This month I’m way backstage, about six hundred miles backstage. A stake in Riverside, California (they’re telling me it’s the “Jurupa” stake, but I don’t believe them), is mounting a production of the musical play “The Trail of Dreams” that was written fifteen years ago by yours truly, James Arrington, and Steven Kapp Perry.

In the play, we wanted to deal with events that occurred in various companies of Mormon pioneers. Our solution was to frame the whole pioneer saga within a single dream. We gave the dream to John Brown, who was a Prominent Pioneer and also my great-great-grandfather, in order of importance. (He stands on the “This Is The Place” monument alphabetically right next to Thomas Brown, who was wanted back in the States for killing a Dutchman and who, when he got tired of hanging out with Mormons in the valley, went back to civilization promptly to be knifed in a saloon fight. Both Browns look pretty noble in heroic bronze.)

So Brother Brown dreams that he’s the captain of all the companies and has the responsibility of getting all the saints safely to the valley. His antagonist is a graceful and mysterious woman named Angela Hopewell, whom he discovers moonlights as the Angel of Death. The battle is on, until Brown finally discovers that Sister Hopewell is on the trail not so much as the emissary of Hades as a midwife to assist suffering pioneers to be born into new life beyond the veil. Along the way, some ripping yarns are spun, all from true pioneer journals.

It fell to me to play the role of John Brown 114 times in “The Trail of Dreams,” and uncounted times after that in a one-man presentation in which the great pioneer simply tells about the exodus—for example, the story about Captain Ellsworth, the returning missionary who ably led the first handcart company across the plains in 1856. Every morning he marched out ahead of the company and set a rapid pace. He did this for three reasons. Firstly, he was a genuinely good leader. Secondly, he wanted to prove Brigham Young’s promise that crossing by handcart was a good idea. Thirdly, there were these two comely English maidens who, for their own undisclosed reasons, also habitually marched ahead of the company. They were both named Mary Ann, and the good captain enjoyed cultivating their friendship (not their friendship with each other, but with him). He cultivated so successfully that when they arrived in the valley he married both Mary Anns. He had previously revealed to them, we must imagine, that when he left on his mission to England, he was bid farewell by his faithful wife with whom he was now reunited. Mary Ann.

(I, who when addressing one of my three daughters don’t get her name right until the third try, can appreciate this particular “slip-of-the-tongue” hazard that must have disturbed many a polygamous marriage—a hazard brilliantly addressed by Captain Ellsworth.)

So in Riverside John Brown is being played by a personable Jurupite named Carl Harris. He wrote to me recently just to say hi and share his hope that he’d deliver the goods, which I’m sure he will. I felt invited backstage. Here’s my reply:


Thanks for taking the time to write such very kind words. 

I’m excited by your commitment to the role. Ironically, John Brown’s presence in the play is the most fictional element, even though a good many of his words on stage came from his journals and the facts are true about his family, his function in Brigham Young’s “vanguard company,” and his climactic moment at the top of Big Mountain on 19 July 1847…

(where he and Orson Pratt, as forward scouts, were the first of the pioneers to see the Salt Lake Valley ((I heard my grandmother once tell somebody how Brother Pratt had stopped just shy of the summit to tighten his saddle cinch, and so Grandpa Brown was actually the first—I’m perfectly confident that the descendants of Orson Pratt are telling the same story, inverted)) ).

Having such complete access to his story, along with the fact that he did cross the plains a good many times, often as a leader, was what gave us the idea of framing the whole pioneer adventure in a dream playing out in Brown’s mind, allowing him to be everywhere, know everyone, and captain every company. He didn’t die on the trail, but easily could have dreamed on his Pleasant Grove deathbed the story you’re learning to tell.

(Your character’s words about feet that felt like they’d been “hit by hammers” after crossing the cold Sweetwater are not Brown’s, but my own. They came to me with some intensity after having crossed the Sweetwater in a late September immediately downstream from Devil’s Gate.)

Break a Leg!


PS Some of the most interesting bits in John Brown’s pioneering history aren’t included in the play. I’ll share one. 

He was in Mississippi on a mission when he heard that the saints were leaving for the Rocky Mountains. So he organized a wagon train of converts and headed west, intending to hit the Oregon Trail somewhere west of the Missouri River and catch up to Brigham Young and the body of the saints on the plains. That wagon train got as far west as Fort Laramie, fully two-thirds of the distance between Nauvoo and the Salt Lake Valley, before they realized that President Young and the rest had stopped for the winter on the banks of the Missouri. Embarrassed at being so many hundreds of miles out in front of the prophet, they went south to what is now Pueblo, Colorado, with a founder of that settlement. Brown got his company settled in for the winter, then rode all the way back to Mississippi to check on his family, which he intended to bring west later, then rode to Winter Quarters and was gratefully accepted into the vanguard company, having done most of the journey already and having warmed up his mule, Zeke, with a couple thousand miles of interim riding. 

