Friday, May 20, 2022

Guest Post: May 20th, 1861 - State of Deseret Declared

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History with input from Allen W. McDonnell, Robbie Taylor, and Thomas Wm. Hamilton.

By May 1861, eleven states had seceded from the Union. In Salt Lake City, secessionists were sufficiently emboldened by speeches from aging Mormon religious leader Joseph Smith to declare the independent State of Deseret and send ambassadors to Mexico City, Washington, and Richmond. Emperor Maximillian and Provisional POTCS Jefferson Davis received them , but POTUS Abraham Lincoln rejected the declaration and ordered Federals to suppress their rebellion.

For the settlers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), it was polygamy that had driven a wedge with the federal government. This thorny religious issue had escalated in parallel with slavery and the Confederacy also with a landmark case like Dred Scott v. Sandford. In the case of State v. Smith, Congressional rejection of Utah Territory statehood was upheld. This was due to faith-based objection to multiple marriages in the Mormon Church, despite Joseph Smith's attempt to obtain a favorable ruling under the freedom of religion provision.

Matters escalated even further when the leaders of the nascent republic recognized the principle of polygamy in their state constitution. The signatories were treated as bandits as the Federal soldiers violently suppressed the uprising. Apart from the doctrinal divergence, one reason believed for this viciousness was that many of the Federal officers were intensely jealous of the Mormons for having multiple spouses.

At the end of the Civil War, Utah Territory was finally incorporated into the Union as the Mormon Church went underground. However, the area remained a hot-bed of discontent and required the stationing of Federal Troops long after the Reconstruction Era had ended. The Mormon Wars were some of the bloodiest fought in the west's unification.

Author's Note:

In reality, Smith was killed when a mob stormed the jailhouse. There was no State v. Smith. The 1890 Manifesto of LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff to comply with U.S. law was approved unanimously.

Provine's Addendum (inspired by notes from Stan Brin): 

Fears of intolerance had nearly sparked a "Utah War" between settlers and federal troops defending wagon trains in 1857, but Smith had calmed militia leaders and taken the argument to the courts. Failing there and seeing the opportunity for a distracted Republican government, leaders hoped to have an independent Deseret established well by the time the dust of the civil war in the East settled. Although the church had good sources of food and salt with the Great Salt Lake, all manufactures had to be brought in by wagon. Attempts to industrialize were limited by spiking costs due to the war effort.

The recapture of Utah by federal troops was swift, but the rebellion had only begun. Following Joseph Smith's death, many of the church fled to Canada, settling in British Columbia. Others, led by Joseph Smith III, fought on for what they considered their rights. With rugged spaces throughout the territory, it was nearly impossible for soldiers to hunt them down completely while the rebels could strike and disappear, including the attempted assassination of President Grant at Promontory Point in 1869.

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