While fur trappers and government scouts were the first Americans to traverse the Great Basin, its early white settlers were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormons, as they were called, arrived in the late 1840s seeking isolation. But within a few years, the California Gold Rush inspired hordes of Forty-Niners to travel through the Mormons' new home. In the end, this was more a blessing than a curse as provisioning emigrants shored up the Latter-day Saints economy.
The Mormon story begins in early nineteenth century America, a place of high excitement and great turmoil. Newly independent citizens actively debated what being an American meant and political leaders mirrored their enthusiasm. Simultaneously, an emerging business class began upending the economic and social order with a more individualistic and competitive system known as capitalism. By the 1830s, as these two currents merged, many Americans felt uneasy and openly questioned the country's chosen path, with a few even seeking to revive a more idyllic past.
Some of these anxious men and women turned to religious leaders who identified lax church attendance and waning spirituality as sources of societal ills. Hoping to reinvigorate religious devotion, preachers rode from city to city, conducting revivals. Joseph Smith of Palmyra, New York, attended a number of these gatherings. Smith listened intently, but repeatedly came away unsure and confused. He finally retired to a secluded wood to seek spiritual guidance. According to the church, Smith was visited by God and Jesus, who counseled him to join no established ministry, but instead to found a new church for God's latter-day saints.
The general public reacted adversely to many new communitarian movements during this period, yet fellow citizens attacked members of those organizations far less consistently and angrily than they did the Mormons. Scores of Americans, committed to their newly won democratic rights and privileges, felt threatened by Smith's desire to recreate society based on Mormon teachings. Residents repeatedly drove Mormons out of their towns and cities, confiscated their property, and eventually killed Joseph Smith and his brother near the Mormons' Illinois settlement, Nauvoo, in 1844.
After Smith's murder, Brigham Young became the new Mormon prophet and decided the Latter-day Saints needed to find their Zion–a secluded and protected place where they could live with as little contact as possible with non-Mormons. Young decided the Great Basin would be ideal. He counted on the arid and harsh conditions to bind Mormons together as they struggled to survive while simultaneously repelling gentiles, the Mormon name for non-believers.
In 1846, Young led the first of his followers westward, arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847, where he declared, "This is the place." They survived and prospered there, building a financial empire while sending missionaries throughout the West to disseminate Mormon doctrine. Latter-day Saints would have a particularly important effect on Nevada because it was so close to Utah.