Guest Post: Mormons, Indian Displacement, and Useable Pasts

By April 2, 2008

Jared Farmer is the author of On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Book Cover), a cultural and environmental history of Mount Timpanogos and Utah Lake. The book is an outgrowth of his dissertation at Stanford University, where he studied under the preeminent historian of the American West, Richard White. Jared’s work is a fascinating example of cutting-edge approaches to place, memory, religion, and nature. His first book, Glen Canyon Dammed: Inventing Lake Powell and the Canyon Country, examined the controversial transformation of Glen Canyon of the Colorado River into the reservoir Lake Powell. Jared has agreed to provide us with some tidbits from On Zion’s Mount.

Dear readers of The Juvenile Instructor,

This is an invited guest posting from Jared Farmer, assistant professor of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the author of the just-released book On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard University Press). My book uses the linked stories of Mount Timpanogos and Utah Lake to examine the settlement of the Great Basin by Latter-day Saints and its effects on native peoples (especially Utes) and the environment. To give you a flavor of the work—and to generate some discussion—I have pulled out three argumentative passages:

From the introduction:

This book is about understanding home. It shows how settlers gave meaning to the lands they settled, and how their progeny developed an attachment to place—in other words, how nonnatives became neonatives. Utah offers a powerful case study because only here can we find a colonial U.S. population that speaks of having a “homeland” in the Native American sense—an endemic spiritual geography. They call it Zion. That the establishment of the Mormon homeland in Utah occurred in tandem with the diminishment of native peoples and places may be discomforting enough. But I must prod further. Mormonism, a religion indigenous to the United States, originally embraced American Indians as spiritual kin, or “Lamanites.” Metaphysically and geographically, this religion reserved a privileged place for natives. But prophecies, dreams, and intentions never quite become realities. In high relief, Utah history exposes an unsettling incongruity of U.S. history: the senses of place that make present-day Americans feel at home would not exist without past displacements.

By being typical and exceptional at the same time, Utah offers a valuable perspective on the United States. The religious element is of course distinctive, yet the main story of Utah’s formation—settlers colonizing Indian land, organizing a territory, dispossessing natives, and achieving statehood—could not be more American. Even so, the Great Basin, the Mormons’ region of settlement, remains outside the purview of mainstream American history. This relationship is best explained by geographic metaphors. The Great Basin is that large piece of North America that has no outlet to the sea. Its runoff flows inward, where it pools and evaporates. So it is with Utah history. Because of the LDS stronghold in Utah, and because of the LDS emphasis on history, the state sustains a steady flow of scholarship. However, the water lacks proper turbidity. It’s unnaturally pure because so many historians have filtered out non-Mormons and native peoples. Because of provincialism, scholars of Utah rarely push beyond the rim of their basin. They write for an audience of Mormons. History pools at their feet; their stream never reaches the ocean. Meanwhile, in the seaboard cities where opinion generally takes shape, most U.S. historians ignore Utah history and Mormon history. In their coast-to-coast historical surveys, scholars may occasionally glance down, may even notice a curious patch of blue—an inland sea of history. Yet whether through prejudice or indifference, they rarely descend for a closer look. They should. The Great Basin is the perfect place to be disorientated and reoriented.

And from the final chapter:

With its disproportionate focus on pioneering, the Mormon sense of the past is compressed and insular. Intentionally or not, native peoples have been pushed to the historical margins—the realm of footnotes and folklore. Utah Mormons preoccupy themselves with the narrative of getting to Utah. The pioneer trek is their “master commemorative narrative.” They have little incentive to think about what happened here before or even afterward. Notwithstanding the achievement of “making the desert blossom as the rose,” Utah’s territorial period was, from a strict believer’s standpoint, a debacle. Two cornerstones of Mormonism—the imminence of the Millennium and the sanctity of polygamy—wore away. After the forced Americanization of 1890, the LDS Church decided to place more emphasis on the miraculous past than on the miraculous future. Moreover, the historical emphasis was selective. The “First Vision” of Joseph Smith and the pioneer trek of Brigham Young emerged as the favored episodes for commemoration. Over the twentieth century, the Church did everything in its power to etch these episodes into collective memory. Simultaneously it did its best to erase polygamy from public consciousness. The laity abetted these efforts. As a consequence, the territorial period as a whole became indistinct. Indians faded out with the polygamists. The native peoples of the Great Basin are now doubly disadvantaged in Mormon memory: not only are the Lamanites forgettable because they didn’t live up to prophecy; they are associated with a prophetic era that most Latter-day Saints would rather forget. By contrast, pioneering is a supremely usable past.

