Exodus and Early Utah Periods, 1844–77

Leonard J. Arrington and Dean L. May

Leonard J. Arrington and Dean L. May, “Exodus and Early Utah Periods, 1844-77,” in Latter-day Saint Essentials: Readings from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. John W. Welch and Devan Jensen (Provo, UT: BYU Studies and the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2002), 38–49.

The martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith on June 27, 1844, precipitated a major crisis. In the immediate aftermath and emotional shock of losing their founding prophet, many Latter-day Saints suffered a crisis of faith: Could anyone take his place? Would the Lord still be with the Church? Nor was it immediately clear to everyone who should lead: Would it be Sidney Rigdon, Joseph Smith’s counselor in the First Presidency? The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, led by Brigham young? Someone else? Whoever succeeded to leadership would face the challenge of resolving tensions within the Church and facing powerful adversaries without.

At the time of the assassination, most members of the Quorum of the Twelve were in the East on missions. Sidney Rigdon, who had left Nauvoo for Pittsburgh just before the martyrdom, returned August 3 and asserted a claim to lead as “Guardian.” Three days later several of the Twelve, including Brigham Young, arrived just in time for an August 8 meeting already called to decide guardianship. Rigdon spoke first for his claims. He was followed by Brigham Young, who asserted the responsibility of the Twelve to lead the Church in Joseph’s absence and to build on the foundation he had laid. The great majority voted to sustain the Twelve. Many claimed that Brigham Young was transfigured before them, speaking with the voice of the deceased prophet and appearing like him in person and manner.

The August 8 vote effectively settled the question of succession: no one else could make a persuasive claim of having either the authority or the full confidence of the Prophet. The vote sustained the Quorum of the Twelve, with Brigham Young at their head, as the leaders of the Church, but it did not immediately result in a new First Presidency; that would come later, after the Twelve had completed the Nauvoo Temple and located a new home for the Church in the West, responsibilities they felt an obligation to accomplish as a quorum. Nor did the vote satisfy those who longed for a way to be Latter-day Saints but without the Nauvoo innovations that they viewed as problematic and that the Twelve would continue—such things as the emphasis on temple, new doctrines including plural marriage, and the unity of temporal and ecclesiastical concerns under the priesthood. Some of these briefly followed others who set themselves up as leaders, but many simply drifted away. Years later, some banded together as the reorganized church of Jesus Christ of latter day saints with emphasis and direction quite different from Joseph Smith in Nauvoo or the Twelve in the Great Basin.

The first priorities of the Twelve were to complete the Nauvoo Temple while privately preparing for the exodus to the West—which they were committed to delay until the Saints received temple ordinances. The Saints so rallied behind the temple that the capstone was in place by May 1845, and the edifice was ready for ordinance work by December. Eventually nearly 6,000 men and women received temple ordinances before leaving for the West. In the spring of 1845, with the temple nearing completion, Church leaders began preparations for the move West. In September, shortly after mob violence erupted against the outlying settlements around Nauvoo, the Twelve publicly announced that the Saints would all depart.

Brigham Young was supported in these endeavors by eight of the Twelve—the same who had served abroad under his direction in 1840–41—and by members of the Council of Fifty. Organized in March 1844 by Joseph Smith, the Council of Fifty had been involved in two major activities prior to his death: secretly negotiating with the Republic of Texas for possible settlements there, and publicly campaigning to support Joseph Smith’s candidacy for the U.S. presidency. More than seventy-five percent of the surviving members of the original Council of Fifty supported Brigham Young, but William Smith, John E. Page, Lyman Wight, all apostles, and Nauvoo Stake President William Marks dissented and were never reconciled either to the temple or to the Great Basin exodus and its implications. The Council of Fifty helped organize the exodus from Nauvoo and, in early Utah, helped establish an economic and political theocracy.

