Elder Holland: “Standing on Their Shoulders”

Standing on Their Shoulders

Originally published in the Fall 2001 issue of Pioneer Magazine.

by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The following is an address given at the 2000 National Encampment held in Cedar City, Utah.

Standing on Their Shoulders Inasmuch as our topic is “Standing on the Shoulders of Others,” there are none on whose shoulders we have stood so firmly as our own parents, and I wish to pay tribute to them tonight in all that I say about our earlier pioneer fathers and mothers.

I am very proud to say that I am a son of Utah pioneers. I am even more proud to say I am a son of southern Utah pioneers. My roots go very deep in the pioneer soil of this part of the state. It adds to my pleasure that you are holding this national encampment in southern Utah. I thought it not inappropriate if my brief remarks focused on this ruggedly beautiful area.

In 1849 Governor and the legislative assembly of Deseret desired to know more of what lay to the south in what would eventually be our state of Utah. An expedition of 50 men under command of Parley P Pratt was authorized to explore this area with a view to assessing its resources and planning for its occupation and settlement. This group reached Little Salt Lake on December 2, 1849, and camped on the excellent meadows of Red Creek.

Then Brother Pratt, with a party of 20, pushed on south, followed Ash Creek to the Virgin down which they continued to the mouth of the Santa Clara where they camped on New Year’s Day 1850. I remember in my youth reading Elder Pratt’s impressions of the Virgin River country and I did not think them particularly complimentary. While exploring somewhere on the lower reaches of Ash Creek (I have supposed it was somewhere between what we would now identify as the Black Ridge and Pintura or Toquerville) he wrote:

“The great Wasatch range along which we traveled our whole journey here terminates in several abrupt promontories [those would be the ruggedly beautiful edges of Kolob, Zion’s Canyon, and the upwarp of the Hurricane Fault] the country southward for 80 miles showing no signs of water or fertility… A wide expanse of chaotic matter presented itself huge hills, sandy deserts, cheerless, grassless plains, perpendicular rocks, loose barren clay, dissolving beds of sandstone lying in inconceivable confusion. The country below being of the most unpromising character, and our animals almost unable to travel it was thought imprudent to venture further.” (Parley P, Pratt, Utah Historical Quarterly, July-October 1944, p. 133.)

It’s that phrase “most unpromising character” that hurts the feelings of a St. George boy. Now we have had folks north of the Black Ridge telling us we were of “unpromising character” for years, but it’s pretty hard when the original source of that assessment is an apostle of the Church and the indictment was uttered 150 years ago!

After going down the Virgin, the Pratt party turned up the Santa Clara to the old trail that had been blazed by the Jefferson Hunt party, one of my wife’s ancestors, and this they followed to the Great Basin, back to the camp at Red Creek. On this wide circular trip encompassing much of what is now Iron and Washington counties, they discovered the rich deposits of iron ore located west of Cedar City. Those findings and recommendations of the Pratt company led directly to the creation of the Iron Mission and the colonization of both Parowan and Cedar City in 1851. Colonization of other points southward followed apace.

Needless to say, these were hard times and when we talk about standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, I am not sure we have any real idea of what they did to settle this state we love so much, what hardships they endured and what sacrifices they made to see through to maturity the beginnings of these little communities. I can only hope we as their sons and daughters carry at least some of that moral grit and dogged fortitude.

I remember as a young man growing up on the stories of these early settlers in Dixie fighting the heat, the malaria, the alkali soil, and the turbulent spring floods of the temperamental Virgin River. But those problems down in Washington County were only a variation on a theme for the problems faced here in Iron County and, indeed, in the entire southern part of the state.

I read recently of something called “The Great Storm,” which came in January and February 1862, leaving its mark of death and destruction on the settlements of this area. The horrendous snow and rainstorms of that winter practically ruined the settlements of Santa Clara, Grafton, and Tonaquint, and Fort Harmony was almost literally washed away. At that time Harmony was the Washington County seat, the territorial legislature having created that entity 10 years later.

The fort that was built during the summer of 1854 on a location about four miles up from John D. Lee’s original place of settlement had been declared the best of its kind in the territory by no less an authority than Brigham Young himself. That fort— 300 x 300 feet in size—basically housed the people of Harmony. But as it turned out, it had one glaring defect shared by many of the structures of that early period: its walls were built of adobe. Relentlessly the nonstop storms of this season, accompanied by driving winds, slowly dissolved the adobe brick, washed away the walls, and dismantled the earthen foundation.

The account of this storm with such great property loss and personal tragedy is related by John D. Lee in his diary Lee was at the time president of the Harmony Branch and keeper of the ward record. On December 29, 1861, he spoke of the storms raging through the week with “the earth a sea of water.” On January 1, 1862, he wrote, “[The day and the year] begin with a storm and the face of the country is deluged with water.” On January 4, he reported that “Fort Harmony is almost decomposed, and returned back to its native element.”

