RISE of the VIGILANCE
T HE YEARS OF VIOLENCE AND VIGILANCE COMMITTEES STARTED INNOCENTLY ENOUGH AT A SPECIAL SESSION OF THE GREAT SALT LAKE COUNTY COURT WHERE ON JANUARY 3, 1851, THE FIRST JURY IMPANELED IN UTAH TRIED WHAT THE MORMONS CALLED “WINTER SAINTS” (TRANSIENTS WHO HAD DECIDED TO SPEND A COMFORTABLE WINTER IN THE BOSOM OF THE CHURCH) FOR STEALING, A CRIME UNKNOWN IN THE SEMI-CO-OPERATIVE MORMON BEEHIVES.
The miscreants were convicted and sentenced to hard labor, but since no one could be obliged to work harder than the Saints worked voluntarily this could not be considered harsh treatment. Brigham Young released them for deportation to California.
This was no favor to either San Francisco or Los Angeles, which had by now collected their own gallery of rogues. San Francisco’s government had not only broken down in the eight months since it was installed but had in large measure been taken over by ruffians and former members of the Australian penal colony.
Thousands of strangers were streaming into a town in no way prepared to assimilate them, where businessmen were so busy accumulating profits they refused to serve on juries or to vote. As a consequence the officials voted themselves handsome salaries, began tapping the coffers for cash, spending large sums with no accounting. The police force had become rife with criminals and their allies. Burglaries, holdups, shootings became every-night occurrences.
Then on February 19, 1851, two thieves entered the store of the popular C. I. Jansen, beat him unconscious and robbed his safe of $2000. Two Australians were promptly arrested and identified by Jansen: Robert Windred and James Stuart, the former suspected of a murder at Foster’s Bar. An angry crowd tried to take the prisoners from the police, who succeeded in getting them safely into court. Here Stuart claimed he was Thomas Berdue, a respectable British subject.
Saturday when court adjourned, the crowd became convinced that the two culprits would get off, as had others before them. That night five thousand men jammed into Portsmouth Square led by the ubiquitous Sam Brannan.
“We are the mayor, the hangman and the laws!” cried Brannan. “The law and the courts never yet hung a man in California!”
There were a few less bloodthirsty voices, in particular that of William T. Coleman, a twenty-seven-year-old Kentuckian who had come to California in 1849 to open stores in Placerville, Sacramento and now San Francisco. Big, open-faced, tremendous-jawed Coleman stepped forward to address the near mob, managing to cool its blood lust by asking that a committee be formed to name a judge and jury and give the accused a fair trial.
“We’re willing to give them a fair trial,” cried one man, “so long as we can hang them right after!”
A committee of fourteen, the first Vigilance Committee, was appointed to handle the affair, most of whom were rewarded for their sterling efforts by becoming street names: Jones, Ellis, Howard, Folsom, Green. The next day a jury was appointed, heard the evidence and voted that it was insufficient for a conviction. The two men were then tried in court, and convicted. The hanging was temperately set a month ahead. A good thing, too, for Thomas Berdue was telling the truth: that was his proper name, and his only crime was that he closely resembled James Stuart. He was released.
The committee dissolved itself in a welter of activity, electing an honest mayor, city attorney and marshal.
But there seemed no way to stop what the businessmen were convinced were incendiary fires. On May 4 a fire again devastated the city, after which a volunteer night patrol was established; on June 2, when another fire started, the businessmen had Benjamin Lewis arrested. When the judge quashed the indictment , Sam Brannan called a meeting in his office. Here the real Vigilance Committee was born, Brannan being elected president and spokesman.
A constitution was drawn, parliamentary rules set up. Members hastened to enroll, even William T. Coleman, who signed as number 96 on the constitution. Williams in Vigilance Committee of 1851 describes them as: “A group of responsible citizens, bound together by a permanent organization, with the declared purpose of protecting lives and property in emergencies where lawful means prove ineffective.”
