Brigham Young and Zion

Brigham Young was a realist. Texas was out of the question; it was square in the path of empire, and if the Saints could not survive among Illini and Missourians, they had still less chance to survive among Texans. California was no better. The notion of settling at or near the mouth of the Colorado (we shall see Cooke suggesting it to the Mormon Battalion) was considered and rejected. Israel would not be a buffer state between the Americans and the Mexicans, though the idea of maintaining an outpost there seems to have developed very early. By 1846 it was clear that northern California was also a Gentile terminus; a large emigration was preparing for it and anti-Christ in person, ex-Governor Boggs, was going to go there. The golden shore, as either an independent republic or a territory of the United States, was certain to fill up with Israel’s enemies, and this fact was quite clear to Young before the migration started. The two hundred and thirty-eight Mormons who sailed with Sam Brannan in the Brooklyn on February 4, the day when the first ferries crossed to Iowa, expected that the main body of the Church would join them west of the Sierra, and many of the Battalion, who started west six months later, shared that belief. But even before the Brooklyn sailed, Young was thinking of its company as only an outpost – which, in the San Joaquin Valley, is what it became.

It may have been Stephen A. Douglas who initiated the idea of Vancouver Island. That was a politician’s happy solution but Young appears not to have taken it seriously, except that another outpost there would be a good thing and it could be colonized with convert, Pillar of Cloud 9I from the British Isles. (As late as November, ’46, the Church was memorializing the British government for help in establishing such a colony. Nothing came of it.) Douglas shifted and recommended Oregon, which the Saints had considered much more seriously. But Oregon also was impossible – whether as the United States or as the Republic of the West which Daniel Webster and so many others envisioned. Young had rejected it before 1846. Oregon also was square in the path of empire, it had ten times as many Americans as California, five times as large an emigration was preparing to go there in ’46, and it would certainly come under the flag.

Mormon legend has it that when, on July 24, 1847, Brigham Young, weak with mountain fever, came jolting in a white-top over the last summit in the road down Emigration Canyon and gazed over the sagebrush flat toward the Dead Sea, he spoke with the power of revelation and said “This is the place.” Brigham, however, held it irreligious to call upon the Lord until you had first exhausted your own resources. Long before that day he had determined on Great Salt Lake Valley. He had, in fact, decided on that general vicinity sometime in 1845.

Throughout 1845 the destination of the Saints was constantly discussed by the leaders who would have to manage the emigration, and they made the most minute study of the available literature. It is not clear that Fremont’s second report was decisive. They used it with exceeding care to rough out an itinerary, but they could get little more from his account of the Great Salt Lake country than that the lake did not have the mysterious whirlpool which legend attributed to it, that its islands were barren, and that the canyons which ran down to it from the east were well timbered. It seems likely that Young knew more details about Zion by the end of 1845 than Fremont had observed there. Certainly he knew much more by the end of 1846.

It is clear that Young had decided on the Great Basin, rather than Oregon or coastal California, by midsummer of 1845. It was an inevitable decision: there was, in fact, nowhere else to go. Israel could survive only if left to itself long enough for Young to organize and develop its institutions. That meant that it must find a place where the migrating Americans would not be tempted to settle. That, in turn, meant the Great Basin. But also, as Young seems to have understood quite clearly, Israel must be near enough the course of empire to sustain itself by trading with the migration. And that meant the northern portion of the Great Basin. It meant, in fact, one of no more than three places, Bear River Valley, Cache 92 The Year of Decision: 18 46 Valley, and Great Salt Lake Valley. All three places seem to have been in his mind in ’45, and there are still references to Bear River Valley late in the autumn of ’46, but the actual choice proved to be between the other two. Later we shall see the choice being made.

In March of 1846, then, Young and the Apostles knew that Zion was to rise somewhere in the Great Basin. They knew that certainly; they were less clear about the site of Zion and still less certain when they could get there. As late as January 1, 1847, at Winter Quarters, Hosea Stout, who was in the confidence of the Twelve, heard that a pioneer company was to push out from the Niobrara River to the headwaters of the Yellowstone to put in a crop. (Faulty information: crops could not be raised there.) Such a pioneer party, to go , ahead of the Church proper and select Zion and put in crops, was discussed throughout 1845 at Nauvoo, and actual preparations for it were made, in the expectation that it could start late that summer. After the Saints began leaving Sugar Creek in March of ’46, another call for such a party was made. ( Actually the company under the unruly individualist Bishop George Miller did pull ahead of the main body with an intention of going all the way, as we shall see.) But neither Brigham nor his counselors could determine, at the beginning, whether any could cross to the mountains this year, or if any could, how many could be spared. It was the principal question to be answered while Israel toiled through the mud.”