“An Evening of Historical Vignettes,” Ensign, Oct. 1972, 86
Vignettes—readings for performance, written by Latter-day Saint authors—are a dramatic feature of Brigham Young University’s annual Mormon Festival of Arts.
This month the Ensign presents a selection of these brief word pictures from the 1972 festival, a selection based on stories of Latter-day Saint pioneers.* The vignettes include excerpts from pioneer letters, journals, diaries, and conference talks, as well as fictional accounts of historic incidents. Each piece gives warm insights into the lives of the Saints who made their way west; each suggests ways we may apply gospel principles in our lives today.
These playlets not only make good reading, but they can also be presented at family gatherings, reunions, and in Church classes and activities. Presentations are relatively easy to do. Readers simply need to review their parts in advance to familiarize themselves with their lines. Perhaps one or two rehearsals could be held.
In a setting as informal as a family group, the readers may not want to separate themselves from the listeners, but would read their lines while sitting with the rest of the family. In a classroom, readers may sit on stools or stand before the audience or with the audience surrounding them on all sides.
For larger gatherings, stage and lighting facilities may be used, as in a cultural hall. Readers might all wish to dress in black or in bright colors. Or they may improvise pioneer period costumes to add flavor and mood to the occasion.
The readings are adaptable to almost any situation. Listeners may be encouraged to join in the singing of the hymns that are called for throughout the presentations.
Whether you stand, sit, speak, or listen; whether you do only one of the readings or all of them; whether you perform them as a family or as entertainment for a larger group, or whether you just read them yourself—it is all a matter of choice. Whatever the setting, these vignettes can be a source of inspiration for all readers and listeners.
My father and brothers were much against my sister’s being baptized into the Latter-day Saint Church. But she did so at the first opportunity. About December 1832 an elder of the Church came to our neighborhood. At my sister’s invitation he visited our house.
While away from my home, my daughter heard some of your Mormon preachers. And now she wants to be baptized, even though I have told her she is never to darken my door again if she is. I’ll tell you this—whoever baptizes her does so at the peril of his own life, for my sons and I will be there with our guns!
Mr. Tyler, we shall not baptize your daughter against your wishes. If our doctrine be true, which we testify it is, if you prevent your daughter from embracing it, the sin will be on your head, not on ours or your daughter’s.
This remark pricked him to the heart. He began to think that possibly the Mormons were right and he was wrong. He therefore decided to counsel his daughter in the matter and then permit her to exercise her free agency. He would thus relieve himself of any responsibility.
You can decide for yourself, Jane. And I suppose if what these men say is true, it might be the best religion in the world; but if it is false, it is the worst. These men know whether it is true or false, but I do not. Think about it carefully before making a decision.
I have thought about it long and hard and with much fasting, study, and prayer. Father, I feel it is my duty to be baptized as soon as possible.
So my father packed my sister, the Mormon elders, and some of the rest of us into an ox-sled, and we rode the two miles to Lake Erie, where the men cut a hole through the three feet of ice on the lake. There Jane was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ.
One morning we thought we would go and gather gooseberries. Father Tanner harnessed a span of horses to a light wagon. And with two sisters by the name of Lyman, his little granddaughter, and I, Father Tanner started out. When we reached the woods, we told the old gentleman to go to a house and rest while we picked the berries.
Paulina (Aunt P’liny)
Will L. Adams
Paulina Phelps Lyman was born in 1836 and died in 1912. Folks called her “Aunt P’liny.”
My people came in the Mayflower. I came to Utah in a covered wagon. I was married in Nauvoo to Amasa M. Lyman. Being wife to one of the Lord’s apostles and midwife to his Saints was not a picnic, with all the mobbings and apostasy. Joseph the Prophet blessed me and prophesied I’d come to the Rocky Mountains. I crossed the Mississippi’s ice. I was at Winter Quarters in 1846, a practical nurse. I cared for the sick and helped lay away dear ones who sleep in the wilderness. And in Great Salt Lake City I studied obstetrics so I could do better what I’d been doing all along—bring new spirits here from heaven.
Aunt P’liny, my Ben, he’s broke his leg.
Aunt P’liny, it’s our baby. I’m afraid he’s got the smallpox.
Summer day or winter night, in the village or at some lonely ranch, I always did what I could, even when my own babies were clamoring to be born.
Aunt P’liny was our pet name for this angel of mercy. Aunt P’liny helped to welcome in more than five hundred babies in Center Creek alone.
Five hundred? My, my, I’d forgot! But they’re all in my book. Some of them grew to be bishops and presidents and mayors. I spanked every one of their bottoms, too! To start ’em breathin’.
