If Brigham Young is not the most maligned individual on the list of the 100 Most Influential Americans, he is certainly the most misunderstood. Although 130 years have passed since his death, much of the confusion that surrounded him in life remains. He continues to be praised by millions as a prophet of God and admired for his contributions in settling the American West, but he is also frequently vilified. Through a series of brief essays that look at the fundamental aspects of a complex man, this unique biography examines both his remarkable life and his accomplishments and separates fact from fantasy.
About the Authors
William W. Slaughter is a photograph historian and consultation archivist for the LDS Church History Department. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Joseph Smith’s America with Chad Orton and Trail of Hope with Michael N. Landon. William and his wife, Sheri, live in Salt Lake City.
CHAD M. ORTON is an archivist in the LDS Church History Department. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have seven children and live in Provo, Utah.
A LIFE OF QUIET DESPERATION
The Early Years
The mass of men,” David Henry Thoreau wrote in his classic Walden, “lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”1 Thoreau’s conclusion largely summarizes the first thirty years of one of his contemporaries—Brigham Young—an individual now widely recognized as one of the giants of both the nineteenth century and American history.
Like so many great men of his day, Brigham emerged from humble beginnings. His rise to prominence, however, occurred later in life than was the case with many of his fellow luminaries. Born into poverty, his economic status had improved only slightly three decades later. In spite of having developed locally a reputation as a gifted carpenter and craftsman, he continued to eke out a meager existence. While he was like the majority of Americans of his day in terms of his economic struggles, he differed from most of his contemporaries in the fact that his despair grew not from his daily toil and drudgery but from a gnawing feeling that there was more to life than trying to break the cycle of birth, a hard existence, and death. Summarizing his life he later recalled that he “sought for riches, but in vain; there was something that always kept telling me that happiness originated in higher pursuits.”2 Although raised in a religious home, he found little satisfaction and few meaningful answers in religion. While the woods ultimately provided Thoreau the answer, Brigham, who had a young family to support, was left to simply push forward and hope that someday the fog of desperation that encircled him would evaporate.
The ninth of John and Abigail (Nabby) Howe Young’s eleven children, Brigham was born June 1, 1801, at Whitingham, Windham, Vermont, in a modest log cabin built by his father after he had moved his family from Massachusetts earlier in the year. His father, described as a “small, nimble, wiry man,” was an orphan when he ran away from abusive guardians at the age of sixteen to join the Continental Army. He served under General George Washington during the last years of the Revolutionary War and participated in three campaigns. Brigham’s mother, portrayed as having a “doll-like face, blue eyes, and yellowish brown hair folded in natural waves and ringlets,” came from more prosperous circumstances. Her relatives included Eli Howe Jr., who invented the sewing machine, and Julia Ward Howe, who authored “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Although Nabby’s parents thought her foolish to marry “the little orphan” with an uncertain future, on October 31, 1785, John and Nabby were married.3
Their life was typical of the average American of the early 1800s. John, an itinerant farmer, frequently moved his family in pursuit of better opportunities, which always seemed to be out of reach. “My father was a poor, honest, hard-working man,” Brigham recalled. “His mind seemingly stretched from east to west, from north to south; and to the day of his death he wanted to command worlds; but the Lord would never permit him to get rich.”4 Brigham later remembered that during his early life he regularly lacked food and clothes. He used to work “logging and driving team, summer and winter, not half clad, and with insufficient food until my stomach would ache.”5 On another occasion he reported: “In my youthful days, instead of going to school, I had to chop logs, to sow and plant, to plow in the midst of roots barefooted, and if I had on a pair of pants that would cover me I did pretty well.”6 When he finally obtained a pair of shoes, he used them only on Sundays. To make them last, he walked to his meetings barefoot, put on his shoes for the service, and then removed them before walking home.
