Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Mormon Pioneer Myths Debunked

The traditional depiction of life on the Mormon Pioneer Trail is a dismal one of tragedy and suffering — almost like one long funeral procession.
But Melvin L. Bashore, a senior librarian in the history library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also promotes "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Utah: Laughable Incidences on the Mormon Trail."
He says even if some of these happenings weren't funny to the pioneers, they seem to be today.
For example, one his favorite stories concerns a very old Danish man who had completely lost his sense of smell and was part of an 1857 pioneer group headed for Utah. After some men killed buffalo and other major game for the group's food, he thought he should make a contribution, too.
He came back to camp with a skunk to cook for soup.
"This made the rest of us leave," C.C.A. Christensen, a member of that Danish company, wrote in a diary. "He had killed it with his cane and knew nothing about its peculiar means of defense."
Some other stories involve mosquitoes, which seemed to particularly like attending Mormon meetings on the Plains.
An 1861 diary records: "In the evening a meeting was held in camp, but the mosquitoes were there first and stay there they would. They sang at the opening song during service, at the closing and finally sung all night. Tried to sleep, but they pulled me out of bed."
An 1853 diary reported: "I saw Indians by the hundreds, buffalo by the thousands and mosquitoes by the billions."
In still another tale, a young pioneer man had to separate from his fiancee and travel with a separate wagon group because he didn't have enough money so they could travel together. His diary on the first night of separation states:
"My mind was rambling over many things, especially as to when I should meet my dear girl again. After a while we began to turn in. I had occasion to go to my bag for some clothes and in taking out what I expected to be white duck sailor overalls and holding them up an examining them they turned out to be some sort of ladies' unmentionables trimmed and adorned with lace. The eyes of the crowd caught onto it. I had made a mistake and got my sweetheart's bag instead of my own."
In his research, Bashore found the vast majority of the pioneers didn't die along the way but safely made the journey to the Salt Lake Valley.
Bashore said that although hardships did occur on the trail, Utahns today falsely often skew our perception and understanding of the entire history of what happened on the Mormon Trail by dwelling on the sufferings of a few.
• Bashore's overview of the Mormon trail experience is available online at: overlandtrails.lib.byu.edu.
(Adapted from a July 24, 2004 story in the Deseret News by Lynn Arave.)
--- The Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Despite the fact this is one of the most epic events in regional history, there are a lot of myths and fallacies circulating regarding the pioneers and their trek and arrival in the valley.
For example, the travel of the pioneers to Utah — excepting the handcart companies — was likely not as difficult as many perceive it to have been.
"Contrary to myth and popular belief, this 1847 trek of approximately 1,032 miles and 111 days was not one long and unending trail of tears or a trial by fire," The National Park Service's "Mormon Pioneer: Historic Resource Study"(www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/mopi/hrs5.htm) states.
"It was actually a great adventure," the NPS report continued. "Over the decades, Mormons have emphasized the tragedies of the trail, and tragedies there were, but generally after 1847. Between 1847 and the building of the railroad in 1869, at least 6,000 died along the trail from exhaustion, exposure, disease and lack of food. Few were killed by Indians. To the vast majority, however, the experience was positive — a difficult and rewarding struggle. Nobody knows how many Mormons migrated west during those years, but 70,000 people in 10,000 vehicles is a close estimate.
"To the 143 men, three women and two children who left Winter Quarters, the 111-day pioneer trek of 1847 was mostly a great adventure, with a dramatic ending."
Also, a second myth is that handcart travel was both common and typical for numerous pioneers. Given all the attention LDS stakes have given their own personal mock handcart adventures in Wyoming, this exaggerated belief is logical, but incorrect.
Using the most commonly accepted estimate of 70,000 total pioneers coming to Utah between 1847 and the coming of the railroad in 1869, plus the handcart estimate total of 2,962 people, the total percentage of pioneers who were in handcart companies is only 4.23 percent.
Bashore said handcart companies have evolved to be the "iconic symbol of pioneer Mormonism."
"We're focused on what a lesser number of people did," he said.
(That is why I don't personally care for handcart "treks" by stakes and wards. Accurate history is rarely taught on them and their entire focus is just a sliver of pioneer travel.)

