Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » “The ‘Wild West’ Has Ceased to Be”

“The ‘Wild West’ Has Ceased to Be”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 01, 2009

David G. at Juvenile Instructor (the blog, not the periodical) has just posted Mormonism’s Unbroken Past: Transcending the 1890 Rupture, noting that 1890 is as historically significant to the Mormons as that year is to the wider history of the West: For us, the 1890 Manifesto marked as great a shift in outlook, traditional Mormon historical thinking goes, as the 1890 “closing of the frontier,” declared in 1893 by Western historian Frederick Jackson Turner, signaled in the development of all that was distinctively American.

This is an artificial break in both fields of history, David writes, discussing a group of Mormon historical writings that “transcend the 1890 barrier” by showing how issues in the Mormon 20th century “have roots in an unbroken past.” I agree with David – 1890 is a convenient but artificial division, and it is misleading to write as though 1890 marked such a clean break in our history as we have sometimes treated it.

I have no reason to believe that George Q. Cannon was familiar with Turner’s 1893 essay, yet an 1899 editorial for the Juvenile Instructor (the periodical, not the blog) echoes Turner in declaring the recent closing of the frontier. Where Turner regrets the end of forces that have shaped American character and destiny, doubting whether anything in the future could be found to nourish a continued American uniqueness, Cannon claims a central Mormon role in the closing of that frontier, looking forward to a future marked with “many another change that is freighted with good to mankind.”

For Cannon, the end of the frontier was only one more revolution in the rolling forth of the stone cut out of the mountain without hands.

The “Wild West” Has Ceased to Be.

Two years ago the people of Utah celebrated the semi-centennial, that is, the fiftieth anniversary, of the founding of the commonwealth. In July, 1847, the Pioneers came; in July, 1897, their descendants and the other inhabitants of the State they made possible, united by hundreds of thousands in doing honor to them and their deeds.

As everybody knows, the Latter-day Saints were the first to push out into the far west with the intention of colonizing. It is not yet fifty-five years since they crossed the Mississippi. That mighty river was then, on the western side, the practical limit of population, of civilization, of home and of organized community in the United States. Let us add five years to the time since the “Father of Waters” formed this boundary. That would make it sixty years ago – and in writing and remembering, it is easier to say sixty than fifty-five.

Sixty years isn’t much in the life of a country or a nation. In some countries it takes that long to work out a single reform. for instance, it is just a year less than sixty since the penny post was established in the united kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland – that is, a uniform system and rate of postage for all parts of the dominion. Yet after all these years there are still the colonies of Australia and the Cape of Good Hope which are not included in the penny post connections of the British Empire. There was a great amount of congratulation last Christmas when all parts of the empire except the two countries named were brought within the reach of this cheap convenience and necessity. The United States has already done better than that in Cuba and the Philippines: In less than a year after the declaration of war with Spain, letters from Havana or Manila to Salt Lake City cost no more for transmission than from Ogden or Provo.

But this is a digression. It is alluded to merely to show that it takes time to accomplish national improvements and reforms. Yet it serves to illustrate by striking comparison the stupendous change that has been wrought in the condition of our continent within a little more than half a century. On this side of the Mississippi river lies two thirds of the area of the United States; and sixty years ago it was practically an unknown region. There was not a bridge over that river nor over any others of the streams west to the Pacific Ocean; there was not even a traveled road. Buffalo roamed by millions over the plains; and these, with antelope, prairie dogs and Indians, made up the sum of life and population. California’s gold had not been heard of; neither had the grain, fruits and vegetables, nor the timber, coal and minerals of the vast empire of which Utah now forms a part. Omaha and Denver and Salt Lake City were not only not in existence – they were not even dreamed of; even Chicago had hardly as many thousands of people as it has millions today. The West was indeed “wild” – it was boundless, trackless, and in many parts barren and forbidding.

What a change these brief sixty years have brought! Now there is no “wild West.” There is no western frontier, save the Pacific’s strand, and even that is o’erleaped in recent months of annexation and conquest. The buffalo has disappeared forever, and of the Indians there remains only a shadow of their former number. Five great lines of railroad unite the oceans with trans-continental bands of steel, traversing plains and piercing mountain ranges where formerly only the howl of the wolf wakened the echoes. Nineteen states and four territories have been carved out of the region in question, and they contain over sixteen millions of population, living in nearly two hundred cities of more than five thousand people each, five of these cities having more than a hundred thousand inhabitants each, to say nothing of smaller towns, villages, settlements and individual homes, ranches, etc. Moreover, the people of the West are far richer in proportion to numbers than are those of the East: more of them own their own homes; they inhabit the granary of the world; and their burden of debt is much lighter than is that of the inhabitants of the other side of the great river. In proportion to numbers they have more schools, and every state and territory has its normal schools, colleges, and universities – with an average of illiteracy far below that of even cultured and wealthy New England. Here is found nearly every known mineral, of a value exceeding the treasures of Biblical Ophir and Tarshish; while thousands of square miles of waving grain, smiling gardens and prolific orchards furnish a source of wealth more certain and even more abundant than the precious metals themselves.

