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Guest Post: Can I Trust Leonard Arrington? An Exercise in Historical Provenance

By: Kevin Folkman - June 02, 2010

My interest in Mormon history really grew out of a frustration (or guilt) with genealogy. On both sides of my family, a couple aunts, grandmothers, and cousins had pretty much covered all the documented ground and found as much of my ancestry as will be practical before the millennium is in full swing. So while I claim, correctly, that there is little or nothing left to do in my genealogical research, I have been exposed to little bits here and there that tell about my ancestors. It is the stories about these folks that I have found fascinating.

One particular item was a densely typed but brief first person account of my great grandmother’s life, joining the church in England, meeting her future husband/returning missionary onboard the ship to America in 1866, and settling down with him as a country doctor in rural Weber County, Utah. In the middle of this account, Charlotte Senior King tells of a colonization trip that she and her husband Frederick made with their one year old daughter to Arizona in 1873, only to return a few months later, having lost pretty much all their material goods along the way. In fact, more than half of her four page life story is devoted to this particular trip, so it obviously loomed large in her memory.

Fast forward to 1990, and I come across an article in a short-lived magazine for LDS families, This People. In this article, church historian Leonard Arrington writes about “The Human Side of Brigham Young”, using several short quotes showing his humanity, compassion, and even sarcasm. It was the sarcasm quote that caught my attention.

In the quote, Pres. Young is expressing disappointment about some Arizona colonists: “Had we sent the sisters of the Relief Society, some of our pioneer sisters, they would have held that place and accomplished the mission. But instead we sent a passel of squaws down there — some of our pets whom we have raised in Salt Lake City. [We have] raised them on a feather pillow with silver spoons in their mouths. Men that don’t know anything about a hard day’s work or a privation — and they came away because the sun shone hot and the wind blew! Can you imagine such faint hearts! They gave up their inheritance without a stroke.”

The circumstances so closely paralleled the story by my great grandmother that I wondered if he was talking about her experience. At the time, I did not immediately follow up and try to find the context of the quote, and it eventually slipped my mind, until some 18 years later, a discussion about my Dad’s father, who married Charlotte’s and Frederick’s third daughter, did I start to wonder about the quote.

I still had the magazine, so I checked for references. Arrington, not writing for an academic journal, only had a note at the end of the article saying that all the quotes by Brigham Young were from his biography, Brigham Young, American Moses. So I got a copy from the library, and started skimming for the quote. I couldn’t find it, and by this time I was deeply involved in finding out a lot of other information about this 1873 colonization mission, and the “failure” reputation that had become linked to it. The story was so fascinating, that I began writing an article about it, which has been accepted, pending edits and revisions, for publication in the Journal of Mormon History next winter. But even after a detailed reading of Arrington’s book, I had not found the quote. It wasn’t there. Was Arrington making this quote up? I didn’t think so, but I was starting to have some doubts about the quote being about Charlotte and Frederick and their companions in 1873.

This group of colonists left Northern Utah in March and April of 1873, as the first group called by Brigham Young to settle on the Little Colorado in Arizona. Young had taken an intense personal interest in the project for many reasons, and even though this 1873 group, under experienced leadership, had to turn around and come back in July of 1873, Brigham was committed, and starting in 1876 and later, new groups of colonists ultimately went further up the river than my ancestors, and with much hardship, did succeed in establishing a handful of permanent colonies.

Without a reference to the quote, though, I was beginning to think I would have to leave it out of my article. I had found a talk by George Q. Cannon in August of 1873 that talked about the Arizona colonists and their failed mission. I looked up the transcript in the Journal of Discourses and found where he quotes Pres. Young from an earlier talk the same day about Arizona. But no known transcript or notes of that talk seem to have survived.

I turned to a couple of friends, including J. Stapley, who ultimately found the quote in another Arrington book, Adventures of a Church Historian. The reference there is to a biographical account of the life of one Martha Cragun Cox, born in 1852, who recorded her life as the third wife of a Southern Utah farmer and rancher, a feisty schoolteacher, and detailed journal keeper. However, her autobiography had never been published, so I needed to get access to a copy. The helpful folks at the Church History Library responded to an email inquiry, and sent me copies of the pages referenced in Arrington’s footnotes. The quote, though, still wasn’t there.

On a recent trip to Utah, I devoted some hours at the CHL to trying to find the quote. I requested a copy of Cox’s journal, delivered to me on microfilm. Handwritten script on microfilm is tough to read, but I looked first at the page referenced by Arrington, and found nothing of interest there. I then tried to read all the entries for the summer of 1873 when I thought it most likely she had heard Brigham Young speak. Cox wasn’t even in Salt Lake City that summer, or anytime for the years before Brigham Young died.

