A reader asks me to expand on a recent comment regarding historians and histories of Mormonism. I do so realizing that it may wrongly be interpreted as personal; my purpose is to illustrate the causes for my earlier evaluation and to demonstrate the value of questioning claims that don’t quite “feel” right.
Mormons entered the Great Basin in 1847, finding it occupied by multiple Indian tribes and bands. The early years of white settlement were a mixed record of wars and treaties, the Mormons sometimes feeding and sometimes fighting, making both firm friends and implacable enemies. Conditions stabilized by 1854 to a point that permitted preliminary missionary expeditions to the tribes in southern Utah (both to the Navajos in the San Juan region and to the Paiutes at Harmony and Santa Clara), and to the Shoshones near Fort Bridger (now in Wyoming). Dozens of missionaries were called at April Conference, 1855, to live among the Indians at Las Vegas (Nevada), Elk Mountain (Moab), Carson Valley (Nevada), Salmon River (Idaho), and Fort Supply (Wyoming), and with the Cherokees of the Indian Territory (Oklahoma).
Mormon sources, whether publicly proclaimed or in private diaries and correspondence, uniformly acknowledge that these missions were to bless the Indians with the benefits of civilization (cleanliness, health, better food production, literacy, a stable society through regular labor, and peace with their neighbors), and with a knowledge of the gospel and their status as members of the House of Israel.
Gentiles either did not understand or would not believe that Mormon intentions were so pacific and honorable — they insisted that the Mormons were “tampering” with the Indians, seeking to make war-time allies and to turn the Indians against non-Mormon Americans.
(Representative quotations by Mormons and Gentiles are available — this post was growing so long that I removed them.)
Complicating the picture — history is always messier and more complex than polemicists on either side want to admit — was the Mormon belief that sometime in the not-too-distant future, after the Indians learned of their place in the House of Israel, and as a result of sins committed against them, the Indians would rise in righteous anger, protecting the Saints and playing a violent role in breaking down the kingdoms of this world in preparation for the reign of Christ over the Kingdom of God.
Mormons understood that these events, like other eschatological prophecies, would come to pass with or without assistance — the choice was not whether they would happen, but whether righteousness would make an individual the beneficiary or victim of events. Nonbelieving historians usually do not acknowledge Mormon belief in the inevitability of prophecy; they sometimes cannot accept that 19th century Mormons were merely reading the signs of the times, but insist they were actively engaged in bringing about the end of the world: Mormons supposedly conspired to destroy the nations of the world, and sought Indian alliances to provoke bloody warfare.
With that lengthy prologue, we finally come to David L. Bigler, Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896. Spokane, Washington: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1998.
Bigler has much to say about Mormons and Indians, virtually all of it reflecting badly on Mormons, with at least some justification (although I think Bigler is too black and white in his assessment). I don’t dispute that Mormon settlement, as was true of white settlement everywhere in the Americas, dispossessed the natives, resulting in hunger, disease, and the destruction of their traditional way of life. When Mormon lives were taken or Mormon property stolen, Mormons sometimes reacted with an out-of-proportion fury, committing atrocities which receive detailed attention in Forgotten Kingdom. Mormon policy toward the Indians was ambiguous, and too often “feed” gave way to “fight.”
Bigler also devotes considerable space to numerous aspects of Mormon millenarianism, including the role of the Indians. For some Mormon readers, the idea of the Lamanites acting as a scourge against the Gentiles in the last days will be new; for such readers, Bigler’s explanation is inadequate: he cites a single verse in the Old Testament, repeated in the Book of Mormon, and reports a single 1846 patriarchal blessing using the same language. He cites no sermons or other Mormon sources to indicate how widespread the belief was or how often such a belief was emphasized, merely implying that it was a significant part of Mormon millenarianism. (It may have been; I haven’t researched the question. I merely note that Bigler provides next to no support for such assertions.)
In my hasty refresher of Forgotten Kingdom for this post, I could find no acknowledgment by Bigler that Mormons had any humane purpose in their missionary approaches to the Indians, but only that Mormons were burning with anxiety to shape Indians into their designated role as scourges for the Gentiles, in preparation — in provocation — for the Millennium.