And multitudes unborn shall yet rise up and call her blessed.
Folks used to say they shouldn’t wonder if Aunt P’liny would be glad to lay down her weary bones in eternal rest after pioneering for eighty-five years. Oh, yes, it’s nice to rest among the folks you love. There are thousands of them all around me. But I know the Lord won’t want me twiddling my thumbs. He’s got more souls who need what I can do for them, in the new life. And I’m ready, like always, day and night, summer or winter. I’m ready, Lord.
Heber C. Kimball
Richard Benson was born at Wrightington, England, in 1816, and he died at Center Creek in 1895. Weep not; he is at rest.
Sing first two verses of “It May Not Be on the Mountain Height,” Hymns, No. 75.
April 1866, I went to conference, fifteen days by wagon down to Great Salt Lake. There, in God’s Tabernacle, I gathered with the Saints. I heard my name called out by Heber C. Kimball.
Richard Benson: mission to Great Britain.
Later, Richard had a little conversation with Brother Heber.
When will it be convenient, Elder Benson, for you to leave?
Why, Brother Kimball, I must go home and talk with Phoebe.
Why, Richard, that would waste a month.
What’s to talk about?
Well, there’s the crops to put in, plowing and planting, and wood to haul against next winter, and the winter after that, for Phoebe and the children.
I know Phoebe, Richard. She’ll do without you. I’ll tell your bishop to say your goodbyes and watch out for your family. The caravan leaves day after tomorrow for the Missouri. God bless you, Elder Benson. Bring back some miners and millwrights and masons—men of skill and faith to help us build up Zion.
Why did I go—not even turning back to say goodbye to Phoebe? Because I, too, knew Phoebe. To her, Heber C. Kimball, who baptized me, is still God’s servant. And when Brother Kimball says to a man, “Go,” behold, he goeth.
Phoebe Forrester, wife of Richard Benson, born 1820, died 1904.
How did I feel when the bishop stood in my doorway and said—
Your husband, Phoebe, your husband is on his way back across the plains—called on a mission to England.
I stood like a stunned ox under a sledge’s blow. Two years. He’s gone away for 24 months; 720 days; 17,520 hours. Gone. And why on earth didn’t he at least come home and tell me?
Tell you what, Sister Benson?
I looked at my children, their faces staring blankly from the bishop to me. I know what my husband would have told me, and I know what I would have told him. We both know you must go where the Lord calls. Yet, why on earth! He could have at least come home!
Sing the last two verses of “It May Not Be on the Mountain Height.”
I had a first name given to me away back there in Denmark. And when I answered the call of the Lord and crossed with my brothers to Zion, my name was written in the Book. But when I saw this barren waste—desolation—I rebelled. So this was what I’d left my soft green island for! How could such a blasted heath bloom roses?
Gathering to Zion was the objective of most new converts. But the trip to the headquarters of the Church in Salt Lake City was complicated by long overland travel as well as a long sea voyage for those coming from Europe. The question of getting members to the center stake of Zion in the least possible time and with the least difficulty was dealt with in various ways. In 1853 President Brigham Young wrote about the use of handcarts and handcart companies to cross the plains.
Families might start from the Missouri River with cows, handcarts, wheelbarrows, with a little flour and no unnecessaries, and come to this place quicker and with less fatigue than by following the heavy trains with their cumbersome herds. They can come just as quick, if not quicker and much cheaper, and can start earlier and escape the prevailing sickness that annually lays so many of our brethren in the dust. They will only need ninety days’ rations from the time they leave Missouri. One cart, or two if the family is large, will bring all they need upon the plains.
And so they gathered and prepared handcarts for the 1200-mile walk to Utah. Their experiences were varied as they met for the trip that would transcend all past events in their lives.
I am Elizabeth Xavier Tait. I was born in Bombay, India, in the year 1833, raised in wealth and aristocracy. I was educated in the best schools in India, graduated from college at age 14. My family in India was displeased with my joining the Church. They begged me to forsake my husband, William, and my church and remain with them in India. But after my young son died suddenly of cholera, I knew I must not heed the pleading of my parents and friends. My husband left for Zion before I did; I was to follow after because my health was too frail to allow me to go with him at that time.
My parents, John and Alice Ollorton, with my two sisters and me came from England to New York. We then went by rail to Iowa, where other Saints were gathering to form a handcart company. I was 15 years old and the middle daughter of the family. We were assigned to the Martin company, the fifth company of Saints to head for the Salt Lake Valley in the year 1856.