The exodus began in February 1846, before renewed hostilities erupted. All during the spring and summer, a flow of wagons moved out across the Iowa prairies. The Latter-day Saints were still unsettled in Iowa when a U.S. military officer arrived on June 26 with a requisition for 500 volunteers to serve in the campaign against Mexico. Though sometimes regarded as an oppressive trial imposed upon the refugee Mormons by the U.S. government, the call actually resulted from secret negotiations with U.S. President James Polk. Though the battalion took 500 able-bodied men from their midst, it brought a much-needed $70,000, which was used to aid the families of the men and fund the general program of the exodus.

Because the evacuation of Nauvoo and the trek across Iowa had largely exhausted the travel season, the Saints prepared to winter on the Missouri River. They built temporary settlements at winter quarters on the river’s west bank, now Florence, Nebraska, a suburb of Omaha, and on the east bank at Kanesville, later council bluffs, Iowa. There preparations continued for the great migration to the interior basins of North America. On January 14, 1847, Brigham Young announced a revelation that the Saints should be “organized into companies [of hundreds, fifties, and tens], with a covenant and promise to keep all the commandments . . . of the Lord our God” (D&C 136:2–3). On April 5, 1847, he led the first pioneer company, departing from Winter Quarters.

After a three-month journey, advance scouts entered the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Three days later, on July 24, 1847, Brigham Young entered the valley. On July 28 he designated a temple site and announced to the 157 pioneers that “this is the right spot,” making it clear that he and the Saints intended a long stay in the vicinity of the Great Salt Lake.

After his return from Utah to Winter Quarters in October 1847, Brigham Young presented to the apostles the question of reorganizing the First Presidency. Although no written revelation explicitly authorized the Twelve to reorganize the presidency, many considered that right implicit in the 1835 revelation concerning the authority of that quorum in relation to the First Presidency (D&C 107:21–24). The Twelve sustained Brigham Young as President of the Church, with Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards as his counselors, an action ratified by Church members later that month at a special conference at Kanesville, Iowa, and the following year in Salt Lake City.

In Utah, Brigham Young set out to fulfill Joseph Smith’s dream of establishing a permanent refuge for the Saints. This included creating a political state in which the Church would play a dominant role. The theocratic nature of this government was indicated by the fact that a Church high council, presided over by Joseph Smith’s uncle John Smith, conducted both religious and civil affairs in the Salt Lake Valley from the fall of 1847 until the return of Brigham Young to the valley in September 1848, when the Twelve and the Council of Fifty assumed direction.

In the closing months of 1848, the Council of Fifty began deliberations toward establishing a more permanent government. Anticipating that the Great Basin would become United States territory, the Council debated the relative merits of petitioning Congress for territorial or statehood status. It opted first for a territory but soon after, in July 1849, following precedents in Texas and California, petitioned for statehood and began to organize the provisional State of Deseret. Brigham Young was elected Governor and other Church authorities comprised its executive and judicial branches and much of its legislative branch. The legislature convened in December 1849, and the State of Deseret functioned as an autonomous state within the national domain until March 28, 1851, when it was formally dissolved and superseded by Utah Territory, which had already been created as part of the national Compromise of 1850.

The boundaries of the State of Deseret were vast, encompassing all of present Utah, most of Nevada and Arizona, more than one-third of California, and parts of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. To establish control of this domain, Brigham Young began a vigorous colonization program, which, before his death in 1877, founded nearly 400 settlements. An energetic system of proselytizing, particularly in the British Isles and Scandinavia, with thousands converted, of whom nearly 90,000 immigrated to Utah by the end of the century. The Church promoted, organized, and conducted this immigration. For the benefit of those who could not otherwise afford travel costs, the Church organized the perpetual emigrating fund. Chartered in 1850 by the State of Deseret, for the next thirty-seven years the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company raised funds and utilized Church resources to assist approximately 26,000 emigrants from Europe to the mountain West.

The State of Deseret was the closest the Church ever came to realizing the theocratic model previously outlined by Joseph Smith. Church authorities served in important civil positions. After federally appointed judges left the territory in 1851, probate courts, with bishops as judges, were given jurisdiction over both civil and criminal cases. The intention was that LDS influence over the political life of the territory would eliminate the persecution that had repeatedly occurred. In later years the very success of this theocratic society would create less violent but ultimately more dangerous conflicts with American society.

