The great project of turning the West into part of the United States, initiated in 1803 and begun in earnest in the 1840s, had made little progress in many places. Much remained flexible and contingent about life on its complex border into the second half of the nineteenth century. Residents of the West seemed quite ambivalent about nationality, easily claiming new citizenship when it served personal or business needs. During a time when no one knew which nation or empire would finally impose control, effective trade was the sole source of power. And it continued to be a world defined by personal connections. (30)
So argues Anne Hyde, Professor of History at Colorado College, in Empires, Nations, and Families, winner of the prestigious Bancroft Prize earlier this year. Although the first word in her title is “empires,” the Spanish, French, and British empires play only a small role in her work. Empires certainly claimed title to much of the land that would become the western United States, but Hyde contends that empires, and later nations (Mexico and even the United States), exercised very little actual control west of the Mississippi prior to the 1860s. Power rested instead in the hands of indigenous nations and Euro-American fur traders who successfully tapped into Native kin networks via marriage and ceremonial gift-giving. As Hyde suggests in the excerpt above, empires and nations came and went, while elite fur trading families and Native nations maintained control in the region.
Hyde’s focus on families rather than empires and nations allows her to bring in a host of new actors who would normally not appear in syntheses, most notably women and children. While keeping one finger on the evolving political and military chronologies that form the backbone of narrative histories, Hyde keeps nine fingers, figuratively speaking, on families in various regions of the emerging West—the Pacific Northwest, California, the Southwest, Texas, the Central Plains, and the Great Lakes region. What she finds is a mixed-race world, with Euro-American men married to indigenous and Mexican women who provided the essential contacts for their husbands to create their trading networks. Their mixed-race children lived comfortably within worlds of their mothers—dominated by powerful Native nations such as the Comanches, Cheyennes, and Navajos. Some mixed-race children also functioned well in the worlds of their fathers, although some faced discrimination among other Euro-Americans. It was not until the United States conquered northern Mexico in the late 1840s that this fur trade economy that allowed for relative equality among various peoples began to unravel, although it would take decades longer for the United States to claim full sovereignty in the region.
Relatively speaking, religion is absent from Hyde’s text, as she prefers to analyze trade networks rather than religious ties. Certainly, she mentions Catholic and Protestant missionaries, but few receive extended treatment. On multiple occasions, she mentions in passing how religious ordinances such as baptisms and marriages tied families together across racial and ethnic divides, but rarely does she take the opportunity to further explore these ideas. The exception in Empires, Nations, and Families are Mormons. The Latter-day Saints were latecomers in Hyde’s story, only making an appearance when the fur trade and its accompanying world was on the decline, soon to be replaced by a settler society that had no need for harmony among Euro-Americans and Natives. Rather than primarily analyze the Latter-day Saints as encroaching settlers dispossessing and replacing Natives, Hyde deals with Mormon “otherness” by comparing the Latter-day Saints with Indians:
One surprising native group was the Mormons or Latter-day Saints, who replaced the Osages in terms of public worry and press attention on the Missouri frontier. Like the Osages, they were small in number but effective in getting the attention of imperial or national officialdom. Taking the analogy further, like many Native nations, the Mormons traveled in family groups, did business almost exclusively with their kin, and took great pleasure in refusing to do things the “American way.” Maybe a better comparison is to see the Mormons as more like the Comanches. Similar in numbers, eventually arranged across a forbidding piece of isolated desert landscape, they controlled trade and travel in the region using kinship connections, price controls, and fear.
Mormons and Indians disrupted Anglo-American assumptions about how settlement should occur and who should benefit from it. Unlike Native societies, however, Mormonism developed out of the heart of Anglo-American culture and religion and operated as a sort of shadow critique, which is why it upset people so much. In the same year that young Mariano Vallejo and his family fled the coast of California because of rumored French pirates landing in Monterrey, another family left New England for upstate New York. Less romantic than pirates, but equally infamous and misunderstood, the Mormon religion that would come out of this move to the eastern edge of the western frontier would prove even more unsettling. (358)
After making this initial comparison, however, Hyde does not fully develop her Mormon/Indian comparisons as the text progresses, although the assumption remains implicit throughout.
She devotes four subsections in two chapters to Mormonism, which is better than average for western history surveys. In her chapter on the U.S.-Mexican War, Hyde dedicates ten pages to a discussion of Mormon origins through Winter Quarters (359-69). Although sound overall, this section contains multiple minor errors and head-scratching assertions, that makes the reader wonder how closely she read her sources (which include Bushman, Brodie, Quinn, LeSueur, Arrington and Bitton). For example, she claims that at the age of 12, JS was apprenticed out to a newspaper printer (359), makes no mention of the First Vision (359), states that JS reburied the plates, per Moroni’s instructions (360), omits mention of the importance of the Book of Mormon in shaping early Mormon understandings of Indians/Lamanites and their Missouri Zion (360), confuses the chronologies of the Ohio and Missouri settlements in the 1830s (361), claims that polygamy was a primary source of contention in Missouri (361), and that JS openly practiced polygamy in Nauvoo (364, 365). The best that can be said here is that Hyde is in good company, as most surveys that treat Mormons make similar errors. Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought is a notable exception.
