The Life of Jonathan Dyer

A Paragraph in the History of the West

(originally published as “Jonathan Dyer, Frontiersman,” in  Harper’s, September 1933)


Elders Jacob Gates and Martin Slack brought to Hertfordshire tidings of the wrath to come.  Curates, deans, even bishops were disturbed by the number of converts the American missionaries made.  They were Dissenters of a new and particularly objectionable kind, but their appeal was strong.  Sermons were preached against the “Mormonites”; riots began to occur at their meetings; here and there an elder was drummed out of town or set upon with eggs or thrown into a horse pond.  Employers were consulted, and some of them took action.  Mr. Young Crawley, the coachmaker of Hertford, discovered that an eighteen-year-old apprentice in his shop was explaining the new creed to his fellow workmen.  Mr. Crawley acted in the name of an Englishman’s religion, and Jonathan Dyer found himself without a job.

We are concerned with Jonathan Dyer not because he was persecuted for his faith but because that faith merged him with the strongest current in the New World from which the missionaries came.  Baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on the twenty-seventh of May, 1852, and discharged by Mr. Crawley almost at once, he did not at once yield to that current.  He got work in a linseed-oil mill, where his skill with machinery brought him advancement, and he began to advance also in the hierarchy of his Church.  Jonathan became a deacon, a teacher, and finally a fully ordained priest in the Order of Aaron.  He converted his mother and two of his brothers but, as a proselyter in the villages of High Cross and Collier’s End, found the opposition of the established church too vigorous for him.  At Roydon, however, the Paxman family listened to him and were convinced.  A daughter of the house was fair; during two years Jonathan found it desirable to visit Rhoda and instruct her in the Mormonite faith.  Both twenty-two years old, they were married at Roydon on the twenty-sixth of April, 1856.  They resolved to live their religion: to leave England and, joining the current, move westward to Zion.

Jonathan Dyer’s emigration is not explained beyond that sentence.  He was a mechanic; he had no trouble finding work; he was not interested in the cheap land that tempted millions to America.  He was an industrious, methodical, unimaginative young man – no restlessness for the road’s end and the far slope of the hill ever troubled him.  But for Elders Slack and Gates he would have stayed in Hertford, joined a workingman’s library, and ventured no farther from home than a holiday ride on the railroad would have taken him.  The voice the Lord called him eight thousand miles.  Of America he knew only what the elders told him and cared to know no more.  In a place called Jackson County, Missouri, the Garden of Eden had been planted.  The place was man’s lost paradise and would be restored to him in the Last Days, tokens of whose swift coming were on every wind.  Meanwhile the Saints were gathered in Deseret, “the land of the honey bee,” their present Zion, somewhere in a vastness known as the Rocky Mountains.  This too was a paradise, a land like Canaan, fertile and beautiful and walled away from the Gentiles.  God’s will was that the Saints should build up the Kingdom there and await the Last Days.

Passage to America cost from three pounds six shillings to four pounds, exclusive of food.  Jonathan’s savings were perhaps two pounds.  He borrowed two sovereigns from his wife’s parents and the rest from the Church.  The priesthood would lend money for emigration, the notes to be paid from the borrower’s earnings in Zion.  Jonathan and his wife and his brother Richard were to sail in the Horizon, Captain Reid, in May, 1856, but the ship was full when they reached Liverpool, and they had to await the forming of another company.  On June first, with one hundred and forty-three other Saints and lay emigrants to the number of three hundred and fifty, mostly Irish, they sailed in the packet Wellfleet, Captain Westcott.  Storms sickened most of the Saints; their provisions spoiled; there were quarrels with the ungodly about the cooking arrangements.  The superstitious Irish resented the Mormonite hymns.  The Irish too were lousy and within a week had infected the whole company.  On the tenth of July, one day short of six weeks after she was towed down the Mersey, the Wellfleet anchored off Quarantine at Boston.  At once a Negro sailor gave the pilgrims a symbol of the new civilization by stabbing the second mate.

