Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » On P.T. Turnley’s 1859 Letter to S.A. Douglas

On P.T. Turnley’s 1859 Letter to S.A. Douglas

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 09, 2012

This started as a comment for BCC’s posting of an 1859 letter by army quartermaster P.T. Turnley. Due to its length, however, I’m posting it here rather than straining BCC’s tolerance.

I have no – well, very little – quarrel with Bill MacKinnon’s use of this document in his review of Polly Aird’s biography of Peter McAuslan. I wish he had extracted the lines from this letter that were relevant to his review (establishing that Turney was an army officer; that he was aware of people who wanted to leave Utah but who did not have the means to travel; and that he recommended military resources to assist those people in leaving). In the context of a review, outside the scope of a documentary study, and given the ugliness of the balance of the letter, publishing the full letter unedited serves only to poison the discussion of Mormon history during this contentious and extremely polarized era. (Interpret that sentence as you will, as referring either to the 1850s or to the present; it fits both.)

Posting the letter as a BCC post, divorced from the story of Peter McAuslan’s disaffection and departure, only compounds the problem: Rather than illuminating the military role in helping such persons leave Utah, Turnley’s letter becomes a stand-alone indictment of Utah and Mormonism. It is an indictment based on exaggeration, animus, and outright falsehood. It bears false witness.

As is evident by the unedited grammar, my initial comment was a hasty, frustrated response to the posting of this letter on an ostensibly pro-Mormon blog without sufficient context and without editorial comment. Bizarrely, Connell O’Donovan offers what almost amounts to a formal review of my comment, as if it represented a careful exposition of my objections and arguments. In doing so, he makes his comment as much about me as about the document and the mangled evaluation of 1859 Utah it represents. So much for Connell O’Donovan.

If I were to make a more complete, rather than a reactionary, analysis of Turnley’s letter, I would not pick away at the factual accuracy (or not) of the low-hanging fruit toward the end of his letter. I would instead examine the intended effect of his statements: Why did he inflate numbers? Why did he report rumor as fact? Why did he choose those particular claims over others?

When he writes of Mary Young’s age, for instance, his objection is not to the disparity between hers and Appleby’s ages; he makes no mention of that. He reports, rather, Mary’s youth; and not content with reporting her actual age, he exaggerates her youth to heighten the effect of his gossip: Child bride! Nubile young woman fallen prey to Mormon rapaciousness! Just as today when press attention to FLDS polygamy is devoted to the ages of the youngest brides and to almost nothing else, Turnley’s prurient interest and his appeal to what he (unconsciously or otherwise) assumes will be Douglas’s prurient interest comes through loud and clear.

Similarly, the composition of Appleby’s 1859 wagon company is of little importance beyond a check of Turnley’s accuracy … except for what his hyperbole implies about Mormon society. By so grossly distorting the ratio of male to female members of that company – by pretending to report their gender at all – Turnley joins the long line of detractors most vividly illustrated by Winifred Graham’s scurrilous post-World War I campaign: Mormon missionary efforts are aimed primarily at securing additions to Mormon harems, whom they import to Utah by the shipload, or wagon-train load in this case. Without editorial notice, that slander stands unchecked here.

We could go line by line through Turnley’s letter and consider its truthfulness and why Turnley included each charge in his appeal to Douglas, as well as the meta-question of why a military officer “by-passed the military chain of command” when seeking military action. I won’t do that now – that’s not what I’m suggesting should have been done before Turnley’s letter was posted at BCC. I do suggest that publishing “hyperbolic” (I would use a stronger term, but that’s the one introduced into the discussion) documents that misrepresent historical fact and slander a people the way this one does, without any sort of disclaimer, not even the possible defense that while factually doubtful it may have represented McAuslan’s fears – was irresponsible and unjust.

