This young man KANE . . . now gratuitously and voluntarily asks to be heard by the present Administration before his bosom friend, and mild, meek, and humble Christian companion BRIGHAM YOUNG is removed from the office of Governor of Utah. . . . As soon as he lectures the President on his duties on Mormonism, I may refer to him again, but trust the necessity will not exist.
—“Verastus” to Editor, New York Daily Times, May 24, 18571
Col. Kane from his long association with that people, has much influence with the Mormons, and especially with their chief. He thinks he can do much to accomplish an amicable peace between them and the United States. . . . He is full of courage, and if his judgment is correct, he may be able to avert a war of extermination against a poor deluded race.
—James C. Van Dyke to President James Buchanan, December 9, 18572
I am here not only because of my interest in the Thomas L. Kane papers but also out of respect and affection for David J. Whittaker. As the Curator of Nineteenth-Century Western and Mormon Americana, Whittaker has not only acquired and organized one of the great concentrations of materials bearing on this subject, he has published a three-volume register of these Kane materials that is itself a remarkable scholarly work.3 This study is a collector’s item, and after a half-century of research and writing in this field, I think I know a master of his discipline when I see one.4 Accordingly, I congratulate both BYU and its Harold B. Lee Library for supporting not only Whittaker but also his efforts to acquire outstanding source materials.
For a comprehensive understanding of the complicated—even daunting—subject of Thomas L. Kane’s Utah War involvement, one needs to plunge into the work of Kane’s first biographer, Albert L. Zobell Jr.; the Utah War analyses of my former collaborator, the late Richard D. Poll; my own book titled At Sword’s Point; and, above all else, Matthew J. Grow’s splendid new biography, “Liberty to the Downtrodden.”5
This article, however, is not meant to be a complete explication of Kane’s Utah War involvement but rather has a more limited focus. In addition to honoring David Whittaker and remembering Thomas L. Kane, I will explore the significance of Kane’s role in helping to resolve peacefully the Utah War of 1857–58 by exploring five questions:
• What was the Utah War?
• When and how did Thomas L. Kane become involved in it?
• What were his motives?
• Was Kane a Latter-day Saint?
• What was the significance of his efforts?
In dealing with these five questions, I will discuss the Kane collection at Brigham Young University and show how it is an indispensable tool for pursuing this subject. I view this collection not only as the Eldorado of Kane primary sources, but also as a sort of basic compass essential to navigating Kane’s very complex psyche as he, in turn, maneuvered through a murky and still poorly understood federal-territorial conflict.
The Utah War: What Was It?
In one sense, the Utah War was President James Buchanan’s (fig. 1) 1857 effort to replace Brigham Young as governor of Utah Territory and to install his successor with an army escort of twenty-five hundred troops.6 It was a change that Young resisted with guerrilla tactics until a controversial but peaceful settlement was reached a year later, largely through the unofficial mediating efforts of Thomas L. Kane, who shuttled between Salt Lake City and Fort Bridger for that purpose.
The war did not just well up soon after President Buchanan’s inauguration because of a single critical incident. Instead, the confrontation was nearly ten years in the making, with Mormon-federal relations—already poor in Missouri and Illinois before the 1847 arrival of Mormons in the Salt Lake Valley—steadily deteriorating immediately thereafter. By Buchanan’s inauguration on March 4, 1857, virtually every interface between the territorial and federal governments had become a battleground.
There were conflicts over the selection and performance of mail contractors; relations with Utah’s Indian tribes; matters of land ownership and the accuracy of federal surveys; financial stewardship of congressional appropriations for the territory; the administration of Utah’s federal courts and criminal justice system; and, perhaps most important, the background, competence, and behavior of appointees to federal office in Utah. In addition to these administrative pinch points, there were highly public, event-driven upsets over the 1852 polygamy announcement; the uneven treatment of emigrants passing through Utah to the Pacific Coast; responsibility for a series of uninvestigated, unprosecuted murders; repeated congressional rejection of statehood for Deseret; and a related controversy over whether Young was seeking Mormon independence outside the Union.
At the heart of these clashes was the disconnect implicit in conflicting philosophies of governance: Young’s vision of Utah as a millennially oriented theocracy operating under his autocratic leadership; and the U.S. government’s view of Utah as a federal territory functioning under republican principles as a congressional ward through a federally sworn governor. What Governor Young perceived as a form of intolerable colonialism, the federal establishment viewed as the normal path to statehood established by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.7
In a sense, the conflict was the armed confrontation over power and authority during 1857–58 between the civil-religious leadership of Utah Territory, led by Governor Young, and the federal leadership of President James Buchanan—a contest that pitted perhaps the nation’s largest, most experienced territorial militia (Nauvoo Legion) against an expeditionary force that ultimately grew to involve almost one-third of the U.S. Army. It was the nation’s most extensive and expensive military undertaking during the period between the Mexican and Civil wars. In my view, it was not a religious crusade against Mormonism to eradicate polygamy, an effort that came only after the Civil War.8 Neither was it a campaign to suppress a Mormon “rebellion,” a term that Buchanan used warily as do I, although at the point in fall 1857 when Governor Young declared martial law, forbade free travel within and across Utah (fig. 2), and issued orders to kill U.S. Army officers and their mountaineer guides, it becomes more difficult to avoid the “R” word.
When I entered this field of study in 1958, I used the term “Utah Expedition” for not only the United States Army brigade commanded by Albert Sidney Johnston (fig. 3) but also for the broader conflict itself. Decades later professor Richard D. Poll led me to understand that the label Utah Expedition overlooks the fact that there was a large group of people engaged on the other side who had nothing to do with the army, specifically Utah Territory’s Mormon population. Since then I have used the term “Utah War,” and have reserved “Utah Expedition” solely for the uniformed federals and camp followers involved.
