Trails Symposium

April 14, 1999 · Salt Lake City

Sponsored by Utah Historic Trails Consortium

The Elephant Meets the Lion:
Gold Rush Conflicts in the Great Basin

An Address by David L. Bigler, Past President OCTA

This year California celebrates the sesquicentennial of the great population shift, known as the Gold Rush, that began in 1849 and continues (to the consternation of some) still today. But the historic migration from which Steve Young's football team takes its name would do more than radically transform an idyllic way of life in California. Over time it would also bring lasting change to the Mormon Kingdom in the Rocky Mountains. Since this important side of the story has been largely overlooked, this is an appropriate time to take it up. In so doing, I'd like to begin with a few words by George Orwell and Yogi Berra. Orwell said, "To see what is front of one's nose requires a constant struggle." Yogi put the same thing in his own way: "It's amazing what you can see by just looking." With these words in mind, let's take a new look at an old story.

One hundred fifty years ago this month, thousands of men, wagons and animals gathered at five major jumping off places along the Missouri River from present Kansas City to Council Bluffs. About to roll west was a great tidal wave of people. In California, which had a total non-Indian population of fewer than fifteen thousand, it would inundate almost overnight a sun-blessed land of Spanish missions, vast cattle spreads, and superb horsemen. To Utah (as we have heard tonight) it would carry needed economic renewal. But it would also bring an end to isolation and the beginning of a decades-long quarrel with the rest of the nation that would see a U.S. president dispatch a military expedition here to enforce federal law. Eventually, the mass migration would transform an aspiring Mormon theocracy in the American West.

Only twenty months before it began, the people of Israel in the Last Days, better known as the Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, had moved to the Great Basin of North America, then in Mexico, to lay a foundation for the mission they would carry out as a condition of Christ's coming again. What was this calling? Said Brigham Young: "We will roll on the Kingdom of our God, gather out the seed of Abraham, built the cities and temples of Zion and establish the Kingdom of God to bear rule over all the earth." Now the Kingdom he described was not an undefined spiritual ideal to be fulfilled in our time or our children's. It was a theocratic state, also known as Deseret, ruled by God through inspired men, that was destined to sweep to world dominion in the days on earth of its founders. It was the stone cut out without hands, foretold by the prophet Daniel, that would consume all other kingdoms and stand forever. And it would do this in their time.

Those who undertook this visionary endeavor were unlike any other emigrants in America's move west. Faith and destiny drove them, not land or gold. Like their leaders, most were young. The average age of the eight general authorities in their 1847 pioneer company, all apostles, was just under thirty-nine. The oldest were Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, both forty-six. George A. Smith was the youngest, only thirty, having already served in this office for eight years. Revolutions are made by the young and the cause they led, "to reduce all nations and creeds to one political and religious standard," was a revolutionary purpose.

Yet even as they laid out their communal city, symbolized by the beehive, events were occurring elsewhere in 1847 that would change for all time their design to establish the Kingdom of God in the West. That summer an American army under Gen. Winfield Scott was moving against Mexico City. And in California Swiss entrepreneur John Sutter and his moody partner from New Jersey, James Marshall, began to build a sawmill on the South Fork of the American River, thirty miles east of Sacramento. On January 24, 1848, workmen turned the river into the millrace to test the flow of water on the wheel. That night Henry Bigler, one of six Mormon Battalion veterans hired to build the mill, wrote the words that would electrify men's dreams around the world: "This day some kind of mettle was found in the tail race that looks like goald."

Less than two weeks later, in the nation's second largest land acquisition, Mexico on February 2 surrendered to the United States the entire Southwest, including all of five states, among them Utah and California. The peace treaty with Mexico closed one war, but opened another, a bloodless contest for supremacy between an aspiring theocratic power and an American republic that never quite realized that its sovereignty was being challenged in the name of religious freedom. The controversy would make Utah, one of the first places settled west of the Missouri River, one of the last admitted to the Union.

So it came about that only six months after Brigham Young's pioneer company landed in Salt Lake Valley, latter-day Israel was right back in the United States where it came from. And the ramparts of its new Kingdom were about to be over-run by a horde of curious fortune seekers, hell-bent to "see the elephant," as they called it, an expression that roughly meant "to see it all." But before many of them saw an elephant in California, they would first meet a lion in the Great Basin.

