The Utah War through Eastern eyes


Even among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and residents of Utah, the Utah War doesn’t sound familiar.

“It ranks just right up there with the War of Jenkin’s ear and the Spanish-American War as far as what people know about it,” Alford said. “If we stop 100 people in the state of Utah and (ask them) to list two things that happened in the Utah War, they would say it was a war and it happened in Utah.”

The Utah War represents a key struggle between Mormons and conventional leadership. Dr. Kenneth Alford elaborated on the role the Eastern press played in exposing the conflict on a national level, portraying Mormons as a threat to the nation.

Alford explained how in 1857 the Republican Party declared polygamy and slavery to be the twin relics of barbarism, “a phrase that (didn’t) go out of style for the rest of the century.” And though it was Buchanan, a Democrat, elected president, the Church and Mormons were no small threat to him either. It was in the spring of 1857, Alford said, that President Buchanan received reports from federal appointees in Utah that the territory was in rebellion.

Focusing almost exclusively on The New York Times, Alford provided examples of how Mormonism was the second most popular topic of the day for the Eastern newspaper. He said as many as six front page articles about Mormons could be read each day throughout the 1850s.

So in May 1857, Buchanan issued a presidential order for “the army to march on Utah.” At the time, the U.S. Army was about 10,000 strong. The New York Times published this announcement, leading the nation to be even more concerned with Mormons than it already was.

“(Buchanan) sends over 2,500 soldiers to Utah,” Alford said. “It’s a major military deployment. He is dead serious. He does it with the purpose of putting in a new governor.”

Alford detailed the trials of the army in its trek West, namely leaving far too late in the summer to avoid the winter and dealing with the Church’s sabotaging of the trail. When the Army finally did reach Salt Lake, they marched through the temporarily abandoned city without stopping, as Brigham Young had demanded.

Because of how delayed reports were, the things published in The New York Times were greatly distorted and Alford said that “the country gets a hugely warped view” of what was actually going on in Utah and in the march out West. The soldiers marching to put down this supposed rebellion really thought “they were going to meet their doom when they approach Utah.”

The Saints evacuated Salt Lake City on Young’s orders and were prepared to literally burn it down, something The New York Times took note of as well, calling the Saints “a force in the world.” Alford made sure to end on the concept of the Saints’ faithfulness. He made the point over and over again how strong the Saints were throughout this time.

“But (the Saints) know they’re in the Lord’s hands and they know it’s going to work out. … It’s interesting to see the hand of the Lord in (the Utah War),” Alford said.

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