Utah Saints and Sinners: Mormons and Outlaws

Terry Abraham, 1979

In the latter half of the nineteenth century the Territory of Utah was a hotbed of two distinct cultural phenomena. One was religious, a time of growth and consolidation for the Mormon pioneers who had settled in Utah after 1847. The other could be called irreligious; Utah appeared to be the center of the rise of the American outlaw, rustler, thief, gunfighter, bank robber, and hold-up man.

These two antithetical groups shared more than a common geography; they shared a large number of similar cultural traits. It is the surprising similarities between these two groups, expanding in the isolated western landscape, which calls for an explanation. In spite of differences in scale, a small troop of outlaws and a substantial body of hardworking emigrant pioneers, the two are sufficiently similar that each shared members with the other. There were Mormons who were outlaws and outlaws who were Mormons.

Utah is a land of mountains and deserts, a land of stark beauty and grandeur; it is also a land of hardship and struggle. For the Mormons who arrived in 1847, the Great Basin was the New Zion, the Promised Land. For them, fresh from the vilifications, persecution and violence of Missouri and Illinois, the monumental beauty of the land was submerged under the desire for sustenance, housing and security. Bit by bit, they began to wrest the land away from its natural state, diverting water, plowing and sowing their fields, laying out towns and temples. With the influx of European converts to Mormonism they soon had the population and the technical skills for their task. With theocracy as a guide, they grew into a kingdom that, for a time, was stronger than the United States government.

It is not necessary to recount here Joseph Smith's visions, his finding and translating the Book of Mormon, or the subsequent gathering of followers in New York's "Burnt-Over district," their migration to Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. It is sufficient to say that by 1847, as Brigham Young led the advance party down the hillside above the Great Salt Lake, their-sense of unity and purpose had been annealed in the fire of struggle. They were a close-knit community of people bonded in a common faith by the force of persecution. In part their sense of oneness was a result of Smith's 1843 revelation (publicly announced in 1852) that polygamy was an essential part of the community life. The internal and external pressures resulting from this announcement were to force the establishment of an American theocracy outside the boundaries of the United States. The subsequent pre-statehood territorial period was protracted ostensibly because of the polygamy issue, but a more basic explanation would include the reciprocal Mormon exclusion and withdrawal from American society. When that breach was smoothed over, only in part through the outlawing of polygamy, Utah was accepted into the Union in 1896.

As the Mormons reclaimed the land and put their own unique stamp upon it, a shadow community of lawless men and women was growing up around them. Although a community only in the sense that it shared certain ideals, it prospered on the fringes of the Mormon settlements. The desolate landscape that was such a hardship for the pioneer Mormons was a blessing for the outlaw. There were areas in and around Utah that provided natural hideouts and fortresses for those seeking to elude the law. Many communities were themselves so isolated from the outside that they were easy havens for cattle rustlers and bank robbers.

Brigham Young had intended to remove his community from the taint of intercourse with American society. He sought an isolated region in which to withdraw. He had considered California before the gold rush made it attractive to non-Mormons; southern Mexico was another alternative. Unfortunately the westward expansion beat a path right by his door. The Oregon Trail, overland route for farmers and goldseekers, found the Mormon settlements an ideal place to rest and purchase new provisions. The hordes on the trail proved to be an annoyance and, at times, a tragedy. Their unanticipated function was to keep the Utah Mormons in touch with the broader U. S. society.

The Mormons had gone to great lengths to distinguish themselves from their former neighbors and associates. As Mormons, they were the Chosen Few. Others were "Gentiles," outside the pale. This exclusivity was fostered by their faith, by polygamy as a doctrine, and by their communitarian response to the wilderness. The economic, spiritual, social and political aspects of the community were all controlled by the Church. For a period of time, all agricultural products were kept in communal warehouses or stores and doled out as needed. The community leaders directed the effort of the worker's labor and repaid that labor with a share of the communal goods. This interlocking economic system made it very difficult for the Oregon Trail emigrants to bargain effectively for their replacement needs. As a self-sufficient community, the Mormons were at first unable to supply the travelers' wants without diminishing their own stores. (1)

