The force of war was not the only engine that drove “manifest destiny.” The West likewise lured seekers of God and those who lusted after gold. In March 1830, a young Joseph Smith, Jr. published something he called The Book of Mormon. One month later, he started a religion based on the book, which relates how, in 1820, the 15-year-old Smith was visited by God the Father and Jesus Christ near his family’s farm in upstate New York. Three years after this, young Smith was visited by an angel named Moroni, who instructed him to dig in a certain place on a nearby hill. There Smith unearthed a book consisting of beaten gold plates engraved with the words of Moroni’s father, Mormon. The book told of a struggle between two tribes, one good, the other evil, which took place in the New World long before the arrival of Columbus. Moroni emerged as the sole survivor of the tribe of the good. Whoever dug up The Book of Mormon would be charged with restoring to the world the true Church of Christ.
The church Smith founded in April 1830 consisted of six members. By 1844, 15,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—popularly called Mormons—were settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, the separatist community they had built. Persecuted wherever they went, the Mormons always lived apart. Particularly distasteful to “gentiles” (as Mormons called those outside of the faith) was the Mormon practice of polygamy (multiple wives).
Opposition to the Mormons often grew violent. On June 27, 1844, a “gentile” mob murdered Joseph Smith and his brother. Smith’s second-in-command, the dynamic Brigham Young, realized that the Mormons would have to move somewhere so remote that no one would ever bother them again. Over the next two years, under his direction, a great migration was organized. The destination, which Young had read about in an account by John C. Fremont was near the Great Salt Lake in the present-day state of Utah.
Young planned and executed the Mormon Trek with the precision and genius of a great general in time of war. Hundreds of wagons were built, and a staging area, called Camp of Israel, was set up in Iowa. Emigrant parties were deployed in groups of a few hundred at a time and sent 1,400 miles across some of the most inhospitable land on the face of the planet. During the 1840s and 1850s, Saints—as Mormons called themselves—poured into the Salt Lake region. Young oversaw the planning and construction of a magnificent town, replete with public squares, broad boulevards, and well-constructed houses, all centered around a great Temple Square. In addition, Young and his followers introduced into the arid Salt Lake Valley irrigation on a scale unprecedented in American agriculture. By 1865, 277 irrigation canals watered 154,000 square miles of what had been desert.