Thomas L. Kane: Outrider for Zion

“Thomas L. Kane: Outrider for Zion,” Ensign, Sept. 2003, 56–63

Thomas L. Kane:

Outrider for Zion

Elder Lance B. Wickman

The metaphor of the Church as an army of righteousness is a familiar one (see D&C 5:14). On one occasion, Elder Bruce R. McConkie adopted a companion metaphor, that of a “great caravan.”1 But what is metaphor today was stark reality on the windswept plains of Iowa when Thomas L. Kane rode alone into the Camp of Israel, and ultimately into history, on a portentous day in July 1846. Driven from their comfortable homes in Nauvoo, destitute of life’s necessities and orphaned by their government, the Latter-day Saints were indeed a forlorn “caravan” of sorts as they straggled westward toward an unknown destination and an uncertain future. The saga of the Saints as they recomposed themselves on the Iowa prairies is the story of the forging of a ragged caravan into an army whose exodus bears striking parallels to another “Camp of Israel” in an ancient day and whose prophet-leader has been called the American Moses.

And besides its great captains, every army needs its scouts—or outriders—point men and flankers far out on the horizons, often out of sight of the main body, marking the trail and vigilant of danger. Such a man was Colonel Thomas L. Kane. Such was his life. Such was his contribution to the Church. Throughout his eventful life he was—both metaphorically and literally—an outrider for Zion.


Thomas Kane was of most unusual background, upbringing, and character. He was born in Philadelphia on 27 January 1822, the second son of John Kintzing Kane and Jane Leiper Kane. John was a Yale-educated lawyer and Jacksonian Democrat, and Jane came from a respected Philadelphia family.

A small man, standing five feet, six inches and weighing only 130 pounds, Thomas had a frail constitution. He seemed susceptible to fevers and respiratory ailments, almost dying from such afflictions on several occasions over the course of his life. But in a profound way, his diminutive physique and susceptibility to sickness forged his character. Time and again, Tom Kane’s iron will and plucky resolve would lift him from his sick bed and compel him to answer duty’s call.

Another aspect of his character was his passion for progressive ideas and his compassion for the downtrodden and disadvantaged. His parents encouraged him to think for himself and always respected his ideas and perspectives even if, as was subsequently the case regarding Mormonism, they did not agree with them. After being educated in the best schools in Philadelphia, he traveled to France and the British Isles in his early 20s and for two years breathed deeply the pungent air of French and other European philosophies. The experience whetted his native idealism.

The result of this extraordinary mix of genetic and environmental influences was a complex and multifaceted man—philosopher, writer, religious mystic, soldier, lawyer, entrepreneur, city sophisticate, country squire, and friend of presidents and paupers alike.

A Fateful Encounter: Philadelphia, 13 May 1846

The meeting of Tom Kane and the Latter-day Saints was nothing short of providential. In early 1846 Tom’s father was appointed a federal judge in Philadelphia by United States President James K. Polk. Judge Kane invited 24-year-old Thomas, recently come to the bar, to become clerk of the court. Both father and son were attracted to the judiciary by the prospect of furthering worthy, if sometimes unpopular, social causes. Judge Kane also arranged an appointment for young Tom as aide-de-camp to the governor, which carried with it the honorary title of “colonel.” (Years later, Tom would become a military colonel and even a general during the U.S. Civil War.)

Meanwhile, the Latter-day Saints were in extreme circumstances, suffering in a constricting vise of persecution in Nauvoo, poised to begin their exodus across the great rivers to the West. In these conditions, on 20 January 1846 President Brigham Young composed a letter to Elder Jesse C. Little, who was then laboring as a missionary in the eastern United States. After appointing Elder Little as the presiding officer over the Church in the East, President Young’s letter gave this portentous commission: “If our government shall offer any facilities for emigrating to the western coast, embrace those facilities if possible. As a wise and faithful man, take every honorable advantage of the times you can.”2

With that commission in hand, Elder Little set out for Washington, D.C. En route he stopped in Philadelphia to speak at a conference of the Church. The date was 13 May 1846. It is a date to be remembered, for it is the date that the hand of divine Providence introduced need to opportunity.

Thomas Kane, his interest piqued by newspaper accounts of the Latter-day Saints and their plight, attended the conference and heard Elder Little speak. He had a natural interest in unpopular causes and peoples. Colonel Kane approached the speaker at the end of the meeting and invited Elder Little to his home, where the two spent several hours in conversation about the Saints and their exodus to the West.