However, one result of the Mormons' sense of in-group/out-group was a lack of regard for the property of non-church members. J.W. Gunnison, in his very early account of the Utah pioneers, refers to Mormon beliefs regarding the ownership of material goods:

Thus [the Mormons] allow that mistakes have been made by individuals in carrying out their doctrines; for instance, many have supposed that the time was come when they should take possession of the property of the Gentiles, and that it would be no theft to secure cattle and grain from the neighboring pastures and fields, thus "spoiling the Egyptians," and we are told by themselves that such conduct had been forbidden from the public desk. This instance of wrong application of the dogma that they are "the stewards- of the Lord, and the inheritance of the earth belongs to the saints," shows that some foundation exists for the charges against them, on the score of insecurity of property, in Illinois, and Missouri --and that abuses can easily arise from their principles, when residing near people of other religious views. (2)

This sense of the insecurity of non-Mormon property persisted for many years after the erroneous application of dogma had been corrected. Although nearly every early account of Mormon life in Utah, excepting Gunnison, was antagonistic toward the Mormons, it reflected (as well as supported) a general consensus among non-Mormons. The near-universal dislike and distaste of their activities and beliefs--polygamy, economic cooperation, and exclusiveness-- was returned with interest by the Mormons. It is in fact difficult to say which is greater, or which came first: Mormons disliked Gentiles, Gentiles disliked Mormons. That this was reflected in the church's doctrines is not surprising. It was commonly believed that a Gentile received no justice in a Mormon court if his case was against a Mormon. "If according to the courts [of Utah] there is so little polygamy in Utah, or if it be no crime; nor a crime to make an occasional killing and tribute against outsiders---as-is done by the gang everywhere with impunity--then the Mormons are an exceptionally moral, virtuous, civil, cheerful, industrious and prosperous people. By the court records they are most exceptionally virtuous. And if these questionable deeds are the work of a small element only, which-I believe to be the case, then they are that anyway, and in truth." (3)

It is not surprising, therefore, that children brought up in such an atmosphere would tend to be belligerent towards non-Mormons. Gunnison, that impartial reporter, stated: "Of all the children that have come under our observation, we must in candor say those of the Mormons are the most lawless and profane." (4)

Another less-impartial observer, J.H. Beadle, remarked: "There is in Utah more downright lying to the square mile than in any other region on this continent; and the religious lying is the worst of all. Thus stands the Utah situation: the Jews lie for gain, the Gentiles from Association, and the Mormons 'for Christ's sake."' (5)

The most extreme case of Mormon vs. Gentile activity became known as the Mountain Meadows massacre, where a party of Mormons, led by John D. Lee, disguised themselves as Indians and wiped out a wagon train of emigrants over a questionable business transaction. Lee was later executed for his part in the murders, having been made the scapegoat for the community. In another context, Lee offered this explanation for one of his rebellious sons: "These children were begotten in the days of trial when plurality was first introduced; consequently the spirit of aleanation & disaffection were entailed upon the children." (6)

This is not to say that all lawless activity in Utah was Mormon or Mormon related. In the early days just after the Mormon arrival in the Great Basin Major Jacob Holemann reported: "We are in great confusion here. We want a few troops on this route very badly. The white Indians, I apprehend, are much more dangerous than the red. The renegades, deserters-and thieves, who have had to fly from justice to California, have taken refuge in the mountains, and having associated themselves with the Indians are-more savage than the Indians themselves." (7) Renegades such as these were reported active well into the next decade, causing a great havoc among the outlying communities. In many areas there was little distinction between the law-abiding and the lawless. "If one believes old-timers' stories, about half the inhabitants of Circle Valley [Utah] at that time [ca. 18851 were connected in some way with cattle rustling." (8) Another example would be the little town of Gunnison (named after Capt. J. W. Gunnison) which was "settled in the 1850's by cattle rustlers...." (9) Of the Mormon contribution to this state of affairs little has been said, but it must be pointed out that the isolation and desolation of Utah served the Mormons as well as the outlaws, for there was a time when many Mormons were considered by the federal government to be outlaws: the "cohabs," the polygamists, who were ruthlessly hunted down in the eighteen eighties. "Star Valley was then and still is an isolated section surrounded by mountains and well off main routes of travel. It lies partly in Wyoming and partly in Idaho, just south of Jackson Hole. The place had ... been settled by Mormon polygamists hiding from the law, and guards were posted in the passes to warn polygamists of approaching officers. In the long, deep valley of the Salt River, fugitives of the law, whether polygamists, cattle rustlers, or bank robbers, felt perfectly safe." (10)