The flip side of this parochialism is the term “Johnston’s Army,” an ethnocentric label used in Utah and few other places. To me it is an understandable but unfortunate term that trivializes the war by personalizing it in much the same way that “Seward’s Folly” was once used to ridicule the federal government’s purchase of Alaska.9 The term is especially inappropriate in my view since Johnston was not the expedition’s initial commander and, once appointed, there were efforts on two occasions to supersede him.10 I was surprised to learn through researcher Ardis Parshall that the war’s participants did not even use the term Johnston’s Army. The label took root in Mormon Utah only decades later for political and cultural reasons, and the term “Buchanan’s Blunder” also came into vogue.11 Elder Boyd K. Packer used the latter label at the semiannual general conference in October 2008, so old ways are sometimes enduring.12
While on the subject of terminology, I would note that within the institutional army there is an aversion to using the term “war” for this conflict. The military prefers to call it a campaign or an expedition. The army’s logic is that there was neither a congressional declaration of war nor pitched battles between massed troops and wholesale bloodletting on the scale of Civil War battles. Quite true, but I continue to think that “war” is an appropriate, common-sense term—as with the way we discuss the “Indian Wars.” Consider the following points: (1) for years Camp Floyd, Utah, near Salt Lake City, was the nation’s largest army garrison; (2) the confrontation was so costly that it virtually bankrupted the U.S. Treasury and devastated Utah’s economy; (3) the conflict’s financing forced the resignation of the secretary of war, John B. Floyd (fig. 4); (4) the citizens’ move south—an effort to flee the approaching army—put thirty thousand Mormon refugees on the road from northern Utah to Provo and perhaps beyond; (5) Brigham Young and scores of others were indicted by a federal grand jury for treason; and (6) the Mountain Meadows massacre alone, the conflict’s greatest atrocity, was one of the worst incidents of organized mass murder against unarmed civilians in the nation’s history. For me “Utah War” is an appropriate term.
Kane’s Involvement: When and How?
My guess is that most people who are aware of Thomas L. Kane’s famous Utah War involvement think of this as an activity that began midway through the conflict with his January 4, 1858, departure from Philadelphia for Salt Lake City via Panama and California. How, as well as when, all this came about is not well understood. The fact is that Kane entered the picture in March 1857 even before the conflict started. He did so in response to a letter written by Young on January 7, 1857, asking for his help in lobbying the incoming president whose name Young had just learned after a two-month postelection communications lag. Young wanted to ensure that he kept his gubernatorial appointment, the term of which had expired in 1854.13
After reading Richard E. Bennett’s article, readers might not find this request by Young a strange one in view of Kane’s earlier substantial service to the Church, especially through his 1846 trip to Iowa and 1850 lecture on Mormonism in Philadelphia. But, surprisingly, there are telltale signs that Messrs. Young and Kane had not communicated with one another for quite some time—perhaps as long as a year or more.14 Young had been busy with, if not distracted by, a host of church, political, and medical problems. Kane, in turn, had been preoccupied with illness as well as daunting personal and family responsibilities—even tragedies.15
What drove Young to reestablish contact with Kane by letter in early January 1857 were two factors: the realization that his hold on Utah’s governorship was extremely precarious, given President Pierce’s refusal to reappoint him; and the imminent inauguration of Pierce’s successor—Buchanan—would undoubtedly churn the federal patronage, including the positions of territorial appointees. With the March 4 inauguration fast approaching and severe time lags in winter mail service between Salt Lake City and the Atlantic Coast, Young realized that he had a very narrow window of opportunity during which to influence the incoming president’s appointment decisions. To Kane he wrote:
Again do I venture to break the silence of intervening months, and draw upon your time and perhaps patience long enough to read a line or two from your old friend. Well, we in the mountains are still alive. . . . In regard to other matters, through the Providence of God and doubtless the influence and favor of kind friends I am still Governor of Utah. In this I shall ever appreciate the kindness of Col. Kane and shall hold myself in readiness to reciprocate whenever opportunity shall occur.16
Young closed this long letter with another, even more convoluted summation about his gubernatorial role, “We thus recommend ourselves to you honestly believing that we are as willing to serve our country (this part of it) as we are to have anybody else to serve it for us, and better acquainted with the merits and conditions of the people, better capable of doing it correctly.”17 On January 31, concerned that weather might delay this letter’s eastbound passage, an anxious Young wrote a follow-up message to Kane. Young commented, “We are satisfied with the appointment of Buchanan as future president, we believe he will be a friend to the good, Pres. Fillmore was our friend, but Buchanan will not be a whit behind.”18
When he received Young’s first letter in late March, Kane swung into action, doing so at a time when the new president and his cabinet were exhausted and beleaguered—working feverishly night and day to fill thousands of federal appointments ranging from those for country postmasters to territorial governors. Kane’s first overture came through a March 21 letter to Buchanan pleading that he retain Young as Utah’s governor. Kane proposed that Buchanan do so not by reappointing him—an act that would have triggered a controversial confirmation process in the U.S. Senate—but rather by the technical gambit of taking no action to remove or replace him.19 On April 1, one of Young’s agents in New York reported to him,
I had a long talk with Col. Kane yesterday; he informed me that he received a letter from you a short time since. He has written to the President and also to Judge Black Attorney General of the U.S. in relation to Utah, and the [negative] reports, urging your reappointment, how it will terminate [turn out] he says he cannot at present determine, but he will do his best, and use his utmost endeavors and influence for you and the Welfare of Utah. His feelings are good.20
Two weeks later Elder John Taylor, also in New York, added the following news:
Col. Kane has been using all his influence with the administration; he is a true friend. In an interview that I had with him lately, he informed me that he had received a letter from you & was desirous to carry out your request as far as possible, he did not think it prudent, however to recommend all [your nominees]; but seemed more desirous to first secure the governorship.21
Kane himself reported to Young that,
there exists where there shd. not be a spirit of determined hostility to your interests. The best thing that can be done at present, as I am advised, is to obtain delay—at any price. I have accordingly procured an influential friend to represent to Mr. Buchanan how complicated as well as embarrassing the whole Utah question was to be considered. . . . This is about the drift of my own letter. . . . Mr. Buchanan is a timorous man, as well as just now an overworked one.22
Notwithstanding Kane’s upbeat interactions with Mormon leaders on the Atlantic Coast, his lobbying efforts on Young’s behalf took place during a period of great personal turbulence. Kane was beset by a continued grief over the recent death of his older brother Elisha, an internationally famous explorer; the financial and emotion collapse of his father-in-law; his own prolonged illness; and plans for an expedition to the Arctic inspired by Elisha that his family considered and rejected on March 27.23 Although Thomas was neither the Democratic Party stalwart nor the Buchanan intimate that his father was, the younger Kane had good reason to assume the president would give his letter and offer to visit the White House careful thought as the cabinet focused on Utah affairs.