Of the five handcart companies assembled in 1856, three arrived in the Salt Lake Valley without major difficulty. The last two, the Willie and the Martin companies, experienced several delays that later proved very, very costly.
The Edward Martin company was made up of 576 men, women, and children, 141 carts, 7 wagons, 30 oxen, and 50 beef cattle and cows. The carts were made the same width as the wagons that went before so that their wheels would fit the wagon tracks previously made. Each had a bar of wood across the front so that several people could pull at one time. Others pushed and helped to move the load. The first part of the journey went well.
We sang as we went along. One would not think that we had come from Iowa City, a long and rough journey of 275 to 300 miles, except for our dust-stained garments and sunburned faces. One of our songs, as we marched, was entitled “Some Must Push and Some Must Pull.”
The second stopping place of the handcarts was Florence, Nebraska. J. H. Lately later wrote John Taylor that “the Willie and Martin companies stayed here longer than they otherwise would in consequence of the carts being unfit for their journey across the plains; some requiring new axles, and the whole of them having to have a piece of iron screwed on to prevent the wheel from wearing away the wood.”
The Martin company left for Zion on August 24. Many of the settlers along the road made fun of us as we walked along pulling our carts, but we did not care. The weather was fine and the roads were excellent; and although I was sick and we were all tired out at night, we thought it was a glorious way to come to Zion.
I first heard the restored gospel in England, and I knew it to be true and knew I had to be with the Saints. I met John in Iowa City when the handcart company was being formed. He was such a wonderful person, also a convert from England. The long walk across Iowa and Nebraska gave us a chance to become well acquainted, and we decided to be married when we reached Zion.
We formed a colorful spectacle as the winding train of vehicles drawn or pushed by men and women moved forward between occasional supply wagons and small herds of milk cows.
Many of the carts were tastefully painted to suit the fancy of the owners, while here and there appeared inscriptions such as “Truth Will Prevail,” “Zion’s Express,” “Blessings Follow Sacrifice,” and “Merry Mormons.” Snatches of the marching song “Some Must Push and Some Must Pull” served to lighten the monotony of the daily routine.
Self-imposed discipline and strict camp regulations facilitated progress, permitting an advance of from twelve to fifteen miles a day. Men, women, and children alike tramped patiently forward. Only the fatigued and ill received whatever comforts were afforded by riding in the supply wagons.
Evening brought rest and recreation. Family fires smoldered after supper while the community blaze mounted as a signal for a general gathering. Young folk sang and made merry in impromptu games, and everyone joined in the evening’s diversion until the hour for retirement approached.
The noise subsided as a circle closed around the fire. Then softly across the dying embers all voices joined in singing those lines which encouraged thousands to go on with the trek when enthusiasm lagged.
Sing “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” Hymns, No. 13.
The hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints” had been bequeathed by the pioneers a decade earlier to the thousands who would follow them into the West. It became the common heritage of foreign as well as native tongues. With the closing words of the song, each sought his covers; and when the last echoes of taps died away in the darkness, the emigrants slept with the wilderness.
Fall came early with a frosty night. Aspen groves turned yellow on the mountain slopes, and crimson patches of oak held forebodings of approaching winter. Far down the plains of Wyoming the Martin company moved hopefully up the Platte.
We joined the Church in Brighton, Sussex County, England, when I was 13. My parents were determined to join the Saints in Zion, so my father sold all we had and we traveled to Iowa City, where we purchased two yoke of oxen, one yoke of cows, a wagon, and a tent. We were assigned to travel with the Martin handcart company as a supply wagon. We traveled from fifteen to twenty-five miles a day until we got to the Platte River. Great lumps of ice were floating down the river. It was bitter cold. The next morning there were fourteen dead. We went back to the camp and had our prayers and sang “Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear.” I wondered what made my mother cry that night. The next morning my little sister was born. It was the 23rd of September. We named her Edith. She lived six weeks and died; she was buried at the last crossing of the Sweetwater.
An October morning dawned upon a disappointed camp of travelers on the outskirts of Fort Laramie. Provisions of food and clothing upon which they depended were not awaiting them. The scant seventeen pounds of clothing permitted each member gave little comfort on that frosty morning.
Day after day they pushed painfully forward. Strong men cast anxious glances toward their mates. Instinctively children trudged more closely behind their parents. A flutter of leaves broke through the moving line, and women drew their shawls a little more closely about them, bowed their heads a trifle lower, and plodded onward.
A sudden gust of wind brought a flurry of snowflakes. Their worst fears became a reality. Hour after hour the treacherous snow piled up its death trap. Shoes, worn through, exposed bare feet to its damp and chill. Scarcely a wrap was provided as a change for wet and frozen clothing. More serious still, cutting the food rations to a minimum could only preserve the supply a few days.
