Protecting Utah’s social and political structure in 1879

Protecting Utah’s social and political structure in 1879

The Call

This article originally appeared in Vol.51, No.4 (2004) of Pioneer Magazine.

by David E. Miller

Brigham Young was probably the greatest colonizer America has produced. Under his leadership the Latter-day Saints Church moved to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake and from that point branched out in all directions, discovering, exploring and settling not just the Great Basin but the whole Intermountain West. The pioneers of this great colonizing movement truly made the “desert blossom as the rose”—and a good deal of the exploring and colonizing was in real desert country. A common and practical method of colonization developed by the church was to call people on missions to colonize any region the leaders wanted occupied at a given time. When called, most families gladly responded, often leaving well-established homes, farms and other business enterprises, taking all their possessions into rough untried country. There was no assurance that the new home would prove satisfactory, that sufficient water would be available for crops, or that rivers would not flood the new settlements. But the missionaries called seem not to have been too much concerned about such economic and temporal matters. They usually considered their call an opportunity to serve, and once they had accepted, there would be no turning back until the mission had been accomplished. Sometimes the assignment seemed virtually impossible, the difficulties to be overcome almost too great; yet somehow all obstacles were surmounted!

When Brigham Young died in 1877 the colonization program which he had launched had not been completed. Among the areas not yet settled was southeastern Utah. For several years expansion had been in that general direction, but only one settlement had been attempted east of the Colorado—the at Moab—and that had been abandoned.

A study of this colonization program indicates that it was a part of church policy to plant settlements in all available areas—to occupy all usable farm and grazing land. This expansion was natural and inevitable since the Mormon settlers were always looking beyond the horizon for more and better acres. Furthermore, some of the rapidly growing Utah communities needed outlets to relieve their growing pains.

It was in addition to this spontaneous, natural expansion that the church at times found it desirable to organize official colonizing “missions for the purpose of occupying definite areas. This was especially true when the region to be colonized was too remote for natural expansion or so thoroughly unknown that little or no interest had been shown in it. Such was the case with the San Juan “” area—Mormon colonists were just not moving into it of their own accord.

Church leaders seem to have been anxious to obtain the San Juan area before it should be taken by non-Mormons. Recent mining booms in southwestern Colorado had resulted in a rather extensive migration to that region; some stock men were moving to the same area. Also, the region was becoming known as a rendezvous for outlaws. But Mormon settlers were slow to go in that direction. Furthermore, the late 1870’s was a period of rather extreme antagonism and increasing friction between Mormons and non-Mormons in Utah. The federal campaign against polygamy was rapidly gaining momentum. Although the Latter-day Saints Church considered this campaign an unconstitutional violation of religious freedom and justified resistance to the anti-bigamy act on that ground, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in the famous and important Reynolds case of 18791 upholding the anti-polygamy law. In spite of this court ruling, however, there was another decade of conflict and ill-will before the church finally abandoned the practice of plural marriage.2

During those same years also, an intense struggle was being waged between Mormons and non-Mormons for political control of Salt Lake City and the whole territory of Utah. In view of these and various other developments, it is understandable why church leaders had reason to be very conscious of the increasing numbers of non-Mormons in their midst and why they would be interested in occupying all available “borderlands”—if for no other reason than to keep non-Mormons from obtaining these same lands. Although this may not be considered the main objective or reason for the San Juan Mission, it must certainly be considered an important factor.

Another very definite reason for establishing a settlement on the San Juan was to provide satisfactory homes for Mormon converts from the southern states. Many of these people had located in south central Colorado but had expressed considerable dissatisfaction because of the severity of the winters. It was believed the warmer climate of the San Juan Valley might solve this problem.3

Important as were the foregoing reasons for colonizing the San Juan area, however, the primary objective of the mission was to cultivate better relations with the Indians and lay the foundations for future permanent Mormon settlements. In spite of the L.D.S. Church’s attitude of friendliness toward the natives there had been considerable friction between the two peoples. As Mormon settlements were being established in southern Utah and northern Arizona during the fifties, sixties, and seventies, roving Navajos and Paiutes, long accustomed to plundering their neighbors, found the flocks and herds of the newly arrived whites an irresistible booty. Being well acquainted with all possible crossings of the Colorado River, small parties of Indians often raided the outlying settlements, drove off stock, and disappeared into secret hideouts southeast of the river, beyond the reach of their pursuers.

