Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » A California ’49er Visits the Mormons
 


A California ’49er Visits the Mormons

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 24, 2008

Great Salt Lake City July 8, 1849.

Perhaps a few lines from a stranger in this strange land, and among a still more strange people will be judged sufficiently interesting to find a place in your columns.

The company of gold diggers which I have the honor to command, arrived here on the 3d inst., and judge our feelings when after some twelve hundred miles of travel through an uncultivated desert, and the last one hundred miles of the distance through and among lofty mountains and narrow and difficult ravines, we found ourselves suddenly and almost unexpectedly in a comparative paradise.

We descended the last mountain by a passage excessively steep and abrupt, and continued our gradual descent through a narrow canon for five or six miles when, suddenly emerging from the pass, an extensive and cultivated valley opened before us, at the same inst., that we caught a glimpse of the distant bosom of the Great Salt Lake, which lay expanded before us to the west-ward, at the distance of some twenty miles.

Descending the table-land which bordered the valley, extensive herds of cattle, horses and sheep were grazing in every direction, reminding us of that home and civilization from which we had so widely departed – for as yet the fields and houses were in the distance. Passing over some miles of pasture land, we at length found ourselves in a broad and fenced street, extending westward in a straight line for several miles! Houses of wood or sun-dried brick were clustered in the vale before us, some thousands in number, and occupying a spot about as large as the City of New York. They were mostly small, one story high, and perhaps not more than one occupying an acre of land. The whole space for miles, excepting the streets and houses, was in a high state of cultivation. Fields of yellow wheat stood waiting for the harvest, and Indian corn, potatoes, oats, flax, and all kinds of garden vegetables, were growing in profusion, and seemed about in the same state of forwardness as in the same latitude in the States.

At first sight of all these signs of cultivation in the wilderness, we were transported with wonder and pleasure. Some wept, some gave three cheers, and some ran and fairly danced for joy – while all felt inexpressibly happy to find themselves once more amid scenes which mark the progress of advancing civilization. We passed on amid scenes like these, expecting every moment to come to some commercial centre, to some business point in this Great Metropolis of the mountains, but we were disappointed. No hotel, sign-post, cake and beer shop, barber pole, market-house, grocery, provision, dry goods or hardware store, distinguished one part of the town from another – not even a bakery or a mechanic’s sign was anywhere discernable.

Here, then was something new. An entire people reduced to a level, and all living by their labor – all cultivating the earth, or following some branch of physical industry. At first I thought it was an experiment – an order of things established purposely to carry out the principles of “Socialism” or “Mormonism.” – In short, I thought it very much like Owenism personified. However, on enquiry, I found that a combination of seemingly unavoidable circumstances had produced this singular state of affairs. – There were no hotels, because there had been no travel; no barbers’ shops, because every one chose to shave himself, and no one had time to shave his neighbor; no store, because they had no goods to sell nor time to traffic; no centre of business, because all were too busy to make a centre.

There was abundance of mechanics’ shops, dress makers, milliners, tailors, &c., but they needed no sign, and had not to point or erect one for they were crowded with business. Beside their several trades, all must cultivate the land or die; for the country was new, and no cultivation but their own within a thousand miles. Every one had his lot, and built upon it; every one cultivated it, and perhaps a small farm in the distance.

And the strangest of all was that this great city, extending over several square miles, had been erected, and every house and fence made within nine or ten months of the time of our arrival – while at the same time good bridges were erected over the principal streams, and the country settlements extended nearly one hundred miles up and down the Valley.

This Territory, State, or as some term it, “Mormon Empire,” may justly be considered one of the greatest prodigies of the age, and in comparison with its age, the most gigantic of all Republics in existence – being only in its second year since the first seed of cultivation was planted, or the first civilized habitation commenced. If these people were thieves and robbers as their enemies presented them in the States, I must think they have greatly reformed in point of industry since coming to the mountains.