At first Thomas Kane may have seen in the situation an opportunity to advance his political career. He wrote letters of recommendation for Elder Little to political friends in Washington and soon after traveled to the nation’s capital, where he arranged a meeting between himself, Elder Little, and President Polk.

With Kane’s encouragement, President Polk requested that a battalion of 500 Latter-day Saints be recruited to march from Iowa to New Mexico and on to California. Thus was born the Mormon Battalion. Colonel Kane himself left Washington with dispatches and a recommendation from President Polk in early summer. But by the time he reached Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, recruitment of the battalion was already underway. Nonetheless, Colonel Kane traveled on to the Latter-day Saint camps assembling near Council Bluffs, Iowa. It was a journey that would change his life and profoundly affect the history of the Church.

Friend of the Saints: Upper Missouri, Summer of 1846

Colonel Kane’s experience among the Latter-day Saints that summer of 1846 transformed him. He was deeply impressed by President Young and other members of the Church, seeing that they were both devoted and able. Thomas Kane and the prophet-leader of the Saints forged an instant and lifelong friendship.

The visitor also was profoundly touched by the depth of testimony manifest in the lives of the people and their unpretentious willingness to sacrifice everything for their faith. Observing by chance the secret and earnest prayers of some in the woods near camp convinced him that the Saints were “a praying people, … solemnly and terribly in earnest.”3

While in Council Bluffs, Colonel Kane became gravely ill for several weeks with fever (probably pulmonary tuberculosis) and was gently nursed back to health by his new friends. On 7 September 1846, Patriarch John Smith gave him a blessing that Thomas Kane treasured all his life—a blessing that was fulfilled every whit. Among other things, this remarkable blessing declared: “Inasmuch as thou hast had in thy heart to know the interest of the children of men, the Lord thy God is well pleased with thine exertions. He hast given His angels charge over thee to guarantee in times of danger, to deliver thee out of all thy troubles, and defend thee from all thine enemies. Not a hair of thy head shall ever fall by the hand of an enemy, for thou art called to do a great work on the earth and thou shalt be blessed in all thine undertakings. Thy name shall be had in honorable remembrance among the Saints to all generations.4

Reflecting four years later on this life-changing sojourn among the Saints, Thomas Kane penned the following in a letter to his beloved friend, Brigham Young: “I believe that there is a crisis in the life of every man, when he is called upon to decide seriously and permanently if he will die unto sin and live unto righteousness, and that, till he has gone through this, he cannot fit himself for the inheritance of his higher humanity, and become truly pure and truly strong, ‘to do the work of God persevering unto the end.’ … I believe that Providence brings about these crises for all of us, by events in our lives which are the evangelists to us of preparation and admonition. Such an event, I believe too, was my visit to you.”5

A Public Relations Campaign: 1846–50

While yet at Council Bluffs, Thomas Kane initiated correspondence with President Polk on behalf of the Latter-day Saints. Colonel Kane worked vigorously on behalf of the Saints over the four years between July 1846 and the passage of the Compromise of 1850, which made Utah an official territory of the United States. First, acting through his father, he secured permission from President Polk for the Saints to use Indian lands for Winter Quarters. Later, concerned about ongoing intrigues within the Polk administration, particularly involving Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton (an avowed enemy of the Latter-day Saints), Thomas Kane embarked on a one-man public relations campaign in behalf of the Saints. He wrote numerous letters and articles that were published throughout the East. So successful was this effort that the noted editor Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune published a front-page, pro-Mormon piece titled “The Mormons—Their Persecutions, Sufferings and Destitution.”

Not satisfied with this effort, and though very weak from another of his frequent illnesses, Colonel Kane delivered an exhaustively prepared and powerfully eloquent pro-Mormon lecture to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania that has become a classic. So draining was this effort that upon completing its delivery he collapsed and remained bedridden for days. The effect of his public relations effort was immediate and enormous: It essentially eliminated politically any prospect of U.S. military action against the Latter-day Saints at a time when they were weak and vulnerable.

Finally, he strongly advised Church leaders against seeking territorial status, arguing instead that they simply govern themselves and then apply for statehood. He prophetically warned that territorial government would bring “corrupt political men from Washington strutting around you with military epaulettes and dress who will speculate out of you all they can.”6 Even though territorial status was eventually forced upon them as a result of the Compromise of 1850, Colonel Kane’s tireless efforts with President Millard Fillmore secured Brigham Young’s appointment as the first territorial governor.

