They Marched Their Way West: The Nauvoo Brass Band


One evening in 1842, twenty-seven men assembled at the Nauvoo home of John W. Coolidge, greeting each other with warm handshakes and pleasant conversation. Probably none of them felt that what they were doing would be significant except to their community, but that evening they organized the Nauvoo Brass Band, a musical group which would march its way west with the Saints five years later and be a spirit-sustainer in the early days of Western colonization.

William Pitt, a left-handed fiddler, flutist, clarinetist, and all-round musician, was selected as leader. (The band was also known as Pitt’s Brass Band for that reason, and as Joseph’s City Band because its primary purpose was to accompany the public drills of the Nauvoo Legion.) William was a logical choice for leader; a British convert, he had brought with him a large selection of music arranged for brass instruments which the group immediately began practicing, even though the instruments available were mostly “old fashioned and inconvenient for advanced playing,” according to Horace K. Whitney, a fifer in the band (“The Nauvoo Brass Band,” The Contributor 1 [Mar. 1880]:135. Much of the following information is also drawn from this source).

The artistic level of achievement probably began fairly low, but the band soon became an enthusiastically welcomed part of community life. It played for both social and religious gatherings, gave concerts, played for the arrivals and departures of important people, provided background to steamboat excursions on the Mississippi, and, of course, glittered brilliantly on such patriotic occasions as the mustering of the Nauvoo Legion and the celebrations of the Fourth of July. A sub-group, the Quadrille Band, enlivened parties, dances, and picnics.

Another community contribution was constructing the Nauvoo Concert Hall, badly needed as a locale for indoor concerts and weekly practices. The band raised the money with concerts, dances, riverboat excursions, and drives. The hall was dedicated in 1843 to the tune of a hymn specially written by Elder Parley P. Pratt that, characteristically, mingled Latter-day Saint doctrine with references to the specific occasion for rejoicing. Here are three of the six verses recorded carefully by Brother Whitney:

’Twas Truth that brought us from afar,
’Twas Truth that placed us here;
Union and Truth without a jar
Can Halls and temples rear.
’Twas Truth first formed our Band and Choir
On Zion’s western plains;
‘Twas Truth that tuned our earliest lyre
In sweet harmonious strains.
Sacred to Truth this Hall shall be,
While earth and time remains,
Where the Band and Choir in harmony
Shall swell their sweet refrains.

(Whitney, p. 137).

The story is told that the citizens of Carthage, unable to provide a band for their own Fourth of July celebration in the early 1840s, requested musicians from Nauvoo. Since the Nauvoo Brass Band was already engaged for Nauvoo’s celebration, Brother Whitney with his fife and Levi W. Hancock with his drum provided music between orations “to the full satisfaction of all Carthage” (Whitney, p. 135). We have no complete records on the musical status of surrounding towns, but we suspect that Nauvoo was somewhat in advance of its neighbors.

The band had the mournful duty of playing outside the Mansion House while the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum Smith lay in state within.

When the exodus from Nauvoo became inevitable, some fifteen members of the band were among those who packed their families into wagons and crossed the Mississippi in the frigid four days between 10 and 14 February 1846 to join the Saints at Sugar Creek. They pledged their mutual support to each other to get through the coming difficulties, and Brigham Young gave them specific permission to remain together as a group. Thus, they were not only available to sustain the Saints’ morale with dances and musicales, but provided a much-needed boost to the Saints’ faltering financial affairs by giving paid concerts at such Iowa settlements as Farmington and Keosagua.

Like other Latter-day Saints, members of the band struggled to cope with the problem of day-to-day living as well as preparing for the longer march. They traded personal possessions for food, they split rails for the local farmers, and they ranged as far as Missouri in search of winter employment and supplies. They also shared with each other. William Clayton, a violinist in the band, notes in his journal on 6 May 1846 that he had given other band members some twelve hundred pounds of flour, about four or five hundred pounds of bacon, and other supplies (Clayton Family Association, William Clayton’s Journal, Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1964, p. 375).

By the time the band reached Garden Grove, bad weather, hunger, wagon repairs, fatigued animals, the formation of the Mormon Battalion, illness, and other problems made staying together as a group very difficult.

