There is incontrovertible evidence that a few "rough-rider" type minute men were appointed by Brigham Young as early as l847 to act as lawmen in the new Mormon settlements on the plains, and later in the Salt Lake Valley. This was necessary in the absence of any civil administration. Handy with their guns and with a knowledge of frontier life, these men were on call for Indian uprisings and immigrant problems such as the July, l849 arrival of the California gold-seekers into the valley. Brigham's "Minute-men" were kept busy in this period when stealing, rustling and murder increased as travelers entered the territory. Local residents who committed crimes were dealt with by their bishops and not the "Minute Men".
The name "Danite was applied to four or five of these early lawmen by the Eastern Press because of an earlier semi-religious organization begun in Missouri in l838 by Dr. Sampson Avard. This early group disbanded almost before it started when the motives of Dr. Avard became suspect and he was excommunicated from the Mormon Church. However, the ideas he promulgated persisted with some for several decades in the Utah Territory. Based on the biblical scripture, Genesis 49:l7, non-Mormon "Gentiles" who persecuted the Mormons were to be punished by losing their possessions.
It is unknown how many of the Utah period so-called "Danites" had been members of the original Missouri organization. What is known is that there were never "70 Destroying Angels" appointed by Brigham Young. The number seventy came from the Church priesthood calling of the "Seventy".
After Sir Richard Burton's visit to the Salt Lake Valley in l860, the Eastern press most prominently identified as "Danites" William Adams "Bill" Hickman, Orrin Porter Rockwell, Ephe Hanks, Robert Burton, and Lot Smith. All had taken a prominent part in the war against the U.S. Army troops in l857-58, and had been appointed by Brigham Young. These men served with honor during the Mormon War and also the later tumultuous Camp Floyd period.
Orson Hyde, an apostle in the Church and one who had benefited from the protection given by lawman Bill Hickman in Winter Quarters in l848-49, failed to later discourage Hickman's gang in l860 for depredations committed against the U.S. Army at Camp Floyd. Hyde contended that Hickman probably "had a revelation to act as he did." This lawless period should have ended with the official announcement by Brigham Young on 9 September l860, that said, "...if the Lord wants any stealing done he would reveal it to me as soon as to Bill Hickman or others."
There continued to be isolated incidences attributed to the "Danites" in Anti-Mormon books and press articles until the railroad came to the territory in l869. By then the original territorial lawmen were mostly dead, retired, or had been replaced by a new group of sheriffs and policemen with civil rather than religious powers. However, the name "Danite" continues to excite readers and historians of the early Utah period, even though the evidence of excessive wrong doing outside the law, appears to be greatly exaggerated.
Lynn M. and Hope A. Hilton