Building the Kingdom of Zion out of the Utah desert clearly provided Mormon immigrants with a sense of destiny. Not only was there the necessity to eke a living out of the sun-hardened earth, to learn the rudiments of irrigation, and to build shelter for ever-growing Mormon families. The Mormons had a larger mission: to produce a city worthy of Christ upon his return, to save the Indians, turning them away from their Lamanite past and back to the Book of Mormon, long forgotten for them, and to prepare for the influx of Mormon settlers who would arrive from all over the world and swell the ranks of Salt Lake City and its environs. The Saints had arrived in their garden and found it in need of taming; with typical diligence and enthusiasm, they set to work.
Click here for Great Salt Lake City in 1853
"At the end of 1863, he writes, I raised this year a good crop of corn, some wheat and some oats.' The sentence carries no overtone of the labor so strange to a mechanic. Jonathan Samuel Dye would have had trouble forcing this harvest from the earth anywhere, even in Illinois bottomland, where the soil is forty feet deep and is watered by generous summer rains. But at Easton [Utah] there were no rains and the thin soil was poisoned by alkali. The sagebrush was the index. Where sage grew, there other stuffs would grow also, after heartbreaking labor had cleared it away. Jonathan hacked at that hellish growth. Spines and slivers that no gloves can turn fill one's hands, the stench under the desert sun is dreadful, and the roots, which have probed deep and wide for moisture, must be chopped and grubbed and dragged out inch by inch. Then, before anything will sprout in the drugged earth, water must be brought. Through a dozen years of Jonathan's journal we observe the settlers of Easton combining to bring water to their fields. On the bench lands above their valleys, where gulches and canyons come down from the Wasatch, they made canals, which they led along the hills. From the canals smaller ditches flowed down to each man's fields, and from these ditches he must dig veins and capillaries for himself. Where the water ran, cultivation was possible; where it didn't, the sagebrush of the desert showed unbroken. Such cooperation forbade quarrels; one would as son quarrel about the bloodstream. A man was allotted certain hours of water. When they came, at midnight or dawn or noon, he raised the gates into his own ditches and with spade and shovel and an engineering sense coaxed the water to his planting."
This description, written by Bernard DeVoto in 1933, speaks to the experience of every Mormon settler. Here, nearly one thousand miles beyond the frontier line of the Missouri river, the Mormons had found their mecca where "none shall come to hurt or make afraid." The cost of such a site was great, however; it took over two decades for the Mormons to tame the land of Utah and create a livable, welcoming garden. Brigham Young, the Mormon leader during this period, told his flock that the Great Salt Lake Basin was "a good place to make Saints, and it is a good place for Saints to live; it is the place that the Lord has appointed, and we shall stay here until He tells us to go somewhere else." Clearly, the idea of growth and struggle was more appealing to the Saints than a life of static ease.
The Salt Lake Basin could hardly contain the Saints that continued to pour in from the eastern United States as well as the European immigrants. Brigham Young and his council planned the expansion of the Mormon empire carefully; initially, sending the new arrivals out into the irrigable valleys on the western edge of the Wasatch Mountains, the settlers later moved farther north into the Weber Valley and south onto the lands of the Ute indians.
Some of the colonies sent out were specifically of a missionary nature to convert the local Indians. On the whole, the Indians did not join the Mormon faith, and several of the furthest outlying colonies or forts had to be shut down in response to continued hostilities. What is interesting about this situation is the fact that the Mormons were attempting to "raise" the Indians to their supposed former cultural level as the lost sons of Jacob; however, although Mormon racial policies were more forgiving than the dominant attitude--the only good Indian is a dead Indian--Mormons still operated with an ingrained prejudice. What might have happened had the Mormons been successful at mass conversions among the Indian tribes of Utah is impossible to speculate, although the Mormons themselves believed that the washing of baptism would cause the Indians to become "white", and thus integratable into their society. However, if such a transformation had not literally happened, one wonders whether Mormon society could have successfully absorbed large numbers of non-whites into their ranks.
As the Saints settled in to their new homes, Brigham Young began to look to the future. He believed firmly that "the Kingdom of God cannot rise independent of the gentile [non-Mormon] nations until we produce, manufacture, and make every article of use, convenience, or necessity among our own people....I am determined to cut every thread of this kind and live free and independent, untrammeled by any of their detestable customs and practices." The church eventually became involved in every industrial development; the most successful of these was in iron smelter, but the community also attempted a paper mill, pottery works, beet sugar factory and textile establishment. Further, smaller satellite communities were encouraged to start up light industries: soap factories, broom factories, sawmills, tanneries and the like. In later decades, Mormons tied Utah settlements to Salt Lake City through the new technology of telegraphic lines; Mormons built the Utah Central Railroad without outside financing and opened the first thirty-seven miles in 1870.
The Mormons have endured much negative publicity throughout their history, some of it perhaps deserved. However, their success in carving a thriving garden out of the Utah plains without governmental or public support deserves commendation and respect. Perhaps most deserving of respect, however, is the way in which the Mormon commmunities transformed the American ideals of the mid-nineteenth century into a workable communal model, and the way in which they survived the attacks of those who feared their success.
Young Mormon women prepare for an 1890's Independence Day Celebration