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How Miscommunication and Mass Hysteria Caused the Utah War

This little-known confrontation turned deadly.

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  • Interior of an officer's tent during the Utah Expedition, 1858.Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Taking place between 1857 and 1858, the Utah War was caused by a series of misunderstandings, overreactions, and religious posturings. To call it a war is somewhat misleading. Far from being full-scale, there weren't even any major battles between the two sides. Still, the events of the Utah War had major implications for Mormon rule in Utah, and the governmental status of the territory that was not yet a state.

Mormons had become familiar with violent persecution—and responding in kind—long before the Utah War began. In 1844, the founder of Mormonism and the Latter Day Saint movement Joseph Smith was assassinated by a mob of 200 while awaiting trial for inciting a riot. Prior to that, the Mormons’ attempt to establish Zion in Missouri led to armed conflict.

One of Smith’s successors, Brigham Young, suggested that Mormons could preserve their religious freedom with an exodus to what is now Utah, but was then still part of Mexico. Thus in 1847, Mormons began moving westward en masse, settling around the Salt Lake Valley.

1848 saw an end to the Mexican-American War as Mexico ceded the Utah region to the United States. That same year, a carpenter discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in California, sparking the Gold Rush and sending hundreds of thousands of prospectors west—many through Utah. Fearing an end to their isolation, Mormons in Utah began lobbying for the territory’s incorporation into the United States, which would allow them to elect representatives. 

However, tensions were rising between slave states and free states, so Congress passed a series of bills to cool heads. The Compromise of 1850 made Utah a US territory, which meant that the president could appoint its officials. To the Utah Mormons’ satisfaction, President Millard Fillmore chose Brigham Young as Utah’s first governor.

Still, many desired to join the union. Some of Fillmore’s appointd officials were non-Mormons—or gentiles, as members of the church called them—and while some were sympathetic, others scorned their Mormon constituents. Mormons retained a staunch admiration of the United States and its Constitution, but distrusted those who governed them. Some politicians feared a resurgence of mob justice and fled the territory, taking rumors of tyrannical theocracy with them. 

1856 brought drought and devastation to Utah. This prompted Young to call for a great religious reformation. He accused outsiders of slandering the Mormon Church, falsely accusing them of violence. He embraced controversial doctrines like polygamy, marrying 56 women during his lifetime.

James Buchanan won the presidential election of 1856, partially on the promise of removing Mormon influence from Utah. The following summer, he selected Augusta, Georgia mayor turned Mexican-American War profiteer Alfred Cumming as Utah’s new governor. He sent Cumming west with a party of 2,500 US Army soldiers, commanded by Colonel Edmund Alexander. Their orders were not to provoke violence, but to defend themselves and the new governor if necessary. 

However, Buchanan failed to inform Brigham Young of the new appointment. Absent any direct communication and hearing that 2,500 soldiers were marching their way, Mormons in Utah assumed the worst. Young stoked the fire, instructing his people to prepare for evacuation or war. Many began stockpiling food for caravans, planning to burn their houses as they fled. Some underwent training as Young reactivated the Nauvoo Legion, Joseph Smith’s militia, under orders to deter the army. They began constructing fortifications in Echo Canyon, a choke point along what would be the most direct route into Utah.

The army sent Captain Steward Van Vliet ahead to Salt Lake, where he arrived on September 8, 1857. He had sympathized with the Mormon community during their settlement in Iowa, so they cautiously trusted him. Van Vliet handed Young a letter explaining the 2,500 men’s needs for accommodation, but again failing to mention their purpose. Young confided in Van Vliet that he feared he would be assassinated like Joseph Smith, and Van Vliet explained the expedition’s true purpose.

Young promised Van Vliet he’d keep the peace, but in inflammatory public sermons swore to keep Cumming out of Utah. Van Vliet headed back to his troop after a week, promising to try and halt the expedition. The day after he left, Young instituted martial law across the Utah Territory.

