“Fire in the Dry Grass,” chapter 27 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)
Chapter 27: “Fire in the Dry Grass”
Rumors about Brigham Young’s return to Salt Lake City abounded in the weeks leading up to his January 1872 court date. Territorial prosecutors were sure Brigham would rather become a fugitive from justice than appear before a judge.1
In late December, however, Daniel Wells received an urgent letter from the prophet. “We shall be on hand at the time appointed to make our appearance in the court,” Brigham informed him.2 On the day after Christmas, he traveled seventy miles through snowstorms to meet Daniel in Draper, a town twenty miles south of Salt Lake City. From there, they boarded a northbound train, and Brigham arrived home shortly before midnight.
A United States marshal arrested the prophet one week later and escorted him to Judge McKean’s courtroom. Brigham remained calm and confident throughout the proceedings. Noting his old age and ill health, the prophet’s lawyers asked the judge to release him on bail. McKean denied the request and placed Brigham under house arrest.3
The trial was scheduled to begin a short time later, and the Salt Lake Tribune predicted that every newspaper in the United States and Great Britain would publish its proceedings. The “Great Trial” was postponed, however, and days soon stretched into weeks. Brigham stayed at home most of the time, usually under the watch of marshals. But sometimes he attended social events, as when he and a deputy marshal went to a surprise birthday party for Eliza Snow in the Fourteenth Ward building.4
From Washington, DC, George Q. Cannon sent Brigham regular reports about a case the Saints had brought before the United States Supreme Court, the highest court in the country. The case argued that Judge McKean’s practice of deliberately excluding Saints from grand juries in Utah Territory was illegal. If the Supreme Court ruled against the judge’s practice, every charge issued by an improperly formed grand jury in Utah—including charges against the prophet—would be thrown out immediately.5
The Supreme Court decided the case in April. Both Judge McKean and George were in the courtroom to hear the ruling. Though some of his associates were confident that the court would rule in their favor, McKean looked anxious as the presiding judge read the court’s decision.6
“Upon the whole,” the presiding judge declared, “we are of the opinion that the jury in this case was not selected and summoned in conformity with law.”7
Judge McKean left the room cursing the ruling and insisting that he had done nothing wrong. Soon telegraph wires carried the news to Utah. All criminal charges issued by illegally formed grand juries in the territory had been erased. Brigham Young was free.8
“The Supreme Court has risen above religious prejudices and political influences,” George rejoiced in a letter to Brigham later that day. Yet George worried about the court’s decision, certain it would only embitter the Saints’ enemies more.
“I shall be surprised,” George wrote, “if there will not be a strong effort made to secure adverse legislation against us.”9
That April, Saints from all around Hawaii came to Oahu for a conference in Laie, their gathering place for the last seven years. About four hundred Saints lived in the settlement year-round. It had a small chapel, a school, and a large farm where local Saints and missionaries from Utah raised sugarcane.
At the conference, thirteen local missionaries testified of their recent experiences. Under the direction of Jonathan Napela, who had been called to oversee proselytizing on the islands, the missionaries had baptized more than six hundred people. The number of Saints in Hawaii was now well over two thousand.10
Each elder bore witness of the miracles he had seen in the mission field. Recently, the Lord had healed a paralyzed man after missionaries exercised faith and prayed in his behalf.11 Another man, who broke his arm after falling off his mule, was fully healed after two missionaries blessed him. Other elders had administered repeatedly to a little girl who could not walk. After each blessing she improved little by little until she was able to run and play again.12
After the conference, the missionaries continued to preach the gospel and heal the sick. Among those who sought their help was Keʻelikōlani, the governor of the Big Island of Hawaii. She asked the Saints to pray for her half brother, King Kamehameha V, who was close to death. Napela knew the king well, so he and another longtime elder in the Church, H. K. Kaleohano, went to the palace and offered to pray for him.
“We have heard of your great affliction,” they said, “and we sincerely desire your restoration of health.” The king accepted their offer, and the missionaries bowed respectfully. Kaleohano then offered a fervent prayer.
When the missionary finished, Kamehameha appeared much better. He told the elders that some people in the government had been pressuring him to stop the Saints from preaching on the islands, but he had refused to listen to them. The constitution of Hawaii granted religious liberty to the people, and he insisted on upholding it.
The king spoke pleasantly with Napela and Kaleohano for a long time. As the elders were about to leave, some men arrived with fish for the king’s household. When Kamehameha saw them, he pointed to Napela and Kaleohano. “Don’t you forget these kings,” he said.
