Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

Mormon Territory, Mormon Law

When Brigham Young first set eyes on the valley that would become Salt Lake City, he told the faithful that if our enemies would give us just 10 years unmolested, we would ask no odds of them; we would never be driven again. Unfortunately, Young never got his 10 unmolested years. With the cession of the Pacific Coast and most of the Southwest by Mexico after the war, and the discovery of gold at Sutters Mill, what originally appeared to be a remote wilderness far from the Gentiles became a major thoroughfare for immigrants.

The federal government had many reasons for wanting control of Utah, including the Paiutes practice of extorting tolls from wagon trains in the form of cattle and weapons. But the U.S. government primarily wanted direct control of the Utah territory because the Saints had drawn a line in the sand by telling the federal authorities that the Mormons, not Washington, would dictate policy there.

One of the first acts of Brigham Young was to publicly reject the precedent of the common law -- the system of jurisprudence based on judicial precedents rather than statutory laws. The Mormons repeatedly sought help and protection from the American courts during their oppression and were often rejected or ignored by the courts. Therefore, once the Mormons were free of the American court system, they turned their backs on it. Instead of allowing judges to rule based on precedents, Young created a system of Probate Courts that relied instead on mountain law, which used the church teachings as the basis for judicial acts.  As a result, the Saints turned the tables on their Gentile adversaries, who found themselves drawn into a court that was heavily biased against them. Immigrants who traveled through Utah would commit a minor offense and then be subjected to heavy fines that required payment before the Mormons would allow them to leave the territory. Conversely, Gentiles who brought suits against Mormons would be forced to argue their cases without the help of trained lawyers before juries and judges who felt no obligation to follow the laws of men.

The Mormons of the time also practiced a form of moral relativism that they called lying for the Lord, in which they were directed to perjure themselves to protect another Saint if the cause was just in the eyes of God. That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another, wrote Joseph Smith during the Missouri Persecutions.

Even more forcefully, Young defended the territorys rejection of common-law precedence by stating, I live above the law, and so do this people.

When the federal judges of the territory reasserted that common law should be applied to legal cases in Utah, the territorial legislature responded by giving the only non-federal courts in existence at the time -- the probate courts -- original jurisdiction over all cases, criminal and civil. Thus, courts that ordinarily dealt with the administration of wills and estates became trial courts for everything from adultery to homicide.

Over time, word flowed east about the conditions in Utah and the manner in which the Saints had effectively rendered the U.S. government impotent in the territory. Mixed in with the stories of Youngs godlike rule were increasingly disturbing reports of a way of life that was not only alien to the rest of America, but morally offensive to most Gentiles.  Much of what was reported was inflammatory and exaggerated -- the same types of slander and fear-based fables that had followed the Saints wherever they tried to settle. But at its heart, the news often contained nuggets of truth that shocked those who heard it.

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