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Bits of Travel at Home (1878) by Helen Hunt Jackson


It seems strange that the cars of the Utah Central Railroad should he just like all other cars. We expected to find “Holiness to the Lord” inscribed on the panels, and portraits of Mormon elders above the doors. In fact, I am not sure that we did not expect to see even the trees and shrubs along the track bearing the magic initials of the “Zion Co-operative Mercantile Association.” However, we made up for these lacks by scrutinizing the face of every man and every woman about us, and searching for some subtle token which might betray that they were not living as other men and women live. No doubt we made comical blunders, and in our thoughts wrongfully accused many an innocent bachelor of the blackest polygamy. However, we were right in one case. Just as the cars moved out of Ogden, there entered in at the door of our car a big, burly man, perhaps fifty-five or sixty years old. His face was very red; he wore a red wig; and, as if determined to make the red of his face and the red of his wig both as hideous as possible, he wore about his neck a scarf of a third shade of fiery red. His eyes were small, light, and watery, but sharp and cruel. His face was bloated, coarse, sensual: I have never seen a more repulsive man.

“Oh! that is a Mormon.” we whispered, under our breaths. “It must be.” He strode down the car in a pompous way, followed by a meek and lifeless-looking old woman. He looked from right to left with an air of arrogant self-consciousness, which would have been ludicrous except for a sort of terrible certainty of power in it, which made one shudder.

“Who is that? who is that?” we said to the conductor.

“That is Historian Smith. He is the second in power in our church,” replied the conductor, with a complacent smile.

Afterward we saw him doing honor to the scarlet magnate, with most obsequious bowing and bending. But we soon forgot our interest in the baffling faces of Mormon men and women, and looked only at the wonderful valley through which we were journeying. Surely this Salt Lake Valley is itself Brigham Young’s most powerful auxiliary. No possible pomp which riches could compass, and send out to meet the new proselytes, would so appeal to their senses as must the first view of this broad, green valley, walled in by snow-topped mountains, and holding the great Salt Lake. There is a solemnity in its beauty which to a religious fanatic might easily seem supernatural.

Entering the valley, as we did, at Ogden, late in the afternoon, and journeying southward to the city, one sees a picture which cannot be forgotten.

The Wasatch Mountains, on the left, were like a solid wall, clouded purple and gray from the base half way up, then mottled and barred and striped with white wherever snow lay in the rifts and seams; then, at the very top, crowned and battlemented with solid snow, which not even the fiercest summer heats would entirely melt. On the right lay the lake, also glistening like silver, and with rippling gleams of blue. Its further shore was a snow-topped mountain range; and its islands were mountains. some of them snow-tapped, some of them green, some of them bare and stony, and red in the low sunlight. Between us and the lake on the right, and between us and the Wasatch Mountains on the left, lay broad fields, green with grain or grass, or gay with many-colored blossoms, or yellow with small sunflowers. These were most beautiful of all: their wide belts of yellow were like shining frames to the color and beauty beyond. This sunflower is called the Mormon flower, and is said to spring up wherever Mormons go. If other Mormon fields are like these, the superstition is well-founded. Acre after acre they spread, as solid as cloth of gold. The eye could not bear their dazzling any more than if they were suns.

Salt Lake City lies close at the base of the Wasatch range, so close that, as you first see the city from the cars, you can fancy it a walled town, walled on one side by the mountains, with a gate in every cañon. As we drew near it, the sunset lights had left the valley, but still lit the snowy hilltops.

I confess that my first thought was of the grand old Bible words: “The angel of the Lord encampeth around them that fear him.” No doubt many a devout simple-hearted Mormon has had the same feeling, as he has first looked on the scene.

The next morning, as we looked down upon the city from some of the lower spurs of the mountains, I found myself still conscious of a peculiar solemnity in its whole expression. It is compact, but not crowded. Each house has its enclosure of fruit and shade trees; so that, as you look down on the city from above, it seems like a city built in a huge garden. It has no straggling suburbs, no poor or thriftless neighborhoods; not a dilapidated or poverty-stricken house is to be seen. On each side of the principal streets, between the side-walk and the road, run swift, sparkling little mountain streams. Close up to the city limits, on the south and west and north, come the great gray plains of the unredeemed alkali bottoms, in which the city’s dense green looks like an oasis. Near the centre of the city rises the huge, weird dome of the Tabernacle, adding still more to the mystic expression of the scene.