--Following are some other pioneer myths:
• Death was a common occurrence on all pioneer treks. Not true, as most who started for Utah arrived. For example, no one died in the original 1847 pioneer company to Salt Lake.
The average death rate in all Mormon companies was less than 3 percent; a third of the companies (more than 80) did not have any deaths at all; only 18 of the more than 250 companies experienced more than 20 deaths en route (so only 7 percent of the total companies accounted for 43 percent of the total deaths); and at least seven people were bitten by rattlesnakes, none of whom died.
• Pioneers all traveled basically the same route. False. For example, variants in trails were established in southern Iowa, or via Mitchell Pass in Nebraska or in not crossing the Platte River at Fort Laramie in Wyoming.
Also, many pioneers from 1850 on used the "Golden Pass Road" (Parleys Canyon) to enter the Salt Lake Valley instead of Emigration Canyon, making some 42 miles of trail different at the end of the trek.
The John G. Smith pioneer company of 1851 was counseled by Elder Orson Hyde to head for the Elk Horn River in Nebraska before reaching the usually traveled road. That meant several hundred miles of different route.
There were many other variations too, especially on the later treks. Some came from California, others from Texas.
"We tend to think all trail travel started in the Midwest," Bashore said.
• The pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. Not quite accurate. The lead company and the main company of pioneers actually entered the valley on July 22 and camped there that night. Meanwhile, Brigham Young and the rear company had not yet climbed Big Mountain, and it didn't enter the valley until July 24 — the celebrated day.
In addition, two advance scouts, Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow, had even entered the Salt Lake Valley a day earlier on July 21.
• Brigham Young declared "This is the place." Not a complete statement. "It is enough. This is the right place, drive on" is the full declaration President Young may have made. However, there is still doubt.
Jeffrey Carlstrom and Cynthia Furse, in their book "A History of Emigration Canyon," note there is "considerable room for doubt that Young ever made this famous pronouncement." That's because no firsthand accounts of it exist.
Wilford Woodruff is credited with recounting what President Young said, but that was in 1880, 33 years after it happened and about three years after President Young had died.
• This Is the Place Monument is located exactly where Brigham Young made his famous statement. Unfortunately, history didn't leave us with an exact location. However, when the original monument on the site was dedicated on July 25, 1921, Elder B.H. Roberts, a member of the Seventy and a church historian, cited a journal of President Woodruff that "proved conclusively that there can be doubt that the spot now marked by this concrete monument is very near to the actual place."
• There was a "lone tree" in the barren Salt Lake Valley when the Pioneers arrived in 1847. It is simply pioneer legend that paints such a grim picture of the Salt Lake Valley — barren, harsh and a desert, save a lone cedar tree. In reality, say historians, the valley was well-watered, with tall grasses and trees along the many stream banks.
"One of the greatest myths of the church is that the valley was total desolation," said the late Dr. Stanley Kimball, a Utah historian. No pioneer diary accounts he ever found supported the desolate valley idea.
Most of the paintings depicting the valley when the Mormon pioneers arrived look more like the west desert area than the Wasatch Front.
Richard Jackson, professor of geography at Brigham Young University, did extensive research in the 1970s on what the Salt Lake Valley was really like when the pioneers arrived.
"Briefly, there was not a lot of timber in the valley according to pioneer diarists, but there was clearly some, especially along the creeks," he said.
But regardless, the pioneers did not have an easy time in Utah, and some people still feel the desert of Salt Lake did "blossom like a rose."
"Settling the Utah area in the 1840s and '50s was a challenge," Glen Leonard, director of the LDS Museum of Church History and Art, states on the church Web site, lds.org.
"They had left a lush farm area and came to an arid region. The soil was good, but the water was scarce. The seasons were short. So, Brigham Young wisely scattered the people out into small communities so that they had the natural resources — the water and the soil — and the community resources, the well-organized communities with different skills and talents, and then he just challenged them to make the desert blossom like a rose. And they did."
• Other handcart myths. Chad M. Orton, an archivist with the LDS Church's family history department, has researched various handcart pioneer legends. A recent newspaper obituary that made reference to one of the deceased's ancestors as deceased ancestor's as having been a handcart pioneer in 1847 best illustrates the wide misconceptions about of handcart pioneers. There were none in 1847.
• Missionaries at Martin's Cove in Wyoming occasionally mention to visitors that several tree stumps in the C cove offer evidence to prove the handcart pioneers were situated there. Neither Both Orton nor and Bashore has found have found no historical evidence to support that belief.
• Sometimes it is said that none of the survivors of the Willie and Martin handcart companies ever left the church. Orton said that's false because there were some who apostatized.
• There's also no evidence that handcart wheels were made out of green wood.
• Handcarts didn't carry everything these pioneers had. All handcart companies traveled with supply wagons that carried tents, extra food and other provisions too, according to Orton. One wagon was allocated for about every 100 members of a handcart company.
•The Mormon Pioneers universally were unique in one other way — no pioneer parties hired guides to take them west. Mormon Pioneers did all the advance research they could and then relied in the church leaders with them for guidance.

(Adapted from a July 24, 2008 story in the Deseret News, by Lynn Arave.)

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