Inseparable from the prolonged conflict with the federal government was the LDS practice of plural marriage. Although polygamy had been practiced privately prior to the exodus, Church leaders delayed public acknowledgment of its practice until 1852. In August of that year, at a special conference of the Church at Salt Lake City, Elder Orson Pratt, an apostle, officially announced plural marriage as a doctrine and practice of the Church. A lengthy revelation on marriage for eternity and on the plurality of wives, dictated by Joseph Smith on July 12, 1843, was published following this announcement (D&C 132). Viewing it as a religious obligation for faithful brethren to marry more wives than one, Latter-day Saints believed that polygamy was protected by constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. There were no federal laws against polygamy, and the territorial incorporation of the Church allowed it “to solemnize marriages compatible with the revelations of Jesus Christ” (Arrington and Quinn, p. 261). In some communities as much as twenty to twenty-five percent of the LDS population eventually lived in polygamous households, with most men who practiced polygamy having one to four plural wives.

For the first several years, life in their new western refuge seemed tenuous. A mild winter in 1847–48 was followed by spring frosts and a discouraging summer. Then drought damaged and plagues of crickets devoured a good portion of the crops. Many believed that they saved a remnant of their crops only because of the miraculous intervention of great numbers of gulls that descended on the fields and devoured the crickets. After the lean winter of 1848–49, however, the pioneers were able to raise enough in most years to see them through the winter. An unexpected bonanza came in 1849 when hundreds of travelers bound for the California gold fields came through Utah, eagerly trading scarce manufactured goods, exhausted animals, and even flour for local produce. The initial settlements by this time were well enough established to begin colonization throughout the Rocky Mountain area.

The Saints founded dozens of colonies, at first primarily within the confines of present Utah. First settled was a core area extending north and south from the headquarters at Salt Lake City along the western edge of the mountains. The next colonies were in the higher mountain valleys of the region, such as the Cache and Heber valleys. Almost at the same time, other colonies were established in more distant areas, in response to particular needs, such as the founding of an iron industry (Parowan, Jan. 1851; Cedar City, Nov. 1851); establishing stations along immigration routes (San Bernardino, 1851; purchase of Fort Bridger, 1855); undertaking missions to the Indians (Fort Lemhi in present Idaho; Las Vegas, Nevada; Fort Supply in 1853 in present Wyoming; and the Elk Mountain Mission in east-central Utah, all in 1855); producing warm-climate crops, such as cotton and sugar (St. George, 1861); or, later, searching for a refuge for polygamous families.

The most common motive for colonization was the need to find land for a growing population of farmers, a need leading to settlement of most suitable sites in Utah by 1880 as well as others in northern Arizona, southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, western Wyoming, and southeastern Idaho. Often new areas were opened with a “mission” call, wherein established settlers were asked to undertake a Church-sponsored mission to found a colony. Once the mother colony was established, nearby areas were settled spontaneously as young people coming of age sought land to farm.

The founding of a commonwealth in the West was not accomplished without conflicts and difficulties. A prolonged drought in 1855 was followed by a severe grasshopper infestation. The insecurities thus created may have helped feed the fire of the reformation of 1856–57, a period of intense soul-searching and recommitment. The fiery and at times intemperate sermons of the Reformation had heightened pioneer anxieties when, early in 1857, believing exaggerated reports that the Mormons were in a state of rebellion, U.S. President James Buchanan secretly ordered 2,500 federal troops to Utah. Acting without the benefit of an investigation, Buchanan relieved Brigham Young as governor, a position to which Young had been reappointed even after the 1852 announcement of polygamy. Unfortunately, Buchanan did everything in secrecy, even stopping the mails to Utah to give the troops the advantage of surprise.

After receiving private confirmation of the government action, Brigham Young instructed all missionaries to return to Utah and ordered missions closed and the more isolated colonies abandoned. Accustomed to persecutions involving state militia, Latter-day Saints saw the advance of armed forces toward Utah as a prelude to plunder, rape, and slaughter. As they prepared for armed resistance, war hysteria swept the territory.