I this day attended worship with them, in the open air. Some thousands of well-dressed, intelligent looking people assembled; some on foot, some in carriages and some on horseback. Many were neatly, and even fashionably clad. The beauty and neatness of the ladies reminded me of some of our best congregations in New York. They had a choir of both sexes, who performed extremely well, accompanied by a band who played on almost every instrument of modern invention. – Peals of the most sweet, sacred, and solemn music filled the air, after which a solemn prayer was offered by Rev. Mr. Grant, of Philadelphia. Then followed various business advertisements, read by the clerk. Among these I remember a Call of the Seventeenth ward, by its presiding bishop, to some business meeting – a call for a meeting on the 32d Quorum of the Seventy, and a meeting of the officers of the 2d Cohort of the Military Legion &c.

After this came a lengthy discourse from Mr. Brigham Young, President of the society – partaking somewhat of politics, much of religion and philosophy, and a little on the subject of gold – showing the wealth, strength and glory of England growing out of her coal mines, iron, and industry – and the weakness, corruption and degradation of Spanish America, Spain, &c. growing out of her gold, silver &c., and her idle habits.

Every one seemed interested and pleased with his remarks, all appeared to be contented to stay at home and pursue a persevering branch of industry, although mountains of gold were near them. The able speaker painted, in lively colors, the ruin which would be brought upon the United States by gold, and boldly predicted that they would be over thrown because they had killed the Prophets – stoned and rejected those who were sent to call them to repentance, and finally plundered and driven the Church of the Saints form their midst, and burned and desolated their city and temple. He said God had a reckoning with that people, and gold would be the instrument of their overthrow. The Constitutions and laws were good, in fact, the best in the world, but the administrators were corrupt and the laws and Constitutions were not carried out – and therefore they must fall. He further observed that the people here wo’d [would] petition to be organized into a territory, under that same Government; notwithstanding its abuses – and that if granted, they would stand by the Constitution and laws of the United States; while, at the same time he denounced their corruption and abuses.

But, said the speaker, we ask no odds of them, whether they grant us our petition or not! We never will ask any odds of a nation who has driven us from our homes. If they grant us our rights, well – if not, well; they can do no more than they have done. They, and ourselves, and all men, are in the hands of the great God, who will be right and work together for good to them that serve God.

Such, in part, was the discourse to which we listened in the strongholds of the mountains. The Mormons are not dead nor are their spirits broken. And if I mistake not, there is a noble, daring, and Democratic spirit swelling in their bosoms, which will people these mountains with a race of independent men, and influence the destiny of our country and world for a hundred generations. In their religion they seem charitable, devoted, and sincere – in their politics, bold, daring, and determined – in their domestic circle quiet, affectionate, and happy – while in industry, skill, and intelligence, they have few equals, and no superiors on earth.

I had many strange feelings while contemplating this new civilization growing up so suddenly in the wilderness. I almost wished I could awake from my golden dream, and find it but a dream; while I pursued my domestic duties as quiet, as happy, and contented as this strange people.

Sunday afternoon

Since writing the foregoing, I have obtained a copy of one of the Mormon songs, which impressed me deeply this morning, being sung to a lively tune, accompanied by the band.

Lo the Gentile chain is broken;
Freedom’s banner waves on high;
List ye nation: By this token,
Know that your redemption’s nigh;

See on yonder distant mountain,
Zion’s standard wide unfurled,
Far above Missouri’s fountain –
Lo, it waves for all the world.

Freedom, peace and full salvation,
Are the blessings guaranteed;
Liberty to every nation,
Every sect and every creed.

Come! ye Christian sects, and Pagan,
Pope, and Protestant and Priest;
Worshippers of God and Dagan –
Come ye to fair Freedom’s Feast.

Come ye sons of doubt and wonder,
Indian, Moslem, Greek or Jew –
All your shackles burst asunder;
Freedom’s banner waves for you.

Cease to butcher one another,
Join the Covenant of Peace;
Be to all a friend and brother –
This will bring the world’s release.

Lo! our King the Great Messiah,
Prince of Peace shall come to reign;
Sound again, ye Heavenly Choir:
“Peace on earth, good will to men.”

Please excuse these hasty and imperfect lines, written while seated on a trunk of goods with the paper spread on a parcel of clothing, and the wind blowing sufficiently to carry away the sheets before they are signed.

A STRANGER IN QUEST OF GOLD.

[Defiance, Ohio, Democrat, 10 November 1849, with additional material from a reprint in the Frontier Guardian, 9 January 1850, citing an earlier publication in the New York Tribune of unstated date. I do not know the date and paper of its first appearance.]