Disaster Averted: January to July 1858

The early 1850s were a time of consolidation and respite for the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley, but a violent storm was gathering beyond their horizons to the east. When James Buchanan became president of the United States in March 1857, he was met with a barrage of vicious, slanderous reports of perversion and treason among the Latter-day Saints. The result was the dispatching of Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston with the so-called “Utah Expedition”—an army of 2,500 men to put down the purported “rebellion” and install Alfred Cumming, an affable Georgian, as territorial governor. The ill-fated expedition was to become known to history as “Buchanan’s blunder.”

Though the federal war department had given explicit instructions that no Utah citizen be attacked, reports of some soldiers’ boasts that they would “scalp old Brigham,” massacre Church leaders, and drive the Saints from their homes reached Salt Lake City. The response of some Latter-day Saints led by Lot Smith was to scorch the Wyoming wilderness for miles on the route to Salt Lake. Thus the Utah Expedition was compelled to winter near the burned-out Fort Bridger under austere circumstances.

This bought the Saints a little time, but President Young knew that with the spring thaw the army would be upon them, more incited than ever. And so he appealed one more time to a true and trusted friend of bygone years, a friend who had “ridden the flank” for the Church time and again, the little “colonel” from Philadelphia.

Upon receiving this appeal, and sensing the Saints’ determination to defend themselves even to bloodshed if necessary, Thomas Kane hurried to Washington in early November 1857. He found President Buchanan intransigent and determined to increase the size of the expedition if need be to “convince these deluded people that resistance would be vain.”7 But Thomas Kane was determined.

Meeting again with President Buchanan on 28 December, he persuaded the president to allow him to try his hand at mediating a resolution to the impending catastrophe. President Buchanan delivered to him one letter of introduction to civil and military authorities and one intended for Church leaders vouching for his own interest in peace and for Colonel Kane’s good intentions. Both letters were tepid in content, but in President Buchanan’s words, “They are as strong as I can write them after taking a review of the whole ground.”8

Losing no time, Thomas Kane set sail almost immediately from New York. His lengthy voyage, during which he was again sick much of the time, took him across the isthmus of Panama, up the Pacific Coast by ship to San Francisco and then by wagon to San Bernardino, California; to Las Vegas, Nevada; and eventually to Salt Lake City. He arrived in a weakened condition on 25 February 1858.

Though severely worn, Colonel Kane met immediately with President Young. The colonel’s task was to convince the prophet that President Buchanan intended him “no disrespect” and that the whole expedition venture had merely been a “misunderstanding.” By President Young’s own account, “Though tardy I accepted them [the Kane entreaties] as the personal apology of Mr. Buchanan.”9

Though by no means simple, persuading the prophet was in fact easy compared with the indefatigable mediator’s next task—persuading a fuming Albert Sidney Johnston to stand down. Accompanied by a Latter-day Saint escort, though traveling the last few miles alone, Thomas L. Kane rode through snowy mountain passes to Camp Scott near the charred remains of Fort Bridger, where Johnston’s stranded expedition had spent a long and difficult winter. Colonel Kane was met by a band of soldiers who regarded him with dark suspicion and even outright hostility. After being shot at and then arrested, the Philadelphian challenged Colonel Johnston to a duel for this harsh treatment. Colonel Johnston apologized, explaining that the arrest had been a misunderstanding, but Thomas Kane chose to disregard him. Instead, he focused his attention on the easy-going Alfred Cumming. The two liked one another from the outset, and in due course Colonel Kane persuaded governor-to-be Cumming to ride with him unaccompanied to Salt Lake City to meet Brigham Young. Colonel Johnston was simply ignored.

President Young welcomed the pair warmly, and graciously turned over the governorship to Governor Cumming. The Church leader then introduced the new governor in a meeting in the Tabernacle. The crisis had passed. The feared “Utah War” had been practically single-handedly averted by Thomas Kane.

A Friend to the Last

Thus ended the significant service of Colonel Thomas L. Kane to the Latter-day Saints. He later became a hero of the U.S. Civil War, receiving promotion to major general after his valor at Gettysburg. Leaving the army in broken health, he settled in northwestern Pennsylvania, where he became a successful entrepreneur in oil and railroads and a major landowner, even playing host to U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant on one occasion.