Years ago, when the trans-Mississippi country was still unexplored and uninhabited, though the leaders of the Latter-day Saints had already some thought of entering it, Thomas Benton declared, in a burst of eloquence almost prophetic, that the “way to the East [that is, the Orient] is from the West.” The situation today fulfills his prediction. The oriental nations are best reached form Pacific Coast ports of the United States; and the great ocean is ploughed by international shipping carrying a commerce that means the eventual leveling and elevating and enlightening of the most stubborn and secluded of the nations of the old world.

The part which the Latter-day Saints have performed in making possible and working out this great transformation is so important as to receive general credit now whenever the subject is discussed. They are the recognized pioneers and leaders in the movement which led to the development of the country. That there is no longer any “wild West” is due primarily to them. Their destiny put them in the front rank in this, as in many another change that is freighted with good to mankind. The world is sometimes slow to recognize merit and to bestow honor where it belongs; but it comes at last, as is shown in the fact that no congress, convention, celebration or any other public event on this side of the Mississippi is regarded as complete without the prominent participation and assistance of the people who settled Utah fifty-two years ago.

The Editor.

“Editor” [George Q. Cannon], “The ‘Wild West’ Has Ceased to Be,” Juvenile Instructor, 1 May 1899, 295-297.



  1. Fine post, Ardis. My impression is that historians in general didn’t really pick up on Cannon’s view of the significant and rather unique role that migrating Mormons played in the settlement of the West until only the last twenty or thirty years — before that we were just a footnote.

    Comment by Dave — February 1, 2009 @ 4:52 am

  2. Wow, I’m wondering if I should forward this to my Literature of the American West professor . . .

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — February 1, 2009 @ 5:43 am

  3. Our pioneer ancestors were transforming agents, and that should be a good reminder that we modern LDS need to be as well.

    We are not “of” the world, because our intention is to spark progress and make the world better.

    Comment by S.Faux — February 1, 2009 @ 7:44 am

  4. …o’erleaped…

    What a wonderful usage. :-) Great post, as always; thanks, Arids. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — February 1, 2009 @ 8:08 am

  5. Excellent.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 1, 2009 @ 11:40 am

  6. This is great, Ardis; great find.

    Comment by Ben — February 1, 2009 @ 11:43 am

  7. First, another great post, Ardis.

    Second, two mostly irrelevant comments.

    Bruce’s comment about “o’erleaped” made me think of Romeo’s explanation about how he got into the Capulets’ orchard (because I thought it included that same word). Turns out I was right about the “o’er” part, but not the rest:

    With love’s light wings did I o’er-perch these walls;
    For stony limits cannot hold love out,
    And what love can do that dares love attempt;
    Therefore thy kinsmen are no let to me.

    Romeo and Juliet, II, ii.

    And, Charles Peterson has argued (beats me where right now) that Turner was about 50 years early–that the “frontier” was alive and well in some parts of the interior west until about the beginning of World War II–in particular, the Little Colorado country of eastern Arizona. (That, of course, is where Peterson lived his first 18 years or so, and that may explain why he began thinking that way.) (You might check the preface of Take Up Your Mission–I can’t find my copy.)

    Comment by Mark B. — February 1, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

  8. Thanks for this post. I wonder what the next frontier is for the kingdom and its saints, what type of wilderness will we need to traverse? Has there been any remarks along these lines by church leaders?

    Comment by frankg — February 1, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

  9. frankg, I don’t know what church leaders would say if you asked them, but every new country penetrated by the missionaries, and every new set of records processed to allow us to perform ordinances for the dead, seems to me to be a kind of advancing frontier. We have so much ahead of us in regard to both of those fields!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 1, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

  10. One of the things that happened in 1890 was an end to the policy of using Church courts to resolve general legal disputes among church members, at least in Salt Lake County. There was some persistence of the practice in more outlying communities (St. George, Summit County), but there was apparently direction from the First Presidency that the practice of maintaining a separate legal system for intra-Mormon legal disputes should be discontinued. The Salt Lake High council transcripts I have read refer to the change, but do not explain the reason for it. It may have been to eliminate a point of friction with the gentile community, which perceived the church court system as making Mormons “a law unto themselves”, even though it was specifically designed to NOT affect the interests of any non-Mormon, including the stockholders of a corporation, if they were not themselves members of the Church.

    Comment by Raymond Takashi Swenson — February 2, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

  11. Thanks for posting this, Ardis. It does fit rather well with my post.

    A few general thoughts. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of the role of our pioneers in settling the West, but GQC is wrong to say that no one was colonizing the region west of the Mississippi prior to the Mormons. There were already people in Oregon, California, and of course, Texas. I think this tells us more about how Mormons in 1899 were remembering the past than the past itself.

