Among the Mormons

A nineteenth-century writer meets Brigham Young and explores the "City of Saints"

The approach to Salt Lake City from the east is surprisingly harmonious with the genius of Mormonism. Nature, usually so unpliant to the spirit of people who live with her, showing a bleak and rugged face, which poetically should indicate the abode of savages and ogres, to flans Christian Andersen and his hospitable countrymen, but lavishing the eternal summer of her tropic sea upon barbarians who eat baked enemy under her palms, or throw their babies to her crocodiles,—this stiff, unaccommodating Nature relents into a little expressiveness the neighborhood of the Mormons, and you feel that the grim, tremendous cañons through which your overland stage rolls down to the City of the Saints are strangely fit avenues to an anomalous civilization.

We speak of crossing the Rocky Mountains from Denver to Salt Lake; but, in reality, they reach all the way between those places. They are not a chain, as most Eastern people imagine them, but a giant ocean caught by petrifaction at the moment of maddest tempest. 'For six hundred miles the overland stage winds over, between, and around the tremendous billows, lying as much as may be in the trough, and reaching the crest at Bridger's Pass, (a sinuous gallery, walled by absolutely bare yellow mountains between two and three thousand feet in height at the roadside,) but never getting entirely out of the Rocky Mountain system till it reaches the Desert beyond Salt Lake. Even there it runs constantly among mountains; in fact, it never loses sight of lofty ranges from the moment it makes Pike's Peak till its wheels (metaphorically) are washed by the Pacific Ocean; but the mountains of the Desert may legitimately set up for themselves, belonging, as I believe, to a system independent of the Rocky Mountains on the one side and the Sierra Nevada on the other. At a little plateau among snowy ridges a few miles east of Bridger's Pass, the driver leans over and tells his insiders, in a matter of fact manner, through the window, that they have reached the summit level. Then, if you have a particle of true cosmopolitanism in you, it is sure to come out. There is something indescribably sublime, a conception of universality, in that sense of standing on the watershed of a hemisphere. You have reached the secret spot where the world clasps her girdle; your feet are on its granite buckle; perhaps there sparkles in you eyes that fairest gem of her cincture, a crystal fountain, from which her belt of rivers flows in two opposite ways. Yesterday you crossed time North Platte, almost at its source (for it rises out of the snow among the Wind River Mountains, and out of your stage windows you can see, from Laramie Plains, the Lander's Peak which Bierstadt has made immortal) that stream runs into the sea from whose historic shores you came; you might drop a waif upon its ripples with the hope of its reaching New Orleans, New York, Boston, or even Liverpool. Tomorrow you will be ferried over Green River, as near its source, a stream whose cradle is in the same snow peaks as the Platte, whose mysterious middle life, under the new name of the Colorado, flows at the bottom of those tremendous fissures, three thousand feet deep, which have become the wonder of the geologist, whose grave, when it has dribbled itself away into the dotage of shallows and quick sands, is the desert margined Gulf of California and the Pacific Sea. Between Green River and the Mormon city no human interest divides your perpetually strained attention with Nature. Fort Bridger, a little over a day's stage ride east of the city, is a large and quite a populous trading post and garrison of the United States; but although we found there a number of agreeable officers, whose acquaintance with their wonderful surroundings was thorough and scientific, and though at that period the fort was a rendezvous for our only faithful friend among the Utah Indians, Washki, the Snake chief, and that handful of his tribe who still remained loyal to their really noble leader and our Government, Fort Bridger left the shadowiest of impressions on my mind, compared with the natural glories of the surrounding scenery.

