Pioneers
By Marvin Payne

My wife’s grandfather may die before this is published – he was rushed to the hospital day before yesterday. Don’t worry about him reading this (in the event he lives) and becoming discouraged. There’s no Internet access in the Intensive Care Unit. 

Everybody loves Dr. Riley Clark. His medical ministry goes back to the days when you really could get away with paying in garden produce or saxophone lessons. One reason for loving him is that if you were born in Utah , he delivered you. (The doctor that delivered me has probably, by now, fulfilled his life sentence for murdering his wife. I was born in California .) 

Grandpa Clark is ninety-nine years old and sharp as a razor. His tabernacle is just worn out, that’s all. (Bodies don’t last like buildings. But then, how many buildings are there that will grow a new window when one breaks, or spring up new carpet that periodically has to be trimmed?) 

My wife’s grandfather is also my fourth cousin twice removed to the third power of the upper left hand corner of the Gamma Quadrant. This is because his great-grandfather is also my great-great-grandfather. This makes that particular ancestor my son’s third great-grandfather as well as his fourth great-grandfather, which would entitle my son to compose the song “I Am My Own Grampa” (or “Pa,” anyway), had it not already been composed. And my son isn’t even from whatever part of Wyoming Dick Cheney comes from.

Not only are Grandpa Clark and I related to this ancestor, but I have had the distinction of actually being him, on occasion. Said ancestor was a prominent pioneer in Brigham Young’s Vanguard Company in 1847, named John Brown. (The company was not named “John Brown.” The company was named “Brigham Young’s Vanguard Company of 1847,” one of which’s scouts was John Brown ((not to be confused with Thomas Brown, who was on the run from the law for killing a German immigrant, and who was himself, fresh upon his quick return from the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, killed in a barroom knife fight, thus saving the sheriff the expense of a hanging – Thomas and John are sometimes mistaken for one another because they’re standing right next to each another on the “This Is The Place” monument overlooking the Salt Lake Valley, the nobility quotient in their bronze countenances being nearly identical)).) 

As Brigham Young’s scout, it fell to John Brown to be the first of the Latter-day Saints to see the valley, which he did from the top of Big Mountain , on 19 July 1847, fully five days before the party began and watermelon was served all around. And illegal fireworks were ignited, having been sold them by the forebears – from both sides – of Dick Cheney in Wyoming . (Some historians have put Orson Pratt on the top of Big Mountain at the same time as Brown, but I distinctly remember overhearing my grandmother tell someone that Brother Pratt had stopped to tighten his saddle cinch, so Grandpa Brown was really the first – it is also widely reported that the descendants of Brother Pratt are telling the same story, the other way around.)

Yes, but me being John Brown? A couple of paragraphs ago I did make that claim. Well, it seems (actually, it is) that James Arrrington, Steven Kappp PPerry, and I made John Brown the protagonist in our pioneer theatrical epic “The Trail Of Dreams,” written for the fiftieth anniversary of the Centennial Celebration of the pioneers’ arrival in Utah. (This is to avoid the too-often repetition of the word “Sesquicentennial.”) The task of directing that play having accidentally fallen to me, I engaged in a little genealogical nepotism and cast myself in the hero’s role and played him for 116 performances. 

Now I can show up at trek-prep firesides, or at actual trek gatherings (or even at trekkie conventions – who would know?) as John Brown and feel pretty comfortable in his skin, holding forth on pioneer stuff ad infinitum. I did it yesterday for an hour, in fact, in 102 degrees of sunshine. I wish I had, indeed, been in John Brown’s skin – it would have been so much more comfortable than being in his clothes. It became evident to me that what pioneers wore – woolly pants and high boots and vests and woolly hats and woolly beards – are not entirely ergonomic, climatologically speaking, and that one of the reasons the early saints were aching to get to the valley was probably to get out of their pioneer costumes and change into their comfy clothes. 

John Brown, though, was above such things (as comfy clothes). John Brown had the big picture, which picture – by the numbers – is as follows:

  • The number of Mormon pioneers? Men, women, and children? 70,000.
  • Number of pioneers who walked the entire trail? Who knows – certainly most.
  • Percentage of pioneers who came by handcart? (Drumroll.) 4%. (Smaller than you thought, huh?)
  • Frequency of deaths on the trail? One in eighteen. (One in maybe 23 would have died had they stayed home.)
  • Period of the exodus? Twenty-two years. (John Brown’s last crossing, the 13th, was on the train.)
  • Number of companies? Two hundred.
  • Number of companies a giant eagle high above the planet might see, stretched out along the trail, all at once, in an average September? Nine, averaging 350 souls in each.
  • Number of pioneers born as Americans? One in every four. (This factors in that a few elderly pioneers were born before there was an official America in which to be born.)
  • Number of pioneers who began the trail immediately after crossing the Atlantic Ocean ? Two of every three. (And we think ” International Church ” is a new idea.)

