Today is Pioneer day and a holiday here in Utah. It marks the entry of the saints into the Salt Lake Valley and coincidentally the day I arrived home from my two year mission. It is an auspicious day, indeed. I’ve learned that some Utahns are near sick of the pioneer stories and one can hardly blame them. We tend to drag out the same stories year after year. It turns out there are many stories we’ve neglected as a result. If you are interested in Mormon history in the slightest I highly recommend the Pioneers in Every Land series on the Church history website.
That said, this is one of those traditional pioneer stories with wagons, persecutions, and walking… so much walking. I won’t apologize for it. This is a story of my direct ancestors. Separated as we may be by several generations their choices still reverberate through my life. Their stories are still very much mine.
Five generations ago my parents were refugees. They’d been refugees before and they would be again. They were driven by mobs in Missouri twice. Homes were burned, crops destroyed or stolen, and they, their friends, and families harassed and forced at the point of bayonet into Illinois and onto the banks of the muddy Mississippi. It must have been a desperate sight, this beleaguered group of settlers spread out in hovels and makeshift tents, sick with cholera and malaria. One might be tempted to call them a broken people.
Their prophet leader was imprisoned on false charges in a jail poorly named, Liberty. In a cell too low to stand up straight, covered by thin blankets at night, and weighed down by the knowledge of his people being scattered and smitten by the hand of a wicked and unforgiving people he, Joseph, pled:
Oh God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? How long shall thy hand be stayed and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries? D&C 121:1-2.
God would buoy him up and he would emerge from that prayer and those six months imprisonment to lift his people from despair. The saints, as they were called, drained the mire and built a beautiful city, Nauvoo. My parents were there toiling to build Zion, a city of peace and prosperity where even the bells of the horses, they imagined, would ring with holiness to the Lord. In spite of the well known opposition many flocked to the city of the saints for a chance to live among them and worship the Lord.
In the midst of that town the saints would erect a temple. It was an ambitious enterprise for a people so poor. Yet, they were determined to build a House of the Lord. They were not content to wait till death to live with God, rather, they would invite Him into their city and into their lives. To the saints God was not an abstract idea or an impersonal being beyond the comprehension of humanity. Their God was a personal being, an approachable Father. Like Moses at mount Sinai or Peter on the water they felt called, and so they gathered. A swamp is no place for deity, only a temple would do.
This is where we meet my many-great grandfather, Robert Egbert, working on the construction of the temple. He was 24 years old. It is here, too, at the unfinished temple that he would meet 17 year old Seviah Cunningham. We know nothing of those meetings but we can imagine; Robert labouring under the humidity of the mighty Mississippi and Seviah in a full length dress and bonnet aghast at her perspiration. Did she carry water to the men building there? Or was it not such a Hollywood scene. Was her back bent with the swinging of a hammer, her hands blistered with the friction of a horse hair rope? Certainly, that relationship began with stolen glances and smiles. Perhaps they talked during breaks and meals about their ambitions and dreams. Undoubtedly, they spoke of this temple they built and of the lives they hoped to build with it. Good lives.
They were married in early April 1846. They’d finish that temple under guard and when it was done they’d walk away from it to become, once again, refugees.
You’ll need just a bit more context to really understand this story. The saints had been driven from one place to the next for over a decade and they had repeatedly sought redress and assistance from state and federal governments. Joseph Smith himself travelled to Washington to lay the problem before President Van Buren and Congress. It all proved futile. The federal government refused to intervene citing states’ rights and in this case the state was the abuser. There would be no assistance.
Joseph the prophet and his brother Hyrum the patriarch were soon gunned down by a wicked mob. So it was that the saints, broken and poor, streamed out of their beautiful city under the leadership of Brigham Young. They were heading west into Mexico and points yet to be determined. Such a venture would require money, of which, they had precious little. They were leaving behind farms and houses, shops and schools and a granite temple to be used to shelter farm animals. Though, the saints were not wholly friendless. Assistance came in a peculiar way.