A natural outgrowth of this cattle rustling activity was spasmodic border warfare that resulted in numerous armed clashes and many dead on both sides. During the late 1860 s this warfare became so fierce that some Mormon outposts such as Kanab and Pipe Springs had to be abandoned temporarily. The diplomatic skill of Jacob Hamblin, Thales Haskell, and others was taxed to the limit in attempts to bring peace to the southern Utah border. The perseverance of Hamblin and his associates succeeded in winning the confidence of the Navajos, with the result that peaceful and legal trading replaced looting and border raids during the early seventies. However, in 1874 three Navajo brothers were killed in an unfortunate tangle with Utah cattlemen, and the whole southern frontier was threatened with full-scale Indian warfare.

Albert R. Lyman, in “The Fort on the Firing Line,” has very effectively described this phase of Utah history and shown the relationship between these Mormon— Indian hostilities and the evolution of what was to become the San Juan Mission. Says Lyman: 

“The decision of the Church leaders was to plant a little colony of Mormons in the very heart of all this incipient danger; right on the turbulent border between the Navajos and Paiutes, and squarely on the trail of the fugitive desperado wolf pack from all over the West, It was a perilous venture, as the years were to prove, its objectives to be achieved through great sacrifice, hardship and danger* With few in numbers the little colony would be compelled to hang its hopes of survival on the hand of Providence and the faithfulness with which it could wield the agencies of peace.

“Besides the precarious problem of saving itself with its women and helpless children from the wrath and rapacity of these three breeds of savages, its principal purpose was to save the rest of Utah from further Indian troubles by constituting itself a buffer state between the old settlements and the mischief which might be incubating against them. It was to be a shock-absorber to neutralize what otherwise might develop into another war.”4 

By 1878 circumstances seemed right; the time had come to put the colonization program into operation. Erastus Snow was given the assignment of perfecting the plan and providing for its successful execution. Southern Utah settlements being nearest the new site were expected to supply most of the colonists. Consequently a mission call “to settle in Arizona or where directed” was made part of the business of the quarterly conference of the. Parowan Stake, “held in the Parowan Meeting House” December 28 and 29, 1878. 

At that time a list of names was simply read by the stake clerk.5 In this way people learned that their church was calling them on a mission—a mission that would require many to give up fine homes and move with all their possessions to a site that had not yet been definitely determined. There seems to have been no prior interviews, no letters in inquiry. People attending the conference heard their names read from the pulpit much as though they were being called to run an errand for the bishop. Those not in attendance would learn from their neighbors and friends that their names were among those “called.” If this seems a bit blunt today, we must realize that that was the method then used for calling people on missions, be it for a lifetime of colonizing or for two years of proselyting among the Gentiles. The following March 22 and 23 (1879) at the next regular quarterly conference held in Cedar City, more people received similar calls. In the interim Silas S. Smith was named to head the movement, with Platte D. Lyman ultimately chosen as first assistant.

In the meantime at a meeting held in the Social Hall, Cedar City, January 2, 1879, those named at the recent Parowan conference were given counsel and encouraged to express their feelings regarding the “mission.”6 The new colonizing venture was portrayed as being definitely part of the. Lord’s work; this assignment was to be considered just as important as though they had been called on foreign missions.7 The missionaries were admonished to put their trust in God, and all would be well with them. Single men were advised to seek a bride and to marry, if possible, before the movement got under way. This mission was intended to be a stable, permanent project. In order to further impress the gathering with the importance of their calling, Henry Lunt of the Parowan Stake Presidency “stated that the march of the Saints today was toward the center stake of Zion, …” The colonists might very well be the first vanguard of Saints to begin the great trek eastward—back to Missouri.8

In the course of the meeting, Bishop G J. Arthur informed those present that they were not compelled to accept the call. He “required all to use their agency as to whether they went or not, but advised all who were called to go with a cheerful heart.” He further announced that additional volunteers would be accepted should anyone not already called desire to make the trek. The undertaking would require many strong and valiant people if it were to succeed—and there could be no thought of failure. As the months passed and the time approached for the company actually to get under way, some members had dropped out, others had obtained official releases, and some new families had joined the ranks of the expedition. For those ready to begin the trek, Jens Nielson expressed what was probably the prevailing sentiment: “he felt it [was] the voice of the Lord to him to go and he was going by the help of the Almighty. . . .”9 Kumen Jones, writing late in life, a half-century after the Hole-in-the-Rock trek, expressed what was, no doubt, still the sentiment of the founders of Bluff and that of most of their descendants today. He wrote:

