This is the second installment in the JI’s fourth annual summer book club. This year we are reading Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard UP, 2008). Check back every Thursday for the week’s installment! Please follow the JI on Facebook and Twitter!
Several years ago, I worked as a TA for a class on Mormonism and the American Experience. Towards the end of the course, the professor dedicated a week for reading excerpts from recent, groundbreaking scholarship—in contrast to the classic historiography which had largely dominated the class. My assignment was to survey several books to recommend possible excerpts for an undergraduate class. When I came to On Zion’s Mount, one of the chapters I recommended was chapter two, “Brigham Young and the Famine of the Fish-Eaters.” Now, nearly ten years later, I was eager to see if my earlier enthusiasm for this chapter was justified. I am happy to report that if anything I am more enthralled with Farmer’s research, methods, and conclusions now than I was as a TA.
While Farmer’s initial chapter established the geographic stage inhabited by Native Americans and later Mormon settlers, the second chapter focuses in on the complex relationship between Mormons and Indians in Utah Valley during the 1850s. The chapter opens with an examination of the intellectual framework Mormons used to understand their new neighbors. Drawing on the Book of Mormon, Farmer discusses the paradoxical Israelite identity Mormons assigned to Indians. As fallen descendants of Israelites “they were cursed to be inferior yet promised to be superior” if they embraced Mormonism and its religious message (57).
With only sporadic engagement between Indians and Mormons through the mid-1840s, Mormon beliefs remained largely theoretical until Brigham Young led the Saints to Winter Quarters and ultimately the Great Basin. There, Young and the Saints had to grapple with the discrepancy between their beliefs in the millennial destiny of the Indians and the realities of settlement and cultural conflict. In examining these realities, Farmer plays myth buster to two commonly held assumptions in Mormon history: first, that Mormon settlement of the Great Basin was an orderly, centrally organized process; and second, that Mormon relationships with Indians were characterized by Brigham Young’s adage, “It is cheaper to feed the Indians than to fight them.” With the first, Farmer emphasizes that the first Mormon settlers in Utah Valley were not sent by Young but instead independently announced their intentions and “like most vanguard settlements throughout America,” Fort Utah tended to attract a rougher sort of Mormon (64). The settlement of rowdy Mormons in the middle of prized lands for several bands of Ute Indians quickly led to conflicts over usurped lands or fisheries and stolen cattle.
In contrast to the Mormon collective memory of Young’s pacifistic approach to Indian relations, in 1849, 1850, and 1853-4 Mormon militia skirmished, battled, and massacred hostile or presumed hostile bands of Indians in Utah Valley. Only after the 1853-4 conflict, Farmer argues, did Young begin repeating his famous adage. This claim is a little too simplistic and narratively neat. Despite Farmer’s assertion, Young began articulating his preference toward feeding rather than fighting as early as 1851 and sought consolation rather than violence at the outbreak of the 1853 Walker War. However, Young’s efforts were opposed local Mormons.1 Regardless, even with Young’s “feed, don’t fight” rhetoric, federal attempts to establish an Indian farm to feed the Indians in Utah Valley languished for want of supplies and support. Aside from outright violent conflict, the ever-increasing number of Mormon settlers continued to disrupt the lives of the Utes who frequented Utah Valley. Loss of game and a growing Mormon interest in the fisheries that had once supported so many Utes combined to literally starve many Indians out of the valley.
As Mormons and Federal Indian Agents sought to remake the land and the Indians living there, Farmer recounts how at least some of the Utah Valley Indians embraced Mormon religious rhetoric to chastise white Mormon settlers for their treatment of Indians. At an 1855 conference in Provo, Highforehead critiqued the Saints from the pulpit for abusing the land and misrepresenting Indians. That same year, Arapene had white Mormons translate and record his vision of the recently deceased Walkara and God, who gave Arapene authority over his people, just as Young had authority over the Mormons, and then warned that if Mormons continued to kill Indians, God would withdraw his presence from their meetings.
Ultimately, however, these syncretic attempts to resist and accommodate Mormon encroachment failed to curtail Mormon growth and expansion. After years of fluctuating Mormon and federal policies towards the Utah Valley Indians, federal officials finally brokered a treaty in 1865 (which Congress subsequently failed to ratify) formally removing the Utes from their traditional lands in the valley to the Uinta Basin. Despite Mormon hopes and expectations for redeeming the Lamanites in their midst, the intermittent violence, introduction of diseases, depletion of resources, and ultimately federally enforced removal that occurred in Utah Valley were, as Farmer put it, “bleakly conventional” (55). This fits well into Farmer’s overall thesis, that Utah, despite its Mormon peculiarities, is ultimately a generic example of American settler colonialism in the 19th century.
After reading the chapter I was left with a few questions:
- The Nauvoo era Council of Fifty minutes recently published by the Joseph Smith Papers, contain pages and pages of church leaders frankly discussing the role they hoped Native Americans would play in their settlement of the West. How does this new information change Farmer’s interpretation of Mormon expectations?
- The early native converts in Utah represent one of the first attempts at actively translating Mormonism for non-white peoples. Beyond the examples of Highforehead and Arapene cited by Farmer, what more can be done to explore how Utes and other Indian groups understood and adapted the religion to their worldview?
- See Howard A. Christy, “Open Hand and Mailed Fist: Mormon-Indian Relations in Utah 1847-1852,” Utah Historical Quarterly 46, no. 3 (Summer 1978), 216-235; and Howard A. Christy, “The Walker War: Defense and Conciliation as Strategy,” Utah Historical Quarterly 47, no. 4 (Fall 1979), 395-420.