The document’s value lies not in accurate reporting of the situation in Utah, but in its representation of a partisan viewpoint, as well, perhaps, in its commentary on Turnley’s violation of military protocol. That should have been made clear without a commenter having to make it clear, and, as a result, having to take the heat from those whose jaundiced viewpoints are more aligned with Turnley’s than with the facts.



  1. I didn’t understand why it was put up without any real context. It is part of why I asked if there had been a response to his letter (maybe that is why it is important?) and kept hoping there would be more information as to why it would be included. I am not an LDS scholar (I am never sure if I am supposed to apologize for that when these “scholarly” post come up on BCC) and so the names of the person(s) who brought the letter forward doesn’t help me much of putting it in context.

    So, this is half response and half question, is there a certain level of LDS academics that you have to know to be able to even enter the conversation about church history?

    My ex-husband’s mother comes from a group of apostates who left Utah and went to Walla Walla, in what later became Washington, during the time of this letter. So, I know people did leave, although I have no idea exactly what their financial situation was. They had enough money to get to the area, set up a bunch of farms, start their own church. When some of the multiple wives left their husbands a decade later, they left a legal record of the inner workings of that break off group. There was enough money to fight over at that point, but since no one had tax returns to go through I don’t know what they left Utah with.

    I guess that comes down to what is difficult to traverse as someone who isn’t an academic, but who does have a brain, and who is interested in understanding the nuances of LDS life and history. I have learned it isn’t safe to share an opinion unless you know the name, date and complete history of an event, as well as all of the scholarly work done by LDS and non-LDS scholars. Since I don’t have the time, or really the inclination, to become a Utah or LDS historian, I try to ask the “experts” questions that might help me (and maybe someone else who is more timid) get a better idea of the context of a document, event, argument, etc. I wish I could tell you I have had much luck.

    So, any advice?


    Comment by Julia — August 9, 2012 @ 6:01 am

  2. Thank you for this clarification, Ardis. Having some experience with biased documents, I found it fairly obvious that the Turnley letter was as much anti-Mormon propaganda as anything else, but others might not have realized that.

    Now, I suspect that the author of the post on BCC felt that the distortions were obvious, but with the small but extremely vocal anti-Mormon community ready to pounce on any evidence of Mormon misdoing, a small note probably would have been a good idea.

    While I have my own issues with the positions and policies of the Mormon Church, I think it is vital that criticisms be based on truth, not propaganda.

    Comment by Douglas Hudson — August 9, 2012 @ 6:18 am

  3. P.S. it amazes me that so many people today think Mormons still practice polygamy. My parents (both historians), my co-workers, various friends…all thought Mormons still practiced polygamy! Also, there was a general consensus that Mormons were “weird”.

    Mormons clearly have a PR problem, and publishing 19th Century anti-Mormon propaganda without correction probably doesn’t help.

    Comment by Douglas Hudson — August 9, 2012 @ 6:21 am

  4. Thank you, Douglas. I think you’re right to suspect that the BCC poster (and I’m not entirely sure who that was) thought the bias was obvious, and wasn’t necessarily endorsing Turnley’s bias. Thanks for your contributions in both comments.

    Julia, your family story interests me. I’m not at all familiar with it. That alone tells me you have something to add to the conversation, and you don’t have to be deeply involved in academic or professional history to do that.

    In this particular discussion involving Bill and Polly and me, and to a much lesser extent Connell O’Donovan,there is a long back story that isn’t evident on screen. For example, I’ve assisted Bill to some extent with his monumental work on the Utah War for more than a decade now; and if it were not for his support in several different directions, I wouldn’t be any more involved in history today than an interested amateur reading the publications of others. I pretty much owe Bill everything, not the least of which was giving me opportunities that led to my finally discovering what I wanted to do with my life, and supporting me while I became good enough at it to make a contribution. That is in part why it feels in this case like you came in during the middle of a conversation, and part of why you wonder whether you can participate.