The relationship between Mormons who, because of anti-polygamy laws, were outlaws and more "regular" outlaws like bank robbers was often quite close; but this was only a small contribution to the rise of outlawry in Utah.

There were many factors which, intersecting in Utah in the latter half of the nineteenth century, contributed to this rise. An immediate contribution was made by the Civil War; it created a large body of men trained in warfare, much of it guerrilla warfare. And, in addition, the closing of the war did not diminish the sectional animosities which had initiated it. Paul Wellman, in his A Dynasty of Western Outlaws traced the lineal descendents of the immediate post-war gangs to the machine-gun gangsters of the nineteen thirties. Many side branches of this line looped into the realm of far western outlawry.

Another major factor was the changing face of the frontier as the westward movement brought increasing numbers of settlers into all corners of the west. The cattlemen-sheepherder-sodbuster conflicts, the open vs. closed range wars, the invention of barbed wire; all contributed to the rise of outlawry. The role of the cattle industry was not only significant in and of itself, but was also precedent setting. For many, cattle rustling was the entree to a life of crime. "To obtain a start in the cattle business, young men went out on the desert or into the hills and put their brand on any unmarked animals they found. It was an easy matter to separate a calf from its mother, when it became technically a maverick. Branding calves was a sort of game played by all cattlemen, the winner being the one who got his mark on the largest number." (12) In a cashless society cattle-meant wealth, and as wealth became transferred into currency or bullion, the cattle rustler often took the logical step from branding mavericks to robbing banks, stages, mines and trains.

The large cattle ranches and their absentee owners were considered fair game for the oppressed little man exemplified by the cowboy. This class conflict between the lowly cowmen and the entrepreneurial capitalists spread from cattle ranches to railroads, mines, and banks. Like the railroads, where the variation between long haul and short haul rates often-meant grievous losses for the small farmer and businessman, banks, mines and other capitalistic enterprises were considered both exploitive and in league to maintain their growing wealth and power. In addition, the mega-economics of the frontier --stocks and bonds, venture capital, land grants, financial depressions - were essentially incomprehensible to the often-uneducated cowboy. The actions of these large corporations were considered exploitive of the cattlemen's labor and his attempts to better himself financially. Thus the cowboy-outlaw considered his illegal activities as part of the class struggle, though it was never expressed in those terms.

Population, or lack of it, and geography also contributed to the rise of outlawry in Utah. In 1880 the population of Utah was less than two persons per square mile and had climbed to barely over three persons per square mile by 1900. (13) And much of this slight population was concentrated in the cities and towns. This meant large areas of landscape empty of both settlers and law enforcement officers; and thus each small community bank or mine-head was isolated and susceptible to the robber. The elimination of this isolation through growth in railroads and telegraph lines aided the decline of outlawry.

Although the barren deserts and mountain ranges were formidable obstacles to settlement, they provided near perfect hideouts for the outlaws. Robbers Roost was one such hiding place where one entrance was a single narrow canyon which could be held by a lone gunman.

