Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Walked and walked and walked and walked.

In 1847, my great-great grandfather Hezekiah Thatcher and his first wife buried their infant son at Winter Quarters, Nebraska and headed west in the first wave of Mormon pioneers to the Great Basin. Hezekiah went on to become one of the most prominent early settlers; only Brigham Young was wealthier. In the late 1850s he made the largest tithing payment to that point in Church history and he and his sons formed the financial backbone of Cache County, establishing mills, stores, a bank, and an opera house. Brigham Young said of Hezekiah's remarkable sacrifices of personal wealth for the good of the Church, "I do not believe that any other man in the Church would have done it." His son, Moses, was called as an apostle and was known for his powerful speaking. Moses boldly reminded Brigham Young that it was not in keeping with the Word of Wisdom for ZCMI, the church's mercantile chain, to sell booze. Brigham Young agreed with Moses's forward-thinking and unpopular observation, and the practice ended as a result.

A typical Pioneer Day ancestral tribute, and every word is true.

I love Pioneer Day. I love Church history, and particularly the Utah chapter of Church history. I love the stories, I love the heritage, I even love the creepy Victorian decorations made of human hair and the jars full of flies in the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum. But the question in studying your own religious history is: can you handle the truth?

In studying church history, many of my sacred cows have been tipped. The story of the heroic rescue of the 1856 handcart companies, for instance:

"The teenaged boys carried most of the exhausted company over the Sweetwater River." False. They carried many, but most of them walked across or rode across in wagons.

"The icy river was up to their thighs and they labored most of the day." False. The river was about ankle-deep and the crossing more likely took a few hours since they reached the river in the afternoon and were all over before the early winter dark set in.

"All the boys later died of complications due to their ordeal." False. They all went on to live healthy, productive, and long lives by frontier standards and there was no evidence that they died of causes related to the river incident.

"Brigham Young declared that that one act of kindness would assure those boys salvation." False. There is no proof that he ever said such a thing.

"None of the members of the Martin or Willie Handcart companies ever left the church." False. Many were furious, and some did leave the church, concluding that the Church leaders were uninspired.

In telling faith-promoting stories, we seek to understand our heritage. We want to know why embarrassing or disastrous events happened if God was at the helm. We seek for the best moments and magnify them. Sometimes we magnify them until they become false.

Back to my own family story -- here are the parts I left out. Hezekiah Thatcher arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 and thought it looked like a miserable wasteland. Two years later, directly defying Brigham Young's orders to stay and help build Zion, he took off for the Gold Rush and quickly made a huge fortune in the hotel and restaurant businesses. Ten years later he returned to the fold in Utah and was obedient to the end of his life, but the family tradition of independence that he had begun was not always a blessing in the communally-minded Utah Territory. His son Moses, who was later made an apostle, was crippled by his addiction to opium as a painkiller. He defied the prophet Wilford Woodruff by publicly and vociferously refusing to sign the Political Manifesto. Though he was not excommunicated for his disobedience, he was subsequently un-apostled and died in semi-disgrace.

I didn't hear this half of the story until I was in college, and I was dismayed. These were not my "blessed, honored pioneers"! These were a bunch of stubborn cranks. They were so....ordinary.

But as I've allowed myself to absorb the entire truth, something new has happened. I realized that these cranky mere mortals somehow managed to make remarkable sacrifices in the midst of all their pettiness. One day they were like me, whining about the unreasonable demands of Sainthood, and the next day they were bravely playing their part in the miracles. And the day after that -- who knows?

The details of my family myth are no longer those of my childhood. No longer can I allow myself to believe that great epic suffering automatically forges men into heroes for the ages, as we often imply in our Pioneer Day tributes. But at the same time, I can no longer allow myself to believe that because I do not live in a time of great epic suffering, I am destined to be spiritually mediocre next to my ancestors. No longer are they more than human. No longer can I hold them at arm's length as freaky-good and say, "Whew -- I'm glad it was them and not me, because I just don't have what it takes to do something like that." Knowing their very ordinary shortcomings makes their accomplishments and sacrifices all the more powerful because the people doing them are like me. And the most powerful messages of their lives remain, even in the full light of truth.

"Great suffering has the power to amplify our goodness if we choose to let it." True.

"Ordinary people can do extraordinary things in the midst of their ordinary lives." True.

