The Secession

Early members of the LDS Church migrated multiple times, first from city to city within the U.S., and then eventually into unclaimed territories beyond federal reach. This project is focusing on that last migration, which constituted their secession movement, but the struggles that the Mormons faced in some earlier settlements is necessary for context.

One of their main settlements was in Jackson County, Missouri, where Joseph Smith claimed the Garden of Eden had originally been located. This was supposed to be the center of their new City of Zion, a haven on earth for the Heavenly Father’s true followers. The Mormon population multiplied so quickly that non-Mormons became afraid they would lose all political say in the area and violence broke out.┬áMormons were forced out of the territory, banned by governor decree, and ended up fleeing to Illinois.

In the spring of 1839 the Mormons reached Nauvoo, Illinois, with Joseph Smith and other leaders who had been held hostage by Missourians joining them months later. They quickly started establishing a new Zion, building a temple, university, and establishing a militia.

The murder of Joseph Smith

The non-Mormons in the area soon turned against Smith’s emerging attempts at theocracy. It was here that Smith began to preach polygamy — when a local paper threatened to publish news of the practice, Smith ordered that the press be destroyed. For this act he and his older brother were arrested, and while in jail, murdered by an anti-Mormon mob. Brigham Young assumed leadership of the Church and would lead the Mormons on their greatest migration yet: beyond the boundaries of the United States into Utah territory.

“They knew only that they were to search out, probably beyond the Rocky Mountains, if not indeed amount them, some isolated spot, where, far away from the land of boasted freedom, the soil, the skies, and mind and manners were free. If they were offensive to the laws, if the laws of the land were offensive to them, they would go where they might have land and laws of their own.” -J Fish

Shortly after the Mormons’ arrival and settlement in Utah, the United States gained the territory through the Mexican Cession. The Mormons applied for statehood, an attempt to secure their rights in their new establishment. They were refused – due to practices of polygamy – but Brigham Young was made governor of the new lands. He quickly organized a series of settlements, each based around producing certain goods the Mormons required, essentially making the territory an extended commune. There was no private property and all worked towards the collective prosperity. Young even started removing federally appointed officials, such as judges. When word of Young’s theocratic reign reached Washington, the president became concerned. Buchanan decided to instill a non-Mormon governor and sent military units to help install him.

This lead to the Utah War – a war with no actual battles – in which the Mormons used interference tactics to cut off the U.S. army’s supply lines in an attempt to starve them out of Utah. The Mountain Meadows Massacre was associated with this War, though the motives for the attack are still unclear, as is the level of Brigham Young’s knowledge or involvement with the event. Young and the Mormons eventually surrendered, with Young stepping down as Governor in return for a full pardon from Buchanan.