Fancy a roof, smooth, glistening, gray, and of a faultless oval, large enough to shelter seventeen thousand persons, comfortably seated. If it surmounted any thing which could be properly called a building, it would be as grand as St. Peter’s; but it is placed on low, straight brick walls; and the whole effect, near at hand, is like nothing more nor less than half of a gigantic egg, split lengthwise. However, into all the distant views of the city it enters well, and seems strangely in keeping with the long slopes of the mountain bases. Beyond the gray alkali plains lies the shining lake, full of mountain islands; beyond the shining lake and the mountain islands rise snow-topped mountain ranges, running to the north and to the south as far as the eye can see. The sun sets behind these. It turns them to purple mist, then to golden, then to pale gray, and sends their vivid shadows way across the lake and plains. It rises behind the Wasatch range; and then that shadow also is flung out beyond the city and the plains, till it quivers on the lake. So the mountains might almost be said to clasp hands over the city’s head. At noon, when the sun was hot, I looked out through the tops of green locust-trees, and saw the whole eastern range blue as sapphire,—so blue that the blue sky above looked white; and the snow on the summits was so white that the white clouds above looked gray. The air is so rarefied that the light shimmers dazzling along all outlines, and the sense of distance is deceived. Peaks thirty miles distant seem near at hand; hills five miles off seem within a few minutes’ walk; and the sunshine seems to have a color and substance to it which I never saw elsewhere,—no, not even in Italy. It takes up room!

But, in spite of the sunshine, in spite of the beauty, the very air seemed heavy with hidden sadness. No stranger can walk the streets of Salt Lake City without a deepening sense of mystery and pain. We have been so long accustomed to the idea of polygamy as a recognized evil, we have seen the word so long and so often in print, that we are unprepared for the new sense of horror which is at once aroused by the actual presence of the thing. Each sunny doorway, each gay garden, is a centre of conjecture, of sympathy. Each woman’s face, each baby’s laugh, rouses thoughts hard to bear.

The streets are full of life; shops are busy; carriages with fine horses drive up and down; farm-wagons with produce are coming in; markets are open; stalls on corners are piled up with apples, and bits of cocoanut in tin pans of water, just such as are sold in Boston or New York. You can have your boots blacked or your pocket picked; boys and men of these and all other trades jostle you on every hand. Over most of the shops is a singular placard, a picture of one huge eye; above it the motto “Holiness to the Lord,” below it the initials Z. C. M. A. These stand for the words “Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Association,” and mean that the man who sells you tape or lemons behind that counter sells them at the prices fixed by the Church, and pays to the Church a semi-annual percentage on all sales.

Passing out of the business streets, you find cosey, tasteful little homes on every hand. Flowers at the windows and in the gardens; piazzas shaded by vines; fruit orchards and little patches of vegetables, or corn, or wheat, all through the city. If your driver is a Gentile, he turns round from time to time with such comments as these:—

“That’s a three-wife house.” “That’s a two-wife house.” “That’s a new house Mr. —— has just built for his last wife.[”] “There’s two of Brigham’s wives lives in that house.”

And before one of the pleasantest little houses of all, he reins up his horses into a walk, and says:—

“That’s where Amelia, Brigham’s last wife lives. And one of Mr. Clawson’s wives lives with her. Mr. Clawson—he married two of Brigham’s daughters.”

The heart grows faint. The sunshine seems darkened. You look up in involuntary appeal to the silent, snowy mountains, from which no help comes for this great wrong. Then you look earnestly into the faces of all the women you see. They are standing on doorsills, with laughing babies in their arms; they are talking gayly with each other on the sidewalk; they are leading little children; they are walking by the side of men; they are carrying burdens, or seeking pleasure, just as other women do—apparently. Their faces are not sad, as we looked to find them. If we did not know we were in Salt Lake City, we should say. “These are simple and contented women, uncommonly healthy and strong. The community, as a whole, seems remarkably industrious, prosperous, and innocent, if one may judge from faces and from expression of the homesteads.”

