On May 26, the first day of the Mormon History Association conference to be held in St. George, Utah, I will give a paper on George Armstrong Hicks and his experiences in the Cotton Mission in the early 1860s. Hicks was the author of a folk song still sung today titled “Once I Lived in Cottonwood,” which tells of the extreme hardships of the mission, but couched in comedy and even ridicule. The church leaders could not have been pleased, but it was only by laughing at their situation that the missionaries could bear their difficulties. Of accounts written by 19th century Mormons, Hicks’s autobiography rates high for its details, candidness, humor, and pathos.
George Armstrong Hicks, born in Ontario, Canada, in 1835, was three when his parents converted. His early life was that of a classic Mormon pioneer: The family moved to Nauvoo in 1839 and left again in 1846 with the main body of the faithful after the murder of Joseph Smith. For the next six years, the family lived in Iowa, working to save enough to travel to Utah. Finally in 1852, they set out. Soon after arriving in Utah, they moved to Palmyra in Utah County. Here George, not quite eighteen, met sixteen-year-old “Betsy” Jolley, and in 1853 they were married. Three years later they moved the short distance to Spanish Fork. George was ordained an Elder and, in 1857, a Seventy.
Hicks’s outspokenness landed him in trouble more than once: He was excommunicated twice! The first time was after questioning why John D. Lee, the main perpetrator of the Mountain Meadows massacre, still held good Church standing a decade after the atrocity. The second time cannot be confirmed, but it appears to have come in about 1884 when he wrote to his bishop that Utah would never become a state until the Mormons gave up polygamy. The bishop, a polygamist, took offence. Hicks was ahead of his time. Then, for a second time he sought reinstatement in the church. Finally, in 1923 he was rebaptized and Senator Reed Smoot reconfirmed all of his former blessings and restored to him the office of Seventy.
The following delightful passage gives a taste of his writing and a picture of a typical dance held in the early to mid 1850s:
I purpose to describe an old time dance such as we had on special ocations. The time of the year is Christmas. A select committee are chosen by the people to make the necessary ar[r]angements some time before hand, and a general invitation is given out at the Sunday meeting. Then for a few days, all is stir and bustle. Young men engage their girls to go with them to the dance, for every boy or young man must take a girl. Calico dresses are brought out and put under repairs or perhaps linsey or “flannen” dresses are “turned” and old white shirts are brought out and starched in good style. Women council together in regard to what they shal[l] wear and how they shall wear it. Then comes the preparing of food–baking pies, frying cakes, and getting up knicknacks for the ocation. At length the happy day arives and is we[l]comed by plenty of noise and burning of [gun]powder.
Early in the day, a few young men and youn[g] women are chosen to go and put the school-meeting house in order for the festivities. The house is thoroughly cleaned and decorated with boughs of evergreens and festoon of paper flowers. The seats are all taken out but a few, and these are aranged round the house next [to] the wall so as to make as much room as possable for dancing. Then an elevated seat is made at one end of the hall for the music, then a good fire is built. The house [is] locked up for the rest of the day and those who have been busy in preparing the hall go and prepar[e] themselves for the night’s enjoyment.
Early in the evening–about 6 o’clock–the house is opened and the people begin to gather in from all parts of the town–old and young, the richest and the poor, small and great turn out without reserve. Friends meet friends and neighbors greet at the place of gathering, and this interim is spent in social chat until it is time to begin the dance. The music, generaly two violin players, take the elevated seat at one end of the hall. Then the bishop or presiding church officer call[s] the assembly to order. When all talking ceases [and] when a brief statement of the cause of gathering is made, then the dance is opened by prayer either by the bishop or some one that he selects. Many of these pray[e]rs are quite eloquent. The blessing of God is asked for all present and absent belonging to us. Then our Father is asked to let a spirit of peace and good order be with us to keep us from all harm.
After prayer, the co[m]mittee proceed[s] to let the male members draw numbers which have been prepared for the ocation. These are mad[e] of small bits of white paper with figures marked on them. These are put into a hat general[l]y and are drawn out permicously [promiscuously], the manage[r] men being careful to make the numbers tally to the number of those who wish to draw. After the drawing is over, a floor manager is chosen to call the numbers and keep order. Then for a short time there is talk and noise and whispering. When the manager takes his position, [he] call[s] the at[t]ention of the aud[i]ance and makes a brief speech and requests all present to keep good order. Then he begins and calls the numbers from one to four or to eight as house room will permit. When the floor is full or when all the quadrilles that the hall will admit of are formed, someone is selected to “call off” and the word “ready” is given. The music strikes up a quadrille tune. These are tunes of 4 parts or 2 parts played twice over 4/4 time. The “caller” gives the word and the ball is opened for the night. A good caller is [a] very important personage and much depends on him whither the dance is orderly or disorderly. It is generaly rulable to give each set two “changes” when [after which] they take their seats, and the floor is again filled and so the time is put in with an ocation[al] waltz or contra dance. When the dancers begin to tire, someone is called on for a song or perhaps a resitation [recitation]. I have heard some splendid songs both comic and sentimental at our dances.
General[ly] about midnight, the picknic which has been left at the house nearest the hall is brought in and all take a recess while the good things are hande[d] round and all partake of the homely viands and laugh and be [as] happy as possable. After refreshments, the numbers were given to the “women folks” when dancing is again resumed and kept up with about the same spirit often untill day break, when the assembly was dismissed by prayer and all went home happy. Many a love affair has had its beginning at one of the social parties.
Ye rich and great of the earth who meet in the gilded halls of pride, who robe your selves in satin and point lace, who pride your selves in the richness of your apperal, I venture to say you never were half as happy as us poor Mormons were at one of our social dances.
Those were the happy days of Utah. These were the days before our peace was destroyed by the pre[a]ching of that most accursed of all cursed doctrines [that] was preached in Utah by that arch fiend Brigham Young, namely “blood atonement.” These days were before Utah was stained with human blood from one end to the other, these days were before that most horable of all the horable deeds was committed–the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Hicks’s autobiography will be published this fall in a documentary history, the latest volume of the Kingdom in the West series published by the Arthur H. Clark Co. The title is Playing with Shadows: Voices of Dissent in the Mormon West, edited by myself, Jeffrey L. Nichols, and Will Bagley. We had assumed in starting out that it would primarily include voices of people who had left the faith, probably for good reason—a rather black and white picture. But to our surprise and pleasure, the dissenters ranged widely: from George Armstrong Hicks, who came to believe that Brigham Young had not lived up to the highest precepts of Mormonism; to Charles Derry, a “backout” who gave up, left Utah, and later became an apostle in the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints; to Ann Gordge, John D. Lee’s last plural wife who constructed a rich fantasy world but also gave a picture of Lee’s family; to Brigham Young Hampton, a devoted Latter-day Saint who gave his all only to feel betrayed by his leaders. In addition, we include an overview of dissent from the beginning of the Church to the early 20th century. The result is an antidote to anti-Mormon sensationalism and instead chronicles deeply personal journeys that add a more nuanced understanding of the Mormon past.
In the meantime, come hear Hicks’s account of the Cotton Mission!