Q&A with Melvin C. Johnson for Life and Times of John Pierce Hawley: A Mormon Ulysses of the American West February 08 2019
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Q: Give us a little information about your background and how you came to become a historian of Mormonism and the American West.
A: I was born in Northern California and grew up in Carlsbad California where I graduated from high school. Renowned historian Will Bagley and I attended the same LDS seminary in Oceanside in the mornings before high school. I pursued degrees at Dixie College in St George Utah and Utah State University in Logan Utah. Then I served twelve years in the military as an airborne infantryman and legal administrator. After being discharged from the military, I attended Stephen F. Austin State University and graduated with a Masters in both history and English. I taught at several universities and colleges and retired from Angelina College in Texas. Halli Wren Johnson, my wife, and I live in Salt Lake City Utah, although we maintain strong connections to eastern Texas. Let me say I loved Dixie College (the only junior college in America, it seemed, that would accept me). I met historian Juanita Brooks there and had no idea who she was, or that the massacre at Mountain Meadows had occurred just thirty-five miles up Highway 18. I had no idea what the massacre at Mountain Meadows even was at the time!
I came to be fascinated by the intersection of Mormonism in the American West at Texas Forestry Museum, Lufkin, Texas. Local forest industries funded my research position in Forest and Mill Town history. During my research, I came across references to the Mormon Millers (sawmills owned and operated by Mormons) of the Texas Hill Country before the American Civil War. I created a Mormon Miller database and began inserting research notes as I came across them in my other pursuits. Eventually, I entwined the Mormon Millers of the Hill Country into my interest in German Texans before the American Civil War and made more intersections. Beginning in 1996, I started researching and out of that came the award-winning Polygamy on the Pedernales: Lyman Wight’s Mormon Villages in Antebellum Texas 1845 to 1858, which won the John Whitmer Historical Association Best Book Award in 2006 funded by the Smith-Pettit Foundation.
During all of that, the life of John Pierce Hawley became a compelling narrative. The son of Sarah and Pierce Hawley, John came of age and the Latter-day Saint Black River Lumber colony in Wisconsin Territory in the early 1840s. Bishop George Miller and Apostle Lyman White directed this lumber mission. The colony's mission was to provide lumber and timber for the construction of the Nauvoo Temple and the Nauvoo House (a large-scale hotel project that never saw completion). Apostle Lyman Wight broke from the Quorum of The Twelve Apostles soon after the death of Joseph Smith Jr. Wight could not submit to Brigham Young's leadership of the Church. Instead, he carried out a mission that was given to him by Joseph Smith Jr. to the Republic of Texas to establish a colony for the Latter Day Saints. John Pierce Hawley help to build the first Mormon temple west of the Mississippi in Zodiac, Texas, in 1849. In it, he was sealed to Sylvia Johnson and was a witness and officiator in the rites and rituals of the Zodiac Temple.
Q: John Pierce Hawley left Wight’s colony, converted to Brigham Young’s Utah church, and became one of the early settlers in southern Utah’s “Dixie” area. What can you tell us about this period of his life?
A: John Pierce Hawley followed Wight for eleven years until he broke with him in 1854 and followed his father, Pierce Hawley, to the Indian nations in what is now Oklahoma. Two years later in the Cherokee Nation, John and Sylvia Hawley (and most of his family and kin) converted to the Utah church led by Brigham Young. That summer and fall the Hawley’s joined the Jacob Croft company and emigrated to Utah Territory. On the trail, they passed the ill-fated Martin and Willie handcart companies. In Utah, the Texans were interviewed and re-baptized, and the Hawleys were sent to Ogden in northern Utah. The following spring, John and his brother George were called, along with many other Texans, to Washington County in southern Utah to begin a mission on the Rio Virgin growing cotton and support a barrier “wall” of colonies that Young built in the Intermountain West to protect the stronghold of Zion.
John and Sylvia Hawley, as well as John’s brother George and his three plural wives, lived in Pine Valley, Utah for thirteen years—from 1857 to 1860. John worked as a road inspector, constable, public and religious school superintendent, and was the presiding elder from 1857 to 1867. However, because John was monogamous, William Snow, brother of Apostle Erastus F. Snow, was installed as the first bishop of Pine Valley. Apostle Snow did not think monogamous priesthood holders should obtain leadership positions in the Church.
Q: Some of John Pierce Hawley’s contemporaries accused him of being involved in the massacre at Mountain Meadows. What does the historical record tell us?
A: After a less than inspiring agricultural year in Washington, the Hawley brothers went to Spanish Fork, Utah, to pick up their wives and be sealed to them in Salt Lake City by Brigham Young. On the return to Dixie, they rode with the doomed Fancher-Baker wagon train that was massacred at Mountain Meadows by the Mormon militia from the Iron County Brigade, commanded by Colonel William Dame. John D. Lee, one of the other militia leaders, later accused John Hawley of being present at the massacre. John’s brothers, George and William, have been identified as being on the Meadows killing fields. John denied any participation in it and even condemned the atrocity in his local congregation. His public condemnation nearly got him killed, as members of his congregation included some of the murderers. A secret meeting resulted in a narrow vote to let him live.
Q: Eventually, John Pierce Hawley left Brigham Young’s church and joined the Reorganized church, led by Joseph Smith III. What can you tell us about the events that led to his conversion?
A: In 1868, several events change John’s life. He received his second endowment under the hands of Apostle Erastus Snow in Salt Lake City and assisted Apostle Snow in giving others their second endowments. John was then sent on a mission to Iowa to convert his RLDS family members to the Utah church. He spent five months there, and as he reported, neither he nor his relatives converted one another. However, John's mission to Iowa planted seeds in him. Over the next year-and-a-half, John struggled with the principles of polygamy, Brigham Young’s Adam-God teachings, the harrowing threat of “blood atonement,” and overbearing priesthood leadership. In November of 1870, both John’s and George Hawley’s families converted to the Reorganized church. They left Salt Lake City on a train to western Iowa and never returned. All the Hawleys in Iowa remained participants in the Reorganized church until their deaths.
Q: In what ways do you think John Hawley’s story is significant within Mormon history?
A: John Pierce Hawley is important because he is a Mormon Ulysses of the American West. His interactions with Mormonism brought him through the interior of the Great American West from the Wisconsin Territory, to the Republic of Texas, to Indian territory, to Utah Territory, and back to Iowa. He crisscrossed the interior of western America five times because of his devotion to Mormonism. He served missions to eastern Texas, along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, to northern Utah, and western Iowa. He was fascinated with Mormonism and was a fervent disciple of Joseph Smith Jr. His life demonstrated that for him, there was “more than one way to Mormon.” He kept trying until he got it right for himself.
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