Estimates vary over the number who traveled overland to the West Coast, via South Pass, from 1849 through 1856, but it averages well over two hundred thousand. Most by-passed Mormon settlements on the north, especially if they came from Missouri or western Illinois, scenes of early conflicts between Mormons and their neighbors. But an estimated seventy thousand or more followed the Mormon Trail from Fort Bridger to rest and buy supplies in Salt Lake Valley. They then went north via Bear River to reach the California Trail near Almo, Idaho, or south on the line of present I-15 to pick up the Spanish Trail to Los Angeles, near Cedar City. A few to their regret headed due west on the Hastings Cutoff, also known as the Salt Desert crossing.

One way or the other, more than twice as many people passed through Utah over these eight years as came to Utah. If you think traffic is bad today, one emigrant in 1850 said that after crossing Little Mountain his party was delayed for two hours in Emigration Canyon "by an accumulation of teams, entirely filling the road for two miles."

As we have heard, the economic impact of this stream of early tourists was life saving. Understandably many of the emigrants would see it differently. John Hawkins Clark in 1852 said coming to Salt Lake City was "something like taking in the Irishman's show; it cost nothing to get in, but a great deal to get out."

As the Gold Rush gave a bloom of prosperity to Utah settlements, it also brought an army of curious sightseers. Largely depending on how long they stayed and whether their contacts were with average settlers or Mormon authorities, most of these transients reacted favorably to what one called "the Mormon halfway house."

At the same time, emigrant opinions perceptibly soured the longer they remained beyond the average six or seven days. And many who spent the winter in Utah because they arrived too late to go on, or ran out of money, later protested bitterly the treatment they received at the hands of local authorities. For the sake of understanding, let's take a closer look at one of the angriest of these protesters. He was not a Gold Rush emigrant at all, but one of the few who were on their way to make new homes in Oregon Territory.

Forty-one-year-old Jotham Weeks Goodell was a native of Massachusetts and a descendant of Robert and Catherine Kilham Goodell who landed at Salem in 1634 on the ship Elizabeth. At age nineteen he moved to Ontario, where he married Anna Glenning Bacheler, eighteen. They had eleven children, ten of whom lived to adulthood.

A deeply religious man, Goodell wrote under the names of their children in the family Bible this prayer: "Believing in a covenant keeping God these children have been solemnly consecrated to God by placing upon them the token of God's covenant mercy. O thou God of Abraham; who keepest Covenant with Thy people forever; Pardon the sins of Thy servant and hand maid, & Grant that these Thy children, may have grace, to lay hold of the covenant of Thy mercy for themselves and their children, and their children's children for a thousand generations!"

Goodell also possessed a strong sense of loyalty to the young American republic. Early family tradition claims that he had leave Canada because he favored a move to join that part of Ontario to the United States. According to a grandson, Goodell "ran up the flags with the American flag above the British flag. This seemed to have angered the Canadians and they were going to lynch him so he and the family took refuge in a church and then rowed across Lake Erie to reach the American side." The descendant, a retired history teacher, conceded the story should be taken "with a grain of salt," but it has been confirmed from other sources and probably survived because it showed how Goodell felt about his native land.

In September 1850 Jotham and Annie Goodell, age forty, arrived in Salt Lake Valley with seven of their living children, ranging in age from one to nineteen, and two wagons, four oxen and four milk cows. It was too late in the season to make it over the Blue Mountains to Oregon, so they decided to spend the winter in what became that same month Utah Territory, but was then still considered the State of Deseret because the news did not arrive until later that fall.

At the time, Goodell later said, he knew little about Mormons, but "thought them to be a persecuted people" and was "disposed to censure the inhabitants of Missouri and Illinois, for the part they took in driving them out of their respective states." His family became part of a ragtag collection of about one hundred Oregon pioneers, who spent the winter of 1850-51 in their tents and wagons near Ogden. Before the winter was over, they swore, if ever again they breathed "the air of freedom," they would expose the injustices they had suffered. They chose Goodell to tell their story. He did so in nine angry, highly detailed letters, published in 1852 by The Oregonian newspaper at Portland and later sent to Washington.