“There are two powers that work among mortal men, a good and an evil power. Any movements for good and tending to move men upward is always met by evil forces which oppose and fight it. My purpose in this humble effort in writing about it, is to convince my children and my descendants of the fact that this San Juan Mission was planned, and has been carried on thus far, by prophets of the Lord, and that the people engaged in it have been blessed and preserved by the power of the Lord according to their faith and obedience to the counsels of their leaders. No plainer case of the truth of this manifestation of the power of the Lord has ever been shown in ancient or in modern times.”10

An important fact that must not be lost sight of is that the precise location of the proposed settlement was indeed very nebulous, not only to those named but to the general church leaders as well. The December, 1878, mission call had been to “settle in Arizona or where directed”. Various subsequent communications indicate that the San Juan, Salt, and Grand rivers were all under consideration as possible sites. Accounts which mention the Four Corners region were written long after the establishment of the colony inside the boundaries of Utah.

The naming of Silas S. Smith to head the proposed migration turned out to be a deciding factor in the actual location of the new settlement, for he was known to favor the San Juan Valley. As he traveled from town to town arranging for an exploring expedition to go out in the spring of 1879 in search of a satisfactory site, he naturally tended to speak favorably regarding his choice of location and gradually directed the thinking of his followers in that direction. At any rate, when the exploring party got under way in April it was taken for granted that their destination was the San Juan. But the San Juan is a long river; settlements along it might be in Utah, New Mexico, or Colorado; and it must be emphatically pointed out that the actual location of the Mission at Bluff and Montezuma was the direct result of Smith*s exploring expedition, not a result of church directive.

The explorers located suitable farmland and then returned to Iron County to escort the bulk of the missionaries to the new sites. However, they had reached the San Juan after a long, difficult journey into Arizona by way of Lee’s Ferry, Moenkopi, and the Navajo reservation and had returned to the settlements over a northern route through Moab, Greenriver, Castle Valley, Salina Canyon, and the Sevier Valley-—a circuit of almost a thousand miles. Surely there must be an easier, shorter way!

At just the right psychological moment when the missionaries were preparing for the migration, Reuben Collett and Andrew P. Schow arrived at Parowan to report that a satisfactory short cut could be made by way of Escalante. Mission leaders eagerly accepted this good news and decided to use the new route. Not until the main body of pioneers had worked their way deep into the desert southeast of Escalante did they learn that the country ahead had not been explored. Deep gulches and canyons, sheer cliffs, and solid rock buttes blocked the way. But heavy snows in the Escalante Mountains blocked the return route also; so they decided to push ahead at all costs. The major barrier was the Hole-in-the-Rock, a narrow slit in the west rim of the Glen Canyon Gorge. They [were about to complete] the most remarkable roadbuilding feat in the history of the West.

Article excerpts from: Utah Historical Quarterly 26, No. 2 (April 1958); 161-68, and an adaptation of the first chapter of Dr. Miller’s book, Hole-in-the-Rock: An Epic in the Colonization of the Great American West (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1959).


  1. Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S., 145—69. This case is cited in numerous books devoted to studies of religious freedom in America.
  2. During the late 1880 s the L.D.S. Church began modifying its views regarding the practice of plural marriage; in 1890 the Manifesto forbidding the practice was adopted.
  3. Letters on file in the L.D.S. Church Historians library as well as information contained in. the San Juan Stake History furnish abundant proof of this.
  4. Albert R. Lyman, “Fort on the Firing Line,” Improvement Era 51 (December 1948): 797.
  5. Parowan Stake Historical Record, #22125, p. 174, L.D.S Church Historian’s library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
  6. Parowan Stake Cedar Ward Historical Record, #22183, p. 332.
  7. In a general sense the term foreign mission refers to a proselyting mission outside of Utah, either in one of the other states or in some foreign country.
  8. When the L.D.S. Church established itself in Missouri during the 1880s, there was created at Jackson County what was called the “Center Stake of Zion.” However, due to persecution the church was forced to leave Missouri before this Stake had been thoroughly established or the proposed temple, built. Since leaving Missouri the church consistently has taught that there will be a return to the “Center Stake,” which eventually will become an important Mormon center. This ultimate migration back to Missouri is still part of the long-range church plan; three-quarters of a century ago it was believed by many to be imminent. For a discussion of this element of L.D.S. history and doctrine, see B, H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City; 1930), L
  9. Parowan Stake, Cedar Ward Historical Record, #22183, p. 379, report of Sacrament Meeting in Cedar Ward, Sunday, October 19, 1879. I have taken the liberty of placing this statement in the first person to use as a quotation at the beginning of this chapter.
  10. Kumen Jones, preface to the Writings of Kumen Jones, ed. Albert T. Lyman (Salt Lake City: N.d,), 23.
Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Articles

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.