On Zion’s Mount

Farmer, Jared. On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians and the American Landscape. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008. 455 pp. Reviewed by Kevin Cassady. Mount Timpanogos dominates Utah Valley’s skyline; it is the best known landmark in the area. This was not always the case. Well before pioneers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or Mormons as they are colloquially known, settled the Salt Lake and Utah Valleys, the Utes, a southern Numic-speaking band of Native Americans, inhabited the area. These Native Americans had their own landmark, Utah Lake. When the Mormon pioneers first came to the valley, they, too, recognized the importance of this life-sustaining lake and for a while coexisted peacefully with the Utes. However, after several clashes (usually over a dwindling food supply), the Mormons, with the help of the United States government, pushed the Utes out of Utah Valley. The Mormon pioneers reshaped the landscape to fit their beliefs and their culture, assigning importance to a mountain that was previously insignificant.
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Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount tackles this potentially divisive subject objectively, comparing the Mormon pioneers’ actions with those of other Western pioneers and settlers. Farmer divides his book into four sections, an introduction and three sections entitled, “Liquid Antecedents,” “Making a Mountain: Alpine Play,” and “Marking a Mountain: Indian Play.” In the introduction Farmer outlines the origins of the Mormon religion and provides a brief history from the founding of the religion in up-state New York to the “Saints’” eventual immigration to the Salt Lake Valley and their spreading southward to Utah Valley. “Liquid Antecedents” focuses on the history of the Utes and their interactions with the Mormon pioneers. “Making a Mountain: Alpine Play” centers on the early twentieth century European and American fascination with mountains and their significance to the local populace. Farmer uses the final chapter, “Marking a Mountain: Indian Play” to develop his main argument that the Mormons took Utah Valley from the Utes, created a mountain for public relations purposes, and then, to give the mountain legitimacy and to assuage their guilt, gave the mountain a stereotypical “Native-American” legend that portrays Native Americans as the “vanishing Indian”: essentially, the legend tells of a “lover’s leap,” where a Native-American woman, often referred to as a princess, commits suicide by leaping off a Mt. Timpanogos cliff face. The use of the legend allows the Euro-American populace of Utah Valley to forget about their ancestors’ crimes against the Utes by providing a romanticized, fictitious version of the Utes’ (self-inflicted) demise. On Zion’s Mount shows both an admiration for the indomitable spirit of the Mormon pioneers and a condemnation of their inability to live peacefully with the Utes. Farmer criticizes the Mormon leader Brigham Young for his part in ordering the massacre of a band of Utes in the Utah Valley, and he is quick to point out that the treatment of the Utes was a direct contradiction of the Mormon belief that Native Americans hold a special place in their religion. The Mormons treated the Utes no differently than did other settlers of the time. Yet, despite the similarities between Mormons and other settlers of the West, Farmer explains, only the Mormons tried to create an “endemic spiritual geography” from the lands they usurped from the Native Americans. The Mormon pioneers took the land as their own, gave it a landmark that fit their religious beliefs, and then gave that landmark a Native-American legend to make it more than just a landmark—to make it their own. While some members of the Mormon religion might feel the book has an anti-Mormon slant due to its differing views of pioneer history, Farmer backs up all his assertions with extensive research, much of which comes from the archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and presents the information as objectively as possible. Despite the academic subject matter and the use of many sources, Farmer’s writing style makes the text easily accessible to the non-academic reader. In some sections Farmer tends to go off on a seemingly unrelated tangent only to surprise the reader by linking it, albeit sometimes tenuously, back to his argument with only a little loss of coherence in the narrative. Overall, On Zion’s Mount is a well written book that is an enjoyable and informative read.