The Boundary of Religion Revisited

The Mormons are, at present, eliciting considerable interest and inquiry in reference to the organization of a new State in the far West under the cognomen, State of Deseret.… Ought they be admitted without strict inquiry? For a starting point, Congress might appoint a committee to inquire into and report the facts … relative to polygamy and, if the facts are unfavorable, that they be not … styled “the State of Deseret but “the State of Whoredom.”… And, further, to inquire whether the whole movement be more or less a mere Mormon church maneuver to create a Mormon church State, designed to be under Mormon church jurisdiction exclusively.


Two hundred and fifty feet below the surface of Lake Mead is the town of Callville, Nevada, founded in 1858 at the behest of Mormon leader Brigham Young. Callville was the high-water mark of Young’s efforts to create a Mormon state. The high-water mark for Callville itself (or, as it turned out, its second highest water mark) was in October 1866, when the first oceangoing steamship arrived at its dock. Its highest-water mark was in 1936, when it was inundated by the Colorado River upon completion of the Hoover Dam. By then, however, it had been abandoned for more than fifty years, despite having played a key role in establishing the present-day boundary between Nevada and Arizona—a boundary far from Utah, the state predominated by Mormons. That distance reflects the scope of Brigham Young’s dream.

Young was a thirty-year-old carpenter and blacksmith when he joined the Mormon Church in 1832. The church itself had only recently been organized by Joseph Smith, who published the Book of Mormon in 1830. Through the energy Young devoted to the church, and his charismatic personality, he rose in its ranks over the next decade, surfacing in the national press in 1842 when the New York Herald mentioned him among the leadership of the Mormons. That article, however, was a report on the nation’s animosity toward Mormons. “The fights and quarrels in Mormon country promise to be much richer than anything that has occurred here since the days of the Revolutionary War,” it began, relating that Missouri “has charged Joe [Smith, founder of the church] with instigating the man who attempted to kill Gov. Boggs.”

The nation’s antagonism emanated from the Mormons’ firm belief in traditional marriage—biblically traditional marriage, which is to say polygamy. But the hostility grew to include other matters. Joseph Smith had prophesied that God would soon bring “a full end of all nations.” In view of the Mormon disregard of state laws prohibiting polygamy, Smith’s proclamation on “the end of nations” got Washington’s attention. Smith sought to mitigate these fears in 1838 by publishing The Political Motto of the Church of Latter-day Saints, which praised the U.S. Constitution as being “founded in the wisdom of Almighty God.” But not everyone believed him. Later that year he was arrested for treason. Lacking sufficient evidence, authorities in Missouri struck a face-saving deal in which Smith was allowed to escape. He relocated in Illinois, but the conflicts followed him and in 1844 he was assassinated.

A leadership crisis ensued. “There has been a feud and division among the Mormons,” South Carolina’s Southern Patriot reported. “When Joe Smith, the head imposter, was killed, there was a struggle for ascendancy. Sidney Rigdon thought that he ought to be next in command.… Emma Smith, the widow, seemed disposed to be the spiritual leader.… Wm. Smith, the brother of Joe, set himself up as Patriarch.… Brigham Young and the Council of Twelve then took upon themselves the spiritual and temporal government of the Mormons.”

Despite the venom in the article, it reported two facts that proved to be significant. It noted that the Brigham Young faction proposed “to remove all the Saints beyond the Rocky Mountains” and that the “mass of the Mormons appear to be disposed to adhere to Young and his party.” Indeed, the majority did opt for the path proposed by Young. The area around the Great Salt Lake had the advantages of being sparsely populated and outside the United States (the Southwest then still belonged to Mexico). Just as the Mormons were resettling, however, the United States won the Mexican War, and Young’s followers found themselves back inside the boundaries of the United States. Less than a year after that, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west. Suddenly it was rush hour on the Mormon Trail. Before the year was out, California had become a state.

Brigham Young (1801-1877) (photo credit 26.1)

Mormon proposal for state of Deseret

In response, Young organized a predominantly Mormon convention that sent Congress a proposal for a state of Deseret. It stipulated boundaries that encompassed all of the Great Basin between the Rockies and the Sierras and extended to include Southern California with its Pacific ports.

Congress gave it a different border and a different name. Suspicion of the Mormon agenda had only increased with their migration outside the boundaries of the United States. With the U.S. acquisition of this land, the vast boundaries of the Mormons’ proposed state of Deseret further fed the fear that they might eventually declare independence and establish their own nation—right between California and the rest of the United States.

In lieu of the state of Deseret, Congress created the Utah Territory. Its northern and southern boundaries are those that Utah possesses to this day, but at the time they extended westward from the crest of the Rockies to California. Because Utah was designated a territory rather than a state, its governorship became a presidential appointment rather than an elected office. President Zachary Taylor, however, prudently appointed Brigham Young.

Fear that the Mormons might create a separate nation was not, however, as preeminent a national security concern as fear that slave states might create a separate nation. The town of Callville illustrated the connection between both controversies.