Brigham characterized his father and grandfather as “some of the most strict religionists that lived upon the earth.”7 His mother, also religiously devout, had a gentle temperament that was a balance to her husband, whose disciplinary style Brigham described as “a word and a blow, . . . but the blow came first.”8 Concerning his religious training, Brigham noted: “I was brought up so strict, so firm in the faith of the Christian religion by my parents, that if I had said ‘Devil,’ I believed I had sworn very wickedly. . . . If I used the name of Devil, I should have certainly been chastised, and that severely.”9 He further recalled that his mother “taught her children all the time to honour the name of the Father and the Son, and to reverence the holy Book. She said, Read it, observe its precepts, and apply them to your lives as far as you can: do every thing that is good; do nothing that is evil; and if you see any persons in distress, administer to their wants: never suffer anger to arise in your bosoms; for, if you do, you may be overcome by evil. . . . Never did my mother or father countenance any of their children in anything to wrong their neighbour or fellow-being, even if they were injured by them.”10
In the three years that the Youngs lived in southern Vermont, struggling to coax an existence out of the rocky New England soil, John tried to establish four farms in the vicinity of Whitingham. Finally, in the spring of 1804, he moved his family west to Sherburne (later renamed Smyrna), Chenango County, New York, where land was reportedly better. Here the family remained until Brigham’s thirteenth year. “At an early age I labored with my father, assisting him to clear off new land and cultivate his farm, passing through many hardships and privations incident to settling in a new country.”11 In addition to helping his father clear the family’s own land, Brigham, along with his brothers, hired out to help others clear their land in exchange for badly needed products and supplies. “I used to have the privilege of cutting down the hemlock, beech and maple trees . . . and then rolling them together, burning the logs, splitting the rails, and fencing the little fields,” he recalled.12 His endeavors at “picking up brush, chopping down trees, rolling logs, and working amongst the roots” regularly resulted in bruised “shins, feet, and toes.”13
Because Brigham had little opportunity for formal education—by his own account, only eleven days—his surroundings and responsibilities became his textbooks. He studied these as judiciously as any dedicated student. In addition to his labors in the field, he also helped with the household chores. His mother had contracted tuberculosis before he was born and over time her health wouldn’t allow her to perform many of the labors around the home. He frequently braided for himself the straw hats that protected him from the summer sun. He also “learned to make bread, wash the dishes, milk the cows, and make butter. . . . Those are about all the advantages I gained in my youth.”14 Thus, from an early age Brigham learned how to be both independent and self-sufficient.
Brigham’s daughter, Susa Young Gates, wrote that her father’s childhood was “marked by plain living and high thinking.”15 Nabby Young tried to teach her children culture, manners, and proper behavior. Brigham stated: “Of my mother—she that bore me—I can say, no better woman ever lived in the world than she was. I have the feelings of a son towards her: I should have them—it is right; but I judge the matter pertaining to her from the principles and the spirit of the teachings I received from her. Would she countenance one of her children in the least act that was wrong according to her traditions? No, not in the least degree,” he proclaimed.16
In the winter of 1813, John Young again moved his family, this time fifty miles to the west. “Shortly after the commencement of the late war with Great Britain,” Brigham wrote, “my father and family removed to the town of Genoa, Cayuga County, New York.”17 It was at Genoa, shortly after Brigham’s fourteenth birthday, that Nabby’s tuberculosis finally took her life. Following her death on June 11, 1815, the family was split apart. Some of Brigham’s brothers and sisters were “farmed out” to relatives, while John Young sought a new location for Brigham and the children who remained with him.
Leaving behind the Genoa farm with its hard-won improvements, John Young moved thirty-five miles west in Steuben County. The area was considered “the Far West” because of its dense wilderness and few settlers. John Young made his living gathering maple syrup, which Brigham would haul on his back to the nearest settlement, reportedly fifteen miles away, to trade for flour. On one occasion when the family was virtually without flour, Brigham killed a robin with his father’s musket and made a stew.
In 1817, John Young remarried, further splitting up the family. Brigham reported that “when I was sixteen years of age, my father said to me, ‘You can now have your time; go and provide for yourself.’”18 Moving to the nearby town of Auburn, he initially worked odd jobs for room and board. Eventually he was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker, painter, and chair manufacturer, and a career was launched. Brigham worked hard to become a skilled artisan and developed a reputation as such.