Even before these letters appeared, a former U.S. Army officer who had wintered with Goodell's party in Weber County independently confirmed his story. Major William Singer had served at Santa Fe as a paymaster during the Mexican War. He was going to California in 1850 with his wife, Arcibella, and three children, ages twelve, ten and one, when they decided to spend the winter in Utah. Afterward, he described what happened to a friend in Missouri who took his letter to The St. Louis Intelligencer, which published it in 1851. The paper withheld his name, but said he was "well known by nearly all of our citizens as the occupant of a responsible station in the United States Army." His identity was not hard to uncover. Singer later became mayor of Marysville, California.

And after wintering here, one hundred fifteen emigrants to California petitioned Congress to replace Utah's new territorial government with military rule. They named forty-five-year old Nelson Slater, a graduate of New York's Union College and Auburn Theological Society, who was on his way to California with his wife, Emily, and three daughters, ages nine to fourteen, to describe at even greater length the treatment they had had undergone here. Published in 1851 at Coloma, site of the gold discovery, his book was the first copyrighted in California. A self-described school teacher, Slater later served as Superintendent of Schools for Sacramento County.

Other eyewitness accounts along this line include Franklin Langworthy's Scenery of the plains, mountains and mines: or a diary kept upon the overland route to California by way of the Great Salt Lake, published in 1855.

As I have tried to show, such works cannot be dismissed as simply anti-Mormon rhetoric or "lurid tales" by Mormon-haters. Nor should they be. In understanding Utah's original theocratic society, which existed in its purest form during the Gold Rush period, and the causes of later conflict between Utah Territory and the United States, they are of primary importance. As Brigham Madsen and emigration historian John Unruh, Jr., have indicated, they must be considered among the reasons President Buchanan ordered an American army to Utah to assert federal authority. Foremost of the grievances they point up is the issue of law, which Slater and others branded as "informal, illegal, and unjust," and often unfairly applied to impoverish Gold Rush emigrants.

It would be a mistake to assume that the exercise of law in Utah at this time was just typical of the rough-and-ready forms of justice found on the frontier. Goodell said that in the "unjust and cruel suits," which were waged against them, emigrants appealed in vain "to the usages and laws, by which courts in the United States were governed." He said that in March 1851 he heard the judge of Weber County say "they had nothing to do with United States' law, and he would not allow it to be quoted in court." One emigrant claimed he heard Apostle Willard Richards say that "what was law one day, was not law another day; that they, (the Mormons) were governed by the Holy Ghost." That may not be as funny as it sounds.

The "free and independent" State of Deseret, established in 1849, provided that justices of its courts would be appointed by the legislature or chosen by popular election. The same generally applied in Utah Territory, created by Congress in 1850, except that the territorial organic act required the president to appoint judges of the three highest district courts, who were usually not Mormons.

Since all this seems so democratic, how could it become objectionable to many emigrants? First, the judicial system rested on elections that were either never held or citizens of Deseret and Utah Territory did not during this time enjoy the right to cast their ballots in secret. In 1849 Hosea Stout became a legislator "by what process," said he, "I know not." Utah lawmakers later ruled that laws not approved by themselves and the governor could not be "read, argued, cited or adopted" in any court. They further enacted that "no report, decision, or doings of any court" could be "read, argued, cited or adopted as precedent in any other trial." Finally, ignoring Congress' intent, they vested original criminal and civil jurisdiction in the probate courts, ruled by Mormon judges, which left the appointed district justices with empty courtrooms.

Now here's the crux of the dispute. In a theocratic realm, where perfect justice is dispensed by inspiration, the people do not place their trust in the rulings of men. Under this higher method, Mormon justices of the peace without benefit of custom or precedent usually adjudicated the countless disputes of bickering gold seekers with common sense and good judgment. But it is hardly surprising that many emigrants found the exercise of law by inspiration "informal, illegal, and unjust."

William Fuller thought so in 1852 when he and twenty-three others on Hensley's Salt Lake Cutoff protested "one of the grossest impositions ever practised upon travelers in a civilized community." They had forded the Weber and Ogden rivers rather than use the toll bridges operated by James Brown of Mormon Battalion fame. But the founder of Ogden had imposed the toll anyway. An officer and "twelve or fifteen men armed to the teeth" overtook them on Bear River. With the posse rode a judge who imposed fines and costs totaling $120 and told the emigrants "there was no appeal from his court."

"Many of us had no money," Fuller said, so the officer took a horse, guns and other property "at about a third of their actual value." His party was large enough to put up a "successful resistance," he went on, "but we were a law loving people, and did not wish to imbue our hands in blood." He also said that one posse member told him that Brown had a similar dispute with emigrants almost every day. Fuller wrote to Brigham Young and asked him to return their money at the Sacramento Union office.

