Saturday, July 24, 2010

Pioneer Day: re-smirching the worthy dead.

I always knew that William P. Smith was my great-great-great-great grandfather. I knew that he was born in England, joined the LDS Church there, immigrated to America, briefly lived in Nauvoo, operated the pioneer ferry across the Missouri River for a few years, and then walked to Utah. I knew that he was a bone doctor and that his first wife, Rebecca Mary Grimshaw, (my great-great-great-great grandmother) and his daughter Alice Smith Done (my great-great-great grandmother) were noted midwives in the Mormon community. I knew that for awhile he lived in the Union Fort area of Salt Lake County. All in all an upstanding Mormon settler, but not, in my estimation, terribly remarkable among the vast host of hardy LDS pioneers.

I assumed he had lived and died a faithful adherent to the church for which he had worked so hard. Why would I believe anything else? His daughter Alice, through whom I descend, was as solidly devout as they come, and I counted that branch of my family the most stoically faithful of my many pioneer branches (i.e., no known cranks, suicides, drunks....) I had considered it almost boring in its faithfulness – and that is why I rarely looked closely at it. Alice had spent most of her adult life up north in Cache Valley delivering babies and having twelve of her own, and I had assumed that her parents had moved up there at the same time and died near her.

But no – as interested as I've always been in family history, I had somehow never noticed that William P. Smith and Rebecca Mary Grimshaw Smith remained in Union Fort to the end of their lives. I – we – had no idea that they were buried near my parents' home in a tiny pioneer cemetery. For decades we had driven past their graves on the way to the grocery store, oblivious to their silent bones. When I finally took the family there for our first visit a few months ago, we were pleased to find that their graves were among few marked well enough to still be located.

So I was getting intrigued. I went to the Family History Library to see what I could learn about the Union Fort community, and turned up little local history book called A Union, Utah, History. There was William P. Smith's photo, captioned “Union's early doctor and dentist.” Yay, Grandpa! You're almost famous! I read futher: “William P. Smith, a doctor in the fort, was so charitable to the Indians that they referred to him as the 'Medicine Man.'”

I dug around on the Internet and found a great website devoted to Rebecca Mary Grimshaw and William P. Smith – GOLDMINE. Histories collected from their grandchildren, tales of his many years as Union's watermaster, even the recipe for William's special salve:

1/2 pound beeswax
1/2 pound rosin
1/2 pound mutton tallow
1/2 pound lard
Melt all together and add 3/4 teaspoon of white vitrol.

On this website was even more information about his compassion for the Indians. One history stated that a newly widowed Indian squaw had fled from her late husband's tribe, where it was the custom to kill and bury the wife of any man who died. William and Rebecca hid the woman, threw her pursuers off the scent, and then helped her get back to safety in her parents' tribe. In fact, William was so beloved and trusted by the Indians that when Union Fort was completed, he refused to move his family inside it. “Tut, tut,” he reportedly said to the more fearful pioneers. “They [the Indians] will not harm thee.”

Better and better, thought I. William P. Smith is shaping up to be the best Mormon pioneer ever known! Love this guy!

I read further. It started to get wacky. After Rebecca died, William remarried and divorced, then remarried again, this time to a woman named Sarah Pidd Griffiths. She was the widowed second (polygamous) wife of a local man named Griffiths, and even after Mr. Griffith's death she remained close to her former “sister wife,” Ann, who had fifteen children from the marriage, including five sets of twins. (For real – the poor woman is buried in that same little pioneer cemetery, and all the kids' names are listed on her gravestone.) Anyway, Sarah stayed in the house with her “sister wife” Ann after their husband died, leaving her own two children with Ann and the other fifteen children during the day to go out and try to earn money for the large fatherless household. While he was in Ann's care one day, Sarah's little boy was knocked into a vat of boiling soap was horribly burned. The doctor called was William Smith, and though the boy ultimately died, Sarah was touched by the doctor's manner. Once Ann's sons were old enough to help her stay afloat, William and Sarah decided to marry.