To learn more about the book, see my publisher’s catalog:

Harvard University Press

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fascinating stuff. Thanks for contributing this, Jared. Though Utah isn’t my particular area of interest, this volume looks great, and I’ll probably pick up a copy in the near future.

    Comment by Christopher — April 2, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

  2. Interesting. I’ll look forward to reading your volume. I think other groups besides Mormons have viewed their new American environments as metaphysically home. You have all the new American sects during the Second Great Awakening which relied heavily on a Providential view of America as a fresh start. Further and more secular and proximate, I think Paul Reeve has persuasively argued that the mining communities of the former Utah Territory laid metaphysical claim to the land, even using public rituals to punctuate their narratives.

    I also think that Mormons are no more or less likely to engage in selective memory when fashioning their narratives than the rest of America and its varying subcultures. But I’m very interested in your historical evidences and analyses.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 2, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

  3. Jared,

    Thank you for taking the time to write this post and to share some highlights from your new book. If these passages are any indication, it looks to be a significant contribution to the corpus of historical studies on the Great Basin, and promises challenging new ideas.

    You hoped to generate some discussion with these passages, so here are a few thoughts:

    From the first excerpt the phrase ?Mormonism . . . originally embraced American Indians as spiritual kin, or ?Lamanites?? is interesting. You conclude the thought, ?but prophecies, dreams, and intentions never quite become realities.? This choice of wording seems curious. When did Mormons begin to no longer see American Indians as spiritual kin or Lamanites? In what ways were the Mormon?s hopes for the Native Americans never realized? It seems a favorite pastime of historians of the American West to point to the relationship between Mormons and their Native American neighbors as being peculiarly positive. On the other hand, one must look no further than current Utah demographics to recognize that the earlier inhabitants of the region have been displaced. I look forward to your treatment of how this transformation occurred.

    Your second excerpt is a powerful reminder that Mormon scholars need to be more active participants in national and international historical dialogue. At the same time, this can be easily overstated. I imagine we have all been guilty of downplaying the scholarly contributions of our predecessors in an effort to establish a more firm foundation for our own work. Your write: ?scholars of Utah rarely push beyond the rim of their basin. They write for an audience of Mormons.? I am not sure of what you mean by ?scholars of Utah.? One way to interpret this is that you mean scholars who reside in Utah. It seems unlikely that this would be your meaning, as there are myriad examples of Utah scholars in music, literature, physical sciences, history, etc. who have had a profound influence on their field. If, then, you mean scholars whose topic of study is Utah history, my query would be how often are studies of states? histories anything but provincial? I cannot remember the last time I read a history of Maine, Arkansas, or Texas that was aimed at a national audience (please forgive the levity). On the contrary, it seems to me that the treatment of Mormon and Utah history in larger scholarly surveys has been steadily increasing in the recent past. Much if this has been no doubt due to the efforts of Western Americanists. Limerick, Worster, Cronon?your own Richard White?have not been reticent to examine the Mormon story in the development of the country in a more detailed way.

    In the segment from your final chapter you bemoan the plight of Great Basin Native Americans in historical memory. It seems that in early stages of the history of marginalized peoples the ?victim? approach is the first employed (whether by insiders or outsiders). After that phase has run its course the discourse seems to shift to an examination of the strengths and contributions of the people?acknowledging of course the reality that the group had reason to complain of improper treatment. Ultimately this latter approach seems more capable of getting to the heart of the history. Your book may move the discussion of Utah natives this direction, and that would be wonderful. Either way, the dialogue is a sorely-needed one?thank you from one would-be reader for giving us a new point of reference.

    Best regards, and apologies for the lengthy thoughts. May the discussion continue!