As advanced units of the Utah expedition approached Fort Bridger, they encountered the Saints implementing a “scorched earth” policy of resistance. Mormon raiders seized and burned federal supply trains and destroyed the forage in front of the advancing troops. The timely arrival of heavy snows mired the army for the winter, allowing mediators, especially Thomas L. Kane, time to seek reconciliation. Meanwhile, President Young ordered northern Utah settlements abandoned and organized the “Move South.” If the Latter-day Saints had to leave their refuge, they would leave the Great Basin as much a wilderness as they had found it. Negotiations succeeded by spring, just as the army started to move. Alfred Cumming was installed as governor, and on June 12, 1858, Brigham Young accepted a pardon for his supposed rebellion. Two weeks later, General Albert Sidney Johnston led his troops through a deserted Salt Lake City and established an isolated Camp Floyd forty miles to the southwest. The Utah War became fittingly known as Buchanan’s Blunder.

A disastrous consequence of the war hysteria was the Mountain Meadows Massacre of September 1857, in which local officials in southern Utah joined with Indians to massacre a company of settlers en route to California. It is well documented that Brigham Young’s command was to let the travelers pass through in peace, but his advice arrived too late to prevent the killing, and a locally orchestrated cover-up portrayed the crime as solely an Indian depredation. Responding to charges that whites were involved, President Young urged the new governor to investigate, but Governor Cumming maintained that if whites were involved they would be pardoned under the general amnesty granted in 1858. Eventually, as more information came to light, some of the principal participants were excommunicated from the Church and one, John D. Lee, was convicted in federal court and executed.

Though preoccupied by the Civil War, the federal government nonetheless demonstrated interest in Utah Territory. In 1862 Fort Douglas was established on the eastern edge of Salt Lake City, under the leadership of a dedicated anti-Mormon, Patrick Edward Connor. Connor and his troops were charged with guarding transportation routes, but they also published the aggressively anti-Mormon Union Vedette, encouraged mining, and promoted non-Mormon immigration to the territory. In 1863 Connor’s troops attacked a group of Northern Shoshone Indians on the Bear River in the northern Cache Valley, killing some 250 men, women, and children.

The decade following the Utah War was one of general expansion for the Church. In 1862 Congress enacted a law prohibiting polygamy in the territories and disincorporating the Church, but the law went unenforced until after Reynolds v. United States in 1879. Church immigrants continued to arrive by the thousands, and Brigham Young continued planting colonies to house them. The steady influx of non-Mormons to Utah and the construction of a transcontinental railroad, however, pointed toward future challenges to LDS domination of their Great Basin commonwealth.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad brought opportunities as well as challenges. Brigham Young had long anticipated the end of physical isolation and in some ways encouraged it. In 1852 and in 1854, the Saints petitioned Congress for a transcontinental railroad to pass through Utah. Such a railroad would simplify immigration and permit Church leaders to establish rail links connecting many distant colonies with Salt Lake City. When the Pacific Railroad Act was passed on July 1, 1862, President Young subscribed for $10,000 worth of stock in the newly organized Union Pacific Railroad Company, of which he became a director in 1865.

Though the railroad made it easier for Church immigrants to reach Utah, it also encouraged non-Mormon immigration. The end of isolation likewise threatened Utah’s economic and political independence. In order to build the local economy and postpone the establishment of a powerful non-Mormon business community, Church officials had long struggled to discourage the importation of eastern manufactured goods. They now launched a determined campaign to discourage the purchase of imported luxuries, including tea, coffee, alcohol, and tobacco, and Joseph Smith’s 1833 revelation discouraging the use of these products was given added emphasis.

Despite Brigham Young’s long opposition to the development of precious metal-mining in Utah, the approach of the railroad revived enthusiasm for harvesting Utah’s mineral wealth. Under the direction of several prominent Church businessmen and intellectuals such as William Godbe, Edward W. Tullidge, and Eli B. Kelsey, a “New Movement” developed within the Church against what they referred to as “Priesthood Autocracy.” These men wrote persuasive articles in the Utah Magazine urging the exploitation of Utah’s mineral resources in order to keep the industry in local (and therefore LDS) control. Envisioning a different result, Brigham Young denounced the “Godbeites” for inviting “Gentile” domination of Utah. Eventually, Godbe, whose doctrinal unorthodoxy posed an additional challenge, was excommunicated. Although Brigham Young rejected the Godbeite solution, he recognized the realities of the new economic situation and inaugurated a series of programs to reinforce spiritual solidarity and economic independence.

