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A different Pioneer Day

On 24 July 1847, Brigham Young, the Mormon prophet, entered the Salt Lake Valley with the first company of Latter-day Saint pioneers. They had endured an arduous trek across the American plains after having been forcibly driven from Nauvoo, Illinois. Entering the Salt Lake Valley, Latter-day Saints expressed both bitterness and joy. “Thus ends this long and tedious journey from the lands of our enemies,” Hosea Stout recorded in his journal, “and I feel free and happy that I have escaped from their midst.”

Contemporary Latter-day Saints who commemorate the 24th of July most often sound less like Stout and more like Thomas Bullock, who simply shouted “Hurra, hurra, hurra,” when he reached Utah. Today is an official state holiday in Utah, and participants in the pioneer-themed parades, demolition derbies, food fests, and fun runs celebrate Utah settlement with patriotism and civic spirit.

Things were different during the Mormons’ tenth anniversary festivities in 1857. Though the nineteenth-century Saints were no less celebratory, wounds from their forced evacuation of Nauvoo (and previous expulsion under threat of “extermination” from Missouri) were still fresh. In addition, since late May, Young had been receiving reports that President James Buchanan would replace him as governor of Utah and possibly send an army to Utah to quell a reported rebellion by the Latter-day Saints.

On 23 June, the Mormons received a batch of mail from the eastern states; according to Young, the newspapers received that day contained the cries, “Blood! blood! blood! Exterminate the Mormons, let us sweep them from the Earth.” Amid the “vast pile of rubbish,” Young received a supportive letter from Thomas L. Kane, a Philadelphia social reformer who had befriended the Saints. A frequent correspondent (he and Young would exchange almost 100 letters), Kane often intervened for the Latter-day Saints with government officials and newspaper editors. To Young, Kane’s letter seemed like an “oasis.”

On 24 July 1857, confirmation of Buchanan’s intentions reached Utah in dramatic fashion with messengers who had hurried across the plains and found Young and other Latter-day Saints celebrating the tenth anniversary of their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley in Big Cottonwood Canyon, east of Salt Lake City. Young announced the news and dictated to a scribe writing his diary, “The feeling of Mobocracy is rife in the ‘States’ the constant cry is kill the Mormons. Let them try it.”

Young and the Saints continued with their celebration, but they were deeply disturbed that the government had settled upon its policy without notifying them. In addition, they feared the worst, believing that the army would expel them from Utah as they had been driven from Missouri and Illinois. Young began issuing directions to Mormons both in Utah and throughout the world to prepare for the defense of Utah and to resist the military expedition.

In September 1857, Young wrote to Kane, portraying his people as aggrieved victims and arguing that Buchanan’s administration had trampled the Constitution. “We have encroached upon the rights of no one,” Young wrote. “Why then in the name of High Heavens, can we not be let alone?” To the Protestants at the center of antebellum American society, Mormon polygamy threatened to unravel the religious rights enshrined in the first amendment that had established the free exercise of religion without defining what constituted religion. In Protestant minds, if a practice like polygamy could be justified by religion, the whole experiment in religious freedom was compromised. By contrast, Young believed that the “Constitution and laws are good enough, we could live, prosper and enjoy the blessings of peace, rights of Conscience and everything that we desire beneath its am[p]le protection if they were administered in righteousness.” Young’s correspondence with Kane records how such convictions about religious freedom consistently animated his resistance to heavy-handed federal authority.

For his part, Kane was motivated to help the Mormons by an understudied strain of nineteenth-century social reform. Unlike the vast network of Protestant reformers working to eradicate sin from American society, Kane was inspired by the French philosopher Auguste Comte’s “religion of humanity” and the Democratic Party’s emphasis on liberty. His model was the “romantic hero” who sought “liberty for the downtrodden.” The “downtrodden” included the poor, slaves, and women, but Kane did more for the Mormons than any other group. Young’s letter expressed hope that Kane would “receive the just recompense of daring to speak, act and feel in behalf of an innocent but much abused people.”

After receiving Young’s letter, Kane approached Buchanan and received an unofficial commission to travel to Utah and mediate the threatened conflict between the federal army and the Latter-day Saints. He reached Salt Lake City in late February 1858 after a harrowing journey. After consulting with Young, he traveled to what is now western Wyoming where the army was camped after failing to reach Salt Lake City the previous fall. Kane helped negotiate a peace and bring an end to the Utah War before it gained momentum. Kane convinced the newly appointed governor to travel to Utah without the army as a gesture of peace and helped negotiate a peace that brought the “war” to an end.

An uneasy peace had been achieved by the time the Mormons celebrated the 24th of July in 1858. Over the ensuing two decades, Kane and Young wrote frequently, attempting to placate a hostile Protestant society and a powerful federal government. While Utahns celebrate a peaceful Pioneer Day today, the Kane-Young correspondence preserves the history of a more precarious 24 July over a century and a half ago.

Image credit: The Mormon pioneers coming off Big Mountain into Mountain dell. Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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