Friday, March 27, 2009

Gibbs and Berry Return: The legend lives on

If you have been reading this blog long you will know I have been trying to track down the source for the urban legend that the Cane Creek area was reopened to missionary work by a descendant of Elder Gibbs and a descendant of Elder Berry. Click here to see my other posts on this subject.

Recently I have been corresponding with the daughter of Elder Eugene Jens Gibbs. This Elder Gibbs served in the Southern States Mission from 1942 to 1944. I first found Elder Gibbs in a Deseret News Article dated 9/18/1943. The article has some errors, but the general idea is that there were several companionships made up of an Elder Gibbs and an Elder Berry: 1884, 1885, 1899, and 1943. I have also found evidence of Elders in 1906.

The 1884 one we know about. But actually Elders Gibbs and Berry were not companions. Not that it matters, but Gibbs and Jones were companions and Berry and Thompson were companions. Detail, details...

Shortly thereafter the brother of Elder Berry and the brother of Elder Gibbs are said to have served in the Southern States Mission. I have no dates or verification. This does not appear to be true. None of the surviving brothers of Gibbs or Berry served missions after 1884. But I do see William Henry Gibbs, who may be the first cousin of John H Gibbs who arrived in the Southern States Mission in October 1884. He stayed until 1887.

The early 1899 companionship, according to the article was supposed to be the son of Gibbs and the son of Berry. However, Elder Gibbs only son, John H Gibbs Jr., served his mission from 1905 to 1907. Elder Berry had two sons serve in the Southern States Mission. John William Berry and Jesse A. Berry both served from 1899 to 1900. John served in Southern Tennessee, and Jesse served in North Alabama. Neither of them served with the son of John H Gibbs. John William Berry did have a companion named William Henry Gibbs Jr. Since first writing about him I found he maybe a first cousin once removed to John H Gibbs. They worked together in Hamilton County just north of Chattanooga, Tennessee. They never went near Lewis County.

As I said before, Elder Gibbs only son served in the Southern States, but he served in Virginia (May 05 - Feb 06) and South Carolina (Mar 06 to Mar 07) with a short stay in the mission office in between. At the same time Elder George Berry served in the same mission. But this Elder Berry is from South Carolina, not southern Utah, and is no relation to the Elder Berry killed in 1884. I don't see that they ever served together.

And the 1943 companionship? Well, according to Eugene Gibbs daughter, her father told her that he along with a companion named Elder Berry (Alfred Oron Berry) were indeed called upon to open the Cane Creek area to missionary work and that the Mission President made a special trip to take them there. I do find Elder Berry in the Southern States Mission at the same time. So far I can document that he was serving in Florida. And Elder Gibbs was in the Southern States Mission too. He was serving in Mississippi and North Alabama. It isn't a perfect fit for the urban legend. This Elder Gibbs is a second cousin twice removed of John H Gibbs. And this Elder Berry is the great grand nephew of William S Berry. Both relatives, but not descendants. But did they re-open the area as Elder Gibbs daughter says? Maybe.

I have two problems I can't reconcile. In 1943, Cane Creek, Tennessee was not in the Southern States Mission; It was part of the East Central States Mission, and had been since 1928. I know that extra mission activity was not unheard of, I can think of a couple examples off the top of my head, but I would expect them to be better documented. Which brings me to my second problem. Why would such an event not have been chronicled in the Liahona: The Elders Journal? It would be like a BYU newspaper not writing that BYU had beaten U of U at football.

So these Elders had two mission presidents William P Whitaker, and Heber Meeks. Both have papers donated to manuscript libraries, Idaho State and BYU respectively. If one of them made the effort to take two of his missionaries out of the mission to open an area of historical significance, I would expect it to be in his journal. I am too far away to do this myself. Any takers? It may be a wild goose chase. It may have been a mission president from the East Central States Mission. It may have happened at the end of their mission as they were on their way home. It may not have happened until 1947 (see below), after the Liahona ceased publication.

[On a side note. Bruce E. Belnap, a missionary working in Lewis County in 1949, claimed that the area was closed to missionary work until 1947, and that in 1949 he witnessed the first baptism from Cane Creek since 1884. Bruce E Belnap was the grandson of Hyrum Belnap one of the early missionaries to Cane Creek. I'll have more on that in my next post.]


Ardis Parshall said...

Another question to consider might be what it means in Tennessee when an area is "closed." In France, where we were spread so thin, an area was "closed" if there weren't missionaries living there -- but when there was some need to minister to a contact in a "closed" city, elders were sent from the nearest point.

But in rural Tennessee where elders tracted and ministered over wide areas without being assigned to a single city the way we were in France, what would it mean for Cane Creek to be "closed"? A formal ban would have had to be publicized to all missionaries assigned anywhere in that area at any time, which means that such a ban would be prominent in the records; that it is NOT suggests that there was no such ban. And if elders could come and go as the spirit dictated, or as they were called upon by, say, the Talleys or others right there, then why in the world would there ever have been a formal "opening" of Cane Creek, especially one that called for extra-mission activity or the presence of any mission president?

That's a long, convoluted way of saying that I doubt that Cane Creek was ever "closed" beyond the immediate aftermath of the massacre. There may have been times when elders didn't pass through for long periods, just as there were places in France that didn't have a regular and constant missionary presence, but the "opening" of such an area doesn't require anything more than a "hey, let's tract in that direction this week."

I applaud your hunting for any possible support for the legend. I'm not surprised that you're having trouble finding support, though.

BruceCrow said...

My own ward here in rural Tennessee recently lost our assigned set of missionaries. Is our area closed to missionary work? And when we get a new set of missionaries months or years in the future, will our area be "re-opened?"

Related to that, there were areas in my mission in Hong Kong where we were not allowed to go (crime or visa issues). But it was never written instruction. It was announced during mission conferences.
If I were an historian digging for proof of that restriction, I doubt I will ever find that instruction written down in an official mission publication. But perhaps I might in a letter I wrote home or in my journal.

Logan & Nicole said...

My name is Logan Thomas Berry, and Alfred O. Berry is my grandfather. I'll have to ask him about it the next time I talk to him.

BruceCrow said...

That would be wonderful. Have you ever heard about this story before, perhaps discussed in family circles?

Darrell said...

I was a missionary to the East Central States MIssion. In 1956 they tried to place me and my companion in Hohenwald, but we could not find any place to live.We went to another town. We were told that there had not been missionaries there since the killing of Gibbs and Berry. Where that information came from , I do not know.

BruceCrow said...

Darrell, Thanks for stopping by and saying hello. As you can tell, you were not the only one told they would be (or in your case would have been) opening up Cane Creek again. I'm sure it is just a matter of people just had no idea. The missionaries who did find a place to rent in Hohenwald in 1947, actually were kicked out after a month because the land lady found out they were Mormon.

I'd like to hear more about your mission. Did you serve anywhere else in Tennessee? You can email me at