Mormon Settlement

Ron Rood and Linda Thatcher

Utah’s thousands of years of prehistory and its centuries of known recorded history are so distinctive and complex that a summary can only hint at the state’s rich heritage. The synopsis offered here follows major themes in Utah history and includes some of the significant dates, events, and individuals.

When Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his brother Hyrum were assassinated at Carthage, Illinois, in June 1844, Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders decided to abandon Nauvoo, Illinois, and move west. Their exodus began February 4, 1846.

Brigham Young

With the outbreak of the Mexican War, President James Knox Polk asked the Mormons for a battalion of men. Volunteers were recruited and the Mormon Battalion formed. During their famous march of 1846–1847 from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to San Diego, California, they forged a wagon route across the extreme Southwest. Their pay and their later explorations helped the pioneer settlers.

In April 1847 the pioneer company of Mormons was on its way from Winter Quarters, Nebraska, to Utah. The reports of Fremont and conversations with Father De Smet, a Jesuit missionary to the Indians, helped to influence their choice to head for the Great Basin. An advance party, including three African-Americans, entered Salt Lake Valley July 22, 1847, and the rest of the company on July 24. Planting and irrigating as well as exploration of the surrounding area began immediately.

Although the struggle for survival was difficult in the first years of settlement, the Mormons were better equipped by experience than many other groups to tame the harsh land. They had pioneered other settlements in the Midwest, and their communal religious faith underscored the necessity of cooperative effort. Basic industries developed rapidly, the city was laid out, and building began. Natural resources, including timber and water, were regarded as community property; and the church organization served as the first government.

Settlement of outlying areas began as soon as possible. Bountiful, Farmington, Ogden, Tooele, Provo, and Manti were settled by 1850. Immigration had swelled the population to 11,380, half of whom were farm families. The typical family of 1850 consisted of two parents in their 20s or early 30s and three children. A leader was generally chosen by church authorities to head each settlement, and others were selected to provide basic skills for the new community. Small settlements were frequently forts with log cabins arranged in a protective square.

Wagon train assembled (or camped) in the area of Coalville, 1863.

Between 1847 and 1900 the Mormons founded about 500 settlements in Utah and neighboring states. At the same time, missionaries traveled worldwide, and thousands of religious converts from many cultural backgrounds made the long journey from their homelands to Utah via boat, rail, wagon train, and handcart.

The Mormon village in Utah was to a degree patterned after Joseph Smith’s City of Zion, a planned community of farmers and tradesmen, with a central residential area and farms and farm buildings on the land beyond. Life in these villages centered on the day’s work and church activities. Educational facilities developed slowly. Music, dance, and drama were favorite group activities.