Ann, however (understandably) was terrified of losing Sarah's assistance in her household, and followed them to Salt Lake City, where they were to be married in the LDS Endowment House, a requirement for all faithful church members. She caused such a scene at the Endowment House that the Church officials asked William and Sarah to come back another day to be married. William had had it. Already fed up with polygamy (which he disliked) and growing ever more disillusioned with those in his religious community, he decided that he would not wait to be married in the proper Mormon way. They headed east up to the foothills and were married in a non-Mormon ceremony at Fort Douglas, headquarters of the federal government's hated military watchdogs.

This development made the Union Fort Mormons even more suspicious of William (who after the marriage adopted the first letter of his wife's maiden name – P – as a middle initial so as to stop getting mail for all the other William Smiths in the area). I'm guessing the Sunday church chatter went something like this: He hangs out with Indians, he refused to live in the fort, he controls our water, he married secularly, and he took his wife's name. He's nice, yeah, but he's trouble. He and Sarah were ostracized by the Union Mormons and sometime during this period allied themselves with the Joseph Smith III clan (the Reorganized LDS Church) and were excommunicated by the Brighamite Mormons. Some Brighamite Mormons of Union Fort began to threaten them, and one history states that they were afraid to go out after dark after a mysterious shooting incident.

In 1885 Joseph Smith III (son of the Prophet Joseph Smith) came through Utah, attempting to win converts away from Brigham Young and bring them back to the Midwest and into his version of Mormonism. And who was housing Joseph Smith III on his journey and convincing the Union Fort Mormon bishop to let him speak to the “Brighamite” Mormons in their church building?

Yup. William P. Smith. He is even mentioned by Joseph Smith III in his account of the trip to Utah, and Joseph Smith III gave a eulogy at William's son's funeral (his son was murdered by an angry local).

At this point it was clear why these stories never trickled down through our straightarrow branch of the family – William P. Smith was a real wild card, and he got CENSORED by his own posterity. Curses upon their tidy little history-mangling souls.

About the same time I was learning all this, I saw a documentary about the history of black people in the LDS church (I blogged about it a year ago). In one of the DVD special features Darius Gray mentions that he lives near the pioneer cemetery in the Union Fort area and often walks there to visit the grave of Green Flake, one of the most famous black Mormon pioneers (Flake drove the cart in which the ill Brigham Young first rode into the Salt Lake Valley). I remembered that the book about Union Fort history had contained a chapter on blacks in that community, so I went back to read it. Black Mormons were then (and still are) rare in Utah. I learned that the largest settlement of black Mormons was, for some years, in Union Fort, and that there was an integrated school there. I looked up the 1860, 1870, and 1880 U.S. Censuses for that area and sure enough, there was a considerable group of black people living in Union Fort during that time. The book on Union history says that while many black people lived there over the years, the only member of that community that was embraced by most of the white Mormons of Union was Green Flake himself, with his connections to Brigham Young. When Flake left the area toward the end of his life, the black residents of Union scattered -- by the 1900 Census there are no more black people in the area. Green Flake and several other black residents of Union Fort were buried three rows away from William, Rebecca, and Sarah Smith.

I wonder where my cranky ancestor fell in all this. On one hand, he was known as a remarkably compassionate and openminded man. Perhaps he was one of those who made Union seem the most hospitable home for these black Saints, just as he had done for the Indians? Maybe in being a bit of a rebel himself he had a heart for the outsider?

On the other hand, I believe his stubbornness was also a fatal flaw. One history recounts how he would sulk and give Sarah the silent treatment for days when he didn't get his way. And I suspect that, like me, he sometimes took too much pride in being a little bit outside and other, seeing his imperfect fellow Mormons as hopeless hoi polloi rather than as true Saints in embryo, capable of being transformed by the power of the gospel over time. That perhaps his (good) efforts to be more Christian to outsiders ultimately led to a holier-than-thou attitude toward his less openminded fellow Mormons. Perhaps he ultimately rejected his faith because of its flawed members.

None of this is knowledge – simply speculation based on what I've read about him. I'm left to marvel at how much I, Genealogy Girl, didn't about these stories and to fret that I'll never learn the answers to my questions about this fascinating character in my family tree.

Why didn't any of my *&%! ancestors keep journals??

So that is my final comment in this rambling but heartfelt posting: KEEP A JOURNAL OR DIE. Or rather, you will die, sooner or later, so please keep a journal. Save your emails, which are the modern journal. Do something. So I don't have to kill you.

Happy Pioneer Day!