A Fight Worth Having
Strangers In The Land
They were strangers in this land, everyone was, but they were alienated more than most. It was 1847 and they had travelled west in search of a new homeland. The journey had been hard. It was a long trek through cold, desolate land, traversing the Rocky Mountains in the frigid, harsh, winter before finally settling in Utah. They had followed Brigham Young from their settlement in Illinois after the murder of their leader, Joseph Smith.
It had been a constant struggle for them, the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, since it had been formed. Persecuted for their beliefs, they had continuously moved west looking for isolation and a place to practice, free from judgment and oppression. Further and further west they had moved. New York, Ohio, Illinois, they could never escape for very long. They were always misunderstood, their beliefs questioned, and their practices debated. Each time they would get situated again, farming, ranching, living together and staying within their own community. Eventually, progress would catch up with them. Expansion of the colonies was continuing, always moving westward, always right behind them. Once new towns were established it wasn’t long before the cycle began again. The weird looks from the townspeople, the secreted whispers, eventually the loud opposition. Joseph Smith had been arrested over thirty times for his beliefs.
Life had been settled for a while. They were in Hancock County, Illinois for five years before things started to become hostile again. The final straw was the murder of Joseph and his brother Hyrum while they were incarcerated in a county jail. After that episode, Brigham Young had gathered some of the most steadfast followers and decided it was time to move again. A big move this time, farther, giving themselves more room and more time to establish before the rest of civilization caught up with them again. The pilgrimage began in search for a place to start anew, where their colony could flourish in peace. Riding wagons, pulling handcarts, walking, they slowly moved their way, following the sun over the wide-open prairies of the west. The odyssey was enduring and arduous with dangers prevalent every mile that was covered. Weather, disease, outlaws, and restless natives all presented obstacles on the path to their goal.
Some were lost along the way, the trail they were blazing marked by humble crosses signaling the final resting places of those not strong enough to make the march. The harshest part was the winter push over the Rocky Mountains. The temperatures dropped well below freezing, winds blew so cold you could feel it in the very marrow of your bones. The shelters they set up were barely adequate and more followers perished. The mountains were crossed, and the exhausted group came to rest in the Great Salt Lake Valley of Utah. It was here that they would make their new home. The area offered everything they wanted, it was isolated from the rest of the country, but the land was lush and large enough to fill their needs. A dam was built to provide them with the water needed for their crops. Turnips and potatoes were planted, and word was sent back to the remaining members in Illinois. By the end of the year there were two thousand of them situated in the valley living in a city that was two square miles.
Life was better in the valley, the church was able to live the way they wanted without the restrictions of society. It was in this environment that Gideon Brenton was raised. He had come with his parents when they had followed Brigham Young from Illinois, his grandmother and an older sister had died on the journey, he had been six and had barely survived. That had been ten years ago. His family were farmers, working a small patch of land just on the outskirts of the city, and they flourished doing it as did the rest of the church. The city was prospering, it continued to grow, and the church expanded right along with it. Gideon’s life had been farming and going to church for as long as he could remember.
Life in the valley was idyllic, but it wasn’t perfect. There had been fights with the natives who were upset with the group for encroaching on their land, and by 1857 more and more people had headed west and were now living amongst and around the Mormons. Gideon had enjoyed his childhood but at the age of sixteen he was a man by most standards. He had grown tall and had a physique that had been chiseled from days of hard work on the farm. He was sitting on a bench outside of the General Store one Saturday afternoon when he witnessed for the first time the harassment that had followed his ancestors for decades.
A man was thrown out of the door of the restaurant across the street, tumbling down the steps and rolling in the dust. He was followed out the door by two large cowhands looking angry. The cowhands were followed by three distraught women and the rest of the restaurant crowd. Gideon recognized the man in the dust. It was Noah Haglund, a farmer just to the south of Gideon’s family farm and a member of the church. The three worried women were his wives Ada, Hannah, and Martha. Noah was peaceful and not a troublemaker. One of the cowhands spoke. “Now, just who do you think you are? What makes you so special that you think you have the right to have all the pretty women to yourself?” He put his boot to Noah’s midsection, kicking him into the dust again.
“My partner and I come here after three weeks of hard driving cattle, eating dust and sweating all day. All we wanna do is relax and have us a good time with some pretty women. We come here and meet these three lovely ladies and they tell us that they all belong to you.” Another boot to Noah. “Now what makes you so greedy? You can’t share? You takin’ three like that and leaving nothin’ for me and my friend, that just doesn’t seem Godly.”
“That’s our practice.” Noah spit blood as he said it. “We don’t want any trouble.”
“You may not want it, but you sure found it. Jeb, get your whip out, we’re gonna teach these Mormons a little about sharing and good manners.”
“No!” The women yelled in unison.
The larger cowhand wrestled Noah up from the ground and threw him against a parked wagon while the one named Jeb moved off the sidewalk and further into the street, dangling a bull whip at his side. The large man pulled his right hand back and readied to land another punch to Noah. As his fist came forward its momentum was suddenly stopped as it was caught in midair. The cowhand looked to see his fist in the grip of Gideon’s hand as he stared him directly in the eye.
