Book review by John Morris
The period between 1840 and 1870 was a time of poverty, unemployment, and religious friction in Wales and considerable numbers of men, women and children ventured to the “New World of America” in an attempt to improve their quality of life and opportunities for work. Thousands of individuals and families from Wrexham, Rhiwabon, Hanmer, Hawarden, Trelawnwyd, Trelogan and Halkyn set sail for a better life in the New World.
Many authors have written about the 55,000 men and women who emigrated to the iron and coal mining areas of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Other authors have collated considerable evidence regarding the Welsh-speaking groups of about 1,600 who travelled to Patagonia (Y Wladfa), a sparsely-populated area shared by Chile and Argentina on the southern-most tip of South America, to set up a Welsh-speaking colony, in particular, the journey of the ship Mimosa from Liverpool in May 1865.
In an enthralling and brilliantly researched book called Welsh Saints on the Mormon Trail, Wil Aaron has created an accessible historical and adventurous insight into the main characters and difficulties experienced by the pioneering group of around 10,000 Welsh emigrants. This movement was inspired by evangelists of the Mormon faith, who sailed from Liverpool to Utah and the valley of the Salt Lake. The book details why only about 5,000 Welsh people reached Utah, but this was still three times the number that emigrated to Patagonia.
A New Life
It is worth remembering the families from Wrexham and surrounding North Wales villages who set off for a “new life”. In particular, the difficulties they encountered and the contributions they made to establishing new towns in America. The family of John Bennion from Hawarden were the first Welsh family to reach the Great Salt Lake. The author vividly recounts the experiences of the Bennions as they reached America and then left Nauvoo to travel across the Rockies via the Missouri to reach their “promised land”. They travelled in convoys of wagons drawn by oxen across miles of desolate and mountainous land and fought off attacks by Native Americans. The Bennions were much admired and their efforts are recognised in the “Bennion Heritage Centre” in Utah.
One of the most successful missionaries in the history of the Mormon church was Dan Jones. Dan was born in Caerfallwch between Halkyn and Northop. After his conversion as a missionary, he came to Wrexham and surrounding areas to preach. He was so successful he moved as a missionary to Merthyr Tydfil, which was a thriving industrial town, but made up predominantly of families and children of the poor from the neighbouring Welsh countryside. Merthyr was the “iron capital” of the world and the ironworks at Dowlais employed over 5,000 men and boys. The area was a hotbed of non-conformism, religious revivalism and the Welsh language. Dan Jones published a monthly magazine “Udgorn Seion” (Zion’s Trumpet), supported by John Silvanus Davis also from Merthyr. Other key “saints” were Elias Morris from Llanfair Talhaiarn, an accomplished builder, John Parry from Trelogan who formed, at Brigham Young’s request, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Thomas Giles, the blind harpist of Utah
The Spiritual Home of the Welsh
New settlements were established at Council Bluff, Samaria, the spiritual home of the Welsh in Utah, and Malad City where an annual Eisteddfod is held and there are more people of Welsh descent per capita outside of Wales than anywhere else in the world. As a result of the fervour of Dan Jones’ preaching, 326 Welsh-speaking “saints” left Liverpool in 1849 for the journey via New Orleans and up the Mississippi. In 1852, Dan Jones returned to Wales and in 1856, he led an additional 500 “saints” to the Valley of the Salt Lake.
The in-depth stories of the ravages of the journeys, the death of so many children and adults from illness, particularly cholera, accidents with wagons and starvation are discussed at length. The swarms of locusts in 1855 when all the crops were eaten had a major impact within the community. The plant that kept the settlers alive was the “Sego Lily” (also called the mariposa lily), the bulbs grow deep in the earth and were harvested by the ton. The Sego Lily (Calochortus nuttallii) has been the state flower of Utah since 1911.
The author discusses several major events which unsettled the pioneer families. For example, he raises awareness of the reader to the conflicts with the native Americans, including the incident at Grattan when a group of 28 soldiers were killed outside Fort Laramie. Interestingly, amongst the Sioux children who witnessed the event was Crazy Horse, later to become the greatest Indian warrior of all time. Readers will also enjoy details of the impact of the Californian Goldrush and the 49ers on the lives of the settlers.
The author draws attention to the controversial issue of polygamy and the difficulties faced by some Welsh women in polygamous Mormon marriages. Brigham Young believed it was a wealthy man’s duty to father more than one family. Young himself had 55 wives! Polygamy was popular and even Dan Jones, the evangelist, had more than one wife.
Courage, Faith and Devotion
Wil Aaron has written a brilliant historical account of the emigration of so many Welsh men, women and children during the 19th century to America. The book deservedly gives recognition to key individuals from the Wrexham and North Wales areas, such as John Bennion, Dan Jones, John Silvanus Davis, Elias Morris, Thomas Perkins, and John Parry.
The challenges the Welsh pioneers faced in their efforts to reach “the promised land” of the New World are honoured in a memorial outside of Bluff: “No pioneer company ever demonstrated more courage, faith and devotion to the cause”.
The next time evangelists working for the Mormon church in Wrexham knock on your door, ask them if they have heard of the Bennion family, Dan Jones, Elias Morris or John Parry. An excellent book – well worth reading.
Title: Welsh Saints on the Mormon Trail
Author: Wil Aaron
Publisher: Y Lolfa
Paperback: 432 pages
Department: History, Welsh History