Church History
Utah War

“Utah War,” Church History Topics

“Utah War”

Utah War

In 1856 and 1857 Latter-day Saints in Utah Territory experienced a season of spiritual revival, or “reformation,” featuring strongly worded preaching against apostasy and outside influences.1 Feeling threatened by this heightened fervor, non-Latter-day Saints living in the territory voiced their concerns in the popular press. At the same time, federally appointed government officials quarreled with Church leaders over public policy, and in 1857 Latter-day Saints in the legislative assembly announced to the new president of the United States, James Buchanan, that they would no longer tolerate “corrupt” appointees. This message and other rumors persuaded Buchanan that an insurrection could break out in Utah, and he sent Alfred Cumming with a large contingent of the federal army called the “Utah Expedition” as an escort to replace Brigham Young as territorial governor.

At least 1,500 soldiers marched westward in the largest and most expensive armed undertaking of the United States during the period between the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War.2 Buchanan stated that the goal of the armed intervention was to restore and maintain “the sovereignty of the Constitution and laws over the Territory of Utah.”3 He believed that Brigham Young and the Latter-day Saints had usurped that sovereignty. Governor Cumming and other territorial officials were to reestablish federal authority over Utah, a directive the Saints feared could incite persecution on a national scale.

Amid the suspense of the army’s impending arrival, frightened Latter-day Saints in Southern Utah ambushed a wagon train of emigrants bound for California, killing more than 120 men, women, and children in what came to be known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The attack proved to be the most violent episode to result from the environment of heightened tensions surrounding the war.4

As the troops marched toward Utah Territory, Brigham Young responded by issuing a declaration of martial law, and Latter-day Saints, male and female, readied themselves for the troops’ arrival. Territorial militia officers stationed men along the main routes leading to the region of Latter-day Saint settlement. In one case, women went through their wards collecting warm clothing for the men stationed in mountain passes. Margaret Clawson wrote that her mother “sat up many nights knitting woolen stockings to protect [the men] from the inclemency of the weather. She gave her time and what little means she could spare for their comfort.”5

The army, led by Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, reached the northeastern fringes of Utah Territory in the fall of 1857 and saw that Latter-day Saint militiamen had scorched the major trading and military installation at Fort Bridger, set grass fires, destroyed supply wagons, and stampeded army animals. The expedition soon established a winter base nearby, where Alfred Cumming began his gubernatorial term.

The coming of the army upset Latter-day Saint society. Brigham Young called on the Saints to “move south” of main settlements in northern Utah. This proved a harrowing experience for many Saints, who packed up their meager belongings and food into wagons. Cynthia Jane Park Stowell, whose husband had been captured by army soldiers the previous fall, left her Ogden home one week after giving birth and walked more than 50 miles “with one wagon and two yoke of steers” and with 12 children.6

Buchanan sent peace commissioners in June 1858, and Thomas L. Kane negotiated a peace on behalf of the Latter-day Saints.7 The army established a base 40 miles (65 kilometers) southwest of Salt Lake City at Camp Floyd that summer. The permanent presence of new federal officials and thousands of new inhabitants altered the local economy and brought to the Latter-day Saints unwanted social, cultural, and political elements.

The Utah War led to the creation of a new federal military district called the “Department of Utah,” and the largest contingent of the United States Army remained in Utah until the American Civil War broke out. Between 1858 and 1861, the expedition did much to establish new trails and routes in the Intermountain West while gathering new scientific information about the region. The army also engaged in campaigns against the native inhabitants of Utah.8

The Utah War has been known by many names. Some labeled it a “so-called war” because of the lack of a Congressional declaration of war and the relative lack of bloodshed between belligerents. Latter-day Saints largely remember it as “Johnston’s Army.” The official name, the Utah Expedition, was used in government documents to reference the federal army that was dispatched to Utah. Nevertheless, the conflict was indeed a war and came with many human, political, social, and economic costs.

Related Topics: Reformation of 1856–57, Mountain Meadows Massacre, Utah, Mexican-American War, American Civil War, Thomas L. and Elizabeth Kane


  1. See Topic: Reformation of 1856–57.

  2. See Topics: Mexican-American War, American Civil War; see also William B. MacKinnon, At Sword’s Point: A Documentary History of the Utah War, 2 vols. (Norman, Oklahoma: Arthur H. Clark, 2008).

  3. James Buchanan, First Annual Message from the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress at the Commencement of the First Session of the Thirty-Fifth Congress (Washington, D.C.: Cornelius Wendell, 1857).

  4. See Topic: Mountain Meadows Massacre.

  5. Margaret G. Clawson, Volume 3, Margaret G. Clawson Reminiscences, 1904–1911, 43, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

  6. Biographical Sketch of Cynthia Jane Stowell, MS 4054, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

  7. See Topic: Thomas L. and Elizabeth Kane.

  8. See Topic: American Indians.