The Church thriftily kept on the eastern seaboard all immigrants for whom work could be found until they had saved enough to pay their way westward.  The boom times of the early Fifties slackened toward the prostration of the next year, but the country proved able to absorb the Dyers.  Richard found work at Lexington, and the linseed-oil mill of Field, Fowler and Company, at Charlestown, took Jonathan in and made him foreman.  The summer of 1857 brought distress to the Saints and to the nation.  President Buchanan, a “mobocrat” and an enemy of God, rejected the counsel of Brigham Young, appointed a new Governor of Utah Territory, and ordered an army west to escort his appointee.  By the end of July the troops were marching, and soon afterward Colonel Albert Sidney Johnson took command of them.  The priesthood forbade women to cross the plains but welcomed men for the defense of Zion.  Richard Dyer left his wife to the care of Jonathan and departed, writing that it took him six weeks to cross Iowa, through sloughs sometimes so bad that they pulled the soles off his boots.  God moved swiftly to punish a nation of mobocrats.  On August twenty-fourth, the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company announced its insolvency.  Its failure carried with it the financial structure of the United States.  Banks failed everywhere, even in New England: it was believed that no bank was solvent.  The stock exchanges followed the banks.  By autumn unemployed men were rioting in the cities, farmers were abandoning their land, trade was prostrate, exchange was impossible.  Windows were broken in Charlestown and mobs surrounded the closed mills or surged sporadically in the direction of bakeshops.  Field, Fowler and Company shut down.  Jonathan peddled crockery.  The mill opened again, shut down, reopened.  But Jonathan was able to pay off his loans, to assist the emigration of another brother, and to lend the Boston branch of his Church fifty dollars.

Wages were very low in 1858, and the mill closed once more.  Jonathan moved to South Boston, where he worked as a glass packer.  The mill was running again by 1859, and Jonathan’s first son was born.  Jonathan now invented better valves and pistons for the mill’s machinery.  His employers promoted him and, the next year, sent him to Brooklyn to build and manage a new mill.  The Brooklyn branch of the Church received him as a man of substance.

Jonathan’s first daughter was born in March, 1861, on the day before Abraham Lincoln became President of a nation careening toward certain destruction.  Jonathan beheld passion, violence, and panic, and he knew that prophecy was on the march.  The nation which had spilled the prophet’s blood must now meet its doom.  On Christmas Day, twenty-nine years before, the blessed Joseph had foretold the rebellion of South Carolina, which Jonathan had now witnessed, and had said “the Southern States shall be divided from the Northern States” — which had come to pass.  The world spun toward the Last Days.  England too, Joseph had said, must join this apocalypse, and all Europe would follow till “war shall be poured out on all nations.”  Then famine and plague and earthquakes “and the fierce and vivid lightnings also,” and at last the terrible Day of the Lord.

Bishop Penrose had sung to the Church “Thy deliverance is nigh, thy oppressors shall die, And the Gentiles shall bow ‘neath thy rod.”  Jonathan’s residence in Brooklyn, his journal says, had been the happiest year of his life, but it was time to enter on the Kingdom. He sold all that he had and by the first of July reached Florence, Nebraska, where the ox trains formed.  With Brother Hudson he bought a wagon and two yoke of oxen.  Ten weeks of bitter marching through the desert, up the nation’s sternest trail, brought them to Great Salt Lake City.  Jonathan lived with Richard during the winter, working as a teamster when he could, although “no money to be earned.”  (Life was not so hard for everyone in Salt Lake, that winter.  “The Lady of Lyons” made a great success before crowded houses.  Everybody was reading Mr. Collins’s Woman in White.  Tickets to the Territorial Ball sold for ten dollars, and the Governor presided at a dinner whose menu lists four soups, nine roasts, nine boiled meats, six stews, nine vegetables, and fourteen desserts.)

In the spring of 1862 the Church rented Dyer forty-odd acres in the valley of Easton, thirty miles north of Salt Lake City, where the Weber River breaks through the Wasatch.  He had no voice in the selection of this land, but he wanted none – it was Zion and that was what counted.  So a migration of eight thousand miles ended amid sagebrush on a southern slope above the Weber.  The place possessed “a Dugout or a little room dug out of the bank.  Quite a contrast this is to my style of former living in Boston and Brooklyn, where I lived in a large house, carpeted rooms, etc., and it has tried my faith very much.”  The words are the only complaint that Jonathan Dyer ever expressed.

