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LDS-Indian history studied

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MAKING SPACE ON THE WESTERN FRONTIER: MORMONS, MINERS AND SOUTHERN PAIUTES, by W. Paul Reeve, University of Illinois Press, 231 pages, $35

Paul Reeve — a former student of Dean May, whom he ironically replaced on the history faculty at the University of Utah after the vigorous May unexpectedly died — has written a useful and interesting book for both academics and history buffs.

May guided him through the project in graduate school, and Reeve acknowledges that guidance with humor and respect.

There are a lot of interesting people here — the 19th-century context for confrontations between Mormons, miners and Southern Paiute Indians.

Reeve gives us a carpetbag governor, corrupt Indian agents, tainted juries, murder, a lice-laden corpse and lynch mobs. There are lively stories about George Hearst, a mining magnate; Brigham Young, the second Mormon prophet and first Utah governor, and his attempt to save his "kingdom" from the onslaught of Rep. James M. Ashley, who wanted to wipe Utah off the map; and two Southern Paiute leaders, Bush-head and Moroni, who had divergent approaches to the Mormons and miners.

Politically, this was primarily a matter of "the Mormon Question" and "the Indian Problem." It's amazing now to reflect on that conflict that occurred in the mountains amid sagebrush and cactus in a land that no one else wanted.

Strangely enough, the struggle for space in a strange land took on sacred overtones. Reeve documents John Wesley Powell's discovery of three old Paiute women "crouched around the fire of an otherwise deserted camp."

The Indians had obviously abandoned the women, leaving them to die so that their meager food could be used to nourish the young. Powell called the scene, which included a death dance around the fire, "wild and weird in the extreme." Yet the Indians saw this as a laudable sacrifice as indicated by "ritualistic notions of an afterlife."

The Mormons, too, had deeply spiritual beliefs. They believed in the potential for the healing of the sick by prayer and blessings under the priesthood. They also relied on herbal remedies pioneered by botanist Samuel Thomson — steam baths, instead of the bleeding and purging espoused by other medical practitioners.

The miners were "more tentative," according to Reeve's account. They set aside individual beliefs in order to demonstrate concern for those who were sick or near death. Licensing of physicians was "almost nonexistent," meaning that a number of people acted as "quacks" or fake doctors to the sick.

Doctors offered opium for pain and diarrhea, quinine for malaria, mercury for syphilis and morphine for dysentery. And hospitals were often viewed as "places to die rather than be cured."

There are many anecdotes and insights in this book that have not appeared elsewhere — such as the role played by Rep. James Ashley, chairman of the committee on territories, in diminishing the size of Utah.

There are stories that illustrate the role of racism, religious bigotry, politics and cultural diversity that helped influence the future course of the Rocky Mountain West.

Reeve writes well and doesn't make assertions he cannot support with historical evidence. The average reader will find much of interest in these carefully produced pages.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com