The Tin Whistle

Pioneers now revered as human monuments to courage often started out like 15-year-old William Blair, with little more than a pair of worn boots and a small tin whistle

William knew there would be weight restrictions on baggage, so he packed the cloth traveling bag accordingly. There was only room for necessary items. He lifted it, walked a little with it clutched in his right hand, then set it down, and after a moment’s pause, slowly removed the concertina, carefully placing it back on the shelf near his mother’s small pump organ. He would miss playing it, but he would send for it once he got settled. He would miss a lot of things, especially family singing time in the evenings before the babies were put to bed. The singing served as an elixir, soothing, refreshing, and calming everyone’s spirits, preparing them for a night’s rest from the duties of the day.

He checked the remainder of the bag’s contents to see if anything else could be removed. No, he would need the two changes of clothing, one light weight and the other heavy. The hand-me-down boots his father had given him must stay. “They’ll be good for walking, William. Good support for the ankles.” William knew his father felt badly because he could not afford to buy his son a new pair of boots. No matter. He would have to stuff the toes a little with cotton, but they would serve their purpose—again. He knew they had once belonged to an anonymous foot soldier, deceased no doubt, of the British Royal Army in which his grandfather had been a cavalryman.

The pen and paper were indispensable. They would be used for recording the events of the journey and for an occasional letter home.

Surely the bottle of homemade, all-purpose healing salve would be useful for sunburned skin or blisters on the feet. Then there was the small amount of money his mother had tenderly wrapped in a handkerchief, money in addition to his passage that the family would “glady do without in order to help our son get to America, to Zion,” she had said. He wanted to give the money back to her, but he knew she had saved it for this very purpose and would not have it any other way.

In the bottom of the bag there was a musical instrument resembling the fife or flute. It looked very much like the kind the soldiers in George Washington’s army had played while marching to and from battle. It is not known when or how he obtained the tin whistle, a very inexpensive, shrill sounding instrument, but it is known that William could play it very well. It, too, was a necessary item.

The early morning mist was heavy, as were the thoughts on his mind, that 23rd day of May in 1866 when William Moroni Blair, 15-year-old son of Isaac and Ruth Suddery Blair, boarded the sailing ship bound for America.

He watched from his position near the ship’s railing as the families and friends of some of the other 349 passengers gathered at dockside to bid their farewells. He looked from face to face of his loved ones, giving his eyes plenty of time to capture the departure scene for permanent recording in his mind. He saw his mother blow him a kiss and then bury her face in the coat sleeve of his father who was holding fast to the wiggling five-year-old twins, Ruth and Isaac. Baby Albert, wrapped snugly in a woolen shawl crocheted by his mother, was too tiny to notice anything. But William noticed how tightly he was being pressed to his mother’s bosom. Three-year-old Rosa, wide-eyed and especially quiet this morning, was perched high up in Samuel’s arms. She didn’t really understand all that was going on. Samuel would soon be 14 and was the second oldest in the family. He must now assume the role of the oldest. William suspected thoughts of envy and relief were passing through Samuel’s mind simultaneously, for had he been the firstborn, he would now be the one waiting to sail.

William reflected on last evening’s events when Rosalie, 12, and Henry, 10, had quietly slipped through the curtained doorway of the room he shared with Samuel. Assuming correctly that he would not yet be asleep, they sat upon his bed. It was Henry who asked, “Are you afraid, Will?”

“Not really.”

Then Rosalie: “When will we see you again? Whenever I ask mother or father, they just say, ‘Someday soon.’ Will we all really get to Zion and be together again?”

William recalled his answer: “Yes, we will, someday soon.”

The following morning before light touched the sky, the Blair family knelt in their familiar places within the walls of their humble home while Father Blair led them in prayer. Special assistance was asked for on William’s behalf.

The boarding plank was up. The ship creaked and groaned as it was loosed from its hold on the pier. Last-minute instructions were issued by the captain and then relayed by the first mate to the other crew members. As wood and canvas slowly moved away from the docks at Liverpool, William mustered up his best grin and waved vigorously to his people who were doing the same amid shouts of, “Take care!” “Don’t delay in writing!” “Pray always!” and “Godspeed!” Then as the Alesto slipped into the deeper waters of the bay, someone on board began to sing “Isle of Beauty, Fare Thee Well.” Others lent their voices to the singing until the soloist was accompanied by a full choir. Music changed to silence when the “Isle of Beauty” vanished in the fog. That was to be the very last view of Old England for many of those sailing away from her shores that day. It was William’s last.

One by one the passengers drifted off to their quarters below deck, leaving William and a few others to contemplate all that was being left behind and all that was yet to come. Somehow, although he was among strangers, he felt familiar with the scene. These people had traveled to Liverpool from all parts of England to leave their homeland that day. The common bond they shared began to take hold, the bond which had brought them together in the first place—the gospel. He was among Saints. Their faith and his were being woven into a tight pattern that had been worked before. Other Saints had sailed the seas at the promptings of the missionaries from America and had wound their way to Zion to take part in the building up of the kingdom. Many had left titles, wealth, and comforts behind to take on the awesome task of becoming a pioneer. Others, to be sure, had fled poverty and subjection with high hopes of being blessed with a chance for a new life, if they could but endure all that would be asked of them from their new faith, and endure they did.