These are the Mormons, of whom we have heard such terrible tales of cruelty and crime. They are the men who have created this blooming, thriving city, in the heart of a desert; these are the down-trodden and heart-broken women for whom we have wept! The problem grows more and more perplexing with every hour that you spend in the city, and with every word that you hear. Men, not Mormons, who have lived here for years, bear the strongest testimony to the uprightness, honesty, industry, purity of Mormon lives, and to their charity also. The city is divided into twenty-one wards. Every ward has its bishop, who has several assistants.

“At every train, you will see a bishop or assistant from every ward down at the cars, to meet any poor person who may come in, and to take care of them at once,” said a Mormon woman to me.

“And we all take care of our own poor; each ward has to contribute. You’ll not find a beggar or a suffering poor person in our Church. That’s the greatest part of our religion, ma’am.”

This woman, though a staunch Mormon, hates polygamy. But she says, piteously: “It’s because I am not religious; I am not naturally a religious person. I believe that polygamy is right, because the Church teaches it; but I can’t say that I feel about it as a Mormon woman ought to. And I could never have my husband’s other wife in my house; (no, never!) though I lived with his first wife for twelve years, and took care of her till she died; and she was very fond of me. She was quite an old lady. It’s only last year she died; and, to the very last, she was asking for me. But, if any Mormon woman tells you that they like polygamy, they lie. It’s nothing but a cross that they bear for the sake of their religion.”

This woman has had no children; the younger wife has had two. The husband is a man of some means. If Mormon men die without making wills, their wives inherit nothing. The children inherit all; and the mother takes what the children, or the Church, as guardian of the children, may choose to give her. This woman, having no children, will have no claim; yet she has earned far more of the property than her husband has.

I talked with another Mormon wife, who was a woman of unusual strength, physically and mentally. She was one of the pioneers, having come with the first party that entered the Salt Lake Valley, through the terrible path which is still called “Emigration Canyon.” She was then in her seventeenth year; and it was just two months before the birth of her first child.

“You could never believe,” she said, “to look at this valley now, what it was then. Nothing in it, except a little mud fort in the middle; and into that we all crowded, more like wild beasts than human beings. But I was never so happy in my life. Many a day, I only had a crust of bread to eat; but it was just as if God was there with us, all the time.”

The child did not know at this time, nor till long afterward, that polygamy was peculiar to the Mormons. When she first found out the truth, it seemed to her, she said, “just as if she had been taken out of this world into some other: every thing was so changed.”

When she was twenty-two years old, her husband took a second wife. This was twenty-six years ago. The two women lived together for twenty years, and brought up their families of children together. One had ten children, the other eight. Then they separated. The first wife lives now some miles from the city, on a small farm. Her husband comes out on Saturday afternoon, and returns on Monday. This is all she sees of him. The rest of the time he lives with the second wife in the city, where he holds an important position.

It was on a Saturday that I saw her. While I was talking with her, the husband suddenly appeared in the doorway. He had just come out from town. “Oh! there’s Mr. ——, now,” said she, rising, and going to meet him as she would go to meet a neighbor. He shook hands with her, and said, kindly: “How d’ye do, Ma?” She introduced him to me; and he sat down. The chair was a little broken, and creaked under his weight.

“Why, Ma! why don’t you have your chairs fixed?” he said, very pleasantly. But oh! how hot my cheeks felt. “Have her chairs fixed!”—living alone, twenty miles from the city, five miles from a neighbor, with no servant in her house! Yet this man has a kindly nature. It was evident in every line of his face. He is a man to whom it would be a grief to give pain to any one. He is simple-hearted, affectionate, pure-minded. He is also a man of some education. It must be a daily sorrow to him to see his children insufficiently provided for in any way; yet his means do not enable him to make eighteen children comfortable. There is discomfort, deprivation in both houses.

“If a man brings up one family of children, and provides for them, I think that’s as much as the Lord’s going to require of any body,” said this man’s wife; “and, as for believing that the Lord’s going to require any thing of woman which makes them suffer as polygamy does, I don’t. But they are all good, earnest, true men,” she added; “and pure men, too, according to their way of looking at it. They are faithful to their wives: there isn’t such a thing known as a Mormon man’s going astray in that way.” She was most earnest in her efforts to impress me with this fact, and with the uprightness and sincerity of the men. Much as she hated polygamy herself, and fully as she believed it to be wrong, she believed that the Mormon men were sincere in regarding it as a matter of religion.

“There’s many a man takes another wife, just because he thinks he ought to,” said she. “I have known such cases every year. The Church says they must.”