A prime example of the common ground between Mormons and outlaws can be seen in the careers of two of Utah's most famous native sons: George LeRoy Parker and Willard Erastus Christianson. Known to most as Butch Cassidy and Matt Warner, these two outlaws and their exploits have prompted a great deal of popular interest in the last decade. Both were born in the 1860s of pioneer Mormon stock; Matt was the son of a Swedish father and a German mother, while Butch's parents were converts from England and Scotland. Butch, according to his sister Lula, was attracted to outlawry through acquaintances who were cattle rustlers (14); while Matt's introduction was more dramatic. As a youth in the small Mormon community of Levan, Utah, Matt got into a fight with another boy over a girl and bounced a rock off his head. Seeing his victim fall lifeless, Matt assumed he was a murderer and ran away to a life of crime. At least that is how he told the story in his autobiography, Last of the Bandit Riders. (15)

Matt and Butch are representative of the nearly twenty Mormons among the sixty or so members of Cassidy's Wild Bunch and other outlaw gangs which operated in Utah. This proportion, approximately one-third, indicates a more elaborate commonality between Mormons and outlaws than might be assumed by their geographical closeness. And, somewhat surprisingly, the common thread that binds the two groups together is one of social attitudes. Their shared attitudinal characteristics include: rigidity of thought, ethnocentrism, a concern with dominance and power, stereotypism, aggressiveness, ambivalence, inhibition, a sense of persecution, and an admiration for authority and strong leaders with a concomitant despising of weaker persons and subordinates.

Each of these characteristics were shared to a great extent by both the first and second generation Utah Mormons and the shadow community of outlaws who were, to a great extent, their neighbors. These specific characteristics have been identified as elements in a singular personality syndrome: the authoritarian personality as described by T.W. Adorno and his colleagues. (16)

Mormon culture, through the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, had a great many characteristics in common with the dominant culture of the United States. "In its New England origins, its utopian experiments and reforms, its westward drive, and its early expansion to Europe resulting in a great program of immigration and settlement, nineteenth century Mormonism expressed prominent traits and tendencies that were already shaping American society." (17) But the expression and appearance of these traits were distinctly authoritarian. The Church, as ruling body of the State of Deseret and the later Territory of Utah (and some today say the State of Utah) was a theocracy, drawing its power direct from God through the Church elders. Aside from the Congregationalists and other similar bodies, all churches are authoritarian in matters of religion. The Mormons however also applied the authoritarianism of the Church into the secular realm, into politics, economics, and social life. All facets of life in Utah were dominated by the Church. Much of the authoritarian characteristics exhibited by the Mormons were a result of their conflicts with "Gentiles" in the States and in Utah. The categorization of people as Mormons and non-Mormons ("Gentiles") provided a stereotyped out-group towards which the Mormons could assume dominance. (That this was reciprocated goes without saying.)

Additional examples of the impact of the authoritarian personality among the Mormon communities are easy to identify, once the clues are known. One major authoritarian characteristic is submissiveness to leaders. An example of this sort of submission by large elements of the Mormon population is the farmers' response to the adoption of the communitarian United Order. A previous version had already failed, but the new Order, where all goods, land and labor were to be held in common and each member was to receive not what had been earned but what was needed, was instituted in one form or another throughout Mormon territory. In spite of widespread doubts as to its workability, doubts which were reinforced as individual and communal relationships collapsed, the proposal was widely accepted. The mild acquiescence to its eventual and equally disruptive withdrawal is also suggestive of a typical authoritarian response. (18) Stereotyping, ethnocentrism, and superiority over the outgroup are characteristics illustrated by longstanding Mormon doctrines regarding the spiritual status of Blacks and Indians. Until recently, Blacks were unable to enter the priesthood, therefore cursed in the sight of the Church; while Indians, according to Gunnison, "...have been cursed only as to color and indolent habit."(19) Mormon historian Leonard Arrington noted that while the Mormon doctrine that Indians were God's chosen people was especially strong in the early days in Utah, by 1896 and statehood "...Mormon attitudes toward the Indian began to reflect racial stereotypes typical of many other Westerners." (20)

Another characteristic authoritarian behavior trait is the repression of both self and sexual feelings. Gunnison was present at a Mormon church service in which a woman had been overcome by the spirit, a common occurrence, and began speaking in "tongues." And, as was also usual, a translator stepped forward, moved by the spirit to translate for the congregation. The young man's suggestive translation resulted in a reprimand from the elders. (21)

