Review: Welsh Saints on the Mormon Trail is a tale of heroism, heartbreak and Biblical plague
‘I find my mind wandering off now, and I can see myself the first day I started across the rolling country. I was too elated to walk, so I would run ahead and then stop to wait for the crowd…The pioneer trip across the Plains, the emigrating trip from the Old Country, forms a background for my life.’
The long journey and ‘pioneer trip’ from Pencader in Carmarthenshire to Salt Lake City in Utah changed Evan Stephens from the son of a farm labourer to being the leader of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and he was just one of the thousands of Welsh people who made the testing journey. By the time Stephens crossed the Atlantic as well as great swathes of America, the coming of the coast-to-coast railroads was making the land-based part of this long journey easier and faster.
Before the trains, the going was much, much tougher as this exhaustively researched and clearly told account by Wil Aaron attests. Luckily, keeping a diary or ‘memory book’ was considered to be a religious duty so Aaron had ample material on which to draw, not to mention the Mormon disposition to document diligently and their attendant zeal for genealogy.
The nineteenth-century emigrants to Salt Lake City came by wagon train and even pushing handcarts like outsize wheelbarrows, the challenges multifarious – facing marauding wolves and challenging weather, prairie fires and stampeding animals. They forded rivers full of raging water and ice blocks and kept themselves warm burning buffalo pats from the great herds that were about to be pushed from the land by human settlers. Many people died along the way, with many dying as a result of being run over by wagon wheels, and were buried in makeshift graves.
From the middle of the 19th century to the advent of the railways some 400,000 people crossed the continent: some, like the ‘49ers’ lured by the prospect of gold, while the Mormons were intent to reaching their Zion in ‘The Valley’ beyond the Rocky Mountains. They were egged on to cross the Great Plains and ford rivers such as the Platte and the swamps of Nauvoo by the ever-persuasive Brigham Young, a sort of Moses figure and early PR guru for the Mormons who was intent on creating nothing less than a new Promised Land, even if the land itself, in Utah is mainly high mountain or desert. One of his master-strokes was creating the Perpetual Emigrating Fund which subsidised the cost of travel for those believers who had to come, come what may.
Brigham Young’s recruitment drives in Wales certainly bore fruit, with eager settlers keen to save up, cross the ocean and start a new life. They travelled with like-minded settlers and sometimes with non-believer ‘Babylonians’ who had graffiti such as ‘Sacramento Express’ and ‘Never Say Die’ painted on their wagons while the Mormon slogans proclaimed ‘Blessings Follow Sacrifices’ or simply ‘Merry Mormons.’ On a good day they might find and baptise new flower species such as ‘Prairie Golden Pea,’ ‘Snow-on-the-Mountain’ or ‘Babies’ Breath’ but on others they might be attacked by great squadrons of mosquitoes, or choke on roiling clouds of dust.
They even had to suffer the depredations of millions of locusts, hungrily chomping away all the greenery before starting on the furniture, the paintwork or the saddle leather. One swarm covered an area twice the size of Great Britain. This was a plague of genuinely Biblical proportions.
The so-called ‘Saints’ included some extraordinary Welsh characters, such as Martha Hughes Cannon, whose family hailed from Llandudno. A pioneering doctor and the first woman state senator in the US, this summer a statue dedicated to her will be unveiled in the National Statuary Hall in Washington D.C. Her life was made difficult by the Mormon adherence to polygamy, marrying a much-older husband of three at a time when anti-Mormon sentiment was sweeping through the United States.
Then there was Captain Dan Jones, steamboat-owner and certainly the most successful Mormon missionary in Wales and perhaps in the entire history of the Mormon church. He fought for God with his fists if need be. Life was a heightened affair for some of the other emigrants. Before she reached the age of sixteen, one young woman, Lovina Jones from Pontypridd had ‘been a bride, a wife, a widow, and then a bride again and a mother.’
And there was the Mormon from Marloes in south Pembrokeshire who, for a short period ran a primitive fast-food eatery ‘serving squirrel pies and prairie chicken pasties.’ Some of the emigrants were very old, with octogenarians making the gargantuan trip, along with some who were disabled. One woman making the trip, Priscilla Evans, recalled that in her tent ‘there were my husband with one leg, two blind men, a man with one arm, and a widow with five children.’
It is a history with some very dark passages, not least the massacre of 120 men, women and children, members of a pioneer wagon train who were killed by some Mormons from Cedar City along with their Paiute Indian allies, with one of three men responsible for this callous act being a Welshman called Elias Morris. There are others, too, such as the Utah War and the long genocide of the native peoples of the plains during the creation of the ‘Wild West.’
When the journalist and soon-to-be novelist Charles Dickens climbed onboard the ‘Amazon’ in Shadwell Dock in Wapping to meet some of the Mormon travellers bound for America, including a contingent from Merthyr, he was originally intent on writing a knocking piece, but changed his mind on seeing ‘their steadiness of purpose’ and ‘aptitude for organisation.’
That Mormon flair for organisation is abundantly present in the pages of ‘Welsh Saints…’ which illuminatingly turns the arc-lamp of scrutiny on a story very little known outside of the Mormon Church itself. It is a tale of heroism, dogged faith and human stubborness, engagingly well told in this big book about an often heartbreaking trek, or series of treks and its foundational role in creating the Mormonism of today.
It’s also a part of Welsh history and tells of our interconnectedness with the wider world, a settlement story much like Y Wladfa in Patagonia, which is so much better known. Wil Aaron’s book will help change that.
Welsh Saints on the Mormon Trail is published by y Lolfa, costs £14.99 and can be bought here.