The Journey West

Richard E. Bennett (richard_bennett@byu.edu) is professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU.

Thomas A. Wayment (thomas_wayment@byu.edu) is publications director of the Religious Studies Center.

This interview features Bennett’s forthcoming volume The Journey West: The Mormon Pioneer Journals of Horace K. Whitney with Insights from Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, the first husband-and-wife account of the Mormon pioneer trek west. The book will be copublished by the RSC and Deseret Book and is projected to be released July 2018.

Q: Dick, tell us about the journals, where they’re housed, and how you came to work on them.

A: Well, the journals are housed in the Church History Library of the LDS Church in Salt Lake City, and they’ve been there for a long time. They’re smallish in size, about nine inches high, four or five inches wide, and leather bound. There are seven journals that cover the exodus period.

Q: So these are trail journals?

A: Well, there is one missionary journal dated 1843 that is not part of this project, but what we’re looking at are the exodus trail journals that cover February 1846 to October 1847.

Q: I believe there have been earlier studies of the journals of this period. Can you help us situate this and what’s been done on them before and how you came to work on them?

A: No one’s ever published them before. Never. They’ve been sitting there for a long time. They’re part of a family of overland journals, of which many others have been published, and that includes the William Clayton journals; the Thomas Bullock journals, which were published a few years ago by Signature Press; the Howard Egan journals; and the Orson Pratt journals. So there’s a coterie of overland journals, but the journals of Horace K. Whitney with Helen Mar Kimball’s insights and reminiscences had never been published together before. I came across them when I was writing my dissertation thirty years ago and relied on them very, very heavily because they are so rich in detail. They’re not reflective diaries like you see in some of the others’ diaries here. Instead, they’re immediate to the time—what’s going on, the place, the people—although they get very much into the doctrines of the Church. So that’s why I found them so very, very fascinating.

Q: Fascinating!

A: I referenced them often in two of my books, Mormons at the Missouri, published by University of Oklahoma, and then We’ll Find the Place, by Deseret Book and Oklahoma.

Q: Excellent. Now am I mistaken to say that this is one of the few places where we have a husband and wife who are journaling at the same time?

B: [Laughs] This is fascinating because it isn’t just the fact that they are husband and wife; these two—Horace K. Whitney, who is the son of Newel K. Whitney (bishop of the Church), and Helen Mar Kimball, who is the daughter of Heber C. Kimball—are children of the Restoration. They grow up in Kirtland. She’s five; he’s a few years older. She’s baptized by her uncle Brigham Young in the Chagrin River in Kirtland in 1836, and he’s baptized in the same place in Kirtland, so they’re the only ones that we have seen who are like that—children of Kirtland. Then, when they get to Nauvoo, they’re married on 3 February 1836, one day before the exodus starts.

Q: Oh, wow. How fascinating!

B: So it’s a honeymoon—what I call a “honeymud”—crossing the Iowa. It’s a remarkable story with no parallel in the history of the Church, of a young, romantic couple heading west on the exodus. You usually think in terms of vigorous individual pioneers going across, but this is a couple whom I’m calling the children of the Restoration.

Q: And how old are they when they head out? What are their ages respectively?

A: He’s twenty-three years old, and she’s about seventeen. They’re just kids. It’s classic; it’s a romantic story on a pioneer trek.

Q: So they set out and independently are writing about their day-to-day affairs.

A: Well, he is the one who writes a day-to-day contemporary diary because it was expected of the pioneers, especially those who were leading in the pioneer company, to keep a diary.

Q: So he’s writing every day.

A: They’re also writing letters back and forth, but one of her greatest contributions is when she goes back years later to plug in details that give a woman’s perspective and that provide information that wasn’t found in the immediate diary. I’ve not seen anything quite like this in the history of the Church.

Q: Is she doing this knowing what her husband wrote?

A: Oh yes, she has access to his diaries.

Q: And so she is actually thinking about what he wrote.

A: Oh yeah, and she’s going over all the diaries and more or less says, “Well, Horace missed this, and so I’m going to add this, or explain this more fully.” She would refine parts here and there. Sections of her reminiscences have been published elsewhere but never in the context of her husband’s diaries, never in the completion of the thought pattern of the episode, of the event, of the doctrine, which is one of the reasons why this is such a valuable exercise.

Q: Now tell me a little bit about him and her as they travel. I don’t remember this from reading it, but was it an easy trek for them?

A: Easy? Anything but! Their first three children died on the trek coming west.

Q: And this is documented?

A: In their writings, yes.

Q: And what’s her perspective of this?

A: It’s a romantic but tragic story too because they are suffering with the rest of the Saints as they’re heading west.

Q: And so the diary has these moments that show this is a family struggling with loss.

A: His journals, like I said, are not all that reflective. You also have to look at her accounts and their letters one to another, where she begins to talk more in terms of the emotions involved. It’s not that his diary is emotionless, but he was on the move all the time, and there’s not a lot of time to be deeply reflective about what’s going on.