    Comment by Alex — April 2, 2008 @ 3:27 pm

  4. My copy of On Zion’s Mount arrived today. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    I agree with Alex that this work promises to be a significant contribution to Mormon and Utah history, and I agree with what Jared seems to imply in the second excerpt–that this book may succeed in transcending the “basin’s” edges and be read by a larger audience than just Mormons and specialists in Utah history. The list of big names that endorsed this book is just astounding–Virginia Scharff, Philip Deloria, Richard White, Elliott West, Bushman, David Rich Lewis, and Alan Taylor all agreed to put blurbs on the book.

    J., I think you’d agree that there is a difference between what Paul’s miners did in Southern Utah and what the Mormons have done in Utah. Yes, both groups inscribed meaning into the land, but the miners were unable to successfully endow their land with a multi-generational connection to the area. I agree with your point that the Mormons are far from unique in constructing a collective memory that erases what they did to the Native Americans. The vast majority of colonizers do that. The interesting question here though is to what degree Mormon religion shaped that memory making.

    To all: Jared told me that he would wait a couple of days and then answer comments and questions. So be sure to come back Friday or Saturday for his responses.

    Comment by David G. — April 2, 2008 @ 4:44 pm

  5. David, I agree.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 2, 2008 @ 5:36 pm

  6. Jared,

    I too just received my copy of “On Zion’s Mount” and looking forward to reading your work. If the book is as intriguing as your three paragraphs I will have a wonderful read. The geographical metaphor is brilliant, and I believe quite accurate.

    Thank you for taking the time to write the post.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — April 2, 2008 @ 8:40 pm

  7. Jared, what’s the time frame of the book? Do you get up into the 20th century, when those Great Basin Indians who’d failed to disappear with polygamy were the first to have their tribal relationship terminated by (LDS) Senator Arthur Watkins? I would love to see R. Warren Metcalf comment on this thread, I think the scholarly work of both of you have common ground. It’s fascinating to me as a historian (but endlessly frustrating and disappointing to me as a member of the Church), that Mormons were so eager first to be the main agents in Indian “Displacement” and then to replace that policy with so-called “Placement.” The irony.

    Comment by tona — April 3, 2008 @ 7:07 am

  8. I just happend to come across it, but thought it might bear mentioning here that Jared will be at Sam Weller’s next Thursday to read from and sign his book.

    Comment by Randy B. — April 3, 2008 @ 8:55 am

  9. Thanks Randy. I believe Jared will also be speaking at BYU on that day.

    Comment by David G. — April 3, 2008 @ 9:24 am

  10. Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful comments. Here are some responses in no particular order.

    The book?s symbolic time frame is 1776 to 2002 (Dominguez-Escalante to the Winter Olympics), though in truth I take things up to 2006, when the LDS Church changed its publisher?s introduction to The Book of Mormon to say that Lamanites were ?among the ancestors? of the American Indians instead of ?the principle ancestors.? I also talk about the now-defunct Indian Placement program and BYU?s once-impressive Indian Education program.

    LDS enthusiasm about the redemption of the Lamanites has waxed and waned over the decades. The 1830s and the 1850s were two periods of waxing, after which came a long period of waning. This is not so surprising. While Latter-day Saints inherited from Joseph Smith an unusual racialist perspective on Native Americans, they also inherited a normative racist perspective from Euro-American culture. After Utah?s territorial period, the Church stopped emphasizing the divine role of the Lamanites as a covenant people. In state politics, anti-Indian sentiment prevailed in the first half of the twentieth century. Utah was one of several western states that continued to disenfranchise Indians into the 1950s. Senator Arthur Watkins, the architect of the federal government?s 1953 policy to ?terminate? tribes, was a Mormon from Utah Valley. But even as racism became the dominant mode of thought, a strong undercurrent of Israelism persisted. In the 1960s and 1970s the Church refocused its attention on the promise of the Lamanites. The key proponent was of course Spencer W. Kimball. This cycle of enthusiasm began to wane by the mid-1980s. Who knows what the future will bring, but I suspect there will never be another prophet who pushes the issue the way Kimball did. It seems improbable that the Indians of the United States?the people Joseph Smith clearly identified as the descendants of the Lamanites?will ever fully regain their scriptural status.

