Leader of the Mormon movement to
president of the church from 1847 to 1877, and the first territorial governor of
legacy is varied, with praise for his many accomplishments and historical
influence, as well as controversy for a number of 19th century events.
Born on June 1, 1801 in Whitingham, Vermont, Brigham was the ninth of eleven children born to John Young
and Abigail (Nabby) Howe. He was working as a carpenter and blacksmith when
he married Miriam Angeline Works in 1824 and the pair had
two daughters. He was drawn to Mormonism
after reading the Book of Mormon shortly after its publication in 1830 and
joined the church two years later. That same year, his wife, Miriam died.
In 1833, he moved to Kirtland, Ohio and two
years later, was ordained an apostle and joined the Quorum of the Twelve
Apostles as one of its inaugural members on February 14, 1835. In the
1840s he worked as a missionary in England, and back in the States helped to establish the
city of Nauvoo,
Joseph Smith, the founder and leader of the church was killed in
1844, Young succeeded him. Persecuted in Illinois,
Young led his members to Utah in 1847.
As the colonizer and founder of
Salt Lake City, Young was appointed the territory's first governor and
superintendent of Indian affairs by President Millard Fillmore. Young
quickly began to establish settlements throughout Utah,
organized a militia, created Indian missions, directed the building of
roads, and established businesses and services to allow the territory to
When federal officials received reports that
Young was electing only Mormons
to become government officials, President Buchanan decided to install a non-Mormon governor. This
ignited what is known as the Utah War, a confrontation that
lasted from May, 1857 until July 1858. Though the war involved
a few brief skirmishes, no actual battles occurred between the
However, it was at the height of the conflict, that the members of the
wagon train were slaughtered on September 11, 1857, in what is known as
the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The extent of Young's
involvement in the massacre has been a subject of much controversy
virtually since the day of the tragic event. Though
John D. Lee, the only Mormon punished for the tragedy would claim that
he was acting under direct orders from Young, the church leader was
pardoned for any alleged role in the atrocity.
Mountain Meadows Massacre drawing by T.B.H. Stenhouse, 1873
Unwilling to give up the territory, Young made plans to burn
Salt Lake City and move his followers to
Mexico, but at the last minute he relented and agreed to step down as
April 12, 1858. Continuing to lead the church and the vast majority of
population, relations between
Young and future governors were mixed.
Young then focused on building his Mormon communities and businesses,
which flourished over the next decade.
1869, the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory, Utah
threatened Young's efforts to safeguard Mormon prosperity and lifestyles
by bringing many more people into the territory. To combat this, he
responded by establishing numerous Mormon monopolies and pushing the right
of women to vote, greatly increasing the number of Mormon voters.
the meantime, the public outcry regarding polygamy was increasing daily
and in 1871,
Young was tried under an 1862 federal law that prohibited polygamy in US
territories. However, he was eventually acquitted.
was indicted for being an accessory in the murder of Robert Yates, a
killing that occurred in 1857 at the mouth of Echo Canyon. Though a
man named Bill Hickman would eventually confess to killing Yates,
Young and other military commanders were held liable for the military
operation which resulted in the death. The other leaders arrested were
but Young was held under "house arrest." However, a year later the
charges were dismissed. Authorities also tried to hold someone liable
Mountain Meadows Massacre more than a decade earlier, and
prosecutors did their best to prove Young's complicity, but were
John D. Lee was arrested in
who would initially testify that President Brigham Young had no
knowledge of the event until after it happened.
Later; however, he would say: "I have always believed, since that day,
George A. Smith
was then visiting southern Utah
to prepare the people for the work of exterminating Captain Fancher's
train of emigrants, and I now believe that he was sent for that purpose by
the direct command of Brigham Young ."
was found guilty and executed in 1877 and the question of Young's
role was never definitively determined.
Brigham Young died shortly after Lee's trial, on
August 29, 1877, and was buried in the Pioneer Mormon Cemetery in
Salt Lake City.
After his death, federal authorities continued their assault against
Mormon theocracy and polygamy practices with a vengeance. In 1882 Congress passed the Edmunds Act, which restated that polygamy was
a felony punishable by five years of imprisonment and a $500 fine.
However, the church ignored the law, until the government actively began
to prosecute church members.
Initially, polygamists became
ineligible to hold political office, were disqualified from
jury service, and known polygamists were dismissed from public
offices. Over the next few years, amendments were made to the
law which required plural wives to testify against their
husbands, dissolved the Perpetual Emigration Fund (a loan
institution that helped members of the church come to Utah
from Europe), abolished the Nauvoo Legion, provided a mechanism for acquiring
the property of the church, annulled territorial laws which
allowed illegitimate children to inherit, and replaced local
judges with federally appointed judges. With little choice,
church finally relinquished the practice of polygamy on
October 6, 1890. In 1896 the territory of Utah
was admitted into the union as the 45th state. Various former
who have continued the practice of polygamy to the present
day, have been excommunicated by the Mormon church.
Other notable activities during Young's
lifetime were the establishment of the Mormon Tabernacle
Choir, the founding of the University of Deseret, now the
University of Utah, and the
founding of the Brigham Young
Academy, which later became
Brigham Young University.
In addition, his activities as a pioneer businessman were
legendary, including transportation enterprises involving a
wagon express company, a ferryboat company, and a railroad. In
manufacturing, he established lumber and wool mills, an iron
operation, and even a distillery. His greatest success as a
businessman; however was in real estate. Before his death he
was living a lavish lifestyle and was the richest man in Utah, having
an estimated personal fortune of about
Brigham Young coordinated the efforts to build these
impressive buildings on the Mormon Temple Grounds, photo by L.
image available for photographic prints and downloads
In addition to the Mountain Meadows controversy,
was also criticized
for his beliefs about African-Americans. In 1847 he implemented church policy that
Mormon priesthood to blacks, a practice that remained in effect until it
was finally repealed more than a century later, in 1978. And,
unfortunately, the man could not hold his views to himself regarding his
prejudice, several statements of which were published in the Mormon
Journal of Discourses including:
"Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to
the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes
his blood with the seed of
Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is
death on the spot. This will always be so."
greatest criticism; however was the practice of polygamy. Though, it was
not he who "created" the practice, he was obviously one of its most ardent
supporters, marrying 56 wives during his lifetime and fathering 57
children. At the time of his death,
19 of his wives had predeceased him, he was
divorced from 10, survived by 23, and the status of the other four was
of America, updated April, 2017.