Salt Lake City offers an uneasy welcome to Alfred Cummings, its first non-Mormon governor, which signals the end of the so-called “Utah War.”
The Mormon acceptance of a gentile governor came after more than a year of tensions and military threats between the U.S. government and Brigham Young’s Utah theocracy. Sometimes referred to as the Utah War, this little-known conflict arose out of fundamental questions about the autonomy of the Mormon-controlled territory of Utah. Was Utah an American state or an independent nation? Could the Mormon Church maintain its tight controls over the political and economic fate of the territory while still abiding by the laws and dictates of the United States?
When James Buchanan became president in March 1857, he was determined to assert federal control over Utah Territory, where most of the residents were Mormons. Buchanan dispatched a brigade of 2,500 infantry and artillery troops for Salt Lake City under the command of the infamous General William (“Squaw Killer”) Harney, who had a reputation for harsh methods. The troops were to establish a federal garrison in Utah and provide support for the new non-Mormon Utah Governor Alfred Cummings, who had been appointed by Buchanan to replace Young.
Buchanan failed to fully inform Young of his intentions. As rumors spread of an impending American invasion, Young and other Mormon leaders reacted with alarm. Fearing the approaching federal army was actually just an armed mob similar to those that had previously driven the Mormons from Missouri and Illinois, Young was determined to make a stand. He mobilized the Mormon’s huge militia, the Nauvoo Legion, and ordered it to implement a scorched earth policy in the Wasatch Mountains east of Salt Lake City to deprive the federal army of necessary forage and supplies. Meanwhile, Mormon citizens began manufacturing arms and ammunition in preparation for war.
Much to the embarrassment of the Buchanan administration, severe weather and the Nauvoo Legion’s scorched earth tactics initially stymied the federal troops. After a hard winter spent at the burnt out shell of Fort Bridger, the American force prepared to make another attempt to push through the Wasatch Mountains and down into Salt Lake. By this time, Young was ready for peace, but he remained so distrustful that he ordered some 30,000 people to abandon Salt Lake and other northern settlements and make an unnecessary retreat southward.
When Cummings finally arrived in Salt Lake on this day in 1858, the city was nearly deserted. Young peacefully relinquished the governorship and all of his other governmental roles, agreeing to become solely the spiritual leader of Utah Mormons. In exchange, Buchanan gave all Utah residents a blanket pardon for any involvement in the conflict. Several months later, two brigades of American soldiers established Camp Floyd south of Salt Lake City, the largest garrison in the nation until the Civil War.
With the threat of a bloody conflict diminished, Mormon refugees began returning to their homes. Though tensions between the Mormons and the federal government continued for decades, the Utah War ended the dream of a Mormon state geographically and politically separated from nonbelievers. Henceforth, Utah Territory was clearly a part of the American union, and it was granted full statehood in 1896.