Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Report: William P. MacKinnon, “Thomas L. Kane and the Utah War”

Report: William P. MacKinnon, “Thomas L. Kane and the Utah War”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 17, 2008

David J. Whittaker, curator of Mormon and western materials for L. Tom Perry Special Collections at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library, has organized an exhibition and lecture series featuring the Thomas L. and Elizabeth W. Kane papers now housed at BYU.

Last Wednesday’s (November 12) lecture by Bill MacKinnon was the first of the series I had been able to attend (see this Juvenile Instructor post for the listing of past and future entries in the series). The lecture was held in the Lee Library auditorium; I estimate that about 150 people were there. The lecture was taped for future broadcast on KBYU. David J. Whittaker introduced Bill like the old friend that the two of them are, and Bill gave his lecture, entitled “Thomas L. Kane and the Utah War: BYU’s Kane Collection as Lodestone.”

Bill first defined the Utah War and outlined Kane’s role in it. (I’m taking it for granted that Keepa’s regular readers have a general idea of both the course of the War and Kane’s role, but if anyone is shaky about that, please don’t be embarrassed about saying so. I’ve given a few public addresses in the past couple of years geared toward bringing everybody up to speed so that nobody needs to be embarrassed; I could post the text of one of those “primers” if it would be useful.) Some of the points that Bill included were that “it was President James Buchanan’s 1857 effort to replace Brigham Young as governor of Utah Territory and to install his successor with an army escort of 2,500 troops”; tensions leading to the confrontation had been building almost since the 1847 pioneer arrival; it had nothing to do with polygamy, and little to nothing to do with Mormon rebellion; and the term “Utah War” is now the accepted, scholarly label, replacing the army-centric “Utah Expedition” and Utah-centric “Johnston’s Army” and other parochial terms.

Although Brigham Young and Thomas L. Kane had been out of touch with each other for at least a year, when Young asked Kane for political help early in the Buchanan administration, Kane leaped into action. Bill traced this action by quoting from the letters of both Young and Kane, and from letters of Mormon representatives in the East and government officials in Buchanan’s administration – it’s always fascinating to me to hear history in the words of those who lived it, and Bill made liberal use of those voices in his paper.

He also used those voices – more available than ever before, due to the extensive collection of Kane papers now available at BYU – to explore why Kane felt impelled to involve himself first in the politics of Washington and Salt Lake City, and then in the difficult wintertime journey from Washington to Panama to California and then across the deserts to Salt Lake, to negotiate personally for the resolution of difficulties. As motivating factors, Bill suggests:

  • Kane’s earlier sympathy with the plight of the Mormons in 1846 Iowa and his subsequent relationship with us.
  • The death of Kane’s older brother Elisha Kent Kane, a famous and heroic figure due to his extensive Arctic travels – Elisha died relatively young, and Kane shows signs both of wanting to maintain the public prestige of the Kane name so brilliantly represented by his brother, and to do something in his own right to prove himself the equal of his brother.
  • A wish to demonstrate to his successful and respected father that Kane, too, could be heroic and productive.

These motivations, and others, were represented in the written records of those who knew Kane, and again Bill made liberal use of those contemporary voices. He quotes Kane as having told Buchanan that “I will not be a disappointed man unless I fail to prove myself.” His wife sought the blessings of Heaven on Kane’s enterprise, noting with joy that the trials the couple was then enduring had “unit[ed] Tom and me in the bonds of a common faith.” And Kane told John Bernhisel, Utah’s Congressional delegate, that he had undertaken the mission “in the interest of the whole United States, and of humanity as well as the friends he loves in Utah.”