Q: And years later she can come back and share some of the raw feelings that she had, some of the hardship.

A: Although, in their letters they certainly talk about that. The last two weeks I’ve found scores of these letters, which I’m going to be incorporating in the footnotes on the days that they’re going on so it’s an even greater enrichment than I thought it was going to be.

Q: Wow, this is excellent to hear. As a reader thinks about this book, let me just paint a picture, and you add nuance. The book contains transcriptions of both of his journals and her reminiscent accounts, with annotations tying to Church history events, to people, and to places. What would you say was your emphasis in deciding what to annotate and what not to annotate? What kind of depth and layering did you intentionally bring to it?

A: Emotions, doctrines, episodes, key individuals, and fascinating experiences that are going on. For instance, when the Mormon Battalion is called to go march to the west, there are some real tugging emotions going on in terms of loss of loved ones. So, where I come across gaps in the historical record, or emotion and sentiment that you don’t necessarily see at the time, or doctrinal expositions—particularly on plural marriage, on the law of adoption, and on other salvific processes that occur at Winter Quarters—that’s what I add.

Q: What is it that you would say the reader would gain the most from in opening this book? What is it? Is it a woman’s perspective that’s so interesting?

A: Well, first of all, he is going to give insight. His diaries are unique in the following sense, especially his prairie diary. The exodus covers various segments, from the time they leave Nauvoo, cross Iowa (that treacherous trek across Iowa in the spring of ’46), spend their time at Winter Quarters (that is a terrible moment in the history of the Church, when so many are passing away from September ’46 to April ’47),  on the vanguard company with Brigham Young—which he was a part of, not as the official scribe but, being the son of Newel K. Whitney, establishes Salt Lake City and other early valley establishments, and then comes back to Winter Quarters. Of all the prairie diaries, there is not another one that covers all these segments in the sequence that he does. So the completion of the prairie story and the vanguard coming to Salt Lake and everything else is a total picture. He has a beautiful pen, he knows the language so well, he’s very well educated, and he can write like the others can’t replicate.

Q: Excellent. And it’s also, as you mentioned, a picture from someone that was born in the Restoration, so this is his whole world.

A: Well, his parents, Newel K. Whitney and Elizabeth Ann Whitney, joined the Church in 1830 in Kirtland; he was just a young boy. So he’s raised in Kirtland, just like his wife-to-be was raised in Kirtland. Then they spend their teenage years in Nauvoo, and they get married the day before the exodus. You can’t get a better story than that. [laughs]

Then, the woman’s perspective is very, very crucial to incorporate. Helen Mar Kimball Whitney was also given in marriage to Joseph Smith in 1843 by her father, Heber C. Kimball, and she’s the youngest of all of his wives; she was fourteen at the time. Her sister-in-law, Sarah Ann Whitney, was also a plural wife of Joseph’s. So her comments about being a plural wife of Joseph are riveting. The whole story about her marriage to Joseph will be, and has been, of enormous interest to Church historians. But now we’re putting into context her second marriage (for “time”) to Horace K. Whitney and how she feels about being married to him. So plural marriage is a major factor in the background of this story. As one of Joseph’s youngest plural wife, she speaks reverently and very supportively of that story, which needs to be told within the context of her marriage to Horace. I don’t know of another journal quite like it.

 By the way, Horace is not the kind of guy that needs to be in the limelight. He’s not like a Hosea Stout or some of those others that beg for attention. He’s happy to be in the background. He’s a very modest man. You know what he does on the side? He loves to play the flute. So he’s playing in Pitt’s brass band while crossing Iowa, in Winter Quarters, in Salt Lake. He goes on various missions, but he always keeps saying, “I don’t need a position in this church; I’m happy where I am.” Both of them are very modest, careful observers of what’s going on in Church history from a perspective that I think is unique.

Q: I want to put this on the record, this question. You’ve mentioned discovering letters, and coming from a researcher of your caliber, tell me about that. Are these something you’ve just recently uncovered?

A: Well, more materials have been donated through the years, both to the Utah State University library and to the Church History Library, so I’ve been spending some time in both places. And there are some wonderful trail letters between the two that I hadn’t seen before that enrich the story, and elements of which I’m adding to this work.

Q: Excellent. So these are letters between the two that have been housed in various archival collections but not at the Church officially.

A: Not so much at BYU but at the Church and Utah State University. Significantly, their son—they had eleven children together, eight of whom survived—Orson F. Whitney becomes an Apostle of the Church; his writing abilities are like his dad’s and mother’s. He’s trained in writing, and he’s able to explain things in a beautiful way. Orson F. Whitney has long been known as one of the great writing Apostles. I can see where he’s getting it, from his parents. He also writes a biography of his grandfather Heber C. Kimball.

Q: Yes. Wow, Dick, this is a great work. We are excited to see it in print.