When Col. Albert Sidney Johnston was assigned to accompany Alfred Cumming, President James Buchanan's newly appointed governor of Utah Territory, to the territory in 1857, he probably thought he was about to run roughshod over any opposition. He had some 2,500 troops under his command and was well equipped and prepared for war.
It was then a common perception in the nation's capital that renegade Mormons were in a state of rebellion and that a strong hand was needed to prevent a fracture in the country's determined westward march.
If, in fact, Johnston had any thoughts about marching into Great Salt Lake City without any opposition, he reckoned without the Nauvoo Legion and its intrepid leader, Lot Smith.
In anticipation of a confrontation, Brigham Young and the territorial legislature had revived the Nauvoo Legion, which had been abandoned under duress when members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints left Nauvoo. With some 300 soldiers, Smith used large servings of bluff and ingenuity to harass Johnston's troops by destroying supply wagons and scattering stock and generally causing havoc without generating actual combat.
The activity kept the army from coming into the Salt Lake Valley in 1857. Johnston's troops were forced to stay in Wyoming for the winter and when spring came, negotiations between the Mormons and the feds had defused the situation. The U.S. troops marched through Salt Lake City without incident and went on to establish a camp south and west of the city. Smith recorded the events in a personal account titled "The Utah Expedition," which is in the LDS Church's History Department.
This is the sort of history that makes a foray into Utah Territorial Militia Records, 1849 to 1877, a rewarding exercise for those seeking information about ancestors who served in the Nauvoo Legion and subsequent state militias. The records can be viewed on FamilySearch.org. The records include rosters, muster rolls, pay rolls, pension records and other information that not only give researchers vital data but also provide context to the lives of the soldiers. The collection includes thousands of images of actual records.
I was, in fact, astounded to learn that my great-grandfather Martin Horton Peck was listed among the Legion soldiers. Ken Nelson, who directed the project to help prepare the military records and index them for FamilySearch, helped me to pinpoint that bit of family history. I have read several biographies and had never before known that about my great-grandfather.
Nelson also found information about one of his relatives, Philip James Garn, who was listed as a participant in the Indian Wars, qualifying his widow, Sarah, for a $20-per-month widow's pension. Congress passed legislation in 1892 to provide the pensions.
The militia records were added to the FamilySearch resources in June of this year.
Besides the Utah War, the data document the presence of the militia in other conflicts that are part of Utah history.
• The Black Hawk War pitted Utah settlers in the Sanpete area against Indians led by Chief Antonga Black Hawk. After years of problems spurred by cultural differences, unrest erupted in a sort of hit-and-run series of confrontations that lasted more than three years (see ilovehistory.utah.gov/time/stories/black_hawk.html). Several Ute, Paiute, Apache and Navajo tribes joined Black Hawk. Some pioneer settlements were abandoned and LDS colonization ambitions in central and south Utah severely hurt by the war. It is recognized as the longest and most deadly of all white-Indian confrontations in America's history and only ended completely when federal troops intervened in 1872. Several lesser conflicts between whites and Indians in the early settlement era also involved the Nauvoo Legion.
• The Civil War, though fought many hundreds of miles from Utah Territory, also had a job for the territorial militia. At President Abraham Lincoln's request, the Utah militia was attached to an Ohio cavalry regiment and given the task of "tending the talking wires," — guarding the Overland Trail and particularly the vital telegraph lines that facilitated communications between the beleaguered Eastern U.S. and the growing states and territories in the West, Nelson said. The lines were always vulnerable because Indians thought the humming in the wires was caused by evil spirits and they caused damage when they could.
By the late 1800s, the Nauvoo Legion was disbanded as the National Guard movement took state militia duties.
Buried in the militia records are fascinating tidbits that flesh out the lives of several thousand men who had assignments in the military while going about the business of building frontier communities. With the records now easily accessible, you might find a treasure trove of information to add to your own family history.
Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who serves as a family history missionary.