Joe is almost 90 but tows his trailer around the west visiting different relatives.
I asked him, “When you’re not traveling, Joe, where’s home?”
He answered, “My ex-girlfriend is living in my house so I don’t go there.”
I met Joe at our family gathering.
My daughter married into his family and at the in-laws in Scottsdale, we had our Thanksgiving feast this year. (In the background you can see another in-law tending a duck being roasted in a pot over a mesquite fire, adding to the meat variety we enjoyed on this quintessential American holiday.)
Joe is a cowboy, the real McCoy.
He’s roped and branded cattle, driven them to market and slept many nights under the open sky.
I asked what he “carried” on the trail. He understood my emphasis and, without pause, answered, “Pretty much the usual three — a shotgun for snakes, a rifle for coyotes or deer, and the 1911 my Sargent let me keep.”
Joe’s grandparents came west in covered wagons with the Mormons into Utah. Growing up, Joe heard most of their stories.
One of them was about the Utah War.
Sipping his Bourbon neat, Joe told us how that came about.
The Mormons, members of The Church of Latter Day Saints started by Joseph Smith, moved to the Salt Lake area after being driven out, at gun point or worse both times, from more easterly states.
Starting about 1847 in Utah, and seeing as they were just about the only ones there, they pretty much held all the official and elected offices such as Sheriff, Governor of the Territory and so forth.
And perhaps not surprisingly, the church had considerable influence in political matters since all the elected politicians were members of the church.
For example, well before Utah became a state, the community wanted to establish a much larger state encompassing most of what now is Utah, Nevada, bordering parts of California through the Sierras, and significant portions of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and small parts of others. That state would’ve been named Deseret. (The word “deseret” has an interesting, Mormon-derived etymology. Those interested can Google “etymology deseret” for themselves.)
Given their numbers and political prowess, that was a definite possibility.
And also in that time, the Mormons practiced polygamy.
But Eastern sentiment about all this was not favorable. On the contrary, having this rather large faction with a very firm control of a significant amount of western territory, and because their practices and beliefs were in many ways very different from those of the rest of the country, well, this raised concerns.
This was also the time when the Southern states were also demonstrating their different practices and beliefs. They also held sway over a considerable portion of the country.
There was a lot to be concerned about.
And as the Eastern newspapers trumpeted the concerns about the west and the Mormon’s dominance of the area by dint of their comparative majority in the territory, those same Mormons read those exact same articles and editorials and, in reaction to what they read, they too became increasingly alarmed but for opposite reasons.
Their way of life, their faith, their farms, ranches and families were, yet again, at stake.
In this way, the embers were fanned, the heat rose. Things went from bad to worse and, eventually, the US government, fearing a possible uprising and rebellion in the west, sent in the troops.
Heavily outnumbered, the Mormons could only attempt what today would be considered as guerrilla tactics. They struck only at small scouting parties from the main contingent of federal troops. They burnt the ground before the advancing army leaving no food for the troops and no grain, no grass for the horses.
These “hit and run” tactics slowed things sufficiently so that, when winter arrived in the high plains and mountains, the federal troops were stuck for the season.
That permitted time to negotiate and so, a settlement was reached.
Among the agreements was that the Governor would be replaced by a non-Mormon. And it was agreed that the Mormons would not join with the Southern states in their disputes against the US Government.
Ultimately from all this, the state of Utah was established from the larger territory of that same name, but considerably smaller than the once hoped for state of Deseret.
“My grandfather,” Joe said, “took part in all that. I have some of his guns.”
The conversation paused at that point.
I thought, regardless of what my beliefs might or might not be regarding the Mormon faith, I could understand how events had spiraled up, one notch at a time, and ultimately threatened to go completely out of control. In the case of The Utah War, it led to bullets and deaths, deaths of US citizens on both sides, civilian and enlisted, and it was all through the actions of nothing but US citizens, some in uniform, some not.
And while it is certainly true that, without the guns there might not have been any deaths or even any need for a confrontation, it is also very clear that without the resistance that armed citizens were able to mount, today’s map of the area and the “state” of religious freedom that permits the Church of the Latter Day Saints to continue would almost certainly be very, very different.
I looked over at my daughter who had been listening as Joe told us his grandfather’s story. I said to her, “This is why we don’t want the government to take our guns.”
“Yup,” said Joe.
I added, “Those guns are to protect us from the U.S. Government as much as they are for us to protect the United States of America.”
“Can I get you another Bourbon, Joe?”
He smiled as he handed me his glass.