The first official act of the group was to arrest John Jenkins, who had stolen a safe out of Long Wharf and dropped it into a boat. Tried in Brannan’s office before a committee jury, Jenkins was declared guilty. When the committee seemed reluctant to execute Jenkins for stealing a safe, even though grand larceny was punishable by death under the 1851 statute, William D. M. Howard threw his cap disgustedly on the table and cried: “Gentlemen, as I understand it, we came here to hang somebody.”
Even the resourceful Coleman could not stop them by pleading a wait just until morning. The whole town was in the streets, summoned by a tapping of the California Engine Company bell. Surrounded by a solid phalanx of armed committee members, Jenkins was marched to the old Plaza and hanged.
Within a day or two the coroner’s jury publicly listed nine of the men implicated in the hanging, suggesting that they be tried by the courts. The complete list of a hundred eighty men who had signed the constitution was now published by the committee. The courts could not indict so many leading citizens, and did not try to; where upon the membership rose to over seven hundred, the committee arresting ninety culprits charged with incendiarism, robbery and murder, trying them, hanging three, whipping one, deporting fifteen, turning fifteen over to the regular courts, releasing forty-one.
When Los Angeles heard about San Francisco’s Vigilance Committee, the mayor and Council promptly organized one of their own, on July 13, one day after they had organized southern California’s first police force. They needed a Vigilance Committee to protect themselves against San Francisco’s committee, whose vigilance drove several thousand desperadoes into the summer vineyards of Los Angeles.
“The backwash of the gold rush, murderers, horse thieves and highway-men, escaping the nooses of the gold country, made Los Angeles headquarters. The number of individual murders is not known, but according to the records there were forty ‘legal’ hangings and thirty-seven impromptu lynchings.”
Unified by violence, Los Angeles was now incorporated as a city, and welcomed the first child of American parentage on both sides. Doubtless as a direct result, the first public school was opened by the Reverend Henry Weeks, the city helping him with $i~o a month. The new city also saw its first freight train, ten wagons loaded with salable goods brought in from Salt Lake by Mormon D. W. Alexander.
The lowest income and education strata of the Californios, feeling unwanted and dispossessed by the transition to American government, became outlaws, preying on life and property . On a still lower social rung there were several thousand Indians living in and around Los Angeles, all that was left of the mission experiment, employed on the ranches during the week . On Saturday nights they assembled in a back street near the Plaza, drank up their week’s wage of a dollar, brawled, and at dawn were rounded into a corral for the Lord’s Day. On Monday morning they were bailed out by ranch owners who paid their dollar fine as their wage for the coming week’s labor.
“Their condition lasted,” says Willard succinctly in his History of Los Angeles, “until the Indians were all dead.”
In Colorado their demise was accomplished more subtly: a treaty was drawn between the United States Government and the Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians as arranged by Broken Hand Fitzpatrick, out of which the Indians got small gifts, pledges, and fifteen days of games, dances and speechmaking.
“Within thirty years,” comments Fritz in Colorado, “the Indians were treatied out of a state.”
THE GLORY OF POLYGAMY
ONLY in San Bernardino did there remain a vestige of the Terrestrial Paradise.
The Saints had purchased the San Bernardino ranch of thirty-five thousand acres from the three Lugo brothers for a little over $75,000. Though this was a group purchase and the Mormons worked together, sometimes with communal tools, to lay out a town on the same plan a s Salt Lake, to build a bowery for their religious meetings, an adobe schoolroom, roads to the timberland and irrigation ditches, yet at the same time it was an individual and capitalist society.
Each man secured a city lot and a proportion of the rich agricultural lands; he repaid the Church, which financed the original purchase, from his subsequent earnings. Orchards were laid out, vineyards planted, saw and flour mills built. Neighbors helped each other in planting and building, but beyond that each man kept, aside from his tithe, everything he earned. The community prospered from its inception. With a regularly scheduled wagon line established between San Bernardino and Salt Lake, San Bernardino was on its way to becoming an important city and the second strongest Mormon stronghold.