When his overtures to Washington were met with silence, Kane interpreted this as an embarrassing, offensive rebuff compounded by what he perceived as indiscreet handling of his correspondence by the administration. The latter resulted in humiliating public ridicule by the venomous, debauched Judge W. W. Drummond through pseudonymous letters about Kane written to various newspapers. After attempting to build a backfire against Drummond by collecting and forwarding to the administration material damaging to the judge’s reputation collected by Elders John Taylor and George A. Smith, Kane notified Brigham Young of the failure to influence Buchanan.24 Kane then withdrew from Mormon affairs, and retreated with his family from Philadelphia to Pennsylvania’s mountains. What Kane and Young did not know was that on March 19 and 20 Buchanan and his cabinet had already received three new batches of materials from Utah that—true or not—destroyed any remaining vestiges of Young’s political viability. These were inputs that one Buchanan cabinet secretary informed Utah Territorial Delegate John M. Bernhisel were interpreted as a Mormon “declaration of war.” What followed in short order was the administration’s decision to appoint a new governor and to provide him with some sort of substantial military escort.25
In May, a few weeks before General Winfield Scott (fig. 5) issued orders to the army launching the Utah Expedition, Kane received Young’s second letter—the one written at the end of January. On May 21, in what almost sounds like a valedictory letter, he replied to Young in fatalistic fashion:
I am still without good news to communicate. We can place no reliance upon the President: he succumbs in more respects than one to outside pressure. You can see from the papers how clamorous it is for interference with Utah affairs. Now Mr. Buchanan has not heart enough to save his friends from being thrown over to stop the mouths of a pack of Yankee editors. . . . I thank you for writing to me. I am growing old enough to prize the friends whom Time has left me. . . . Yet this writing, my friend Young;—does it keep down the miles of waste which seem to be growing up between us every year? I wish I had your hand to grasp. I write myself, and it seems but form.26
Several years later, after Kane had criticized Bernhisel for also withdrawing from Washington during spring 1857—thereby creating a lamentable vacuum in Mormon lobbying capabilities at a crucial time27—Bernhisel countered with a polite criticism of his own communicated to one of Buchanan’s closest political confidantes. That advisor, in turn, reported Bernhisel’s comments to Kane:
[He] expressed great regret that you had not thought of going out [to Utah] at an earlier date; and he had no doubt that had you gone there during the latter part of the summer [of 1857] and given them assurances of the prosecution of offenders and of the pardon from the President of such persons as they might desire, his belief was that you could have exerted a powerful influence in persuading his people to return to their allegiance to the U.S.28
This, then, was how Kane first came to become involved with what soon unfolded as the Utah War. This is not the place to describe the equally complex story of how Kane spent summer 1857, how and why Young reached out to him again in August and September 1857, and how Kane ultimately returned to the fray of Mormon affairs with two trips to the White House on November 10 and December 26, 1857, the genesis of his 1858 mediating mission to Utah.29 It is relevant, though, to plumb the depths of his motivations in undertaking such a task.
Kane’s Motives: The “Why” Question
Why, at the end of December 1857, would Kane return from the White House to Philadelphia, quit his job as clerk of his father’s U.S. district court, and—to the accompaniment of Judge Kane’s disapproval and predictions of failure—convince his wife of his need to hurry off at age thirty-five in the dead of winter to Utah in pursuit of a dangerous humanitarian mission of uncertain character and indeterminate length among a people whose religion he did not share? All this was to be done while leaving Elizabeth and their two children as virtually destitute boarders in his parents’ home. In his essay, Richard Bennett describes the motivations behind Thomas’s somewhat similar 1846 visit to the migrating Mormons in western Iowa and the reasons for his attachment to the Mormons in terms of such drivers as empathy for and bonding with a sickly, beleaguered people. I do not challenge the accuracy of any of these early factors in the relationship Kane had with the Mormons but would add that in 1846 Kane was also strongly interested in the fanciful possibility that if he reached the Pacific Coast with Young’s pioneer party, he might somehow become governor of California. Before reaching Iowa, Kane had written to a brother:
At one time or other a government representative may be wanting [in California]. Who so fit for one as I?—above all if on the journey I shall have ingratiated myself with the disaffected Mormon army before it descends upon the plains—and according to the promptings of occasion, be or be not the first Governor of the new territory of California.30
If one accepts the assumption that most of these same motivations were still present in Kane’s mind during late 1857, it is important to ask whether there were any other factors influencing his decision to intervene in Utah. In my view there were several new drivers to be considered in assessing Kane’s Utah War role.