Not so willing to settle were the Oregon pioneers, including Jotham Goodell, who wintered in Weber County. "Were Brigham to come in person and tender back the money he robbed us of, there is not a man among us but would exclaim: 'Your money perish with you! In our distress and anguish of soul, you robbed us of our all, and exposed our wives and little ones to the danger of perishing with famine, amid the wastes of the desert!'" he wrote. "Never, never, NEVER!"

Twenty-nine-year-old Dr. Thomas Flint from Maine, who drove sheep and cattle to California in 1853, enjoyed better fortune. On the way he gave some Mormon families, who had been robbed by Indians, enough supplies to take them to Salt Lake Valley. His kindness was abundantly returned in Utah, but the royal treatment he received did little to help neighboring trains on the southern trail. At Fillmore, Flint found one Edward Potter from the train of William W. Hollister after whom today's Hollister, California, is named. Potter reportedly had come back to assist two girls who desired to return to Ohio rather than become wives of Bishop Noah Bartholemew. Their parents convinced them to stay at that time, so their self-appointed rescuer rejoined his train. But at Parowan an armed posse arrested Potter for seduction and threatened to take him back to Salt Lake for trial. They let him go only after he gave them his horse and Hollister forked over an additional fine of $150 in cash.

While his own party was "kindly received," Flint said, other trains were harassed "in most every conceivable manner, particularly if they were from Illinois or Missouri." Fines were imposed for every infraction, he said, "real or fictitious - enforced by men with rifles on their shoulders."

Many wagon trains from Missouri or Illinois wisely kept well to the north for the reason pointed to by a homeopathic doctor from Illinois. Dr. Israel Shipman Pelton Lord said that a Mormon ferryman told him that "none of their persecutors would be safe in passing through the city; and while he told of their wrongs, he ground his teeth so [hard] as to be heard two or three yards." "Yet," Lord added, "he was not naturally a violent man, rather the reverse."

Serious or not, such warnings frightened some emigrants. On being told of their danger, two alleged Illinois persecutors reportedly took off in such a hurry they forgot to take enough to drink. According to one of them, "They crossed the Great Desert 83 miles without water, and lost their horse; saving their own lives by eating or drinking, perhaps, the blood of a dead creature." The customary Mormon response to stories like this was to quote Proverbs 28:1: "The wicked flee when no man pursueth."

Of all the protests over early Utah law, perhaps one case drew the widest notice. This was the killing of emigrant, Dr. Thomas Vaughn, who wintered in 1850-51 at Manti. There was little doubt over who did it. In February 1851 thirty-nine-year-old Madison Hambleton shot the self-styled physician after church in front of everybody in town for seducing his wife. Since Hambleton afterward said, "the children was all that saved his wife," according to settler Azariah Smith, it appears the victim of the alleged seduction was his first wife, Chelnicia, age thirty-three, not his new second wife, Maria Jane, age nineteen. At a March hearing before the Deseret Supreme Court (itself an illegal bench since Utah was now a territory) Brigham Young showed up and pronounced Hambleton justified. His was almost always the last word, but not in this case.

Two years later, Andrew Love at Nephi put a touch of Old Testament law on the affair. Said he: "Saw Brother Madison Hamilton of Sanpete which it appears has forfeited his life & Priesthood by taking back his Wife after Killing Vaughn for seducing her." You will be glad to know that Hambleton managed to escape such dire consequences.

If the unpredictability of theocratic justice at times troubled even the faithful, not far behind as a source of conflict with Gold Rush emigrants was the charge that Mormon leaders were disloyal to the United States. On this question, it is usually assumed that the outspoken devotion to the U.S. Constitution, often voiced by Brigham Young and others, represents evidence of such allegiance. Not necessarily.

At that time, Mormons believed God inspired the framers of the Constitution to create a land of religious freedom where His Kingdom would be restored and supersede, as it prevailed to universal dominion, the American republic and all other earthly realms. The Constitution thus was a stepping stone to a higher, millennial form of government, not an end in itself. It was cherished as the founding document of the Kingdom of God. The State of Deseret was its true heir and champion, not the government that frustrated the fulfillment of its divine purpose.

