South Carolinians, if not most Americans, were mystified in June of 2009 to find that their state governor, Mark Sanford, had gone missing. He had vanished without explanation, leaving behind not only his mystified family but his omnipresent security detail.

For the better part of a week Governor Sanford’s embarrassed staff tried gamely but unsuccessfully to deal with press inquiries. Initially the story was that no one knew where the governor was. Pressed aggressively by reporters, the story morphed into a staff explanation that Sanford must have gone hiking along the Appalachian Trail to recharge his batteries after a stressful legislative session. No one knew on which segment of the Georgia-to-Maine track he had sought renewal or how he could be contacted. Out of the loop, South Carolina’s lieutenant governor was not amused. He commented publicly that “I cannot take lightly that his staff has not had communication with him for more than four days, and that no one including his family, knows his whereabouts.” A state senator asked who would have been able to authorize use of the South Carolina National Guard in Sanford’s absence. On Wednesday, June 24 a bizarre story emerged that Governor Sanford had reappeared in Charleston after returning unannounced from Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, not South Carolina.

Speculation as to what impact this extraordinary chain of events will have on Sanford’s political career has already begun. It has been fueled by the maverick governor’s months-long refusal to apply for South Carolina’s share of billions of dollars in federal TARP aid at a time when the state’s economy is reeling from the worst recession in seventy-five years. At stake is the viability of Sanford’s possible consideration for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2012, if not his hold on South Carolina’s gubernatorial chair.

Utahns tempted to indulge in a reaction of it-couldn’t-happen-here might wish to recall that it has. In Utah’s case Governor Brigham Young was involved; his unexplained five-week absence from his duties in the spring of 1857 took place on a scale and with a flourish that makes the Governor Sanford episode seem bland. As with Sanford’s disappearance, Governor Young’s absence had an international flavor as well as national political implications.

As early as January 1857 Brigham Young began to drop hints to relatives and church colleagues that he was thinking of a trek north to Oregon Territory to inspect the new Mormon Indian mission — Fort Limhi – on the Salmon River. By spring he decided to do so, and on April 24 Young departed Salt Lake City for Oregon, his first absence from Utah since 1848 and the last one before his death in 1877.

For relatives Young devised a cover story that the trip was for the benefit of his health. It was an incredible explanation given the fact that he had been virtually prostrate since the death of his second counselor, Jedediah Morgan Grant, in December 1856 and the daunting, snowy wilderness awaiting him in the mountains of southern Oregon. To his boss in Washington, D.C., U.S. Secretary of State Lewis Cass, Young offered no explanation. He simply left his post, without either informing Cass or applying for the customary leave of absence, a lapse that later prompted Congress to pass legislation requiring territorial governors to seek such authorization. Unlike South Carolina today, in 1857 there was no lieutenant governor in Utah to assume the territory’s executive duties. Next in the line of authority after the governor was Utah’s territorial secretary, but that position had never been properly filled after the murder of incumbent Almon W. Babbitt in 1856. Nominally in charge of Utah’s executive function during Governor Young’s five-week absence was merchant William H. Hooper, a confidant whom Young had appointed interim territorial secretary without the authority or federal sanction to do so.

Why had Governor Brigham Young embarked on an arduous trek of 1,000 miles – mostly outside of Utah – at the worst season of the year and at a time when he was in poor health? Historian David L. Bigler of Roseville, California, the leading authority on Fort Limhi, has argued that Young was motivated not by the need for a relaxing vacation but by a desire to examine first-hand the terrain in southern Oregon Territory as well as in what later became southwestern Montana Territory. As Bigler sees it, Young viewed Fort Limhi as a way station for a possible mass Mormon migration out of Utah in the event of a renewal of troubles with the U.S. government. Possible destinations for such a move were either the isolated Bitterroot Valley of Montana or a haven on the Pacific Coast. As an indicator of the non-routine nature of this inspection, Bigler notes that Governor Young took with him to Oregon an entourage that included 142 people including the entire LDS Church’s First Presidency, all but one of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles then residing in Utah, six Nauvoo Legion (militia) generals, and two Indian chiefs of the Northern Wasatch Utah and Pahvant Ute tribes. If Secretary of State Cass had not been notified of this visit, neither had Oregon’s governor, George Curry, or his superintendent of Indian affairs.

Whether the government of Argentine took note of Governor Sanford’s recent visit is not known, but we do know that the two foreign powers with possessions on North America’s Pacific Coast – Russia and the United Kingdom – were aware of Young’s trip soon after his return in May. This sensitivity arose as a consequence of rampant rumors that sprang up in California and the Pacific Northwest speculating about a Mormon exodus. So alarmed were the Russians about the possible loss of Russian America (Alaska) to a Mormon seizure, in December 1857 Tsar Alexander II authorized the beginning of negotiations with the U.S. government to sell the colony. British concerns about the defensibility of Vancouver Island – a destination of long interest to the Mormons – was such that Queen Victoria removed the area from the ineffectual administration of the Hudson’s Bay Company and created the crown colony of British Columbia in June 1858.

What followed Brigham Young’s return to Salt Lake City on May 26, 1857 was his replacement as governor and, two days later, the creation of the U.S. Army’s Utah Expedition. The Utah War was on. Two years later, in June 1859, Brigham Young asked Utah’s territorial delegate in Congress, Dr. John M. Bernhisel, to wrote a memo setting forth his conversations over the past several years with President Buchanan. Among the interactions that Bernhisel described was one that probably took place in early 1858. In this White House meeting, nearly a year after Brigham Young’s mysterious, unauthorized departure from Utah’s gubernatorial chair, President Buchanan was still pressing Bernhisel for an explanation as to where exactly Young had gone and for what purpose. They are the same questions being asked in South Carolina today.

William P. MacKinnon
Santa Barbara, Calif.
June 24, 2009

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