Mormons and Native Americans: A Historical Overview

In many ways, the Mormon Church is similar to other Protestant denominations world-wide. The church does not support a professional clergy, it encourages members to read and interpret the Bible, and it promotes establishing a personal relationship with God. Yet in other respects, Mormonism is uniquely American. It proclaims the United States as the Promised Land, Utah as the new Zion, and calls for devotion to a sacred text of American prehistory. Among American-born religions, this last characteristic stands out. Yet despite the prominence of Native Americans in Mormon theology, in many ways Mormons treated American Indians similarly to gentiles, as Mormons call non-Mormons.

In the early nineteenth century, many anxious Americans struggled to cope with changing democratic politics and the expansion of capitalism. Many sought answers at religious revivals that swept the nation in the 1820s and 1830s. One young attendee, Joseph Smith, was present at a number of meetings in upstate New York, but remained unsure which church to follow.

In 1820, Smith later related that two otherworldly beings appeared and told him to join no church because all were corrupt. Other heavenly beings afterward told him to establish a new church. In 1823, Smith said, an angel appeared and revealed that at a preordained time he was to unearth and translate golden plates containing Native American prehistory.

According to Smith, when he found and translated the plates, they told of a lost tribe of Israel that migrated to the Americas many hundreds of years ago. These first Americans built a flourishing and advanced civilization, but one branch, the Lamanites, killed their righteous relatives, the Nephites. For this and their rejection of Christ's teachings, God cursed the Lamanites with dark skin and a degraded existence. The story maintained that the Lamanites would not regain white skin and a civilized way of life until they accepted Christ's teachings. Thus, the heavenly beings instructed Smith not only to restore the true Christian church, but also to bring salvation to Native Americans.

As novel as this story sounds, this was not the aspect of Mormonism that caught most outsiders' attention. In fact, various explanations identifying Native Americans as a lost tribe of Israel dated from the days of the early Puritans. Nor was it the first time people had disdained Native Americans as a degraded offshoot of white civilization.

Smith officially founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and laid out his goals in April 1830. Until 1847, the Mormons—the name of one of the ancient Native American prophets—often suffered criticism, even persecution. Non-believers were particularly concerned about Smith's allowing men to have more than one wife. They were also troubled by his ambition to become president and reorganize American society according to Mormon principles.

As threats and realities of violence drove the Mormons further west from New York to Ohio, Missouri, and then Illinois, survival and seeking new converts became their main focus. In 1844, vigilantes killed Smith in Illinois. His successor, Brigham Young, decided to head for the Great Basin, and the church's policy toward Native Americans became a vital matter. As his followers prepared to leave, Young admonished them to treat the American Indians fairly and take up the duty to convert them whenever possible.

The Mormons' interaction with Native Americans remained friendly until they clashed over limited resources. Young had purposely selected the arid Great Basin as the Latter-day Saints' new home due to its ruggedness. He wanted church members to grow closer as they struggled to build Zion, and he wanted outsiders to pass by on their way to greener locations. But Young's plan failed to take into consideration that Native Americans already were using the Great Basin's resources to capacity.

As Mormons poured into Salt Lake City, settlers appropriated rivers, streams, and springs. They fenced off productive land and used up raw materials such as pine-nut bearing trees. This caused no immediate conflict, but upon discovering their loss, members of the local Ute tribe demanded access to their resources and, when denied, simply did what they had long done and took what had been theirs.

As the Mormon population grew, tensions escalated. Infertile soil and a lack of water made it impossible to quickly create dense, sedentary settlements, so Young sent newcomers farther from Salt Lake City. Unwilling to change plans, he advised against provoking the Native Americans, but soon allowed ruthless punishment of any Indian caught stealing or harming a settler or his property.

In a short time, church leaders authorized attacking American Indians who refused to give up their resources without a fight. Church leaders argued that Native Americans who resisted were actually rejecting Christ's message and, by refusing, justified retribution.

Eventually, three currents joined to end hostilities in the Mormon territory. Fighting the indigenous people became much more expensive than feeding them. In many cases, Mormon leaders began replacing lost American Indian resources with welfare. In addition, the arrival of Mormon and gentile settlers simply overwhelmed the native population. And finally, as Mormons integrated into American society, mainstream institutions appeared in Utah, including Indian agents and reservations.

In the end, despite Mormon beliefs, Great Basin Indians became like Native Americans nationwide—painfully poor, prone to starvation, and able to exercise only a minimal amount of self-determination.

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