So reverence for the nation's charter was not, by itself, evidence of loyalty to the republic. Without contradiction, Brigham Young could excoriate the government and its officials, on one hand, and vow his devotion to the Constitution on the other. His loyalty was first, last and always, to the Kingdom of God. But his outspoken opinions outraged many emigrants. "[The Mormons] deny the authority of the United States, and gasconade around as if they were able to maintain themselves against any force that might be sent against them," said one."

Franklin Langworthy from Illinois shared this view. In 1850 he attended July 24th observances in the bowery where he heard speakers "read a paper entitled 'Declaration of Independence of Deseret,' and another, 'The Constitution of Deseret.'" They said many "hard things against the Government and people of the United States," he went on. "They prophesied that the total overthrow of the United States was near at hand, and that the whole nation would soon be at the feet of the Mormons, suing for mercy and protection."

Another emigrant said that Brigham Young from the stand said that his followers would "meet any force sent from the United States, and bid them God speed with musket and grape shot!" And Major Singer who had wintered in 1850-51 near Jotham Goodell said Young "denied the right of jurisdiction on the part of our government and pledged himself that if a Governor came there and attempted its extension, he would resist it to the death!" True or not, these allegations appear to reflect Young's attitude toward the U.S. Army expedition and new governor sent in 1857 by President Buchanan.

Such belligerence apparently led some to believe that the post office at Salt Lake routinely opened their letters and destroyed those that made unflattering comments about their Mormon hosts. Major Singer said he wrote his letter from Carson Valley because he had earlier been "constrained by the practice of the Mormons to destroy letters containing anything against themselves." One emigrant said he visited some outhouses near the post office and saw pieces of one of his letters in the waste paper. It is not clear whether his letter's final destination resulted from its contents or a lack of toilet paper in Utah.

It would be misleading to suggest that friction between Mormons and westering Americans at this time can be traced mainly to polygamy. True enough, the marriage doctrine did offend some emigrants. Lucena Parsons, a twenty-eight-year-old Wisconsin schoolteacher, said "spiritual" wives were "a poor heart broken & deluded lot" who have "not as much liberty as common slaves in the south." And to show her independence in Utah's male-dominated society, Hannah Keziah Clapp, an early feminist from Michigan, brazenly wore her "bloomer dress" to a meeting in the tabernacle. She also wore a pistol on her hip, presumably to stop some imaginary polygamist from trying to add her to his harem. But the marriage practice was less a source of conflict during this period than it would become in later years, when enemies of the Mormon Kingdom used it as a weapon to destroy the theocratic system.

These and other conflicts with Gold Rush emigrants were the opening shots in a verbal war between two incompatible political systems, each of which rested its right to govern on the U.S. Constitution. Protests over theocratic law, disloyalty, undemocratic forms of government, lack of economic freedom, denial of free speech, and other issues would only grow louder over the years. As the world rushed through, it would transform a revolutionary creation that was compelled to gain world dominion within the lifetime of those who established it, or not at all, short of the millennium. It could not permanently endure as an independent state or distinctive culture limited by the confines of the Great Basin.

The history of this struggle, and the honorable men and women on both sides who waged it, has been largely lost, as the title of my book Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896, points up, which is indeed unfortunate. For it is essential to understanding society today in one of our nation's fastest growing states, yet one still divided by cultural lines drawn during the nineteenth century.

This largely forgotten quarrel between a theocratic territory and the American republic began with the Gold Rush, one hundred fifty years ago, when a horde of fortune-seekers, hell-bent to "see the elephant" in California, opened the ramparts of the Mormon Kingdom and met a lion in the Great Basin. The sudden, massive population shift would make inevitable the sweeping reforms, initiated by L. D. S. President Wilford Woodruff in 1890, that would place Utah on the road to acceptance, statehood and growth.

The Utah Historic Trails Consortium is an active umbrella organization that brings together groups interested in diverse aspects of the state's legacy of pioneer trails. Participants include:

Bureau of Land Managemnt - Cultural Resources · Daughters of Utah Pioneers · Division of State History · Heritage Foundation · Hole-in-the-Rock Association · LDS Church History Department · Lincoln Highway Association · National Park Service - Long Distance Trails Office · Mormon Battalion Association · Mormon Trails Association · National Pony Express Association · Sons of the Utah Pioneers · State Parks and Recreation · Utah Crossroads Chapter, Oregon-California Trails Association · Utah Department of Transportation