    Also, historiographically speaking, when Mormons entered the narratives of historians prior to Brodie’s No Man Knows My History (1945), it was usually in relation to LDS participation in the settlement of the West. Scholars discussed Brigham Young much more than Joseph Smith. Historians trained in the academy latched onto Turner’s frontier thesis and reinvisioned the place of the Saints in American history. Rather than escaping from the Gentiles in the East, the Mormons were now the vanguard of civilization. Edje is doing some important work on aspects of this.

    Comment by David G. — February 3, 2009 @ 11:16 am

  12. And as a sidenote, with the advent of the New Western history in the mid-1980s, tracing the history of the white settlement of the West is out, and studying the minorities already here is in. So that leaves Mormons (and Utah) in a bit of a nether-region in this new paradigm. Either we’re seen as part of the conquerors, taking over Indian lands, or we’re seen as part of the conquered, being Americanized by the Eastern establishment. Paul Reeve’s book is a cutting-edge effort to transcend this dichotomy.

    Many historians see the West now, not as a frontier just waiting to be filled up by whites, but as a meeting ground of many different kinds of peoples. Within this framework, California is king, because it is one of the most diverse places on earth. Utah, on the other hand, gets little attention from historians, other than to get noted as a wonderland for white people.

    Comment by David G. — February 3, 2009 @ 11:28 am

  13. Like David G, I stopped short when I read Cannon’s line:

    As everybody knows, the Latter-day Saints were the first to push out into the far west with the intention of colonizing.

    I wondered how it might be read in a way that would make it true, and came up with some possibilities:

    Maybe he meant the “interior of the far west”, which would exclude the California and Oregon settlements (but what of the Spaniards/Mexicans in New Mexico?)

    Maybe he meant the entire far west, but was excluding all the trappers, missionaries (the Whitmans at Walla Walla, the Franciscans in California), other mountain men and adventurers. But what about John Sutter? Or the Donner party, which had traveled that same trail from somewhere east of Ft. Laramie to the Salt Lake Valley? (I know the current usage is to call it the Donner-Reed party, but that makes me feel really bad for Donna Reed, who doesn’t deserve to be thought of in the same moment as cannibalism.)

    Or, perhaps he was just wrong. Or just being parochial.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 3, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

  14. {sigh} Utah always gets little attention from historians … unless it’s a weird story!

    Thanks for all of this, David, especially for the link to Edje’s post. Looking at it now, I remember having read it — I’m sorry that I didn’t think of it to link to this post.

    Yeah, GQC was wrong. We tend to forget that much of the trail through the Wasatch mountains followed by Brigham Young and the 1847 vanguard company was blazed the year before by the Donner Party, for example. I should perhaps say once in a while that much of what is posted here is flawed but is posted because of its historical “flavor” despite the errors. It’s who we were, flaws and all.

    [Mark and I cross-commented, or I wouldn’t have repeated part of what he wrote.]

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 3, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

  15. That’s all right, Ardis. You’re a lifesaver for all the readers who instinctively skip my comments.

    But, your comment raises another question–when did everybody become “pioneers”? Wasn’t that term originally limited to that first company, which you refer to as the “vanguard company”? Now, everybody who arrived before 1869 is a pioneer, at least according to those pioneers’ daughters. And who’s going to argue with them?

    Comment by Mark B. — February 3, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

  16. Not a soul, if they know what’s good for them, Mark. Not a soul. :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 3, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

  17. In pointing out that GQC was wrong, I in no way intended to imply what he said was not worth reading. In fact, I personally find it to be more interesting, because it tells us a great deal about how he (and other LDS at the time) saw themselves. Whether GQC knew about Turner or not, there is definitely a sense in the article that settling the frontier was central to American history, and claiming to be at the vanguard of that was a way for Mormons at the time to emphasize their Americanness.

    Mark, you basically lay out the history of conceptualization of who were pioneers. If you’re interested in the subject, I suggest reading Eric Eliason’s dissertation, “Celebrating Zion: Pioneers in Mormon Popular Historical Expression,” which has been published by BYU Studies.

    Comment by David G. — February 3, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

  18. I think a good master’s thesis, for anyone who’s looking for a topic, would be to look at the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers within the context of the other popular historical societies popping up all over the West in the last few decades of the 19th-century and in the early 20th century. With the last of the first settlers dying off, many started to join together to form societies to commemorate what they had done, and to make sure their kids remembered what they had done. UNLV historian David Wrobel argues that these societies were a means by which the elderly could hold on to some of the prominence that they saw was quickly being transferred to the next generation. I think looking at the DUP in this context would be a good way to explore how Mormon history connects with what was going on in other western states.

    Comment by David G. — February 3, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

  19. Ardis, I have every reason to believe that GQC was familiar with FJT’s frontier thesis. GQC was at the Columbia Exposition Where Turner delivered his thesis. If he didn’t hear it personally he probably would have heard about it in the news or even read an available copy. It would have been a natural topic of interest for GQC. Check Davis Binton.

    Comment by J. Paul — February 3, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

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