Troublesome Children: Mormon Families, Race, and United States Westward Expansion, 1848-1893
Debates over Mormons in the nineteenth century United States were rarely solely about Mormonism. This dissertation examines the ways in which Utah-oriented discourses of outsider groups influenced political debates at the local, regional, and national levels between 1848 and 1893. As recent studies by Sarah Barringer Gordon and Terryl Givens have shown, the conflicts around which these discourses developed pertained to Mormons and polygamy specifically, but also to broader questions of religious freedom, racial diversity, and the extent to which a community might operate autonomously within the United States.
The dissertation expands on decades-old analyses of visual and literary representations of Mormons, considering intertextual dynamics and drawing on a broad source base including non-traditional artifacts such as government reports, objects, maps, and personal writing. My analysis of the changing attitudes towards and representations of Mormon settlement is informed by the growing historiographies of anti-polygamy, anti-Mormonism, and the relationship between gender, family and empire. Examining anti-polygamy discourse through the lens of settler colonialism offers a fresh perspective on the motives, anxieties, and priorities of United States policymakers seeking control of the resources and people of the Great Basin. I will argue that this analytical viewpoint, which has been used primarily in indigenous and subaltern studies, can also be meaningfully applied to a religious sect that was part of the racial majority.
Exploring objections to Mormon settlement over time reveals the extent to which Mormon self-fashioning was seen as potentially destabilizing to Anglo-American categories of race and gender—and the profound implications of those categories in political and economic terms. Overall, my analysis reinforces the significance of monogamy as a means of maintaining political control and enforcing racial order. The resolution of the "Mormon Question" in favor of the prevailing kinship model contributed to gendered imperial practices of the United States in the subsequent period of overseas expansion. As a site of confrontation between United States expansionism and distinct social and cultural configurations, the Great Basin was a principal laboratory for the development and testing of issues of United States colonial policy prior to the Spanish-American War.