The Call of Zion: The Story of the First Welsh Mormon Emigration

Book Review
Journal: 28:2

Ronald Dennis, whose academic training is in Portuguese, undertook some years ago the challenging task of mastering the Welsh language, spoken more than a century earlier by his immigrant ancestors. Since that time, Dennis has done much to promote contact with Welsh language and culture. One of his most valuable endeavors has been his involvement with a treasure trove of mid-nineteenth century Welsh Latter-day Saint writings, most of them published but all now virtually inaccessible because of the language barrier. Among these materials is a substantial amount of information about the first collective Welsh Latter-day Saint emigration to America, in 1849.

The Call of Zion consists of three kinds of material. First is Dennis's historical narrative of the emigration experience of this particular group. Initial plans called for the entire Welsh contingent of 326 to travel as one party, but they were divided in two when the ship they obtained was unable to accommodate all of them. Dennis describes the voyage of the 249-member Welsh company on the Buena Vista in frank detail, including the challenges posed by seasickness, interpersonal conflicts, and the apostasy of a small faction of the group. He outlines more briefly the experience of the seventy-seven Welsh emigrants who sailed soon after on the Hartley, along with English, Scottish, and Irish coreligionists, and who were instrumental in the conversion of four of the ship's crew. On the way up the Mississippi and Missouri rivers to Council Bluffs in riverboats, both groups were engulfed in the cholera epidemic that raged up and down the river that year. The survivors were reunited at Council Bluffs for two months, then divided by the differences in their ability to undertake the overland journey to Utah. Eighty-four proceeded onward that year with the George A. Smith company; 113 became the nucleus of a Welsh-language branch of the Church in the Council Bluffs area; others remained in the vicinity of St. Louis until 1852, when William Morgan led a mostly Welsh company from Council Bluffs to Salt Lake City. Dennis's eighty-page narrative is informative and well-organized.

The remainder of the book is devoted to appendices, the largest of which is a section of thirty separate documents, all originally published in Welsh in the mid-nineteenth century and now translated by Dennis, all relevant to the first Welsh Latter-day Saint emigration experience. The documents, consisting primarily of correspondence and verse, are helpful but not as revealing as one might hope. The writers sought to encourage their compatriots to emigrate; thus, as Dennis notes, they emphasized the positive aspects of their experience. Still, although the documents lack candor to a degree, many of them acknowledge problems at least in passing. Dennis's narrative emphasizes more than do the documents the magnitude of tragedy involved in the encounter with cholera, which he estimates claimed the lives of more than sixty. Nine more had died by the time the last organized group had crossed the plains, and at least nineteen disassociated themselves from Mormonism after arriving in Missouri.

The other appendices are a variety of helpful items: lists of the emigrants with conveniently tabulated data; photographs of forty-eight of the emigrants; and biographical sketches of seventy-one emigrants and two others whose stories are closely related.

With Dennis's reconstruction of the emigration providing the necessary balance and significant detail, the documents are a good source for a wide variety of additional insights. They show the centrality of Captain Dan Jones in the Welsh Latter-day Saint community and the variety of strong feelings for and against him in Wales. They provide information about the earliest non-English speaking branches of the Latter-day Saint church in Council Bluffs-Kanesville and in the Salt Lake Valley. They are an excellent source for the practical information and advice given to prospective emigrants. Moreover, they document contemporary thought and perceptions, such as the notion that one had to work harder in Wales than in America, where it was said that few people were accustomed to digging, and the expectation in 1852 that the Salt Lake Temple would be completed within three years.

One of the most curious stories in the book is that of Elizabeth Lewis, whose husband, David, remained in Wales to complete the sale of part of his inheritance to his brother. Much of the proceeds from that sale assisted other Welsh Latter-day Saints in their emigration. Mrs. Lewis arranged for one of the emigrants to convince her husband to support that endeavor. Two weeks after her arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, with the permission of Brigham Young, she was sealed as a plural wife to Captain Dan Jones. Five months after their marriage, she asked John Davis, a Latter-day Saint editor in Wales, to tell her father, sister, and first husband to come to Salt Lake City soon if they had not already left. We are not told whether any of them ever reached Utah, where their reaction to Mrs. Lewis's marital situation would have been of particular interest. In the meantime, just before the Welsh company's arrival in Salt Lake Valley, Dan Jones was said to have proposed that they establish a miniature kingdom west of the Jordan River, with Elizabeth Lewis as queen. The scheme was dropped after Elder George A. Smith quieted separatist tendencies by disclaiming anti-Welsh prejudice on the part of Church leaders.

This reviewer detected only a few apparent factual errors in Dennis's history. There is a discrepancy in the maximum recommended weight per wagon pulled by three yoke of oxen, which is given as three thousand pounds on page 61 and as two thousand pounds on page 181. Debris left by easterners en route to the California gold fields would have been deposited along the trail not in 1848, but in the earlier part of 1849, shortly before the Welsh crossing of the plains. Laramie (61) should be Fort Laramie. Little Mountain is not as close to South Pass as the book seems to suggest (64); it took the emigrants about three weeks' travel beyond the pass to reach it.

There are a few organizational problems, perhaps the result of compacting the manuscript. Material introduced as if illustrating Welsh opposition to the Mormon emphasis on emigration (6) is out of chronological sequence and does not refer to emigration. Reference on page 62 to "such a rosy depiction" has no antecedent that answers to the description. Udgorn Seion is introduced as a source (7) with no explanation until page 70 of what kind of publication it was. Some source citations are incomplete or do not match those listed among "Works Cited."

The translated documents could have been made more comprehensible for most readers by adding explanatory footnotes. For example, Daniel Jones's mission to find the so-called Welsh Indians, or Madocians—apparently a major concern of his for at least two years—is mentioned at least four times without explanation; reference could at least have been made to Ronald Dennis's brief article, "Captain Dan Jones and the Welch [Welsh] Indians" (Dialogue 18 [Winter 1985]: 112–17).

In Dennis's narrative, the general reader would probably appreciate the addition of brief explanations about the purposes of the so-called Joint Stock Company, Captain Jones's brother and why he was well known in Wales, the reasons why Latter-day Saints were encouraged to either break engagements or marry before leaving for America, the presence of a harp among the emigrants, and the extent of the cholera epidemics of 1849 worldwide. It would be helpful to know that the Welsh Latter-day Saints who stayed in Kanesville until 1852 finally left there as part of a concerted Church effort to bring Kanesville Saints to Utah. Explanation is needed for references to practicing "the gifts" aboard ship—apparently the gift of tongues, prophecy, and perhaps other gifts of the spirit. It would also have been helpful to briefly consider the Welsh Mormon emigration within the context of the overall Welsh emigration and to determine whether the promotion of emigration was otherwise a controversial topic in the late 1840s. In view of the bitter opposition to the Mormon emigration, were the departing emigrants really cheered by the inhabitants of Swansea, as is claimed, or were they jeered? The inclusion of descriptive information from other voyages of the period seems somewhat superfluous in view of the amount of detail provided by emigrants aboard the two ships under consideration.

The translation is generally readable but occasionally seems a bit awkward, as in the case of repeated reference to dragging ships into or out of harbors; towing might have been a better term.

Professor Dennis's work is a welcome addition to the literature that demonstrates the significance of language and ethnicity among immigrants. In publishing this book and Dennis's forthcoming bibliography of Welsh-language Latter-day Saint publications, Brigham Young University's Religious Studies Center is helping to illuminate a little-known but remarkably well-documented facet of Latter-day Saint history.