He gave the elders each a basket of fish and bid them goodbye.13
Around the time of the April conference in Laie, newspapers across the United States were raving about a newly published exposé of plural marriage by Fanny Stenhouse, who had become the most prominent woman in the New Movement. In the book, Fanny portrayed Latter-day Saint women as oppressed and discontented.14
The women of the Church were appalled at this characterization. Believing it was better for Latter-day Saint women to represent themselves than be misrepresented by others, twenty-three-year-old Lula Greene began publishing a newspaper for women in Utah. She called her newspaper the Woman’s Exponent.15
Lula was a gifted writer who served as president of a small branch of the Young Ladies’ Retrenchment Association. After publishing Lula’s poetry, the editor of the Salt Lake Daily Herald had wanted her to write for his newspaper. But after his staff had balked at hiring her, the editor had suggested that she start a paper of her own.
The idea had intrigued Lula. The recent indignation meetings had shown the powerful influence Latter-day Saint women could have when they spoke up on issues that mattered to them. But women in and out of the Church rarely had opportunities to express their opinions so publicly. Many of the good things said and done by Relief Societies and the Retrenchment Association, moreover, went unmentioned and unnoticed, especially by people outside the territory.
Lula had first shared the plans for the newspaper with Eliza Snow, who then consulted with Brigham Young, Lula’s great-uncle. Both gave their support to the endeavor. At Lula’s request, Brigham appointed Lula on a special mission to serve as the paper’s editor.16
The first issue of the Woman’s Exponent was published in June 1872. The paper featured local, national, and world news as well as editorials, poetry, and reports from Relief Society and retrenchment meetings.17 Lula also printed letters to the editor, giving Latter-day Saint women a place to share their stories and express their views.
In July, Lula published a letter from an Englishwoman named Mary, who contrasted her hard life as a hired girl in London and New York with her life in Utah. “We ‘Mormon women’ ought to write and tell the world—whether it is pleased to believe us or not—that we are not the poor, oppressed beings we are represented to be,” Mary stated. “I have not been oppressed here but have been free to come, free to go, free to work or let it alone.”
“I like the Exponent so far very much,” she added. “It tells of sound sense.”18
Meanwhile, in northern Utah, the Northwestern bands of the Shoshone Nation were on the brink of starvation. Nearly ten thousand white settlers, most of them Latter-day Saints, were living on indigenous Shoshone lands in Cache Valley and the surrounding area, straining the region’s natural food sources.19
When the Saints first came to Cache Valley in the mid-1850s, a Shoshone leader named Sagwitch had cultivated a good relationship with local Church officials, particularly Bishop Peter Maughan, who sometimes provided aid to the Shoshones from the tithing office. Tensions between the two peoples had increased in the late 1850s, however, as more Saints settled in the valley and game grew scarcer.
To provide food for themselves and their families, some Shoshones started raiding the Saints’ cattle, treating this as compensation for their lost lands and depleted resources. Perhaps hoping to stop the raids, the Saints grudgingly tried to feed the Shoshones with gifts of flour and beef. But these gifts did not make up for the privation the settlers had created by moving into Cache Valley.20
During this time, the Shoshones had also clashed repeatedly with the United States government. Colonel Patrick Connor, the commander of the U.S. Army troops stationed at Salt Lake City, used the conflict as grounds for attacking the Shoshones. One morning in January 1863, as Sagwitch and his people camped near the Bear River, they awoke to find soldiers advancing on them. The Shoshones retreated to their defenses and tried to fight off the soldiers. The army quickly surrounded them, however, and fired mercilessly on their position.
Approximately four hundred Shoshone men, women, and children died in the assault on the camp. Sagwitch survived the attack, as did his infant daughter and three sons. But his wife, Dadabaychee, and two stepsons were among the women and children slain.21
Following the massacre, Saints from nearby settlements came to assist the wounded Shoshones. The attack had left Sagwitch deeply suspicious of the Saints, however. Porter Rockwell, a Latter-day Saint who sometimes worked as an army scout, had led the soldiers to the Shoshones’ camp. Some Cache Valley Saints had also watched the massacre unfold from a nearby hilltop, and others had sheltered and fed the army after the attack. Even Peter Maughan, who described the soldiers’ actions as “inhuman,” believed the Shoshones had provoked the violence. Some Saints went so far as to call the assault an act of divine intervention.22
Now, a decade after the massacre, Sagwitch and his people remained resentful of white settlers. Although the Saints’ willingness to use Church resources to provide food and supplies to the Shoshones had earned back some trust, the loss of innocent lives, land, and resources had left the Shoshones in desperate straits.23
In the spring of 1873, a respected Shoshone leader named Ech-up-wy had a vision in which three Indians entered his lodge. The largest of them—a handsome, broad-shouldered man—told him that the Saints’ God was the same God that the Shoshones worshipped. With the Saints’ help, they would build houses, cultivate the earth, and receive baptism.