Mormondom being my theme, and my space so limited, I must resist the temptation to give detailed accounts of the many marvellous masterpieces of mimetic art into which we find the rocks of this region everywhere carved by the hand of Nature. Before we came to the North Platte, we were astonished by a ship, equalling the Great Eastern in size, even surpassing it in beauty of outline, its masts of columnar sandstone snapped by a storm, its prodigious hulk laboring in a gloomy sea of hornblendic granite, its deckhouses, shaped with perfect accuracy of imitation, still remaining in their place, and a weird looking demon at the wheel steering it on to some invisible destruction. This naval statue (if its bulk forbid not the name) was carved out of a coarse mill stone grit by the chisel of the wind, with but slight assistance from the infrequent rainstorms of this region. In Colorado l first began to perceive how vast an omission geologists had been guilty of in their failure to give the wind a place in the dynamics of their science. Depending for a year at a time, as that Territory sometimes does, upon dews and meltings from the snow peaks for its water, it is nevertheless fuller than any other district in the world of marvellous architectural simulations, vast cemeteries crowded with monuments, obelisks, castles, fortresses, and natural colossi from two to five hundred feet high, done in argillaceous sandstone or a singular species of conglomerate, all of which owe their existence almost entirely to the agency of wind. The arid plains from which the conglomerate crops out rarefy the superincumbent air stratum to such a degree that the intensely chilled layers resting on the closely adjoining snow peaks pour down to reestablish equilibrium, with the wrathful force of an invisible cataract, eight, ten, even seventeen thousand feet in height. These floods of cold wind find their appropriate channels in the characteristic cañons which everywhere furrow the whole Rocky Mountain system to its very base. Most of these are exceedingly tortuous, and the descending winds, during their passage through them, acquire a spiral motion as irresistible as the fiercest hurricane of the Antilles, which, moreover, they preserve for miles after they have issued from the mouth of the cañon. Every little cold gust that I observed in the Colorado country had this corkscrew character. The moment the spiral reaches a loose sand bed, it sweeps into its vortex all the particles of grit which it can hold. The result is an auger, of diameter varying from an inch to a thousand feet, capable of altering its direction so as to bore curved holes, revolving with incalculable rapidity, and armed with a cutting edge of silex. Is it possible, to conceive an instrument more powerful, more versatile? Indeed, practically, there is no description of surface, no kind of cut, which it is not capable of making. I have repeatedly seen it in operation. One day, while riding from Denver to Pike's Peak, I saw it (in this instance, one of the smaller diameters) burrow its way six or seven feet into a sand bluff, making as smooth a hole as I could cut in cheese with a borer, of the equal diameter of six inches throughout, all in less time than I have taken to describe it. Repeatedly, on the same trip, I saw it gouge out a circular groove around portions of a similar bluff, and leave them standing as isolated columns, with heavy base and capital, presently to be solidified into just such rock pillars as throng the cemeteries or aid in composing the strange architectural piles mentioned above. Surveyor General Pierce of Colorado, (a man whose fine scientific genius and culture have already done yeoman’s service in the study of that most interesting Territory,) on a certain occasion, saw one of the wind-and-silex augers meet at right angles a window-pane in settler's cabin, which came out from use process, after a few seconds, a perfect opaque shade, having been converted into ground glass as neatly and evenly could have been effected by the manufacturer’s wheel. It is not a very rare thing in Colorado to be able to trace the spiral and measure the diameter of the auger by rocks of fifty pounds' weight and tree-trunks half as thick as an average man's waist, torn up from their sites, and sent revolving overhead for miles before the windy turbine loses its impetus. The efficiency of an instrument like this I need not dwell upon. After some protracted examination and study of many of the most interesting architectural and sculpturesque structures of the Rocky-Mountain system, I am convinced that they are mainly explicable on the hypothesis of the wind and silex instrument operating upon material in the earthy condition, which petrified after receiving its form. Indeed, this same instrument is at present nowise restricted by that condition in Colorado, and is not only, year by year, altering the conformation of all sand and clay bluffs on the Plains, but is tearing down, rebuilding, and fashioning, on its facile lathe many rock strata of the solidity of the more friable grits, wherever exposed to its action. Water at the East does hardly more than wind at the West.

Before we enter the City of the Saints let me briefly describe the greatest, not merely of the architectural curiosities, but in my opinion, the greatest natural curiosity of any kind which I have ever seen or heard of. Mind, too, that I remember Niagara, the Cedar Creek, and the Mammoth Cave, when speak thus of the Church Buttes. They are situated a short distance from Fort Bridger; the overland road passes by their side. They consist of a sand stone bluff, reddish brown in color, rising with the abruptness of a pile of masonry from the perfectly level plain, carved along its perpendicular face into a series of partially connected religious edifices, the most remarkable of which is a cathedral as colossal as St. Peter's, and completely relieved from the bluff on all sides save the rear, where a portico joins it with the main precipice. The perfect symmetry of this marvellous structure would ravish Michel Angelo. So far from requiring an effort of imagination to recognize the propriety of its name, this church almost staggers belief in the unassisted. It belongs to a style entirely its own main arid lower portion is not divided into nave and transept, but seems like a system of huge semi-cylinders erected on their bases, and united with reentrant angles, their convex surfaces toward us, so that the ground plan might be called a species of quatrefoil. In each of the convex faces is an admirably proportioned doorway, a Gothic arch with deep carved and elaborately fretted mouldings, so wonderfully perfect in its imitation that you almost feel like knocking for admittance, secure of an entrance, did you only know the “Open sesame.” Between and behind the doors, alternating with flying-buttresses, are a series of deep-niched windows, set with grotesque statues, varying from the pigmy to the colossal size, representing demons rather than saints, though some of the figures are costumed in the style of religious art, with flowing sacerdotal garments.

