Today is a big day for Utah. We are celebrating our “foundation” day. The day the first pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley, and then made it “blossom as the rose”. It is a day to reflect on their courage and determination, and for those of us with Pioneer heritage to remember our ancestors and express gratitude for their lives and examples. It is also a day for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worldwide to celebrate the legacy the Mormon pioneers provided to all future members, in coming to a place which would allow the church to grow and flourish and eventually spread outward to the entire world.
Today’s MormonTimes section of the Deseret News included a great article on Pioneer Myths that emphasises that most of the pioneers had a very positive and faith building experience walking over 1000 miles across the USA – and we often focus on the tragedies or sorrows of the experience, which overall (although heart wrenching and greatly valued) was a small percentile.
“Pioneer Day” can be valued by anyone, of any faith. It stands as an important world historic event. It represents an example of perseverance against difficult odds. It is an example to everyone of the power each of the decisions in our lives can make; not only on our own lives, and our future posterity, but even the future of world history.
My pioneer ancestors include Justus Wellington Seely (also spelled Seeley, or Seelye) and his wife Clarissa Jane Wilcox. I have a copy of Clarissa’s account of her life history as told to her great-grand-daughter Elva. I thought that in honor of the day, I would share a bit of their inspiring life story with you.
The Justus Wellington Seely family converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Iowa. They experienced persecution, and were part of the great Mormon exodus West in 1847. They arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in September 1847 by wagon, as part of the John Taylor company with the first three of their eventually eleven children; Orange – (b. Feb. 1843) , Sarah (b. April 1844) and Don Carlos (b. Jan. 1846). At last, the young family believed this new land in the shadow of the mountains far away from their enemies they would be able to build a permanent home, raise their children, and plan ahead for the future. Justus worked hard to clear the land for crop planting and Clarissa Jane was proud of her garden that provided fresh vegetables for her family. She even grew enough produce that her seven-year-old son Orange could sell the surplus for calico fabric. (yes, the boys name was really “Orange”. It comes from an old English ancestral line). Clarissa Jane had discovered a talent for weaving straw hats, which she sold. That income contributed nicely to the family finances. Two more children were born; Hyrum (b. March 1848) and Justus Wellington II (b. June 1850). But the valley was not to be their home for long.
In 1851 President Brigham Young issued a calling to five hundred families to assist in the settlement of San Bernardino in Southern California. This California valley is located inland from the Pacific Ocean and is a few miles from the modern-day city of Los Angeles. Justus and his brother David were among those chosen to help colonize. Here was another test of their faith, but they firmly believed that Brigham Young was the prophet on the earth, and that this was a call from God. Thus, they bravely left behind Clarissa’s aging parents, and their beloved Utah home in a wagon with their five young children, and became pioneers of two states – Utah and California.
When the family arrived in California, after many struggles and adventures, they had to spend several months living in a grove of trees while title to the land was obtained and a home could be built. One of the favorite family stories is that Justus chose to build camp under a large Sycamore tree. When it would rain,(and sometimes it rained very hard), the water would roll off of the tree branches and neither they nor their belongings ever got wet. This was certainly a tender mercy from the Lord.
The Seely’s eventually built a beautiful home. The settlers planted olive trees and grapes to provide the church with a fresh supply of consecrated oil and sacramental wine, along with planting many other crops that sold well and establishing a thriving farming community. The Seely family began to enjoy peace and wealth and had a comfortable and successful life in San Bernardino. Three more children joined the growing family; William Hazard – b. Oct. 1852, John Henry – b. April 1855 and Mary Marinda – b. June 1857.
