U is for utopia but that is not today’s word – Utopia, is it a mythical place believed in only by visionaries or a real possibility? I know, you wonder what in the heck this question has to do with the Old West. Be patient. Utopia is not the word for today, just a way to arrive at today’s “U” word.
The story begins with a visitation to the prophet by an angel and the revelation resulting from that visitation. The prophet gathered his followers and they began the quest for Zion, the land of the chosen people. For over 15 years they wandered from one home to another looking for the land of their prophet’s vision. They were met with one calamity after another. In one state they were faced with an order of extermination by the governor. In another their prophet was martyred. The new leader of the faithful decided living outside the US was their only hope, and they would build their temple in the new City of Zion elsewhere. Because of that decision, they fled to Mexico to found their vision of utopia. Okay, I know this doesn’t sound like a western story. Hang in there.
They moved into the Mexican desert and founded a land free of social classes, run as a collective. Built on the religious teachings of their martyred prophet, they called their land The State of Deseret, which in their scriptures meant honeybee. Like the honey bee they demonstrated great industry and energy. Deseret sprang up out of the Mexican sands, prosperous and growing, fueled by immigrant followers from around the world. They irrigated the waste land and built towns, farms, homes and schools. They even had their own alphabet. So you ask, what has this to do with the Old West? Be patient.
The American president at the time decided that the Chosen People who founded Deseret posed a danger and he dispatched fully one third of the US Army to invade and place his crony, Alfred Cummings, as a new head of state. The President of the Chosen People mobilized his forces. He ordered all citizens to prepare to burn their homes and property to keep it from falling to the US military. It looked as if war were about to break out. The armies massed, cattle were stampeded, wagons and supplies burned. To the south of the main forces 120 Americans from Arkansas were attacked, captured and massacred. Winter settled in preventing more fighting and the conflict was ended by negotiation. This conflict is today remembered as the Utah War (today’s actual “U” word)
That’s right, the state we know as Utah today started out as the land of Deseret. It came under control of the US after the Mexican-American War. The Chosen People, the Mormons, were suspicious of American authority from that day forward. Brigham Young did step down as governor in favor of Cummings, but would remain as President, President of the Church of the Latter Day Saints. The US people remained wary of the Saints for years to come, holding up Utah’s becoming a state until 1896, near fifty years from when the territory was settled.
The Saints experienced much persecution in the US. If the Mormons had set up the utopian Zion they sought independent of American harassment, the West might have turned out quite differently. After all, San Diego, LA, Phoenix and Vegas all fall in Deseret’s borders. The first telegraph line linking east to west was completed in Salt Lake City in 1861 killing the Pony Express. And that golden spike which marked the meeting of the eastern and western legs of the Transcontinental Railroad was driven in 1869, at Promontory Peak, Utah. Imagine That!
DESERET AS IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN