When he came into office in March 1849, President Zachary Taylor had a problem, and the Mormons of Utah were right in the middle of it. The solution to the dilemma led to the creation, 150 years ago today, of a place called Utah.
Taylor's problem was the American Southwest, occupied by conquest in 1846 and purchased from Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe of 1848.
Ironically, Taylor's brilliant victories in the war with Mexico had been instrumental in winning the vast territory that would ultimately become the states of California, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and Utah.
The issue confronting the American Republic was what to do with this vast territory, and how to do it without tearing the United States apart. The president had to answer what the Mormon emissary to Congress, physician John Bernhisel, called "the great and grave question of slavery." Would the new lands be slave or free?
For years, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had kept a balance between the interests of the North and the South, but the admission of Texas as a slave state and the creation of a continental nation forever destroyed the old order. For two years, Congress had been unable to resolve the question.
In January 1850, Mormon apostle Wilford Woodruff wrote: "All parties have now ceased ridiculing the idea of dissolving the American Union." Now, he forecast, there was "every prospect of a burst up at Washington."
That month, Taylor proposed a remarkable solution: He would admit New Mexico to the Union and admit California (and the rest of the new lands) as one big state, reaching from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific. In two years, the massive state would be divided, giving the Mormon settlers in the Rocky Mountains a state of their own. The people of the new states could then decide the slavery question for themselves.
Enter Brigham Young: In the Great Basin, Mormon leader Brigham Young faced problems of his own. A skillful leader, Young seldom made a political blunder. When he did, the results were spectacular. Few of his governmental miscues, however, matched the scale of the one he made in December 1848, when settlers in the Salt Lake Valley petitioned Congress for a territorial government "of the most liberal construction."
Young had been requesting territorial status for the Great Basin settlements since August 1846, but had he asked for statehood, Congress might have admitted a Mormon state to the Union in 1850. This would have given the Latter-day Saints the ability to elect their own officials and regulate local laws controlling marriage--including practices such as the "plurality of wives" most Americans called polygamy.
While he waited for Congress to make up its mind, Young established "a free and independent government" called Deseret in March 1849. (Supposedly, Deseret was an ancient word meaning honeybee whose origins Mormons believed "ran back to the building of the tower of Babel.")
That same month, Young was unanimously elected governor by 625 raised hands in a meeting on the future temple grounds. Young set about mapping the borders of a nation-state twice the size of Texas. The state of Deseret stretched from its seaport at San Diego to the crest of the Rocky Mountains and from the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming to Arizona's Gila River in the south. It incorporated parts of modern states reaching from Oregon and Idaho to Colorado and New Mexico.
Thomas L. Kane, the Mormons' most influential political ally, soon pointed out that territorial status would leave the frontier settlement at the mercy of Congress and its political appointees.
The General Assembly of Deseret tried to correct the mistake in July 1849 and sought admission to the Union "as a sovereign and independent state." Between July 1 and 18, the Council of Fifty, a secret organization created by Joseph Smith in 1844 to rule the world's temporal affairs after the Second Coming of Christ, drafted a state constitution.
Apparently, the Saints decided to erase their embarrassing request for territorial status and replace it with the petition for proper statehood. According to historian Thomas Alexander of Brigham Young University, the date for the July convention was simply moved back to March 1849 to solve the problem.
Gen. John Wilson, along with his family and a military escort, arrived in Deseret in August 1849. Wilson came as Taylor's emissary, carrying with him the president's remarkable proposal to admit most of the new West as a single state. The Mormons found Taylor's proposition to divide the state in two in 1851 especially attractive, since it would give them "a free, sovereign, independent State, without any further action of Congress."
Except for New Mexico and California, the proposal created a Mormon state encompassing all the new lands in the West. Young directed Apostle Amasa Lyman to support the plan.
Mormon sources are curiously silent on Wilson's visit to Salt Lake City, but U.S. Army Capt. Howard Stansbury complained that Wilson's attachZ "had declared openly that General Wilson had come clothed with the authority from the President of the United States to expel the Mormons from the lands they occupied, and that he would do so if he thought proper."
Stansbury was angered because he had to convince the Saints that his projected scientific survey of the Great Salt Lake was in no way connected with "breaking up and destroying their colony."
Californians, however, had already written a constitution of their own and elected temporary state officers by the time Wilson reached Sacramento in November 1849. Peter Burnett, once Joseph Smith's lawyer but at that time governor of the provisional state of California, expressed the lack of enthusiasm citizens of the golden state felt toward Taylor's proposal.
Taylor's growing disenchantment with the Mormons, coupled with the failure of his plan, convinced Young he had been betrayed. After the nation's president died in 1850 and was succeeded by Millard Fillmore, the Mormon leader said Taylor was "dead, and in Hell, and I am glad of it."
It now fell to Congress to resolve the burgeoning nation's growth problems. Henry Clay, one of the architects of the Compromise of 1820, proposed a solution: California would be admitted as a free state, while New Mexico and Utah would become territories comprising all the conquered lands outside California. As a sop to Southern interests, Congress would pass a more effective fugitive-slave law--an ill-considered promise that pointed a dagger at the heart of the Union.
The Name Utah: When it came time to select a name for the new territory in the Rocky Mountains, Deseret had few fans in Congress. Sen. Thomas Benton thought the name was repulsive and sounded too much like "desert."
Sen. Stephen A. Douglas was partial to the name of the proud and powerful Indian nation that ruled the Western mountains, the Utahs, and he insisted the territory be named Utah (today, the tribe is known as Ute.)
Mormons long resisted naming the territory after a people they regarded, as the late Utah historian Dale Morgan wrote, "with a little fear, more pity, and a great deal of contempt." A delegate to the 1872 statehood convention denounced the name Utah for honoring "a dirty, thieving, insect-infested, grass-hopper eating tribe of Indians."
Broader minds prevailed, however, and the Saints ultimately accepted that they could be "just as industrious, worthy, and reputable under the name of Utah."
Henry Clay's "great compromise" resolved the crisis of 1850, but it only postponed the inevitable. As John Bernhisel noted, slavery would "sooner or later shake this Union to its center." A brass band greeted Young near Farmington on Jan. 21, 1851, with news of his appointment as governor of Utah. That night Salt Lake City celebrated with fireworks and an artillery salute.
In gratitude to the man who succeeded Taylor and appointed their new governor, the Mormons named their new capital Fillmore and the surrounding county Millard. President Millard Fillmore's politically deft selection of Young as governor had made territorial status easier for the Mormons to accept, but created problems of its own.
Appointing Young governor was easy. When it came time to replace him eight years later, President Buchanan found it necessary to send the U.S. Army to make sure his decision was accepted by the residents of the territory.
Utah would have to wait 46 years to see its statehood star added to the Union.
Will Bagley is a Western historian and a Salt Lake Tribune columnist. For more on the creation of Utah, see Dale L. Morgan's classic study, The State of Deseret.