What was Deseret, and who were the Mormons? Any all-sided history of the Southwest, with its Native peoples, Mexicans, and Spaniards, will be woefully incomplete without a discussion of these questions. In the case of the Mormons and their unique theology, we’ll mainly present it in its own terms, without any polemics for or against it.
The region named ‘Deseret’ by the Mormons had been inhabited for thousands of years by various indigenous groups such as the ancient Puebloans, Navajo, and Ute. The Spanish were the first Europeans to arrive in the mid-16th Century. Most of these were to the south of what became Mormon settlements. The challenging geography and harsh climate made the northern ‘Great Basin’ region a peripheral part of New Spain and later Mexico.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the proper name of the Mormons, is not well known, apart from a few scandalous TV docuseries about polygamy or religious conspiracies. Even less is known about Deseret, a 19th Century theocratic autonomous region centered around the Great Salt Lake lasting several decades. Its influence is still felt today.
In the decades after the initial Mormon settlement, Deseret became the Territory of Utah, then the State of Utah. Of course, it was deduced, restricted, and later transformed in the process. It initially persisted as a ‘shadow government’ in the 19th Century after the federal government designated a non-Mormon as the territorial governor. Today Utah has a highly diversified economy and a population with a high growth rate and above-average social achievements. How this happened has a lot to do with the Mormons and their rigorous commitment to birthing a New Zion in the wilderness.
Brigham Young was the principal LDS leader following the murder of Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum Smith, the LDS founders. The Smiths had long held to the creation of a Zion to ingest the faithful but never quite knew where it should be. Faced with ongoing religious persecution in Illinois and Missouri, Brigham Young sought a bleak and sparsely populated place where few other Americans or Europeans would want to settle of their own accord. After much exploratory effort, he decided on the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. In a short time, the vision expanded to include all the lightly populated places of the Great Basin and its mountain border regions.
The term ‘Deseret’ comes from the Book of Mormon, a religious text considered sacred by Mormons, and it means ‘honeybee’ in the language described in the book. According to LDS Church doctrine, the early Mormon pioneers saw themselves as a chosen people, akin to the industrious honeybees working together for a common purpose. The Mormon notion of ‘chosen’ was expansive and constantly open to growth via missionary works back east, in Europe, and elsewhere. Regardless, it still needs to be stressed that Deseret was a white-dominated settler-colonial colonial project, both on its own and later as a sub-project of the U.S.
Under Young’s leadership, the Mormons migrated westward in 1849 into the Great Basin, part of the region just seized from Mexico in the Mexican-American War. The early migrations were harsh, often using only handcarts. In later years, the railroads made the trips more manageable. More territory was added as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The proposed boundaries of Deseret made by Young were much larger than the present-day state of Utah, encompassing parts of present-day Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon, and New Mexico.
The Mormons developed the Salt Lake area rapidly. In comparison, they were not utopian socialists like some other intentional communities in the U.S., such as the followers of Owen in Indiana or the Fouierist and Harmonists of the Ohio Valley. Still, Mormon settlements in Utah practiced communal living and shared resources. Inspired by Young, they established a cooperative system known as the ‘United Order.’ This system aimed to create a more self-sufficient and economically stable community. Under its provisions, resources, and property were held collectively, and individuals were assigned tasks according to their abilities. The United Order had distinct differences from socialism. In this system, the Church managed social property and resources, but individuals retained private ownership of their personal property.
Over time, the United Order was phased out as the Mormons faced challenges in implementing and sustaining the communal system as it grew in scale. The economic realities of the time and legal and political pressures led to a transition towards a more conventional capitalist system. Today, Utah has a mixed-market economy like most other states in the United States.
Deseret was founded in 1849
In 1849 the provisional ‘State of Deseret’ was organized, with Brigham Young as its governor. However, when the U.S. government established the Utah Territory in 1850, it significantly reduced the size of the proposed ‘Deseret’ state to what is now Utah and Nevada, with a sliver of Colorado. The new territorial government was also non-Mormon, which caused tensions between the Mormons and the federal authorities, and the ‘shadow government’ mentioned above.