My favorite quotation is one Bill used near the end of his At Sword’s Point. Part I, a letter written from Paris, France, by Kane’s younger brother John. John told his family he was glad they had not fought Kane’s decision to go to Utah, expressing admiration for Kane’s character and confidence in his abilities:

I have great confidence in Tom’s long head and unbounded energy, and however impossible a thing may seem I regard the fact of Tom’s having undertaken it as more than half a success. … At home Tom’s big soul was preying on his body. The loss of dear Elish[a] and [financial difficulties leading to the cancellation of cherished plans] were killing him by inches. He is too great a man to occupy himself with trifles. … Now he has got an object large enough and noble enough to draw his thoughts away from the poor self on which they were fading … and I for one say God bless and speed him with all my heart.

Bill also examined the allegation that Kane had been a secret member of the LDS Church (he hadn’t), and evaluated the significance and impact of Kane’s mission. Bill’s conclusion after years of reflection is that “Thomas L. Kane’s intervention made an enormous, indispensable difference in the outcome of this confrontation. Absent Kane’s gratuitous intervention, the result could well have been substantial bloodshed.” This conclusion is in marked contrast to other evaluations that Bill mentioned, including the grudging, almost invisible credit given by Buchanan to Kane after he returned East with the news that allowed Buchanan to declare victory and halt the wartime expenses that were emptying the government treasury and bankrupting Buchanan’s political credit.

Because the exhibit and lecture series are largely in celebration of the library’s acquisition of the Kane papers, Bill also took a few minutes to identify some places in his research where the Kane papers had been crucial, not only because they contain much of Kane’s writing but also because they include family documents which record details Kane himself did not. He also alerted students in the audience that as abundant as BYU’s Kane collection is, it is not the sole important source of Kane materials, and cautioned them that anyone working on matters involving the Kanes should also consult collections and six or eight other repositories which he listed. He concluded by listing a few of his “most wanted” documents – Utah War- and Kane-related items that are known to have existed in 1857 or 1858, but which have not yet been discovered in any repository.

As always, Bill’s manner made his paper a pleasure to hear – you really can’t overstate the importance of speaking up, speaking clearly, and pausing for an instant at places where the text might be difficult for listeners to grasp, or where there is an occasion for a quick chuckle. Bill knows how to do that, and I could tell it was effective by watching the note-taking going on in the audience, and noting that chuckles did ripple across the audience at suitable moments.

When David Whittaker thanked Bill for his address, he presented Bill with a beautifully framed original 19th century lithograph portrait of Thomas L. Kane. Then we adjourned to the exhibit space in the Special Collections library, where the staff was still busily erecting the exhibit, and a lot of us spent quite a bit of time talking with each other and munching on refreshments. David Whittaker knows how to throw a scholarly party like that – he had prepared a four-page glossy “Guide to the Sources” for Kane research, a one-page selected bibliography of Bill’s published work on the Utah War, and advertising cards/bookmarks on the lecture series as a whole and Bill’s entry in it.

The next entry in the series is Thomas G. Alexander’s “Thomas L. Kane and the ‘Mormon Problem’ in National Politics,” scheduled for Wednesday, December 10, 3 p.m. in the Lee Library auditorium. Well worth your time if you’re in Provo or Salt Lake.



  1. Wow. That really does sound great. Thanks for the write up!

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 17, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

  2. Wow. I really enjoyed John Kane’s description of his brother. That was touching.

    I’ve been more interested in the Utah War ever since I learned that a 3rd-great-grandfather was a member of Johnston’s Army.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — November 17, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

  3. Thanks, J. It was great.

    ‘Fess up, Ben — who’s Grandpa? (You never know what somebody might have to contribute to your family history if you drop a name or two.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 17, 2008 @ 4:36 pm

  4. Thanks so much for this report, Ardis. Those of us who live far away really appreciate these details.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — November 17, 2008 @ 4:37 pm

  5. I suppose that someone has written about the connection (if any) between Kane’s family and Pres. Buchanan. Both were prominent Pennsylvanians, and Kane’s father, according to Wikipedia, was a Democrat, a federal district court judge from the mid 1840s onward. One would think he must have had connections with Buchanan, which might have emboldened Thomas L. to approach Buchanan with the offer to intervene in Utah.

