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Mormons in California

More than 35 years ago, our renowned historian, Clyde Arbuckle, stood at Emigration Canyon, overlooking the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and repeated the words that Mormon leader Brigham Young uttered 130 years before: “This is the place.” But then, Clyde added something that is not listed in Mormon ideology: “This is the place, I cannot go any further.” The faithful were carrying the desperately ill Young on a bed, and it was there that he urged them to stop and build their “Kingdom of God.”

For years, I have thought about the missing words: “I cannot go any further.” Study has revealed that the Mormons were really heading to California, and once there, to wrest control from the Mexican government. In mid-September 1845, Brigham Young wrote to Mormon elder Sam Brannan:

“I wish you, together with your press, paper and ten thousand of the brethren, were now at the Bay of St. Francisco, and if you clear yourself and go there, do so and we will meet you there.”

Sam Brannan left in December of 1845 from New York City aboard the chartered ship “Brooklyn” with 230 Saints, headed for California, although the publicly announced destination was Oregon. This confirms that the Mormons were to come in two parties, Brannan leading the sea party and Young the overland group. Months later, Brannan’s party arrived in San Francisco, or Yerba Buena as it was known then. The Mormons outnumbered the previous residents about five to one. But before they could get established, U.S. Navy Commander Sloat sailed into Monterey, California’s Mexican capital. On July 7, 1846, he claimed California for the United States. Sloat’s arrival was just nine days before that of the British Pacific fleet under Admiral Seymour. Seeing the stars and stripes flying over Monterey, Seymour recognized the American occupation.

Thus, it was just over a period of days that the future of California was decided, becoming an American state instead of an independent Mormon territory. It was fortunate for the Mormons too, for John Marshall discovered gold in the California foothills soon afterwards. The Saints would have been overrun by the gold-seeking 49ers. Even this proved to be a blessing, for they were having a difficult time establishing themselves in Utah. Remnants of the Mormon Battalion of soldiers, originally recruited to fight Mexico, were sent to work in the California mines. With the profits from their labor, they sent financial resources to Utah to assist the Saints in saving their Rocky Mountain territory from collapse. And Sam Brannan became one of California’s first millionaires.