Now these Mormons did not arrange to meet in small groups at the docks and buy tickets on ships that were bound for America , hoping they might meet another nice Latter-day Saint family to pal around with on deck. No. They chartered whole ships and filled them – every soul a Latter-day Saint, except the captain and crew. And more often than not, when the ship finally landed, every soul was a Latter-day Saint.

  • How many ships? Ninety-seven. Eighty-seven from Liverpool, six from Hamburg , four from London . Among them were The Argo, The Olympus, The Ellen Maria, The Forest Monarch, The Golconda, The Old England, The Germanicus, The Rockaway, The Emerald Isle, The Chimborazo, The Caravan, The Enoch Train, The Horizon, The Tuscarora, The William Tappscott, The Monarch Of The Sea, The Antarctic, The Amazon, The Caroline, The Arkwright, The S. Curling.
  • Average number of saints per ship? 434.
  • Distance from Liverpool to New Orleans , where more than half landed? 5,000 miles.
  • New Orleans to St. Louis ? 1,173 miles up the Mississippi River .
  • St. Louis to the trailhead at Kanesville or Florence , where Winter Quarters stood? 620 miles.
  • Winter Quarters to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake ? 1,035  miles.
  • Length of the journey for most? 7,828 miles.

Minor interruptions in the flow of pioneers:

     1846, war between the United States and Mexico.
     1854, war between the United States and the Sioux Nation,  
     1858, war between the United States and the Mormons, 
     1862, war between the United States … and itself. 

Some of us have the notion that the Mormon pioneers saw the world in bold strokes of black or white, while we moderns squint through myriad shades of gray. As we prepared ourselves to write, opening the books the pioneers wrote for no one but themselves or their children …

[INSERTED REMINDER: that Backstage Graffiti exists here at Virtual Meridianland primarily to encourage the writing of journals. The pioneers did it back before the Internet was even a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye.]

… we found those blacks and whites bold and clear, but the surprise was what arched in between – not “shades of gray” at all, but a rainbow of passions and fears, dares and enormous presumptions. Their “trail of dreams” paralleled, often at a stone’s throw, two rivers that have taken on mythic proportions – the Platte and the Sweetwater – and along each of them the pioneers traveled upstream.  

Brothers Arrrington, Kappp PPerry, and I discovered that by the side of the Sweetwater today lie countless dull stones. Toss them into that bracing current and suddenly they are the deep blue of the night sky, the gold of sunset through clouds of dust, or the pink-white of snow, or stars. So it was with the lives of common souls who plunged into the river of pioneers and walked their thousand miles upstream into the valleys of the Wasatch to make us a home.

John Brown lived here. It will soon be said that Riley Clark lived here. It is said even now that I live here, and whoever is saying it is dead correct. The Spirit has helped me imagine (with some force, particularly when I’m wearing John Brown’s boots) that a desire all three of us share, with perhaps incrementally diminishing fierceness, is that these valleys (very much including “the valley of the Tampanogos” that Joseph Smith enthused over as a destination for the saints as early as 1842) not become ordinary. The “valleys of the saints,” be they shaded by the Wasatch, the Appalachians, the Andes, or just very tall Iowa corn, should never become ordinary. 

The whole idea of pioneering was (is) to leave Babylon behind. The trail along the south bank of the Platte was crowded with travelers pursuing richer soil and gold. The trail along the north bank, the rougher trail, was blazed by Latter-day Saints pursuing the dream of spiritual wealth and beauty. The south-bank trail ended in the rich Willamette Valley of Oregon and the gold fields of California . The north-bank trail ended in a desert waiting to blossom as a rose.

To allow any stretch of real estate that has been consecrated as Zion to become ordinary, be its borders as tight as four walls and a door, is a betrayal of the dreams that drove Pioneers to pay extraordinary prices to get there. 

To get here. To get wherever Zion is. Or to wherever it was imagined or commanded to be.

Visit marvinpayne.com!

“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)

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