Brigham Young, as leader of the Mormon Church and architect of the Mormon colonization of Utah, was one of the most influential figures in shaping the American West.
Young was born into a poor farming family, the 9th of 11 children, on June 1, 1801, in Whitingham, Vermont. At the age of 3, his family moved to upstate New York, and at age 16, he left home becoming an itinerant carpenter, joiner, painter and glazier.
After converting to Methodism in 1823, he married his first wife in 1824. The couple settled in Mendon, New York in 1829, 40 miles from Manchester, where Joseph Smith would publish the Book of Mormon in 1830.
Young was immediately attracted to the book, and he was baptized into Joseph Smith's newly formed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 14, 1832. The same year he went to Canada as a missionary, and in 1833, after the death of his wife, he led several friends and much of his family to join Joseph Smith and the gathering of Zion in Kirtland, Ohio.
Young went to Missouri in 1834 when hostile gentiles (non-Mormons) threatened the Mormon community there. He later traveled to England and the eastern states as a missionary, then defended Joseph Smith when the Kirtland settlement foundered in 1837. The next year, after following Smith to Missouri, he helped evacuate the community when threatened by anti-Mormon mobs and organized their move to Nauvoo, Illinois. By 1841, Joseph Smith appointed him President of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, the governing body of the church, second in authority only to Smith himself.
When Joseph Smith was murdered by an Illinois mob in June 1844, Young returned to Nauvoo and took charge of the church. Facing continued persecution, he led the Mormons westward out of Illinois to Florence, Nebraska on the Missouri River in 1846. In 1847, he led an exploration to the Rocky Mountains. After discovering and selecting the Great Salt Lake region as a safe haven where Mormons could have the freedom to worship and live as their faith decreed, Young returned to Florence, and in December 1847, became president of the church.
In 1848, Young organized and led the great Mormon emigration from Nebraska to Utah, where he remained for the rest of his life. He immediately established Salt Lake City and, through the church, directed religious, political, economic, cultural, and educational affairs. He promoted isolation and economic self-sufficiency, encouraging local manufacture of goods, and discouraging enterprises like mining that would invite outsiders.
To strengthen the church and its authority within Utah, Young established Mormon colonies throughout the state and in the neighboring territories of Arizona, California, Nevada and Idaho. Young constantly encouraged emigration by financing wagon trains and furnishing converts with hand carts so they could make the 1,400-mile journey from the East by foot.
In 1849 Mormons established the provisional state of Deseret, with Young as governor. The next year this area became the territory of Utah, again with Young as governor, but with the announcement in 1852 that plural marriage -- polygamy -- was a basic tenet of the church, a public outcry prompted scrutiny by federal authorities.
President James Buchanan replaced Young as Governor in 1857 and sent the U.S. Army to establish federal rule in Utah. Young fought this "Mormon War" by cutting off supply lines rather than engage federal troops in battle, but this conflict led to the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre, an atrocity that would haunt Young till his dying day.
In September 1857, a party of 120 emigrants suspected of hostility toward the church was murdered in southeastern Utah by Paiute Indians and a band of Mormons led by John D. Lee, who claimed to be acting under direct orders from Young. But in 1858, Young was pardoned for his alleged role in this atrocity.
Without federal interference, Mormon communities flourished, and Utah's economy boomed during the following decade. In 1869, the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point, Utah threatened Young's efforts to safeguard Mormon prosperity and polygamy by maintaining a sanctuary of isolation. Young responded by consolidating political and economic power; he established Mormon monopolies and initiated women's suffrage in Utah, greatly increasing the number of Mormon voters.
But the continued public outcry over Mormon plural marriage would not go away -- nor would federal concerns over the establishment of a Mormon theocracy. In 1871, Young was tried under an 1862 federal law that prohibited polygamy in US territories. At the time, Young had more than 20 wives and 47 children. When he was eventually acquitted, prosecutors attempted to prove Young's complicity in the Mountain Meadows Massacre 20 years earlier. In 1877, John D. Lee was brought to trial, but he refused to implicate Young. After an initial acquittal, supposedly influenced by the Mormon leader, Lee was retried, found guilty and condemned to death. The question of Young's role was never definitively determined.
Brigham Young died shortly after Lee's trial, on August 29, 1877. Federal authorities continued their assault against Mormon theocracy and marriage practices, until in 1890, the Mormon church relinquished the practice of polygamy. In 1896 the territory of Utah was admitted into the union as the 45th state. Various former Mormons, who have continued the practice of polygamy to the present day, have been excommunicated by the Mormon church.
-- Bob Katz