Thursday, June 13, 2013

Organic Markers

Few things are as symbolic of the western part of the United States as “Mormon trees,”  a description given ubiquitous Lombardy poplars by the late Dr. Wallace Stegner.

On frequent cross-country road-trips, for me too, “Mormon trees” have begun to signal settlements created in the mid-1800s, many by my ancestors, in parts of what are now the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

Stegner, an Iowan and Presbyterian, founded the famed creative writing program at Stanford University around the time I was given birth in the Yellowstone nook of another “I” state, Idaho.

Also an ardent environmentalist, Stegner, as well as Frank Church and Robert Redford are more symbolic to me of my native region than the transplanted extremist ideologues who polarized it beginning in the mid-1960s as I was graduating from high school.

They are still holding it hostage today.

Stegner’s description of “Mormon trees” found across the “Great Basin” came to mind again this week, when a long-time fellow-citizen of my adopted home of Durham, North Carolina published a fascinating article on California salmon in the quarterly publication OnEarth.

Barry Yeoman is an award-winning journalist who, like Stegner did at Stanford, takes time to teach writing to young people at the Duke University Young Writers’ Camp held here each summer.

In his article, Yeoman quotes a scientist who explains that ocean-nutrients from California salmon, whose remains are redistributed at the end of their lifecycle, create a signature for wine made from grapes grown in the same watersheds, a marker as distinct and subtle I assume as “Mormon trees.”

Mormon settlers discovered gold where those salmon spawned in 1849, two years after they crossed the Rockies.  Other Mormons reached California by ship or at the conclusion of the march by the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican-American War.  The silt created the first threat to salmon there.

The late Dr. Eugene Campbell, a noted historian and my mentor at Brigham Young University, had written about the short-lived Mormon gold mining missions in 1849.  To me Campbell represented an era of historical analysis and inquiry there and in other areas of that church that seems to have been long-since purged.

When it was created in 1850, the Utah Territory covered nearly all of Nevada, part of Wyoming and a good chunk of Colorado.  This was just after one set of my great-great-great grandparents, the Shelton’s, continued across the Great Basin to ranch near the gold fields.

Much of the exploration of this region that was credited to John C. Fremont in pamphlets used by the Mormons on their trek was actually made by the educated “Mountain Man,” Jedediah Smith.

In 1861, when another mining boom took place in western Nevada a decade after the gold rush in California, the federal government began to gradually lop off parts of Utah to make the Nevada Territory.

As one of my great-great grandfathers, Thomas Messersmith, rode east across this stretch of newly created Nevada as a Union Cavalry trooper in 1862 to protect gold shipments to fund the Civil War, the terrain and “Mormon trees” were already familiar to him.

He and the writer who later became known as Mark Twain had previously taken the Overland Stage west from St. Joseph, Missouri during the summer of 1861.

The 1,700 mile, nearly twenty-day journey traced the former Pony Express route across Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming through Salt Lake City and Cedar Fort and across the Great Basin.  This was after Twain’s brother Orion was appointed secretary to the governor of the new Nevada territory.

Unsuccessful, after their arrival, as partners  in a mining venture on the Comstock Lode (but according to Twain’s letters, both excellent poker players,) Messersmith enlisted in the cavalry and Twain took a job with the newspaper in Virginia City, eventually moving to San Francisco a few years later.

My great-grandfather fought in cavalry skirmishes with bands of Goshute, Paiute, Shoshone, and Ute Indians across a part of the Utah Territory that wouldn’t be lopped off into Nevada until 1866, shortly before the part of Arizona with the Mormon settlement of Las Vegas was made part of Nevada as well.

When his regiment stopped to build log structures for a fort at the end of the Ruby Valley, he was helping secure an area that would still be a part of Utah until 1866, and where three decades later my great-grandparents White would ranch, drive a stagecoach and operate a station.

In 1864, with areas still to be reassigned to it, Nevada leap-frogged other more established territories to statehood so as to aid President Lincoln’s re-election.

My great-great grandfather mustered out of the cavalry after the war and settled in Cedar Fort near another station along the Overland route he had safe guarded.

Here he became a Mormon and flirted with consecration, a short-lived church experiment where residents gave their private property to ownership in common, received back the yield they needed and gave the remainder to less fortunate.

All of this is hundreds of miles south from where I was born on a cattle and horse ranch laced with “Mormon trees” after it was homesteaded by another great-grandfather, Bowman, along the Henry’s Fork River, where the Great Basin drops out of the Targhee National Forest.

Along with other organic markers such as the smell of rain-dampened Sagebrush or the sound of a Western Meadowlark, “Mormon trees” signal my roots.

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