Sixteen decades ago today, California became a state, and a powerful man named Brigham Young had to give up his dreams of controlling San Diego.
Until then, the Mormons had claimed much of Southern California for themselves, including a tiny bayside settlement next to the Mexican border. San Diego would’ve been the port city of the state of Deseret, which created its own constitution and general assembly.
So why was the state of Deseret banished to the inglorious pantheon of would-be states? The answer lies in anti-Mormon fervor and the over-stuffed dreams of a religion on the run.
|Mormon leader Brigham Young thought San Diego would make a perfect port city for the state of Deseret.|
After his church was violently persecuted in the East, Young led Mormons westward in 1847. His followers settled in the Salt Lake area and planned to colonize other areas in the West, said Michael J. Trinklein, author of the new book “Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States that Never Made It.”
“He sent them to the outposts of an empire that he called Deseret, including what’s now Utah and much of the Southwest,” Trinklein said. “A port is what he wanted in San Diego: If you’ve got a country, you need a port.”
A country? Sure, why not? Mexico owned the territory that Young wanted, but the Mexicans “didn’t have any presence, so it was kind of like free territory,” Trinklein said. The West was a place where Mormons, at least in theory, could live as they wished and set up their own government free of interference.
But not for long. The U.S.-Mexican War put the region in the hands of the United States, “and that was a bad thing for Brigham Young,” Trinklein said. “He wanted polygamy, and the federal government didn’t like this at all.”
Meanwhile, settlers on the West Coast had their own eyes on San Diego, and not just the settlers who ultimately created the state of California.
Spanish-descended landowners in Southern California floated the idea of a state of their own — to be called South California or Colorado — because they feared that the more heavily populated northern section of California would run things if the state wasn’t divided, Trinklein said. “There’s always talk about splitting up California,” he said, “and that’s when it almost happened.”
South California wasn’t to be. Neither was the state of Deseret, named after a word in the Book of Mormon meaning honeybee. California, including the much-claimed San Diego, entered the union on Sept. 9, 1850.
Trinklein says polygamy ultimately delayed Utah’s statehood and doomed the Mormon dream of an empire that would spread all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The government “was not going to allow Brigham Young to have that much power. I guess the bottom line is that had he not been a polygamist, you might be in Deseret today.”
But there was even more drama to come, fomenting a scenario that could have robbed San Diego of one of its primary distinctions.
In 1853, a “freebooter” — plunderer — named William Walker and his cronies traveled down the Baja peninsula and took it over, Trinklein said. “Had he just stopped, you’d be at the center of California instead of at the bottom,” Trinklein said.
But Walker blew it: instead of just claiming Baja for the United States, he kept going into Mexico and got routed by a less-than-pleased Mexican army.
Walker later became president of Nicaragua for a year, although his later execution in Honduras extinguished his bid for glory. And San Diego got to continue claiming an honor of its own: it remained the southwestern point of the entire country, not just the midpoint of the Golden State. Or, for that matter, of Deseret.