"God is at work, even in moments of disaster, confusion, and doubt." True.

"Sacrifice is not measured by agony, but by willingness." True.

"Your great acts of faith become the guideposts for your descendants, in spite of your warts." True.

So I honor these ordinary people who, with greater or lesser motivations, walked 1,300 miles to this desert and became my ancestors. I don't know if they traveled cheerfully or grumpily (no family history ever says, "Great-Grandpa George whined his way to Zion"), but I do know that they ultimately chose their faith over creature comforts. They may have first chosen the church because it offered them a ticket to America where they could escape poverty and own land. Many European converts joined the church for this reason, just as many people join the church today because of its remarkable welfare system. But somewhere along the way they all found their faith and taught it to their children, and that faith has dripped down to me, purer and more satisfying because it was filtered through the plain gray rocks of their ordinariness. Plow, plant, harvest, repeat. Swallow your pride. Keep your cow out of Brother Hyde's garden even though his pigs ate your lettuce patch last week. Try to not smoke your pipe so often so you don't smell bad in the temple. Teach your children to be better than you are.

These are some other ordinary heroes of my family who walked across the plains between 1847 and 1869.

Robert Reeder who was part of the Willie handcart company and lost his father, David, and sister, Caroline, on the journey. George Seamons, who at age 15 lost both parents and a brother in his trek to Utah. Anna Cajsa and Charles Anderson Frank from Sweden, who were married on the plains. Jonathan, Abigail, and Nancy Jane Taylor Smith, Elizabeth Patrick Taylor, George and Alice Hancock Done from England; Johann, Anna, and Elisabeth Naef from Switzerland.

I don't know their whole stories or what they were really like. I don't know if they were better or stronger than your pioneers. But they are mine, and their best moments have become my mythology. One day I will get all of their stories straight, from their very mouths. Until then, most of the details will remain hazy, but the picture is clear -- it is a picture of faith, hard won.


Belladonna said...

Honestly, to my way of thinking this one was one of the best posts you've ever written. Usually other people's family history can be pretty boring to those who have not been bitten by the genealogy bug. Yet you wrote this in a way than any reader could relate. While other people's particular stories may differ, the give and take of good and bad, strong and week, righteous and misguided all wrapped up in the very same souls is something most anyone has witnessed and/or experienced.

I would imagine the sarcastic humor in some of your pieces would be delightfully wicked in person, but sometimes in reading it I'm not sure how to take it. In contrast this piece sinks right in to the bone. Well done!

Tusk said...

Tusk: [aside] Moses has the most amazing 'tache!

RC Cola! said...

Marie, you top yourself every time with your posts! Or at least I can't ever decide which is my favorite. I loved this!

RC Cola! said...

By the way, I went to the Pioneer Museum for the first time not too long ago. I decided that I'm glad I wasn't a pioneer not for the hardships they endured, but for the fact that I would have to take up hair wreathing for a hobby. asjdkfl;sjdfksfweori.

Bleh. So creepy. Nice to know my great great great grandmother's hair is hanging up on the wall. DNA all over!

AzĂșcar said...

Amazing post.

One thing that is always left out of the Martin Co. story is that the church leaders told them NOT to go! The brethren warned them that it was too late in the season, yet the company decided to go anyway. Yes, they had great faith and there were miracles, but how much suffering would have been averted had they listened to the warnings.

One thing that I take from that episode is that even though they were warned and ignored the brethren, the leaders of the church did not hesitate to send help. There was no "I told you so" only forgiveness and outreach. That inspires me.

And since I'm a Brigham descendant, our peeps go way back! Cool!

Marie said...

I'm glad you guys liked it. I felt I needed to commemorate the day with something besides potato salad. I think of them rolling into this baked valley in mid-July and scrambling to prepare for that first winter. What an amazing era it was. And yet -- so is ours.