    As for the exceptionalism of 19th-century Mormons as a Euro-American settler group with an endemic spiritual geography?. I think I am prepared to defend that statement. It is true, of course, that many American groups?not just the hyperreligious ones?have looked upon the United States as a providential nation, a place prepared for them by God. However, a providential nation is different than a providential homeland. I?m talking here about cosmic topography. In theory the United States could be any size or shape, and could contain any kind of terrain. By contrast, native peoples generally have specific homelands tied to specific landforms. Pioneer-era Mormons were deviant Americans for many reasons, but one important reason was that they looked at the Great Basin?an inland drainage rimmed by mountains?as their Zion. Essentially they were Christian Zionists. This homeland mentality is actually quite un-American. The word ?homeland? has become so charged?and now so banal?since 9/11 that we have forgotten that the United States is, in the ideal terms of political science, an anti-homeland: a republic of citizens from any and all ethnic, religious, racial, and national backgrounds; a people united only by their shared allegiance to the Constitution. Native Americans are the only group?again, with the possible exception of Utah Mormons?who can legitimately claim to have a homeland within the United States.

    FYI, I am making three appearances in Utah in the coming days:

    Date: Wednesday, April 9
    Time: 2:30 pm
    Place: Utah State University
    Room: Old Main 121

    Date: Thursday, April 10
    Time: 11:00 am
    Place: Brigham Young University
    Room: 3228 Wilkinson Center

    Date: Thursday, April 10
    Time: 6:30 pm
    Place: Sam Weller’s Zion Bookstore
    Address: 254 South Main Street, SLC

    Comment by Jared Farmer — April 4, 2008 @ 9:42 pm

  11. Holy canole! This is a book I’m gonna have to buy! Fascinating stuff–get’s right into Mormon minds in a way Mormons minds can’t get into Mormon minds! I’m hooked.

    Comment by stan — April 4, 2008 @ 11:04 pm

  12. […] Professor of History at SUNY-Stony Brook, who we had as a guest blogger here at our very own JI a week ago. Farmer spoke about his latest book, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » “On Zion’s Mt.”: Redd Lecture by Jared Farmer — April 10, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

  13. […] You can also read his guest post over at Juvenile Instructor: Mormons, Indian Displacement, and Usable Pasts […]

    Pingback by Virtual Oases, April 13 « The Exponent — April 13, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

  14. I just finished the book and found it, at times, to be interesting however throughout I felt as if the author was trying to force feed me into swallowing his hidden agenda. The author chooses to quote fringe historians and controversial episodes to paint the Mormon community as criminal, cultish, and imperialistic.
    Legend and history have always intertwined yet Farmer is kind enough to differentiate for the benefit of the common dullard. If he hadn?t, I think we would all still believe in the Timpanogas Cave heart, a reclined mountain squaw, and Robert Redford?s minimal carbon footprint.
    I would change the title of this book to, ?I grew up in Provo, moved to California, and now need to justify my lifestyle regarding organized religion? Oh, and his next book will be, ? On Jerusalem?s Mount; How Mormons caused the Israeli / Palestinian conflict.?

    Comment by PJD — June 17, 2008 @ 12:18 am

  15. Wow, PJD, you came away from this book with a very different impression than I did. I felt that in many places where jared could have followed a harsher interpretation of the Mormon history he instead chose a more moderate path. On the whole, I felt that Jared was rather sympathetic to Mormons in the book. Which fringe historians are you referring to?

    Comment by David G. — June 17, 2008 @ 10:48 am

  16. David G., he’s probably referring to fringe historians like the ones that praised Farmer’s book on the back cover of the dust jacket … you know, scholars like Richard Bushman and Richard White. /end sarcasm/

    Comment by Christopher — June 17, 2008 @ 11:58 am

  17. While I thought the premise was good, and kudos to Jared for the exhausting research, referenced quotes from people like Armand Mauss, Sandra Jones, Howard Christy and Tullidge?s histories (including anonymous recollections) are vague, multi-interpretational, and quite frankly, sketchy at best.
    I think he did a marvelous job providing the background into Indian name origins, legend of the Leapers, and the famous bathing and healing waters, etc of the time.
    However, I lose interest when Historians provide their slant, which was clearly felt, in relation to theology, religious intentions by prophetic leaders, and faith based interpretive events. When looking through a rearview mirror of 150 years, everything seems so clear. However, in moments of decision (i.e. B Young leading thousands of people across a challenging land), men must rely on God, which when written, must be just that, left to individual impression and not blatant speculation.