Chief among these factors was the devastating impact of Elisha Kent Kane’s death in February 1857 during a fruitless attempt to recover his long-deteriorating health in Havana. Thomas was in Cuba with Elisha during his brother’s final illness—the very time when Brigham Young was reaching out to him. He accompanied the body home to Philadelphia and immediately plunged into not only deep grief but also the complex role of Elisha’s legal and literary executor as well as the keeper of his reputational flame. Because of Elisha’s notoriety as a naval surgeon, Arctic explorer, would-be rescuer of Sir John Franklin’s fatal British expedition to that region, and best-selling author, his funeral cortege through New Orleans, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburg, and other cities produced an event unmatched in American mourning during the period between the funerals of Presidents Washington and Lincoln.31 This example and the knowledge that during the Mexican War Elisha had undertaken a confidential, dangerous government mission to carry dispatches to General Winfield Scott in the field as he had done earlier in a diplomatic mission to China, provided a powerful motivator for Thomas to emulate, if not match, his brother’s accomplishments. Hence Thomas’s quixotic, unsuccessful attempt to mount an Arctic expedition of his own during late March 1857, shortly after Elisha’s death and only a few weeks after his March 12 burial and Thomas’s March 21 letter on behalf of Young to Buchanan. By the end of the year, the prospect of substantial bloodshed in Utah provided still another opportunity for a dramatic adventure—one made all the more compelling, if not appealing, by the daunting nature and the blunt skepticism of his prominent, overshadowing father.32
Having at least introduced the subject of Thomas L. Kane’s famous older brother and widely respected father, I am not going to wade deeper into the murky diagnostic waters of psychohistory. What I can do, though, is discuss Kane’s mediating mission to Utah in terms of the observations of those in close proximity to him as well as his own explanation.
In that connection, it is important to understand that on December 9, 1857, James C. Van Dyke, the president’s shadowy political confidante, wrote to Buchanan to brief him on Kane’s mood and thinking. This took place soon after news of the Nauvoo Legion’s successful raid on the Utah Expedition’s supply trains reached Washington and the day after the president sent his first annual message to Congress, but before Kane’s fateful Christmas visit to the White House. Although at approximately the same time territorial delegate Bernhisel had described visiting Kane in a “sick room” in which he was beset by personal “anxieties and troubles,” Van Dyke reported a different view to Buchanan:
Col. Kane from his long association with that people, has much influence with the Mormons, and especially with their chief. He thinks he can do much to accomplish an amicable peace between them and the United States. He is willing to make an expedition to Salt Lake this winter, even at his own expense, if hostilities have not advanced to such a point as would render useless any efforts on his part. He has conversed with me much, on this subject, and my conclusion from all he has said has been, that it would not be an unprofitable thing if you would have a consultation with him, and hear his views. . . . He is full of courage, and if his judgment is correct, he may be able to avert a war of extermination against a poor deluded race.33
Buchanan, of course, did meet with Kane on December 26, and Kane later recorded that he had explained his motivations to the President by saying, “I will not be a disappointed man unless I fail to prove myself.”34 As Kane was confiding this driver to Buchanan, Kane’s wife recorded in her diary the news that
God has mercifully brought out of them [our adversities] one great blessing already, in uniting Tom and me in the bonds of a common [Christian] faith. Tom thinks he may be of service to Him by bringing about a peace between Utah & the U.S. and went to Washington last night to see the President about it. May God give him wisdom to do right, and may His peace be with him. And oh, may He guide Papa.35
After he returned from Utah in June 1858, Kane told territorial delegate Bernhisel that “he would have the world know that he m[a]de his journey at his own expense, in the interest of the whole United States, and of humanity as well as the friends he loves in Utah.”36
The longest, most interesting assessment of Thomas L. Kane’s motives came from his younger brother, John, who was studying in Paris at the time of Thomas’s decision to go to Utah. On January 21, 1858, with awareness that his older brother had indeed left for the West, John wrote to his siblings and parents:
I am glad the family did not make him unhappy by useless remonstrances . . . [and unlike father] I am moreover not so sure of an unsuccessful termination to the affair. I have great confidence in Tom’s long head and unbounded energy and however impossible a thing may seem I regard the fact of Tom’s having undertaken it as more than half a success. Then too when I reflect that Tom is never so well as when exposed to what would kill most men of his build, and that hard life in open air (no matter how hard) always agrees with him better than the most tranquil of sedentary existence. . . . At home Tom’s big soul was preying on his body. The loss of dear Elish. and the crushing blow which this financial crisis gave to his hopes of organizing a new [Arctic] expedition were killing him by inches. He is too great a man to occupy himself with trifles. . . . Now he has got an object large enough and noble enough to draw his thoughts away from the poor self on which they were fading and I cant help hoping that his physical man will improve in consequence. However be the result of what it may the object is grand and noble and does him and the family honor and I for one say God bless and speed him with all my heart.37
Such was the combination of drivers that propelled a sickly, overshadowed, ambitious, restless, and religiously struggling Thomas L. Kane from the comforts and boredom of Philadelphia to the wilderness perils of the American West. Here was an unconventional mission on behalf of a beleaguered Mormon people whom both President Buchanan and territorial delegate Bernhisel feared might kill Kane in southern Utah, scene of the Mountain Meadows massacre less than three months earlier.38
Was Kane a Latter-day Saint?
