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Think Like a Historian: Henry Troemner and Brigham Young

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 07, 2011

Below is an account published in 1887 reporting a Philadelphia man’s meeting some years earlier with Brigham Young. Before posting an account like this, I like to figure out when and where it happened, and a little about the background of the people involved. Most importantly, I need to know whether a story really happened – details can be wrong or exaggerated, but is the gist of the story true?

As you read this account of a visit by Henry Troemner to Brigham Young, you’ll notice some obvious inaccuracies in the report of the arrival of the pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley. But Troemner doesn’t claim to have been there in 1847, so it’s understandable if his hearsay account is faulty; the newspaper reporter may even be responsible for part of the inaccuracy.

What about the rest of the story? Did Henry Troemner ever meet Brigham Young? If so, when? Does the Brigham of this sketch sound like the Brigham you know from history? Can you identify the building described? Let’s turn this into a kind of a Keepa puzzle – Google around a bit to find out who Henry Troemner was. Add what you find about his life to what you know of Brigham Young’s life. What confirming evidence can you find? What contradictory evidence can you find? This account was reprinted in both the Deseret News and Millennial Star in 1887 without editorial comment — does that mean that Mormons in 1887 endorsed this account as true?

If you were me, would you present this story as a legitimate traveler’s account, or as something else? I now know what I think – but what do you think? If I challenge your responses in comments, it isn’t because I think you’re wrong, but only to prod you toward considering relevant alternatives. Have fun with it.

A PHILADELPHIAN’S VISIT TO BRIGHAM YOUNG.

The following is from the Philadelphia News of Sept. 14th [1887]:

I was passing down Market Street one day last week, when I espied the pleasant face of Mr. Henry Troemner, sitting at his desk in his private office, at No. 710. Do you know the gentleman? If you do not I’ll tell you that he has probably a more thorough knowledge of scales in all their varied make-up than any other human on the face of the earth. He has in his life been called upon to test many scales that have been destined to weigh millions of dollars’ worth of silver and gold, as he has been and is the sealer of the scales used in the government mints. In fact the name has been associated with scales for fifty years.

I stepped in and had a pleasant chat with Mr. Troemner, and during the same he related his personal experience with the late Brigham Young, President of the Mormon Church, or at least held that position at the time Mr. Troemner met him. The Philadelphian was sent for by the government to take a trip to San Francisco, to test and seal the scales of the Mint. On his way back East he stopped for a few days in Salt Lake City. He was received by the eminent Mormon leader and had a most interesting interview with the latter.

Mr. Troemner sent his card in and was pleasantly received in a substantially furnished office-room by the President of the Mormon Church. His earlier ideas of the man, he tells me, were those of a coarse, despotic and overbearing ruler, who possessed few redeeming qualifications, and I presume many readers of the Grocery World have thus pictured the one who for many years occupied fully as much public attention as the President of the United States. Judge of his surprise when he confronted a dignified, intelligent-looking old gentleman with mild expression, a benevolent air, coupled with most stately, beautiful manners. The eyes were bright and rested on his guest tranquilly and thoughtfully.

After slowly studying Mr. Troemner’s card, the President kindly said, “From Philadelphia? A most goodly city, with grand promises of a future, and glorious memories of a past. I love the city, respect its citizens, and when I say this, you will understand I am truly glad to meet a representative of the good old Quaker City.” He then alluded to Stephen A Douglas’ saying, regarding Vermont, the birthplace of the statesman, that it was a “good place to be born in and a good place to die in,” saying that Philadelphia was also a good place to pass the interim in. The Mormon leader conversed pleasantly, alluding to a visit of the-then Secretary of the Treasury, I think Secretary Bristow, and President Grant to Salt Lake City the year before, and their not calling on him. He said he could not see what “hurt it would have done” for these two “distinguisheds” to have paid their respects to him. A roaring fire of huge logs in a mastodonic fireplace was a feature of the room that impressed itself upon Mr. Troemner. The time of his visit was in the winter, some ten years ago, and the air outside the room was filled with falling snow-flakes.

