Upon the Saints’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, there was no government but what they made and enforced themselves. Even after the Mexican War had ended and Utah became a territory, it was more than twenty years before Congress provided any kind of government. The Saints’ first settlements in the Salt Lake Valley were on land that lay uncontested between two Native American tribes on the northern and southern ends of the valley: the Shoshoni and the Utes, respectively. The Mormons worked on peace with all of their Native American neighbors, and this friendship benefited both sides.
One of the most important aspects of the pattern in which the Mormons colonized was their cooperative spirit. Based on their religious beliefs, the Mormon pioneers believed all things were of divine ownership. Brigham Young thus forbade the monopolization of land and natural resources. Those Saints who came later received the same freedoms of acquiring land and having water to work that land as the Saints who arrived first. In President Young’s words, “No man should buy or sell land. Every man should have his land measured off to him for city and farming purposes, what he could till. He might till it as he pleased but he must be industrious and take care of it.” This cooperative spirit extended to farming and livestock as well. One large area in each community was designated as feeding grounds. Most fields were fenced cooperatively as well. This made protecting both crops and livestock much easier.
Brigham Young directed the exploration and colonization of surrounding areas outside the Salt Lake Valley; always comprised of a civic center with outlying farms. New colonies each had protective fort conditions. Each colony also had a meetinghouse as one of its first buildings. These meetinghouses served as gathering places for both Church and school, as well as community activities. This method, along with cooperative farming, proved to minimize the risks of desert farming and living. Said Brigham Young, “In extending and making new settlements, one uniform course has been recommended—that of building and settling in forts in the first instance, and farming in one enclosure. This course has proven highly successful.” By 1852, a line of Mormon settlements extended from the Bear River to nearly the southern rim of the Great Basin. This totalled a distance of 350 miles. By 1858 the settlements also reached along the base of the Wasatch Range and the Colorado Plateau. Settlements were also placed in strategic areas along the principal routes into and out of the region, in areas such as San Bernardino, Las Vegas, the Carson Valley Mission, Fort Bridger, Fort Supply, and the Elk Mountain Mission.
The First Presidency continued to encourage all Saints on the East Coast and all those who were immigrating to ship to travel west to the Salt Lake Valley. These calls, as well as call to colonize and serve missions, were often given at the general conferences held semi-annually in Salt Lake City. Each person felt these calls to be from God, and, though it was often not easy to leave one’s home to go and build another or to preach the gospel, these calls were almost never refused. People of all trades were grouped together to form a new colony. Brigham Young knew the importance of diversity to the survival of any fledgling colony. Most groups included mechanics, hoopers, blacksmiths, carpenters, masons, millwrights, musicians, singers, and farmers. President Young knew entertainment would also be important, and he did not neglect to send those who could help entertain the rest.
Education was of the utmost importance. As the Mormons travelled west, they brought hundreds of books among them. A small school was established in 1847, almost upon their arrival in Salt Lake City, and by 1854 there were 226 schools in Utah with a total of 13,000 students and 300 teachers. Early textbooks included Noah Webster’s speller, an arithmetic book, a few readers, and a Bible. As more books arrived, they were added to the list as well. In 1850 Wilford Woodruff arrived in the Valley with two tons of schoolbooks. Due to the diversity of new converts arriving, a phonetic system called the Deseret Alphabet was created to help new immigrants learn English. Soon academies and universities were founded, fulfilling the doctrine that it is important to “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118).
As exploration and colonization spread, so did the discovery of the abundance and diversity of natural resources now at the people’s disposal: forests, coal, iron, water, soil, and diverse minerals.
Those who travelled the world serving missions were instructed to look for ways to help industry in Salt Lake as well as for people who were receptive to the gospel. Thus new products, such as the silkworm from Italy, the sugar beet from France, and alfalfa from Australia, were brought to the valley to help its citizens thrive. Men were also called on missions to the Native Americans, to help teach them farming. Some of the poorest tribes in the region struggled to survive from one winter to the next, and farming gave them a much brighter outlook for the future. Living with them in this way, and teaching them how to improve the quality of their lives, did much to strengthen relations.
In 1851 a group of about thirty families travelled south to the center of the state and created a new capital, Fillmore. Fillmore was only selected as the territory capital due to its central location, but only one legislative session was held there, in 1855–56. The impracticality of having a capital so far from the center of the population, much nearer Salt Lake City than Fillmore, was immediately evident, and Salt Lake City was again made the capital.
Expansion came to a sudden halt in 1857–58 when the Utah Territory was invaded by the U.S. Army. False reports about the Mormons and about Brigham Young had reached Washington, and President Buchanan sent an army to crush a rebellion that didn’t exist. President Young quickly drew in the Mormons from all outlying colonies for their protection and to strengthen their own forces. With so much trauma in their history, the Mormons refused to be driven out again and were willing to set fire to all they had built rather than be thrust out again, leaving all their possessions to their enemies. Things were settled peacefully, however. The army realized there was no rebellion, and they did not attack. However, Brigham Young was replaced as governor, as was much of the government, so the U.S. government could feel it had more control. This occurrence crippled many of the outlying colonies, however, and expansion slowed down.
When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, colonization boomed, but was no longer strictly Mormon. The contribution the Mormons made to the settling of the West is undeniable, however. In the four decades since their arrival in the Great Basin, the Mormons had founded more than 600 settlements in nine western states and two foreign countries. These 600 are in addition to the eighteen communities they had built and had been forced to leave behind in five midwestern states.