On one my first cross-country road trips west from Durham, North Carolina, where I live, I stood for awhile before crossing at a point along the Mississippi River of unusual ancestral convergence.
It was heavily wooded, nearly 900 river miles north of Vicksburg where Mugs and I crossed this year on our outbound southern route, where the trees seemed to get shorter and shorter before we crossed.
Then they disappeared altogether for an hour across Louisiana floodplain before reappearing and then growing taller and taller again up through east Texas.
More than ancestral convergence was crossing my mind that day of reflection on the banks of the river further north. To understand signature moments in one’s gene pool, it helps to look at context.
I’m the sixth generation of Americans who settled along the western slopes of the Rockies, my two grandsons are the eighth, dating back to Puritan-Huguenots, Quakers, Remonstrants and Amish Americans dating to the 1600s.
But those Atlantic roots stretching from Maine to the Carolinas migrated across the Appalachians after the Revolutionary War, most by the early 1800s, to first create settlements in what are now Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.
By 1840, nine of my great (x3) grandparents (one through adoption) and all but four of my sixteen great (x2) grandparents along with a few (great x4s) had all converged to within a mile or two of where I stood that day in reflection.
The river there juts out to create that little triangle “stub” of Iowa formed along the Des Moines River border with Missouri just before it empties into the Mississippi.
Even by the mid-1820s when the first set of my great (x3) grandparents began to purchase land in Illinois, everything across the river from me that day was called “unorganized” territory.
In 1824, when as part of an agreement to relocate the Sac and Fox people across the river, that little stub of what would become Iowa one day was “unorganized territory,” designated for people of mixed ethnicity, never to claim or own, just to live.
That year was also when the first of my great (x4) ancestors migrated to Illinois and a year before other great (x3s) bought land there in preparation.
That designation was withdrawn by Congress after the Black Hawk uprising by disaffected warriors. By that time three sets of my great (x3) grandparents had migrated to north and central Illinois as settlers soon to be joined by a fourth set.
They were all contemporaries of future U.S. President of Abraham Lincoln who had just moved there, one or two who became friends.
But the land across the river from where I stood on that trip, in fact all of what we call Iowa, the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin, were still not even territories yet.
“Unorganized” means no established order or structure other than occasional U.S. Army patrols, fit only for Native American peoples forced there and often at war with themselves.
Think in today’s terms of a highway sign, “no services for 2,000 miles.”
Beginning in 1831, all of my ancestors who had migrated to Illinois or who had been born west of the Appalachians had joined the Mormons, a “restorationist” Christian religion only organized the year before.
Three would then migrate to northern Missouri following the Missionaries who had converted them to settle an area where Mormons hoped to assemble at the edge of the frontier, safe from internal strife and persecution that had already begun to dog them.
However, soon their numbers would alarm some Missourians fearful of losing control of their county. Counties then and even neighboring cities were becoming either anti-slavery or pro-slavery and the majority of Mormons there were quietly abolitionist.
Barely ten years prior, the territorial legislature there had petitioned for statehood but as a “slave” state, which was accepted by Congress but only after a compromise that also accepted Maine as a free state. They also forbid slavery in the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase.
This included territory yet to be organized into Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana. This also extended to what would become Idaho, Oregon and Washington, then jointly controlled but not yet organized by Great Britain and the United States.
What would become Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada Arizona, and part of Kansas were still a foreign country, the newly independent Republic of Mexico formed just a few years before my Mormon ancestors arrived in Missouri.
But what really set some Missourians off was the Mormon belief that Native Americans were descended from ancient Israelites.
Not everyone in Missouri was hostile to Mormons nor was the new state fully organized when the Mormons arrived and began to settle first around Independence which has been founded four years earlier, establishing the first school.
Much of northern Missouri above where the Missouri River diagonally slices that state from north of what would become Kansas City past Independence, trending south to empty into the Mississippi at Saint Louis was designated only as non-county area as Mormons congregated.
Two years later, just before that distinctive nose of land was added to Missouri and as another non-Mormon but soon-to-be great (x2) grandfather was being born much further southeast along the Osage River, angry mobs forced Mormons around Independence to abandon their homes, businesses and belongings and flee for their lives across the Missouri.