“I think he’s had enough for now. Leave him alone.”
The flabbergasted man quickly regained his composure. “You sure you want some of this boy? I got enough for the both of you.” He swung a wild right hand that Gideon dodged easily. He then returned a right hand of his own that struck the man on his right temple knocking him to the ground. Gideon leveled his stare at the man holding the whip. Jeb’s eyes grew wide, he then turned and walked away into the crowd. Gideon stared back at the man on the ground.
“Get up and get out. Leave us alone, we’re not hurting anybody.”
The man slowly got to his feet, knocked the dust off his hat, and glared at Gideon with rage in his eyes. “You’ll pay for this boy. Mark my words. You got no business interfering with me. You Mormons think you’re special, think you’re better cuz you got a few of your leaders in government positions. We’ll see how long that lasts, President Buchanan is coming for you folks. He’s gonna put his guys in those positions and then you all will be forced to move on again.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about mister, but if you wanna throw hands again I’ll oblige you.”
The man continued his glare as he slowly backed away and then walked into the crowd. Gideon reached down and helped Noah to his feet.
“Thank you, son.” said Noah. “Much obliged. All I said was that he should take his hands off my wives and the next thing I knew, I was in the street.”
“It’s ok, glad I could help. You best be getting the ladies home before those boys have enough liquid courage to decide to come back.”
“Yes, yes. Right away. Thank you again.”
Gideon decided it would be best if he left too. He had been lucky enough to catch the man off guard the first time around, but he didn’t want to try a second go if he could help it. He mounted his horse and headed out for the farm. He was thinking about what the man had said back in town the whole ride home and once he had put his horse up for the night, asked his father what the man had meant about the president coming after them.
“Son, it’s the same as it has always been. People are scared of what they don’t understand. The country doesn’t understand our ways, our beliefs, they never have.”
“But we were here first. They’re moving in on us.” Gideon protested.
“Who was first doesn’t matter Gideon. They’re afraid of us, what we might do to the country if our community took over. Having Brigham Young as the governor, the power that he wields from there, that’s the kind of appointment that raises eyebrows. President Buchanan won’t let that go unnoticed. He’s sending troops out here to keep an eye on us, on Brigham, to make sure we stay in line with the rest of the country.”
“That’s not fair. Who keeps them in line? Noah Haglund just got beat by two men because he didn’t want them to touch his wives. Someone needs to show them that we aren’t backing down, that we won’t go away. This is our valley, we don’t bother anybody, just leave us to believe what we do.” Gideon’s face was going red with anger.
“Fair has got nothing to do with it son. The country’s growing, expanding further west all the time. The government wants to make sure that they keep it together, they want no threats to their authority. Things are already heating up in the south of the country, a war could be coming over the beliefs and practices of a group of people, and Buchanan doesn’t want the same thing happening out here at the same time.”
“We don’t want war, Pa. We just want to be left alone.”
“You do, and I do, and Noah Haglund does. Most people out here want exactly that. But son, we don’t make the decisions and power can do strange things to men. We put our trust in our leaders, that they’ll do what’s best for all of us, but sometimes that power and that ability to influence things in their favor skews the decisions they make. It’s natural, but it causes friction. One thing you’ll learn son, it may be a free country but only if you stay within the guidelines they set out.”
After that discussion with his father, Gideon started to see things differently, started to see how things really were in the world. The cowboy from the street that day had been right. President Buchanan had indeed sent troops to Utah. The Mormons, fearing annihilation based on past persecution, were outmanned and out armed so rather than engage them, they resorted to tactics that were more of an annoyance. Raids were organized to derail trains, disrupt supply lines, and stampede the stock of the advancing armies. Gideon had been part of these raids as well as others. His loyalty was to his community. He loved the country, celebrated July fourth like everyone else, but his first allegiance was to the Latter-Day Saints, they were the only way of life he had ever known.
It was dark, pitch black, with no moon in the sky. Gideon slowly stalked through the grass keeping his head down. There was a whistle in the darkness. That was the signal. The sky lit up to Gideon’s left as the field was set ablaze. Seconds later the same thing on his right. Gideon lit his torch and threw it in the grass in front of him. The plan was simple, burn the plains in front of the troops. No grass meant no livestock which meant no easy hunt, no food source. It also meant no cover with which to conceal their movements. The sounds of shouting pierced the air as the army scrambled to contain and put out the fires. Gideon ran through the grass toward where the horses were tied, his way lit by the orange hue that was now the sky. He and his conspirators rode out fast with the plains ablaze behind them. They arrived back at the barn of Noah Haglund, which was being used as the base for the insurgent activities, and celebrated another successful enterprise.
