Saturday, December 6, 2008

Oasis of Hope

I had no intention of entering a contest,
but I saw a half-hidden poster in the library proclaiming
the Sons of the Utah Pioneers were having a writing contest.
I had high hopes the judges would enjoy getting to know my ancestors as much as I did. To the left is Edward Munn; to the right, Sarah Pearson, his wife. They are my second great-grandparents and the reason I now have a Leon Parson print and 50 pounds of wheat.

Oasis of Hope By Michelle Erickson

Platte, I was told, means low and shallow.

Names, I thought, are deceiving. The North Platte River in Nebraska, while low and shallow, was more than a mile wide in places and about chest deep.

Whose chest they based this information on was a mystery. It certainly wasn’t mine; nor did I find the idea of crossing any stretch of chest-deep-river exciting. I wasn’t a good swimmer, but there were other reasons to dread crossing the Platte. It was perpetually hungry and had a disturbing predilection for anything we held precious: family, friends, wagons, and supplies.

The river wasn’t our only danger in Nebraska. According to the Saints who had made the trek before us, we could experience everything from raging blizzards with sub-zero temperatures, to summer heat waves whose ability to suck the moisture from you was amplified by strong parching winds. No, the Platte wasn’t paradise; it was a half way point. To me, it was as close to the troubled past as it was the hope-filled future and I was ready for hope.

My biological father abandoned us after the rest of our family was baptized in March of 1855. Unable to even hear the word “Mormon”, he walked out the front door of our beautiful home in Wiltshire, England, and didn’t look back. My mother remarried two years later; this time to a man who shared our beliefs.
In April of 1859, we boarded the ship William Tapscott and sailed from Liverpool to America. My mother, stepfather, sister, and myself, were headed west to Utah to join the main body of Saints. That was the plan.
Plans change.

Under the canopy of star-filled sky, I thought about my family. The last glimpse I had of them was from a hill top near Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Wrapped in my husband’s arms, I watched until they were out of sight. After I finished baptizing my husband’s shirt with tears, we returned to the North Platte and began our life together in Nebraska.

In spite of the raw beauty of God’s designs that were so abundant in this area, I sighed and looked around. The green bustling energy of England seemed surreal now that I was surrounded by sagebrush and the air smelled of river water rather than the sooty dampness we left behind.

As if prodded by my sigh, my husband, a handsome sandy haired, blue-eyed man, turned to me and said, “Sarah, how strong do you feel about going to Salt Lake right away?”

While the question caused me concern, I knew the answer was important for him to hear, “Edward, I accepted your proposal three days after my family reached this river. I said it then and I’ll say it now, “‘Wither thou goest, I will go.’” I quoted our private scripture, the one I used to accept his proposal, his love, and our future.

He smiled and the pain of longing for my family eased beneath the force of his happiness. My family first met Edward back in England. I was impressed enough with him that although we were practically strangers, I spun fanciful daydreams about us all the way to and from Florence, Nebraska. Florence is where my family had been assigned to travel with the George Rowley handcart company.

The moment I actually saw Edward again and realized he wasn’t one of my daydreams, my heart strings played a merry tune; especially when I saw the echo of that song in his eyes. Three days later, I accepted his proposal and we were married.

“I’m going to build a bridge to go with our trading post. Never again will Saints have to cross this river by foot, holding everything on their heads.”

We had both witnessed the heart-wrenching scenario many times over. Often, the men who crossed the Platte had to cross back and forth several times before they had everyone and everything across. They even carried members of their family on their heads and shoulders. Women kept large fires and hot drinks on both sides of the river to help their men and to dry clothes, but a bridge would be an answer to many heart-felt prayers.

“It’s a wonderful idea!” I tried to keep enthusiasm in my voice and shove aside my hopes of getting to Salt Lake before summer. “I only wish it was built earlier, so my family could have used it.” Too often, since leaving England, I felt like I had a wishbone where my backbone should be.

Edward smiled and his blue eyes were gentle with understanding, “We’ll get there, I promise.”

My husband was a man of action and a fine carpenter. He drew up the plans for the bridge and the work immediately commenced. In exchange for goods, some of the men in the pioneer companies were more than happy to help. Relentless and persistent, Edward did much of the construction on his own. The bridge was made from tree logs woven tightly together with willows and wooden pegs served as nails. When completed, it straddled the Platte near our trading post at Scotts Bluff, a mere twenty miles from Chimney Rock.
“We won’t be here forever, Sarah Ann, but the money from the toll and the store will get us a good start when we get to the valley,” Edward assured me.

The pioneers were happy to pay the toll rather than cross another river. There had been several places on the trek west that made grown men cry, but here on the Platte, so close to the valley and yet so far, the tears came more easily. Fifty cents was nothing compared to the time saved by not needing to dry off after a river crossing, warm up, and re-load carts or wagons. I knew he was right.

