Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Soren Peterson's Visit to Cane Creek

[Ardis posted a great story about a missionary referral assigned to Soren Peterson in 1908. I knew I had seen the name before. But as I recalled the context, I remembered why I had dismissed his Cane Creek story as not entirely reliable. Judge for yourself.]

Late in 1906, Soren Peterson was attending a mission conference in London, England. He was a 40 year old missionary on his second mission. In that context he was probably one of the oldest most experienced missionaries serving. As people are wont to do when gathered together, Soren began sharing stories. In this case one story was recorded in the Millennial Star. He told how as a young man (18 years old) he followed the funeral procession of John H. Gibbs to his "last resting place." This was credible since he was born and raised (and later died) in Cache County, Utah where Gibbs was buried. But the story didn't end there.

"Eleven years later, in August, 1895, he, in company with Elder E[rastus] S[now] Larson, of Coveville, Utah, visited Cane Creek and preached in the log cabin in which the meeting was held prior to the tragedy. The Condor home had been burnt down two months before, but they were told that the blood of the martyrs was there till that time, and that all efforts to erase it had been in vain. David Hinson, the leader of the mob, was killed by James R. Hutson, a half-brother of the Condor boys, at the time of the tragedy. The murderers were permitted to go unpunished so far as the law of the land was concerned, but the vengeance of heaven overtook them. Elder Peterson was told by reliable people that Hinson's brother, one of the mob, got into trouble with a man who cut his flesh almost into shreds. So acute was his suffering that he plead with his friends to put him to death and thus end his pain. He said that the reason why he had to suffer thus was because he had assisted in putting to death two servants of the Lord. Before his death his flesh dropped from his bones. All the other members of that notorious gang died unnatural deaths. Four of them became raving maniacs, and died in lunatic asylums.
And now we find the sons[1] of those faithful missionaries who laid down their lives for the testimony of Jesus, following in the identical footsteps of their fathers, and proclaiming the Gospel to the people of that blood-stained region. At the time of Elder Peterson's visit to Cane Creek he found a very flourishing branch of the Church there. The people seem to have learned a lesson from the judgments which the Lord meted out to those who shed the blood of His Saints. Surely the Lord has kept His saying : "Vengeance is mine, I will repay."

This story, admittedly related second hand by a reporter named Robert Price, is a great example of the way Mormons tell urban legends. He begins by establishing his authority to tell the story both with his youthful attendance at the funeral procession and his serving a mission to Cane Creek. He wraps up his brush with fame by painting the world just the way his fellow missionaries would like to see it; The wicked suffer for their sins in this life and the kingdom of God rolls forth despite their efforts.

There are a few problems with his version of history.

I'm not expecting him, or anyone else, to get everything right. Nor would that even be possible. But there are a few things for which there is clear evidence.

  • He could not have "preached in the log cabin in which the meeting was held prior to the tragedy" though he might have preached in a cabin connected with the tragedy. The cabin where the meeting was, the Conder home, had been destroyed by fire. He could have preached in the cabin the missionaries slept in the night before, a mile away, belonging to Tom Garrett. It wouldn't be the first time (or the last time) someone confused the two cabins. Even today a photo of Tom Garrett's cabin can be found in the Church History Library labeled as the Conder home. 
  • He does note that the "Condor home had been burnt down two months before," The phrase got my attention because I had seen it before. According to Willard W. Bean, who visited Cane Creek in April 1894, the Conder home had burned down two months prior to his visit.   Bean's report of his visit came out in the October 1895 issue of the Contributor without any indication of the date of his visit. Could Peterson have read that detail in the paper and simply inserted it into his version? It is plausible, even understandable.
  • I wont parse out the lack of evidence for the horrible fate of the vigilantes here. There is no room and I have already done so in my book and elsewhere. But I certainly see why that aspect of the story just begs to be repeated.
  • Peterson wrapped up his story saying "At the time of [his] visit to Cane Creek he found a very flourishing branch of the Church there." In 1895, however, there was no branch of the Church in the whole county, let alone at Cane Creek. Better documented visits by missionaries were made before and after 1895; one[2] in 1894 and two more[3] in 1897. In each case there was no branch of the Church in all of Lewis County, let alone a flourishing one at Cane Creek. The next time a branch was formed in the area was on 8 February 1898 after several baptisms.
So what was Peterson thinking? Was his recall suspect in 1906 at age 40? I doubt it. Forty was old in 1906, but not that old. Did he just get the date wrong? Not likely. Peterson went home in July 1897. His companion in this story, Elder Larsen, went home on July 1896. Both went home long before the branch was reformed in 1898, though he would have heard about the baptisms at Cane Creek at the end of his mission. Was he following the adage that you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story? Possibly. What do you think?

[1] Two of the sons of Elder Berry served missions in the Southern States in 1899-1901. Elder Gibbs' only son served a mission in the Southern States in 1905-1907.
[2] Elder Willard Washington Bean was tasked with visiting Cane Creek on his way home after his mission. He wrote about his visit in some detail.
[3] Some time in mid-1897, Elders Nels P. Nelson  and John L. Bench walked through Lewis County on their way to an appointment in Wayne County to the south. They spoke with a number of residents, most were reticent to talk about the massacre.  Then late in the year, A. L. Cullimore and M. B. Poole accidentally wandered into Lewis County on their way to Perryville. After realizing their mistake they took shelter with three different LDS families and on December 27th end up baptizing two young men. Several more baptisms over the next several weeks led to the formation of a branch.


Ardis said...

Added to your list of factual errors would be that Hutson was not a half-brother to the Condor boys, he WAS one of the Condor boys. His getting that wrong is understandable since it happened before he got there, but the errors in what he claimed to have been a part of can't be excused that way.

The supposed gruesome deaths of "all the other members of that notorious gang" fits right into that standard folk trope of the gruesome "fate of the persecutors of Joseph Smith" and I suppose any number of other similar incidents, probably because of the wish to believe, as you say, that "the wicked suffer for their sins in this life."

I don't know what to make of Peterson and his story, but expositions like this one are always interesting and valuable, in demonstrating how historians have to evaluate the reliability of any account. Even people who don't go any deeper into history than to listen to Pop talk about how he walked five miles in the snow every day, uphill, both ways, to go to school, need to be able to analyze and evaluate historical accounts!

Thanks for posting this, especially in connection with the Keepa post.

BruceCrow said...

Nice catch on Hutson. I read that three times and didn't notice it. I didn't even notice that the name was incorrectly recorded as James (His name was John). But as you say, that mistake was understandable.

The Other Clark said...

Nice. Having listened to my fair share of oral history, a few unspoken philosophies occasionally pop up.

"If a story doesn't get better with each telling, what's the point of retelling it?"

"Do you want it to be interesting, or do you want it to be true?" (This last one is evident even in some Church manuals, and should prompt the reply "so far it's neither.")

BruceCrow said...

I love both of those philosophies. I'll have to find some way to use them.