There hadn’t been a single casualty in this so-called ‘war’. Neither side were interested in escalating the skirmish any further than they had to so the ‘battles’ had been relegated to the Mormons trying to impede the troop movements and the troops trying to maintain order. Some marauders had not been as lucky as Gideon and his cohorts. They had been caught, arrested and were being held in various jails or army forts around the territory. Some of the Mormon leaders that had held government positions had been forced out and had moved back east. Even Brigham Young had been removed as governor without ever being informed of the move himself. Gideon was still harboring anger. Fear gripped the community as they remembered past persecutions and considered possible annihilation. After all that they had been through, his people were still being oppressed, this time with government permission. All their actions had hardly made a dent, the troops were still here, still suppressing the Mormons.
Acres of land had been scorched, multiple trains derailed, countless numbers of livestock stolen, but nothing stopped them. They needed something else, something bigger. Gideon joined the cavalry, a unit led by Lot Smith. Gideon liked Lot. He was a larger man, and steadfast in his convictions. He held the same feelings as Gideon. It was late September and with troops still advancing a stronger message needed to be sent. A plan was formed, and the men rode out. Supply trains were coming, three of them, large ones and the cavalry was going to stop them. Gideon had never done this before. He had raided some camps, set prairie on fire, and stampeded livestock but had never tried to stop a moving target as large as a train, let alone three of them. He didn’t know how it would be possible for this rag tag group with their sparse firearms and modified farm tools as weapons to halt such a force. The group came over a ridge and Gideon could see their target in the distance. On the horizon was a plume of smoke stretching toward the sky and the black silhouette of the train moving steadily along the ground.
The cavalry had been split into smaller bodies in order to strike all three targets at once. As his band approached the train, Gideon was nervous. He wondered how the other squads were progressing with their missions. They stopped a few miles ahead of the train and quickly went to work setting up a barricade across the tracks. The men dragged rocks and felled trees which were piled in the path of the advancing engine. When it was finished, the barricade was not an impressive sight. There had not been a lot of available fodder around and Gideon figured there was no chance that this would derail a train, let alone stop it. He wanted to discuss his feelings with Lot and make his opinion known when suddenly the plan became clearer. He discovered Lot and a group of men soaking torches and arrows in kerosene. The plan was not to derail the train, but to slow it down enough that they could set it on fire.
The squad took cover and waited. As the train approached and the barricade came into sight the brakes were thrown. There was a loud screech as metal wheels suddenly stopped and slid along metal rails. Sparks were flying as the engine plowed into the pile of rock and wood on the track. Debris was thrown everywhere as Lot yelled “Now!” and the men raced from their cover toward the slowed train. Flaming arrows shot across the sky and landed on their intended target. Men approached and threw their lit torches into cars carrying grain and other supplies. Others released the locks on the stock cars and horses and cows fled in every direction. Gideon felt an exhilaration as he threw his torch and saw a box car burst into flames, his eyes dancing as he stared. There were yells from the train and some shots rang out in the chaos. As quickly as they attacked, the men of the cavalry were gone as the coasting train came to a stop and the regiment members tried to extinguish the blazing rail cars. The men whooped and hollered as they galloped across the landscape, thrilled with their success. Although there had been shots fired there were no casualties, and every man came home in the same shape in which he had left.
The celebrating continued as the other two groups returned to the barn and reported similar successes. It had been a good day. The efforts of the day would surely land a crippling blow to the advancing army. It was the message sent that Gideon had hoped for. He wanted the army to know that, though they were small, his people were determined, and they would not be forced out again.
The winter came and with it came an intermission of sorts. The army had not been prepared for the heavy winter of that year and crossing the Rocky Mountains proved to be a formidable obstacle. The lull in hostilities brought with it time. Time to rethink, time to negotiate, time for cooler heads to prevail. A peace, although an uneasy one, had been agreed to and by the spring and summer life had begun to resemble normal again. The army had tired of the annoyance Gideon and the other members of the rebellion had caused and the president was eager to put an end to the poor press his failed attempt was providing. An agreement was reached and there would be no troops stationed in the Great Salt Valley other than what was needed to fend off Indians and maintain order. As well, the government would not interfere in the practice of their religion. The Mormons in turn would agree to follow territorial and federal laws. It had been a war with no deaths, no wounded, on either side, but it still had a cost. Many of Gideon’s friends and neighbours had moved for fear of persecution. Others still had had their fields plowed under or burned to the ground. It would take time to recover but recover they would. The church had always held together, to look out for each other, and they would continue to do so.
Gideon sat on the porch with his father staring out over their farm. He felt an immense pride in what he had been a part of. They had fought for what they believed in, their way of life, and they had shown the rest of the country that they were stronger now and would no longer be shamed or oppressed for those beliefs. He stared out over land that his children would one day inherit, and their children, and so on.
He felt a sense of relaxation, of understanding. A sense that people may now be allowed to live how they chose, left alone to believe what they wanted, a brighter future. How was he to know that in just a few short years the country would be ripped apart as another oppressed people and an entire way of life for some would be front and center in the largest battle ever waged to shape the nation?
About the Creator
I'm a 48 year old aspiring writer who has finally taken the time and put in effort to make the dream come true instead of just keep wishing it. I currently have 2 books available on Amazon, 'Amazing Grace' & 'The Brand of Brotherhood.'
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