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Saturday, July 23, 2022

July 23-24, 2022: UtahStudying: The Founding Mormons

[On July 24, 1847, a weary group of about 150 migrants founded Salt Lake City. So for the city’s 175th birthday, this week I’ve AmericanStudied Utah histories, leading up to this special weekend post on that founding community!]

On three telling historical details about that founding white community (remembering always the subject of Monday’s post, the many indigenous communities that long predated the Mormons and remained present in the region in and long after 1847).

1)      A Mexican Refuge: The story of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the Mormon church and community’s origins and exodus from the United States is a much broader and longer one, and would need its own post (or weeklong series) to do justice. Having fled the United States due to the persecution they faced there and/or their desire to find a place where they could freely practice their extreme religion (sound familiar, Massachusetts?), the migrant Mormons ended up in Mexican territory. When they came to the Great Salt Lake Valley and Young and others found it ideal as a place to set up their community, they thus should have gotten the permission of the Mexican government to do so—while of course the territory would be ceded to the US a year later in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, they had no way of knowing that in July 1847. There’s more to say about those complexities than this brief paragraph, but I have to admit loving the basic but (for many Americans) mind-blowing idea that the Utah Mormons truly began as a Mexican community.

2)      Slavery: Another factors in the Mormon exodus from New York State and the United States was that the community were slaveowners; the migrants who founded Salt Lake City had three enslaved African Americans—Green Flake, Hark Lay, and Oscar Crosby—with them when they did so. They immediately began purchasing enslaved Native Americans as well, leading to a count of 26 enslaved people in the community as of 1850. The question of slavery’s extension into western territories was of course ubiquitous throughout the decade, indeed perhaps the single most defining American issue of the 1850s. But the fact that it was an overall issue doesn’t in any way absolve individual communities of responsibility for their own actions, and I think it’s deeply telling that this small community of refugees, fleeing persecution and seeking freedom (in their own framing at least), were at the same time practicing enslavement and forcing these enslaved people to come with them into this hugely unfamiliar setting.

3)      US Conflicts: That practice wasn’t what got the new communities of Great Salt Lake City and Deseret in trouble with the US government, however. The earliest such conflict seems to have come in 1849, when the community petitioned the government for formal recognition of the State of Deseret; Congress refused to grant it, and in 1850 established instead the Utah Territory, moving the territorial capital to Fillmore in the process (it would move back to Salt Lake City in 1856). That power struggle was unquestionably connected to the broader and ongoing conflicts over polygamy, which was illegal in the rest of the United States but a central tenet of that founding Mormon community. And it came to a head in 1857 with the so-called Utah War, when Brigham Young refused to step down as governor and President Buchanan sent in federal troops (who remained in the area through the start of the Civil War). Salt Lake City and Utah have always occupied a unique and uneasy place on the larger American landscape, for all these reasons and the others I’ve traced this week.

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Other Utah histories or stories you’d highlight?

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