June 1, 2001, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of President Brigham Young. An early convert to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, he served as a missionary and an Apostle. He oversaw the westward migration of thousands of Latter-day Saints and by doing so helped to colonize the American West. A teacher of righteousness, he instructed Church members in the doctrines of the kingdom of God. And for more than 30 years, he presided over the Church as its prophet.
One of President Young’s lesser-known contributions is his extensive communication with the Native American people as Church President, governor of Utah Territory, and superintendent of Indian Affairs. He met with Native American leaders in his office, toured their settlements, negotiated major and minor treaties, and sent missionaries to them. In addition, he spoke dozens of sermons in their behalf. His many sermons and hundreds of letters to and about the Native Americans reveal his interest and commitment to them. The detail and content of these documents have few equals in American history. Now at the 200th anniversary of his birth, President Young’s work with Native Americans deserves to be highlighted.
“There [is] no people—no political party, no religious sect—that places the aborigines of this continent so high in the scale of humanity, as we do,” President Young wrote near the end of his life to one Native American leader. President Young believed that he and the Latter-day Saint people were the spokesmen, defenders, and “unflinching friends” of a people who, at the time, had few friends.1
It had not always been that way. At first, President Young, like many Americans at the time, misunderstood the Native American people, whose culture was so different from their own. Yet the gospel eventually gave him a different view. It taught him, he believed, that Native Americans were descendants of the Book of Mormon people and therefore a “remnant” of the house of Israel. Indeed, the Book of Mormon had been written partly to show to the remnant of the house of Israel “what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever.”2
Thus, President Young taught that the Native Americans were children of the Old Testament prophet Joseph—largely through his son Manasseh, but some through his son Ephraim. President Young believed this ancient heritage was the key to their eventual religious redemption and that a renewed belief in the gospel and right doing could make them again a “delightsome” people.3
During the 1830s, before Brigham Young started on a mission to Native Americans in the state of New York, the Prophet Joseph Smith laid his hands on Brigham’s head and committed unto him the keys necessary to open the “gospel to every Lamanite nation.”4 This priesthood blessing, which surprised and unsettled Elder Young, weighed heavily on him for the rest of his life. It gave him a lifelong duty to help the Native American people.
One of President Young’s first opportunities to fulfill this responsibility came in 1846 as he led the first group of Saints (known as the “Camp of Israel”) west from Nauvoo. As they traveled among the Otoes, Potawatomi,5 and Omaha tribes, President Young needed to obtain permission to occupy Indian lands. One of the first encounters took place in western Iowa, where Church members put together two tents as a meeting place for President Young and leaders of the Potawatomi. There was plaintive and picturesque talk. Would the “Great Spirit” always require us to be driven off our lands? asked the Native Americans, who were bedecked with beads and brass ornaments. President Young, the “white man’s Big Chief,” answered no and promised to help them. The Potawatomi reportedly responded, “We have both suffered. We must keep one another, and the Great Spirit will keep us both.”6
President Young obtained Potawatomi assurances that the Saints could use their land.
Soon it became clear that the Saints would need to spend the winter of 1846–47 on the banks of the Missouri River. Some Saints stayed on the eastern side of the river in Iowa; however, most stayed on the western side of the river in what is now Nebraska but what was then Indian Territory. President Young negotiated with Big Elk, leader of the Omahas, for use of the land that became known as Winter Quarters and that served for two years as an established camp for Latter-day Saints en route to the Great Basin.