From Auburn, Brigham moved eight miles north to Port Byron, situated on the Erie Canal. There he worked repairing chairs, building boats for use on the canal, and manufacturing wooden pails. After he created a system for mixing paint to be used on the pails, he was promoted from painter to carpenter. He began to produce tables, chairs, settees, cupboards, mantels, and doors. When he learned years later that one of the chairs he had built a half century earlier was going to be put on display, Brigham wrote: “I have no doubt that many other pieces of furniture and other specimens of my handiwork can be found scattered about your section of the Country, for I have believed all my life that, that which was worth doing was worth doing well, and have considered it as much a part of my religion to do honest, reliable work, such as would endure, for those who employed me, as to attend to the services of God’s worship on the Sabbath.”19
While at Port Byron, Brigham met Miriam Angeline Works, described as “a beautiful blonde, with blue eyes, a finely chiselled face and wavy hair. She possessed a gentle, uncomplaining spirit and was in every way most lovable.”20 On October 5, 1824, twenty-three-year-old Brigham and eighteen-year-old Miriam married. The following September the couple’s first daughter, Elizabeth, was born.
In 1828 Brigham and Miriam moved to Oswego, New York, on the shores of Lake Ontario, where he helped build a large tannery. The following year they moved to Mendon, situated sixty miles to the southwest, where several of Brigham’s brothers and sisters had previously gathered. Concerning the one-room home Brigham established at Mendon, one visitor recalled: “His house and shop stood some 80 rods from the highway, nothing but a footpath led to it. . . . I followed the path which lay along the side of a beautiful little stream of clear water noted for the speckled trout it contained. A dam had been thrown across this stream and a sufficient water power obtained to run a turning lathe in his shop.”21
On June 1, 1830, Brigham’s twenty-ninth birthday, Miriam gave birth to the couple’s second daughter, Vilate. In spite of this joyous event, as Brigham entered his thirtieth year the family’s future was not particularly bright. Shortly after moving to Mendon, Miriam had contracted tuberculosis, the same debilitating illness that had claimed Brigham’s mother’s life. Soon Brigham was forced to spend more and more time caring for her and the children. As a result, he spent less and less time making a living and his debts began to accrue. Brigham’s friend, Heber C. Kimball, recalled that the Youngs “were in low circumstances and seemed to be an afflicted people in consequence of having a great deal of sickness and sorrow to pass through; and of course were looked down upon—by the flourishing church where we lived.”22
The great nineteenth-century American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote about those who “die with all their music in them!”:
Nay, grieve not for the dead alone
Whose song has told their hearts’ sad story,—
Weep for the voiceless, who have known
The cross without the crown of glory!23
In the summer of 1830, as Brigham entered his thirtieth year, his future looked bleak. Unless he was able to find the real happiness of “higher pursuits” that he pined for, Holmes seemed to be describing his fate.
by melodie - reviewed on December 15, 2009
This book did give good insight into the life and character of Brigham Young. I didn't know a lot about him so it was all new to me. He was a complex man with good and bad qualities. The book was written well enough but I am not so sure how I feel about the man.
A truly fascinating look at this remarkable man
by Amesbury - reviewed on August 12, 2009
The premise of this book is that Brigham Young has been an enigma for most of the years following his death. He's praised, disliked, misunderstood, and vilified from both those inside the Church and those outside. In short, well-researched and powerful essays ranging from "His Greatest Sermon,""Brigham as (Unsuccessful) Innovator: The Deseret Alphabet," and "His Finest Hour," authors Orton and Slaughter explore both Brigham's positive and negative qualities and present to the reader a fair and honest picture of him. As I read the book, I found my respect and admiration for Brigham growing. Brigham was a man followed his conscience and who did the best with the situations at hand, even if doing so would make him unpopular. Each essay is around 4-6 pages and I felt that breaking it down into small chapters was a wonderful way to present information without making it daunting and allowed me to read the next chapter whenever I had a moment to spare. I found myself constantly learning new insites and enjoyed that it was written for the everyday student of history, but that didn't mean that a serious scholar of history would be disappointed either. Many of the quotes used in this book I've never seen before. I would have to say that this book is the definitive book for those who want to better understand the man that Brigham was.
I liked this book
by Customer - reviewed on August 16, 2009
This book made me really like Brigham Young. It showed Brigham as a wonderful and spiritual man who did many great things for this church. I really liked the small chapters and especially liked the ones that gave me new information about him. I would recommend this book to everyoone.