The most compelling element of this section is Hyde’s use of Mary Haskins Parker (Richards) to explore how a literate Mormon woman experienced Mormonism after converting in England in the early 1840s and migrating to Nauvoo. Hyde traces Parker’s marriage to Samuel Richards and her husband’s dedication to building the temple even though the Latter-day Saints would soon leave Nauvoo. In the temple, the couple would receive “the rites that. . .stood at the heart of Mormon religion” (366). Hyde then discusses the couple’s preparations to leave the city, while Samuel prepared to leave his wife for a mission, a hardship that prepared Mary for the difficulties that awaited at Winter Quarters. Later in the chapter, Hyde discusses the Mormon Battalion (388-92), which also impacted Mary because her brother-in-law, Joseph Richards—who was supposed to help her on the trail—“voluntarily” enlisted and died before returning to his family. By narrating much of this section from the perspective of a Mormon woman, Hyde successfully integrates Mormons into her family-centered approach that runs through the entire work. She does not explicitly return to her comparison of Mormons with Indians in this section.
Mormons return to Hyde’s analysis in a later chapter on the United States’ struggles to impose its authority on the new territories. She devotes ten pages to 1850s Utah (452-62), in the context of other crises in the territorial system in Gold Rush California and Bleeding Kansas. This section contained fewer noticeable errors, perhaps reflecting Hyde’s background as a western historian who has likely taught on the subject. Here she resumes the the story of the recently-arrived Richards family and their efforts to establish a home in Utah territory. Hyde, relying on Arrington, Fox, and May, describes Mormon communalism, tithing, stewardship, and the Perpetual Immigration Fund. In addition, she explores the Richards family’s experience with plural marriage, as Samuel took six additional wives in the 1850s. Hyde then describes the growing conflict with federal officials—relying primarily on Bagley‘s, Bigler‘s, and Campbell‘s writings—over land, Indian policy, and polygamy. Only here does Hyde mention the Latter-day Saints’ distinctive beliefs regarding Indians as Lamanites, who as the Battle Axes of the Lord would help the Mormons destroy Gentile America, and Young’s instructions to missionaries to intermarry with the Natives. She concludes the section with a discussion of the Utah War, relying on the aforementioned sources and MacKinnon.
Later in the chapter, Hyde describes the Mountain Meadows Massacre (484-88) in the context of the 1862 Dakota War and the Sand Creek Massacre of 1862. She quotes Walker, Turley, and Leonard primarily to complicate their argument that, aside from that fateful week in September 1857, the perpetrators were good and honest frontiersmen. Hyde uses this to comment on the tendency among white settlers to simultaneously use violence while claiming innocence:
A nation of squatters who used violence to establish rights and to dispossess other people needs to recognize itself in these actions. Anglo-American settlers, however laudable their individual intentions, chose to settle on land owned by others and demanded that the U.S. government use all of its power to remove them, making these ‘ordinary nineteenth-century frontiersmen’ into killers. [The conflicts discussed here] compel us to consider them as logical productions of the culture that housed them: the world Euro-Americans worked so very hard to situate in the North American West. (484-85)
While Hyde places the blame for Mountain Meadows on the Mormons, she contextualizes the massacre as a result of the United States’ failed effort to coerce the Latter-day Saints into submitting to American authority. Although Hyde relies primarily on Brooks, Bagley, and Bigler in her notes, she avoids entering into the historiographical mire over Young’s complicity in the massacre, preferring to locate the origins of the plan with local leaders. She does, however, argue that Young was guilty of covering up the massacre.
Hyde’s extensive treatment of Mormonism—although flawed in places—is laudable and noteworthy. As in the work as a whole, Hyde’s attention to Mary Richards and her family expands the number of actors in important ways. Comparing Mormons to Indians presents an intriguing interpretive move, although she does not fully develop this angle. Consulting recent works by Paul Reeve and Jared Farmer would have likely helped to clarify the Latter-day Saints’ complex relationships with Indians and other Anglo-Americans. Overall, Hyde’s Empires, Nations, and Families is a fantastic work that will make a lasting contribution to the historiography of the American West and will provide new ways for Mormon scholars to situate Mormonism in the history of the West.