Listen to this sequence from the Lee diaries:

“Saturday, January 4, 1862—Snow about 8 inches deep.  [My] family [has] suffered severely during the storm as they were trying to make shelters at their new location: the water in their underground rooms raised to a depth of 3 feet, [They are] bailing night and day, but unable to it out and were at last compelled to abandon them and [face] the storm in shantys made of planks.

“Tuesday, January 7—Snow through the day

“Thursday, January 9—Snow 10 inches deep,

“Sunday, January 13—The storm is still raging, spreading a mantle of gloom over Harmony, the walls of which are constantly crumbling down, rendering the houses actually dangerous..

“Monday January 14—The storm most vehemently raging. About 1 p.m. [my] barn fell. The side had been washed out several days before and the timbers alone [were supporting] it.  This was a time of watching as well as praying, for there was a prospect of being buried in masses of ruins; about midnight part of the South wall fell with an awful crash. … At length daylight came. Storms still raging.

“Saturday, January 18—[I have gone] 8 days without undressed or putting on dry clothes. The families were removed through the storm, women and children soaking wet.”

Reports of that week say that further south the Rio Virgin and Santa Clara rivers were overflowing and doing much similar damage. Diaries and journals of the day record that Jacob Hamblin’s mill was washed away. Orchards and vineyards in the area were desolated. The towns of Adventure, Rockville, Grafton, and Pocketville were virtually all destroyed. One entry said Bishop R.K. Smith’s cane mill, blacksmith shop, 150 gallons of molasses, and much of his household and kitchen furniture were washed away with the flood. Bishop N.C. Tenney lost his house and furniture, more tragically part of his family. Brother Lee’s journal continues:

“Monday January 27—Snowing continues through the night, six more inches,

“Wednesday, January 29—Eight more inches.

“Friday, January 31—This morning the sun was seen for the first time in 28 1/2 days. At 1:00 p.m. it commenced to snowing again.

“Thursday, February 6—Snowing about 10 a.m. about 10 inches deep, the wind cold and cutting. As one mother in Harmony felt impressed to finally abandon her home, she gathered up three of her children, leaving two of the younger ones inside as she made preparations. Just a few paces from her door a sudden gust of wind took down the single partition wall on the upper floor of their cabin, breaking through to the lower floor, killing the two smaller children who had been left inside.”

As if the storms and floods, rocks, heat, and disease weren’t enough, these folks even had their own southern Utah version of the Mormon cricket problem. John S. Stucki, an early settler in Santa Clara, wrote of his father’s struggle to get a piece of good land developed. After a disastrous experiment on that alkali soil, he writes:

“Then he got a chance to grub out two acres of timberland… it took us a long time to grub out the timber and level it all by hand with shovels to make it good for watering. We planted it to corn and were to have all we could raise on it for two years for getting the land into good farming condition. It was very rich land, corn grew beautifully and was starting to make ears…  Father sent me into the field to hoe weeds. All at once the ground was shaded, it was grasshoppers that darkened the sky. They were so many that in two days they ate the crops all up. There was nothing green left in the valley after the grasshoppers left.

“The next year my father planted corn again. The grasshoppers came again and ate our corn and everybody’s crops in about three days.”

Later on the Stucki family was able to buy a small piece of timberland, which family members again leveled with shovels and planted to corn, but just before the corn was ready to harvest a summer flood came and washed the land away, leaving only a deep wash gouged in the earth and no corn for anyone. One wonders what kept these people going. Some spring seasons found many of these families without food except for the pig-weeds that grew abundantly. The miserable and untasty delicacy they “cooked in water without anything more nourishing to go with them, as we had no cow, no flour, no seasoning of any kind, not even a bit of bread for the little children.”

In this particular account young John Stucki notes that he finally got permission from his parents to try to find someone who could feed him for the work he would do in return. He went to Washington where the Iverson family from Denmark took him in and gave him food and lodging. In his journal, he wrote:

“I have never forgotten when on a Sunday morning I would go home the eleven or twelve miles to see how my folks were, and the good old lady would give me quite a big lunch of pancakes to take along for my dinner. How I used to rejoice to think that I could bring those pancakes to my little brother and sister so they could have a little better dinner on Sunday and I could eat the pig-weeds instead of them.”

Obviously we are all deeply moved by such courage, such Christian compassion, such determination to see to completion the task Brother Brigham and the others had given them. I suppose that is one of many reasons I am grateful for your organization— that you fan the flame and keep alive the stories of sacrifice and devotion that characterize these people, our forefathers and mothers. We owe it to them that their faith and their courage not be forgotten. I have never met John Stucki or the thousands like him from whom we have descended, but I want to thank him for those pancakes he gave to his little brothers and sisters, that their lives might be elevated a little. We are, in a sense, those little brothers and sisters, and our lives have been elevated by these pioneers.

Truly, we stand on their weary shoulders.

As a conclusion to my remarks, Brother Myers has suggested that I refer to part of my own personal heritage. I am a little reluctant to do that because I think any honor and glory our forefathers carved out of this land was to their acclaim, not ours. It still remains to be seen whether we will be the kind of men and women they were. Nevertheless, at his request, let me just note that four of my grandparents gave their every effort and ultimately their lives to carving out an existence in this part of the state, a heritage you and I and many others now have lived to enjoy just so few generations later. Each of the four men in mind—William Carter, Richard Bentley, William Snow, and —deserve an address and an essay of their own. I am their great-great-grandson and feel torn in giving unequal time tonight to what they did, but for your sakes I must do that.