Apart from their practice of polygamy, the federal government had other reasons to be dubious about Mormons. The LDS had a militia of their own and had a complex relationship with the conditions leading to the U.S. Civil War. While insignificant in the overall conflict, their views and actions were diverse. On abolitionism, the Mormons did not have a unified stance on slavery. In the Church’s early years, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, allowed some followers to keep slaves. However, he opposed the slave trade and spoke against the institution of slavery. During the Civil War, Brigham Young and most Mormons remained officially neutral. They focused on establishing their own theocratic state and maintaining their religious autonomy.
But some Mormons did participate in the conflict, and on both sides. Many enlisted in the Union Army, especially after the U.S. government appointed a new governor, Alfred Cumming, to replace Brigham Young. A desire to demonstrate loyalty to the United States led some to enlist and fight for the Union.
On the other hand, some Mormons also sympathized with the Confederacy and fought for the South. One notable example is the ‘Mormon Battalion,’ a group of Mormons who served in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). After the war, some former members of the Mormon Battalion joined the Confederacy and fought to defend it. But overall, the Mormons were a relatively isolated group at the time, and their involvement in the Civil War was not as significant as that of other religious or political groups.
Despite the setback of not achieving statehood as Deseret, the Mormons continued to develop the Utah territory and establish a strong presence in the region. Salt Lake City–the capital of Deseret–became the center of the LDS Church and a hub of Mormon culture and influence.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre
The power of Young’s theocracy, however, still saw conflicts with the federal government and ‘outsiders.’ One was the Mormon Massacre at Mountain Meadows in 1857 in present-day Utah. It involved the slaughter of approximately 120 emigrants, most of whom were from Arkansas, by a combined force of Mormon militia and Native American allies. At the time, tensions were high between the Mormon settlers and the federal government. This period was known as the Utah War.
On September 7, 1857, a wagon train of emigrants known as the Fancher-Baker party passed through Mountain Meadows, which was located in southern Utah. Mormon militia leaders, including Isaac C. Haight and John D. Lee, conspired with some Native American tribes to ambush the wagon train. They initially approached the emigrants with a flag of truce, gaining their trust. However, the attackers then turned on the defenseless group, resulting in a massacre that lasted several days. The event was initially covered up, and it wasn’t until a few years later that details started to emerge. John D. Lee was eventually brought to trial and found guilty of leading the Massacre. He was executed in 1877. The incident has remained a dark chapter in Mormon history and has been condemned by the LDS Church, which has acknowledged the wrongful actions of those involved and expressed remorse.
The Massacre serves as a tragic reminder of the violence and conflicts that characterized the early settlement of the American West and the complex relationship between Mormons, non-Mormons, and Native American tribes during that time.
What about relations with Native Americans?
The region’s historical relationship between Mormons, indigenous peoples, and Mexicans is complex and varied. Mormon theology has had a bizarre and evolving view of Native Americans throughout LDS history. The early LDS teachings argued that Native Americans descended from a legendary group called the Lamanites, who the LDS believed to be among the lost tribes of Israel. According to the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites were the rebellious descendants of a legendary prophet named Lehi, who left Jerusalem around 600 BCE and traveled to the Americas.
The early LDS believed the Lamanites would eventually be converted to the restored gospel and experience a spiritual and physical transformation. This was seen as part of a broader narrative of the gathering of Israel and the fulfillment of biblical prophecies. On the downside, the Book of Mormon also contains passages that speak of the Lamanites being ‘cursed’ with dark skin as a sign of their spiritual state. This was a widely held view of white Christians, especially in the South, and not unique to the LDS.