She had not heard of that petition from the women of Utah to the United States Government, which has been regarded at the East as proving so conclusively that Mormon women are all anxious for deliverance from the tyranny of the Church. Neither had the other woman of whom I have spoken heard of this petition; and, as both these women are women of position and influence, I could not but regard their ignorance of the petition as a significant fact, pointing strongly toward the truth of the assertion of the Church newspaper, that the signatures were not all genuine. “Why,” said she, “you’d never get one-third, even, of the women who don’t like polygamy to petition against it. They believe it’s right, much as they hate it. And the rest of the women, they take it up, just as the martyrs went to the stakes, thinking they’ll get heaven by it, and they can’t get it any other way; and they wouldn’t have it done away with, if they could. The Church teaches them that no woman can go to Heaven, unless she is married to some man.”

Why, I myself don’t want polygamy put an end to any such way,” said she, flushing. “I believe God’ll stop it somehow, sooner or later; but not in one day! I should think ——.” But she could not finish the sentence. I finished it for her, however, in my heart: and I wonder that any persons can be so unthinking as not to realize the cruelty of any hasty legislation which would add one more burden of fear or sense of humiliation to the loads which these poor women are already bearing.

The next day, I heard that petition read in the Tabernacle. At the close of the afternoon services, Historian Smith—the man whom I have already described— came forward, holding a paper in his hand. He still wore the blazing red scarf, and still looked, as he did in the cars, the very incarnation of sensuality and tyranny.

With a few introductory remarks, setting forth that the Church thought it best to acquaint her children with all the weapons and wiles of her adversaries, he read the paper. He read it slowly, deliberately, giving prominent and scornful emphasis to the sentences which spoke of the terror in which the women lived. He mentioned the number of signatures, adding, impressively: “The names can be identified by all of you; many of them are the names of young children.” He then made a short address, evidently for the benefit of the strangers present, giving a brief statement of the grounds on which the Church inculcates polygamy. The argument was based on the Bible prophecy of the days in which seven women should lay hold of one man, imploring him to take away “their reproach.” The term “reproach” was interpreted to mean child-lessness, and was dwelt upon strenuously; and he referred to the remarkable healthfulness and strength of the Mormon children as proof that polygamy might be upheld on physical as well as Scriptural grounds.

During the whole of these extraordinary proceedings, I studied the faces of the men and women about me. At many parts of the petition, they exchanged satirical and amused glances with each other, especially at the statements in regard to the petitioners’ terrors. While the doctrine of polygamy was expounded and justified, they looked serious, attentive, and satisfied. Certainly, so far as the expression of an audience could be a test, the Mormon Church was justified by her followers that afternoon. I studied also the faces of the priesthood. They sit in a body, on a raised platform, which fronts the congregation. In the centre of this platform are three wide seats, with raised desks, where Brigham Young and those nearest him in authority sit, As the priests sit facing these central seats, their side faces are in full view. I found myself insensibly comparing them with the faces of the Romish priesthood, as I used to see it in the streets of Rome. Here were the same two types of face,—the credulous, simple, and devoted; and the tyrannical and unscrupulous. They were, almost without exception, plain, hardworking-looking men, in coarse clothes; but, if they had only been robed in black and violet and scarlet, they would have seemed in no wise out of place in the College of the Propaganda. Tyranny and fanaticism work with the same tools, and write the same handwriting, all the world over. If one could banish from his mind the undercurrent of consciousness of this great wrong of ecclesiastical domination in Salt Lake City, it would be one of the most delightful spots in the world. The air, the sunshine, the snowy mountains, the blue lake, the waving orchards, the bright flowers, and the neat, cosey little homes,—all make up a picture of beauty and thrift and peace rarely equalled. But there is no escape from the shadow; there is no forgetting the wrong.

However, all diseases are self-limited. Polygamy is as sure to disappear before civilization as flails are to go down before steam-threshers. A shrewd old man, who had lived in Salt Lake City for several years, said to me, one morning, pointing to the windows of a milliner’s shop, before which we stood: “They needn’t trouble themselves to legislate about polygamy. This sort of stuff,”—waving his hand back and forth in front of the bonnets and ribbons,—“this sort of stuff will put an end to it. It’s putting an end to monogamy, for that matter! It will very soon be here, as it is elsewhere, more than most men can do to support even one wife!”

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