immigrants 8

8 During the 19th century, starting in 1840, nearly 80,000 European Saints immigrated to LDS locations in America, including 50,000 from the British Isles, 20,000 from Scandinavia, and 6,000 from continental Europe. Early LDS immigrant companies sailed from Liverpool to New Orleans, but after 1854 they landed in eastern cities, and trains brought the immigrants to LDS outfitting camps in Iowa or Nebraska. Wagon trains carried the immigrants across the plains to Utah until 1869, when railroads could do the job. By the 1870s ocean steamers had replaced the sailing vessels. The Church established the Perpetual Emigration Fund, or PEF, a revolving loan fund that helped poorer immigrants. In contrast to much of the general immigration to the United States—single working-age adults who came on their own and who sometimes did not stay—the LDS immigrants came as families, including the elderly and the very young, in efficiently organized companies directed by skilled LDS immigration agents, and became permanent citizens. By 1870 one-third of Utah’s residents were born outside the United States, a higher percentage than in any U.S. state or territory. One-third of Salt Lake Stake’s 20 bishops in 1876 were born outside the States. From 1874 to 1931 the First Presidency included at least one foreign-born member, including George Q. Cannon (England) and Anthon H. Lund (Denmark). More than 30 General Authorities are or have been born outside the U.S., including Apostles John A. Widtsoe (Norway), James E. Talmage (England), and Charles A. Callis (Ireland).

World War I 9

9 When war broke out in Europe in August 1914 involving Germany, Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Russia, France, and Great Britain, the United States stayed neutral. Missionaries were immediately evacuated from western Europe. At October 1914 General Conference, Saints joined in a special prayer for peace. In 1915 a Zion’s Emergency War Fund was set up by the Church to aid needy European Saints. When the United States entered the war in 1917, Utah, through Church encouragement, over-subscribed its quotas for enlistments in the armed forces, and over 24,000 joined. Of these, 544 were killed in action. Saints contributed generously to the Red Cross and surpassed goals set for the purchase of government Liberty bonds. The Church sold more than 200,000 bushels of wheat, stored by the Relief Societies, to the government for wartime use.

The Great Depression 10

10 As the Great Depression deepened and the federal government’s New Deal relief programs expanded, the Church, stakes, and wards tried to help their needy, rather than letting Saints depend on the government. Pioneer Stake, with more than half its adults unemployed in 1932, developed programs to provide bedding, food, clothing, and work. In 1936 the Church announced a new Church Security Plan, (renamed the Welfare Plan by 1938) headed by Pioneer Stake President Harold B. Lee. Instructions called for priesthood quorums to set up projects for unemployed members. Job finding and training programs were started. Relief Societies sewed quilts and clothing and collected canned foods to aid the poor. Stakes and wards created welfare farms to produce food and jobs. By 1938, more than 20,000 Saints had been taken off the federal relief rolls by the welfare program, which now has become a permanent production, storage, and distribution system that aids needy Saints and provides large-scale disaster relief.

World War II 11

11 One week before Hitler invaded Poland, the First Presidency ordered LDS missionaries to evacuate Germany, France, and England. When Japanese expansionism created dangers in Asia and the Pacific areas, missionaries left there too. By the end of 1940, full-time mission work ceased everywhere except in North and South America and in Hawaii. The Church officially advocated noninvolvement by the United States, but after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Church supported the nation’s declaration of war. Many Church activities were curtailed because of war-caused gasoline and tire rationing and travel restrictions. General Conference in April 1942 was open only to 500 leaders, not to the general membership. Paper shortages meant smaller and fewer lesson manuals. By the end of the war, 100,000 LDS men and women had served in the U.S. military. To help them, the Church secured government approval for appointing LDS chaplains for all branches of the armed forces. LDS service people were told to keep a spirit of humanity, love, and peacemaking, and to view themselves as ministers of life rather than death, fighting not to destroy enemies but to defend freedom. Saints in lands at war with each other were counseled:

“On each side they believe they are fighting for home, and country, and freedom. On each side, our brethren pray to the same God, in the same name, for victory. Both sides cannot be wholly right; perhaps neither is without wrong. God will work out in His own due time and in His own sovereign way the justice and right of the conflict, but He will not hold the innocent instrumentalities of the war, our brethren in arms, responsible for the conflict.”