So it would have been had not the trouble with the “winter Saints” in Salt Lake faded into the larger canvas of a permanent, indigenous problem. That Deseret had needed to become a state was immediately apparent when the first three territorial officers, appointed in Washington, reached that city in July of 1851.
Only a few days after the arrival of Judges Perry E. Brocchus of Alabama, Lemuel G. Brandebury of Pennsylvania, and Secretary of the Territory B. D. Harris of Vermont, President Young spoke at a Founder’s Day ceremony. He commented, according to his own recollection: “I know Zachary Taylor, he is dead and damned and I cannot help it.” Associate Justice Brocchus claimed he said, “Zachary Taylor is dead, and in hell, and I am glad of it.”
The difference may have been one of semantics, but Brocchus took umbrage. He asked permission to speak before the general Church conference, appropriately reproved those who had spoken disrespectfully of the federal government, and then addressed himself to the Mormon women, demanding that they return to lives of virtue. The judge, described as a “vain and ambitious man, full of self-importance, fond of intrigues, corrupt. .... . ,“ was also guilty of a nonsequitur: no more virtuous women than the Mormon women ever lived. Those who accepted the tenet that polygamy had been divinely revealed to Prophet Joseph Smith made genuine sacrifices, having not more than one husband, as Judge Brocchus was implying, but considerably less.
The Saints were outraged. President Young cried: “If I had but crooked my little finger the sisters alone felt indignant enough to have chopped him in pieces.”
From that moment there was no peace between the Saints and the territorial officials: Secretary of the Territory Harris claimed that President Young’s census taking had been improperly conducted and the legislature illegally elected, therefore it could not meet or pass laws. The Mormons ostracized the three officials, their only intercourse being the exchange of angry letters.
At the end of six weeks the three men departed, taking with them the territorial seal, files and federal funds. Brigham Young knew that their departure could cause serious problems in Washington, perhaps delay statehood; he got out an injunction against their going, but he did not attempt to keep either the men or the materials of office in Utah by force.
Three months later, in Washington, Judge Brocchus made his report, claiming that they: “Had been compelled to withdraw in consequence of the lawless acts and seditious tendencies of Brigham Young and the majority of the residents; that the Mormon church controlled the opinions, actions, property and lives of its members ... . . disposing of the public lands, coining and issuing money at will, openly sanctioning polygamy, exacting tithes from members and onerous taxes from other non-members, and requiring implicit obedience to the cotmcil of the church as a duty paramount to all obligations of morality, society, allegiance, and law.”
Now that the antagonism had begun, the Mormons decided to meet it head on. On Sunday, August 29, 1852 , President Young and his Council assembled the Saints in the Salt Lake Tabernacle and announced to the world that plural marriage was an integral part of their religious doctrine, and henceforth would be practiced by faithful Mormons.
Competent observers have said that from the founding of Salt Lake in 1847 until the proclamation that polygamy was an ineradicable part of their Church, only two to three per cent of the Mormons had more than one wife.
The process of cultivating the desert would not in five short years have enabled many men to accumulate sufficient resources to support more than one family. In addition the doctrine of plural marriage which the Prophet Joseph Smith had announced as a divine revelation in 1843 had not yet totally convinced the Mormon people. Polygamy had been practiced in privacy in Salt Lake, though Forty-Niners passing through had noted evidence of it.
Brigham Young would have preferred Utah to become a state before announcing the doctrine, so that there would be no federal interference with what the Council considered a purely local religious matter, coming under the heading of the First Amendment to the federal Constitution which declared that the federal government could not legislate on the subject of religion in a state.
Now, in August of 1852, Brigham Young apparently felt sufficiently secure in his mountain stronghold to dignify and proclaim officially what the American people were already gossiping about.