11 Comments »

  1. First, the sidebar: “The times when you have seen only one set of footprints in the sand is when a mob of women were piling on each other, each claiming to have written this stuff” linked to an article describing the legal fight over the poem “Footprints” takes the metaphorical cake for economy of expression, subtlety of wit, and deliciousness of irony. Well played.

    Comment by Edje — June 24, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

  2. Second, the post: It’s a very interesting description. The capital-R “Republic” about half-way down strikes me as a particularly ingenious way to praise the Mormons by tapping into the republican ur-desire of Americans in the (by that time, waning) Early Republic period.

    But, my olfacting murinometer is twitching. It seems a little too good—too laudatory and too polished. Perhaps there is a way to determine the putative author’s identity? Surely there weren’t very many people who commanded a “company of gold diggers” that arrived in Salt Lake City on 03 July 1849?

    Google doesn’t provide me with an immediate answer. Thomas Evershed arrived on the right day but didn’t stay long enough to send a letter on the 8th and, judging by the letter he did send, “laudatory” was not his thing.

    Comment by Edje — June 24, 2008 @ 12:34 pm

  3. Droga! I botched the link and ruined the joke.

    Comment by Edje — June 24, 2008 @ 12:34 pm

  4. Edje, I fixed the link so as not to give the joke away. (snicker)

    All due respects to your olfactory sensors, mine aren’t twitching too badly. The writer sounds more educated than some of the men who whose similar letters I have collected, but the letter itself seems reasonable. Other writers comment on how “beautiful” any kind of civilization seemed after a thousand miles without the sight of streets and homes and gardens, and almost everybody who could did take the chance to be entertained at a church service. In 1849 we seemed rather noble (or pitiable) for our survival in the wilderness, and we hadn’t yet ticked off travelers who felt gouged by the high prices or annoyed because they couldn’t indulge in the vices the expected, and we hadn’t yet had any Utah-era run-ins with politicians of any kind. The letters I see from these early days almost seem as though the past was erased; it isn’t until after Brocchus, Brandebury & co. run back east that the Utah troubles start and memory of the earlier troubles is revived in American consciousness. In other words, in the summer of 1849 I can’t see any motivation for embroidery on anybody’s part, except in the exaggeration of Salt Lake’s beauties by men who were starved for fresh peas and hot bread and a glimpse at home life.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 24, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

  5. Thanks for fixing the link.

    I had not considered the timing of the letter. I think you make a compelling defense of its plausibility. (That and your far greater familiarity with the writings from the period.)

    Comment by Edje — June 24, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  6. Dale Broadhurst’s site indicates that this article was published in the October 9, 1849, issue of the New York Tribune.

    Comment by Justin — June 24, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

  7. I really enjoy travelers accounts quite a bit.

    Comment by BHodges — June 24, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

  8. On a first reading and with no other data, I would tend to agree with Edje’s initial response. Interesting piece, though; nice snapshot of the place and people, and in contrast to the accounts that are usually trotted out of the pioneer woman in shock that she was going to be living in this dry, desert place.

    Comment by Researcher — June 24, 2008 @ 5:51 pm

  9. As I’ve said on other threads on other blogs, this proves that we see what we believe – rather than believing what we see.

    Comment by Ray — June 24, 2008 @ 8:00 pm

  10. Thanks, Justin. A first appearance in the Tribune (rather than, say, the Smallville Advocate) early in October would explain how it was picked up by the other papers so quickly.

    BHodges, you’re going to love the travel narrative section of the Bernhisel library when it goes up here — you would have found a lot of sympathetic souls in the 19th century.

    Researcher, is your suspicion because it is too friendly, or because you spot some inconsistency, or — ?

    Ray, that’s a reminder I need from time to time, because I do want to believe what fits my worldview. Giving just as much scrutiny to supportive materials is wise (although sometimes I think Mormon historians are too harsh on the positive and too willing to accept the negative, because they want to be sophisticated and not appear to accept the party line naively).

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 24, 2008 @ 8:29 pm

  11. “sometimes I think Mormon historians are too harsh on the positive and too willing to accept the negative, because they want to be sophisticated and not appear to accept the party line naively”

    AMEN.

    Comment by Ray — June 24, 2008 @ 10:16 pm

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.
TrackBack URI