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Earliest Settlers: Mormons

How did the Mormons end up in Utah?

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormon or LDS church) was started by Joseph Smith in 1830 in New York. Later, members of this church gathered in Nauvoo, Illinois.

Some people disliked Mormon beliefs and practices and persecuted members of this church. After a mob murdered Joseph Smith in 1844, his followers started to think about moving somewhere where they could live peacefully. Enemies were still attacking Mormons in different ways. Because of this persecution, in the cold of February 1846 the Mormons began to leave Nauvoo. They journeyed to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, and set up a temporary community.

The Mormon Battalion

Joseph Smith

James K. Polk

Because they had left behind their lands, buildings, and many possessions, the Mormons asked the federal government for financial help. The U.S. had declared war on Mexico in May 1846, so President James K. Polk agreed to enlist a battalion of Mormon men, who would receive pay for their service.

painting of Mormon Battalion

The Mormon Battalion at the Gila River in Arizona, a painting by George Ottinger (1833-1917).

Around 500 volunteers enlisted and began a grueling march to San Diego (33 women and 51 children started out with them).  During 1846-47, these men blazed a wagon route across the Southwest, but they never fought in the war.

Their pay and their later explorations helped the Mormons become established in Utah.

Where to go next?

Meanwhile, the people gathered in Winter Quarters got ready to move again. Where to? It seemed that the Great Basin would be a perfect place to go.

map showing the great basinWhy?

The Great Basin lay far away from any government—in fact, this land belonged to Mexico at the time. (When Mexico lost the war, the United States took possession of the Great Basin.) Here, the Mormons hoped, they could live their faith in peace.

painting of Mormon Battalion

Mormon pioneers, sketched by Ortho Fairbanks.

In April 1847 the first group of Mormon settlers left and headed west along the California Trail. Brigham Young led a group of two children, three women, and 143 men. They traveled on horseback or in oxen-pulled wagons for three months; then, on July 22, the first men entered the Salt Lake Valley.  Brigham Young himself arrived on July 24, 1847. 

What other religious groups in U.S. or world history have moved all together to start a new colony?  How are these different or the same as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

The Mormon migration

Between 1847 and 1869, when the Transcontinental Railroad was built, about 70,000 Mormons migrated to Utah along the Mormon Trail.

Many of them got help from their church. If they could not pay their way across the ocean, or across the plains, the Church’s Perpetual Emigration Fund might loan them the money they needed. When they arrived, they could pay off the loan so the money could help another immigrant. People traveled in companies of wagons. Some traveled by handcart.

painting of valley

Salt Lake Valley in 1847, painted by H. Culmer.

Getting started in a new place.

Once the settlers arrived in the valley, the real work began. 

Today, when most people travel to a place, they stay in a hotel or with friends, and they go out to eat at restaurants or buy food from a grocery store.  But when the first pioneers arrived in Utah, the only people in the region were American Indians and a few explorers, traders, and mountain men scattered around.  Basically, these new immigrants had to make or grow everything they would need in their new lives.    

What would be the most important things to do first?

Right away, that first group of pioneers began get the land ready for farming.  The first big challenges were digging irrigation ditches to bring water from City Creek into the fields, and getting crops planted right away. 

They also built a fort where Pioneer Park now is. This fort had little cabins with sod roofs built along the wall.

Making a city.

Brigham Young directed that Salt Lake City (and other towns) be set up on a grid system. The streets were to run north-south and east-west. Young wanted the streets to be wide enough for two wagons to easily pass each other. We should be grateful for this, because of all the cars, bicycles, busses, and TRAX trains that share the streets today! 

Spreading out.

As the “Mormon Village” of Salt Lake City began to thrive and later groups of pioneers arrived, Brigham Young sent settlers to other areas of the state. He sent a variety of skilled people to each community, so that each town would have people who could farm, work with iron, wood or leather, weave cloth, and more.

By 1850, Mormons had started the communities of Bountiful, Farmington, Ogden, Tooele, Provo, and Manti.  Each had a leader who had authority over both community and church affairs.

Sometimes, groups of people decided on their own to move somewhere and set up a community, without direction from the church.

By 1857, the Mormons had started more than 90 settlements.

Life in a new place.

Most communities also established an irrigation system.  Why was irrigation so important?

At first, the new settlers built log cabins—or they lived in dugouts or even in their wagons for a while. When the communities got more settled, they could build houses and buildings out of stone, adobe brick, or brick

Many of these communities also built forts around their cabins for protection when Native Americans and the settlers were fighting.

The Mormon village in Utah was a planned community of farmers and trades people. The village would include a main living area and farms and farm buildings on the land beyond. Life in these villages centered on the day's work and church activities. The early pioneers worked hard, but they also loved to relax with music, dance, and drama.

Learn more.

Every community and region has its own fascinating story behind its founding.  Many communities or regions were settled because church leaders wanted the people to produce everything the territory would need:  cotton, sugar, fruits, tobacco, grapes, metals, grains, silk, and other goods. United by their faith, the people worked together to build their communities.

Some of these ventures worked, some didn’t, but all the tales are ones of industry, bravery, and hope. See what you can find out about your community--and learn the stories of the people and the industries that were here before you.