It is in that context that Bigler speaks of the April 1855 conference calling missionaries to the Indians:
[Brigham Young] observed the twenty-fifth birthday of the territory’s dominant faith by making a momentous announcement:
â€œPres[ident] Young said the day has come to turn the key of the Gospel against the Gentiles, and open it to the remnants of Israel,â€ reported one; â€œthe people shouted, Amen, and the feeling was such that most present could realize, but few describe.â€ [citation for the report of the unnamed "one" is: Brooks, ed., Journal of the Southern Indian Mission, April 21, 1855.] The moment had arrived for the “remnant of Jacob,” believed by Mormons to be the American Indians, to hear the gospel of their fathers and return as foretold by Old Testament and Book of Mormon prophets to build up Zion before Christ came again [the allusion to scripture reflects Bigler's earlier discussion of the single Old Testament verse, repeated in the Book of Mormon, alluding to the destructive future of the remnant of Jacob]. 
But is this an accurate report of Brigham Young’s sermon, and, by extension, Mormon intentions toward the Indians in April 1855?
The passage from which Bigler extracted this soundbite reads in full as follows:
Saty. 21 April. Bror R.C. Allen started again for Parowan, to solicit some aid for the missionaries on the Santa Clara, most that had donated freely of their dried Beef, ham, pork, molasses, cheese, butter &c. with some more seeds which will render the brethren on that station still more confortable [sic], he heard a report of Conference from J.C.L. Smith, who stated, â€œwhen Prest. Young said the day has come to turn the key of the gospel against the gentiles, and open it to the remnants of Israel, the people shouted, Amen, and the feeling was such that most present could realize, but few could describe.â€ I agreed to give Indians shutcup & 2 shirts to help me cut pickets & put up fence for 10 days. 
Obvious from the full passage but absent from the soundbite is the fact that this is not a statement made by a witness to Brigham Young’s speech, but is at least a third-hand account: Thomas D. Brown recorded what R.C. Allen said he had heard from J.C.L. Smith, who may have heard Brigham Young speak or, possibly, was repeating what he had heard from yet another link in the word-of-mouth chain.
The “somebody told somebody who told somebody” trail of the statement doesn’t necessarily mean that the statement was inaccurate, of course. Members from outlying communities attended General Conference knowing they had a duty to bring back the messages of Conference to their wards. Still, without a verbatim written record immediately available, such reports were necessarily drastically abbreviated.
The Indian mission section of Brigham Young’s conference address — the presumably verbatim account of what he did say — is given in full below. Although you probably won’t read it all, note these points:
** Six paragraphs spoken by Brigham Young have been condensed to a single line in Thomas D. Brown’s journal, which necessarily eliminates all nuanced explanation.
** Noting that the Gentiles do not accept the gospel is in no way a temporal threat — missionaries continue to go to the Gentile nations, but they seek the scattered blood of Israel with no expectation that Gentiles will respond to the message.
** The language is rather mundane and even rambling. There is no fiery rhetoric, nothing sensational, nothing war-like.
… I expect the brethren who have been selected to go and preach the Gospel will meet this evening in the Seventies’ Hall, and the Twelve will meet with them, and the missionaries will there receive some instructions. I will give them one item of instruction now. I wish each man, who does not feel willing to seek unto the Lord his God, with all his heart, for preparation to magnify his mission and calling, but declines in his feelings to walk up to his duty in spirit, and is not anxious to cleave to righteousness and forsake iniquity, to keep away from the Hall this evening; or, if such a one comes there, let him ask us at once to be excused, and we will excuse him. We do not wish a man to enter on a mission, unless his soul is in it. Some of the brethren will say — “I do not know whether my feelings are upon my mission, or not, but I will do the best I can.” That is all we ask of you. I ahve known some of the Elders, when they thought they would be called out to preach, keep away from meeting lest they should be called upon, for they feel their littleness, their nothingness, their inability to rise up and preach to the people. They do not feel that they are anybody, and why should they expose their weaknesses? I have noticed one thing in regard to this — quite as many of these men become giants in the cause of truth, as there is of any other class; for when they get away they begin to lean on the Lord, and to seek unto Him, and feeling their weaknesses, they ask Him to give them wisdom to speak to the people as occasion may require. Others can rise up here and preach a flaming discourse, insomuch that you would think they were going to tear down the nations; but when they go out into the world they often accomplishy but little.
