Mormon History and Indian History

By November 27, 2013

Todd Compton, award-winning author of the recently-published biography of “Apostle to the Indians” Jacob Hamblin, contributes this installment in the JI’s Mormons and Natives Month.

The problem with Mormon history is that it focuses on Mormons. I make this paradoxical statement to intentionally overstate the case?but there is some truth to it. We Mormons have never existed in a bubble; we have always interacted with non-Mormons. A historian can, of course, focus on the Mormon side of things, and you would expect a writer of ?Mormon history? to do so, to a certain extent. However, if we don?t take the non-Mormon side of the story seriously, looking at it thoroughly and even sympathetically, we will not even understand the Mormon side of the story in a careful, holistic way. (Looking at the non-Mormon side of our history sympathetically can be difficult for modern loyal Mormons, given the polarized Mormon/anti-Mormon conflicts throughout nineteenth-century Utah history.)

I think this is one of the most valuable lessons we can learn from the New Western History of Richard White, Patricia Limerick, Donald Worster and others. The story of ?the west? is more than the story of English-speaking European whites heroically exploring and settling it. There were others in the west before the English-speaking whites came to explore and settle?notably the American Indians, and Spanish-speaking Mexicans?and a serious history of the West will tell the story partially from their perspectives. Telling the story from the viewpoint of Indians (leaving aside the Mexicans for the time being) offers a sobering counterpoint to the Turnerian narrative of pioneer whites developing the national character through exploration and settlement of the frontier. One important article on Indian history is entitled ?How the West Was Lost.?[1] Though there is incredible complexity in Indian history?many different tribes, many differences within the tribes, many ups and down, many different types of individuals among Indian leaders, at different times and different places?a major narrative arc is one of injustice, displacement, loss. In Mormon history, this important story is often ignored, or minimized.

An example of this disconnect between Mormon history and Indian history is in the Santa Clara section of my Jacob Hamblin biography.[2] Missionaries moved into the Santa Clara River/Virgin River area in 1854?they found the southern Paiutes living there, and practicing agriculture at certain times of the year. (They would migrate seasonally to take advantage of resources in other areas.) This was the ?riverine core? of Paiute population in southern Utah?many hundreds of Paiutes lived up and down the Santa Clara and Virgin.

Baptism_of_Shivwits_Indians - wikipediaThe ?southern Indian missionaries,? under the gentle leadership of Jacob Hamblin, enjoyed great success with the Paiutes, who generally received the whites with friendship and hospitality. Many of them were baptized, in mass baptisms. However, the whites came to realize that the cultural chasm between whites, with millennia of European culture behind them, and the Indians, was substantial, and the missionaries became disillusioned. Quick, full conversions to white culture and Mormonism were very difficult.

Starting in 1857, with the foundation of Washington on the Virgin, Brigham Young began to envision southern Utah as a ?cotton mission.? From 1861 to 1863, he sent some five hundred families to St. George, near the confluence of the Santa Clara and Virgin, and sent ninety Swiss settlers to Santa Clara, formerly a small fort of Indian missionaries. All of these new settlers had an economic mission, as opposed to the earlier focus on the Indian conversion and teaching. This settlement?one might almost call it an invasion?of southern Utah entirely disrupted the ecosystem that the Paiutes depended upon in their seasonal wanderings. According to Jacob Hamblin, many Paiutes began to face starvation after this major incursion of Mormons into ?Dixie.? Mormon cattle and sheep, in particular, often overgrazed meadows of seeds that the Paiutes had relied upon at particular times of the year.

The Mormon view of settling St. George and its satellite communities is understandably a proud view of a difficult, but finally successful settlement?making the desert blossom as a rose, in the familiar phrase from Mormon tradition. However, this same event, viewed from the perspective of the Paiutes, is a history of ecological disruption, loss of territory, water resources, and agricultural resources?often leading to starvation and sickness.

The foundational history of Mormons in southern Utah was James Bleak?s ?Annals of the Southern Utah Mission.? Bleak himself was one of the 1861 settlers of St. George, so wrote largely from that perspective. Nowhere does this book record the grim consequences, for the Paiutes, of the Mormon incursions into southern Utah. Instead, Bleak portrayed Indians from a Mormon point of view?as a frontier difficulty that whites had to face.

The final fate of the once numerous Santa Clara Paiutes is documented in a chance paragraph in the autobiography of a Swiss settler in Santa Clara, John Stucki:

They had their Wigwams along the sides of the South hill and the edge of the Santa Clara Bench close to our town. They had the habit of burning their wigwams whenever anyone died. I remember that we could see wickiups burning every day for a while. I remember well one day when I went along what we called the South Ditch. I came to a place where there were four Indian men lying dead side by side and as I went a little farther up, there were two more lying there dead on the ground. They died off so fast that there were hardly any left in a short time and the white brethren went in mass one day to bury dead Indians. Although Santa Clara Valley seemed to be almost alive with Indians [previously], afterwards there were hardly any to be seen . . . Although the Indians lived on both sides of our town, none of the white people caught the disease.

