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Mormon migration

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Mormon migration

As the United States expanded westward, one group who ventured to the frontier were the Mormons. A religious group who encountered social difficulties, they decided to form a frontier community. The journey would be hard and violent. Their leader Joseph Smith, would be killed and replaced by Brigham Young. Ultimately, they would discover what is now Salt Lake City, Utah.

Founding of Mormonism

Mormonism was founded by Joseph Smith. He claimed to have received a vision that told him not to join any existing churches. Later visions (he claimed) helped him locate lost books that should be placed alongside the Christian Bible as inspired by God. These claims were divisive, the religion considered itself a denomination of Christianity, but existing denominations considered it heretical. Smith would find himself with both devout followers and intense religious persecution upon publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830.

A painting of Joseph Smith StudySmarterJoseph Smith/Wikimedia Commons

Mormon Migration 1800s

The Second Great Awakening: In the early 1800s, many new religious movements were born. Starting in the west, preachers created great excitement for religion. This excitement increased the popularity of traditional Protestant Christian denominations but also gave rise to new faiths.

Mormon Migration History

The history of Mormon migration in the 1800s is a story of religious tension and periodic westward movement until finally settling in Salt Lake City, Utah. Over the time it took to get from New York to Utah, Mormons came into conflicts with outsiders, suffered internal divisions, and even lost their founder. Their religion was a part of the Second Great Awakening, and their journey would take them in the western direction that awakening began. Joseph Smith made many claims about building a new Kingdom of God, which inspired his followers but made locals uneasy wherever they arrived.

Mormons in Ohio

Shortly after founding the new religion, Smith convinced his followers to leave for Kirkland, Ohio in 1831. There, they built the first Mormon church. In Kirkland, Smith also founded a bank. During a national financial crisis in 1837, the bank failed. Fearing both prosecution for fraud and the ire of those whose money he had lost, Smith quickly left with his loyal followers.

Growth of Mormonism and Conflict

In Ohio, Smith found a large number of converts to his new religion. As in other places, there was also conflict with non-Mormons. The Mormon practices of polygamy and communal ownership of property were unusual and upsetting to residents of Ohio. Distrust of Mormons, and their growing power as a community, led to hostilities which also pushed the group to leave Ohio.

Mormons in Missouri

In 1830, Joseph Smith proclaimed that the Mormons would be given the already settled land in Missouri by God. When this new group showed up, economically strong and believing divine ownership, conflict followed with existing settlers. After the first round of violence in 1833, Mormons were given their own county to keep them separate from the rest of the state. The 1838 Mormon War saw factional violence between Mormons and non-Mormons reach a new level.

The Mormon War

Upon leaving Ohio in 1837, the Ohio Mormons joined the group in Missouri. In 1838, violence broke out between Mormons and non-Mormons over an election. Soon, armed groups were attacking each other across the state. When a group of Mormons attacked the state militia, the governor ordered the Mormons out of Missouri.

Mormons in Illinois

From Missouri, Joseph Smith led his followers to Illinois where he purchased the city of Commerce, Illinois in 1939. The Mormons renamed it Nauvoo, which meant "beautiful" in Hebrew. Although the Mormons would transform the swamps into a successful city, it was not to last. Joseph Smith would be killed and the were Mormons forced to flee less than a decade after arriving.

Transformation of Nauvoo

In 1939, much of the land around Commerce, which would become Nauvoo, was an uninhabitable swamp. Smith launched a project to drain the swamp and build the city of Nauvoo. By 1940, many Mormons had come to the new city and created a thriving economy. Statewide, the Mormons became crucial in politics because the two political parties in the state often needed the Mormons as tie-breaking votes. From swampland to a bustling economy that drew the attention of politicians across the state, Nauvoo enjoyed a tremendous transformation before conflict arose.

River Pirates: Since 1790, pirates had been a menace to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Piracy began to decline because it was hard to catch the fast steamboats introduced in the 1810s. In the 1820s, the government stepped up activities against the river pirates. By the time the Mormons founded Nauvoo, they had caught the very tail end of river piracy.