In the years just before Callville was founded, the Democrats had been losing ground to a newly formed abolitionist party known as the Republicans. In 1854 Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas sought to cope with slavery (and propel himself to the presidency) by convincing Congress to enact a policy known as “popular sovereignty.” It removed the federal government from deciding where slavery would or would not be allowed, leaving the decision to the individual states and territories. The Mormons seized upon this principle to defend Utah’s right to allow polygamy (the practice was eventually abandoned in 1890 by the church’s main branch). The Democrats responded by, first, disagreeing, and second, making Mormon polygamy a campaign issue in the 1856 presidential election. In so doing, they hoped to disentangle themselves from the Mormons’ inconvenient logic and, by fanning fears regarding marriage and morality, to divert attention from their party’s highly nuanced position regarding slavery.

They succeeded. The shift in attitudes was reflected in the nationwide publication The Saturday Evening Post. In 1849 the magazine published positive commentary regarding the proposed state of Deseret:

The progress of the Mormon sect in this country, when duly considered, must be regarded as an extraordinary phenomenon of the times. From small beginnings they have gone on increasingly steadily, in spite of persecutions and hardships.… But the strangeness of the thing consists in the wonderful and rapid extension of a faith of which so little is known, and which had its origin in stories and devices apparently the most absurd that ever made mockery of human credibility. The converts to this faith, moreover, do not appear to belong to that class of enthusiasts that give way to hallucinations. The Mormons are a practical people; they are industrious, temperate, orderly. Wherever they plant themselves in the wilderness, the aspect of a cultivated region is soon visible.

Following the 1856 election, the same magazine sounded the alarm:

The accounts from Utah—or as the “saints” now insist on its being called, “Deseret”—are chock-full of fight.… It will be noticed by the threat relative to Jackson County, Missouri, that some of these fanatics really cherish the delusion of ultimate success, in the case of war with the United States.… It’s a pity that proper measures were not taken years ago to remove this cancer, when it was comparatively small and powerless.

After the Democrats won the White House in 1856, newly elected President James Buchanan had to make good on the moral outrage his party had exploited. He did so by replacing Young with a non-Mormon governor and by dispatching 2,500 troops to Utah to erect a permanent fort.

Young, in turn, prepared for war. Among those preparations, he directed Anson Call to locate a settlement on the farthest navigable point of the Colorado River. With Callville as the terminus of a string of Mormon settlements leading from the Salt Lake Valley to the Colorado River, landlocked Utah now had access to the sea via the Colorado to the Gulf of California to the Pacific.

Callville soon became a landing for food and mining supplies. It also served as a portal for immigrants recently converted to Mormonism by missionaries who had traveled to Europe, Latin America, India, Australia, and the Pacific Islands. These foreigners, arriving out of devotion to the Mormon Church as opposed to the United States, contributed to government concerns regarding an eventual Mormon nation.

Though the 1857–58 Utah War, as it became known, never erupted into full-fledged combat between the Mormon militia and the U.S. Army, over a hundred civilians died in various armed confrontations, and enormous amounts of public and private property were destroyed. Ultimately the Mormons accepted Buchanan’s governor in return for amnesty regarding destruction of government property. The federal troops soon left to deal with the actual present danger to national security: the formation of the Confederacy and the Civil War it triggered.

Continued growth and progress in Callville enabled the first steamship to arrive one year after the Civil War ended. Not coincidentally, that same year Congress redrew the boundary between the Arizona and Nevada Territories.

Callville before and after Nevada statehood, and after the Hoover Dam

When Nevada became a state in 1864, it inherited the southern border of the Utah Territory—the straight line continuing to California. To its south, the Arizona Territory also extended west to California, and thus encompassed the navigable lower end of the Colorado River. In 1866, Congress gave Nevada that portion of the Arizona Territory west of the Colorado River, including Callville (and a region in this otherwise arid environment that Spanish explorers had called “Fruitful Plains”—or, in Spanish, Las Vegas).

Congress may have been seeking to create future states more equal in natural resources. At the time, Nevada had recently exhausted its efforts to claim the crest of the gold-rich Sierras as its rightful boundary with California. It may have also been payback time for Arizonans, who, during the Civil War, had first created Arizona (extending across the southern half, as opposed to western half, of the New Mexico Territory) and been granted territorial status by the Confederacy.

Arizona was officially outraged and baffled by the land transfer. Its outrage was expressed in a resolution passed by its territorial legislature. “By this great river the Territory receives the most of its supplies,” it protested, “and lately it has become the channel of a large part of the trade of San Francisco with Utah and Montana.” The phrase “lately it has become” referred to the recently commenced steamship traffic at Callville. Its bafflement was expressed by state historian Thomas Edwin Farish when he later wrote, “For some reason, to this day unexplained, the greater portion of the land in this Arizona county [Pah Ute County] was ceded to the State of Nevada by the Congress of the United States under an act passed on May 5, 1866.”

Nevada, on the other hand, viewed the land transfer as perfectly logical. In its official state history, Beulah Hershheiser blandly noted that “the desired tract was a mining district; that Nevada was a mining State; and that the interests of the two sections were therefore identical.”

To guard the important landing on the Colorado from these controversies, the Army erected Fort Callville. It was occupied only briefly, since the town soon began to lose population. Commerce dried up owing to the arrival of railroads and, more literally, because the Colorado River was increasingly being drained for irrigation. By 1869 Callville was a ghost town.

Though the dried-up town was later drowned by progress, Callville’s underwater ruins represent important American struggles—including those of a state (Utah) whose boundaries purposely never included it. Indeed, the boundary imposed on Brigham Young’s vision reveals a critical insight: national security became a boundary of religious freedom, a boundary extendable to other freedoms as well.

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