One part of Brigham Young’s program involved the organization of the School of the Prophets in 1867. The original School of the Prophets had been established by Joseph Smith in 1833 to provide adult education and prepare for the temple. In the Utah organization, adoption of an economic program accompanied discussions of theology. The Schools of the Prophets instructed landowners in methods of securing property titles, solicited contributions of labor and funds to finance branch railroads, established locally owned cooperative merchandising and manufacturing enterprises, urged the reduction of wages to allow greater exportation of Utah goods, organized boycotts of hostile Gentile establishments, and required that members pledge to observe the Word of Wisdom. The Schools also contracted with the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads to grade the transcontinental line in Utah, thus limiting the influx of non-Mormon laborers and providing cash revenue to Latter-day Saints. Within a few years, as economic conditions changed, these organizations gradually disappeared.

More permanent than the Schools of the Prophets were the organizations that Brigham Young established for the women and youth of the Church. Between the rebirth of the Relief Society in 1867 and Brigham Young’s death a decade later, with General President Eliza R. Snow assisting bishops in forming local organizations, the society spread to every Church settlement in the Great Basin. In addition to its charitable purposes, the Relief Society worked with the Schools of the Prophets in encouraging home industry and discouraging the purchase of imports. Major achievements of the Relief Society included the beginning of a grain storage program, launching silk culture, founding the woman’s exponent, building Relief Society halls in most settlements, starting a commission store for home industries, and impressive support of women’s medical training. Relief Society leaders were also active in woman suffrage, and in 1870 Utah women were second to Wyoming women to receive the franchise.

In 1869 Brigham Young established an organization for young women with the unwieldy name “Young Ladies’ Department of the Cooperative Retrenchment Association.” He urged the girls to avoid all extravagances, and to “cease to build up the merchant who sends your money out of the Territory for fine clothes made in the East” (Susa Young Gates, History of the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association of the Church, p. 9 [Salt Lake City, 1911]). The Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, as it was later named, became an organization primarily concerned with cultural, social, and religious activity.

After the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, both Union Pacific and Central Pacific defaulted on their grading contracts. The losses to the Mormon economy were staggering: $500,000 in cash, and even greater aggregate losses to subcontractors, merchants, and laborers. In an effort to compensate for these losses, Church leaders sponsored railroads within the territory, using the half million dollars’ worth of iron, construction equipment, and rolling stock that the bankrupt Union Pacific had used as a substitute payment on its obligations. Although these railroads brought benefits to Utah, their success did not completely assuage the bitterness the Saints felt toward the initial setbacks with the transcontinental railroad.

In addition to intensifying his call for home manufacture and boycotts of non-Mormon merchants as the rails approached Utah, Brigham Young established a cooperative system of merchandising. In October 1868 he organized Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI) to “bring goods here and sell them as low as they can possibly be sold and let the profits be divided with the people at large” (Arden Olsen, “History of the Mormon Mercantile Cooperation in Utah” [Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1935], p. 80). With widespread support, the new department store became a profitable enterprise that continues as Salt Lake City’s largest retailer. Branch stores were established in many communities, as were cooperative tanneries, gristmills, dairies, butcher shops, banks, iron works, sawmills, woolen mills, and cotton factories. These helped the Saints forestall for another decade the “outside” control that the arrival of the railroad presaged.

The remarkable success of the Cooperative Movement suggested to Brigham Young that a revival of “The United Order of Enoch,” long his goal, might now be feasible. Inaugurated by Brigham Young during the winter of 1873–74, the Order Movement had been inspired by a desire to emulate attempts to live the law of consecration in the 1830s and by the success of the Brigham City Cooperative. Under the direction of Elder Lorenzo Snow, Brigham City had become eighty-five percent self-sufficient, conducting virtually all agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and trade in the surrounding area. Almost the entire population was employed in the various departments of the cooperative, and received their remuneration in products rather than cash. So successful was the Brigham City Cooperative that it was hardly affected by the financial panic of 1873.