You used to hear brother Joseph tell about this people being crowded into the little end of the horn, and if they kept straight ahead they were sure to come out at the big end. It is so with some Elders who go on missions; while many who go into the big end of the horn, and are so full of fancied intelligence, preaching, counsel, knowledge, and power, when they go out into the world, either have to turn around and come back, or be crowded out at the little end of the horn.
On the other hand I do not wish any of the brethren to be discouraged, for if you feel that you cannot say a single word, no matter, if you will only be faithful to your God and to your religion, and be humble, and cleave unto righteousness, and forsake iniquity and sin, the Lord will guide you and give you words in due season.
Recollect that we are now calling upon the Elders to go and gather up Israel; this is the mission that is given to us. It was the first mission given to the Elders in the days of Joseph. The set time is come for God to gather Israel, and for His work to commence upon the face of the whole earth, and the Elders who have arisen in this Church and Kingdom are actually of Israel. Take the Elders who are now in this house, and you can scarcely find one out of a hundred but what is of the house of Israel. It has been remarked that the Gentilies have been cut off, and I doubt whether another Gentile ever comes into this Church.
Will we go to the Gentile nations to preach the Gospel? Yes, and gather out the Israelites, wherever they are mixed among the nations of the earth. What part or portion ofthem? The same part or portion that redeemed the house of Jacob, and saved them from perishing with famine in Egypt. When Jacob blessed the two sons of Joseph, ‘guiding his hands wittingly,’ he palced his right hand upon Ephraim, ‘and he blessed Joseph, and said, God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God which fed me all my life long unto this day, the Angel which redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads,’ etc. Joseph was about to remove the old man’s hands, and bringing his right hand upon the head of the oldest boy, saying — ‘Not so, my father; for this is the first born; put thy right hand upon his head. And his father refused, and said, I know it, my son, I know it: he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he,and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.’ Ephraim has become mixed with all the nations of the earth,and it is Ephraim that is gathering together.
It is Ephraim that I have been searching for all the days of my preaching, and that is the blood which ran in my veins when I embraced the gospel. If there are any of the other tribes of Israel mixed with the Gentiles we are also searching for them. Though the Gentiles are cut off, do not suppose that we are not going to preach the Gospel among the Gentile nations, for they are mingled with the house of Israel, and when we send to the nations we do not seek for the Gentiles, because they are disobedient and rebellious. We want the blood of jacob, and that of his father Isaac and Abraham, which runs in the veins of the people. There is a particle of it here, and another there, blessing the nations as predicted. 
Reading Brigham Young’s full sermon, and believing as I do that 19th century Mormons were not fundamentally different from their 21st century counterparts, my interpretation of the scene is that Brigham Young gave a typical conference talk, one that addressed the familiar themes of missionary work and gathering Israel, reviewing already established duties toward the Lamanites, among several other themes. This was of particular interest to those who had just been called as Indian missionaries, and confirmed and reassured those missionaries who had already been working among the Indians for months. That is why, out of all the distinct ideas that could have been carried back to Harmony and Parowan and Santa Clara by J.C.L. Smith, passed on by R.C. Allen, and recorded by Thomas D. Brown, those Indian missionaries chose to discuss the one that endorsed their efforts. The indescribable feeling was a testimony that they were doing the will of the Lord in their difficult labors among the Indians.
A non-Mormon client working on one aspect of the Indian missions wrote to me recently seeking a primary source for Brigham Young’s cutting off of the Gentiles, to which his hearers had responded so enthusiastically. He had read the passage in Forgotten Kingdom and saw it as a declaration of war to which a fanatical congregation responded with such frenzy that the feeling could not be described. Strange as that interpretation may seem to believing Mormons, it is a perfectly reasonable idea for a novice to Mormon history to form from the account as given in Forgotten Kingdom, when taken in conjunction with FK‘s other assertions about Mormon plans for Indian subjects.
This is a small example, typical of others, which has led me to read Bigler’s and Quinn’s and some others’ works with a sense of wariness. Such authors delve usefully into many little known corners of Mormon history, but it has proven useful to me to re-search episodes that don’t seem quite right, to know whether quotations fully support the uses to which they are put, and whether assertions, accurate as they may be as far as they go, actually tell all that is relevant about an event. Too often they do not.
 David L. Bigler, Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896. Spokane, Washington: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1998, 93.
 Juanita Brooks, ed. Journal of the Southern Indian Mission: Diary of Thomas D. Brown. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1972, 123.
 Journal of Discourses, 2:267-268