The life of Henry William Bigler demonstrates how extraordinary an average life can be. M. Guy Bishop’s Henry William Bigler: Soldier, Gold Miner, Missionary, Chronicler, 1815–1900, aims to provide a “microcosmic view of nineteenth-century Mormon society through the eyes of a lower-echelon member” (xi). Although Bigler is already known to historians of the West as the man who recorded the exact day gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, this biography finds his life noteworthy for the “commitment, faith, and self-sacrifice that characterized a host of lesser-known Mormons whose individual experiences many have been lost in historical obscurity” (xii).
The book follows Bigler from his conversion to Mormonism in 1837 through his death in St. George in 1900. Chapters are arranged chronologically and usually focus on a single theme. For example, entire chapters are devoted to Bigler’s march with the Mormon Battalion (1846–47), his mission to the Sandwich Islands (1850–54), his farming in Farmington, Utah (1859–76), and his temple work in St. George beginning in 1877. The final chapter, “Chronicler,” discusses the significance of Bigler as a recorder of daily pioneer life. Bigler’s four daybooks and nine journals leave behind a rich, detailed record.
This book’s strength is its ability to navigate around possible tension. Without overglamorizing the subject, Henry William Bigler adds to the growing body of scholarly literature on the “common” pioneer. The author writes with deep admiration for Bigler’s saintliness without engaging in excessive cheerleading that might turn away some non-LDS readers. The narrative consistently relates Bigler’s life to the larger culture without losing track of the uniqueness of Bigler’s own story. Readers leave the text appreciating Bigler’s very real sacrifices, while, at the same time, recognizing that the Mormon commonwealth was built on similar sacrifices by thousands of others.