On the return leg of one of my cross-country road-trips a few years ago, Mugs, my English Bulldog, and I made a brief stop high up on a bench that runs along the western slopes of the Bear River Mountains.
I had never been there but the tiny town three and a half miles below of Richmond in upper Cache Valley, Utah lies along what I call the Meridian of my DNA.
That’s because the scores of settlements my ancestors helped found over just the six decades beginning in 1847, stretching from southcentral Arizona to my native Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho, all fall a degree or so along the 111th Meridian West.
By highway, it is US Route 89 as it zig zags its way from the banks of the Salt River to the banks of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, and all but the southern tip along the Rockies that comes closest to each of these ancestral settlements.
In retirement I try to take in a cross-section on road trips out west from my home in Durham, North Carolina. The first of these ancestral settlements was founded more than a hundred years before I came along.
Back five generations, all of my ancestors had all become Mormons including four lines who were among the very first who crossed the Rockies and descended down into the Great Salt Lake Valley, then a part of Mexico.
By the Civil War, they had been joined by 12 other lines of great-great grandparents.
Many lines of ancestors on both sides of my family tree crossed paths on arrival before fanning out, some to the south and others to the north, to open up Cache Valley below where I stood that crystal clear winter morning.
This included a few who ventured another six miles north from where I stood to establish the first permanent settlement in what would soon be Idaho Territory.
I overlooked where my Bowman ancestors settled in 1860 after crossing over the Rockies in 1856 to Wight’s Fort where my great grandfather was born in 1859 in what is now West Jordan.
This is south of Big Cottonwood Creek and the area where different than Salt Lake, settlers were living out the land they worked and near today where I’ve watched my grandsons play in a basketball league.
In Richmond they were given a plot along the Northside of the fort and, as customary, about 17 or so acres to the east to farm or use, and about that many acres up on the bench for grazing.
For a few years, it would be too dangerous to live or leave livestock outside the fort at night because of Shoshone Peoples native to that area and Grizzly Bears.
But Mormons also believed strongly in the commons and worked together there to quickly build a meeting house/school house and dig irrigation canals.
Unlike my great grandfather Hyrum Edward who was the first in six generations of horsemen continued today by my niece, my great-great grandfather, Hyrum Webster, was more of an entrepreneur.
He ran freight to the settlement and built a molasses factory below the bench where I stood before also building a sawmill there on Cherry Creek as well as manufacturing brick at one time.
He also had the first horse-powered and then steam grain threshers in the area to harvest grains from throughout the valley.
In the beginning the family lived in a log home with a dirt floor and a dirt roof and my great grandfather and his siblings wore burlap wrappings for shoes in those early years, always working side by side in these enterprises.
This is where my great grandfather once raised and bred horses and where higher up behind the bench toward Cherry Peak, my grandfather Ernest Melvin first herded cattle as a boy.
Today that area has become Utah’s 15th ski resort.
By the time my great-grandparents married in 1881 and started a family it was clear there would not be land available in Cache Valley for their children. Nor were the small acreage plots there optimal for livestock growing.
Nor was even the 160 acres per settler that could be homesteaded further north in Idaho which was nearly ten times the amount allotted settlers in upper Cache Valley.
In his report three years earlier to Congress, John Wesley Powell had recommended 2,560 acres per settler for livestock growing in semi-arid areas, based on defined watershed boundaries.
Judging by the ranch where I was born and spent my early years, which had been cobbled together from homesteads and contiguous land purchases, Powell was right.
I believe my newlywed great grandparents Bowman were ready to head north in 1881 but two things held them back.
Even though Margaret Rita’s mother had just passed, my great-great grandfather Kent lived nearby.
Hyrum Edward’s mother Hannah who went by Annie, was estranged from his father, and needed her first son’s support until she passed three years later.
There would have been a lot of excitement about the far reaches of the Upper Snake River Valley in Idaho. A federal land office had just opened at Oxford just across the border in Idaho.
In the 1870s, contrary to the asessment of explorer John C. Fremont, it was discovered that the Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho was ideal for settlement.
My newlywed great grandparents had watched the first settlers head north as far as the terminus of the Henry’s Fork.