From among those four let me just cite one experience and one memorable phrase from Robert Gardner, who tonight will be allowed to speak for all of my grandparents. I choose him because Robert had influence and left family legacies in both St. George and Cedar City, the two principal cities of southern Utah in our time. Furthermore he lived most of his life in Pine Valley, something of a neutral mid-point in our geography, not unlike New Harmony.

After leaving Scotland as a child, Robert joined his family in Canada where they found the gospel of Jesus Christ and were baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Shortly after joining the Church he and a friend decided to go to Nauvoo to meet the prophet, the apostles, and the Latter-day Saints rapidly gathering there. That experience convinced him that he wanted to live with the Saints and when they moved west, he moved with them. His work at the sawmill in Millcreek Canyon in Salt Lake City was interrupted with a call to go back to Canada on a mission. After returning from that assignment, Robert felt that perhaps life could now be prosperous. He recorded in his very thorough journal that his had been a hard life almost every day since leaving Scotland 39 years before. But he said to himself “I have been well off before and my property all went. I am almost afraid of another such fall.”

In just a few hours, sure enough, news came of another “fall as far as property was concerned. A neighbor came running to Robert, reporting that he had heard my grandfather’s name read with a list of others who were to make a new settlement in the southern part of the state to grow cotton. He was then asked to be ready for this mission very soon.

Robert thought of the hardships his family had endured and those they would have to endure in the new mission. He thought of the successful mill, the beautiful farm in Cottonwood, and the beginning of happiness that he would see in his little family’s life. But then he thought of his conversion, his baptism, and his acquaintance with the Prophet Joseph Smith. He looked at his neighbor, took off his hat, scratched his head, spit, and said, “All right, I’ll go.”

The Canadian forests of his youth had been wild and fierce. The swamps he crossed on that walk to Nauvoo were deep and cold, the thistles were sharp and piercing. The 1,000-mile round trip was long and lonely. Then the prairies were wide and the rivers deep, the mountain streams swift and icy between Nauvoo and the Salt Lake Valley. He had cleared forests and drained swamps. He walked with nothing more than a bag of crackers to eat and the clothing on his back. He had walked and walked. He had swum rivers, he had waded mountain streams, and he did these things unafraid and uncomplainingly.

But when Robert left Cottonwood, made his way south, and met some of his old friends in the city of Washington, Robert was truly afraid, perhaps for the first time. The appearance of these friends was the source of the fear. Nearly all of them had malaria. They had all worked tirelessly in this hard, new country. They had worn out their original clothes and had replaced them from the poor cotton they had grown in their own lots and farms. The women had carted, spun, woven by hand, and colored the cloth with weed dyes. Robert noted that these men, women, and children were clothed with a color of cloth that matched the sickly blue of their faces.

He then looked at his charming and beautifully dressed wife and his two children who were still fresh and dainty. He thought of the days ahead when the terrible stamp of sun and sickness and fever might be placed upon them. He confided in his diary that this experience tried him more than anything in all his long Mormon experience, but he looked away to the red hills, the black ridge, the muddy river ahead of him, took off his hat, scratched his head, spit, and said,

“We will trust in God and go on.”

“We will trust in God and go on.” Perhaps in this memorable millennial year encampment, nothing says more of standing on the shoulders of our pioneer ancestors than does that phrase. We have entered into a new era, a new milestone of time as we face the promising future. In every way and in every direction we see so much more of the material blessings and conveniences of life than our forefathers had. The magnificence of our day with its travel and communication and personal wealth surely could not even have been imagined in the mind’s eye of even the boldest of our pioneer ancestors.

But surely the question for us tonight is not in what we enjoy that we did not have but what they had which we must make certain we never lose. The faith, the determination, the perseverance, the industry, the sacrifice, the love of Christ and the gospel, the loyalty to living leaders of His restored church, the belief that if we do our best before God and men it will be better for our children and our children’s children in generations to come.

As sons of Utah pioneers, we have an immense obligation to pass on to our posterity those virtues and character traits, those qualities of heart, soul, and mind that our ancestors gave us. The ease and luxury, the bounty and material blessings may come and they may go. Who knows what lies ahead for any of us in that regard? But what must not pass away and that in which we must never be found wanting are these moral characteristics, that willingness to face the future, including any snow-storming, river-flooding, malaria-laden, sun-scorched challenges of the future, and not be found wanting in this new millennium. In doing so we stand so gratefully, with total acknowledgement, on the shoulders of those who have gone before.

May we look at our red hills, black ridges, muddy rivers, and stern soil, if that is what is to be, and say, “We will trust in God and go on.”


(Note: Much of the history shared in this talk is taken from the book “I Was Called to Dixie“, by Andrew Karl Larson, published in 1961,.

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