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  • James Wheeling

The Mormon Migration

Keeping in the theme of the mid-1800s western migration, there’s another migration that gets little attention now, although it was, at the time, covered as thoroughly as any major event of our day.

Having grown up in the mountain west, I have friends who follow the Mormon faith including my best friend in high school. I had no idea, until I started my research for my story, of the tragic and difficult circumstances the religion’s founders were immersed in during the mid-1800s. For a country founded on the principle of religious freedom, this credo was not extended to the Mormons, who founded their faith in New York, were forced to move to Missouri, and then forced again to relocate to Illinois. Harassed for their religious beliefs, including polygamy, Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith and his brother were killed in Navoo, Illinois. Brigham Young became their leader and decided there would be no peace for the Latter-day Saints while they lived in the United States.

During my researching I found myself thinking, where did they think they could go?

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 made roughly 828,000 square miles west of the Mississippi River all American land but it was still considered territorial and most held the moniker, “Unorganized Indian Territory.” Trappers working for the Hudson Bay Company, missionaries of various, and other transitory characters were the only Europeans or Americans making their living in the wilds of the western frontier. All Brigham Young had to do was to get all of his followers across that vast, unorganized country and he would find himself on land held by the Mexican government.

I guess they thought they could work with the Mexicans easier than with the Americans.

By 1847, Brigham Young had led several groups of Mormon settlers into the Salt Lake Basin and deemed it their promised land. The Mormon migrants met a few white men along the way, including the legendary Jim Bridger, who had lived and traded among the Shoshone, Sioux and Ute cultures for a decade. I found several references in my research that attest to a rather prickly relationship developing between Bridger and Young in the next few years but I will leave that to another blog.

The key point I want to make is that by February of 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was ratified between Mexico and the United States, which ended the Mexican War and ceded the majority of Mexico’s western lands to the United States. Brigham Young found himself and over 15,000 followers back in America.

I can’t imagine the frustration Brigham Young felt when he learned the news. I can imagine, given his determination to keep his followers out of harm’s way and the fact that he had so many souls building their lives in this new place, that Brigham Young bowed his head and said, “No more running.”

Recognizing the Mormons’ participation in western development is instrumental to understanding the modern relationship between their culture and others’ of the west.

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