Utah was founded by the Mormon pioneers in 1847 after enduring unimaginable losses and seeking a place of peace. July 24th marks the anniversary that the first wagon trains arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. Their numbers were greatly diminished by crossing the country in wagons and handcarts, dying of scurvy, tuberculous, malaria, starvation, unidentified fevers, and freezing to death. This, they found preferable to facing the extermination order put forth by Governor Boggs of Missouri.
I believe this is the most courageous act of faith - to leave all they had that was familiar and travel the rough terrain in the unknown in search of a place where they could worship in peace.
My daughters left this morning for a small re-creation of what the pioneers experienced. I don't love the idea since I know so many of the pioneers died but it is a way for many of the youth to connect to their ancestors and understand what many of the early members endured for their faith.
The youth were asked to find a pioneer to represent. My daughters asked me what I knew. Thanks to a distant cousin in Australia, I now have a wonderful and colorful history of one branch of the family. I will tell that story at a different time because a new development makes it that much more ironic. That one went to my younger daughter. She is representing Mary Benson Hull, a feisty Irish lass. Very appropriate for my auburn haired daughter with an Irish streak.
On another branch sits a distant grandmother named Henrietta. She and her husband, Samuel Alonzo Whitney were baptized into the Mormon church in the early years of its organization. They lived in Kirtland, Ohio and moved to Nauvoo, Illinois. They had two sons, Samuel Jr. and Don Carlos. Samuel Sr. died in 1845 of lung disease (pneumonia). In 1846, the pressure to leave Nauvoo was very high. Henrietta was a young widow, no older than 27 and her sons were 6 and 4. Her late husband's cousin, Newel K. Whitney paid for Henrietta and her boys to leave on one of the earliest wagon trains. Unfortunately, winter was coming and they quickly erected a city of sod huts and stayed for the winter. They called it Winter Quarters. It was here that Henrietta's youngest son, Don Carlos died. Henrietta and her remaining son arrived in Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
This is what I wrote down for my oldest daughter during church yesterday. First of all, I am surprised I had any feelings for introspection at all as my she and I had just had an exchange that left us both extremely irreverent and laughing during the first 15 minutes of church. Only when we caught each others' eyes, though. Besides that, we were trying to be very good. We really were.
So I started to write the facts of Henrietta, the one real pioneer ancestor that I know of. It was during this time of reflection that I remembered a tour I took right after I graduated from high school. A bus load of recent graduates left the parking lot and traveled across the country, hitting all the church history and U.S. history sites in a three week period. If you know Mormon history, we hit Nauvoo, Carthage, Vermont, Palmyra, to name a few. It was a really fun time for me with a smattering of some spiritual growth. They were concrete places that grounded me to my ancestral history, if I had any pioneers there. I didn't know if I did.
One of the last stops was Winter Quarters. At 18 years old, I was only thinking about getting back home and seeing my boyfriend. My spiritual and emotional depth was that of a bathtub but the moment I stepped off the bus, grief washed over me.
I wandered around the remains of Winter Quarters and found myself sitting alone over a child's grave. I was sobbing and feeling grief above what I was capable of knowing. I didn't know the child or the child's parents. I simply felt the grief of loss pouring through me. I wandered to the monument, a rendering of a couple burying their infant, the tears still bursting forth.
It was embarrassing, frankly. I was 18 years old and traveling with my former classmates and couldn't seem to get a hold of myself. I hoped nobody walked past me. And yet I felt the grief completely and sobbed.
It would be decades later that I would come to know Henrietta through a distant cousin that knew of the previous facts. I felt a longing towards her that I couldn't place. Yesterday, while writing about her I remembered those emotional moments that I unknowingly walked the paths of Henrietta. I didn't recognize my distant grandmother in that place. I couldn't place my disproportionate grief. But perhaps Henrietta recognized me as I passed her son's grave. Perhaps she connected to me at that moment and I felt a fraction of the grief she felt when she buried her 4 year old son and prayed his father was there to greet him. Perhaps she was sharing with me the faith she felt when she turned from the grave for the last time and climbed aboard her wagon to take her remaining son to an unseen place.
The words of a hymn "Come, Come, Ye Saints" played through my mind as I stood before the monument.
Why should we mourn or think our lot is hard?
'Tis not so; all is right.
Why should we think to earn a great reward
If we now shun the fight?
Gird up your loins; fresh courage take.
Our God will never us forsake;
And soon we'll have this tale to tell-
All is well! All is well!
In the years to come that moment would play on my mind, singing to myself, Gird up your loins; fresh courage take. Our God will never us forsake. Maybe I didn't know Henrietta when I was 18, but I believe she's been by my side since then, reminding me that faith overcomes fear and I have not been forsaken.