But Thomas Kane was to have one last visit with his beloved friend, Brigham Young. In 1871 General and Mrs. Kane accepted the Church President’s invitation to spend the winter with him in St. George, Utah. The President thought the dry, refreshing warmth of a southern Utah winter might help his friend recover from his now constant illness. And so it did, to some degree. The two friends’ farewell at the rail station in Salt Lake City in March 1872 was to be their last. They never met again.

President Young died in August 1877. Thomas L. Kane followed him in death six years later at the age of 61. On 30 December 1883, three days after Kane’s death, his widow, Elizabeth, penned this touching letter to President George Q. Cannon, First Counselor in the First Presidency:

“My dear Mr. Cannon:

“Your friend suffered intensely until a few hours of his release, and his mind was wandering from the outset of the attack. Yet in the intervals of consciousness he was fully persuaded of the approach of death, and made efforts to give us counsel and to bid us farewell. In one of these lucid moments, he said: ‘My mind is too heavy, but do send the sweetest message you can make up to my Mormon friends—to all my dear Mormon friends.

“Nothing I could ‘make up,’” she continued, “could be sweeter to you than this evidence that you were in his latest thoughts.”10

Significantly, on 25 April 1884, four months after Thomas Kane’s death, George Q. Cannon was baptized for him in the St. George Utah Temple. Zion’s beloved “outrider” had come in at last.

The story of Thomas L. Kane is moving in its own right. It is integral to the epic saga of the establishment of Zion in the tops of the mountains, which might not have happened without him. As Brigham Young told the courageous mediator in March 1858 as he was departing Salt Lake for Camp Scott on the frozen Wyoming tundra: “The Lord sent you here, and He will not let you die. No; you cannot die till your work is done. I want to have your name live in all eternity.”11

In a larger sense, Thomas L. Kane is but representative of numerous others—some great and others less noticed—down to our own day whom the Lord has posted out on the horizons in all directions and in every land as this great caravan moves on. These also are “outriders”—friends to assist His cause and His kingdom. May we be ever vigilant to search them out, to befriend them, and to hold them in honorable remembrance.


  1. “The Caravan Moves On,” Ensign, Nov. 1984, 85.

  2. Brigham Young to Jesse C. Little, 20 Jan. 1846, Family and Church History Department Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter Church Archives); emphasis in original.

  3. H. G. Boyle, “A True Friend,” Juvenile Instructor, 1 Mar. 1882, 74.

  4. John Smith’s Patriarchal Blessings, 1846-49, 211, Church Archives; emphasis added; capitalization and punctuation standardized.

  5. Thomas L. Kane to Brigham Young, 11 July 1850, Church Archives.

  6. Journal of Wilford Woodruff, vol. 3, 4 Dec. 1849, Church Archives, 515.

  7. John Bassett Moore, ed., The Works of James Buchanan, as quoted in Richard D. Poll, “Thomas L. Kane and the Utah War,” Utah Historical Quarterly, spring 1993, 120.

  8. James Buchanan to Thomas L. Kane, 31 Dec. 1857, Kane Papers, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, as quoted in Poll, Utah Historical Quarterly, spring 1993, 124.

  9. Poll, Utah Historical Quarterly, spring 1993, 127.

  10. As quoted in Albert L. Zobell Jr., Sentinel in the East (1965), 228–29; emphasis in original.

  11. As quoted in Zobell, 120.

Illustrations by Michael Malm

Thomas L. Kane, by Evan O’Niel Kane

Thomas Kane (above; Brigadier General Thomas L. Kane, by Ortho Fairbanks) wrote letters of recommendation for Elder Little to political friends in Washington and soon after traveled to the nation’s capital, where he arranged a meeting between himself, Elder Little, and President Polk (right). With Kane’s encouragement, President Polk requested that a battalion of 500 Latter-day Saints be recruited.

While in Council Bluffs (right; Council Bluffs Ferry and Cottonwood Trees, by Frederick Piercy) Colonel Kane became gravely ill with a fever. On 7 September 1846 (above), Patriarch John Smith gave Kane a blessing that said his name would be “had in honorable remembrance among the Saints to all generations.”

The feared “Utah War” was practically single-handedly averted by Thomas Kane when he rode through snowy mountain passes (left) to Camp Scott, where he persuaded governor-to-be Alfred Cumming to meet with President Brigham Young (right; artist unknown). They met, and the crisis passed.