Colonization of the West

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The process of Mormon emigration began in the 1840's and assisted 5,000 European converts in migrating to Nauvoo, Illinois. Beginning in 1846, the Church organized 16,000 persons in and around Nauvoo to make the great trek to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, and later to the Salt Lake Valley. By 1890 agents of the Mormon Church had directed the migration of 83,000 European members to the Salt Lake Valley. Scholars have regarded the Church's arrangements as perhaps the best system of regulated immigration in U.S. history.

Often immigrants newly arrived in Salt Lake City were first put to work building the kingdom by means of a public works system. Centered on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, the Church Department of Public Works provided employment for immigrants during their first winter in the Salt Lake Valley. They assisted in the addition of such useful structures as roads, walls, meetinghouses, railroads, telegraph lines, canals, the Salt Lake theater, and the famous Salt Lake Temple and tabernacle.

When the Saints were in Kirtland, the Lord had counseled the Prophet Joseph Smith:

... every man shall be made accountable unto me, a steward over his own property, or that which he has received by consecration, as much as is sufficient for himself and family (D&C 42:32).
For it is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared...(Doctrine and Covenants 104:13).

In keeping with this doctrine, each person was to have property sufficient to support his family, while any surplus belonged to the Lord's storehouse. Property rights were granted conditionally and were not protected if the owner refused to utilize or develop the property. Also, since property was considered the Lord's, and for the benefit of all the community, the speculative withholding of land from use was prohibited. The purchase or appropriation of town lots for the sake of increasing their value was prevented. Hoarding money was also against Church rules.

The goal of Mormon colonization and resource development, and of Mormon towns themselves, was economic independence. A Mormon commonwealth was to be financially and economically self-sufficient. Even today, Mormons are counseled to be self-reliant. Elder L. Tom Perry said this about the principle:

Independence and self-reliance are critical to our spiritual and temporal growth. Whenever we get into situations which threaten our self-reliance, we will find our freedoms threatened as well. If we increase our dependence on anything or anyone except the Lord, we will find an immediate decrease in our freedom to act. As President Heber J. Grant declared, “Nothing destroys the individuality of a man, a woman, or a child as much as the failure to be self-reliant.” (“Becoming Self-Reliant,” Ensign, Nov. 1991, 64).

The principles of self-reliance were applied often and broadly. In the Great Basin, Mormon saints were asked to manufacture their own iron, produce their own cotton, spin their own silk, and grind their own grain—all this without their having to borrow from "outsiders." It was reasoned that self-sufficiency was a practical policy because God had blessed each region with the resources necessary for the use of the people and the development of that region. As a result of these applied principles, the Great Basin was the only major region of the United States whose early development was largely accomplished without outside capital.

Some of the officially sponsored projects for self-sufficiency included:

  • An iron mission, consisting of about 200 families called by the Church who devoted strenuous efforts to developing the iron and coal resources near Cedar City, Utah
  • A sugar mission, in which several hundred people were united in the 1850s in an effort to establish the sugar-beet industry in Utah
  • A lead mission, in which some fifty men were called to work lead mines near Las Vegas, Nevada, to provide lead for paint and bullets
  • A cotton mission, which sent more than a thousand families to southern Utah to raise cotton along with olives, grapes, indigo, grain sorghum, and figs
  • And silk missions, which involved the growing of mulberry trees and the establishment of a silk industry in every suitable community