President Young suggested an agreement that traded permission for Latter-day Saints to use Indian lands for Mormon schools, employment, and farming in behalf of the Native Americans. “We can do you good,” the President said. “We are your friends and friends to all mankind.”7 Big Elk, speaking for the 80 assembled Native Americans, agreed to the compact.8
Despite the best intentions of President Young and Big Elk, the agreement did not turn out to be entirely successful. The needy Omahas, who were rapidly breaking up as a community, showed little interest in the “white man’s” learning, or for that matter, in cooperating with the emigrants. Instead, many of the Omaha men raided the Saints’ livestock, which for these hungry men seemed a proper payment for the game, timber, and land the pioneers were using.9
However, Native Americans were not the only ones responsible for the growing tension between these two groups. Although some Church members helped the Omahas harvest and mill their grain, repair their arms, and gave them provisions for their hunting parties, other emigrants were not respectful of the Omahas or their culture.10 When President Young learned that Church members had taken Indian property, he was quick with a reproof: “Brethren, this thing is not right,” he said. “We must show ourselves of more noble spirit.”11
In spite of these challenges, relationships between the two groups were good enough to have some outsiders comment about it. The St. Louis newspaper the Missouri Republican reported: “It is represented that the Mormons are on friendly terms with the Indians and [the latter] rarely molest them, although they are accused of occasionally stealing cattle.”12 So unusual was the relationship that some outsiders began to spread the unfounded rumors that Church members and the Native Americans were cooperating in attacks on frontiersmen and that they were “conniving” against the U.S. government.13
After the pioneer party reached the Great Salt Lake Valley, President Young set out to establish a peaceful relationship with the Indians of the Great Basin. During this process, President Young was sometimes impatient, as his language showed at times. In 1850, after repeated tension between settlers and Indians, he approved a military campaign against some of the Utes living near Utah Lake. In addition, President Young consistently encouraged the Native Americans to give up their hunting and food-gathering ways and become farmers, which, he believed, offered them the best hope for the future. In spite of these things, President Young’s policy and views toward Indians were uncommonly kind, especially for a man living in the 19th century.
From the outset, President Young sought to teach the Native Americans the restored gospel. In 1847, as many as 300 to 500 natives made their seasonal rounds through the Salt Lake Valley. President Young walked among them, raising his hand to greet them and later lowering it into a “white man’s” handshake. He then taught them about the Book of Mormon and suggested that they do “right.” He encouraged them to be baptized, and some were. A few even took President Young’s surname as a token of his teachings.14
The use of land was always a concern. “There was enough [land] for both them and us, that [instead of paying for the land] we would teach them to labor and cultivate the earth.” This promise of cooperation apparently was pleasing to two local leaders—Goship and Wanship.15 The remnants of these Salt Lake Valley bands continued to receive food from the settlers for at least a decade,16 in spite of the fact that “white man’s” diseases such as the common cold, smallpox, diphtheria, and the measles took a fearful toll among the Native Americans.
Many of President Young’s ideas about the Native Americans were contained in a letter he wrote to Wakara, or Walker, as he was sometimes known. When the Saints were ready to explore and colonize southern Utah, President Young wanted Wakara’s support. He wrote: “We wish you to understand decidedly that if your Utahs [Ute Indians] and the different nations in this country do not injure any of our people, in any of our settlements, that you will all be blessed, for we are sent here by the Great Spirit to teach you and do all of you good. Be at peace one with another—don’t fight, but love one another, and you will soon be taught to become a great, united, and good people, and you will realize all the blessings that have been told you by your forefathers—and you will prove that we are the people whom you have long waited and looked for.”17
The peace that President Young hoped to achieve was difficult to secure. Despite the good desires of both parties, different traditions and the desire of each to control the region’s resources sometimes brought strife. Wakara said, “There are bad Mormons as well as bad Indians.” The Sanpete County Church leader who recorded Wakara’s words added, “Too much truth for a smile.”18
When conflict did erupt between the old and new citizens, President Young usually urged peace. In 1851 the settlers in Ogden and their Native American neighbors seemed ready for war. Each side had taken horses belonging to the other, and as tensions increased, an Indian had been killed, and local leaders were urging that the Indians be given “a good whipping.”19 While this kind of policy was used elsewhere on the frontier, President Young strongly rejected it. Could the loss of “a few horses” justify the killing of a single Indian? he asked. Why had not the settlers done a better job of guarding the animals? Was not a part of the problem the Saints’ own making? And did the stealing by a few Indians warrant an attack upon an entire people?20
To resolve the crisis, President Young urged the settlers to send out a peace party and not a war party. Perhaps 50 men might return the horses, explain the death of the Indian, and make amends by giving presents. “Do not the people know that it is cheaper by far, … to pay such losses than raise an expedition?” he wrote.21 President Young’s policy became a famous maxim, “It is cheaper to feed than fight the Indians.”
