The "Utah War" of 1857-58 was not caused solely by anti-Mormon bigotry or false reports from disgruntled federal officials. Some historians now say Brigham Young and the Mormons should share more blame for the standoff between Utah Territory and the federal government.
Papers asserting that opinion were delivered Thursday and Friday at the annual meeting of the Utah State Historical Society in the Salt Lake Public Library. Several workshops focused on the war, in which then-President James Buchanan sent federal troops led by Albert Sidney Johnston to put down a suspected rebellion by the Mormons. The 150th anniversary of the events approaches next year.
Historian Will Bagley, for example, said many Utah histories side too much with Mormons, and tell how "the United States sent an Army to persecute our long-suffering Mormon ancestors, and how we beat them in a fair fight ... (and) Brigham Young acted as a dedicated peacemaker throughout the entire affair."
"This history has one serious problem. It never happened," Bagley said.
According to Bagley, contemporary LDS accounts of the war told how Brigham Young was "determined to fight an apocalyptic war" against Washington with the help of Indians, hoping to end non- Mormon influence in the region, and help usher in the millennial rule of Christ. Bagley said that is different from the peacemaker of legend.
Bagley said Young was forced to negotiate for peace and to drop his well-developed plans for combat, when Shoshone and Bannock Indians in Idaho attacked the Mormon settlement of Ft. Limhi. Those confrontations ruined aid and escape routes to the north that Young had considered essential.
Historian Ardis Parshall said disagreement has long existed over whether Mormons or federal officials deserved most blame for the war. "The truth probably falls somewhere between the two extremes, and every Utah War scholar will produce his own catalog of 'whys,"' Parshall said.
"From the federal perspective, the people of Utah were out of control and required the strong hand of discipline to bring them into subjugation." She said that came as the public perceived Mormons as being more loyal to Young than to the government and courts. The public also detested the then-church policy of polygamy as threatening to families.
But she said, "The Mormons, on the other hand, saw their treatment by the federal government as outrageous." They viewed federal appointees in the territory as corrupt political hacks who meddled in the social and religious affairs of Utah. They said such officials slandered them in false reports purporting rebellion.
Historian David L. Bigler said Mormons caused many of the problems and misunderstandings that led to the war.
Young began acting in defiance of Washington officials after they refused to consider a petition for statehood in 1856, he said. Young proclaimed that the Utah territory would soon be either a "sovereign state" or an independent nation.
Bigler said Young also launched a "reformation" among Mormons, urging rebaptism and recommitment and getting rid of gentile influences among them.
But, Bigler said, the conflicts led to some overzealous actions, including an incident in which several Mormons stole (and faked destruction of) federal court records. The federal surveyor's life was threatened by Mormons who told him the land was the Lord's, and not the federal government's.
Bigler noted that Buchanan listed the destruction of court records and threatening of federal officials as reasons for sending the Army.
Bigler said a conflict may have been inevitable because Mormons believed they lived in a theocracy ruled by God, which is not compatible within rule of a republic. He said the two systems "cannot exist or live together in peace. Instead, there will be a struggle for supremacy."
Historian William MacKinnon also submitted a paper saying run-ins Young had with an earlier 1854-55 Army expedition led by Lt. Col. Edward Steptoe led Young to vow never to allow the military to camp within Salt Lake City again.
Mormons were outraged when several officers and enlisted men wintering in Salt Lake City cavorted with or seduced LDS females, some as young as 13 years old.
He said letters showed one soldier even claimed he had an affair with a daughter-in-law of Brigham Young while her husband was away on a mission. He said the affair ended when Young threatened to kill him.
MacKinnon guessed that Young never reported such offenses to Washington out of embarrassment that his own family was involved.As debate over the war's roots renews, Bigler said, "the story of the Utah War must be a faithful account of its causes and outcome, not an illusory rendering that encourages complacency and false pride. ... It must be as fair and balanced and, above all, as honest as admittedly flawed historians can make it."