Many people my age learned about the old west from Death Valley Days, a television show that ran from the time I was the age of four until I was in college. It was hosted briefly by Ronald Reagan the future President’s last gig as an actor before he became a politician… or is that redundant?
But I had a personal guide to the old west during that span, one with first hand experience. The youngest of my great grandparents, Ralph Messersmith, was born in 1879 just two years after Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant was succeeded as President. He lived until 1973 while I was in law school.
Most of my family were staunch, very conservative Republicans, but it is from Ralph, a proud F.D.R.- Democrat, that I gained an appreciation for more progressive policies, especially toward American Indians and other ethnicities.
He was a genuine progressive era progressive and very close friends with George Dern, a progressive governor of Utah and Secretary of War under Roosevelt. Ralph pulled my sensibilities to the center, where they remain today.
He was born and lived all of his life in and around a valley where the Pony Express had skirted the sound end of the Oquirrh Mountains to head west along the edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert, a series of salt flats including Bonneville made famous since the 1930s for land speed records.
Many times Ralph drove me along the old trail, pointing out where the Express riders would change horses at the old Faust Ranch before it became a stagecoach route.
He would always describe how my great-great grandfather Thomas had passed the ranch as he rode east along the trail in 1862 as a Union Cavalry trooper in the 3rd California Volunteers, having recently saved the life of commanding General Patrick O’Connor during a skirmish with a band of Shoshoni.
Their mission was to protect the overland stage route used to ship gold east to fund the war effort to preserve the Union. Thomas had enlisted following a not-so-successful mining venture with his soon-to-be famous friend Samuel Clemmons, pen name Mark Twain.
As his son would do, Tom went both by Messersmith and Smith, and both variations appear in Twain’s letters home.
They (and I) descend in part from German Palatines, who fleeing the frequent invasions from the French emigrated to America in the 1700s. They settled in Pennsylvania, migrated to southwest Virginia and then to Missouri where my great-great grandfather was born and raised prior to accepting Twain’s invitation to join him out west.
Ralph brought to life his father’s memories of riding as a cavalry trooper through the adobe buildings of deserted Camp Floyd. Until the year before it had encamped nearly a quarter of the entire U.S. Army at the time including the Second Dragoons, Fourth Artillery and Fifth, Seventh and Tenth Infantry units.
Ostensible they were deployed to put down a so-called Utah rebellion but historians now speculate that the Secretary of War at the time and namesake for the camp had sent as many federal troops as he could west because as a Virginian he anticipated the Civil War.
At Camp Floyd, the military units had been led by soon-to-be Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston. At the outbreak of the Civil War, these troops headed east with a third of the officers and a quarter of the troops joining the Confederacy.
By the next year when my great-great grandfather’s Union cavalry arrived, General Johnston had already fallen as a casualty at the Battle of Shiloh, a pivotal Civil War engagement along the Mississippi-Tennessee line with Union generals Grant and Sherman.
My great-great grandfather would have also ridden past Fairfield and Cedar Fort where he would eventually settle, marry, raise a family, ranch and herd sheep. Ralph gave me a New York Times clipping describing that Fairfield, a village across the creek from the Camp Floyd, was also known as “Frogtown” because at the time it was “wholly inhabited by gamblers and “grog-sellers.”
For two generations of students, 1926-1944, Ralph had driven the first school bus from Fairfield to Cedar Fort, stopping along the five mile route to teach the kids how to properly and safely handle a rifle for target shooting and hunting.
He also shared with me his genuine affection for Skull Valley Indians, a band of Goshute, part of the Western Shoshonis indigenous to the Great Basin. This band would bring their horses to Cedar Fort when Ralph was the age of my grandsons now and hunt in the nearby canyons.
A soon-to-be chief tragically died on one of these visits and the burial made a lifelong impression on Ralph who would always care for their graves on “Decoration Day,” along with that of his parents.
On one trip to show me the narrow and stream-filled Skull Valley bookended by the Cedar and Stansbury mountain ranges, he stopped to point out what as he was growing up had once been the Iosepa (pronounced Youseepa) Agriculture and Stock Company.
By my visit it had become a somewhat eerie ghost town. The areas streams had also drawn herders such as my great-great grandfather.
The ranch was run by Polynesians he called Kanakas. They had met with discrimination when as Mormon converts they had emigrated to Utah in the 1880s so the church established the ranch and nearby town for them in August of 1889.
