SALT LAKE CITY, UT: THE GREAT AMERICA OF 1847-1857
Salt Lake City was great from 1847-1857, its founding decade. Though the city, which serves as a financial, political and spiritual center of the Inland West, has long been prosperous and known for its livability as a community, it was in those earliest years that the utopian dreams of its founders came closest to being fully realized. Left more or less alone, adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS or “Mormons”) were allowed to build a new society in the Great Basin, and this period of relative autonomy would continue to shape the sect’s relationship with its neighbors.
Fleeing bigotry and mob violence in Missouri, LDS President Brigham Young led a band of followers across the Great Plains, eventually arriving, on July 24, 1847, at the shores of the Great Salt Lake in what was nominally Mexican territory, where Young famously declared “this is the right place” (or “this is the place” in some accounts). The surrounding valley reminded Young of accounts of the geography of the Holy Land, with the brackish water of the lake evoking the Dead Sea. An adjacent river was dubbed the Jordan to complete the biblical analogy.
Like many religious groups that emerged out of the “Great Awakening” of the early 19th Century, the Mormons practiced what we would now call “intentional community.” The new settlement, initially called “Great Salt Lake City” would be laid out in keeping with previous neatly planned Mormon communities in Illinois and Missouri, with some modifications by Young. At the center of the city a square was set aside for a temple. Though the actual building would not be completed for decades, this prominent location symbolized the church’s central role in the life of the community
This utopian dream, however, was meant to include only church adherents. Upon arrival, the Mormons saw what they believed to be an unpopulated valley, but this was because a smallpox epidemic had devastated the native Shoshone months before. Future interactions with native tribes were largely friendly, church leadership recognizing that these were potential allies, but they were marginalized and even converts could not hope for more than second-class status at best. Non-Mormon settlers, who became more plentiful as Salt Lake City became a key stop on an important route to California, also found themselves regarded as outsiders, and were regarded with indifference or hostility by church members. Their grievances would bring unwelcome attention to the Mormon experiment in Salt Lake City.
This era of relative autonomy would come to an end in the summer of 1857. A year before, the platform of the new Republican Party opposed the “twin evils of polygamy and slavery,” reflecting a growing national distrust of the Mormons, with particular suspicion focused on the unusual practice of plural marriage, though their communitarianism were also a source of mistrust as well. Responding to public pressure, newly elected Democratic President James Buchanan sent a new slate of appointed officials with an escort of some 2500 soldiers, about a sixth of the regular army. The subsequent “Utah War,” which consisted mostly of Mormon guerrillas harassing federal troops by destroying supplies and blocking roads, would finally be settled in April, 1858, when the Mormon leadership agreed to accept the authority of non-Mormon federal appointees.
The historical memory of the early years of hostility and oppression from the American mainstream has contributed to a sense of common cause among Mormons. This solidarity has assured their continued prominence as a political and cultural force in the western states. Likewise the legacy of what they accomplished in the Salt Lake Valley during the decade when they had a degree of self-determination, remains an inspiration as well and a reminder of what they could achieve as a community.
-Tom Prezelski, Resident Historian