Asylum for Pirates

Mormons first came into conflict with the rest of the state because of their policy that anyone claiming Mormon faith would be granted safe haven in Nauvoo. The policy allowed river pirates and various other criminals to seek asylum in Nauvoo. A third political party, named the Anti-Mormon Party, was started in Illinois by those upset a city harboring criminals had acquired such political and economic power. The primary goal of the party was to revoke the Nauvoo town charter and expel the Mormons.

Internal conflict and Death of Joseph Smith

In 1844 a group of Mormons published a newspaper that exposed secrets of Joseph Smith, such as polygamy. Smith and the town council burned the paper, destroyed the printing press, and declared martial law in Nauvoo as the situation spiraled out of control. When the governor showed up with the state militia to see what was going on, Smith surrendered. While in jail awaiting trial for the destruction of the printing press, members of the state militia killed Smith.

Continued Hostilities and the Rise of Brigham Young

With Smith now dead, Brigham Young took over as leader of the Mormons. After an initial period of quiet, violence broke out with raids between Anti-Mormons and Mormons. The governor eventually convinced Young to lead the Mormons out of Illinois.

A print of an image of Brigham Young StudySmarterBrigham Young/Wikimedia Commons

Mormon Journey to Utah

The Mormons knew they had to leave Illinois, and planned to start their journey in the Spring of 1846. However, local disputes forced their hand. The Mormons began their harsh trek westward in February of that year. It was a difficult journey that tested their new leader.

Leader of the Mormon Migration to Utah

As the leader of the Mormon migration to Utah, Brigham Young faced many challenges. He had to coordinate both the logistics and spiritual needs of the Mormons. Brigham Young counted that there were 3,000 Mormon families under his leadership. He used a system of division the Bible recorded the Israelites using to organize themselves. He even called the group the Camp of Israel.

Winter Travel

Frontier winters were very difficult. Traveling during them was even worse. The first 310 mile leg of the journey took 131 days. The group crossed a frozen river, wagons broke and some of the party died. By Summer, the Mormons made camp in Nebraska, which they called the Winter Quarters.

Winter Quarters

At first, life in Nebraska seemed great while the Mormons built a log town and set up a government. The Mormons got along well with the indigenous population, who agreed to their settlement. It was decided to remain in the Winter Quarters until next Spring, before continuing west. Although they did not have the difficulties of traveling, this proved to be another extremely difficult winter for the group. Young and many of the others grew sick that winter, but a vision he claimed to have of Joseph Smith eased Young's doubts.

Second Leg of the Journey

Young would lead a small part on the journey further west. From April to July of 1847, they traveled for 111 days. The journey was warmer and moving through the plains was easier. However eventually reaching the mountains in Wyoming, the difficulty increased and along the way many once again grew sick. When the group reach the Valley of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, a very sick Brigham Young declared they had arrived at their destination.

Settling in Salt Lake City, Utah

60,000 Mormons would follow Young to what is now Utah in the next twenty years. Some had left for the journey before Young even arrived. When the Mormons completed their journey there was not yet a state of Utah. The territory wasn't even inside the borders of the United States. The name they gave to a larger region that included part of states bordering Utah was Deseret. Conflict would still find the Mormons, but they were able to finally have a stable home.

The Mormon church gathered funds that helped many of these families make the long westward journey. When Mormons first set out they were provided with covered wagons. Eventually, as the money began to run out, later travelers were only afforded hand carts. Many had to make the entire frontier journey on foot.

Establishment of Utah

When the United States received the land officially in a deal with Mexico, it became known as the Utah territory. The Mormons attempted to join the union, planning to keep the Deseret name as a state. Leaders in the US Government were suspicious however, as they viewed Dessert as a theocracy loyal to one man. Many Americans felt this did not conform to the separation of church and state upon which the United States had been founded.

A political cartoon against Mormons in Utah Anti-Mormon Political Cartoon/Wikimedia Commons

Utah War

Although not an actual shooting war, the Utah War would be another great clash between Mormons and non-Mormons. This time however, Mormons would be allowed to keep their homes. The clash ended with Mormons finally reconciling with outside government, which had always been an issue.