In spring 1858, when it became known on the Atlantic Coast that Thomas Kane was in Utah and somehow engaged in the war, there was a great deal of speculation as to whether this unclear involvement stemmed from membership in the Latter-day Saint church. Was Thomas a closet Saint? Many newspaper commentators as well as troops at Fort Bridger thought so, but the fact is that he was not. The clearest, most concise assessment of that question appears in an article by David J. Whittaker. He explains that, although Thomas had been baptized in 1846 for health while visiting the Mormons in Iowa, this was not a religious commitment or affiliation—just an act of mercy extended to what appeared to have been a visitor dying of malaria. As Whittaker also notes, Elizabeth Kane’s diary at BYU makes clear that the relevant question for the Utah War period was not whether Thomas was a Mormon but rather whether he was even a Christian.39
In his essay, Richard Bennett comments that at the time of Thomas Kane’s 1846 mission to Iowa “he embraced no one particular Christian faith.” Twelve years later, just before Kane was to leave Utah to return home, Brigham Young made a highly tactful attempt to invite Kane to investigate Mormonism (fig. 6) by writing, “For your own eye”:
Though our acquaintance from its commencement, which now dates from many years past, has ever been marked by that frank interchange of views and feelings which should ever characterize the communications of those who have the welfare of mankind at heart, irrespective of sect or party, as I am well assured by a long and intimate acquaintance, is a feeling signally shared by yourself in common with your best friends; yet, so far as I can call to mind, I do not remember to have ever, either in correspondence, or in familiar conversation, except, perhaps, by a casual and unpursued remark, alluded to matters of religious belief, as entertained by myself and others who are commonly called “Mormons”; nor do I remember that you have ever overstepped the most guarded reserve on this subject in all your communications with me. So invariably and persistently has this peculiarity marked our friendly and free interchange of views upon policy and general topics, that I have at times imagined, and still am prone to imagine, that you are more or less inclined to scepticism even upon many points commonly received by the religious world.
The faith embraced by the Latter Day Saints is so naturally philosophical, and so consistent with and enforcive of every valuable and true principle that should govern in every department of life, that I am strongly of opinion that a plain, candid exposition of the faith of the everlasting gospel, which I have so much at heart, cannot, probably, fail to at least interest a person of your reflective turn of mind. Such being my conviction, your permission to me to converse familiarly with you upon a subject of so much import, previous to your departure for your home, or to write to you upon your return to the society of your family and friends, will confer a highly esteemed favor upon, [me].
Matthew J. Grow, Kane’s latest biographer, argues that “Kane rejected Young’s overtures; for him Mormonism would always remain in the realm of reform not personal belief.”40
While Kane was in Utah, even President Buchanan waded into the fray of controversy over Thomas’s religious affiliation, doing so, in his typical indirect fashion, through his party’s political organ, the Washington, D.C., Union. On May 20 or 21, 1858, Kane’s brother Pat visited the president to complain of the Union’s lack of support for Thomas’s humanitarian mission to Utah. Elizabeth Kane recorded that at that session Buchanan “with his own hand wrote a notice to the Union, saying that Tom was no Mormon, but a worthy brother of Elisha’s, a noble enterprise—etc. etc.” An unsigned editorial in these words appeared in the Union’s May 21 issue.41
Kane arrived home on June 19, 1858, and, before departing for Washington two days later to see Buchanan, he devastated Elizabeth by announcing that he had lost the newfound religious commitment that had so enraptured her at the time of his departure six months earlier. In her journal she recorded:
Tom and I had a good deal of talk together. I said in my diary that “I was so happy and unhappy”. What made me unhappy was this. Tom told me the first moment we were alone, like my dear honest darling, that the hope that had dawned on him of being a Christian was gone.—Now what distresses me is not the same trouble as I used to have, because I am sure it is only a cloud veiling the sun. I know that my prayers won’t fall to the ground, I know that he will be a Christian, and if I exulted in the answer to my prayer too soon, I can wait patiently. Late or soon it shall be answered. Not all the men on earth, nor all the fiends in hell could persuade me against Christ’s words “Ask and ye shall receive”. I know that I ask a prayer that is a right one, and the answer I will have. True it is that for six years I have prayed daily for this one thing, but sometimes it has been more habit, not always the “strong crying and tears” with which I prayed last night. I need no special revelation, no messenger from heaven to tell me what I feel in the depth of my soul that my Savior hears, and is my advocate. I know my prayer will be granted. My grief is that the only comfort in his trouble is not his now. All my letters dwelt on that comfort. What can he do? And how hard it will be to shut up in my own breast again all the sympathies that went out to my brother Christian. He was so much nearer me! I don’t know how to talk to him, for my thoughts have so moulded themselves around that hope that I – Oh dear poor Tom! I think I must not show you my diary. It would pain you now. I am glad I did not know he had lost his staff till now. I could not have borne his absence.42
In 1859, James C. Van Dyke, Buchanan’s political advisor, related to Kane a conversation he had with Delegate Bernhisel during Kane’s late December 1857 visit to the White House:
His [Bernhisel’s] remarks upon your influence with the Mormons were so pointed an[d] decided that I felt some curiosity to know how it was that you had ingratiated yourself into the affections of this strange people. I remarked to him, “How is it that Col. Kane has such influence with your people?” I said jocosely, “He is no Mormon, and does not, I believe, approve of those peculiarities in their religion which appear to be the principal obstacle to a cordial affiliation between you and the rest of the U.S.” He said, “Oh no! he is no Mormon, and of late years has treated us very coldly; we think on account of our religion which we all very much regret; but our friendship for and confidence in him is of a different nature.”43
Kane’s Mediating Mission: Significance and Impact
The last of my five questions investigates the significance and impact of Thomas L. Kane’s Utah mission. Did it make a difference? Was it important? At one point, soon after Kane’s late-February arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, Elder George A. Smith wrote to one of the prime movers in the Mountain Meadows massacre to describe sarcastically Kane’s plea for Mormon leaders to negotiate with rather than fight the army:
It turns out that Col Tho. Kane’s message is an unofficial one, he designs [intends] our good & is a warm friend, but he wants us to spare the lives of the poor soldiers camping about Bridger. Mr. Buchanan would like us to feed them, and not destroy them until he can get sufficient reinforcements to them to destroy us? This is as near I can learn the design of the President of the United States.