He had entered on the Kingdom.  And… Jonathan Dyer, of Hertford, had begun the most typical, most fundamental of American experiences: life on the frontier.


It is to be observed that Jonathan was a mechanic.  He had grown up in a town, he knew the qualities of woods and the tools that worked them, he was adroit with machinery and had invented valves and pumps, but he had never lived on a farm and was as unfitted as possible to exist by agriculture.  Commentators too often forget that the frontier held many like him.  We are familiar with the thesis – now favored because people who explain things feel that it has some bearing on these difficult times – that the free land of the frontier was a kind of economic safety valve or stabilizer.  When previous depressions came, this theory says, the man who was thrown out of work when the factories closed was not desperate, since he could always go west and, starting over, be sure of a living.  Just how he raised money for the emigration and just how city dwellers of mechanical training could expect to make their way in an alien trade remains unexplained.  The theory also omits to explain why, if the frontier was a sponge that absorbed social unrest, so much of the social unrest in America originated on the frontier.

Well, social unrest did not affect Jonathan Dyer.  Utah was not insulated from the nation, and many waves of resentment and discontent traveled across it during his lifetime, which covered the great revolution in our national life.  They touched Jonathan not at all.  Revolutions are always struggles between special groups; only propaganda tries to make them seem the will of people in action.  The people remain mostly unharried by them, neither willing nor acting, and in the end pay tribute to the old group, victorious, or to the new one which has cast it out.  Even agrarian revolt has little to do with the agrarians in the mass.  American history exhibits the farmers in revolt from the beginning up to now, and the farmers mostly have worked their land voiceless and unstirred, a mere name invoked by speculators who are their self-consecrated champions.  They have paid taxes, gone bankrupt for the profit of adventurers, and served as the stuff of financial and political exploitation.  From Rome to the valley of Easton there has been no change.

Jonathan’s dugout was in a hillside in the valley of the Weber, a valley which in two hamlets besides Easton held some two dozen families.  The squalor of those first years is now difficult to appreciate.  Life was possible only through a complete communism of the poor.  After a year he had a house, a one-room cabin of pine logs brought down from the canyons of the Wasatch, since only soft poplars and cottonwoods grew in the valley.  Its puncheon floor, built-in bunks, and rain-tight roof meant an advance over the dank clay of the dugout.  Lean-tos were added in time, but a good many years were to pass before Jonathan could build a farmhouse.  The cabin meanwhile filled with children; his generation all told was one son and seven daughters, of whom one died in childhood.  It is the children who most readily reveal to us the conditions of the frontier.

Sarah, the girl who was born in Brooklyn, was nine when she first wore shoes; the earliest pair were kept for display at Sabbath school or on the clapboard sidewalks of Ogden, eight miles away; they were not put on till one got out of the wagon, and they were passed on to the descending series of sisters.  Her clothes during that time, she remembered, consisted of apronlike garments cut from remnants which Rhoda had brought West with her, from the gunnysacking that also made containers for potatoes, and once from a bolt of calico.  She had no underwear, as a rule, but in the winter Rhoda would manage to fashion for her, out of God knows what, garments which failed to beautify her but helped against the canyon gales.  She anticipated the stockingless children and adolescents of the 1930’s – in that early time there were no sheep in Easton and no pennies to buy knitting wool in Ogden.  No shoes in winter, eight miles from a town?  Well, children have gone to school, gathered eggs and firewood, and played their games with their feet bound in sacking or rabbitskins.  Of those games Sarah remembered most pleasantly coasting down the winter hills in a grain scoop.  Once, disastrously, they caught a skunk in a “figger-4” which had been set for rabbits.  There was the river, the widening fields, the cottonwood groves – springs, ditches, haystacks – spelling bees, quiltings, Sabbath schools.  After a while rattlesnakes grew uncommon.

