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American History Series: Brigham Young Leads His Mormons to a New Home

Forced out of Illinois, they settled by a great salt lake in what would become Utah. But before long, the federal government accused the church of open rebellion. Transcript of radio broadcast:

Welcome to the MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.

In the eighteen twenties, in the state of New York, a man named Joseph Smith started the Mormon religion. Smith based it on what he said were God's words to the ancient people of America.

Many people became members of the new church. Others, however, laughed at some of the beliefs of the Mormons. This led to trouble. Smith had to move his people many times. For a while, they settled in the state of Illinois, in a town they built and called Nauvoo.

The church split when Joseph Smith said that Mormons could have more than one wife. The split led to violence and public opposition to the Mormons. Smith was arrested and put in jail. A mob attacked the jail and killed Smith and his brother. The governor of Illinois ordered the Mormons to leave the state.

This week on our series, Sarah Long and Richard Rael discuss relations between the Mormons and the federal government.



Brigham Young became the new leader of the Mormons. He told his people that he had seen their new home in a dream. He said it was a wide, beautiful valley in the West. He said he would recognize it when he saw it.

The Mormons left Illinois in the spring of eighteen forty-six. There were more than fifteen thousand people, and many wagons and farm animals. The trip west was hard. Many of the people died. After months of slow travel, they stopped to make their winter camp.


Explorers visited the camp. They told Brigham Young about a great salt lake in a wide valley on the western side of the Rocky Mountains. From the way they described it, young believed it was the valley of his dream.

He started to move his people toward the Great Salt Lake as soon as the winter snows melted. They arrived in the summer of eighteen forty-seven. Brigham Young looked out over the valley. "This," he said, "is the right place."


The Mormons wasted no time. Two hours after arriving, they began to prepare the ground for planting. The lake water was too salty to use. So they built a system of canals to bring water down from the mountains.

The first few years were difficult. Cold weather and insects destroyed their crops. Yet the Mormons continued to work hard to make their settlement a success. They refused to think of leaving.


At first, the Mormons were ruled only by the laws of their church and by their leader. Then gold was discovered in California. Many non-Mormons passed through the Salt Lake area on their way to the gold fields. Some of them stayed. It soon became clear that new laws were needed to govern the growing population.

The Mormons asked Congress to approve a territorial government for their land. They called the land Deseret. That was a Mormon word meaning honeybee.

The Mormons claimed a large area. It stretched from the mountains of Colorado west to the mountains of California; from Arizona north to Oregon.



Congress rejected the large claim of Deseret and made it a much smaller territory. It also refused to accept the name Deseret. Instead, Congress called it Utah, after the Ute tribe of Native American Indians that lived there. As a compromise, Brigham Young was named governor of the new Utah territory. Most of the new territorial officials were Mormons, too. Four were not Mormon.


Governing the territory would not be easy. There were disputes during the administrations of several American presidents. As a result of one dispute, the four non-Mormon officials returned to Washington. The Mormons then formed their own territorial government with a legislature and courts.

Other federal officials were sent to Utah. Some of them were not prepared for the job. Usually, they did not stay long.


Some of the officials made many charges against Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders. They said Mormons refused to recognize the power of the federal government. They said Mormons put the words of Young above the laws of Congress. They said the church had a secret organization to take the lives and property of those who questioned the power of the church.

There were charges that Mormons had burned the papers of the Supreme Court of the territory. And there were charges that Mormons were responsible for Indian attacks on some officials.

President Franklin Pierce decided he should make someone else governor of Utah. The man he chose, however, did not want the job. Instead, he urged the president to let Brigham Young remain. President Pierce agreed.


Relations between the Mormons and the government did not improve in the next three years. Territorial officials resigned. They charged that the Mormons were in open rebellion against the federal government.

The next president, James Buchanan, dismissed Brigham Young as governor. He ordered more than one thousand soldiers to go to Utah to put down the rebellion. He also sent a new governor, Alfred Cumming, with the soldiers. The Mormons prepared to fight.

A small group of Mormon men attacked and destroyed the army's supply wagons. They forced the soldiers to stop for the winter before reaching the Salt Lake Valley. The soldiers could do nothing until spring.


In Washington, efforts were made to settle the dispute. A man named Thomas Kane asked President Buchanan to let him go to Utah. Kane was an old friend of the president. He also was a friend of the Mormons. He had spent much time with them during their long trip to Utah ten years earlier.

Kane feared what might happen to his Mormon friends if fighting started. He told President Buchanan that he did not want a job or money. He only wanted a chance to be useful. The president agreed to let him try to settle the dispute.



Thomas Kane arrived in Salt Lake City, the territorial capital, early in eighteen fifty-eight. He found that the Mormons had decided not to fight. Instead, they were preparing to search for a new home. They talked of moving to Mexico or perhaps to an island in the South Pacific.

Kane talked with Brigham Young. Then he went to the army camp to talk with Governor Cumming. The governor agreed to go to Salt Lake City with Kane. The two men went alone, without any soldiers.


The Mormons welcomed Cumming, but continued their preparations to leave. Cumming called a public meeting.

He said he was in Utah to represent the federal government. He said he was there to make sure the people of the territory obeyed the constitution and the laws of the United States. He said he would not use military force until every other way had failed.

Above all, said Cumming, he would not interfere with the Mormon religion. He urged the Mormons not to leave the land they had worked so hard to build.

Brigham Young agreed to stay.


Governor Cumming returned to the army camp. He told the commander that the Mormons had accepted him. He said military force would not be needed. A few days later, two representatives of President Buchanan arrived. They brought news that the president would not act against Mormons who accepted the rule of the United States government.

Brigham Young and the other Mormon leaders made a statement. They said they wished to live in peace under the Constitution and the laws of the United States.

The dispute was over. Brigham Young continued to lead the Mormon church. But the governor ruled the territorial government. The two jobs were separate and would remain that way.


Congressional elections were held in the United States in eighteen fifty-eight. One political race created national interest. It was for one of the two Senate seats representing the state of Illinois. The candidate of the Democratic Party was Stephen Douglas. He was running for re-election. His opponent was a lawyer and member of the Republican Party. His name was Abraham Lincoln.

That will be our story next time.



Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Sarah Long and Richard Rael. Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs are online, along with historical images, at Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.


This is program #87 of THE MAKING OF A NATION