Timeline: The Early History of the Mormons

In the Beginning - 1838 | 1839 - 2007


Led by Brigham Young, the Missouri Mormons reach safety in Illinois, where they are welcomed by a sympathetic populace.

Main Street, Nauvoo, Illinois.

Main Street, Nauvoo, Illinois.

April: While being moved from one trial location to another, Smith is permitted to escape and makes his way to Illinois. There he buys land for a new settlement named Nauvoo on the banks of the Mississippi River, about 200 miles from St. Louis.

November 29: Smith travels to Washington to meet President Martin Van Buren. He demands compensation for the Mormon losses in Missouri. Van Buren expresses sympathy but says he "can do nothing."


Nauvoo, City of Joseph.

Nauvoo, City of Joseph.

December: The Mormons receive a city charter establishing expansive home rule and a local militia. After the first mayor is excommunicated, Smith becomes both mayor and military leader. Nauvoo quickly grows and within four years is nearly the size of Chicago, the population bolstered by an influx of Mormon converts from Europe.


July 12: Smith announces revelations about two new practices. First, the dead can be baptized. [This practice is disclosed as a part of three different revelations.] Second, polygamy, or plural marriage, is not only permissible but in certain cases required. The second pronouncement, in particular, causes great division among Mormons, with Brigham Young stating he would rather die and Joseph Smith's wife Emma expressing opposition even though the revelation (now Section 132 in the LDS Doctrine and Covenants) expressly directs Emma Smith to accept plural marriage.) And although the doctrine will not be publicly announced for nearly a decade, rumors quickly spread, increasing anti-Mormon feeling. Joseph Smith will eventually have more than 25 wives, while Young will come to embrace the doctrine, take 20 wives, and father 57 children.


Newspaper reports and advertisements about Joseph Smith's candidacy for the U.S. presidency.

Newspaper reports and advertisements about Joseph Smith's candidacy for the U.S. presidency.

Smith declares that he will run for president of the United States, announces in a sermon that those who obey God's commands can become gods themselves, and orders the destruction of an opposition newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor. The ensuing outcry leads to criminal charges, and after starting to flee, Smith changes his mind and surrenders to state authorities.

June 27: While in jail, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum are shot and killed by members of a mob. No one will ever be convicted of the crime.

A struggle for the leadership of the Mormon movement follows, in which the Saints are divided over whether to follow (a) the Council of the Twelve; (b) the surviving members of the Smith family; (c) the remaining members of the First Presidency; or (d) a variety of other potential leaders such as James J. Strang or Lyman Wight. During these two years many of the Mormons who had settled in Nauvoo leave the area, but most remain.


Depiction of Mormon winter migration, 1846.

Depiction of Mormon winter migration, 1846.

February 4: Facing further harassment, thousands of the Mormons, but not all, leave Nauvoo on a great march west. Some of them follow James J. Strang and settle in Michigan; others follow Rigdon to the east, while others settle in other parts of the Midwest. Brigham Young, who is head of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a church leadership body, directs the exodus. Their winter departure causes great hardship, but in four months the Mormons will travel more than 300 miles to temporary quarters along the Missouri River where it divides Iowa and Nebraska. There they will wait out the winter of 1846-47 before beginning their westward trek again.

April 25: Mexican troops fire on American soldiers who have been provocatively placed by President James Polk in a disputed part of Texas. The U.S. declares war on Mexico in May, and a Mormon Battalion of some 500 soldiers enlists, although they see no action.

April 30: The Nauvoo Temple is completed and dedicated. During the days and nights of the following ten months, great numbers of Latter-day Saints go through the temple to receive their "Endowments" and a substantial number of polygamous marriages are solemnized in its sealing rooms.


April: The Mormon pioneer company led by Young leave their winter quarters in western Iowa and head west. Young has been plagued by self-doubt, but a February vision of Smith renews his confidence.

Main Street, Salt Lake City, looking south from First North.

Main Street, Salt Lake City, looking south from First North.

July 24: A Mormon advance party including Young reaches the valley of the Great Salt Lake, and Brigham, who will be made church president later in the year, confirms that this is where the Mormons will settle, beyond the boundaries of the United States. His followers promptly mark off an acre that will be reserved for a temple and then begin laying out city streets and setting up irrigation systems.

September: American soldiers led by General Winfield Scott capture Mexico City and end the war.


February: In California, Mormons working for John Sutter, whose sawmill on the American River is the site of the start of the Gold Rush, make a large gold find at what becomes known as Mormon Island.

March 10: Congress approves the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which cedes much of Mexico's western territory, including Utah, to the United States.