    This comment may simply prove that I’m too ignorant of the matter to join in the conversation. If so, Ardis, you know how to delete it.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 17, 2008 @ 6:28 pm

  6. Mark B., not ignorant at all. You’re right, and Bill addressed some of this in his talk. Since I’m a little allergic to politics right now, maybe Bill will see this and comment further.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 17, 2008 @ 6:41 pm

  7. Thanks for the write-up, Ardis. I was bummed that I couldn’t attend. I had a thesis chapter due last week, and despite my efforts, didn’t finish in time to attend MacKinnon’s lecture.

    Comment by Christopher — November 17, 2008 @ 7:49 pm

  8. Thanks for the information, Ardis. Your account made me feel like I was there. I’m always happy to see Bill get positive reinforcement and recognition for all of his good work. Bill, if you are hovering, congratulations on your presentation.

    Comment by Maurine — November 17, 2008 @ 11:59 pm

  9. Maurine (#8), thanks for your kind words. Mark B (#5), you’ve got the story straight. Judge John K. Kane, Thomas L.’s Pop, was a close friend of James Buchanan’s from the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. When, at Brigham Young’s request, TLK first wrote to Buchanan on March 21, 1857 to recommend his continuance as Utah’s governor (Young’s term had run out in 1854 and he was serving on a day-to-day basis), I don’t think that he knew Buchanan personally, but presumed on the father’s relationship to make the approach.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — November 18, 2008 @ 1:24 am

  10. Ben Pratt (#2), I join Ardis in wondering who your 3rd-great-grandfather was. It would be fascinating to find that he, like Mitt Romney’s great-grandfather Wilcken, had a foot in both camps of the Utah War.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — November 18, 2008 @ 1:32 am

  11. Ardis,
    Could you post your “primer” on the Utah War?

    Has there ever been an analysis of the positive impacts Johnson’s Army may have had in the long term? I realize that this sounds like a “back-handed” approach to history, but many remarkable important developments in culture and civilization have grown out of otherwise regrettable events.

    From a personal perspective, one of the ancestors from the “Mormon” side of my family tree was a German immigrant who became a soldier in Johnson’s Army and stayed in Utah to marry a young pioneer immigrant from England. I guess I owe something to Buchannan and Johnson after all.

    Comment by Jeff Taylor — November 18, 2008 @ 3:37 am

  12. Since some people are mentioning their connections to the Utah War, here’s one of mine. My Irish ancestor didn’t leave much of a record (just a few pages) but he did say this:

    I went to work for Bro. Eldredge, and worked for him until the Fall of 1857. Then I went out to guard Uncle Sam against Johnson’s Army, who were sent out to annihilate the Mormons, but they found it to be a blessing by them leaving food and things they could use.

    And from his daughter:

    My father, Samuel Linton and my Uncle Peter Sutton went to Echo Canyon to guard against Johnson’s Army. They naturally spoke of their sisters, so I concluded that father became acquainted with mother, Ellen Sutton, as they were married in April, 1858.

    Like Jeff Taylor mentioned about his ancestors in comment 11, that’s another positive result of the war.

    Comment by Researcher — November 18, 2008 @ 7:41 am

  13. I love reading this stuff. Thanks Ardis.

    Comment by BruceC — November 18, 2008 @ 9:51 am

  14. Thanks Ardis for the wonderful write-up. I felt like I was there.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — November 18, 2008 @ 10:52 am

  15. Jeff Taylor (#11) has perceptively asked whether any work has been done about analyzing the positive, long-term impact of the Utah War. I’d have to say not a great deal. The overwhelming amount of attention has been on the negative aspects of the confrontation, with one of the few positives mentioned, usually by Mormon-oriented commentators, being the accomplishment by Brigham Young and the Nauvoo Legion in keeping the army’s Utah Expedition out of the Salt Lake Valley during 1857.