Many members of the Mormon Battalion were taken sick on their march into the Southwest and sheltered with the Mississippi saints in Pueblo, hence the “Mississippi Saints and the Mormon Battalion Sick Detachment” (now recovered) arrived in the Salt Lake Valley virtually coincident with Brigham Young. Of the two black members of that initial party, at least one, Oscar Crosby, was from the Mississippi train, being a slave belonging to the family of John Brown’s wife. 

One more story, just because that miscalculation of the Mormons’ whereabouts wasn’t the only time Brown’s zeal got him into trouble: He and Wilford Woodruff were scouting ahead of the vanguard party and got excited about a feature in the distance that turned out to be Independence Rock. Having to know for sure, they rode farther ahead than daylight allowed for. They held prayer on top of that natural wonder, considering between themselves that they were the first to do so with the power of the priesthood, then were forced to spend the night in the shadow of Independence Rock with a company of travelers from Missouri, which caused both them and their hosts some unease, but without mishap.


When they got back to the vanguard company the next day, the consternation they had caused by their disappearance was eloquently expressed.






Some folks don’t feel that the experience of the pioneers is particularly relevant to their lives, because they’re not descended from any pioneers. And it was a long time ago. And they dressed unattractively.

But on a spring morning in 1820, a stone was cut from the mountains without hands, to roll forth and expand and fill the earth. Well, fill it with what? Not rock. I think the substance of that planet-sized stone is dreams—a dream of zion, a dream of living forever with the kind of beauty and love that our Father enjoys, a dream of angels speaking again to the children of the earth.

And it was in pursuit of dreams, not of gold or of richer soil, that a few adventurous souls 165 years ago became pioneers. How big a deal was it?

By the numbers:

The number of Mormon pioneers? Men, women, and children? 70,000.

Number of pioneers who walked the entire trail? Certainly the vast majority.

Number of pioneers who came by handcart? 3,000, or 4%. (Guessed higher than that, didn’t you? There are reasons why the handcart pioneers loom large in our imaginations. We’ll consider some in a moment.)

Frequency of deaths on the trail? One in eighteen. (One in maybe 23 would have died had they stayed home.)

Period of the exodus? Twenty-two years, until the completion of the railroad in 1869.

Number of companies? Two hundred.

Number of companies a giant eagle high above the planet might see, stretched out along the trail, all at once, in an average September? Nine, averaging 350 souls in each.

Number of pioneers born as Americans? One in every four.

Number of pioneers who began the trail immediately after crossing the Atlantic Ocean? Two of every three.

Now these Mormons did not arrange to meet in small groups at the docks and buy tickets on ships that were bound for America, hoping they might meet another nice Latter-day Saint family to pal around with on deck. No. They chartered whole ships and filled them–-every soul a Latter-day Saint, except the captain and crew. And more often than not, when the ship finally landed, every soul was a Latter-day Saint.

How many ships? Ninety-seven. Eighty-seven from Liverpool, six from Hamburg, four from London.?Among them were The Argo, The Olympus, The Ellen Maria, The Forest Monarch, The Golconda, The Old England, The Germanicus, The Rockaway, The Emerald Isle, The Chimborazo, The Caravan, The Enoch Train, The Horizon, The Tuscarora, The William Tappscott, The Monarch Of The Sea, The Antarctic, The Amazon, The Caroline, The Arkwright, The S. Curling.?Grand names.

Average number of saints per ship? 434.

Distance from Liverpool to New Orleans, where more than half landed? 5,000 miles.

New Orleans to St. Louis? 1,173 miles up the Mississippi River.

St. Louis to the trailhead at Kanesville or Florence, where Winter Quarters stood? 620 miles.

Winter Quarters to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake? 1,035 miles.

Length of the journey for most? 7,828 miles.

Minor interruptions in the flow of pioneers:?1846, war between the United States and Mexico,?    

1854, war between the United States and the Lakota Nation,

1858, war between the United States and the Mormons,

1862, war between the United States and itself.    

So what is the appeal of handcarts? Were the hardships stiffer or the sacrifices greater for them than for the others? Generally not. Brigham Young, who got the idea from seeing street merchants selling things from carts in the cities of the east—carts that were never meant to travel farther than the few blocks between the merchant’s home, the source of his supply, and his spot on the sidewalk–promised the handcart pioneers that they would come to the valley cheaper, faster, and be more healthy when they got there than the wagon companies. He was right. It was obviously cheaper. The handcart companies averaged 25 miles a day to the wagon companies’ 20. And the travellers were not only stronger by the end, but a whole lot more of their children survived the trail, not having been run over by wagons—the  leading cause of death among pioneer children.

There were ten companies over the years of 1856 and 1857. Eight were hugely successful. Two were not. A company led by James Willie began their trek in the latter half of August, 1856, followed shortly by a company led by Edward Martin. It was a bad idea. Everybody voted in favor but one. Levi Savage boldly objected, saying that he thought it the height of foolishness to set out that late in the season with so many untrained pioneers. But then he went on to say that if they went, he would go with them, help them, suffer with them, and even die with them, should it become necessary.

