Thursday, February 21, 2013

The State of Deseret: A Historical Footnote

In recently revisiting the textbook used in my high-school Arizona history class, I was surprised to see no mention of the once-proposed "State of Deseret," that would have bound much of the southwestern United States together into a vast Mormon state.  The influence of the Mormon church and its people is widely covered in most Arizona historical texts, but rarely is the planned State of Deseret cited.  Instead, ink has largely been reserved for the role of the Mormons in settling communities across the west -- and, in some chronicles, for the tragic event known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  The 1849 proposal by the Mormon church is, nonetheless, quite an interesting bit of trivia despite being relegated to the more obscure annals of history.

The name "Deseret" comes from the word for "honeybee" in the Book of Mormon. The bee is a symbol of industry inspired by the constant work and production level of that busy creature.  You'll often see the word "Deseret" and images of bee hives associated with the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

Known for their own industrious colonization, the Mormon pioneers had only left Illinois in 1847 on their westward trek.  It was less than two years later that the church drafted the "Provisional Government of the State of Deseret."  Most people can barely plan a wedding in so short a time!  Yet the busy Mormons had already made plans for a Mormon-controlled state covering nearly all of the region that is called the "Great Basin" as well as a tract of land that carried the proposed state all the way to the coast.  This chunk of desirable, but arid, real estate extended from mid-Wyoming and southern Idaho down to the Mexican border (this was pre-Gadsden purchase, mind you) and included a significant stretch of California coastline, all of Utah, Arizona and Nevada, and a great deal of western New Mexico and Colorado.

This bold proposal didn't impress Congress, but in a compromise intended to settle the ongoing Mormon conflict, the Utah Territory was created in 1850 to include Utah, Nevada, and significant portions of Wyoming and Colorado.  To the dismay of Brigham Young and the Mormons, the territory did not have the political sway that statehood would have offered.  To placate them, Brigham Young was named the territorial governor.  Young himself would not be so easily bought:  he began to visualize a Mormon nation, rather than just a Mormon state.

As these political and geographical boundaries were defined, the 10,000 or so Mormons in the Great Basin immediately began to work in over-drive to colonize the region.  These colonies were placed in important locations so as to exert control over key locations along roads, trails, and rivers.  Mormons continued to call their much-coveted region "Deseret."  In late 1856, church leaders again considered petition for statehood.  Due to the animosity they received from Congress and the rest of the country as a result of constant conflict (much of it bloody) in Utah Territory, the petition ended up being dropped.

Despite the Utah territorial supreme court's 1856 ruling that common law, based on the English system, was the law of the land, Governor Young's leadership supported the law of the church -- which  included polygamy, blood atonement, the Law of Consecration, and the practice of "lying for the lord."

In early 1857, the conflicts between the Mormon leadership and the federal officials in the territory were so severe that all the federal officers pulled completely out of the land, fearing for their safety.  The federal government, tiring of the subversive activities of the church, began to prepare a military response while Brigham Young planned a militia to counter the federal defense.  By July, President James Buchanan had selected a replacement for the troublesome governor Young.  In preparation he sent 2,500 troops to the contentious territory, along with the well-wishes of much of the rest of the nation.

Within days of the issuance of the troops, Brigham Young convened a great assembly in Big Cottonwood Canyon.  He announced to his followers that they were henceforth no longer part of Utah Territory, but were now an independent Mormon state of Deseret -- and that they must tolerate no further oppression or abuse by the United States.  In August, Young proclaimed that he would in no way allow U.S. soldiers to reach Salt Lake, and further prepared his people for war.

On September 11, 1857, a hand-picked party of Mormons led by John D. Lee, in league with their Paiute allies, slaughtered 123 members of an Arkansas wagon train known as the Fancher Party at  Mountain Meadows.  The victims included an infant, women, and children.   Not until March of 1859 were the seventeen orphaned children who'd survived the massacre finally rescued by federal officials.   It had taken less time for the Mormons to colonize much of the strategic geographic points of the Great Basin.

Thanks to federal military pressure, the efforts of mountaineers who'd settled in the territory, and attacks by Indian tribes who had turned squarely against the Mormons, the Mormon rebellion was finally quelled in 1858.

In 1877, John D. Lee, a scapegoat for the church and for the other participants in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, was executed at Mountain Meadows after his conviction for the crimes that occurred there.  Lee's Ferry, Arizona, is named after Lee.  It had been his long-time home, and a place my own father considered a favorite fishing hole.  I grew up hearing Dad's fond remarks about his affection for the place.

It was not until 1990 that a memorial to the murdered members of the Fancher Party was erected, and even then it did not mention who'd killed them.  It strikes me as tragically ironic that we enthusiasts of western history spend an inordinate amount of time reading blood and thunder stories of gunfighters who'd killed three or four rivals, yet the wholesale slaughter of nearly 125 would-be settlers is barely a scribble on the pages of our  history books.  The grandiose plans of Brigham Young to secede from the United States and colonize an area that is 1/6th the size of the nation as a Mormon nation are not so much as a doodle in the margin of those same books.

I have relied primarily on Will Bagley's remarkably well-researched book, Blood of the Prophets:  Brigham Young and the Mountain Meadow Massacre for much of the research in this post.  I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the history of the American southwest.  Other sources include, but are not limited to, Walker and Bufkin's useful and illuminating Historical Atlas of Arizona, which initially prompted my curiosity about the proposed State of Deseret.  

Copyright (c) 2013 by MJ Miller.  All rights reserved.  No part of this article may be used without the permission of the author; however, links to this page may be freely shared.