I did not want to try and read all six hundred pages of her journal on microfilm, so I went back to the catalog, and found that a typescript copy existed. I requested that, which was much easier to read, but again found nothing from 1873 to 1877 that referenced the quote. I resigned myself to having to read the rest of her journal to look for it. So, I began scanning each page from 1877 forward, looking for the quote. Martha Cox had a fascinating life, and I would like to revisit her journal at a more leisurely pace sometime. But this day, I was on a quest.

I could find nothing in the rest of the 1870’s. Nothing in the 1880’s. I was beginning to have doubts about the quote again, and was despairing through the 1890’s. But shortly after 1900, Martha Cox was relocating to the Mexican colonies, and traveled through Phoenix on her journey. There, she mentioned that she marveled at the “Nephite canals” that the early settlers had used when they first arrived in the Mesa area along the Salt River, and how later they had sold the canals to a New York company, thus incurring Brigham Young’s wrath. The quote was there in black and white, but it was talking about the Salt River settlement of Mesa.

Arrington was redeemed, but I was disappointed. This apparently meant I could not use the quote, and my article is weaker without it. However, I copied the quote in context, and started thinking. First, Brigham Young died in 1877. The Salt River settlements had only just been established that spring, and not enough time had gone by for them to develop the canals (which turn out to be remnants of irrigation canals built by the Hohokam Indians, not Nephites), let alone sell them to an outside interest. A co-op formed the Arizona Canal Company in 1882, five years after Young’s death, the first of many efforts to help make improvements and preserve water rights for all involved, including many non-Mormon settlers and farmers who had been in the area for a number of years prior to 1877. Second, the quote talks about people who “came away” because the sun was hot, and the wind blew. While individuals likely gave up on the Salt River settlements, and also the Upper Little Colorado River settlements that were just getting started in 1877, those settlements all remained, at least during the duration of the last few months of Brigham Young’s life.

I also had to consider when Martha Cox might have heard Brigham Young make such a statement. He did winter in St. George in the years from 1873 to 1877, and often spoke there at church meetings. Cox, who had spent much of her life in other parts of Southern Utah and Southern Nevada, actually was residing in and fighting with the school board in St. George during those same years. She most likely did hear Brigham Young make that statement during that time.

Cox also was well known for being a prolific journal keeper, and her autobiography is full of lots of detailed notes about a lot of varied things. She began writing her biography in 1928, and she worked at it over the next two years, ending in 1930, and dying in 1932. The biography was to replace most of her journals that were destroyed when her cabin caught fire at some point in her later years, and only a few papers survived.

The quote, then, may have been something that had survived the fire. In her autobiography, the quote is set aside in quotation marks, with the same parenthetical insertion shown in the quote above. However, she was writing when she was in her late seventies, about a recalled memory prompted by a trip some 25 years earlier, and recorded or remembered from another 25 years at least before that. Historical context makes it highly improbable that the quote was given in response to giving up the canals along the Salt River, as that had not happened before President Young died. It’s possible, though I can’t prove it, that hearing about the canal issues brought to mind the quote she had recorded many years before. Since most everyone, including many of the participants in the 1873 mission, did their best to forget about or distance themselves from the “failure” label that had become attached to it, Cox may have not thought about it either in 1900.

So, at least as far as I can tell, my faith in Leonard Arrington has been restored. I am still using the quote in my article, but I am giving full disclosure to the problems outlined here. It’s going to be a while before I get a chance to dig more deeply into where and when I can get access to notes or transcripts of Brigham Young’s sermons in St. George those last few winters of his life. This is a little bit different kind of provenance problem than some of the old photographs that we’ve discussed here at Keepa of late, but still represents the same kind of issues. I really hope I have the context of the quote right, but I also have to consider that it might not be. I’m also interested in what you think about this. Should I continue to use the quote, or should I abandon it?

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52 Comments

  1. I’m a little late, but I loved reading this post and the comments.

    It would be fun if there was an Allen’s camp (Jo City) descendant reunion. I’m from the Westover/Despain line, my great grandmother is Johanna and my grandmother is Emma and I am in awe of both of them. I don’t know how any of the settelers did it and if you are a descendant of Johanna – how DID she do it?
    If you have read Johanna’s biography, I am in possession of the “green box” and am happy to have my cousins over to see it.

    I have not been able to find a list of the original families or a map. Does anyone have access to either?

    Kevin, Is your paper published? I would love to read it.

    Comment by Judy — October 5, 2012 @ 2:20 am

  2. Judy, my knowledge of the settlements of 1878 and later is limited so I know nothing about Johanna or little abot Allen’s Camp. My article was published in the Winter 2011 Journal of Mormon History. If you need anything else Ardis can provide you with my email address. Thanks for your nice comment.

    Comment by kevinf — October 5, 2012 @ 1:20 pm