All musical activity was not suspended, however. Colonel Thomas L. Kane, a staunch friend to the Mormons, had joined the main body of the Saints at Council Bluffs and observed: “It might be when you were hunting a ford over the great Platte, the dreariest of all wild rivers, perplexed among the far-reaching sand bars and curlew shallows of its shifting bed;—the wind rising would bring you the first faint thought of a melody; and as you listened, borne down upon the gust swept past you a cloud of the dry sifted sand, you recognized it—perhaps a home-loved theme of Henry Proch or Mendelssohn, Mendelssohn Bartholdy, away there in the Indian marshes!” (cited in Edward W. Tullidge, A History of Salt Lake City, vol. 1, Salt Lake City: Star Printing Co. for E. W. Tullidge, 1886, p. 770). And at Winter Quarters, enough members from the Quadrille Band regrouped to provide pleasant social interludes during the bleak winter.

Only three members of the band arrived in the Salt Lake Valley with the first company in July 1847: William Clayton, William Pitt, and Robert T. Burton, trumpeter. However, by 6 October 1848, there was enough of a band to play at conference, and the band took a leading role in celebrating the Twenty-fourth of July, 1849.

In April 1850, the band formally reorganized itself, this time at the home of Robert Burton in Salt Lake City. Nineteen of the old members continued and four new members were added. They decided on two major projects: by July they wanted straw hats, white dress coats, white pantaloons, sky-blue sashes, and white muslin cravats to outfit every band member for the celebrations on the Fourth and Twenty-fourth of July. Furthermore, they wanted a band carriage. They got both the outfits and the carriage, even though it must have been difficult. Hosea Stout, who got to ride in the band carriage on its first run, has left us a description: “This carriage is drawn by 14 horses and is 9 feet wide & 29 feet long with a suitable flag waving, and is altogether a beautiful and magnificent sight. Altogether surpasses any thing of the kind I ever saw” (On the Mormon Frontier: the Diary of Hosea Stout, ed. Juanita Brooks, vol. 2, 1844–61, Salt Lake City: Univ. of Utah Press/Utah St. Hist. Society, 1964, p. 375).

The band also took a leading role in reviving the theatrical activities formerly fostered at Nauvoo, and, at an organizational meeting on 4 September 1850, met either on the back of the band wagon or in the home of William Clayton with talented amateur actor Phillip Margetts to organize the “Deseret Musical and Dramatic Association.”

During this association’s first two years, the band gave concerts, musicals, and programs in addition to playing for the performances and doubling as actors. On 20 February 1852, at Brigham Young’s request, a group of musicians and actors met at William Clayton’s to reorganize into the “Deseret Dramatic Association,” specializing more particularly in drama. Some band members retained both membership and involvement in the new organization, which performed in the Social Hall and later in the Great Salt Lake Theater.

When Captain Pitt was called on a mission to Great Britain in the fall of 1852, he designated James Smithers to be captain during his absence, and six new members were enrolled during September. This band played for the dedication of the temple grounds in 1853 and also performed on April 6 when the temple cornerstone was laid, joined by Dominico Ballo’s band, another fine pioneer group.

The addition of more string and reed players in 1855 expanded the band’s versatility, and four concerts given between March 28 and April 7 helped finance the new members’ uniforms. Contemporary accounts record that this “orchestral band” also played at the Scientific Association meeting held in April 1855 in the Council House and for a program after the 4 July parade. (Scattered references to the activities of the band are noted in Journal History, Church Hist. Dept. Archives, through the 1850s.)

Eventually the band dissolved—not formally or with a great deal of fanfare, but simply as its members’ priorities were turned to the demands of missions, colonization, and the constant struggle of finding music, instruments, and practice times in pioneer Utah. But they left behind them an interest in music and a heritage of sociability that still echoes in any Latter-day Saint ward dance, music festival, or sing-along.

[illustration] Wm. Pitt’s Brass Band, by Dale Kilbourn.

[photo] The Nauvoo Brass Band in Utah. (Photo courtesy Church Historical Department.)

[photo] William Pitt, leader of the band. (Photo courtesy Church Historical Department.)

[photo] Robert Burton, in whose home the band was reorganized in Salt Lake City in 1850. (Photo courtesy Utah State Historical Society.)

William E. Purdy, chairman of the Music Department, Eastern Arizona College, Thatcher, is chairman of his ward music committee.