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.

A Brief History of Utah

Mormon Pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, and immediately began planting and irrigating. Under direction of the church organization, the settlers cooperated to tame the land and its natural resources. At this time, present-day Utah was in Mexican territory.

By 1850, the outlying regions of Bountiful, Farmington, Ogden, Tooele, Provo, and Manti were settled.

Two kinds of colonizing efforts took place: directed settlements and undirected settlements. In directed settlements, colonies were planned, organized, and dispatched by the Church. Companies were appointed and equipped to explore the area, people were appointed to colonize it, and a leader was appointed. The Church gave instructions on the mission of the colony, whether to raise crops, assist Indians, mine coal, or serve as a way station for groups on the trail to California.

Non-directed settlements were founded by individuals, families, and neighborhood groups without direction from the Church. Most of the Wasatch Front communities were non-directed. Although Church leaders did not commission these settlements, they encouraged them, and quickly established wards when the population was great enough to justify them.

When the Mexican War ended in February 1848, the land became part of the United States. The Mormons proposed creating the State of Deseret, but Congress would not admit them to the Union. Instead, the federal government created the Territory of Utah, with Brigham Young as the first territorial governor.

In 1857, President James Buchanan sent a military force to Utah based on false reports of a Mormon rebellion against federal authority. The Utah Expedition was led by General Albert Sidney Johnston. This was part of a conflict known as the Utah War, which ended with only limited bloodshed.

More than 60,000 Mormons had come to the territory by the time the first transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory, Utah in May of 1869.

After the Church announced the abandonment of polygamy in 1890, Congress finally granted statehood to the people of Utah on January 4, 1896.


Brief History of Utah, Utah History to Go, by Ron Rood and Linda Thatcher
History, by S. George Ellsworth
Colonization of Utah, Utah History Encyclopedia, by Leonard J. Arrington