Now, just about the time our lives get peaceful and prosperous, we invariably have something come along that really tests us. The Seely family was no different. They had already experienced this many times. Certainly one would think they had sufficiently proven their faith. However a new and larger test was on the way. Word was sent from Brigham Young that all the saints in San Bernardino should return to Utah in order to present a united front against the United States Army who was marching from the East to quell a non-existent rebellion. Imagine the faith it took for these people to sell their beautiful home and property at a loss, and pack a few things into a wagon box. Once again they were leaving everything they had worked so hard to build, and head back to the desert plains of Utah. For Clarissa Jane, this included preparing eight children for the trek, including a baby less than 6 months old she was nursing.
Some of the San Bernardino settlers couldn’t do it. They did not have the faith to leave, and refused to return. I can’t say I blame them for feeling that way. I don’t know how I would stand up to that kind of test. Many became angry and bitter that this was being asked of them, and wanted to hold onto their comfortable life. David Seely’s wife was one of them. He wanted to go and she wanted to stay. In the end, David returned to Utah alone to talk to Brigham Young personally about it. President Young advised him that he must return to his wife and family, but he warned him that it would most likely end in a falling away from the church for his family line (which sadly, it did).
Justus and Clarissa Jane heard the news with heavy hearts at first, but they also knew that it was the right thing to follow the prophet and to return. One bright note for them would be to see Clarissa’s aging parents and other relatives who were living in Utah, and all of their former friends. It is interesting to read that they started out their return journey to Utah on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24th1857. The history does not state why they left on that particular memorable date and so late in the season, however it must have been the soonest the large group could make arrangements and leave together, and they didn’t want to delay any longer. They arrived at Cajon Pass that evening and the air was chilly. They were not used to the cold. The children huddled around the campfire, and then something very exciting happened. The air was filled with fluffy flakes of snow. This was the first snow that the youngest children born in California had ever seen, and for the older children, it was a distant memory. It seemed like a miracle to all of them. Little five -year-old Bill (William – my ancestory line) stood in awe wondering: “where are so many white feathers coming from?” They all thought the snowfall was an appropriate Christmas gift, and they sang carols around the campfire all night, and cherished the memory for the rest of their lives.
An interesting side note was that when my husband and I married and read each other’s family histories we discovered that his ancestors were in the same company of saints from San Bernardino that returned with Justus and Clarissa Jane! They would have been friends and neighbors. In a very real way both of our lives and our future would be forever blessed because these families had the courage to return to Utah, and remain true to their faith.
The return route to Utah was plagued by certain groups of Indians who sometimes attacked, but most often would steal from the travelers. I imagine these were probably the teenaged “problem children” of the native tribes, that all communities deal with. Many of them were very poor and hungry as well. They certainly did not represent the entire Native American community. However, these groups caused great problems for the wagon trains. When Justus and Clarissa Jane camped at Moapa for two days all of the women of the camp took the chance to wash their clothing and clean up the children. This was the first chance they had to bathe and rest. That very evening, one of the two cows Clarissa had received as a wedding gift from her parents gave birth to a fine strong calf. This was a tremendous blessing for the family, as it would bring some much needed financial support. The two-day stop would also give the calf time to gain strength for the remainder of the long journey.
Clarissa and her daughter Sarah had spent the entire day scrubbing all the family clothes clean, and had hung the clothes up to dry. Consequently, the family wore the bare necessities to bed that night. Clarissa had noticed that there were a group of Indians not too far away watching them all day. However, this was typical, and they went about their chores and meal preparations, and then retired for the evening. In the morning when they arose, the Indians had disappeared, and so had all of their clothes – even little Don’s breeches that he had carefully tucked under his pillow that night! The family all stood around trying very hard not to cry, and not knowing what they were going to do. But then, they discovered that their newborn calf was also missing, and the tears began to flow in earnest. Justus was furious! He told his sons to get his horse and gun, and he was going after those Indians. It is at this point that the story takes a very interesting turn. Clarissa Jane had been praying in her heart, and she had an impression to try a different approach. She asked her husband to let her try her idea first. Brigham Young had often counseled the saints to “feed the Indians, not fight them”. So, Justus hesitated and then gave in to her wishes. Clarissa Jane went to work preparing a large pot of mush and stood by it stirring and fanning the tasty odor with her apron. No doubt she waited with another huge prayer in her heart that her plan would be successful.