But the harsh climate took its toll on a people native to places such as Hawaii. It became a deserted ghost town by 1917 when most Kanakas had returned to the islands of the Pacific because the Mormons had erected a temple there.
Ralph admired their tenacity and gentleness and music. He often used their story to reinforce upon me that discrimination such as the Kanakas and Goshute experienced was morally wrong and un-American.
It wasn’t until 1978 that the Mormon Church returned to the ethnic tolerance and acceptance of its roots. A few weeks ago a new introduction to its scriptures notes that “records offer no clear insights into the origins” of that span when it wasn’t.
Even churches are subject to internal politics and factions. It is nice to see one that can overcome them. However, that period may be the reason my great-grandfather was never active in the church.
Four years before he was born, his parents and other Mormons in Cedar Fort listed all of their property on a notification to the church that they were going to live the United Order, a religious collective.
However, while many communities experimented with this approach at the time, Cedar Fort was cautioned to wait with the words – “Wait till the head moves, before the tail starts to wiggle.” Within a few year the movement faded.
Ultra-conservative now, the Mormon Church has a long tradition of social and cultural innovation.
By the time I was in college the Skull Valley Indian families Ralph would visit a few miles from the Kanka’s ranch had dwindled from 20 families to just 2 but he continued to regale me with stories about the chiefs he had known such as Old Moon, William, Dick Mooni and Johnny Bear.
Each year when I was young, Ralph would go out before Christmas and buy several pair of beaded gloves as gifts for friends and family, one of several treasures I have lost during various moves. He was also sure to stop and pay respects to 53 Kanakas graves on the old ranch.
Other than the kids buried in Cedar Fort during his youth, he never learned where the Skull Valley band buried their dead.
Sometime after my first year of college and one of Ralph’s final visits, more than 6,000 head of sheep mysteriously died in the area where my great-grandfather had herded his.
It turned out that the day prior, an F-4 Phantom strike fighter like the one my uncle was then flying over North Vietnam had dropped chemical weapons as an open-air test over the Dugway Proving Ground, a practice banned in 1969.
In his twenties, Ralph went up into the Oquirrah Mountains mining districts. In Mercur he bought and managed a herd of horses for the Golden Gate Mining Company. He also rode shipments as a sharpshooter and ran a livery stable in town.
Ralph was also elected to the City Council there and worked to run electricity to what is now a popular ghost town. My maternal grandmother Erma Deane was born there. It is probably also where he became close friends with soon-to-be Governor Dern.
Prior to that Ralph had served earlier in a similar capacity three miles south at Sunshine Mine where his lifelong friend Will Evans also ran the M & M Saloon. Ralph definitely found more success in mining the old west for silver and gold than his father had with Mark Twain in Nevada.
He went on to own real estate and ranching interests. During the Great Depression he ran the Lehi Rolling Mill, later famous as a backdrop in the 1984 movie version of Footloose with Kevin Bacon starring as a character with my first name but without the “y.” A long way from his current roll in “The Following.”
During my great-grandfather’s time at the mill, my mother remembers her mom making underwear for her from used grain sacks with the logo of the various cereals still showing across her bum.
I gleaned even more insight from Ralph during weekend pancake breakfasts with he and and his son-in-law, my maternal grandfather Mark White while I was in college.
They were widowers and I wasn’t yet married. Having grown up on a ranch near Yellowstone Park in Idaho, this is as close as I had lived to them.
Those times were priceless even if I had heard some of the stories countless times by then. After breakfast we would sometimes take a ride out along the old Pony Express trail but this time I would drive.
In their 70s and 80s, Ralph and his friend Will, friends since they were seven and ten years of age respectively, would sit in their old sedan parked nose-in to “watch the girls go by” on Main Street in Lehi.
During my last year in college, Ralph had to move from his tiny, one-bedroom house into a nursing home across Utah Lake in Pleasant Grove. Will didn’t need that level of care but he asked to move into the same room to keep Ralph company.
Ralph began to fade during my last few visits, often confusing me with my mom. My great-grandfather died a month after my daughter was born in 1973, one of his three great-great grandchildren at the time.
Unlike many who never know a great-grandparent, I got to know him for the last 25 of his 93 years on earth. I’m fortunate to be one of the 24 great-grandchildren he had at his passing and even more fortunate for the lessons he gave me.