After Joseph Smith's assassination (1844), Young was the chief factor in maintaining the unity of the church in the Council of Twelve. From that time forward, he served as the Mormons' spiritual leader. He led the great migration west in 1846–47 and was the director of the settlement at Salt Lake City. He exercised supreme control in the communal theocracy of Mormonism, and his genius, as much as anything else, led to the phenomenal growth of a prosperous community. After the creation of Utah's provisional government, he was also made territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs.
When the Mormon practice of polygamy and a more general fear and hatred of Mormon power led to hostilities between the United States and the Mormons, Young defended Mormon interests, particularly during the military expedition against the Mormons called the Utah War (1857–58). He lost his post as governor, but through his able statesmanship, he avoided a real break with the United States. In his old age, he was arrested on charges of polygamy and murder, but he was acquitted and his influence increased rather than diminished until his death.
The exact number of his wives—still a contested figure—and the extent of his fortune were the objects of curiosity and idle rumor nationwide. Accusations of sensuality leveled against him by people who were ignorant of the basic principles of Mormon doctrine were not justified. The most serious charge that can be brought against him is that of condoning the massacre at Mountain Meadows. He did not instigate that crime, but it seems probable that he did protect its perpetrators.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.