The Utah War

The Utah War was a 19th century armed conflict between Mormon settlers in Utah Territory and the United States federal government.


The Presidential Election of 1856 was a contest between James Buchanan of the established Democratic party and John C. Frémont of the newly organized Republican party. Buchanan eventually prevailed, but the credibility of the Democratic party had been shaken. The Republicans charged the Democrats with being soft on the “twin relics of barbarism”—polygamy and slavery. To regain credibility for the Democrats, Buchanan needed to address the charge, but was also concerned with maintaining the integrity of the union between the states. The only politically viable option for Buchanan was to take the hard-line on polygamy and depose Brigham Young as governor of the Utah Territory. Buchanan chose to appoint Alfred Cumming as the new governor and ordered the U.S. Army to escort Cumming to the Utah Territory.

Troop movements

The U.S. troops marching toward Utah were originally led by Gen. William S. Harney, but Harney was forced to return to Kansas to deal with a conflict there. Because of Harney’s unavailability, Col. Edmund Alexander was charged with the first detatchment of troops headed for Utah, only to later rendezvous with and relinquish command to Col. Albert Sidney Johnston. The Nauvoo Legion, a Utah militia commanded by Lot Smith and under Young’s leadership, harassed the federal mission while under Alexander’s command. It was only days after Col. Johnston took command of the combined U.S. forces that he decided to settle in at the burned out remains of Fort Bridger for the winter. In spring, reinforcements arrived to resupply and strengthen the military presence in Utah, but negotiations were already underway. In 1858 Young accepted his replacement and peace returned to Deseret.

Timeline of events

  • July 24, 1847: Mormon Pioneers found Salt Lake City as the first city of Deseret.
  • February 2, 1848: The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is signed by the U.S. and Mexico, granting the region of Deseret to the U.S.
  • September 9, 1850: The Great Compromise of 1850 is signed into law, creating the Utah Territory and appointing Brigham Young governor.
  • June 29, 1857: U.S. President James Buchanan declares Utah in rebellion of the U.S. government. Buchanan appoints Alfred Cumming as governor of Utah. Cumming is to be escorted by a regiment of the U.S. army, initially led by Col. Edmund Alexander.
  • July 18, 1857: Two Mormons, Porter Rockwell and Abraham Owen Smoot, learn of Buchanan’s declaration in Kansas City while on a mail run. The same day, Col. Alexander and troops begin the jouney to Utah.
  • July 23, 1857: Rockwell and Smoot arrive in Salt Lake City and inform Brigham Young of the government’s plans.
  • August 28, 1857: Col. Johnston is ordered to replace Gen. Harney in command of the U.S. troops.
  • September 15, 1857: Brigham Young calls out the Nauvoo Legion to fight the U.S. Troops if they enter Utah Territory.
  • September 18, 1857: Col. Johnston and troops leave Fort Leavenworth, Kansas headed for Utah.
  • October 5, 1857: Lot Smith leads the Nauvoo Legion on a guerrilla-style attack on the provision wagons of the U.S. Army. Fifty-two wagons are burned.
  • November 3, 1857: Col. Albert Sidney Johnston catches up with Col. Alexander and replaces him as commander. Johnston orders the regiment to spend the winter in Fort Bridger and to delay the move to Salt Lake City until next spring.
  • March 23, 1858: Brigham Young implements the “Sebastopol Policy.” All faithful are ordered to move south to Provo and to prepare their homes in Salt Lake City for burning.
  • April 12, 1858: The U.S. Army and Cumming arrive in Salt Lake City. Brigham Young surrenders the title of governor to Alfred Cumming.

Polygamy, civil liberties, and the Texas raid on the FLDS Compound

With the recent raid on the FLDS compound in Eldorado, Texas, I have been thinking about polygamy and civil liberties.

I am troubled because of the similarities between the government’s persecution against the FLDS folk, and the persecution against my Mormon predecessors in the nineteenth century. My third great grandfather, Robert Owens, practiced plural marriage and was driven out of Navuoo, Illinois along with the other Mormons. They had to trek across the United States into the wilderness of what would later become Utah Territory, in order to live and practice their religion in peace.

Even after arriving in the Great Basin in 1847, the government continued to harass the Mormon people. They sent an invading army to the Salt Lake Valley in a conflict known as the Utah War. They passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy act in 1862 and the Edmunds-Tucker act of 1887, both of which were specifically targeted against the Mormon church. It was not until the church stopped practicing polygamy in 1890 that they were allowed to live in relative peace.

These early pioneers suffered persecution by violent mobs and also by government decree. Governer Boggs of Missouri issued an Extermination Order in 1838 to drive the Mormons out of the state, or kill them if they wouldn’t leave voluntarily. The order wasn’t rescinded until 1976.

These events have set a historical precedence of flagrant and tyrannical abuse by the government against the God-given, Constitutionally-protected rights of its citizens. It happened 150 years ago, and it can happen again.

With recent reports that the 2008 raid against the FLDS compound in Texas may have been instigated by a prank phone call, I am greatly concerned about the apparent violations by Texas authorities against due process of law, of the right to habeas corpus, and the protection of individual liberties of the citizens of the United States of America. It is the FLDS today, but tomorrow, it could be anyone. When will we cry out against injustice and tyranny?

May heaven help us all.