October 29, 2012

Review of Anne Hyde's award-winning new book

Reviewed by David Grua

Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860, by Anne F. Hyde. History of the American West Series. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. xiii-xv, 628 pp.

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 subregions of the emerging West—the Pacific Northwest, California, the Southwest, Texas, the Central Plains, and the Great Lakes. 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 the 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 many faced discrimination among Europeans and Euroamericans. It was not until the United States conquered northern Mexico in the late 1840s that this fur trade economy that had created relative equality among various peoples began to unravel, although it would take decades for the United States to impose 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 states 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 is Mormonism. 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.

In a provocative interpretive shift, Hyde chooses to portray Mormons, not as encroaching settlers displacing and replacing the indigenous peoples of the Great Basin, but as an Indian-like people who interrupted rather than reinforced the broader colonial processes of American settlement:

 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 [i.e., the Smith family]. 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 thesis 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 the Latter-day Saint sojourn in Winter Quarters (in present-day Nebraska) in the mid-1840s (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.[1] For example, she claims that at the age of 12, Smith was apprenticed out to a newspaper printer. There is no evidence for this that I am aware of, and it is unclear where the idea came from (359). She makes no mention of Smith's First Vision (traditionally dated at 1820), preferring to start her account of Smith's visions with the appearance of the angel Moroni in 1823 (359). Hyde asserts that Smith reburied the Book of Mormon plates, per Moroni’s instructions. Again, this runs contrary to all available documentary evidence, which has Smith giving the plates to Moroni, thereby removing them to a heavenly sphere (360). She omits mention of the importance of the Book of Mormon in shaping early Mormon understandings of Indians as descendants of the Lamanites, a puzzling omission given her emphasis on Native peoples. In addition, she misses the significance of the Book of Mormon in causing early Mormons to settle in Missouri in an attempt to build what the text calls Zion or the New Jerusalem (360). She claims that polygamy was a primary source of anti-Mormon violence in Missouri in the 1830s. While Smith had taken a few plural wives by the time the Mormons were expelled from the state in 1838-39, polygamy was little-known outside of inner church circles and there is little to no evidence that anti-Mormons cited Smith's marital situation(s) as a reason for their opposition (361). In addition, Hyde asserts that Smith openly practiced polygamy in Nauvoo, Illinois, whereas in actuality the Mormon Prophet strenuously sought to hide the practice and publicly denied it (364, 365). Examples could be multiplied. 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 [2].

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 her 1840s conversion in England and migration 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 depart 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, the all-Mormon military unit of the U.S.-Mexican War (388-92). The Battalion 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.

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 doubtless 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 describes Mormon communalism, tithing, and other practices [3]. 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 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 [i.e., non-Mormon] America, and Young’s instructions for missionaries to intermarry with the Natives. She concludes the section with a discussion of the Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Her interpretation of the murders is closer to that of mid-twentieth century Mormon historian Juanita Brooks, who argued that the killings resulted from the fear and paranoia of local leaders, rather than as premeditated plot devised by Brigham Young in Salt Lake City, a hypothesis advocated most recently by Will Bagley. Hyde follows both Brooks and Bagley in arguing that Young's hyper-vitriolic rhetoric created an atmosphere that made the massacre possible and that Young was complicit in covering up the murders and protecting the murderers.[4]

Later in the chapter, Hyde returns to Mountain Meadows (484-88) in a section on Western violence that also includes the 1862 Dakota War and the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. Only here does she cite Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., and Glen M. Leonard's Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Tragedy (Oxford, 2008), which was written by three practicing Mormon historians, supported by a small army of LDS scholars at the church's archives. Hyde takes issue with Walker, Turley, and Leonard's argument that, aside from one fateful week in September 1857, the Mormon perpetrators at Mountain Meadows were upstanding citizens and ordinary pioneers, using the claim to make a broader argument about the tendency among white settlers (and their descendants) to simultaneously employ 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)

Although Hyde describes the concept of “blood atonement” and other doctrines preached by Mormon leaders in the 1850s that provided a context for the killings, Hyde does not conclude that the violence was a product of Mormon culture. Rather, the massacre was “an episode that could be described as collateral damage when the federal government tried to impose its will on the wayward Mormons” (485).

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.[5] 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 religious scholars to situate Mormonism in the history of the West.

[1] Her sources for this section include Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, 2nd Ed. (New York: Knopf, 1971), Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (New York: Knopf, 1979), Stephen C. LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987), D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), and Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005).

[2] See David W. Grua, “Mormonism in Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought,” Dialogue:  Journal of Mormon Thought 42, no. 3 (Fall 2009): 177-82.

[3] Hyde relies here on Leonard J. Arrington, Feramorz Y. Fox, and Dean L. May, Building the City of God: Community and Cooperation among the Mormons (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).

[4]  Here she relies primarily on Juanita Brooks, The Mountain Meadows Massacre (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962), Eugene E. Campbell, Establishing Zion: The Mormon Church in the American West, 1847-1869 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988), David L. Bigler, The Forgotten Kingdom: Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896 (Spokane, WA: Arthur H. Clark, 1998), Will Bagley, Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), William P. MacKinnon, ed., At Sword's Point: A Documentary History of the Utah War, 2 vols. (Norman: Arthur H. Clark, 2008), and David Bigler and Will Bagley, eds., Innocent Blood: Essential Narratives of the Mountain Meadows Massacre (Norman: Arthur H. Clark, 2008).

[5] W. Paul Reeve, Making Space on the Western Frontier: Mormons, Miners, and Southern Paiutes (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006) and Jared Farmer, On Zion's Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

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