Smith summarized his assessment with the single word “Bah!”44
But when the smoke cleared, President Buchanan felt that Kane’s effort had indeed been beneficial, although consistent with his convoluted style he could barely bring himself to say so publicly. At the end of 1857, Buchanan had crafted two letters of introduction for Thomas Kane to take west as an expression of goodwill and a means of introducing him to any federal officers whom he encountered. Given the criticism of his Utah policy then developing in Congress, what Buchanan had written for Thomas in his cautious, lawyerly, and secretive fashion was a model of what in today’s presidential politics and intelligence work would be called plausible deniability. The letters were a means of distancing Buchanan from Thomas if his secret mission should become known, controversial, or a failure while providing signs that on at least a personal basis he had wished Kane well—thin gruel and cold comfort. From the distance of Philadelphia, George Plitt and John W. Forney—jaundiced former friends of the president—and Pat Kane immediately recognized the letters as such. Elizabeth Kane recorded their reactions and commented: “[They] think Mr. B. has behaved badly. His exceedingly noncommital letters are, they say, ‘Buck all over, so that if Mr. K. succeeds, he may approve him, if he fails disavow him.’”45 When a controversy indeed arose in summer 1858 over Kane’s role and authority, Buchanan again turned to the Washington Union to make his case while protecting his anonymity:
Dr. Kane, [was] a mere private citizen without power or authority of any sort. . . . He was a personal acquaintance of the President and possessed his esteem, and hence, we believe, took with him letters of introduction to officers of the army from Mr. Buchanan as from an [private] individual. But he went neither as agent of the President nor as officer of the government; neither as secret agent nor as public officer; but simply on an individual, self-imposed mission, as a private citizen, philanthropist, well-wisher of the Mormons, or what you will. He took no message from the President, other than the President had publicly announced [in his 1857 annual message], in regard to the Mormons.46
Old Buck’s only recorded public utterance appreciation came in a single, muted sentence buried in his December 1858 second annual message to Congress: “I cannot, in this connection, refrain from mentioning the valuable services of Colonel Thomas L. Kane, who, from motives of pure benevolence, and without any official character or pecuniary compensation, visited Utah during the last inclement winter for the purpose of contributing to the pacification of the Territory.”47
My view is that Kane’s intervention made an indispensable difference in the outcome of this confrontation and that Buchanan, although fundamentally silent in public, was vastly relieved. Absent Kane’s gratuitous intervention, the result could well have been substantial bloodshed beyond what had already taken place in Utah during fall 1857—a carnage roughly equivalent to what prompted for Utah’s eastern neighbor the enduring label “Bleeding Kansas.”48
Although Kane’s March 21 letter to Buchanan and his November and December visits to Washington appeared to have had little or no overt influence on the President’s thinking, Kane did have an impact on Brigham Young’s decision making at a crucial juncture in the war. At first it appears that Kane’s late-February/early-March discussions with Young and his counselors in Salt Lake City were fruitless. Elder Smith’s “Bah!” reaction may not have been unique among the views of senior Mormon leaders. However, as discussed below, I believe that, beneath the surface, Kane’s arguments for a peaceful resolution of the armed standoff prepared the way for the marked change in Young’s then confrontational posture that took place immediately after Kane left for Camp Scott on March 8.49
As Kane was departing Salt Lake City, exhausted messengers arrived to inform Young of a surprise attack on the Church’s Salmon River Mission in southern Oregon Territory (Fort Limhi) by two hundred Bannock and Northern Shoshone warriors. Mormon losses had been two killed and five wounded, together with hundreds of cattle and horses. Kane apparently took little note of the incident, preoccupied as he was with his departure on a daunting, lonely trek to Fort Bridger across 113 miles of mountainous terrain in bad weather. But Young understood immediately the implications of the bad news from Fort Limhi. It meant his inability to count on Lamanite allies in any coming fight with the Utah Expedition and the loss of safe access to a northern escape route to Montana’s Bitterroot Valley or perhaps even to the Pacific Coast. With the north closed to him by this catastrophe, the army approaching from his east, California to the west inflamed over the Mountain Meadows massacre, and the army’s Ives Expedition ascending the Colorado River from the south, Young realized he was trapped.50
He immediately did two highly unexpected things. First, he sent one of his sons galloping east to intercept Kane on the trail to deliver a note offering to donate or sell large quantities of flour to the army as a goodwill gesture.51 Then he began to consider plans for a mass Mormon exodus from northern Utah that by March 21 would be refined into what became known as “the Move South.” Without Kane’s foundational arguments in Salt Lake City and his immediately subsequent presence on the trail to Fort Bridger, it is unlikely that Young would or could have undertaken to send the conciliatory flour signal to Albert Sidney Johnston as he did. I would argue that there is also a likelihood that Kane’s determination in December to broach the notion of a Mormon exodus to Young when he reached him in February had a real but unclear influence on that leader’s March decision to launch the Move South.52
Even more consequential to the outcome of the war was Kane’s pivotal role during April in persuading Alfred Cumming (fig. 7), Young’s gubernatorial successor, to change his hostile attitude toward the Mormons. As a result, Cumming agreed to Kane’s proposal that he travel from Fort Bridger to Salt Lake City to take up his office unescorted by the army and accompanied only by Kane and two servants. It was a highly symbolic, unthreatening gesture that permitted Young to yield the governorship with some semblance of dignity while allowing Cumming, in turn, to declare to the Buchanan administration that federal authority had indeed returned peacefully to Salt Lake City.53
Finally, I would note that by traveling to the White House in June 1858 while deathly ill to brief Buchanan in person on conditions in Utah and to do so even before the president’s own official peace commissioners had returned from the West, Kane provided Buchanan with the wherewithal to do something he had contemplated for some time—to declare victory in Utah, halt the massive military reinforcements already on the march to the territory from Kansas, and begin to wind down an enormously expensive and embarrassing armed confrontation. Buchanan declared “the Mormon problem” had been resolved to his satisfaction, a position that permitted him to turn attention from his then-controversial and expensive military intervention in Utah to other issues such as statehood for Kansas and Indian conflicts in both the Pacific Northwest and Southwest.54
No one else could have done all this, especially under such daunting circumstances. Kane’s accomplishments were those of a person uniquely willing to champion the Mormon cause with an unmistakable idealism abetted by a hidden manipulativeness that matched James Buchanan’s own such behavior. Although he did not know the half of what Kane had done, it was a performance that prompted one New York war correspondent to write a dispatch from Utah that, in turn, prompted his distant editor to argue that the nation owed a substantial debt of gratitude to a largely unknown Colonel Kane:
We are not yet apprised of the precise nature and extent of Col. Kane’s negotiations with the Mormon leaders, but they were certainly followed by an invitation to Governor Cumming to visit Salt Lake City—an invitation which the Governor immediately accepted . . . Without doubt they [Mormon leaders] have been greatly influenced by the counsels of Col. Kane.