In the vision, Ech-up-wy also saw Shoshones working small farms with a few white men alongside them. One was George Hill, a Latter-day Saint who had served a mission among the Shoshones fifteen years earlier. He was a man who spoke their language and sometimes distributed food and other provisions among them.
After hearing about Ech-up-wy’s vision, a group of Shoshones set out for George’s home in Ogden.24
A short time later, George Hill awoke to learn that a group of Shoshones was outside his house, waiting to speak to him. When George greeted his visitors, one of their leading men explained to him that they had learned through inspiration that the Saints were the Lord’s people. “We want you to come to our camp and preach to us and baptize us,” he said.
George did not feel he could baptize them without permission from Brigham Young. Disappointed, the Shoshones departed for home, but they returned later and again asked for baptism. Once more, George told them that he had to wait for the prophet’s direction.25
Not long afterward, George met with Brigham in Salt Lake City. “There has been a load resting on my shoulders for some time,” Brigham said. “I have tried to shake it off. Now I am going to give it to you. It is going to be your load from now on. I want you to take charge of the mission to the Indians in all this northern country.”
He counseled George to establish a gathering place for the Shoshones and teach them to farm the land. “I don’t know just how you should go about this,” he said, “but you will find a way.”26
On May 5, 1873, George traveled by train to a town about thirty miles north of Ogden. From there he started on foot for Sagwitch’s camp, twelve miles away. Before he had walked a mile, an old Shoshone man named Tig-we-tick-er approached him, laughing. That morning, he said, Sagwitch had prophesied that George would be visiting their camp.
Tig-we-tick-er gave George directions to the camp and promised to return soon to hear him preach. George walked on and encountered two more Shoshones who repeated Sagwitch’s words. Amazed, George wondered how Sagwitch knew the exact day and time of his coming. To him it was a sign that the Lord’s work was truly beginning among the Shoshones.
Soon, George saw Sagwitch approaching on horseback, leading another horse behind him. “I thought you would be tired,” Sagwitch said, “so I brought you a horse to ride.”
They rode into camp together. Scores of people were waiting to be taught. George preached for an hour or two and found many who wanted to join the Church. That afternoon, he baptized 101 Shoshones, including Sagwitch, and confirmed them at the water’s edge. He then left camp with just enough time to catch the last train to Ogden.27
The following day, George sent a letter to Brigham Young. “I never felt better in my life nor ever spent a happier day,” he wrote. The Shoshones likewise seemed happy, he noted, and they planned to hold prayer meetings each night. Mentioning their dire need for provisions, he requested sacks of flour for the people.28
George then wrote about the baptisms in a letter to his friend Dimick Huntington, who also knew the Shoshones’ language. “My only desire is that I have the Spirit of God to assist me,” George stated, “that I may be able to accomplish the work that is required at my hands.”
“Dimick, help me all you can,” he pleaded. “The work is extending like fire in the dry grass.”29
Around the time the Northwestern Shoshones embraced the restored gospel, Jonathan Napela learned that his wife, Kitty, had been ordered to go to the island of Molokai after contracting Hansen’s disease, or leprosy. Hoping to stop the spread of the disease in Hawaii, King Kamehameha V had established a colony on Molokai’s Kalaupapa peninsula to quarantine people who showed signs of infection. Since leprosy was thought to be incurable, banishment to the colony was usually a life sentence.
Anxious not to part with Kitty, Napela secured work on Kalaupapa as the colony’s assistant supervisor. His new duties included distributing rations and reporting regularly to the board of health. The job placed him in close contact with infected people, increasing his chances of contracting the disease.
When he and Kitty arrived at the colony in the spring of 1873, Napela began preaching the gospel and holding meetings every Sunday with Saints afflicted with leprosy. He also befriended Father Damien, a Catholic priest serving Kalaupapa, and Peter Kaeo, a member of the Hawaiian royal family who had contracted the disease and arrived not long after Kitty and Napela.30
In the colony, Peter lived in relative comfort in a cottage overlooking the peninsula. He employed servants, received gifts from his wealthy family, and had little contact with the island’s suffering. When he learned that a man had died in the settlement, Peter was apparently shocked and told Kitty about it.