At this all-important meeting in the Tabernacle, which was to have nationwide consequences, President Young asked Apostle Orson Pratt to speak first . Pratt began with the basic Mormon premise that since all human souls are immortal, and marriage was a religious sacrament, husbands and wives were united in wedlock: “Not only for time, but for all eternity.”
Since Father Abraham of the Old Testament had assured his descendants that they would be as numerous as sands of the sea, Apostle Pratt informed the congregation that “Multiplication of the species would provide necessary body tabernacles for the countless myriads of pre-existent spirits deserving of earth life, an intermediate stage in the scheme of eternal progression; and plural marriage would facilitate the sacred objectives in this infinity of planning.”
He then went on to his most urgent plea: “I think there is only about one-fifth of the population of the globe that believe in the one-wife system; the other four-fifths believe in the doctrine of a plurality of wives. They have had it handed down from time immemorial, and are not half so narrow and contracted in their minds as some of the nations of Europe and America, who have done away with the promises and deprived themselves of the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even those who have only one wife, cannot get rid of their covetousness, and get their little hearts large enough to share their property with a numerous family..... . . they do not know what is in the future, nor what blessings they are depriving themselves of, because of the traditions of their fathers; they do not know that a man’s posterity, in the eternal worlds, are what constitute his glory, his kingdom, and dominion.”
Brigham Young, knowing how greatly his people wanted to avoid conflict, assured his congregation: “There is not a single constitution of any single state much less the constitution of the federal government, that hinders a man from having two wives; and I defy all the lawyers of the United States to prove the contrary.”
When pressed on all sides by almost unendurable pressures to rid Mormonism of plural marriage, Young struck back: “If you tell them a ‘Mormon’ has two wives they are shocked . .... . if you whisper such a thing into the ears of a gentile who takes a fresh woman every night, he is thunderstruck with the enormity of the crime. They are hired the same as you would hire a horse and chaise at a livery stable; you go out a few days for a ride, return again, put up your horse, pay down your money, and you are freed of all further responsibility.
“I would rather take my valise in my hand today, and never see a wife or a child again, and preach the Gospel until I go into the grave, than to live as I do, unless God commands it. I never entered into the order of plurality of wives to gratify passion. And were I now asked whether I desired and wanted another wife, my reply would be, It should be one by whom the Spirit will bring forth noble children.”
When the news reached Washington that the Latter-day Saints had openly acknowledged and were urging all their members to participate in plural marriage, the Mormon delegate to Congress, Dr. John N. Bernhisel, wrote to Brigham Young and his friend Heber Kimball: “The cat is out of the bag!”
Brigham Young and Apostle Kimball replied: “The cat has many kittens, which will always be the source of antagonism.
Then Apostle Kimball voiced the most intriguing comment in the whole controversy: “For a man of God [Latter-day Saint] to be confined to one woman is small business; for it is as much as we can do now to keep up under the burdens we have to carry; I do not know what we should do if we only had one wife apiece.”
To understand fully the attitude of the Mormons toward plural marriage after this portentous Tabernacle meeting of August 29, 1852 , it is necessary to read the considered comment in the contemporary Utah: A Guide to the State, written by the W.P.A.: “Church doctrine ha s been that plural marriage was divinely ordained, a high order of marriage, as much advanced over monogamy as monogamy over celibacy. A man’s wives and his children added to his glory in heaven, and they shared in tha t glory. Acceptance of plural marriage was thus, for Church members, an act of faith and belief, an essential expression of religious conviction.”
In the indigenous story of the Fa r West , plural marriage was a fascinating chapter . For the Mormons it invoked bitter strife, conflict that would build and magnify until President Buchanan would declare the Mormons to be in a state of rebellion, and order an army into Utah.
MEN TO MATCH MY MOUNTAINS.
Copyright @ 1956 by : Irvng Stone (pgs. 151-158)
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