The structure terminates above in a double dome, whose figure may be imagined by supposing a small acorn set on the truncated top of a large one, (the horizontal diameter of both being considerably longer in proportion to the perpendicular than is common with that fruit,) and each of these domes is surrounded by a row of prism-shaped pillars, half column, half buttress in their effect, somewhat similar to the exquisite columnar entourage of the central cylinder of the leaning tower of Pisa. The result of this arrangement is a massive beauty, without parrallel in the architecture of the world. I have not conveyed to any mind an idea of the grandeur of this pile, nor could I, even with the assistance of a diagram. I can only say, that the Cathedral Buttes are a lesson for the architects of all Christendom, a purely novel and original creation, of such marvellous beauty that Bierstadt and I simultaneously exclaimed, "Oh that the master builders of the world could come here even for a single day! The result would be an entirely new style of architecture, an American school, as distinct from all the rest as the Ionic from the Gothic or Byzantine." If they could come, the art of building would have a regeneration. "Amazing" is the only word for this glorious work of Nature. I could have bowed down with awe and prayed at one of its vast, inimitable doorways, but that the mystery of its creation, and the grotesqueness of even its most glorious statues, made one half dread lest it were some temple built by demon hands for the worship of the Lord of Hell, and sealed in the stone dream of petrifaction, with its priests struck dumb within it, by the hand of God, to wait the judgment of Eblis and the earthquakes of the Last Day.

After leaving Church Buttes and passing Fort Bridger, our attention slept upon what it had seen until we entered the region of the cañons. These are defiles, channelled across the whole breadth of the Wahsatch Mountains almost to the level of their base, walled by precipices of red sandstone or sugarloaf granite, compared with which the Palisades of the Hudson become insignificant as a garden fence. The last poetical man who traverses these giant fissures cannot help feeling their fitness as the avenues to a paradoxical region, an anomalous civilization and a people whose psychological problem is the most unsolvable of the nineteenth century. During the Mormon War, Brigham Young made some rude attempts at a fortification of the great cañon half a day's journey from his city, and this work still remains intact. He need not have done it; a hundred men, ambushed among the ledges at the top of the canon walls, and well provided with loose rocks and Minierifles, could convert the defile into a new Thermopylae, without exposure to themselves. In an older and more superstitious age, the unassisted horrors of Nature herself would have repelled an invading 'host from the passage of this grizzly cañon, as the profane might have been driven from the galleries of Isis or Eleusis.

About forty miles from Salt Lake City we began to find Nature's barrenness succumbing to the truly marvellous industry of the Mormon people. To understand the exquisite beauty of simple green grass, you must travel through eight hundred miles of sage-brush and grama, the former, the homely gray-leaved plant of our Eastern goose stuffing, grown into a dwarf tree six feet high, with a twisted trunk sometimes as thick as a man's body; the latter, a stunted species of herbage, growing in ash tinted spirals, only two inches from the ground, and giving the Plains an appearance of being matted with curled hair or gray corkscrews. Its other name is "buffalo grass"; and in spite of its dinginess, with the assistance of the sage, converting all the Plains west of Fort Kearney into a model Quaker landscape, it is one of the most nutritious varieties of cattle fodder, and for hundreds of miles the emigrant drover's only dependence.

By incredible labor, bringing down rivulets from the snow peaks of the Wahsatch range and distributing them over the levels by every ingenious' device known to artificial irrigation, the Mormon farmers have converted the bottoms of the canons through which we approached Salt Lake into fertile fields and Pasturelands, whose emerald sweep soothed our eyes wearied with so many leagues of ashen monotony, as an old home strain mollifies the ear irritated by the protracted rhythmic clash or the dull, steady buzz of iron machinery. Contrasting the Mormon settlements with their surrounding desolation, we could not wonder that their success has fortified this people their delusion. The superficial student of rewards and punishments might well believe that none but God's chosen people could cause this horrible desert, after such triumphant fashion, to blossom like the rose.

The close observer soon notices a painful deficiency in these green and smiling Mormon settlements. Everything has been done for the farm, nothing for the home. That blessed old Anglo Saxon idea seems everywhere quite extinct. The fields are billowing over with dense, golden grain, the cattle are wallowing in emerald lakes of juicy grass, the barns are substantial, the family-windmill buzzes merrily on its well oiled pivot, drawing water or grinding feed, the fruit trees are thrifty, but the house is desolate. Even where its owner is particularly well off, and its architecture somewhat more ambitions than the average, (though, as yet, this superiority is measured by little more than the difference between logs and clapboards,) there is still no air about it of being the abode of happy people, fond of each other, and longing after it in absence. It looks like a mere inclosure to eat and sleep in. Nobody seems to have taken any pride in it, to feel any ambition for it. Woman's tender little final touches, which make a dear refuge out of a mud cabin, and without which palatial brownstone is only a home in the moulding clay, those dexterous ornamentations which make so little mean so much, the brier-rose-slip by the doorstep, growing into the fragrant welcome of many Juries, the trellised Madeira-vines, the sunny spot of chrysanthemums, charming summer on to the very brink of frost, all these things are utterly and everywhere lacking to the Mormon inclosure. Sometimes we passed a fence which guarded three houses instead of one. Abundant progeny played at their doors, or rolled in their yard, watched by several unkempt, bedraggled mothers. Owning a common husband,— and of these should feel much interest in the looks of a demesne held by then in such unhappy partnership. The humblest New England cottage has its climbing flowers at the door-post, or its garden-bed in front; but how quickly would these wither, if the neat brisk house-mistress owned her husband in common with Mrs. Deacon Pratt next door!

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