    As Jeff implies, there were, of course, some positives, not the least of which was the chain of events by which Utah’s society was leavened by the departure of some U.S. Army soldiers from the service (by discharge or desertion), their decision to remain in Utah, and their subsequent integration into Utah society by marrying into LDS families, as in the case of Jeff’s ancestor, one of Governor Huntsman’s, and the great-grandfather of Mitt Romney, who deserted from the Fourth U.S. Artillery at Fort Bridger in October 1857 and subsequently became bodyguard, driver, nurse, and pallbearer for Presidents John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff as well as the adopted son of George Q. Cannon, one of the most influential LDS leaders of the 19th century and a member of the FP. Researchers Audrey Godfrey, Joan Nay, and Val Holley, who live in such widespread locations as Utah and Washington, D.C., are working on many other cases of such soldiers/veterans who “stayed” (as well as Mormon women who “left”).

    Aside from these individual stories — which include an impact in their formative years on such Nauvoo Legionnairs as Researcher’s Linton and Sutton ancestor (#12)– there were societal impacts, some of which were positive. The Utah War, in effect, unleashed a series of economic, geographical, religious, political, and even literary forces that took decades to run their course. In some cases, these forces are still at work. Most obvious is the fact that the Utah War changed Utah and Mormonism forever, so if one considers the present tone of the religion and the state to be a positive, both came about through a chain of events for which the Utah War was a powerful influence. The Utah War started the beginning of Utah’s emergence from the deliberate isolation that B.Y. had sought in trekking to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. In the immediate wake of the Utah War, Brigham Young was no longer governor, the LDS/non-Mormon ratio changed permanently, alternative newspapers sprang up alongside the “Deseret News,” etc. Partly — but certainly not wholly — becauuse of the war oommunications links were forged that were not in place in 1857. At that time the telegraph line from the east ended at Boonville, MO; in October 1861 it went transcontinental by the joining of eastern and western wires in Salt Lake City, thereby putting out of business an enterprise that had been started in 1860 by civilian veterans of the Utah War — the Pony Express. Ditto to a lesser extent for the transcontinental railroad. You know where that was completed. Surely the work done by Mormons to complete the western end of the Union Pacific R.R. through the canyons of southwestern Wyoming and northeastern Utah had something to do with the skills learned in the Utah War by such leading forces as Cols. Chauncey West and Lorin Farr. Col. Albert Sidney Johnston was responsible for a quantum jump in road/trail development after 1858, including the route through Provo Canyon to Fort Bridger, that from Camp Floyd to Carson Valley (explored by Capt. Simpson and Mormon guide Geo. Washington Bean), and between Camp Floyd and what is now west-central Colorado (explored by Col. Loring and the Regiment of U.S. Riflemen during their return to NM from Camp Floyd). Because of the Utah War, Brigham Young and UT “sat out” the Civil War, which prompted Lincoln to send in a brigade of California Volunteers under Gen. Connor, who, in turn, stimulated the search for minerals in UT in a way that B.Y. had not done. A very long linkage of events, but should we credit the Utah War with beginning a chain of events that produced the origins of UT’s mining booms, including the discovery of copper in Bingham Canyon? Mebbe.

    Then there’s the Utah War’s influence on Russian Tsar Alexander II’s December 1857 decision to begin negotiations to sell Alaska to the U.S. because of fear of a mass Mormon exodus to Russian America from the Salt Lake Valley ahead of the Utah Expedition’s entrance into the Salt Lake Valley. Ditto re the June 1858 decision of the British Govt. to form the crown colony of British Columbia.

    Well, that’s a start on Jeff Taylor’s question. For more read my “Epilogue to the Utah War: Impact and Legacy” in “Journal of Mormon History” (Spring 2003).

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — November 19, 2008 @ 10:37 am

  16. Great stuff, Bill. And thanks for the link to your article.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 19, 2008 @ 11:34 am