An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Robert Kirby’s SL Trib column this week,  “Crossing the Plains Was a Pain,” had George laughing so hard he nearly choked on his oatmeal as he read Kirby’s account of great-grandfathers who didn’t want to go and great-grandmothers who blamed the journey’s misery on Dear Husband’s lack of spirituality.

Despite the stories I was told in Primary and Seminary, I can’t visualize the pioneers as hallowed beings who relished hunger, heat, cold, and physical exertion as tests of their faith. Being human, many of the pioneers probably thought their leaders less than inspired when rations ran short, disease struck, and blizzards blew down from the North.

My own pioneer ancestors found living the gospel of love difficult when nature, circumstances, and fellow Saints conspired to make life miserable. One night Great-great-grandpa Thomas, the camp butcher, went on strike—refusing to slaughter the evening meal until some of the men helped Great-great grandma pitch the family tent.

Great-grandmother, Marie, was 10-years-old when she left Denmark for Utah with her 14-year-old sister, Anna, 6-year-old sister, Tina, and their widowed mother. Marie’s mother died onboard ship leaving the girls motherless and unable find the money their mother had brought to pay for their land travel to Zion. Possibly their mother had sewed the money into her dress and it slipped into the sea with her.

Fellow members brought the girls by cattle car to Nebraska where they joined a wagon train to trek across the plains. At the Platte River, Anna carried Tina across and told Marie to wait by the river for a wagon to carry her across. Marie, unable to speak English, waited until the last wagon before anyone offered her a ride. Not a stirring tale of saintly pioneers looking out for each other—but pretty realistic considering families in heavily loaded wagons wondering if they could even get their own children across.

Violet Kimball, researching for her book on handcart companies, learned how these companies, with large numbers of young children unable to keep up the necessary pace, maintained their schedule. A company member set out with children between the ages of four and six years two hours before the rest of the company broke camp each morning. A switch encouraged the children not to lag. After a couple of hours march, the children were given a rest and food before starting off again. I doubt these pioneer children sang as they walked. How could Great great-grandmother Sarah stand to awaken little Lottie and Lizzie and send them off tired and hungry to be herded like animals on the trail ahead?

I find the unpolished stories of pioneer hardships more inspiring than accounts of paragons of virtue enduring tests of endurance with cheerful countenances and songs of praise. I am glad my ancestors made it across the plains and that two of their descendents got together and produced me. But I’m pretty sure none of them would have signed up for the journey if they’d known of the hardships ahead. My great-great grandparents were not crazy.

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