How did Jonathan bring them up at all?  At the end of 1863 he writes, “I raised this year a good crop of corn, some wheat, and some oats.” The sentence carries no overtone of the labor so strange to a mechanic.  Jonathan would have had trouble forcing this harvest from the earth anywhere, even in Illinois bottomland, where the soil is forty feet deep and is watered by generous summer rains.  But at Easton there were no rains and the thin soil was poisoned by alkali.  The sagebrush was the index.  Where sagebrush grew, there other stuffs would grow also, after heartbreaking labor had cleared it away.  Jonathan hacked at that hellish growth.  Spines and slivers that no gloves can turn fill one’s hands, the stench under the desert sun is dreadful, and the roots, which have probed deep and wide for moisture, must be chopped and grubbed and dragged out inch by inch.  Then, before anything will sprout in the drugged earth, water muct be brought.  Through a dozen years of Jonathan’s journal we observe the settlers of Easton combining to bring water to their fields.  On the bench lands above their valleys, where gulches and canyons come down from the Wasatch, they made canals, which they led along the hills. From the canals smaller ditches flowed down to each man’s fields, and from these ditches he must dig veins and capillaries for himself.  Where the water ran, cultivation was possible; where it didn’t, the sagebrush of the desert showed unbroken.  Such cooperation forbade quarrels; one would as soon quarrel about the bloodstream.  A man was allotted certain hours of water.  When they came, at midnight or dawn or noon, he raised the gates into his own ditches and with spade and shovel and an engineering sense coaxed the water to his planting.

During those first years there would be, besides the corn and wheat and oats of Jonathan’s note, potatoes and a few other garden vegetables – carrots no doubt, for this was Utah, perhaps cabbages and surely squash.  Brother Kendall, two miles down the valley, had been a farmer’s man in England and could help Jonathan with the mysteries of cultivation.  Brother Kendall or someone else had a cow to spare and chickens.  There was thus milk for the children, and Rhoda churned cream for butter, learned to make cheese, gathered eggs and set hens, acquired the myriad skills of the frontier farm wife who as yet has had no qualified celebrant in literature.  There had been settlers at Easton since 1849, but they had not yet been able to harness the Weber to a mill.  There was a small affair run by horse power (Jonathan improved the gears) and its crude stones ground the meal for the corn mush which Sarah remembered as the staple of her childhood.  The oats, of course, were dedicated to the horses, the wheat to the chickens.  Beef was out of the question – cows were too valuable to be slaughtered – but after a while there were hogs, which Jonathan killed and quartered.  He had no crop, he could have non till all his land was cleared.  Sometimes he would go into the high canyons for several days and fill his wagons with wood.  This could be sold in Ogden for the only cash that came to him; but everyone cut wood, and so it could not be sold for very much.

Still these years showed some progress.  He began to buy his land from the Church on generous but sternly enforced terms.  He cleared it.  He gridded it with ditches.  He put down larger crops, began to sell part of them, bought horses and some cows.  He lamented the failure of the Church to organize Easton – sometimes a month went by without a service and there was neither juvenile instruction nor priesthood meeting.  In view of the Mormon care to organize even the smallest and remotest settlements, this failure is strange.  But they made out.

The break came in 1868.  The crops were about three inches out of the ground when grasshoppers settled on them, as they had done before the historic miracle which Mahonri Young was to relate in bronze and granite.  Three-quarters of the green shoots were destroyed at once and ruin seemed inevitable.  But at once surveyors followed the grasshoppers to Easton, and suddenly most of the settlers there, Jonathan among them, were working for the Union Pacific Railroad, hauling timber for ties and construction or, as the year closed, rock and rubble for the grade.  For the first time there was money in the valley; Jonathan would now drive to Ogden on Saturday night and bring back milled flour, a few groceries, farm implements, cloth, buttons, a mirror.  Sarah’s first shoes date from this time.  She remembered also a strange pleasure surpassing anything she had imagined, rock candy.