Beginning in 1848, thousands of Mormons make the trek from Winter Quarters to the Great Salt Lake Valley. In the first months they suffer terribly, but they begin to create a "kingdom in the tops of the mountains." Young sends groups of Mormons to settle in various parts of the intermountain west.


A provisional State of Deseret is organized, but it is not approved by the U.S. Congress. Instead, as a part of the Compromise of 1850, Deseret is renamed Utah and made a U.S. territory.


Brigham Young, December 12, 1850, daguerreotype.

Brigham Young, December 12, 1850, daguerreotype.

Brigham Young is appointed governor of the Utah territory.


The doctrine of polygamy is made public outside the church, leading to widespread condemnation. Some 20,000 Mormons now live in the Salt Lake area.


April 6: The Mormons who rejected the leadership of Brigham Young and never accepted the idea that polygamy was revealed doctrine hold a conference in Wisconsin to found the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This organization brings together many of the Saints who believe that the church should be led by members of the Smith family.


Mormon missionaries establish a settlement in what will become Las Vegas. Settlements are also established in San Bernardino, California and in the Wind River area of Wyoming.


President James Buchanan, reacting to reports that Young is ruling Utah as a personal theocracy, declares the territory in rebellion and sends 2,500 soldiers west from Kansas. While offering no armed resistance, the Mormons harass the military's supply trains.

Depiction of Mountain Meadows massacre.

Depiction of Mountain Meadows massacre.

September: Mormon militia led by John Lee and acting in tandem with a group of Native Americans attack a wagon train of settlers from Arkansas, slaughtering 120 men, women, and children in what becomes known as the Mountain Meadows massacre. Only 17 children under the age of eight are spared. Young's possible role in authorizing the atrocity will be hotly debated over the years, but the evidence suggests that at the very least, he covered up the truth of the crimes committed.


After a new governor is allowed to take control in Utah and federal troops march unopposed through Salt Lake City, Buchanan declares the "Mormon War" over and issues a blanket amnesty. But the continuing practice of plural marriage will prevent Utah's admission to the Union as a state for the next four decades.


Joseph Smith III, the Mormon prophet's eldest son, becomes the president of the Reorganized Church. Its headquarters are established in Independence, Missouri.


A Latter-day Saint family.

A Latter-day Saint family.

The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act criminalizes plural marriage in U.S. territories, but President Abraham Lincoln declines to enforce it.


The LDS Church (headquartered in Salt Lake City) has almost 60,000 members.


Mormon laborers assist with the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.


Anti-polygamy activity increases, and Young is charged, though not convicted, with that offense.


Photo of John Doyle Lee, ca. 1850.

Photo of John Doyle Lee, ca. 1850.

John D. Lee becomes the only individual brought to trial for the Mountain Meadows massacre, but the proceeding ends with a hung jury.


Lee is re-tried and convicted of murder.


John Doyle Lee in his coffin.

John Doyle Lee in his coffin.

March 23: Lee is executed at Mountain Meadows.

August 29: Brigham Young dies. Fifty thousand people attend the viewing.


The Church of the Latter-day Saints has 109,894 members.


The Supreme Court upholds the Morrill Act.


Mormons imprisoned for polygamy, 1886.

Mormons imprisoned for polygamy, 1886.

The Edmunds Act declares polygamy a felony and disenfranchises all who practice it. By 1893 more than a thousand Mormons have been convicted of "unlawful cohabitation."


The Edmunds-Tucker Act disincorporates the Mormon Church and gives the federal government all church property above $50,000. The Supreme Court will subsequently uphold this law.


In the Manifesto, church president Wilford Woodruff renounces polygamy on behalf of the LDS, although this act is never described as a revelation.


The Church of the Latter-day Saints has 201,047 members.


Mormon Temple commemorating statehood, 1896.

Mormon Temple commemorating statehood, 1896.

January 4: Utah is granted statehood.

More Recent History


The church threatens polygamists with excommunication and subsequently cooperates with federal authorities in prosecuting them.


The LDS Church has more than a million members.

Police taking women with children into custody at Short Creek in 1953.

Police taking women with children into custody at Short Creek in 1953.

A federal raid on the Short Creek polygamist community creates mass sympathy for the practitioners of plural marriage, and the LDS Church stops cooperating with these prosecutions.


The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints changes its name to the Community of Christ.


Mormon missionary baptizing line of converts.

Mormon missionary baptizing line of converts.

Today there are nearly 13 million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worldwide, with more church members living outside than inside the United States. The Community of Christ has more than 150,000 members and there are several schismatic groups who continue to call themselves Reorganized Latter Day Saints who probably have another 100,000 members. In addition, a variety of Mormon Fundamentalist groups continue to practice polygamy. The estimated number of fundamentalists is somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000.

In the Beginning - 1838 | 1839 - 2007