This event, the entire disappearance of a major Indian community, is nowhere found in Bleak?s ?Annals.? Stucki does not date it. It supplies an unsettling, tragic counterpoint to the idealistic 1854 southern Indian mission and the 1857-1862 Cotton Mission. But this tragedy is, for the most part, a story that hasn?t been told in Mormon history or the history of Utah.[3] Largely because Indian history is viewed as something separate from Mormon history, or as a footnote to Mormon history.

The combined story of Mormons and Indians has begun to appear in wonderful books such as John Alton Peterson?s Utah’s Black Hawk War (1998), Martha Knack?s Boundaries Between: The Southern Paiutes, 1775-1995 (2001), Paul Reeve?s Making Space on the Western Frontier: Mormons, Miners, and Southern Paiutes (2006), and Jared Farmer?s On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians and the American Landscape (2008). While telling the Indian?s side of the story will undoubtedly add an element of stark tragedy to our narrative, such a compound historical lens will be an important characteristic of a mature, holistic Mormon history.


[1] William T. Hagan, ?How the West Was Lost,? in Indians in American History, edited by Frederick E. Hoxie, 179-202 (Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1988).

[2] A Frontier Life: Jacob Hamblin, Explorer and Indian Missionary (University of Utah Press, 2013).

[3] For fuller discussion, see my A Frontier Life, 354 and Edward Leo Lyman, Southern Paiute Relations with their Early Dixie Mormon Neighbors, Juanita Brooks Lecture Series, 27th Annual Lecture (St. George, UT: Dixie State College, 2010).


Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Historiography Memory Race Reflective Posts


  1. Just as the first white European settlers on the East Coast weren’t arriving in an empty wilderness, we are finding that every gain that the early Mormon settlers in Utah made generally came at the expense of the native American population. I appreciate your attention to that in your Hamblin biography. I’m about half way through so far, and enjoying the read.

    Comment by kevinf — November 27, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

  2. Thank you for these thoughts, Todd. I’m reminded of Ned Blackhawk’s comment in his magisterial Violence Over the Land: “A glaring absence remains at the heart of the field [of American history]. Still missing from most narratives of American history are clear and informed analyses of of our nation’s indigenous peoples. . . . Reconciling the dispossession of millions with the making of America remains a sobering challenge, an endeavor that requires reevaluation of many enduring assumptions.” (2-3) We could easily substitute “Mormon history” for “American history.”

    The name change from Southern Indian Mission to Cotton Mission is also very interesting. It’s similar to the change from Indian Territory Mission to Central States Mission and reflects, I think, much of the same de-emphasis on proselytizing Indians.

    Comment by David G. — November 27, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

  3. Thanks, Todd! All I can say is that this is an important reminder to consider and include indigenous perspectives in our histories and that the death and destruction contained within the story of the Santa Clara Paiutes is really important.

    Comment by Amanda HK — November 27, 2013 @ 10:34 pm

  4. Great stuff, Todd; thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

    Comment by Ben P — November 29, 2013 @ 7:56 am

  5. David: something similar happened in the Little Colorado mission: proselytizing Indians was an important part of the mission in its early years. (And remember that the earliest Mormon explorers of Northern Arizona were all Indian missionaries.) But as Charles Peterson tells the story, this focus faded away as the settlers gradually got an economic foothold in the area. The reasons are complex. It was a difficult place to survive; the cultural chasm between Mormons and Navajos or Hopis was hard to bridge; Mormon Indian missionaries were given no financial support from the church, so had to work and farm for themselves, leaving little time to learn difficult languages and travel.

    Comment by Todd Compton — November 30, 2013 @ 3:56 am

  6. I think another important adjustment to Mormon History is also recognizing the history of non-white Mormons such as Native Americans who came to identify or “affiliate” as/with Mormons.

    Comment by Farina — November 30, 2013 @ 1:13 pm

  7. Yes, Farina. In the case of the Santa Clara Paiutes, it is likely that Paiutes who died in that horrific epidemic or smallpox or measles were technically Mormons. Mass baptisms of Paiutes had taken place. However, because the Paiutes didn’t “convert” like Mormons expected, they may have not been regarded as “full” Mormons. Nevertheless, when Bleak didn’t record that epidemic, he was not even covering Mormon history fully.

    A related issue is that all the sources for Indian history in early Utah were written by Mormons.

    Comment by Todd Compton — December 1, 2013 @ 1:21 am


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