Review: John Pierce Hawley: A Mormon Ulysses of the American West

Title: Life and Times of John Pierce Hawley: A Mormon Ulysses of the American West
Author: Melvin Johnson
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Pages: 210
Year: 2019
Price: Paper $24.95; Cloth $34.95

Odysseus and Scylla by PinkParasol

In Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey, after the survivors of Ulysses crew have made it past the Sirens and are growing fearful of facing Scylla and Charybdis, Ulysses gives the following inspirational speech:

“Friends, have we never been in danger like this before? More fearsome, is it now, than when the Cyclops penned us in his cave? What power he had! Did I not keep my nerve, and use my wits to find a way out for us? Now I say by hook or crook this peril too shall be something that we remember.” (Odyssey Book 12)

While John Pierce Hawley never faced down any mythical monsters, historian and award-winning author Melvin Johnson demonstrates in his book “The Life and Times of John Pierce Hawley: A Mormon Ulysses of the American West” that over a lifetime of journeying in pursuit of an authentic Mormon home, John Hawley by “hook (and) crook” faced his own share of perils that are “something (for us to) remember”. 

Near the end of the book Johnson gives this description of Hawley:

“John Hawley is a Mormon Ulysses, a singular and unique individual in the understanding of this important facet of the pioneers’ and settlers’ expansion to the West Coast before and after the Civil War.  Mormonism turned the story of the West into an extraordinary tale of religious devotion, pioneer struggle, and familial connections.  John Hawley illustrates Joseph Smith’s legacy, and Hawley’s story is so exceptional that it becomes a vehicle for telling a larger story than his own: that of the Mormon diaspora.” (p. 165)

Portrait of Lyman Wight settlement of Zodiac Texas c 1850 by Kim Wells Greening

Over the course of ten chapters and three appendices Johnson gives interesting details that depict how Hawley’s journey through Mormonism was truly a life of Odyssey proportions. Johnson introduces us to Hawley’s journey in 1833 when his family is baptized into the Church of Christ started by Joseph Smith. He then guides us on Hawley’s Mormon Odyssey as the he and his family follow Smith to Missouri, the Nauvoo area, and their “calling” to go on a mission with Lyman Wight to the “Wisconsin Pineries” to harvest wood for the Nauvoo building projects.  After the death of Joseph Smith, the Hawley Odyssey continues as they follow Wight to Texas. 

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Mormon Mills Cemetery, Burnet County Texas. Photo by Melvin Johnson

Johnson gives us a fascinating two chapters on Hawley’s journey’s with Wight in Wisconsin and Texas before detailing how Hawley became disillusioned with Wight and then continued is Ulysses’ like quest to Utah where he hoped to find the true Mormonism under Brigham Young.  Hawley’s Odyssey in Southern Utah encompassed the tumultuous years of 1857–1870. 

Pine Valley Utah was John Hawley’s home during his sojourn there. It s 14 Miles Southwest of the Mountain Meadows Massacre Site and about 34 miles North of St George.

Much of the book details Hawley’s Journey in Utah Mormonism as he tries to reconcile what he believes with events like the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the practice of polygamy, and the teachings of Brigham Young.  After losing his faith in Young, Hawley’s journey as the Mormon Ulysses continues when he determines that he has finally found the true Mormonism under Joseph Smith III. Even then his journey is not over as this portion of his life is spent traveling through Missouri, Kansas, Texas and finally Lamoni, Iowa where he died in 1909. 

“Mormon Ulysses” is a brief, but fascinating book that Mel Johnson has packed with stories, facts, drama, and intrigue. Hawley lived through the highs and lows of Mormonism in its many forms and Johnson has documented well his journey in a way that will keep readers going to the end. I won’t spoil all of the stories in the book but let me tease a few.

Mormons LOVE to talk about Pioneers, especially their sufferings and trials. I have lost track of how many books and articles I have rad on Mormon Pioneers. But in “Ulysses” Chapter 4 “Wagons West to Utah Territory” I learned new things about the pioneering journey and deaths on the Mormon, Oregon, and California Trails that fascinated me.