In the meantime, another expedition was making its way across Utah. The Baker-Fancher party, a caravan of farmers and ranchers, was on its way to California. Like many westward bound wagon trains of the time, they planned to stop in Salt Lake City to resupply, likely arriving there in August of 1857. However, they were received coldly, with wary Mormons refusing to trade and threatening violence. Members of the Baker-Fancher party responded with taunts of their own, claiming to have participated in the killing of Joseph Smith or other anti-Mormon attacks. 

Against everyone’s better judgment, John D. Lee, a member of the Mormon Council of Fifty, took it upon himself to put together a group of 200 and ride for the Baker-Fancher camp. Whether his party was composed of Southern Paiute raiders, Mormons disguised as Paiute raiders, or a mixture of the two is uncertain. They arrived on the morning of September 7, 1857, and laid siege. Members of the Baker-Fancher party took cover behind their wagons and cautiously returned fire, but soon ran low on water and ammunition. 

The city council of Parowan, Utah soon convened under Mayor William H. Dame. They voted to end the siege and let the Baker-Fancher party pass peacefully. However, after the vote, Isaac C. Haight, former bodyguard of Joseph Smith, took Dame aside. He explained that the Baker-Fancher party had likely realized Mormons were responsible for the attack. In order to keep the word from getting out, Dame authorized extreme measures. 

On the morning of September 11, Lee approached the Baker-Fancher camp waving a white flag. He claimed he had negotiated with the Paiute people for their safe passage under Mormon escort. As they marched, their guards slowly allowed them to become separated. Soon the order rang out, and the Mormons slaughtered those under their escort. Between 120 and 140 members of the party were killed. Many young children were kidnapped and sent to live with Mormon families. The participants were sworn to secrecy. Brigham Young launched an investigation into the event, which found Paiute raiders responsible—the true culprits wouldn’t be uncovered until after the Civil War. 

Meanwhile, the Nauvoo Legion proceeded in their plans. They first made contact with Cumming’s expedition in the high desert west of South Pass, Wyoming, where they set fire to the roadside grass. They tracked down the army’s supply caravan, destroying their wagons and rustling their livestock. 

The army chose not to return fire at first, but the repeated raids were wearing them down and leaving them open to potentially more severe attacks. Colonel Alexander appointed 100 men on mules to fire back at the Mormon raiders, but the only casualties were a single wounded horse and one of the raiders’ hats. 

Steward Van Vliet warned Colonel Alexander of the Echo Canyon defenses, so the Colonel chose an alternate route. They attempted to circumvent the canyon to the north, but were routed by a harsh blizzard. Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston took over for Alexander shortly afterward, adopting a more aggressive strategy. Still, he knew the army was ill equipped to pass through the Rocky Mountains in winter. So they set up camp near Fort Bridger, where they would await the spring thaw.

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  • Brigham Young photographed in 1855.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Early in the panic, Brigham Young had contacted Thomas L. Kane, a Pennsylvania attorney who had previously aided the Mormons in their westward movements. Kane wrote to President Buchanan, requesting authorization to negotiate. Buchanan had little hope, but worried that a Mormon victory would damage his reputation. He granted Kane unofficial permission to commence peace talks. However, Kane would have to take a roundabout route to avoid the winter weather, so it wasn’t until February of 1858 that he arrived in Salt Lake City.

What exactly transpired at the negotiations remains unknown. Somehow, Kane convinced Young to accept Alfred Cumming as the new governor. Cumming was installed peacefully, becoming a moderate figure.

Still, Young feared persecution. Colonel Johnston, who remained at the winter camp until the outset of the Civil War, grew even more embittered against the Mormons. Young stationed Nauvoo Legion militiamen between Johnston’s camp and Salt Lake City, but relations remained peaceful. 

Contemporary reports inaccurately called the Utah War bloodless, referring to it as Buchanan’s blunder. Although Buchanan’s failure to communicate with Young caused rumors to run wild, in truth Young’s provocation was partly responsible for the chaos and the ensuing massacre. Although Mormons lost Utah’s governorship, they remained in control of its probate courts until the Transcontinental Railroad brought large numbers of non-Mormons to settle in Utah beginning in 1869. Utah finally received statehood in 1896. Utah, especially the Salt Lake Valley, remains the epicenter of the Mormon world, being home to the church’s headquarters and some two million Mormons as of 2020.