As for the Martin & Willie thing, you're right -- some of the Church leaders urged them not to continue from Iowa to Salt Lake that season. Of course, at that point they were between a rock and a hard place. Church leaders in England had unwisely sent them later than normal, so they were unexpected arrivals at the jumping-off point in Iowa, so there weren't handcarts waiting there for them when they arrived, so they had to wait for handcarts to be built and all that was available was improperly cured wood, but...at that point they were foreigners in a frontier land -- they were poorer than the Nauvoo refugees had been and had no way of getting supplies to survive the winter there. Their choices were: starve-slash-freeze in Iowa or risk the journey. Levi Savage, one of the Church leaders in Iowa, said he thought it was unwise to start the trek, but he saw their dilemma and said he would lead them if they chose that avenue, even if it meant he died with them. Franklin Richards, on the other hand, had been put in charge of all handcart immigration by Brigham Young, and he was one of those urging them to proceed to the valley. The argument of the leaders in Richards's camp was that they were like the children of Israel and God would support them in the wilderness because they were doing His work. Brigham Young, who was of the "God helps those who don't do stupid things" camp would have been furious at Richards's impractical argument, but he was far away in Salt Lake at the time, so it was these lesser, local leaders running the debates on whether to stay or go, and the Richards argument won out. But like you say, the most important point remains that whosever fault it was, when disaster struck, many Saints lived up to that title and did very heroic things to help save them -- Christian love at work in a really grand way. However, it was decades before the event was seen in the heroic light in which we think of it today -- for more than a generation afterward it was universally regarded as pure disaster and there was much finger-pointing and wailing about why God let such a thing happen. Only many years later did we start framing it as a story about the triumph of the human spirit and brotherly love over tragedy. I regard it that way, and I think the story of the rescue is a great one and deserves to be told and re-told, but neither is it as simple as we like to make it. When Pres Hinkley recently learned that that the oft-quoted "old man in the corner of Sunday School" Martin and Willie Handcart company story was largely incorrect, he immediately said, "Okay -- then I won't tell it ever again." Haven't heard it in Conference since then. I love that. He doesn't try to defend the version of history he once knew or denounce LDS historians as infidels for raining on his Pioneer Day parade -- he confidently adjusts and goes forward because he knows that the work is much bigger (and truer) than any one story.

I'm glad your great-granddaddy forgave my great-granddaddy for rebelling. Otherwise I'd be estranged from the Church. And I'd still be living in California -- not the biggest fan of the place. Give me this barren Utah wasteland any day :)

Anna Maria Junus said...

Great post. I had always believed the one about the boys dying after carrying people across.

By the way, I gave you an award.

Marie said...

An award?? Cool! Thanks -- that would be my first! (and no doubt last :)

Sarah said...

Really really wonderful writing here, Marie! I love your analysis and faith. Many people would look at how these people are "real" and use it to justify all kinds of bad behavior. Thanks for taking the time to put this post together!

wynne said...


Can I tell you how much I have HATED Pioneer Day for so long, and I never could put my finger on why? But the stories about the pioneers and their wonderful sacrifices would bore me to tears as a child. give me Joseph Smith any day, but spare me the freakin' pioneers!

And now, thanks to this post, I finally understand why. It's the bloat of storytelling that makes a good story so fat, it's dead.

I loved that your ancestor rebelled and went to California! Now that is something that I can relate to. Spare me holier-than-thou teenagers carrying people across frozen rivers...

Thank you, Marie!

(Do you think my hatred of Pioneer Day is simply because none of those people were related to me? The only Mormon I have found in my gene-a-loogy is the apostate daughter of Brigham Young and Zina Huntington (though come to thing of it, she could've been an adopted daughter...)

And beautiful as this post is, I think you should change just one letter in it, look:

...because it was filtered through the plain gray socks of their ordinariness.

Marie said...

Sarah -- Thank you! And thanks for stoppin' by (I know your blog reading schedule is grueling :)

Wynne -- I agree, and you're welcome. As a kid I liked the stories in a superhero sort of way, but when I reached adulthood, it became a bit too false to be interesting to me. Their very amazingness made them boring, somehow. I think that's why I have come to love church history (not Work and the Glory history -- real church history). It fleshes them out and suddenly I see how I fit in. Suddenly church history is useful to me as a person and as an LDS person.

Andrew said...

Hey Marie,
I don't know how else to contact you so I'll have to use the blog! My name is Andrew, and I'm working for BYU-TV on this new television series based on genealogy family histories. Oddly enough, the first episode we decided to do is based on the mystery of Hezekiah Thatcher. While googling him, I stumbled upon your blog. Here's my question - would you like to be a part of this first episode? As a descendant of Hezekiah, you could add a lot to the episode and be someone that the viewers could relate to. Please let me know ASAP because I have to write the episode outline this week and we start filming in a few weeks! Thanks!