By midwinter the rails came through Weber Canyon and the violent town called Hell on Wheels erected itself at Easton.  Jonathan says that there were “many bad men” in this company, who drank and gambled and whored to the disgust of the Saints, and says no more about them except that they burned his fences for firewood.  The fences had already been pierced, for the roadbed ran straight across his land, and he worked among the bad men as a teamster and did not scruple to sell them produce.  Sometimes he mounted guard with an enormous horse pistol to drive the boisterous Irish away.  Hell on Wheels passed rapidly on, to Corinne, to Promontory Point, but it had raised the valley out of squalor.  Also it had destroyed Easton by building a station two miles farther down the valley than the nucleus of houses that constituted “the settlement.”  The station was just a mile east of Jonathan’s house.  Its signboard wore a queer misspelled name which still remains: Uinta.

Sarah’s first candles came now – tallow had been too precious for such use – and later there was the magnificent new “rock oil,” much better than the rag floating in melted home-cured lard which she had known.  This marvel came westward on the “U.P.”, which also brought coal from Rock Springs, though Jonathan would not burn it for some years yet.  Stoves came too, and many marvelous new things.  All the children had shoes by 1870, and Rhoda could make excellent clothes for them.  But the railroad’s power was best shown by the impetus it gave religion.  Jonathan had long since organized a Sabbath school.  Now he could get books for it.  The valley’s new prosperity enabled him to raise, by dances and “entertainments,” a fund which, sent to Chicago, bought “between 130 and 140, which proved a blessing for the children.”

Now that all the children had shoes, Jonathan was clearly doing well.  To this time belongs a story which he remembered when he was nearly eighty.  The Bishop of the Uinta (the Church “ward” was now organized) came to Brother Dyer and suggested that since the Lord had rewarded his efforts, it was clearly his duty to take another wife and raise up more seed for Israel.  In the only rebellion against he teachers he ever experienced, Jonathan got out the horse pistol and ordered the Bishop off his land, and thereafter there was no mention of polygamy….  A grandson has seen the horse pistol but does not believe the story.  These folk at Uinta were the humble of Mormonry, and the humble had little to do with polygamy.  There seems never to have been a plural marriage in the valley.  The story merely means an old man’s memory that he had not believed in polygamy.  He was one of many Saints who did not.  But, be very sure, if the Bishop, a lineal descendant of Aaron, had commanded Jonathan to take another wife, then another wife would have come to share Rhoda’s labors and add children to Jonathan’s glory.


What can be said about Jonathan Dyer?  He was a first-class private in the march of America – a unit in the process that made and remade the nation.  Yet history can make singularly little of him.  You could not write the history of Utah or of the Mormon Church without mentioning, for instance, the “New Movement” which, from the point of view of historical forces, must have shaken this commonwealth to its base.  Its occurrence could be guessed from nothing whatever in Jonathan’s life and from only a single line in his journal which says that it began in 1869.  You could not write either of those histories without detailing the violent disturbance of the public peace which was called the “Morrisite war” – the appearance of a false prophet in Israel and his suppression by Brigham Young.  The prophet Morris and his followers pitched their camp across the narrow Weber from Jonathan’s lower field and there, a few rods from him, they were at last attacked by the army of the Lord.  After three days of rifle and artilery practice the false prophet and some of his flock were killed and their camp was scattered.  It may be that bullets kicked up dust in the field that Jonathan was plowing, it may be that the event was worth in his journal only one sentence and an aphorism about the stubbornness of evil.  Of the rest of history during his lifetime, nothing whatever appears.  Mormon and Gentile battled for supremacy, polygamists were hunted down, at last the whole Church was proscribed and its property was confiscated.  And all this was less than a shadow to Jonathan, who notes the fall of rain, which counts in a desert, and the annual increase of his crop.