So the Mormons sought peaceful redress from state officials represented by a newly-minted defense attorney named Alexander William Doniphan, a future hero of the Mexican-American War.
Also representing another county in the Legislature, Doniphan engineered legislative creation of a new county specifically for Mormons, designating still more land north as they overflowed into nearby counties.
In those days and dating from colonial times, counties each raised mostly volunteer militias which in the hands of vigilantes were often used to harass people and groups that were out of favor.
Failing at peaceful recourse, just as Texans were revolting against Mexico and being overrun at the Alamo, the Mormons were forming a county militia to defend against units of other Americans from surrounding counties.
This resulted in bloody confrontations including a massacre of Mormons where one of my great (x3) grandfathers was killed. So the Governor at the time, an Independence partisan, issued an order in 1838 for the Mormons to flee the state or be exterminated.
To pay honor was why I cut across northern Missouri along U.S. Route 36 on the return leg of this year’s cross country trip.
Fragments fled east along that route toward Hannibal and up to Quincy, Illinois, while others blazed a new road trace up into the just-organized Iowa Territory which ran clear to the Canadian border and back eastward along the border.
They settled in what they hoped would be a peaceful safe haven along both sides of the Mississippi River including land acquired by Mormon leaders in that little stub that is now Iowa, across from where I stood that day.
By 1840, all but four of my ancestors, who were yet to migrate from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and northern England, had converged at that very point along both sides of the river and began for the third time in just ten years to build anew.
But by late 1845, there too, Mormon leaders had been murdered by mobs, despite the intervention by Illinoisans from places like Quincy.
They were again threatened with genocide if they didn’t immediately flee.
Mormons rapidly organized and attempted to hurriedly build 2,500 wagons, enough to carry everyone in groups of five or six per wagon on the 1,300-mile journey to safety in the Rockies, part then in Mexico.
One of my great-great grandfathers, a former carriage maker and now chief wheelwright, played a key role while many Mormons tried to sell their homes and possessions to buy wagons or buggies, oxen and riding horses.
Preparations were cut short by mob violence and one of my great (x3) grandfathers was asked to be the first with his family to cross the river in early February 4, 1846, right at the point I was standing during that trip with Mugs to rendezvous with my grandsons.
Followed by others in the dead of winter, their mission was to set up a camp where others could assemble and get better prepared, the first of a series of camps across southern Iowa.
My Mormon involvement lapsed more than four decades ago.
But while we don’t get to pick our cultural heritage even if ancestral, it is always a part of us and I am very proud and respectful of mine.
I’ve provided the context in this essay because standing at that point of ancestral convergence along the Mississippi that day gave me a better understanding of what led up to that epic journey.
My great (x3) grandfather and my pre-teen great-great grandfather didn’t have to blaze a trail the day they led the exodus across the river.
Now traveling first through Iowa Territory, still a year from statehood, they merely followed that Mormon Trace blazed by other ancestors eight years earlier as they fled Missouri.
At Council Bluffs, they were two of three of my ancestors selected to blaze the Mormon Trail, another 1,100 miles through still “unorganized” country to the Rockies and among the first handful first ride down into the Salt Lake Valley.
That new trail largely followed the Oregon Trail, first opened to wagons at Independence shortly after Mormons had been forced out,but on the other side of the Platt River.
In their diaries, my ancestors mention stopping along the way to help those on the other side and in turn, those returning east would carry letters back to loved ones waiting to depart.
But they had learned by then to be extremely wary of other frontier Americans.
By 1860, all of my other ancestors had arrived and one set of great-great grandparents was creating the first permanent settlement in Idaho soon to be a territory. Others had created settlements in Nevada, then a part of the Utah Territory, California and Arizona.
Westerns are resilient but none more than Mormons who had a lot of practice before finally finding refuge there.
Each July 24th, up and down that flank of the Rockies, they stop to celebrate the arrival of that first vanguard wagon train to arrive often when I was growing up with re-enactment parades.
On one of my visits I have promised my grandsons to visit the monument where their names are inscribed among the first to arrive.
When they are ready for context, this essay will be waiting.