Polygamy, long supposed to be the primary characteristic of Mormons, is considered by anthropologists and other social scientists to be based in authoritarianism. However, cultural determinants are considered more crucial to an interpretation of any given society than the sole fact of their practice of polygamy. Therefore, it can be stated that Mormon society is not authoritarian because it was polygamous, but that it was polygamous, in part, because it was authoritarian. (22)

A sense of persecution was an undoubted characteristic of the early Mormons; for, after their expulsion from the United States, the murder of their leaders, the hostile writings of their critics, as well as uncounted individual actions, they had adequate grounds for feeling persecuted. This was undoubtedly magnified by the extreme hostility of the new environment in Utah. William Mulder recounts how one luckless community with great effort dug a ditch to irrigate their crops, but found the water so alkali-laden that all their plants were killed. (23) This sense of persecution was self-feeding and produced behavior that reinforced the persecution. Finding safety in the acceptance of conformity within the group, the Mormons banded together with their co-religionists, becoming more Mormon-like and rejecting the outside world. In reinforcing their togetherness they projected their hostility upon outsiders.

In the psychodynamics of the "authoritarian character," part of the preceding aggressiveness is absorbed and turned into masochism, while another part is left over as sadism, which seeks an outlet in those with whom the subject does not identify himself; ultimately, the outgroup. (24)

The small out-group removed to the deserts of Utah became, at least within their own territory, a strong in-group with great prejudice to "outsiders." With the threat of federal control and force added to the mix, the Mormons grew into a state dependent upon strong leaders who had been proclaimed and given great power as God's representatives on Earth. Adorno's research group noted that among authoritarian cultures: "Ambivalence is all pervasive, being evidenced mainly by the simultaneity of blind belief in authority and readiness to attack those who are deemed weak and who are socially acceptable as 'victims.'" (25) That outlaws shared the same authoritarian personality traits is symptomatic of the effect of each group's particular world-view. A cultural response grounded in authoritarianism may in part be a function of their rather similar limited options.

As with the Mormons, the concern with dominance and -power and the division (or stereotypy) of persons into dominant in-groups and subordinate out-groups is a basic characteristic of outlaw life. Power, essentially, was that of the six-gun; gun-power was used to establish economic power (or freedom from the economic power of others) by robbery and theft. Persecution was not an illusion for the outlaw; it was a daily fact of life. Ambivalence towards-cultural values is especially apparent in the case of the outlaw. He disdains the law, gainful employment, and "bourgeois" ideals, while amassing money to purchase the material good desired by the "wage-slaves."

Adorno's research group pointed out that criminal activities "represent attempts to 'prove' something. What they seek to 'prove' is toughness, strength, power, all of which signify 'masculinity.' ...Thus what superficially looks like direct, uninhibited expression of impulses in these men, turns out to be a cover-up for intense inhibition and fear." (26)

Of all the Utah outlaws, Butch Cassidy was perhaps the least "outlaw-like." According to Charles Kelly, "he never drank to excess, was always courteous to women, was free with money when he had it, and extremely loyal to his friends." (27) In fact, Kelly's book (and the movie roughly based on it) has done a great deal to sanctify the legend of Cassidy as Robin Hood of the West. The ambivalence of this myth, the outlaw-hero, is the clue to its authoritarian origins. (28) Cassidy's pattern matches those authoritarian subjects in Adorno's report who combine "both overconformity and underlying destructiveness toward established authority, customs and institutions." (29)

Matt Warner was perhaps a more typical outlaw. Throughout his autobiography are repeated instances of his ungovernable temper and his attempts at self-control. Characteristically, his reply to the suggestion that he should settle down and forego the outlaw life, something he eventually did, was: "The world owes me a living, Billy, and by God I'm going to get it." (30)

His adherence to authoritarian traits is revealed in his domination of, and physical brutality towards, his first wife Rosa Rumel. Even today, women have not escaped from the role of socially acceptable "victims." (1)

Other members of Cassidy's "Wild Bunch" ran the extremes from the cool and pleasant "Sundance Kid"--Harry Longabaugh--to the murderous likes of Harvey Logan or Harry Tracy.