History, it may be, is not of the humble.  Some millions of Jonathans were creating America.  Over all the empty land such minute nuclei as his stood out.  They grew by aggregation, while men made farms of what had been just wasteland, and then the land wasn’t empty any more.  The unit, the nucleus, the individual kept up his not spectacular warfare against anarchy, for self-preservation.  What had he to do with the currents of national life?  They weren’t, for him, currents at all.  They were waves perhaps, which flowed an unrecognized energy through or around him and on to his neighbor, lifting both and letting both fall back, their position in space unchanged, water still to be brought to the fields.  Occupied with his own struggle for survival, incapable of feeling himself a part of a nation, Jonathan had a further unawareness in his faith.  It was, the Mormon faith, a superb instrument for the reclamation of the desert, for the creation of the West.  It rewarded the faithful for industry and offered rewards for further effort.  It identified with heavenly grace the very qualities that were most needed in a new country: unquestioning labor, frugality, cooperation, obedience.  So long as the faithful worked to redeem the earth so long were they building up Israel and strengthening God’s kingdom.

So, though Jonathan was a religious emigrant, there was not even religion as philosophers know it in his life.  The Sabbath school which he established became the best in Weber County; it was commended in Quarterly and even Annual Conference, and was permitted to march in Pioneer Day parades.  Jonathan was sometimes called upon to advise other educators of the young.  He was made a high priest.  Sometimes he met dignitaries of the church and listened to counsel.  He was never promoted above his sergeancy, for in Mormonism as elsewhere the humble do not become leaders.  He accepted the hagiology of his Church and its dogmas and its expectations, but they were merely a background.  He did not think about them often or very deeply.  He was advancing Israel, making sure his glory, but – and this was what counted – his fields came under the plow and he was setting out fruit trees.  If religion was just smoke on the horizon, politics was even less.  The grandson who has been mentioned remembers asking Jonathan whether he was going to vote for a son-in-law who had been nominated for some office now forgotten.  Jonathan was not, he said. The son-in-law had been nominated by the Democrats, and the Bishop of Uinta had told Jonathan that it was best for the Republicans to be in power.  Didn’t the leading men in church and party know what was best?  You will not write political history by consulting the ideas of the humble.

These were just smoke.  It was real when Rhoda and all the children – five of them at that time – fell sick with smallpox.  We have forgotten the terror of that plague.  Neighbors whipped their horses to the gallop, passing by, averted their faces and held their breath against infection, burned smudges, wore amulets of vile smelling stuff.  No one dared to come to Jonathan’s help or even to bring a doctor from Ogden.  Somehow he nursed his family through till Rhoda was on her feet and then he too collapsed.  The well got contaminated one summer and they all had typhoid fever; there was help this time and they all survived.  One year Rhoda’s breast “gathered” and she had to drag herself about the grinding labor of a farm wife; she failed slowly, nothing could be done for her, but that also passed and she could go on.  One summer, chopping wood, Jonathan cut a gash in his leg.  For the rest of the year he could not work; Rhoda and the children shortened their sleep, carried on the irrigation, and brought in the crop.  The menace of such accidents was constant.  One Sunday noon Jonathan came back from Sabbath school and found that a mule had kicked his son, young Jonathan, in the head and “broke his skull.”  Jonathan went to Ogden, and by ten o’clock that night had brought Dr. Woodward back.  For five hours, by the light of a Rochester lamp in the kitchen, the doctor operated on the boy.  The doctor came twice more to dress the wound.  Jonathan paid him: “cash, $20; pig, $4; corn and corn meal, $2.70; wood, $6”  and, a month later, some more wood.  The boy had recovered four months later.  And so on…  “November 21st [1872].  This morning about 4 o’clock my wife confined and gave birth to a daughter; also I took a load of wood to Mrs. Savage.”