“It is nothing new,” she responded. “They die almost every day.”31
On August 30, 1873, Peter joined Napela as he assessed the needs of the people in the colony. The morning sky was overcast as they went across the peninsula to the huts and sheds where some of the residents lived. Napela stopped first at a cave and spoke to three men, three women, and a small boy about their rations. Peter was horrified. The disease had completely disfigured the faces of some of them. Others were missing fingers.
Later, Napela and Peter met a woman with a severely swollen leg. She had been on Molokai for three years and had worn out her dresses and underclothing. Napela told her that if she came to the colony store on Monday, she would receive new clothes.
In October, the board of health learned that Napela was giving away food to needy people in the colony who were not authorized to receive it. They dismissed him from his post and ordered him to leave Kalaupapa. Napela immediately told Kitty the news. When Peter found the couple a short time later, they were weeping. Kitty had been unwell lately, and Napela did not want to leave her.32
Napela petitioned the board of health to let him stay as Kitty’s caretaker. “I vowed before God to care for my wife in health and sickness, and until death do us part,” he wrote. “I am sixty years old and do not have much longer to live. During the brief time remaining, I want to be with my wife.”
The board approved his request.33
In December 1873, after years of lobbying for the Church and Utah in Washington, DC, George Q. Cannon was sworn in as the territory’s delegate to the United States House of Representatives.34 George had spiritually prepared himself for this moment. He had felt weak and alone the night before, but after praying for help, he felt blessed with joy, comfort, and strength.
“I am here without a man who is in sympathy with me,” he reflected in his journal, “but I have a Friend more powerful than they all. In this I rejoice.”35
In the early 1870s, public opinion of the Church was as low as ever in the United States. President Ulysses Grant was determined to end plural marriage in Utah, having already promised to stop efforts to bestow Utah statehood until that happened. In the spring of 1874, Senator Luke Poland presented another bill designed to strengthen the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act by seizing greater control over Utah’s courts.36
Fanny and T. B. H. Stenhouse, meanwhile, continued to write critically about the Church and speak against plural marriage to audiences across the country.37 Likewise, Ann Eliza Young, an estranged plural wife of Brigham Young who had sued him for divorce, had begun giving public speeches denouncing the Church. After a show in Washington, DC, during which Ann Eliza condemned George Q. Cannon’s election to Congress, President Grant spoke with her and heartily agreed with her views.38
Fasting and praying for guidance, George tried to use his influence to stop the Poland Bill. He also sought help from allies. Recently, Thomas Kane and his wife, Elizabeth, had spent the winter with Brigham Young in Utah. Influenced by hostile books and newspaper reports, Elizabeth had come to the territory expecting to find women who were oppressed and hopeless. Instead, she met kind, sincere women who were devoted to their religion. Soon after the trip, Elizabeth’s impressions of the Saints were published in a book. In it, she portrayed the Saints fairly, though she continued to oppose plural marriage.
Thanks in part to Elizabeth’s book, George persuaded his fellow lawmakers to soften some aspects of the Poland Bill. But none of his efforts stopped President Grant from signing it into law in mid-June.39
That summer and fall, William Carey, the United States attorney in Utah, took steps to begin prosecuting well-known Saints who practiced plural marriage. George returned to Utah during this time, and in October he was arrested on charges associated with his plural marriages. Facing the prospect of more arrests among the Saints, Church leaders decided to set up a test court case to challenge the legality of the Morrill antipolygamy law.
Striking a deal with Carey, they agreed to let him convict one man for polygamy so that Church lawyers could appeal the case before a higher court. In exchange, the federal attorney promised that he would not prosecute anyone else until the appeal process on the test case concluded. In making this deal, Church leaders hoped the higher court would decide that the antipolygamy law violated the Saints’ religious rights and would overturn the conviction.
George Q. Cannon was released on bail shortly after his arrest. That evening, he encountered George and Amelia Reynolds strolling along the south wall of the temple block. George Reynolds was a young British Saint who served as secretary to Brigham Young. That summer he had married Amelia, his first plural wife. Knowing Reynolds well, George Cannon recommended him as the ideal candidate for contesting the antipolygamy law.
Reynolds agreed. Since the test case could go forward only if he was convicted, Reynolds soon provided a list of people who could stand as witnesses against him in court. He was arrested for bigamy a short time later. The judge then released him on bail and set a date for his trial.40