From Buchanan’s Blunder to Seward’s Folly, Sort Of

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.

In 1935 the State Department asked the United States Embassy in Moscow for copies of documents from the Russian archives relating to the American purchase of Alaska in 1867. The Embassy responded in 1936 by sending along copies, and in some cases translations, of 45 documents which were examined in the archives.   One of the documents, interestingly enough, relates to the possibility of the Mormons, in the midst of the Utah War of 1857-1858 (also called the Mormon War, the Contractor’s War, and Buchanan’s Blunder), emigrating en masse to Russian-owned Alaska.  This document was a November 1857 memo from the Russian minister to the United States to the Russian foreign minister, discussing a possible Mormon incursion into Alaska and what that meant to Russia.

The story begins during the summer of 1857. President James Buchanan, believing the Mormons in Utah were in rebellion against the United States Government, and without investigating the matter, sent two regiments of infantry, two batteries of artillery, and six companies of dragoons, under Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory to Utah Territory with a three-fold mission. First was to escort and protect the newly appointed territorial governor and other federal officials.  Second was to assist the civilian officials in ensuring the laws of the United States were obeyed. And third, to protect the emigration routes that passed through Utah to California and Oregon.

In mid-September the former governor and head of the Mormon Church, Brigham Young, issued a proclamation barring the army from entering Utah and declared martial law.  Later that month the territorial militia (the Nauvoo Legion) began limited military actions against the army, stampeding their animals and burning the grass upon which the animals grazed.  On September 29, Young addressed at letter “To the Officer Commanding the Forces now Invading Utah Territory,” in which he stated:

I am still the Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs for this Territory, no successor having been appointed and qualified, as provided by law, nor have I been removed by the President of the United States. By virtue of the authority thus vested in me, I have issued, and forwarded you a copy of my proclamation forbidding the entrance of armed forces into this Territory. This you have disregarded. I now further direct that you retire forthwith from the Territory, by the same route you entered. Should you deem this impracticable, and prefer to remain until spring in the vicinity of your present encampment — Black’s Fork on Green River — you can do so in peace and unmolested, on condition that you deposit your arms and ammunition with Lewis Robinson, Quartermaster General of the Territory, and leave in the spring, as soon as the condition of the roads will permit you to march; and, should you fall short of provisions, they can be furnished you, upon making the proper applications therefor.

The Army did not turn back and during the first week of October the Nauvoo Legion near Green River struck three unescorted wagons trains, burning over 70 wagons containing government provisions for the winter.

News of the later action did not reach the eastern press until November.  The New York Times reported on November 3 that if the latest news from Utah, including the burning of the wagon trains, were true it proved that the anticipations of those who expected the worst from “the folly and fury of Brigham Young and his people are likely to be more than realized.”  It also opined that “the possibility of a war between Utah and the union is rapidly ripening into a probability.”

On November 16 the New York Times carried a piece from the St. Louis Democrat which stated that an express from the Army on Ham’s Fork of the Green River had reached Fort Laramie, indicating that the Mormons had destroyed three Government wagon trains and that Brigham Young had informed Colonel Alexander (the ranking officer until Colonel Johnston arrived) that he must not advance further into the Territory.  With all the Utah news, Buchanan’s Cabinet met on November 17 to consider Mormon affairs and a reporter opined in the New York Times on November 18, 1857, that the President would suggest to Congress extraordinary measures to suppress the Mormon rebellion.

A reporter for Associated Press wrote from Washington that the War Department that day had received some highly interesting official dispatches, including a proclamation of Brigham Young declaring martial law in Utah, and that he had expressly forbidden the United States troops entering the Territory without his authority.  “The language of the proclamation is emphatically in hostility to the authority of the United States, and is regarded here as a declaration of war” (New York Times, November 18, 1857). Another New York Times reporter on November 18 observed that based on recent dispatches which had been received by the War Department, “Brigham Young has assumed the powers of an independent sovereign, and formally declared war against the United States.” He added “This outrageous conduct on the part of the Mormon leader puts him in the position of a rebel to the Government, and must bring his career to a speedy termination.”

The New York Times noted on November 20 that it could not be doubted that vigorous measures to crush out the “theocratic rebellion” would be taken that winter.  Brigham Young’s Proclamation advising Mormon resistance to the United States forces and his demand that the latter should withdraw from the Territory, the newspaper believed “are so clearly treasonable, that Congress will not hesitate to place at the command of the Executive the extraordinary means which he asks to enable him to maintain the Federal supremacy.” Also on November 20 the Daily National Intelligencer in Washington, D. C., under the headline “Mormon Treason” reprinted Brigham Young’s September 29, 1857 addressed “To the Officer Commanding the Forces now Invading Utah Territory.”  On November 20 Buchanan and his cabinet met to discuss the Utah issue.

The public and the Buchanan Administration generally believed that Brigham Young planned to stall through the winter, keeping the snow-bound Army blocked at Fort Bridger, and then depart for a new land, probably the British and Russian possessions in the Northwest, in the spring before the Army was reinforced.  A New York Times correspondent in Washington, on November 19 reported that there was reason to believe that Brigham Young had fully made up his mind that he must leave Utah in the Spring, “which will account for the suicidal policy he is now pursuing.”  It seemed, he reported, that part of the Mormon mission to England by Elders Orson Pratt and Ezra T. Benson was to seek from the British Government permission to settle in the British possessions. The application, he wrote, was refused.  The reporter noted that it had been suggested that the Mormons, upon abandoning Salt Lake, would go to the Russian possessions [i.e., Alaska], where they would be very likely to starve to death.  He observed they had no idea, however, of doing anything of the sort. On the contrary, the reporter believed, the Mormons intended to pass to the southward into the Mexican Province of Sonora (New York Times, November 20, 1857).

