Mormons in the American West

Others contended the Mormons were essentially in a state of rebellion against the United States. President Buchanan’s concern that Brigham Young was intent on making Deseret, as Utah was then known, an independent state prompted him to install a non-Mormon governor. This ignited what became known as the Utah War, a confrontation that lasted from May, 1857 until July 1858.

Expecting the Mormons to resist, Buchanan ordered an expeditionary force of 2,500 soldiers to the territory. Under the command of General William S. Harney, the troops marched from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on July 18, 1857, hoping to occupy Utah by fall. Viewing the army as a hostile invasion force, Brigham Young mobilized the Utah Militia and began preparations for a guerrilla war. Although the campaign was bloodless, Mormon militiamen were successful in impeding the progress of U.S. forces, which were forced into winter encampment near Fort Bridger, Wyoming in the fall of 1857.

However, it was at the height of the conflict, that the members of the FancherBaker wagon train were slaughtered on September 11, 1857 in what became 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 later pardoned for any alleged role in the atrocity.

Salt Lake City, Utah

Salt Lake City, Utah

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 governor  on April 12, 1858. Young and his followers were pardoned for acts of rebellion; and U.S. forces established Camp Floyd forty miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

In the end, the Utah War started a slow decline for Mormon isolation and power in Utah. They soon lost control of the executive branch and the federal district courts, but maintained political authority in the Territorial Legislature. In 1869 the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, and soon large numbers of “Gentiles” arrived in Utahto stay.

Despite this, complete federal dominance was slow in coming. Brigham Young maintained a “shadow government” for years and conflict between the Mormons and the federal government, particularly over the issue of polygamy, would continue for nearly 40 years. In 1890, church leader and Prophet, Wilford Woodruff, announced that he had received a revelation, which officially discontinued the practice of plural marriage. Utah was finally made a state in 1896.

Afterwards, several smaller groups broke with the main Church of Latter Day Saints, over the issue of plural marriage, forming several denominations of Mormon fundamentalism. The main church distanced itself from these groups and began to promote the mainstream American view of monogamous families.

In November, 1978, Congress established the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail as part of the National Trails System, which commemorates the 1846-47 journey of the Mormon people from Nauvoo, Illinois to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.

The almost 1,300 mile long trail is managed as a cooperative effort among private landowners, trail associations, state and local agencies, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service. Though much of the trail is no longer visible, long stretches of the trail can still be seen in Wyoming and several sites still exist that can be visited.


© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated September, 2017.

Mormon Trail Map

Mormon Trail Map

Also See:

Brigham Young – Leading the Mormons

The Mormon Trail

Mormon Handcart Tragedy of 1856

Mountain Meadows Massacre

Porter Rockwell – Destroying Angel of Mormondom

Utah (main page)


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