    Comment by PJD — June 20, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

  18. Armand Mauss is the leading scholar today on Mormon ideologies of lineage and race. Sondra Jones has published important articles on Indian slavery and Mormon-Indian relations in the UHQ and has had a book published by the U of U press on Indian slavery. Howard Christy is likewise recognized as an important scholar of Mormon-Indian relations. These people are hardly marginal. Jared does not use Tullidge as a secondary source, but rather as a primary reference to show how stories had been invented and exaggerated over time.

    As to your other point, I’ll just repeat that Jared was sufficiently sympathetic to Mormon belief claims. He could have gone quite a bit further in his analysis in terms of criticizing Mormon religion, but he chose not to.

    Comment by David G. — June 20, 2008 @ 3:29 pm

  19. David,

    I think additional exploration into, treatment of indigenous people of Utah Valley by Mormons vs. the typical treatment of indigenous Americans by European white immigrants, would have been more ground breaking. Jared touches briefly on it but there are numerous contrasts.

    Comment by PJD — July 6, 2008 @ 12:38 pm

  20. I lose interest when Historians provide their slant

    PJD, I’d be interested in any scholarly historical work (or any writing for that matter) that doesn’t include the author’s own “slant.” Much scholarship often reveals as much about the author’s own worldview as it does abut the subject (s)he is addressing. It’s largely inescapable.

    In addition, and in an equally inescapable way, readers also interpret a text according to their own biases and with their own slants. Your comments reveal that you read the book with certain assumptions and attitudes, while David G., myself, and many others read it with different expectations and assumptions about the author and his work.

    I think additional exploration into, treatment of indigenous people of Utah Valley by Mormons vs. the typical treatment of indigenous Americans by European white immigrants, would have been more ground breaking.

    While I agree that work remains to be done regarding Mormon concepts of Native peoples in 19th century America, and that examining those attitudes within the context of larger national and racial trends, the topic has been treated before and is hardly “ground breaking.” Conversely, situating Mormon interaction with American Indians within a context of environmental history and sacred space, as Farmer’s book does so well, is in fact quite groundbreaking.

    Comment by Christopher — July 8, 2008 @ 3:36 am

  21. If a book can be judged on insightful intelligent, and thought provoking discussion, “On Zion?s Mount” would seem worthy of additional recognition. What discounts such acclaim would be debasing extraordinary achievement with inconsequential drivel.
    As stated earlier, the book is well written and includes many insightful views; however, I feel it lacks the deserving documentation of a people who overcame monumental obstacles to create a long lasting community of historical significance. (Especially 1846-1900).
    While the ?Indian Question? was never properly resolved by Mormons, or any other people, it wasn?t from lack of earnest intent. Likewise, some of the great minds of the last 200 years spent much of their lives exploring proper resolution to this very same issue. Jefferson, Jackson, even Sam Houston (who was considered a close ally to the Cherokee Nation), eventually made disastrous decisions which would ultimately lead to eviction of native peoples. Indigenous people believed the land belonged to no man, while white Anglo settlers thought otherwise. With views so polarized, is a resolution possible?

    Comment by PJD — July 9, 2008 @ 3:35 pm

  22. […] but the busy bloggers at Juvenile Instructor beat me to the punch and even got the author to do a guest post with selections from the book. So I’ll settle for a discussion of the interesting tale of how […]

    Pingback by Times & Seasons » Pioneers and Indians in Utah Valley — August 22, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

  23. […] On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape, which we’ve discussed before on the blog. Farmer’s book has won a ton of awards, most notably the Francis Parkman Prize […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Book Review: Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape — December 19, 2009 @ 1:25 am


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