All that was real and so was the earth.  The desert yielded.  There was never to be ease or luxury at Uinta – what would a farmer do with either?  Education was impossible for the children.  The little school at the “settlement” was like its equivalents throughout rural America, and when Sarah wanted to learn more she had to go to Ogden, where she paid her board by housework and walked three miles each way to Professor Moench’s academy.  The children had to strike out for themselves as soon as possible, Jonathan as a telegrapher downstate, and Sarah as a waitress in a railroad lunchroom at Green River.  But, if not ease, comfort came to Uinta and security and the rude plenty of the farm.  The daughter whose birth is noticed came to a frame house painted green.  There was an ell later.  The dooryard had a small lawn – astonishing in the desert – and mulberry and walnut trees and Rhoda’s flower garden.  The ditch that paralleled the railroad tracks in front of it flowed beside Lombardy poplars of Jonathan’s planting.  There were wells and springs of mountain water.  Half a dozen cows and as many horses grazed in the west pasture, a few sheep were about, and annually Jonathan cured hams and bacon from his hogs.  These hung beside home-butchered beef and mutton and the children tended sizable flocks of chickens, turkeys, ducks, and guinea fowl.  Sheds multiplied, filling with cultivators, harrows, plows, and similar implements which the unseen America beyond the Wasatch was creating.  There were hay sheds, chicken houses, a “warehouse” (for Jonathan was English and his wagons were “carts”), an embryonic machine shop, a cider press.  The threshers harvested Jonathan’s wheat; it was stored in a granary with his corn and oats and barley.  Rhoda made cheese and butter; she “put up” vegetables from the garden and her jams and jellies are nostalgically remembered.  She baked every day.  There were eggs all winter long.

Is it clear that all this sprang from desert land, that Jonathan created it out of nothing at all?  That is the point.  Sometimes noticed, it is seldom realized in discussion of the frontier.  Some people are pleased by the frontier’s pageantry, and the literary are frantically ashamed of what they feel must have been its ugliness; but somehow the plain fact of creation gets overlooked….In 1862 a hillside in Utah, sloping down to cottonwoods along the Weber River, had been no more than sagebrush.  The sage, Artemisia tridentata, is glamorous in folklore, where it is called Heartsease, and it seems beautiful under distance to tourists of the tamed West, but it is the type-symbol of desolation.  There was here – nothing whatever.  A stinking drouth, coyotes and rattlesnakes and owls, the movement of violet and silver and olive-dun sage in white light – a dead land.  But now there was a painted frame house under shade trees, fields leached of alkali, the  blue flowers of alfalfa, flowing water, grain, gardens, orchards.

Especially orchards.  Under the sagebrush roots the earth held the ashes of a volcanic age.  When Jonathan brought water to it chemistry was set free.  Something in that volcanic ash gave a superb flavor to fruit.  All the Utah fruits are glorious, but especially the strawberries and apricots and apples, and most especially the peaches.  One who has not tasted, fresh from the tree, a peach grown on the eastern slope of the long valley that holds the Great Salt Lake may not speak of peaches.  All these fruits, together with cherries and plums and pears, came in time to Jonathan’s hillside.  How should this Hertford mechanic learn to divine the hidden necessities of trees?  The thing is impossible but it happened.  He was a farmer by virtue of blind strength and the mistakes of years, but he was a fruit-grower by divination.  He walked among his orchards and could read their needs.  So that as the years passed Jonathan Dyer’s orchards became the greater part of his farm, and they were known.

This in what had been a dead land.  Water flowed in his ditches, stock grazed his pastures, instead of desolation where were fields and orchards.  The children came in at nightfall to a house built from his lumber.  They ate bread made of his wheat, cheese from his milk, preserved fruit from his orchards.  There had been nothing at all, and here were peaches, and he had come eight thousand miles.  That is the point of the frontier.


Uinta was eight miles over the hills from Ogden – four hours when the road was in its April state the time Jonathan drove in for Dr. Woodward, seventy-five minutes in a buggy behind old Prince when the grandson’s memory of it opens (about 1903), and eleven minutes in 1933.  Those figures speak also of the frontier.  The 1903 memory preserves quiet and isolation – summer afternoons beside the beautifully sited canal in the shade of the poplars, a dusty road vacant of travel, sometimes a wagon climbing the immense hill which was named for Peg-Leg Labaume, sometimes rails humming before a U.P. train emerged from Weber Canyon, no other movement except that of clouds and wind, no other sound but cicadas and the whine of Jonathan’s mower in the alfalfa – the crest of Jonathan’s comfort and success.  The fields were clean, the orchards combed and trim, the sheds plumb.  Nondescript cows had given place to Jerseys; the hogs were now Poland Chinas.  A greengage tree rose in the dooryard; it was followed by Japanese plums and other foreign fruits whose growth endlessly interested Jonathan.  On Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the children and grandchildren gathered, Rhoda would spend the day cooking great dinners, and every item of them had grown under her eye.  Home-butchered roast beef with Yorkshire pudding is remembered, suckling pigs with Jonathan’s apples in their mouths, turkeys, butter and cheese from Rhoda’s milkroom, endless breads and biscuits and cakes from flour traded in grist a mile away.  Winters were snug; spring plowing turned earth that was ignorant of alkali.  This was Deseret, the land of the honey bee.

