Monday, August 1, 2011

Pioneer Stories....

I love history.  I love the stories that come with studying history.  Like a lot of people, I’m interested in the stories of my family.  I love to hear stories about my parents and grandparents.  The stories “round out” what I know of them.  I also love to hear stories about more distant relatives; particularly relatives who are also "characters."  One such character was my grandfather’s grandfather, Elijah Heitt Maxfield. 

Elijah was an interesting man, who lived an interesting life.  He was one of Brigham Young’s “boys.”  He was involved in a number of adventures, including the traveling as a teamster for a number of immigrant companies,  working a silver mine in Cottonwood Canyon, and spying on the United States Army for Brigham Young during the bloodless "Mormon War."  He was one of the volunteers who helped to rescue the stranded Willie and Martin handcart companies after the pioneer companies crossing the plains pushing or pulling handcarts were caught in Wyoming by an early blizzard.  He rode for the Pony Express and he was one of the earliest settlers of Wayne County, Utah. 

Elijah or “Lige” was born in 1832 in Prince Edward Island, Canada, to a rather well-to-do family.  He was 12 years old when his family listened to a talk by Elder J. Skerry, a Mormon missionary.  I don’t know the exact date of his baptism into the LDS faith, but I know he followed the example of his parents and other extended family members and joined the Church.  In June 1850, when Lige was 18 years old, he joined his family as the heeded the call to journey to "Zion," which, by that time, meant a journey across the country to the Utah Territory.  Lige and his family left behind 600 acres of timbered land, an active saw mill, a horse raising business, and interest in a shipbuilding company to journey into the unknown. 

The Maxfield party journeyed to Iowa, the "stepping off place" for many Mormon immigrants, but arrived too late to travel to Utah in 1850.  So they waited until the next spring to start their journey.  Lige, at 18, was the third child of 11 born to his parents.  While they waited at Winter Quarters in Iowa, Lige’s little brother, 15-year old Jesse, went back across the Missouri river to get medicine for the smallest child, who had been sick for a while.  On the way back, Jesse slipped and fell into the river and drowned.  They found only his hat.  The baby, 3-year old Quincy Benjamin, died shortly after his brother.  I could not imagine the terrible grief that Lige's parents suffered, having two of their children die so close to each other.  What is amazing to me is that their story is not unique.  So many other pioneer families lost family members on the trip West; yet they did not give up. 
Despite the tragedy of losing two children, Lige’s parents decided to continue to Utah and they left Winter Quarters the next Spring, in May 1851.  Lige’s mother, Elizabeth, started the journey five months pregnant.  As the time for the child's delivery grew near, Elizabeth became increasingly ill, so the company they travelled with delayed for two days at Ham’s Fork in Wyoming, 150 miles from the end of their journey in Utah, to see if her condition would improve.  It didn’t.  The wagon company had to move on, so the family had to decide if they would leave their mother and wife and remain with the company or stay with her in Wyoming.  Because of the dangers of a small party traveling alone the family had to choose.  They could stay with their mother until she died, and risk unfamiliar terrain or the possibility of Indian attacks, or they could continue on with the wagon company and enjoy the protection of numbers.  The family made the very tough decision to leave Elizabeth with a man and his wife who were camped at Ham's Fork.  So after making preparations for Elizabeth's burial, and saying their "final farewells," the family, including Lige, continued on their journey. 
Elizabeth gave birth to a son a couple of days later, and her health improved.  A small party of pioneers passing through Ham's Fork agreed to give her a lift into the Salt Lake Valley, and amazingly, she arrived before her family.  I can only imagine the reunion when the wagon company finally arrived in "Zion" and found not only their mother, safe and well, but a new baby brother as well. 
The Maxfield family’s story is just one of the multitude of stories of sacrifice, loss, triumph and faith that we can tell of our pioneer ancestors.  We come from amazing people. 

I often wonder if I could have taken that walk in faith; that leap into the unknown.  I don't know if I have the qualities of character that our pioneer ancestors had.  I wonder.  I know that all of us can do what needs to be done, but in today's world, we are not asked to leave everything we own and everyone we know and take a journey toward a promise.  I think that I need to find those pioneer qualities that my great-great grandfather Lige had within me. 
Elder Dalin Oaks of the LDS Church explained it best.  He said,

The foremost quality of our pioneers was faith. With faith in God, they did what every pioneer does—they stepped forward into the unknown: a new religion, a new land, a new way of doing things. With faith in their leaders and in one another, they stood fast against formidable opposition. When their leader said, “This is the right place,” they trusted, and they stayed. When other leaders said, “Do it this way,” they followed in faith.

Two companion qualities evident in the lives of our pioneers, early and modern, are unselfishness and sacrifice. Our Utah pioneers excelled at putting “the general welfare and community goals over individual gain and personal ambition.”
Faith, unselfishness, and sacrifice.  These are the pioneer characteristics that I need to  emulate.   I am a beneficiary of Lige's faith, his unselfishness and his willingness to sacrifice.  I want to honor him, and his family, for their courage.  What better way to do so than to remember their stories and to try to live with the same characteristics of faith, unselfishness and sacrifice?