The bridge and store sat a little more than half way across the plains and was an oasis of hope for many Saints who were in desperate need. While I enjoyed the company of the Saints that came through, I didn’t care much for the scruffy looking trappers. It was always with a grateful heart that I watched the foul-smelling men pass over the bridge or ride out of sight. Personally, I thought they would benefit tremendously from the waters of the Platte and a large bar of lye soap. More often than not, the mountain men were infested with lice. My most uncharitable thoughts centered on pushing the men and their itch-provoking vermin into the river to cut the smell. With luck, the lice would drown. I don’t know if Edward was teasing me or not when he said the mountain men used to remove all their clothes and put them on ant piles so the ants could feast on the lice during rendezvous. I shuddered every time I thought of it and I thought about it every time they stepped into the trading post.

Then there were the Indians. Although I was petrified whenever they came into the store, for the most part, they were peaceful – even though some of them stole from us.

“They don’t understand ownership,” Edward explained after some pork went missing. “Besides, losing a pound or two of bacon is easier than losing our scalps.”

Fresh pork was especially rare on the plains. The stolen bacon had come from an old sow that one of the Saints had traded for a milk cow. Rather than try to find enough to feed the swine, Edward had traded some of the meat to a butcher for his services.

While Edward dealt with gathering the toll and helping the travelers cross the bridge, I helped by working the trading post. I enjoyed being busy. It kept me from getting homesick for England and especially for family.
It was dangerous on the frontier. Edward’s rifle became an extension of his arm. He was a good shot and the word got around. He was also a keen businessman and already built a herd by trading with the pioneers who had sick cattle. “By the end of summer, we’ll have near two hundred head,” my husband’s voice was full of satisfaction as I went about helping him close up the trading post for the night, “Saints in Salt Lake can use the meat and we’ll use the money to get a house built.”

“You can’t drive a herd that big by yourself.”

“The Lord will provide someone, He always does,” Edward was counting the money from the till.
I knew business would be heavy the next day because a scout from a wagon train headed for Oregon had already been in. My goal at the moment was to get all the rope that had fallen behind a large barrel in the front corner of the store. Being five feet tall and thin, I knew I’d be able to kneel and get my skinny arm behind the barrel.

While I was reaching behind the barrel, the front door of the store opened. Getting a whiff of the stranger, a sour mix of castorium (an oily beaver secretion), onions, alcohol, and sweat, I knew a trapper had come in. With great satisfaction, my hand closed over the rope. Greater satisfaction came from the knowledge I didn’t have to get too close to the filthy beast of a man.

“We’re closing up,” Edward said to him. “I’d appreciate it if you’d hurry.”

With rope in hand, I straightened up in time to see the trapper lowering his gun on Edward, ready to shoot. With a scream any banshee would be proud to own, I launched myself onto the man’s back, rope forgotten, and gave his ears such a boxing he’d have to wait for Christmas to hear again. I rolled away; my unexpected attack had thrown the two of us to the floor and the trapper had lost his grip on his rifle. In a heartbeat, Edward had his own rifle positioned point-blank away from the trapper’s head and his long finger rested on the trigger.

“Had enough or would you like her to finish the job?” my husband asked, “You still have some hair left.” His steely-blue eyes held something of a smile. For the first time, I noticed both my clenched fists had tufts of the trapper’s greasy black-brown hair. Odd, I didn’t remember pulling it.

The trapper gingerly picked up his rifle, sent a quick nervous look my way, and seemed rather eager to oblige my husband. As he ran out the door and out of sight, Edward kept his rifle trained on the retreating figure the entire time. I took the hair outside to dispose of in case it was infested.

“Why on earth did you let him keep his gun!?” I was irritated; my new calico skirt was torn.

“It’s a rifle, not a gun,” he gently corrected me for the thousandth time.

I snorted, “Next time, let me have the rifle.” I was not in the mood for charity.

He just looked at me, that strange smile in his eyes now played with the corners of his mouth.

“Yes, I want to shoot him!” I snapped. “I refuse to be a widow! Do you understand that?” The hostility dissipated when Edward took my hand and kissed each finger tip, lingering on my ring finger.

“I love you, Sarah. Thank you for saving my life,” he whispered, then kissed my hand, my forehead, and turned to lock and bar the door.

For some reason, the moment he turned away became the moment when everything that had just happened came home to roost in my mind, causing my body to shake and my eyes to tear.

My voice shook and I could hardly speak past the lump in my throat when he turned around, “The Lord placed that rope out of reach and kept me so busy all day I didn’t have time to do anything about it until just before the trapper came, otherwise you’d be…”

I didn’t finish the sentence, but he understood the situation even better than I did because he said, “Let’s give thanks for His mercy.”