Another newspaper dubbed Kane the “Peace Maker” and attributed to him “the close of the Mormon war” with enormous cost savings to the federal government (fig. 8).55
At the end of 1857, Buchanan lacked a plan for resolving the Utah War except for the application of more force. Small wonder that when Kane returned in June 1858 to meet for five days with Buchanan and his cabinet, the president was vastly relieved and grateful. As Kane later related the scene to Elizabeth, upon first seeing him the president immediately ushered out Pennsylvania’s politically powerful Senator William Bigler, exclaimed “Colonel Kane!” and took his hand with “effusion.” When Kane asked, “Well, Sir, Have I been as good as my word?” Buchanan gushed, “Better—More than as good as your word,” following which Kane reported “more effusion and words of thanks.”56
BYU’s Kane Collection:
Observations and Lessons Learned
In thinking about lessons to be learned from BYU’s Kane collection—or at least those I have derived from using these materials—four principal observations come to mind:
Importance of the Collection. I want to re-emphasize the importance of these materials. Although there are ten or more concentrations of Thomas L. Kane’s papers in various repositories across the United States, BYU’s collection is enormously important and clearly the most vital to understanding his role in the Utah War. I have found BYU’s holdings essential to grasping not only crucial aspects of what happened but also the reasons events took place.
I will mention just one example. Richard Bennett’s article touched on Thomas’s 1846 Iowa visit in terms of Kane’s illnesses and certain distinctive behaviors such as his use of family members as intermediaries with the White House; attempted exercise of presidential authority and power; and extreme secretiveness, including the use of codes and ciphers. To be aware of this Kanesean style during the Mexican War brings meaning to its reappearance twelve years later in the Kane documents generated during the Utah War. In effect, all of this permits historians and biographers to discern a distinct pattern of operation.
Necessity of Looking beyond Kane’s Papers. My second point is that to understand Thomas’s role in the Utah War it is important to consult not only his papers at BYU but also those in Provo generated by his spouse and siblings. For example, Elizabeth’s diary is an indispensable source by which to understand the depth of family sacrifices implicit in Kane’s travel to Utah. It is also the sole means by which one can grasp Thomas’s fragile religiosity and the family’s deep ambivalence about President Buchanan’s dealings with him.57 Thomas L. Kane’s papers alone are not enough; they are necessary, but not sufficient, to provide a rounded understanding of the man. (Would that President Buchanan or one of his cabinet members had kept a diary as Elizabeth Kane did!)
BYU’s Holdings—Only Part of the Puzzle. In somewhat the same vein, my third point is that, as important as BYU’s Kane collection is, researchers seeking a rounded picture of the man and his Utah involvement will need to venture beyond the Harold B. Lee Library. No single repository has holdings sufficiently broad to permit a full understanding of such an extremely complex man. Among the high-yield collections that can and should be consulted in addition to BYU’s are those at:
• The American Philosophical Society (Philadelphia, Penn.)
• Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, Utah)
• Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (New Haven, Conn.)
• The University of Michigan’s William L. Clements Library (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
• Stanford University Libraries (Stanford, Calif.)
• Pennsylvania State Archives (Harrisburg, Penn.)
• The Huntington Library (San Marino, Calif.)
