Brigham Young is sometimes referred to as the American Moses or the Great Colonizer. He emerged from the ranks of early Church leaders to lead thousands of religious refugees across the uncivilized western frontier of the United States. He took them into a harsh country, irrigated and cultivated it and established many successful settlements. As the first group of Mormon pioneers reached the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 after traveling 1,300 miles across the Great Plains, Brigham Young looked out over what was then a barren, dry desert and declared, "This is the right place."
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Born 1 June 1801, Brigham Young was raised in a frontier settlement in Vermont and had only 11 days of formal schooling. He was an accomplished carpenter, joiner, painter and glazier.
His conversion to the Church was not immediate. For two years, he seriously examined the Book of Mormon, and then joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he was convinced of its truth. He later led the Church as its second president for 30 years.
Brigham Young supervised the overland trek of 60,000 to 70,000 pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley from Illinois and other staging points, such as Iowa and Missouri, founded 350 to 400 settlements in Utah, Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming, and established a system of land distribution later ratified by Congress.
Just four days after the first group of Mormon pioneers arrived in the barren Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young drove his cane into the ground on the exact spot where the Salt Lake Temple now stands and declared, "Here will be the temple of our God."
In 1849, President Young established the Perpetual Emigration Fund to assist poor Latter-day Saint immigrants. The fund helped some 30,000 immigrants from the British Isles, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands reach America — more than one-third of the total Latter-day Saint immigrants from Europe during that period.
Brigham Young also served two terms as the first territorial governor of Utah and as the first superintendent of Indian affairs of Utah Territory. In addition, he contracted for and assisted in building telegraph and railroad lines, established a broad range of industries and businesses — including America's first department store, Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution — and was a proponent of giving women the right to vote.
Despite limited formal schooling, Brigham Young was an advocate of education. He founded the institutions that would later become Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
Brigham Young was also known for his practice of plural marriage. He married at least 20 women, 16 of whom bore him 57 children. The Church later rescinded plural marriage, and has not condoned the practice for more than 100 years. Today, the practicing of polygamy carries with it the penalty of excommunication.
Brigham Young died following an illness on 29 August 1877 at his home in Salt Lake City. He was 76 years old.