Earlier that fall there were other stories about the Mormons going to Alaska.  On September 26, 1857, the Sacramento Daily Union reported that the Mormons were preparing to leave Utah for the Russian possessions (Alaska), where they had “already driven stakes for a new Zion.”  In early November the New York Times, reporting on news from California, stated it was “the intention of the Mormons, if matters get too serious, to seek a refugee in the Russian Possessions, where they have already gone”(New York Times, November 3, 1857).

The stories of the possibility of the Mormons going to Alaska was of some concern to Edward A. de Stoeckel, Russian minister to Washington.  On November 20, or sometime during the few days before, he went to see President Buchanan about the matter.  On November 20 he wrote Prince Alexsandr M. Gorchakov, Russian foreign minister, about his recent conversation with President Buchanan:

RG59 Despatch 2115 Extract 87_A
RG59 Despatch 2115 Extract 87_B
RG59 Despatch 2115 Extract 87_C
RG 59 Despatch 2115 Extract 87

Meanwhile, Brigham Young, by a seditious proclamation and by the destruction of a Federal wagon train, has defied the Government. It is claimed, however that the Mormons, although animated with the most warlike resolution, foresee the eventuality of a new emigration and are resigned thereto in advance. It is added that in this case they will turn to the north to establish themselves on the territory of Hudson’s Bay [Company, i.e., now British Columbia] or in our American possessions [i.e., Alaska].

Recently the President in conversation with me smilingly alluded to that eventuality. I asked him whether the Mormons would resort to us as conquerors or as peaceful colonists. ‘It is for you,’ he said to me, ‘to settle that question; as for us, we shall be very happy to be rid of them.’ This rumor circulated at San Francisco and our Vice Consul who is also agent of the Russian American Company, asked me what there was to it.

I do need to add that this is a rumor which at present seems still premature, but which, if it should be realized, would place before us the alternative of providing an armed resistance or of giving up part of our territory.

De Stoeckl’s letter made quite an impression on Tsar Alexander II and on the margin of it the Tsar wrote “This comes in support of the idea of ??resolving the question now [of] our American possessions.”  Already, in December before the receipt of de Stoeckl’s letter, Grand Duke Constantine, the Tsar’s brother, wrote Gorchakov impressing upon him more strongly than he had before the necessity of getting rid of Alaska.  By the end of December, Gorchakov instructed de Stoeckl to signal to the United States Government that Russia was amendable to opening discussions about sale of Alaska. Of course a possible Mormon incursion into Alaska was not the reason for the eventual sale in 1867, but one could consider it one of many factors that prompted the Russians to consider selling Alaska.

Embassy of the United States of America, Moscow to Department of State, December 2, 1936, Despatch No. 2115, Enclosure No. 2, Annex 5, File Number 861.412/25, Central Decimal File 1930-1939, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59, National Archives. Available on roll 29 of Microfilm Publication T-1249, Records of the Department of State Relating to Internal Affairs of the Soviet Union, 1930-1939).

2 thoughts on “From Buchanan’s Blunder to Seward’s Folly, Sort Of

  1. There’s an interesting prequel to the State Department’s acquistion of these docs. relating to Russian concerns in 1857 that American Mormons would seize Russian American without compensation as part of s rumored mass Mormon exodus from Utsh Territory as the U.S. Army closed in on it from the east. For reasons that have never been clear, in the early 1930s, before extending diplomatic recognition to the U.S.S.R., FDR and his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, insisted on obtaining as many documents as possible relating to the 1867 sale of Russian America to the U.S. Assigned to the task were two young Foreign Service Officers fluent in Russian, and so over to the archives they went. The cable traffic between Hull and the two youngsters is hilsriud, with the Secretary breathing heavily sbf wanting to know why the “goods” hadn’t been delivered and with his two men in the archives attempting to explain on respectful but exasperated tones how “impossible” it was to deal with the Russian archivists and clerks. Interestingly, they translated onto English only the Russian language docs. Those written in French (such as the Mormon related memo and the Tsar’s endorsement on it) were not translated because of zn assumption that everyone understood the diplomatic language of the era. Who were the two “cubs” assigned to scoop up these items? They later became Lions of the State Separtment: George F. Kennan (later of Long Telegram fame as well as Mr. “X” of the “Foreign Affairs” article and the architect of the U.S.,s containment policy re the U.S.S.R.) and Lloy Henderson (later ambassador to Iran and several other countries). Oh yes, the Britidh heard the same rumors as did the Russisns in November 1857 only they feared that Brighsm Young’s destination was Vancouver’s Island. The result was that in the summer of 1858, the British took all their holdings in the Pacific Northwest out of the juridiction of the Hudon’s Bay Co. and created the Crown Colony of British Columbia do as to better defend it against a possible Mormon incursion as well as. A flood of gold miners flocking to the Fraser River diggings. Those wishing to learn more about the Utah War context for all this might consult my “At Sword’s Point, Part 1: A Documentary History of the Utah War to 1858” (Normsn, Okla.: Arthur H. Clark Co., 2008).

  2. Mr. MacKinnon thank you for taking the time to provide the background to the story. I have enjoyed reading your numerous articles and much appreciate the work you did putting together the book you cited in your comment. Thank you again, Greg Bradsher

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