    But of course that isn’t the only way to come in. What Bill MacKinnon did for me, I’m trying to duplicate on a small scale here at Keepa. That is, in addition to discussing history with commenters who respond to my posts, I provide a platform for other people to share their historical discoveries and musings, through guest posts. If you click on the “Topical Guide” link in the upper left-hand corner of this page, and scroll down to the “guest post” category, you’ll find a listing of posts written by Keepa readers. Some (like Polly Aird and Bill MacKinnon and others named there) are already professional historians who have any number of other places to publish their writing but who generously share their ideas here occasionally. For some of the others, posting their stories on Keepa is their first experience at writing and sharing history.

    I appreciate guest posts, both for the stories they contain and also because it demonstrates the trust and cooperation that should exist in the Mormon history community. All I ask is that posts be suitable for a believing Mormon audience. That is, they don’t have to bleed gospel testimony in every line, but they cannot be hostile to Mormons and Mormonism. The Turnley letter comes up in the context of Polly Aird’s book about her ancestor’s travel in, through, and out of Mormonism — not an especially faith-promoting story for a Mormon audience — but I welcomed Polly’s guest post drawn from her book because she chose an episode from the point in his life where her ancestor was a believer, so it was appropriate for Keepa. A family history story about your husband’s ancestors who left Mormonism could fit in the same way — as long as you didn’t blame their departure on unsupportable charges like Turnley’s, it too would be appropriate.

    If there is something you’re interested in telling about, and if you’d like to consider writing it as a guest post, please contact me at AEParshall [at] aol [dot] com, and we can discuss the details. You’re more than welcome to join the conversation that way, and to get supportive feedback from readers here.

    As to your question about whether Douglas answered Turnley’s letter, I don’t know for certain but I doubt it (Bill would have mentioned that, had he found such a response in the Douglas collection when he searched it). Prominent men like Douglas received many letters from strangers seeking one favor or another, and often didn’t respond. The same is true with Brigham Young, whose papers I have worked with pretty extensively.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 9, 2012 @ 7:13 am

  5. Of course, any discussion of the Mormons in 1859 inevitably brings to mind Lincoln’s approach to the Mormons (by and large he didn’t give them much thought at all).

    I suspect that Stephen Douglas was likewise concerned with far graver matters in 1859.

    Comment by Douglas Hudson — August 9, 2012 @ 11:21 am

  6. Over at BCC they said you could post this as a comment.

    After Polly Arid’s comment over there, it seems clear she has more of an agenda than mere historical curiosity with that document.

    Comment by Ivan Wolfe — August 9, 2012 @ 5:20 pm

  7. Ivan, I decided not to transfer this after Polly offered her explanation at BCC. This would have been out of order, appearing as though I were trying to stir the pot again, and I didn’t want that.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 9, 2012 @ 6:08 pm

  8. Ardis,

    I don’t know any new information about those ancestors. My ex-husband’s uncle joined the church when he was a teenager, and did a seminary project on his family that went back to the apostate family and that he (the uncle) was a literal fulfilling of the prophecy that said that members who went apostate would not have the priesthood for 4 and 5 generations.

    That same uncle pulled together a family history based on the documents in Walla Walla’s courthouse, and interviews with older family members who had memories of the grandparents (mostly the kids of the wives who left the commune) and tried to confirm or deny part of the family folklore.

    I haven’t ever seen the source documents, and honestly I am not sure how to go about finding them and requesting copies. I also have heard that the members who left had been given patriarchal blessings, and have been curious about how to find out if they really did, and if they did to be able to see them.

    Part of the family folklore says that part of the reasons they left were because there was a promise given that he would be able to hear the Lord’s voice and be a leader unto the Lord’s chosen. Many of the group that went to Walla Walla believed that the patriarchal blessing meant that he was a prophet. As far as I know, there isn’t a surviving copy of that blessing, unless it is in the church’s archives. I am not sure how I would even help my kids to look into that time of their genealogy. My son, who turned 12 this year is starting to get interested in genealogy, and since most of the temple work has been done, he has become more interested in learning about individual ancestors. His discussions with the family history expert in our ward haven’t helped much, and since I am not a direct descendent, my understanding is that I wouldn’t be able to request church documents.