With nearly a third of Utah's outlaws having Mormon antecedents, the common ground where some are part of both camps becomes much clearer. Undoubtedly, for those individuals part of both cultures, the authoritarian syndrome was much greater. Wallace Stegner's suggestion that the Mormon outlaws were a sign of "a fairly frequent dissatisfaction among the young blades with the stodgy laboriousness of their homes" (32) fails to adequately account for the phenomenon. The tendencies toward outlawry were buried in their culture and at that time the opportunities were plentiful.

Those Mormons who became outlaws can not be said to have been twice as authoritarian; rather they merely shifted from one group to another with similar characteristics. The existence of this small subgroup at the intersection of the Mormon and outlaw communities provided the linkage between the two groups.

As improved transportation and communication doomed the western outlaw, so the passage of statehood for Utah marked a step on the return of the Mormon community to the broader American society. Like Matt Warner, who finally gave up the owlhoot trail to live in peace, the Mormons of Utah abandoned some of their singularity to embrace the Americanism of their New England forebears. Outlawry, ultimately, was limited in time and space; while the Mormons have successfully transcended those limits.


1. See Leonard J. Arrington. Great Basin Kingdom: an economic history of the Latter-Day Saints, 1830-1900. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1958.

2. J. W. Gunnison. The Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints, in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1856. 66.

3. George W. France. The struggles for life and home in the North-West by a pioneer homebuilder. Life, 1865-1889. New York, I. Goldmann, steam printer, 1890. 60-61.

4. Gunnison, 160.

5. J. H. Beadle. Western wilds. Cincinnati, Jones Brothers, 1879. 102.

6. Quoted by Juanita Brooks. John Doyle Lee. Glendale, CA, Arthur H. Clark, 1962. 92.

7. Quoted in Utah, a guide to the state. New York, Hastings House, 1941. 388.

8. Charles Kelly. The outlaw trail. New York, Bonanza Books, 1959. 11.

9. Utah, a guide to the state. 326.

10. Kelly, 33.

11. Garden City, Doubleday, 1961.

12. Kelly, 11.

13. U.S. Bureau of the Census. Historical statistics of the United States, Colonial times to 1957. Washington, D.C., 1960.

14. Lula Parker Betenson. Butch Cassidy, my brother. Provo, Brigham Young University Press, 1975. 48-49.

15. New York, Bonanza Books, c.1940.

16. See T. W. Adorno, et al. The authoritarian personality. New York, Harper, 1950; Richard Christie and Marie Jahoda, eds. Studies in the scope and method of "The authoritarian personality." Glencoe, IL, The Free Press, 1954; and John P. Kirscht and Richard C. Dillehay. Dimensions of authoritarianism: a review of research and theory. Lexington, KY, University of Kentucky Press, 1967.

17. William Mulder, "The Mormons in American History," Utah Historical Quarterly, 27(January, 1959) in Allan G. Bogue, Thomas D. Phillips, James E. Wright. The West of the American People. Itasca, IL, F.E. Peacock Publishers, 1970. 506.

18. William Mulder. Homeward to Zion. Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 1957. 234-236; Phil Robinson. Sinners and Saints. Boston, 1883, quoted in William Mulder and A. Russell Mortenson. Among the Mormons. New York, Knopf, 1958. 394-398.

19. Gunnison, 51.

20. L.J. Arrington. "The Mormons and the Indians: a review and evaluation," The Record. 31(1970)24.

21. Gunnison, 74.

22. See Remi Clignet. Many Wives, Many Powers; Authority and Power in Polygynous Families. Evanston, IL, Northwestern University Press, 1970.

23. Mulder, Homeward to Zion, 221.

24. Adorno, 759.

25. Adorno, 759.

26. Adorno, 889.

27. Kelly, 4.

28. See Richard White, "Outlaw gangs of the middle border: American social bandits." Western Historical Quarterly, 12(1981)387-408.

29. Adorno, 386.

30. Kelly, 311.

31. Kelly, 312; Adorno, 759.

32. Wallace Stegner. Mormon country. New York, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1942. 285.

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