As he prayed, the shaking left and peace filled my heart. I discovered gratitude was more powerful than fear and I was left with a calm I wouldn’t have thought possible out on the plains.

Two days later, Indians set up camp by the river, not far from the trading post. With their presence, Edward was restless and constantly checked his rifle, just in case.

He petitioned the Lord for help with the situation, to keep it peaceful. After the heart-felt prayer, Edward looked right into my eyes, “Don’t worry, Sarah, it’s all going to work out, you’ll see.”

“How?” I demanded, proper cross over yet another dangerous situation that left me fearful and doubting. I was determined to keep my husband and my scalp.

“We don’t need to know the how, just move forward, have faith, and be watchful.”

His faith was rewarded and his prayer answered the next afternoon, just before dark. Dusk was promising to paint the sunset pink and gold. We were enjoying a quiet moment on the back porch after a busy day. I was patching the skirt I had torn the night the trapper had visited, and Edward was carving a cradle, his work-roughened hands gentle as they moved over the wood where our first born would rest.

A terror-filled scream pierced our peace and, startled, both of us jumped to our feet. Less than two hundred feet from our cabin, a little Indian girl was running full-bore toward the Indian camp. A grey-muzzled timber wolf followed her. She fell and the wolf flew over her head.

Edward picked up his nearby rifle and aimed. My heart was in my throat. The wolf, now in a snarling rage, turned back to finish his helpless prey. I wanted to close my eyes, not wanting to witness what a wolf could do to a little girls flesh, but I couldn’t look away.

I knew Edward was greatly admired for his straight-shooting, but I was still afraid the bullet would hit the terrified little girl instead. Our prayers must have shot straight to heaven because when the gun fired, the wolf fell dead. The little girl turned her fear-filled face our direction, stunned at the unexpected reprieve. Then she rose, stumbling and crying, heading for the Indians’ camp. If it had been me the wolf had tried to kill, I would have fainted; in fact, I wasn’t far from it.

As the little girl disappeared, the world became very still, like a benediction. Edward’s head was bent and I knew he was praying, expressing his gratitude for a steady hand. “There would have been war with the Indians if I hit her,” he whispered hoarsely.

I hadn’t considered the idea that attempting to save the little girl could start a war, but I knew he was right. They probably wouldn’t have believed his story. I saw the whole thing unfold itself right in front of me and I could scarcely believe it. What had happened was not the way I would expect a prayer to be answered, but I found my faith in the power of prayer had grown a hundredfold.

From that moment on, we had very little trouble with the Indians stealing from us and overall, they were much friendlier. Naturally, I still longed for my family and to be with the Saints in the valley. However, when I looked out at the bridge that linked us to our future, I was content to provide an oasis of hope for those still searching for their dreams, grateful for the oasis of hope the Lord had provided in my heart.

This story about my great-great grandparents, Edward and Sarah Munn, is based on information gathered by my great aunt Thora H. Munn in 1975 while she was a member of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers.

Her sources were:
Robert I Munn (the son of Edward and Sarah in the story and my great-grandfather). There were other members of the family - specifically mentioned are the Beasleys and Donoviels (descendants of Edward and Sarah).

Ellen Pearson Briggs Cook (gathered information Sarah’s line for 40 years).

Books found in Salt Lake and Boise libraries:
Beneath Ben Lomonds Peak: Daughters of the Utah Pioneers of Weber Co. by Milton R. Hunter
Pioneers Experiences Pioneers of Utah
Pioneers came West

Family History Library: The dates, names of ships, passports and occupations were found at the Family History library in SLC and the Boise Library in Boise, Idaho.

Information on the Platte River and Toll Bridges was found in Library Encyclopedia at Boise, Idaho.

Union Pacific RR, Omaha, NE had information on land deeds. They were recorded every ten years and kept by the RR. East of Antelope Island, Davis Co. Daughters of the Utah Pioneers.

My sources
Online sources: Wikipedia for more information on the Platte River and the Mormon trail.
Rendezvous: Wyoming Tales and Trails for insight on Mountain Men and their lack of hygiene

The bridge spoken of was already built by Edward and his partner when Sarah and her family arrived. There are two different family stories concerning the bridge. In one, the bridge is toll free. In the other, 50 cents was charged. In one story, the bridge spans the Sweetwater River in Wyoming, the other the Platte River in Nebraska. I chose the Platte as the most correct because it was the official marriage place of Edward and Sarah and it was considered a half-way point. There are also two stories about Edward and Sarah’s initial meeting. One claimed it took place in England, the other claims it took place while the handcart company stopped near the trading post for supplies and repairs. Regardless of which is true, they did get married three days after reaching the Platte. Edward was a partner in both the bridge and trading post/store, not the sole owner.

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