Two years later, a conflict broke out in Utah County, the so-called Walker War. Members of Wakara’s band had attacked several Latter-day Saint settlements before fleeing into the mountains. Once more, President Young refused to fight. “I have not made war on the Indians, nor am I calculating to do it,” he told the Saints. “My policy is to give them presents and be kind to them. … [Wakara] is now at war with the only friends he has upon the earth.”22 To Wakara, President Young sent a letter that invited him, despite the recent conflict, to come into the settlements for “beef cattle and flour.” There was also a reproof and a reminder: “When you get good-natured again, I should like to see you. Don’t you think that you would be ashamed? You know that I have always been your best friend.”23
At times, President Young’s letters had a note of weariness about them, a recognition that his own people were sometimes responsible for the conflicts that took place with the Native Americans. “I feel just as well with you as I ever did,” he reassured Arapeen, another Ute headman, when war threatened again in the mid-1850s. “I sometimes think that if we could get a valley a way off alone and could get all the Mormons that want to fight Indians and won’t hear, and all the Indians that want to fight and won’t listen to good talk such as you give them, and let them fight till they were satisfied, that it would be the means of making a good peace.”24
Even during the Black Hawk War (1865–68)—the most costly of Utah’s Indian conflicts—President Young continued his policy of peacemaking. “The plan we now propose to adopt is to stop fighting altogether,” he said at the start of the war, “and as soon as possible establish communication with the disaffected Indians and endeavor to make peace with them by means of presents.”25 When this strategy failed to achieve a quick peace, President Young urged the settlers in the outlying areas to uproot their families and return to safer villages. This defensive policy emptied several Utah counties of most of their citizens and left the neutral observer John Wesley Powell “astonished” by the Latter-day Saints’ self-inflicted losses.26
President Young understood that many settlers were impatient with his policy. “The evil passions that arise in our hearts would prompt us to do this,” he acknowledged, “but we must bring them into subjection to the law of Christ.” He then asked the Saints to forgive past depredations and allow the Indians to resume a place in the Utah communities. “When they come to live in your vicinity again, let them come in peace. … We should now use the Indians kindly, and deal with them so gently that we will win their hearts and affections to us more strongly than before; and the much good that has been done them, and the many kindnesses that have been shown them, will come up before them, and they will see that we are their friends.”27
As the years progressed, President Young seemed to look upon the Native Americans with increasing favor, saying that they had as “noble spirits among them as there are upon the earth.”28
On other occasions, President Young praised the character of Native Americans. Their “simple heartedness and honesty” seemed superior to that of many whites, and he believed that their speech had not been profane until it had been corrupted by white men. Moreover, many had an “innate sense of honor,” he said.29 Especially, he admired many of their leaders. He called Wakara “a brave and shrewd man equaled by few” and, noting his dreams and visions, thought that the Indian leader had “the Spirit of the Lord” although without fully understanding it himself.30 In turn, President Young thought Arapeen was a good man who talked straight and was industrious and friendly. Arapeen was in “every way worthy to secure the respect and esteem of all men.”31 The magisterial and intelligent Washakie, perhaps the leading man of the Shoshone people, was “one of the best Indians.”32
In making these judgments, President Young had his own gauge. He believed that men and women should be judged by how closely they lived according to their own thoughts and traditions, and he believed many Native Americans met this standard. “There is perfection among them,” he said, citing the example of Peteetneet, a chief who lived near Utah Lake. “He is perfect, and I do not believe a better man lives on earth. He will do good all the time and will not do an evil if he knows it.”33
President Young, then, was a man who stood out among the men and women of his time by his good words and acts toward Native Americans. He wrote, “The ‘Great Spirit’ has a future for the red man and that is not in their grave, I as sincerely believe as the Indians do themselves.”34