City of the Saints Historical Note #5

Brigham Young may or may not have really denounced Levi-Strauss jeans as “fornication pants.”  His proposed State of Deseret was rejected by the United States Congress in favor of a significantly smaller Utah Territory in 1850, which was still twice the size of present-day Utah, of which he was the first governor.  George Q. Cannon was an Apostle, a Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, a newspaper publisher, mission president, and writer. His long presence in the upper ranks of Mormon and Utah leadership without ever becoming head of either the church or the territory may be why he was called by some the “Mormon Richelieu.”

Orrin Porter Rockwell was a frontiersman, accused assassin, sometimes lawman, and saloon owner.  Joseph Smith did promise him that if he was loyal and didn’t cut his hair, “no bullet or blade” would harm Rockwell.  He remains a beloved and quirky figure in Mormon popular consciousness today.  John D. Lee has not fared so well.  Though in his lifetime he was a beloved leader and believed to possess rare spiritual gifts, he was involved in the deservedly infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre, an atrocity for which he was — eventually — shot by a firing squad.  Lee maintained to the end that he was a scapegoat.  Bill Hickman, a Mormon frontiersman like Lee and Rockwell, wrote an autobiography confessing to a number of murders and implicating Brigham Young.  It’s not clear how much of his book was pure fiction; neither he not Young were ever charged for any of the crimes to which Hickman confessed.  On a personal note, Bill Hickman murdered one of my wife’s ancestors, Isaac Hatch, and if I have made Hickman out to be an illiterate, gap-toothed, coward, well… he deserved worse.

Ann Eliza Webb was, after an earlier marriage and divorce, one of Brigham Young’s polygamous wives.  She left Mormonism and became an early feminist critic of it, though the accuracy of her book has also been contested. She had a rough life, and in making her a kung fu chick in this novel, I mean no disrespect; I would like to imagine Annie Webb as a freewheeling, high-kicking, happy young woman, and not the serial divorcee estranged from her own family that she became.  Eliza R. Snow was a teacher, poet, historian, and polygamous wife.  She was the first secretary of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society and later, in Utah, president of its successor organization.  Her radical theological poem “Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother,” is included in today’s LDS hymnal under the title “O My Father.”  In that poem, Snow writes: In the heavens are parents single?  No, the thought makes reason stare!  Truth is reason, truth eternal, tells me I’ve a mother there.  She was an adventurer of the mind, heart, and spirit, and in my view has always been the true romantic heroine of City of the Saints.

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