“Pioneer Settlements,” Church History Topics
While many statesmen eyed the vast North American West with the interest of expanding the United States, Joseph Smith saw potential for the Latter-day Saints to establish and expand Zion.1 Four months before his death, Joseph urged the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to search out possible settlements in California and Oregon, anticipating how the Saints might “build a city in a day” and “have a [government] of our own.”2 Both before and after Joseph was killed in 1844, the Council of Fifty considered various destinations for resettlement, eventually deciding on the mountain valleys near the Great Salt Lake. Their plans grew urgent in 1846 after Illinois state officials insisted on the Saints vacating Nauvoo.3
Within a decade, Latter-day Saints led west by Brigham Young established a large corridor for settlement in and around the Great Salt Lake Valley.4 When first entering an area, the Saints often encountered Native American communities already inhabiting the land. Despite their hopes of harmonious coexistence, their relationships with Native Americans were often strained, particularly as the two groups treated land and resources with different and sometimes opposite expectations. Following broader patterns of settlement, Latter-day Saints generally claimed and utilized whatever lands they selected for settlement. The scale and impact of Latter-day Saint settlements in the area tragically displaced Native groups from their homelands.5
By the early 1860s, dozens of communities following an urban template inspired by Joseph Smith’s revelations and designs were established between Bear Lake Valley in the north and St. George in the south, all within 300 miles (480 kilometers) of Salt Lake City.6 During Brigham Young’s presidency (1847–1877), colonization efforts also extended toward the Pacific Ocean, leading to new settlements stretching to San Bernardino, California, and to new economic systems and industrial missions before 1860. Despite poor soil, rugged terrain, and limited water supply across the main network of settlements, pioneer communities sustained a collective population of over 96,000 by 1870, with 11 stakes organized in Idaho and Utah. By the end of the century, the Saints had founded approximately 500 communities across the Intermountain West.7
The pioneer era in Utah Territory ended with the arrival of the railroad in 1869 and the subsequent spread of railroad lines throughout the region.8 Settlement efforts continued, however, with Latter-day Saint colonies in Mexico and Canada in the 1880s.9 By the end of the 19th century, new Latter-day Saint settlements were rare, and the Saints turned toward improving church, family, and community life wherever they lived.