The early Mormon settlers in Utah interacted with various Native American tribes in the region, including the Ute, Shoshone, Paiute, and Navajo tribes. These interactions ranged from peaceful coexistence to conflicts and misunderstandings. In some instances, the Mormons established trade and economic agreements, provided assistance with agricultural practices, and even employed Native Americans in various capacities. However, tensions and conflicts sometimes arose due to competing claims over land and resources. Some conflicts resulted in violence, but there were also instances of cooperation.
During the summer of 1853, violence erupted between LDS colonizers and the local Native American residents of Utah Valley. The series of tit-for-tat killings were in retaliation for stealing native land and resources, and settlers responding to the conflict in kind. This series of battles was dubbed Wakara’s War (also called Walker’s War). In October 1953, a group of Goshute Native Americans seeking peace with the Mormon settlers in present-day Nephi, Utah, were invited inside, then murdered and buried in a mass grave. One woman and two children accompanying those killed were taken prisoner.
According to Wiki, Adelia Almira Wilcox, whose husband had been killed by Native Americans two weeks before, wrote in her memoir that those killed in the Nephi massacre were “shot down without even considering whether they were the guilty ones or not… They were shot down like so many dogs, picked up with pitchforks [put] on a sleigh, and hauled away.”
Today, Mormon teachings emphasize all people’s inherent worth and dignity, regardless of ancestry. The LDS Church encourages its members to respect and appreciate the cultural and spiritual heritage of Native Americans and to work toward reconciliation and understanding.
The interactions between Mormons and Mexicans in the region also varied. When the first Mormons arrived, the area was still part of Mexico. After Utah became a U.S. territory, relations between Mormons and Mexicans evolved. Some Mormons had positive relationships with Mexican communities, engaging in trade and economic activities. Some Mormons moved to Mexico and established settlements there. However, discrimination and hostility existed, especially during cultural and religious conflicts. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as Utah’s population grew and the dominant culture shifted, there were still ongoing instances of discrimination and prejudice against Mexican communities.
In the early 20th Century, one LDS missionary effort focused explicitly on Native Americans, known as the Lamanite Mission. This effort sought to convert and uplift Native Americans, hoping they would reclaim their heritage as part of the House of Israel. But over time, as scientific understanding and cultural sensitivities evolved, the LDS Church moved away from believing that Native Americans were exclusively descended from the Lamanites. In 2007, the Church issued an official statement called “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies,” which acknowledged that Native American populations have a complex genetic heritage and may also have other ancestral origins.
The legacy of Deseret and the Mormons is essential in the history of the Western United States. The early Mormon settlers played a crucial role in the region’s exploration, settlement, and development. Today, Utah remains the headquarters of the LDS Church and has a significant Mormon population, though the influence of the Church has a global reach that extends well beyond the state’s borders.
Utah became a state on January 4, 1896. At the time of statehood, the population of Utah was approximately 210,779 people. A predominantly Mormon population characterized the demographics of the state then. Most residents were members of the LDS, which significantly influenced the state’s culture, social structure, and politics. In terms of ethnic composition, the population of Utah in 1896 consisted primarily of people of European descent, with a strong representation of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Scandinavian ancestry. Many early settlers in Utah were immigrants from these regions who had joined the LDS Church in their native countries and then migrated to the American West, seeking religious freedom and a sense of community.
The demographics also reflected a significant gender imbalance due to the practice of polygamy among Mormons during that time. Many single women were among the early converts by either chance or design. While polygamy had been officially disavowed by the LDS Church in 1890, it still had a residual effect on the population. The practice resulted in a higher number of women than men in Utah. Additionally, the people of Utah at the time of statehood were relatively rural, with a predominantly agricultural economy. Farming, mining, and livestock production were the primary economic activities. The establishment of railroads in the late 19th Century facilitated transportation and economic growth in the region. Since 1896, the state has experienced considerable population growth, diversification, and urbanization. Utah has a more diverse population with various ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. But while slowly shrinking, the LDS still makes up about 55% of Utah today.