Another thing Mormons love to talk about is how well their pioneer fore-bearers treated and got along with the Native Americans that were already living in the Mountain West when they arrived in and began spreading settlements all over the Utah territory. Support for this idea is usually found in a quote attributed to Brigham Young, “It is cheaper to feed than fight the Indians.” The belief that Mormons always followed this maxim has led to this myth that Mormon pioneers were always kind to the natives they found in Utah. When I Googled “Brigham Young” and “Indians” I found the above picture on Pinterest which had been given this caption:

Brigham Young was friendly, kind and helpful to the Lamanites, and the Lamanites, the American Indians, were friendly & kind in return.

The truth is FAR more complicated than the myth and this devotional statement. In Chapter 6 “The Hawley’s of Pine Valley: Part 1” and Chapter 7, “The Racial Divide and Theocracy in Greater Dixie” Johnson gives a detailed account of what became of the Native people that were living in Pine Valley and the surrounding area after the Mormons arrived. These chapters were VERY difficult to read. They detail among other things the Circleville Massacre, various murders, and diseases caused by the Mormons that nearly wiped out the Natives in the area.

For instance: Chapter six starts with the story of a man name Isaac Riddle who murders an “‘impudent’ Indian at Pine Valley because he had killed a ‘lot of critters’.” He confessed this to his LDS leaders. His only punishment for this crime was that he was excommunicated from the Church, however, he was almost immediately re-baptized (see page 81).

Also included in the book is this horrific excerpt from a letter by Mormon William McBride who wrote the following to his superiors in the territorial militia after exploring Tooele Valley in 1851:

“We wish you without a moment’s hesitation to send us about a pound of arsenic we want to give the Indian’s well a flavour. Also a spade to dig for water. A little stricknine would be of fine service, and serve instead of salt, to their too-fresh meat.

Most obediently &c &c
Capt. Wm. McBride

Don’t forget the arsenic!
Don’t forget the spade and arsenic!
Don’t forget the spade, stricknine and arsenic!”

(See pages 157-158)

There are some tough things to read about in this book, but it is important to know about them and Johnson does an excellent job in relating the information.

While I thoroughly enjoyed “Mormon Ulysses,” I have two minor criticisms related to the books editing that I will mention.  The first one may be kind of nit-picky, but I was surprised to find several “typo” errors in the book.  The most startling occurs on page 93 where the description of the Pine Valley settlers working with sheep states that they “washed, dried, and *corded* the wool” when it meant that they *carded* the wool.  The other errors, and there were only a few, were not as severe and were the type of mistake where letters are missing from a word or as in the wrong order. 

My second criticism relates to the pacing of the book.  Now, I have read some LDS biographies recently that were way too long.  In these books the authors padded out the narrative with detailed descriptions of events from restoration history that did not directly relate to the life of the subject and were not necessary to move the narrative forward.  One of the most egregious of these examples was an author who spent several pages recounting the story of the stranding and rescue of the Martin and Willey handcart companies only to end with a statement that basically said, “there is no record of our subject helping with the rescue in any way but he was in Salt lake at the time so he was aware of it”.  After reading that my reaction was “THEN WHY DID YOU HAVE ME READ THAT STORY!” That problem definitely does not occur in “Mormon Ulysses”, there is no unnecessary padding in this book.  Overall I thought the pacing of the book worked, but there were several times where I felt like I wasn’t getting enough of the story.  At just under 200 pages the story is pretty lean, I honestly wish that this book was about twice as long.

Minor complaints aside, “Mormon Ulysses” is an important and compelling book. Mel Johnson has done an outstanding job in documenting and telling the story of John Hawley the Mormon Ulysses. But this book is far more than that, in relating the journeys and tales of this brave American Ulysses as he searched for the authentic Mormon faith, Mel Johnson gives his readers a greater understanding of 19th century Mormon Restorationism and successfully proves his thesis that “Hawley’s story is so exceptional that it becomes a vehicle for telling a larger story than his own: that of the Mormon diaspora.”

John Hawley gravestone, Oak Lawn Cemetery, Ravenwood, Nodaway County, Missouri, USA

Mel Johnson Interviewed by Brian Whitney about John Hawley

Book Available at:
Kofford Website
Benchmark Books

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