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History Matters
The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
Early Pioneers Knew When to Set Aside Guns
Will Bagley
Published: 01/27/2002 Edition: Final  Section: Utah Page: B1

Despite legend, not all Utah pioneers were dead shots who came west armed to the teeth. The Nauvoo Legion, the unofficial Mormon army, seldom had enough long guns to arm more than half of the territorial militia in the 1850s.

One Salt Lake militiaman thought most guns in the outlying settlements were "not much better than a good club." An officer complained it was "hard knocking to get some Saints to buy arms so as to defend their families."

In Mormon wagon trains, guns were limited to hunters and experienced guides. When he organized the Pioneer Company in April 1847, Brigham Young laid down the "Laws Regulating the Camp of Israel," ordering men to march "with their loaded guns in their hands or in their wagons where they can get to them in a moment."

After several horses were shot, the orders changed--for as the Mormons learned, after cholera and drowning, accidental gunshots were the leading killers on the trail.

The first victim died near O'Fallons Bluff in June 1841. "The poor fellow had incautiously taken his gun by the muzzle to draw it from his wagon, the piece accidentally discharged, the bullet pierced his liver," a Catholic priest recalled. The man's name: George Shotwell.

On May 18, 1847, clerk Thomas Bullock recorded that Young "reproved all the brethren who had been wasting their shot & Powder" and "ordered that no more Game be killed until it was needed."

Gun-rights activists who fear that the government will confiscate their firearms should note that Brigham Young did exactly that.

On Aug. 15, 1847, the authorities told Mormon Battalion veterans their muskets and rifles "must be left here & not taken to the States and appointed tomorrow morning to receive the remainder which are not yet delivered in."

The soldiers followed orders, and many of them returned unarmed to Winter Quarters that fall. By the time Young's men reached Chimney Rock in late September, the entire party was down to 250 shots, only three rounds per man.

When California pioneer William Knight visited Brigham Young in 1859, the Mormon leader kept "a big revolver hanging in reach of his arm." Following the so-called Utah War, in which the Saints pitted themselves against federal troops, the prophet was prepared for assassins.

But Young knew there was a time and a place for everything, including guns. Unlike many current Utah lawmakers, he didn't feel firearms belonged everywhere--and he particularly didn't like guns in churches.

Today, Utah law would require him to post a notice if he wanted to ban guns from the Tabernacle or his own home.

Times were simpler when Young opened conference on April 6, 1858.

President "Young remarked that it was impolite for officers to enter a meeting house with drawn swords, and enquired if any had brought in loaded guns," the church historian recorded. "Several answering in the affirmative, they were requested to go out & stack them and place a guard of 2 over them."

This recalls an old Utah joke. Why do you have two men guard your guns? So one won't steal them.

Historian Bagley is a dead shot.

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