Brigham Young spoke of their coming to Salt Lake City years before, and how they happened to pick upon that spot for founding their city. His people had traveled for weary days upon days over the plains, across the alkali deserts, with naught but brackish water, insufficient food, and, afflicted by diseases, many sank by the wayside, and by the time the mountains and their canyons were reached, discontent held sway. On a Sunday morning they reached the south pass or canyon leading to a plateau. They here found pure drinking water, and after resting and holding service, Brigham ordered a renewal of the march, and they pressed on to the plateau surrounded by lofty mountains. Here he received an “inspiration” and it was, that this was the spot to found the “City of the Latter-day Saints.” He ordered a halt, had a plow taken from the wagon to which was yoked oxen. He then had a huge furrow of ground turned up in the form of a circle, and declared it Salt Lake City. The soil was blessed and work was at once begun, resulting in the final building of a city scarcely counterparted in the world.

I asked Mr. Troemner what other feature most impressed itself upon him, and he said, “their grand church music, their tithing store, the cleanliness of their streets and the law and order that prevailed. The Tabernacle is of oblong shape, and the Sunday I attended services Elder Snow preached and his sermon was very similar to that heard in any Presbyterian church, not the slightest allusion to polygamy. I suppose they discuss this part of their religion at set occasions. They had a magnificent organ and hundreds of children singing in the choir. It was most beautiful. I was struck with the appearance of the twelve Apostles or Elders sitting on benches back of the leading Elder, who was preaching.

The most universal veneration, respect and love for Brigham Young was found on all sides. They believed in him. The co-operative store of the Latter-day Saints was in a building, I should judge, fifty by two hundred feet, with fifty or sixty clerks employed and selling nearly everything imaginable. The people bring one-tenth of all they raise, grow or make to the tithing house, which is a huge barracks-like building, similar to our big car barns. It is stored there and sold afterwards in the co-operative store for the benefit of the church.

Mormons and Gentiles patronize alike this store. The most modern store fittings were in this latter.

“While in the president’s office,” continued Mr. Troemner, “I was witness to a most peculiar scene. A beautiful sleigh drew up in front of the door, and two young ladies entered the room. They were handsomely attired, both wearing sealskin sacques, valuable in those days, you must remember. The president, in a courtly pleasing way, arose to greet them, and both saluted the old gentleman with a kiss. They talked a few minutes, the president asked if they were warmly clothed, how their health was, and when one said something about his ‘not calling,’ he kindly said, ‘I know I am at fault, dears; you tell mamma I’ll call soon,’ and then he sent them both away with a kiss. I, of course, could only surmise they were his daughters. One was 20 years, the other about 15, and refined, pretty girls. Their sleighing outfit was very handsome. Brigham made no allusion to polygamy.” I asked Mr. Troemner regarding the President’s age, and he said he could only say from what Brigham said when writing an autograph for his visitor. He wrote it rapidly and firmly, then said: “Pretty good for a man 82 years of age, isn’t it?” That winter, within three months after Mr. Troemner’s visit, the great leader of the Mormons was taken ill with dysentery, and three mouths later died, so that I think our pleasant Philadelphian must have been about the last eastern man to see and talk with the Mormon President.

L. W. B.



7 Comments »

  1. Well, off the cuff without much research as I’m in a rush and have some work demands on me, the story of the pioneer arrival has it’s problems as Brigham was not in an ox-cart, and they didn’t arrive or plow on a Sunday! He was also a straight-line sort of guy so I doubt the story about plowing in circles.

    Also, I’m pretty sure he met with U.S. President Grant when the latter came on his Salt Lake City visit. In fact, one of my favorite stories I seem to recall (hopefully accurately) is President Grant’s carriage ride around the city with all the children lining the streets waiving flags. Pres. Grant turned to someone and asked, “Whose children are these?” The response, “Why, Mormon children, Sir.” after a long pause, Grant said something to the effect of, “I have been greatly deceived.”