Rising Conflict with Federal Government

While awaiting statehood, President Millard Fillmore did make Brigham Young the Governor of the Utah territory. However, Young did not get along well with Federal authority. Utah interfered with the work of Federal agents, allowed polygamy, was run as a theocracy, sought indigenous tribes as allies against the United States and a group of Mormons even massacred a wagon train of other settlers. Word of these things traveled back east to federal authorities and also appeared in newspapers.

Reaction of President Buchanan

President James Buchanan felt that something finally had to be done. Young's appointment as governor had technically expired, it was just that no one else had been appointed. Buchanan sent army troops to remove Young and install a new governor.

End of Hostilities

When word of the troop movement reached Utah, with no official notice of a new governor from the Federal government, Mormons abandoned their towns to head south in preparation for a violent struggle. Violence was averted when a man named Thomas Kane traveled from Pennsylvania and brokered a peaceful transfer of power.

The whole affair was viewed in public as a disaster that wasted much federal money. This was because Buchanan had not bothered to simply inform Young of his replacement, and moving the large group of soldiers had been far behind schedule. President Buchanan was eager to see the problem solved.

Utah Gains Statehood

In 1890, a later president of the Mormon church, Wilford Woodruff, made important proclamations. He banned the practice of polygamy and stated that Mormons must recognize the laws of the US Government. This turn from theocracy paved the way for Utah's admission to the union in 1896 and Mormon's later participation in the political life of the United States.

Mormon Migration Timeline

1830Book of Mormon is published and Joseph Smith states that God will give land in Missouri to the Mormons for a new Kingdom of God.
1831Mormons leave to settle in Missouri and Kirtland, Ohio.
1836Mormons are given a separate county in Missouri.
1837Joseph Smith leads his Ohio followers to Missouri.
1838Political violence escalates and Mormons are forced from Missouri.
1839Mormons found Nauvoo in Illinois.
1844Joseph Smith is killed by militia members.
1846Brigham Young leads the Mormons on a further journey West, stopping in Nebraska.
1847Brigham Young continues on, leading his followers to Utah.
1857The Utah War leads to Brigham Young losing power in Utah.
1890Later Mormon leaders end polygamy and says Mormons must follow government laws.
1896Utah enters the union.

Mormon migration - Key takeaways

  • Mormonism was founded by Joseph Smith
  • Mormons went west on the religious conviction to discover a new Kingdom of God
  • Mormons came into conflict with non-Mormons everywhere they went, frequently finding violence and being expelled from the area
  • Mormons' allegiance to Mormon doctrine and leaders over political institutions caused them many problems
  • Mormon practices such as polygamy and communal ownership were controversial
  • Upon the death of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young led the Mormons
  • By accepting federal authority, Mormons paved the way for Utah statehood and their entering political life

Frequently Asked Questions about Mormon migration

The Mormon migration was a journey west the Mormons undertook as they continually resettled between 1831 and 1847. 

The Mormons set out on the vision of Joseoph Smith to establish a Kingof God, but kept moving West as they met local resistence 

Joseph Smith led the early church on its migration west but was killed in 1844, Brigham Young led the rest of the journey from Illinois to Utah.

The Mormon migration west led to the settlement of of what is now Utah and growth of Mormonism, a major religion. 

The Mormons migrated to Utah to set up a Kingdom of God. They mad other stops along the way but local resistance kept pushing them West, until the ended up in Utah. 

Final Mormon migration Quiz


Who was the founder of Mormonism?

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Joseph Smith 

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Who led the Mormons after Joseph Smith?

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Brigham Young 

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For what did Joseph Smith get arrested in Illinois?

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Destroying a printing press

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What was a reason people in Illinois didn't approve of Nauvoo?

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The town was a safe haven for criminals who claimed to be Mormons

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What institution did Joseph Smith setup in Ohio that failed?

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A Bank

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​What form of government was Utah accused of having under Brigham Young

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Where did Joseph Smith first tell his followers God would give them land?

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Which US President sent soliders against the Mormons in Utah?

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James Buchanan

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Why was sending soldiers against Brigham Young controversial?

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He had not even been told he was to be replaced 

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What started the Mormon War in Missouri?

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Election violence 

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What important event paved the way for Utah statehood 

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The Mormon church denouncing polygamy and stating Mormons should recognize secular laws 

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Where did the Mormons not stop on long migration from New York to Utah?

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