Sure enough, it wasn’t long until her waiting was rewarded by the appearance of an Indian as he slowly came forward and then others joined him one by one. They pointed to the food in the pot, wanting some. She made it known to them by signing that they had taken her families much needed clothes and their calf and when the belongings were returned, she would then give them the food they wanted. When the Indians realized that they would not get anything to eat unless they had returned what they had stolen they wandered away.
I imagine Clarissa Jane and her family sitting there in the middle of nowhere half dressed, wondering what in the world they were going to do next. It must have been very frightening and discouraging. However, a short while later, here came the Indians back again, carrying all the clothes in their arms and leading the calf by a rope. Little Don reached out and grabbed his breeches much to his relief (his waist having been wrapped up in a blanket all morning). Clarissa Jane happily dished up the mush just as she had promised. One young Indian became too anxious to wait his turn, and he stuck his hand into the pot. Yelling loudly, out came the burned fingers full of hot mush which he shook frantically, which caused the burning gruel to fly onto a bare shoulder of another Indian, who in turn jumped upon his feet and threw his arm about frantically trying to shake it off. Soon, hot mush was flying everywhere, and Indians were jumping around howling. According to Clarissa Jane, it took a lot of self-control for her family to keep from laughing out loud over this chaotic scene. It was awhile before they all calmed down enough to eat the mush, and then one by one the Indians departed the camp quietly.
I especially love that story. I love the faith and determination of Clarissa Jane. I think of this as a huge miracle and blessing from the Lord to this family. There are so many wonderful stories included in Clarissa’s history that demonstrate what a smart, strong and brave woman she was. Her stories are a witness of the tender mercies the Lord gave to her family.
The return trip to Utah was grueling. Due to several unfortunate circumstances there was not enough food, and the children cried themselves to sleep each night with the ache of hunger. However, they finally arrived safely in Utah in April 1852, and relatives embraced them and fed them “heartily, for days”. By this time, the misunderstanding with the US Army had been resolved peacefully. I have always thought about this. The group from California could have easily chosen to be frustrated, bitter, or angry that they had left their homes “for nothing”. But they didn’t. They faithfully took their next assignment from the prophet. Justus and Clarissa were sent off again to pioneer the cities of Manti briefly, and then reaching a final destination of Mount Pleasant, Utah. Here the last three of their eleven children were born; David Alma (b. Oct. 1859), Joseph (b. March 1862) and Stewart Randolf (Feb 1865). In later years, Clarissa Jane was known to smile wistfully, and say: “I have spent most of my married life living out of a wagon box”.
My ancestors lived a long life, full of amazing stories – (thus turning into a long post, which I even edited several times!). However, I am grateful for those who have blazed the trail before me. I have ancestors on both sides of my family with equally amazing stories. Some were Mormons, and some were not. However, all lived powerful and interesting lives. They were people who suffered through difficult struggles, and blazed a trail through history. They raised families and had close friendships. They experienced joys and sorrows, blessings and miracles, just like every one of us. Most important, they kept hanging in there and doing their best through it all. Eventually, they grew old and left this earth. For some, all that remains are just names and dates on a page, because sadly they didn’t write down their stories. Others, however, left their stories for us to read and enjoy and learn from. I believe it is good for us to take time to look back into our past, as it allows us to better appreciate ourpresent. It is important to remember that our present will someday be someone else’s past. We are the pioneers of the future. What will we leave behind for them? What will be our legacy? I personally hope that I can live a life that will help and inspire my children, and my future grandchildren and beyond. By reading our ancestors stories I realize that I don’t have to live a “perfect” life, or tell some sort of spotless story in order to be appreciated, valuable and make a positive impact. I just need to walk with faith, keep trying and keep moving forward through whatever life brings.