John Watkins, a mason from Britain, had a strange dream just before the day of decision. He dreamed that all six hundred saints were gathered in a room about 40 feet square (in a dream that’s possible), and an angel turned a crank on a rotating cage in which were six hundred slips of paper, like in a lottery. Then, one by one, each of the six hundred drew out a slip, and on the slip was written whether that pioneer would live or die. When John Watkins drew out his slip of paper, he folded it over without reading it and said, “I am willing to take my chances with the rest.” He was bugler for the company.

They set out. The weather was fine. They were in a hurry. They did what they thought was wise. To lighten their loads, they tossed out heavy blankets, heavy coats, extra boots. Barely into September, the deepest, earliest, harshest winter in anyone’s memory hit them like a freight train. They weakened. They slowed. They stopped. The Willie company stopped at a point on the wide Wyoming highlands later called St. Mary’s Station. The Martin company, in no communication with the Willie company, fatally stalled at about the same time, seventy miles behind on the alkali plain east of Devil’s Gate, a plain called by the pioneers “the valley of the shadow of death.”

Food was virtually gone, and there was no shelter at all. All of them would have perished, every one, were it not for the fact that some weeks earlier they had been passed by a party of returning missionaries in a fast horse-drawn carriage, who themselves shortly experienced the rigors of the winter.

The missionaries got to Salt Lake just in time for Brigham Young to stand up in the Saturday session of General Conference and require a rescue. On Tuesday, the wagons were rolling eastward through deep snow. The Willie company was found and driven over Rocky Ridge (the highest point on the trail, at 7200 feet above sea level) to a more sheltered camp at Rock Creek, where 11 died the first night. Their mass grave was dug by two men whose own graves are only a few yards away. The 15-mile march took 27 hours, killing many and saving many more. The Martin company was taken to Martin’s Cove, where their dead were buried in the snow and ravaged by wolves.




At Echo Canyon, a rescued Martin company pioneer named Squires gave birth to a baby girl who was kept alive by being wrapped in the still-warm temple garments of one of the rescuers.



Sister Squires, perhaps wanting her baby to appreciate the horrific and triumphant circumstances surrounding her birth, named the child, “Echo.”


Margaret Dalglish, a 29-year-old single Scottish sister somehow showed up at the brink of the descent into the Salt Lake Valley with her handcart intact—most others’ had disintegrated or been burned for firewood or simply been left behind much earlier. She thrust her cart into the ravine beside the trail, sending the earthly goods she had cradled across the Atlantic and pushed across the plains crashing end over end among the stones and snow. Then she stuck out her chin and threw back her shoulders and, with nothing but the rags on her back and the faith in her heart, marched down into her new home. That’s what eyewitnesses saw, and what the historian Wallace Stegner wrote about. But I see her as a treasure galleon, with banners waving and a hold heavy with gold and spices and silk. I imagine her having learned, through unutterable trial, the poverty of material things relative to spiritual wealth.

Some of us have the notion that the Mormon pioneers saw the world in bold strokes of black or white, while we moderns squint through myriad shades of gray. If you read the pioneers’ journals, those blacks and whites are bold and clear, but the surprise is what arched in between—not  “shades of gray” at all, but a rainbow of passions and fears, dares and enormous presumptions. Their “trail of dreams” paralleled, often at a stone’s throw, two rivers that have taken on mythic proportions—the Platte and the Sweetwater—and along each of them the pioneers traveled upstream.

By the side of the Sweetwater today lie countless dull stones. Toss them into that bracing current and suddenly they are the deep blue of the night sky, the gold of sunset through clouds of dust, or the pink-white of snow, or stars. So it was with the lives of common souls who plunged into the river of pioneers and walked their thousand miles upstream into the valleys of the Wasatch to make us a home.

The Spirit has helped me imagine that the pioneers would plead with us that these valleys not become ordinary. The “valleys of the saints,” be they shaded by the Wasatch, the Appalachians, the Andes, or just very tall Iowa corn, should never become ordinary.

The whole idea of pioneering was (is) to leave Babylon behind. The trail along the south bank of the Platte was crowded with travelers pursuing richer soil and gold. The trail along the north bank, the rougher trail, was blazed by Latter-day Saints pursuing the dream of spiritual bounty and beauty. The south-bank trail ended in the rich Willamette Valley of Oregon and the gold fields of California. The north-bank trail ended in a desert waiting to blossom as a rose. To allow any stretch of real estate that has been consecrated as Zion to become ordinary, be its borders as tight as four walls and a door, is a betrayal of the dreams that drove Pioneers to pay extraordinary prices to get there.

To get here. To get wherever Zion is. Or to wherever it was imagined or commanded to be.