When my oldest son started kindergarten we lived in Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City. It was there that I came to deeply love my Mormon pioneer heritage. Something about the site of the Last Camp just yards from my driveway, the thick scrub oak in my yard, and driving past This is the Place monument every day–it made me feel connected to that determined bunch of Saints who made their way through my canyon to their promised land.
Importantly, it was there that I began some casual research of the pioneer journals. Soon after I strayed from the Sunday School lessons and wandered around in the original sources I discovered that the pioneers weren’t preachy or perfect. They were real people. People of faith who, nevertheless, struggled to live their faith. Each with distinct experiences and life views. I discovered in their journals and memoirs that it’s presumptuous to lump these emigrants together or create a composite Pioneer-with-a-capital-P Experience.
Thankfully, over the years the Mormon church has done excellent work in making these writings accessible online with an extensive database found here. Recently released Wagons West is a repackaging of these original documents, easy to read with a quick pace and a narrative style that organizes the journey west chronologically. The writing is simple enough even for younger readers, but the genius of this book is that it pulls a new set of stories, anecdotes and quotes into an already familiar account.
For example, have you ever heard “The Way We Crossed the Plains”? I hadn’t either. It’s a song the pioneers came up with on the journey. It goes like this:
In a shake wagon we ride,
For to cross the prairie wide.
As slowly the oxen moved along,
We walloped them well with a good leather thong.
The way we crossed the plains. (p. 31)
I have sung “Pioneer Children” a million times and it’s nice to hear a new one! There’s also a copy of the Eliza R. Snow’s Journeying Song, drawings, photos and images pulled in to help tell the story. As a whole, the book is graphically well designed and not too heavy on text.
Aside from the “new” stories and facts, I wholeheartedly adore the careful exposition of the true pioneer journey. The authors did not shy away from nuance that adds fullness to our commonly shared history. For example, did you know that Brigham Young rejoiced when the Mormon men were asked to form the Mormon battalion because it would bring in funds? The men would be paid for their service to the United States ($16 a month) and the Mormons needed the money (p. 40)! Somehow this detail has eluded me in past studies, but it’s a piece of the picture that makes sense.
There’s also much more detail about steps the Saints took as they left Nauvoo, unvarnished and somehow new to me. For example, I had never heard the specific threats to the Saints that 1) Brigham Young and other Church leaders were being accused of running a counterfeiting operation and 2) Governor Ford warned Mormons that federal troops might try to stop the Saints from heading west (p. 16). These threats are part of the reason the Saints left Nauvoo in such adverse winter conditions.
Remember, though, this is all done in a writing style that is easy to digest so these facts are woven into a broader, familiar story we all know. The authors do excellent work in retelling a huge portion of Mormon history with enough familiar ground that most will be able to maintain their bearings while easily absorbing some of the fresh angles and facts.
Later there are some frank stories about Porter Rockwell’s egregious bragging and the conflict between the Saints in camp (p. 118). There have always been a few throw away lines about conflict amongst the Saints on the trail, but the stories in Wagons West are specific. And they resonate with my modern day experience with Latter-day Saints in all the wards where we’ve lived. The truth is, it’s not always a graceful journey. We struggle together to be civil to one another, to be faithful to our God, to be righteous and kind. We make mistakes. We hurt each other. We fall and sometimes, some Saints don’t ever come back. We are the pioneers and they are us. The more honestly we can look at their dichotomous experience on the trail the more fully we can accept our own spiritual journey today.
If you have any affection for the Mormon pioneers, you’ll enjoy this quick read. Pick up Wagons West to enhance your understanding of the early Saints, to aid in your teaching of Church History in Sunday School next year, or to give as a gift.