When our provisions first began to get low, a herd of buffalo ran by one day and the men of our company shot two of them. Such a feast as we had that night!
The Martin company was trapped in the earliest snowfall in the experience of the pioneers. Snow continued to pile up with recurrent storms. Despite frozen feet and frostbitten fingers, the men maintained meager fires around which mothers huddled with feverish children.
I became lost in the snow. My feet and legs were frozen. The men rubbed me with snow. They put my feet in a bucket of water. The pain was terrible. When we arrived at Devils Gate it was bitter cold. We left many of our things there. My brother James was as well as he ever was when he went to bed that night. In the morning, he was dead.
The daily rations were cut again with a prayer that help would come on the morrow. But the morrow, instead, brought death—first one, then another, and another. Life went out as smoothly as a lamp ceases to burn when the oil is gone.
It was the men who died. They were not sick, but were chilled through. Some of the men who dug graves in the morning were themselves buried before the night had fallen.
Their shoes were so worn that they finally fell from their feet, and they bound them up with pieces of gunnysacking and strips of canvas and cloth. In spite of this, their feet were cracking and sore and bleeding so badly that tracks of blood were left on the snowy trails.
Hunger was severe. The rawhide that was used to bind the spokes on the wagon wheels was boiled to make soup to help sustain the lives of the Saints.
There were times when six, eight, or ten died in a single night. Each morning the dead were buried beside the trail. One night eighteen died. The ground was frozen so hard and the snow was so deep that one large grave was dug and all were buried together.
My sweetheart caught pneumonia on the plains of Wyoming and died before we could be married. I gave my long fringed shawl to the brethren to wrap his body in. I couldn’t bear to think of him being buried with nothing to protect him from the shoveled dirt.
It was conference time in Salt Lake City. Brigham Young stepped into the pulpit and addressed the Saints.
My subject is this: on the 5th day of October, 1856, many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with handcarts, and probably are now 700 miles from this place. We must send them assistance. The text will be, to get them here. This is the salvation I am now seeking for, to save our brethren. I do not want to send oxen, I want good horses and mules. They are in the Territory and we must have them; also twelve tons of flour and forty good teamsters.
Shouts of joy rent the air; strong men wept till tears ran freely down their furrowed and sunburnt cheeks, and little children fairly danced with gladness.
I knew Elizabeth was in the company, and as the time approached for the appointed arrival of my wife, I grew both rejoiceful and anxious at the thought of our reunion. My anxiety mounted to near panic as the winter of that year came unseasonably early and severe. I volunteered as a member of the rescue company to meet my beloved wife. I cannot tell you of the fear and helplessness I felt while en route. Would we get there in time? Would she be alive?
The other teamsters pushed on to the Martin company. Several days still separated those victims from being rescued, and the death toll mounted higher. When at last relief trains penetrated the snow barrier, it was only to effect a partial rescue.
When those persons arrive, I do not want to see them put into houses by themselves. I want to have them distributed in this city among the families that have good, comfortable houses; and I wish the sisters now before me, and all who know how and can, to nurse and wait upon them, and prudently administer medicine and food to them. The afternoon meeting will be omitted, for I wish the sisters to go home and prepare to give to those who have just arrived a mouthful of something to eat and to wash them and nurse them. Prayer is good, but when, as on this occasion, baked potatoes and pudding and milk are needed, prayer will not supply their place. Give every duty its proper time and place.
Then setting an example, the President of the Church issued instructions to the Presiding Bishop that any or all of the emigrants for whom accommodations were lacking should be sent to his own home.
My parents, John and Alice Ollorton, and my oldest sister died before help came near the Platte River Bridge. On the day we arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, my younger sister died from exposure. I am the only Ollorton left of my immediate family. The rest of them never lived to see Zion. But we know that we are separated only for a short time. That separation is a dear price to pay for the gospel, but it is worth it, for God lives and this church is true.
My feet were frozen; also my brother’s and my sister’s. It was nothing but snow, snow everywhere and the bitter Wyoming wind. We could not drive the pegs for our tents. We did not know what would become of us. Then one night a man came to our camp and told us Brigham Young had sent men and teams to help us. We sang songs; some danced, and some cried.
Polly, I want to go to Zion while my children are small so they can be raised in the gospel of Christ, for I know this is the true church.
The Edward Martin handcart company left Iowa City on July 28, 1856, with 576 persons in camp. After four months and 135 deaths, it arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on November 30, 1856. All is well, all is well.