Yet even in 1903 its doom had been pronounced.  A large wagon – Jonathan called it a van – from the Kasius Grocery in Ogden began to make weekly visits to Uinta.  Jonathan and Rhoda were sixty-nine; soon it seemed foolish to butcher their own meat, churn their own butter, set rennet for their own cheese.  For the rest of his life Jonathan was more an orchardist, less a farmer.  Then another corporation asked for an easement over the farm, and steel towers rose carrying transmission lines from power plants deep in the Wasatch.  Jonathan and Rhoda were alone.  The four hours to Ogden had been difficult but not difficult enough, for none of the seven children had stayed on the land.  None had remained in the Mormon church.  None, even, had married a native of Utah.  Three of them had moved out of the state.  The twenty grandchildren were to be dispersed from San Diego to Boston, and though they were to take up trades as wide apart as boiler-making and novel-writing, not one of them was a farmer.  They were products of the frontier – which had fallen.

The plenty of 1903 lingered on.  But Jonathan and Rhoda grew old.  A farm requires vigor and, though Jonathan’s remained phenomenal, Rhoda’s failed, and it was not always possible to find a granddaughter in her teens who would live with them and help.  At last Jonathan began to show the strange mania that sometimes comes upon fruit-growers.  He would suddenly notice something wrong about one of his fruit trees and decide that it must make way for a new, young shoot.  He would get out his axe.  The glorious orchards began to fall.  So, a little dazed, uncomprehending, Jonathan made in 1917 the journey which during fifty-five years he had scorned to make – he and the rejoicing Rhoda moved the eight miles to Ogden to live with a daughter.  The farm was sold.  The buyer kept things as they were, but four years later some ass who had money to spare bought the place, leveled the orchards, let the fields perish, and began to raise silver foxes.  He was a Goth plowing the land with salt.

Rhoda died in 1919.  Jonathan lived four years more in a growing bewilderment.  Sometimes he would disappear from the daughter’s house.  A grandson would know where to look for him, for the old man would start out unerringly for Uinta but would grow confused and wait wretchedly for a known face.  When found he would explain that he was desperately needed at the farm.  He had not seen it again when he died, and of the children and grandchildren only the novelist, a romantic, has traveled those eight miles.

What can be said in judgment of Jonathan Dyer’s life?  In terms of money, his estate, after the expense of six years away from the farm, was about six thousand dollars.  He had come from Hertford and labored for fifty-five years to bequeath seven hundred and fifty dollars to each of his children.  Or, in different terms, he had raised seven children who, with their children, had merged with the frontier into the Republic.  Not much else can be said: an item in the history of America had fulfilled itself.  You must multiply Jonathan by several million, looking westward from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains, across a space which your oldest maps will call “The Great American Desert.”

After that multiplication you see Jonathan Dyer as something else, and a carelessly parenthetical sentence in a letter from Ogden lights up with sudden meaning.  “They are farming your grandfather’s land again.”   So the fox farm has collapsed, with so much other obscenity that belonged to the boom years.  There will be crops again on that hillside which slopes downward to the Weber.  Alfalfa flowers will be blue in the north field once more and the canal will divert shimmering water to the kitchen garden.  Perhaps other orchards will rise in the places where Jonathan’s were uprooted; the volcanic ash will once more work its chemistry.

The earth was poisoned, and Jonathan made it sweet.  It was a dead land, and he gave it life.  Permanently.  Forever.  Following the God of the Mormons, he came from Hertford to the Great American Desert and made it fertile.  That is achievement.

Published originally as “Jonathan Dyer, Frontiersman” in Harper’s, September 1933; reprinted in Forays and Rebuttals, 1936.