After Brigham Young launched the United Order movement, more than 200 orders were established throughout Utah, southern Idaho, northern Arizona, and Nevada. Because he left the operation of these orders in local hands, several different types emerged. Some, like Orderville in southern Utah, were almost totally communal. In the larger cities, where tightly organized communal orders were impossible, separate ward congregations financed individual cooperative enterprises, such as farms or factories, and then exchanged products. The manifestations of the United Order of Enoch varied, but they represented a genuine effort of the people to become “one,” as the early revelations had commanded. As with nearly all voluntary enterprises of this nature, these orders eventually disbanded due to internal strains and external pressures. The movement itself ended by 1877, although some orders, such as that at Orderville, continued for another decade.

Prior to his death in 1877, Brigham Young was able to see the fulfillment of one of his most sacred aspirations—the completion of a temple in Utah. The full significance of temples and their ordinances dated back to the Nauvoo period, when Joseph Smith introduced baptism for the dead, marriage for eternity, and a set of religious instructions and covenants called the endowment. Since abandoning the Nauvoo Temple in 1846, Brigham Young dreamed of a temple in the West. Upon arriving in the valley he dedicated ground in Salt Lake City for such a temple, but the imposing structure took forty years to complete. In the meantime, a temporary endowment house, constructed in 1855, provided a place for sacred ordinances. After deciding to build a less imposing structure in the south, Brigham Young dedicated the completed St. George Temple on April 6, 1877. In the decade following his death, two additional temples were built in Utah (Logan and Manti) before the Salt Lake Temple was finally dedicated in 1893.

After the St. George temple dedication, Brigham Young initiated a massive reorganization of the Church, primarily at the local level, clarifying and redefining priesthood responsibilities in the process. Every ward and stake was affected and most received new leadership.

By the time of his death on August 29, 1877, Brigham Young had brought the Latter-day Saints to an apex of growth in their mountain retreat and kingdom. His dying words, “Joseph! Joseph! Joseph!” were appropriate for one who had lived his life, as he frequently said, as an apostle of Jesus Christ and of Joseph Smith. In his sometimes unbending manner, Brigham Young had worked for more than forty years to attain the goals of Joseph Smith. The Saints had achieved a unified economic and political power, though they would soon be forced to bend in the face of unrelenting federal pressure. More important, by courageously facing their challenges and pursuing their dreams in the desert, they had become a strong and cohesive people of faith. Committed to gospel ideals regardless of the costs, they left a heritage that continues to inspire Latter-day Saints throughout the world.


General works focusing on this period include Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young, American Moses, New York, 1985; and Great Basin Kingdom, Cambridge, Mass., 1958; Eugene E. Campbell, Establishing Zion: The Mormon Church in the American West, 18471869, Salt Lake City, 1988; Dean L. May, Utah: A People’s History, Salt Lake City, 1987; and a brief account in Leonard J. Arrington and D. Michael Quinn, “The Latter-day Saints in the Far West, 1847–1900,” in F. Mark McKiernan, Alma R. Blair, and Paul M. Edwards, eds., The Restoration Movement: Essays in Mormon History, Lawrence, Kans., 1973, pp. 257–70.

In addition to numerous relevant articles in the Journal of Mormon History, BYU Studies, Dialogue, Sunstone, and the Utah Historical Quarterly, see Richard E. Bennett, Mormons at the Missouri 18461852, Norman, Okla., 1987, for the period leading to Utah settlement; Wallace Stegner’s The Gathering of Zion, New York, 1964, a classic account of migration to Utah; Leonard J. Arrington, Feramorz Y. Fox, and Dean L. May, Building the City of God: Community and Cooperation Among the Mormons, Salt Lake City, 1976, which focuses on communitarianism; and Norman F. Furniss’s The Mormon Conflict, 185059, New Haven, Conn., 1960, the best book-length study of the Utah War.