• Private collections (various locations)
I will mention just one example of the extent to which materials to be found outside of Provo shed important light on Kane. Until quite recently, his crucial interactions with President Buchanan during December 1857 were almost wholly unknown. Until BYU acquired Elizabeth’s diary, historians were not sure of how and when they took place and certainly were unaware of what Kane told his family upon returning home from Washington. Supplementing this important behind-the-scenes glimpse provided by Elizabeth are astonishing pieces of the puzzle to be found in each of the repositories listed above. Perhaps the most arcane information about the December Buchanan-Kane meeting, though, comes from an indirect source, a letter written to the president by Judge Kane on December 31 to thank him for seeing his son and to comment on what Thomas told him of their White House conversation. This document is now in a private collection in California. Here Judge Kane commented matter-of-factly that, in the course of his presidential interview, Thomas indicated his intent to discuss with Brigham Young what could be interpreted as a Mormon mass exodus from Utah.58 With this piece of the puzzle at hand, it is now possible to understand—or at least to speculate about—an enigmatic, cryptic sentence that later appeared in two letters that Young wrote to agents in Washington and Liverpool during Kane’s visit to Salt Lake City. The sentence was, “We continue to keep our eyes on the Russian possessions [Alaska].”59
And the Lost Shall Be Found—More to Come. My fourth and final observation is there are far more Kane documents that will indeed be discovered in the years to come. My confidence that wonderful additional discoveries await us is the reason that my September 2008 Arrington Lecture at Utah State University on the future of Utah War studies was an optimistic talk.60
One of the missing documents that I expect to surface is the text of a lecture on Utah that Kane delivered at the New-York Historical Society in March 1859. In many respects, the very fact of Kane’s New York lecture reflects the complexity of his character and personality while demonstrating the need to consult multiple sources to understand them. With this lecture, Kane rendered Governor Cumming an enormous service, and he did so by traveling to Manhattan in the dead of winter while struggling with another of his episodic life-threatening illnesses.61 Kane did so because he believed that retention of Cumming as governor was essential to the well-being of the Latter-day Saints and to the tranquility of Utah. Yet Kane was hardly an admirer of Cumming, a four-hundred-pound alcoholic of limited talent who had successfully alienated not only Albert Sidney Johnston, his military protector, but former colleague Isaac I. Stevens, governor of Washington Territory.
Kane’s personal disdain for Cumming and cynicism about his susceptibility to manipulation were such that in April 1858, when he first introduced the new governor to Brigham Young, George A. Smith recorded that “Col. Kane visited Gov. Young [and] told him that he had caught the fish, now you can cook it as [you have] he had a mind to.” On May 1, General D. H. Wells reported to Young on a recent discussion with Kane in which Cumming was described as “the poor old man” and “the Old Man,” a descriptor that Wells used in such a way that it appears to have been Kane’s as well as his own way of speaking about the new governor. Kane and Young frequently exchanged comments about Governor Cumming’s drinking problem, yet Kane in March 1859 was willing to leave what territorial delegate Bernhisel had once called his “sick room” in Philadelphia and travel to Manhattan to lecture the world on Alfred Cumming’s courage.62
It was a gambit that generated such extensive publicity that it made it virtually impossible for President Buchanan—a leader whom Kane had once described to Young as “a timorous man”—to remove Cumming. This was Kanesean wire-working on an even grander scale than Kane’s May 1858 arrangement for dispatches to Albert Sidney Johnston to be delivered only by uncommunicative Mormon couriers, a system that Kane devised because he knew it would enrage the colonel and “tend to add fuel to the fire between Cumming and Johns[t]on.”63 Here one sees the combination of nobility and manipulation that had permitted a younger Kane to plan a mission of compassion to Iowa in 1846 while simultaneously dreaming of becoming governor of California with the armed might of his new, hopefully ingratiated Mormon friends behind him.64
And so I believe strongly that the stuff from which will come an even better understanding of a very complex Thomas L. Kane and his important Utah War contributions awaits our discovery. All that is needed to find such material is energy, imagination, support, and persistence of the type that have created in such wonderful fashion BYU’s Kane collection.
“To Col. Thomas L. Kane”
Much Honor’d Sir,
I’d fain address my pen
To you, a lover of your fellow men.
I dare presume; but beg you’ll pardon, Sir:
I trust you will, if I, presuming, err.
You plead the rights of man—you fain would see
All men enjoy the sweets of liberty.
Goodness is greatness—knowledge—pow’r; and thou
Perchance art greatest of your nation now.
And while that nation sinks beneath its blight;
You, like a constellation, cheer the night.
If you can quell the raging ocean’s wave,
You may, perhaps, your fallen country save.
If you can cleanse corruption’s growing stream,
Hope on, your nation’s honor, to redeem—
Give back our martyr’d Prophet’s life again
And from th’ escutcheon, wipe that dreadful stain.
Your civil pow’rs—your Officers of State,
On freedom’s shoulders, throw a deadly weight;
With suicidal acts, they’ve trampled down,
Our Charter’d Rights, and God Almighty’s frown
Is resting on them; and the bitter cup
They’ve dealt, they’ll drink; and drink it wholly up.
Though for a while you may avert the blow,
The deed is done, which seals their overthrow—
The pois’nous canker-worm is gnawing where
No skill—no med’cine can the breach repair.
What have they done? O blush, humanity!
What are they doing? All the world can see.
Where is the Banner which your nation boasts?
Say, Is it waving o’er the gentile hosts?
Where are the Statesmen that have never swerv’d?
By whom the Constitution’s Rights preserv’d?
Here in the mountains, ’neath the western sky,
Columbia’s Banner proudly waves on high.
And here are men with souls—men just and true—
Men worthy of our noble sires and you:
They have preserv’d our sacred Constitution
’Midst fearful odds and cruel persecution.
Your noble, gen’rous heart, with pure intent,
Would screen the guilty from just punishment.
But God is at the helm—th’ Almighty rules—
He, in whose hand the nations are but tools:
His kingdom, Daniel said, would be set up:
’Tis here: ’twill swallow other kingdoms up.
The seeds of wickedness, the nations grow
Within themselves, will work their overthrow;
Though for a season, mercy stays its hand,
Justice will have its own, its full demand.
We’ve sued for peace and for our rights, in vain;
Again we’ve sought for justice—and again—
We’ve claim’d protection ’neath that lofty spire
Columbia boasts:—’twas planted by our sires.
But now we ask no odds, at human hand:
In God Almighty’s strength alone, we stand:
Honor, and Justice, Truth, and Liberty
Are ours:—we’re Freemen, and henceforth we’re free.
composed by Eliza R. Snow March 6, 1858
published in Deseret News, April 10, 1861