    I have looked around the website more, and I find a lot of it fascinating, but I am not sure how I wouldeven start the process of documenting the veracity of the family stories. Did Brigham Young really slap that ancestor and send Rockwell Porter to give them 7 days to leave the territory or be killed? Where there several young women from the families that left who stayed behind, either because they ran away or were kidnapped (two versions of the story) and one of them become married to a son of Brigham Young when she turned 16? (To be honest I have no idea if Brigham Young had sons the right age to have this pass the first blush test?)

    I think I will need to read a lot more to start figuring out where and if I should start looking.


    Comment by Julia — August 9, 2012 @ 6:41 pm

  9. since I am not a direct descendent, my understanding is that I wouldn’t be able to request church documents

    But if your son is, he could.

    How to start researching pioneer ancestors? Get a genealogy program such as RootsMagic, perhaps the free starter version. Start with yourself and children and document your own life and then trace back generation by generation, documenting with reliable sources (not online family trees from New Family Search or Ancestry) as you go.

    It’s rarely a good idea to choose a random ancestor to research; you might end up tracing the wrong person. For example, there were two couples in Utah Territory of similar ages named George and Ann Jarvis, and they are sometimes confused in online family trees. However, if you know even the most basic information about them, there is absolutely no chance of confusing the two couples.

    While you’re putting together a family tree and tracing back whichever lines catch your interest, hang around Keepa and read old tutorial posts in the Topical Guide and learn how to use historical and genealogical resources.

    You can hang out on genealogy blogs as well to get some pointers and have places to ask questions. Genealogists tend to be a pretty helpful bunch.

    And then spend time consistently on the project. If you put in regular effort (even fifteen minutes a day) on a project like this, over time you will end up with a pretty amazing collection of experiences.

    By the way, about family legends. There’s probably a 75 percent chance they’re not true. But they might be able to help you figure out what really happened. See the story of Anna Eldridge Hinkle Chidester for an example of that.

    Comment by Amy T — August 9, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

  10. Julia, I published a post two minutes ago with information on how to request copies of patriarchal blessings. While you cannot request the blessings of the people you’ve described, your 12-year-old son could, at least those of people who are his direct ancestors. If they can be found, that might be a great way for him to realize success from the very beginning and interest him even more in gathering the records and stories of his ancestors.

    Some of the family stories you report are going to be difficult-to-impossible to document, and in some cases you probably wouldn’t be too surprised to find they are nothing more than rumors, or wild distortions of fact. Others should be easy enough to verify — I can’t do it without knowing at least the surnames of the family members, but with that information I could tell in a matter of minutes whether Brigham Young had any daughter-in-law by that name. These things are known; they aren’t mysteries, as long as there is some minimum bit of information from which to begin. If you know the names of the families, let me know in a comment or through email, and I’ll tell you whether there is any truth to that part of the story.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 9, 2012 @ 7:53 pm

  11. I will work on getting the genealogy totes found and dusted off. (We moved last year and I am not sure where they ended up,)

    I fully expect that a lot of the detailed parts of the family folklore are details added in the place of real details. When I was putting all our genealogy on the computer program at the time (Family Search?) we did find a daughter who stayed in Utah, but she was already married and she and her husband seem to have remained in the church all of their lives.

    I do think my son will be interested in learning more about his pioneer ancestors. He is a huge history buff who volunteers with Fort Vancouver and McLoughlin House.

    Thanks to everyone for answers, advice and ideas. My kids tease me that I love random bits of useless knowledge, so I will have fun looking at all the pieces of history, even if I don’t always get the whole picture. Especially if the whole picture is understanding the back story between academics and researchers. :-)

    Comment by Julia — August 10, 2012 @ 6:37 am

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