    Feel free to correct my historical errors, Ardis. I won’t be offended. I was named for the “other” President Grant. (Although, I can’t help but like the U.S. one too).

    Comment by Grant — November 7, 2011 @ 6:34 am

  2. Since Henry Troemner died in 1873, it would have been hard for the reporter to have run into him in September of 1887. But, the Troemner company did have offices at 710 Market Street, beginning in 1858. The company built a factory at the corner of 22nd and Master Streets in 1862, but kept their office on Market Street.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 7, 2011 @ 8:50 am

  3. Grant, that’s a novel version of the founding history, isn’t it? I’m not going to correct errors — there aren’t any errors in an exercise like this. This is meant only to illustrate some of the problems that face a historian in even a casual blogging situation, and to give readers who might want to try it an excuse to see how they might go about doing some internet research and perhaps discover some new Mormon history.

    That’s the big red flag, isn’t it Mark?! But some of the sources found on Google said that the business was taken over by Troemner’s sons (three of them, I think it was), so consider whether Henry-the-founder might have had a son Henry, Jr. who was active in the business in 1887. Maybe the reporter was sloppy and confused the original Henry with a later one. Could the story still be true, if that confusion were corrected?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 7, 2011 @ 9:21 am

  4. Henry Troemner had two sons who shared the middle name Henry, William Henry, 1839-1864, and Franklin Henry, 1856-1892. The elder is obviously not the man, and the younger seems to young to have been sent to San Francisco to inspect the balances at the mint there in 1876 or 1877. Unless he went as his father’s traveling companion.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 7, 2011 @ 9:30 am

  5. Well, that was easy, Mark. You’re drafted as my historical companion for having so easily ruled out the possibility that this account was anything like an accurate report!

    The timing just doesn’t pan out. Henry died in 1873. Brigham died in 1877; Grant visited Utah in 1876 — so Mark is right that, had the visit occurred as reported, it would have to have been during the winter of 1876-77, after Henry’s death.

    Grant is right about the absurdity of the account of reaching Salt Lake Valley.

    Some other things that readers might have considered in evaluating the likelihood that this was a more-or-less truthful report, even if garbled in its details:

    Can you find any confirming evidence that Henry Troemner actually went out to San Francisco? (I couldn’t. Several Googled sources say he provided the scales for the Mint there, but I couldn’t find any indication that he’d ever been called out to test or seal them.)

    Given the conditions of transcontinental travel in 1876, how likely is it that a man of Henry’s age would have made such a trip?

    Is there any evidence from Utah sources that Henry was there? You might have searched — vainly — the online Utah newspapers at DigitalNewspapers.org; if you had access, you might also have searched the index to the Journal History in the Church History Library (Henry isn’t listed there). Neither absence would definitively prove he *wasn’t* there, but a note in either place would have definitively proved that he *had* come.

    If you’ve ever visited the Brigham Young properties (the Beehive House, the Lion House, the clerks’ office, Brigham Young’s office) in Salt Lake City, you might be scratching your head and wondering where in any of them is a fireplace that could be described as “mastodonic” — you’d know that the rooms in those buildings, especially the offices, are very small, and without large fireplaces. Knowing something of the geography of Utah, the reference to “huge logs” in that “roaring fire” might also raise suspicions.

    Other details — like Brigham’s age — 82?? — don’t hold up, either.

    So regretfully, much as I like to collect travelers’ accounts of prominent people visiting the 19th century Mormons, I have to relegate this one to the entirely fictional category.

    The real question, I suppose, is why the reporter would bother to make up such a report?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 7, 2011 @ 9:41 am

  6. The folks in Philadelphia must have known that Henry Troemer was dead, so your question about why leaves only the cynical reason of “selling newspapers”. Much as we decry the ethics of journalists today, it was much less formalized in the past, and in 1887, polygamy and Mormons were hot topics, likely to spur some additional sales at the newsstands.

    Comment by kevinf — November 7, 2011 @ 11:50 am

  7. Oh, you die-hard cynic, you! (Not that cynicism can’t be truth!)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 7, 2011 @ 11:55 am

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