I'm halfway through The American West: A New Interpretive History (2000), an award-winning retelling of how the West was won. Hint: it's not a pretty picture. While Mormon pioneers get mentioned briefly, the book is more valuable (to the LDS reader) as a summary of just how violent and unfriendly 19th-century America was to those who weren't white and Protestant. It wasn't just the Mormons that got the short end of the stick. But in this post I'll focus on the concept of Mormons as a frontier people. In what way are the Mormons a frontier people, you ask?
A Frontier People
I'm not fond of LDS pioneer rhetoric. Here's an alternative formulation of the concept that I think I like better: Mormons as a frontier people. One theme of the book is that "the West" is not a fixed geographical concept. It moves. When Europeans first settled the Atlantic coast of North America, "the West" was two miles inland. During the colonial period, "the West" was over the Appalachians. That early perspective is still with us: the Southwestern Athletic Conference doesn't get any farther west than Texas; we call Washington and Oregon "the Pacific Northwest" to distinguish it from the Old Northwest (roughly the Big Ten conference); and when the Mormons founded their own city in Missouri during the 1830s, they called it "Far West." Thus the Mormon movement from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois to Utah moved with "the West." Unlike other Christian denominations, the Mormons did not spring or split off from East Coast religious denominations. We're sui generis American Christians. We went west with the young men.
The book also describes the frontier and "the West" as a place where cultures and races mix. The encounter between European settlers and Native Americans is much oversimplified. It was not simply a clash of cultures, it was a mixing of cultures and races. On the frontier, settlers lived like Indians and Indians started to live like settlers (they didn't permanently settle until forced to, but they picked up things like English, textiles, metal utensils, guns, and alcohol). Mormons were part of this mixing, always having a keen interest in evangelizing nearby tribes.
Mormons are still a "frontier people" in the sense that they continually mix cultures under the banner of Mormonism. My ward building houses two Anglo wards and one Spanish ward. There are LDS missionaries speaking a host of foreign languages serving not just in foreign countries but in many US cities. In this and other ways, the modern LDS Church reflects the culture-mixing roots of its early life on the moving frontier. Surprisingly, this cosmopolitan urge of frontier Mormonism survived a hundred years of institutional racism. A newly resurgent post-1978 mixing motif has blossomed in the Church. It may become the dominant theme of the 21st-century Church.
Across the Plains
The Mormons weren't the first to cross the Plains. In the "Great Migration" of 1843, close to a thousand settlers crossed the Plains on their way to the Oregon Country. They crossed the Rockies at South Pass (as would the Mormons in later years), then angled northwest on the Oregon Trial. But the Mormons came shortly thereafter:
The most impressive western migration of the era was undertaken by the Mormons, a uniquely American religious sect. In 1847, in one of the greatest treks in all of American history, thousands of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints left the Mississippi valley headed for the isolated desert country of the Great Basin, between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas.
After recounting a summary of LDS history from 1830 to 1845, the authors continue the story, ending with an unintentionally poignant comment on the fate of the Mormons in the 19th century:
The great [Mormon] migration began in 1846. As they evacuated Nauvoo, anti-Mormon mobs were bombarding the town with cannon, destroying the great temple, the proudest of Smith's achievements. The Saints first moved to temporary winter quarters near Omaha, Nebraska. Then, in the spring of 1847, several thousand set out on the Overland Trail, keeping to the north side of the Platte to avoid conflict with other migrating Americans.
There you go — in 1847, the Mormons were the ones on the other side of the river ... to keep them safe from other American settlers. Not from Indians, from other Americans.