Great swaths of waist high bluegrass had been found growing along the banks of that north fork of the Snake, punctuated further up the river by sagebrush, indicating the soil was excellent.
But this part of the west was still very much wild.
While Yellowstone had been made a national park less than a decade earlier, only three years before my great grandparents married, Cavalry troopers were fighting running battles in pursuit of Chief Joseph and bands of Nez Perce as they fled across the nook.
Outlaw gangs, a third of whom were from Mormon stock, were rustling cattle and robbing banks up and down the valleys of Idaho, Wyoming and Utah just east and would for another decade or more.
But I think something else made my grandparents hesitate.
My great great great grandfather Bowman was one of the 3 or 4 percent of Mormon males asked to take more than one wife, similar to that practiced in the Old Testament.
He had married one of two plural wives when my great grandfather was eight years old. My great-great grandmother did’t want anything to do with it and separated.
As most did, he apparently maintained the households in different towns. In 1870, nearly 30% of the population of Richmond came from polygamous families which varied greatly by community.
However, even though monogamous, the practice is estimated to have touched the lives of a majority of Mormons in some way. The practice was waning at the time my great grandparents married and was even more extremely rare in that second generation.
It was rarer still across the border in Idaho where, as the percentage of the population who were Mormons reached 17%, less than 1% there were engaged in polygamy.
But as my great grandparents contemplated the move to Idaho, the US Congress debated the Edmunds Act to disenfranchise Mormons and an anti-Mormon arm of the Republican Party in Idaho was taking control of the legislature.
Mormons were predominantly Democrats so the move had more to do with partisan politics and dominating the constitutional convention leading up to statehood in 1890.
Seeing that the strategy was working, an anti-Mormon wing of Democrats joined forces to throw their fellow Democrats under the bus by wording the constitution to effectively disenfranchise all Mormons.
They also deparately hoped to acheive statehood before Congress learned in the 1890 census that this reduced the population necessary to qualify for statehood. It was an unsettling time in Idaho or to contemplate a move there.
After losing in the Supreme Court, in 1890 Mormon leaders issued a manifesto disavowing polygamy in practice or teachings, two years after my grandfather Bowman was born.
Two years later the right for Mormons to vote was restored in Idaho just as my great-great grandfather died. But that clause wasn’t removed from the Idaho constitution until 1968 I believe.
Today, 24% of Idaho is Mormon by religion and probably more by culture. Ironically, like the state, nearly all are Republican.
In 1907, my great grandfather rode up into the far reaches of the Henry’s Fork and purchased a 360 acre ranch where his sons, including my grandfather, could homestead adjacent land.
The family left the bench above Richmond that year with their belongings and equipment loaded into three iron-wheeled wagons each pulled by four teams of horses.
Following was my great grandparents horse drawn white-top buggy and a little side-spring black top buggy, along with 100 cattle my grandfather, brother and cousins drove on horseback during the 15 day, 200 mile trip.
Richmond was undergoing something of a growth spurt at the time before going into decline by 1920 only to rebound to about 2,500 by ther time I stood looking down from that bench along the Bear River Mountains.
Soon after settling along the Henry’s Fork, four and a half miles west of the newly established village of Ashton, these Bowman ancestors too had become Republicans.
They were drawn to progressivism and the western and rancher/farmer-friendly policies of President Teddy Roosevelt, including water reclamation.
My great grandmother died in 1918 during the Great Influenza Epidemic and was buried in the small cemetery (Ora) carved into our ranch. My great grandfather passed away in 1936, twelve years before I would be born.
By then my grandparents had consolidated 1,100 acres of ranchland along with a similar amount of range that was operated by my parents after my dad returned from WWII.
I visited and played around the headstones of my great grandparents in that cemetery while growing up, stopping often to gaze at the Tetons rising across the Henry’s Fork.
My great grandfather’s HB brands, a variation for horses and cattle, were also a constant reminder as was that buggy which I found abandoned in a grove while herding cattle.
I haven’t been back since 1976 when my grandmother died, nor have I been a practicing Mormon since before that time. But transcending religion, it is a culture that literally runs through my veins.
Until the day I die, it will lead me to research the lives of my ancestors and the places and times in which they lived. More than flesh, bones and DNA, each has contributed to who I am.