The United States had declared war with Mexico and wars require soldiers. It just so happens that soldiers get paid. Thomas L. Kane, a Mormon sympathizer and by all reports an honourable and decent man, worked with John C. Little to convince President Polk that the Mormons would be better in the United States army than fighting against it. Polk would authorize the recruitment of a Mormon Battalion to fight in his Mexican American War. The proposal was made to Brigham Young and he, undoubtedly, saw the hand of God in the offer. About five hundred men were recruited and advances were made on their pay. Brigham promised the men that as long as they remained faithful none of them would be required to fight. They would, however, complete the longest overland march in US military history, from Iowa to San Diego, over 2000 miles.
Robert was among those five hundred recruits. He left his young bride at Council Bluffs in Iowa to await his return. It must have been a heart wrenching departure. So often in her short 17 years had Seviah seen her dreams snatched from her hands. At about five years old her mother died. A year later the family joined the Church in Oxford, Ontario Canada and soon emigrated to Missouri to join the gathering saints. By the time of Robert’s necessary enlistment she’d been a refugee three times and had suffered the loss, one way or another, of all her loved ones. Seviah’s father had tried to persuade her not to follow Brigham Young into the wilderness but her faith had outgrown her familial ties. She had left her family for Robert’s and like Ruth to Naomi had made covenants, “for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” Ruth 1:16.
Yet here at the edge of the frontier Robert had to leave her with only the hope of a distant reunion. We consider the story of Job and marvel at the faith required in the words “the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21. Seviah, it would prove, had the strength and faith of Job. She would not wait for Robert’s return. She was going to Zion.
With the assistance of Robert’s brother, Joseph, she harnessed her oxen and prepared the wagon. She drove that team herself not as a refugee but a pioneer.
No one is all stoicism and strength. Those people don’t exist. So Seviah found herself somewhere on the prairies driving her oxen onward and losing a battle with a deep sadness. The tears that dropped from her chin and splattered on the reigns fell like silent prayers for relief. As she cried she noticed a man approaching the opposite direction and tried to hide her swollen face as he passed.
He hailed her and asked if she were not the wife of Robert Egbert. Surprised, she replied that she was. He handed her a letter from Robert which she gratefully accepted. She recognized Robert’s handwriting and cherished every word. The letter told her that he was well and would meet her at the Sweet Water River. She carefully placed the letter in her apron and drove on with renewed hope. Later that day Seviah went to read the letter again but it was nowhere to be found. It was a terrible loss but the letter was all she needed in a moment of painful weakness.
Robert and the rest of his Mormon Battalion remained faithful. by the time they reached the coast the war was over. True to Brigham’s prediction they never joined a battle. Their soldier’s pay sustained their families and supported the saint’s exodus. Released from their obligations they turned to Zion. Robert, I’m sure, was anxious to get back to his young wife and at last begin the life they had hoped for. He’d left her in Iowa, it would be a long walk. At some length he arrived at the Sweet Water River. A party of immigrants had also arrived and he thought to greet them before pressing on to Iowa where he was sure Seviah remained. Soon he saw an ox team that looked quite similar to his own. He tentatively approached the wagon and to his great joy found Seviah very pleased to see him.
Robert apologized for not having had an opportunity to write in the nearly two years they’d been apart. This naturally confused Seviah. She had received a letter and it had told her he would meet her here at this very river. Neither could explain it but they were both grateful for such a tender mercy.
Life would not be easy. Carving a livelihood out of a desert beyond all civilization must have been daunting. However, Seviah’s father soon joined them in their new Zion. Perhaps he had been inspired by his daughter’s faith. Their story doesn’t end here. Under the direction of Brigham Young they were sent on, some years later, to settle in California only to find themselves driven from that state too. Seviah and Robert would go on to have 8 children. The sixth of which would be my great-great grandmother Sarah Catherine Egbert.
We look back on these intrepid ancestors and think pioneer not refugee. We think builder not beaten and victorious not victim. Their lives were filled with hardship and deep sorrows but it seems they had higher joys. They drunk from bitter cups without in turn becoming bitter and their children’s children have reaped the benefits of their faith.
Egbert, Seviah Cunningham. (Circa 1913). Seviah Cunningham Egbert Biographical Sketch. Dictated to Carrie Despain before 1913. (Manuscript). Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
Metcalf, Brandon J. (2018). Four things to know about the journey of the Mormon Battalion: An expedition of faith and sacrifice. Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Accessed May 23, 2018 from https://history.lds.org/article/historic-sites/journey-of-the-mormon-battalion?lang=eng