Associate professor discusses impact of Mormon settlers

Rachel Ann Lew

Mormon settlers in the late 19th century played a significant role in the colonization of indigenous land, according to Erika Bsumek, author and history associate professor.

In a lecture Monday, Bsumek talked about the history of Western American Indian tribes and Mormon settlement and discussed her upcoming book, “Damming Zion: Mormons, Indians and the Transformation of the Colorado Plateau.”

Mormons in the mid to late 1800s settled in the West to create their own Zion, or religious homeland, according to Bsumek. While Mormons settled with the intention of being good stewards of the land, Bsmumek said American Indians faced negative consequences.

“[Mormons] went there to create a better life for themselves, but their settlement patterns disrupted the indigenous communities,” Bsumek said.

According to Bsumek, Mormons often used the American Indian populations as a kind of buffer zone to protect themselves against non-Mormon persecutors. They cut down trees, hunted wildlife and created irrigation systems that took natural resources away from the American Indians, Bsumek said.  

History professor Seth Garfield said the book presents a new perspective on conflict between the two groups that is not usually seen in history books.

“It’s a fascinating paper,” Garfield said. “The chapter provokes an interesting discussion regarding the history of environmental and intercultural conflict in the American West.”

Mormon attitudes toward American Indians ranged from “friendly to hostile,” Bsumek said, and Mormon settlers believed it to be their duty to convert Native Americans to their religion. Mormon settlers not only impacted the landscape and environment, according to Bsumek, but also intensified the separation between indigenous communities. 

“The Mormons and Indians traded on and off upon the arrival of the Mormons in the Utah territory,” Bsumek said. “As the Mormons got more populous and powerful, trade relationships became increasingly uneven.”

Jason Chang, assistant professor of history and Asian American studies at the University of Connecticut and former UT lecturer, said Bsumek’s research into American Indian-Mormon relationships applies to his own field of study. He said the information Bsumek presented at the lecture gave him insight into the relationships between settlers and indigenous peoples.

“Her research into Indian-Mormon relationships paints a much more complicated picture, and understanding this conflict helps us understand how the United States maintained irrigation and water management infrastructure,” Chang said.