The Blairs had been encouraged by Charles W. Penrose, a long-time friend, to send their oldest son to Zion and then follow as soon as possible. This practice, which some of the Saints had begun to use, was, for the most part, successful. Some families, however, were never reunited as death or other extreme circumstances often intervened, preventing them from realizing their precious dreams.

With these thoughts still on his mind, William had his solitude interrupted when a weak voice nearby called out, “Help me, please!” He turned to see a well-dressed woman who appeared to be in her early 30s staggering toward him. She was just barely being supported by a girl younger than himself. The woman pleaded to be put ashore, and then she collapsed in William’s arms. William summoned the ship’s doctor and the captain. It was too late to turn back, so she was carried to her bed below and made as comfortable as possible. “Please look after my daughter,” she urged of William, “and see she gets to the Valley if I cannot.” He promised to do so, even though the thought of being responsible for a 12-year-old girl on such a journey distressed him. He learned from the little girl that the woman, a Sister Wakefield, had joined the Church much against the wishes of her husband and had also influenced her daughter to be baptized. The irate father and husband had forbidden them to go to Zion, but they departed without his knowledge. Now Sister Wakefield was very ill and feared for the well-being of her daughter.

The charge of the pair fell mainly upon William’s shoulders. Whether he was ready for such responsibility or not, he would bear it. That first night aboard ship was an experience he never forgot. Some 65 years later he would write about it in the form of a personal life history that he would leave for his posterity to read and ponder. Seeking solace for himself, or perhaps wanting to comfort his afflicted friends, he took the tin whistle from his bag and played several tunes for the little girl and for her mother who would never walk again.

Six weeks later their ship landed in New York, ending the sea voyage of all but one of the passengers whose journey had ended prematurely when he took ill, died, and was buried at sea. Now the westward-bound Saints would embark on their three-month journey overland to Zion.

William looked after the Wakefields as best he could throughout their travels by steamship and train until they reached the “Old Winter Quarters” on the Missouri. No one was able to determine what illness Sister Wakefield had, but it grew progressively worse. He recorded in his journal, “The worn-out, blessed mother was laid in a tent for the sick. By this time my clothes had to be washed. I went down to a stream and stayed in the water too long, then an awful cramp seized me. I grew very light-headed and was brought to the tent and laid by the side of the sick woman. I remember asking the girl to keep the flies out of her mother’s mouth, then I lost all consciousness and was out of my head for three days. When I came to, I asked for Sister Wakefield and they told me she had been buried the day before. When I asked about the little girl, they informed she had been given to another family and had gone on to The Valley.”

William was remorseful that he would not be able to keep his promise to see the daughter safely delivered to Zion, but he knew she was in good hands and would get there with or without him as the Saints had made a pact to “look after one another throughout all difficulties.” He had heard stories of how effective “the pact” was, and now he was beginning to witness it for himself.

He soon revived and was on his way with 500 of the Saints under the care of Captain Daniel Thompson of Fillmore, Utah. William’s journal paints a vivid picture of the means of transporting travelers across the plains in those days:

“Eighty-four sturdy wagons pulled by ox-teams met us there on the Missouri. They were accompanied by splendid teamsters and a very fine captain dedicated to his calling. When all was loaded up, including my own things, we departed for The Valley, but not before we knelt and prayed to the Almighty. The days, weeks, and months to follow were filled with events the heart and mind shall never forget. The evenings were filled with singing and dancing which caused the mind and body to forget the hardships of the day. There was also sickness and death of the fragile which grieved us.”

William chose not to dwell on the subjects of sickness and death; nor did he choose to mention much about the “walking blisters” he doctored every night by the light of the campfires. He certainly had found a good use for the healing salve he’d brought all the way from England. He would remove his “foot soldier boots,” wash out his socks, and soak his feet in a bucket one of the good sisters loaned him. His soaking bucket was not exclusively his, however, as there were others who needed it too. After the soaking process, the bucket was gratefully returned to its place in the back of a wagon until the next evening. William took pity on another young fellow with the party whose shoes were in much worse shape than his own. One evening he took his dress shoes from his bag and gave them to his friend. He would get another pair when he reached his destination, after he had worked and earned enough to buy them. Slits had to be made in the sides as they were too narrow for the boy’s feet, but they were a welcomed gift, nonetheless. Not long after that incident and near the end of the journey, someone noticed blood oozing from William’s boots, leaving a marked trail on the sand and rocks behind him. He was ushered to the back of one of the wagons and made to ride for the remainder of the day. It was his first ride, and he felt guilty and uncomfortable for accepting it. He knew the oxen were already pulling their limit and hated to add to their burden. The soles of his boots were gone, but they had served him well as his father had said they would. He would finish the journey with gunny sacks wrapped around his swollen, bruised feet.

He was not one to complain. Instead he wrote: “I was among the best of company. I was treated like a son and brother, which indeed we were brothers and sisters in the gospel. When tragedy or discomfort struck one, and it did many times, it struck us all.”

Emmigration Canyon was ablaze with her fall attire of reds and golds as the weary but rejoicing Saints descended her well-cut and marked paths that first day of October in 1866. The travelers were warmly received by others who fully understood all that had transpired over the past three months for they, too, had endured and conquered the obstacles that arose between the point of departure and the scene of arrival. Now they stood together in the winners’ circle, ready for the next challenge. William must write home to his family who were anxiously awaiting the news that “Zion had been reached!” Little did he know that they had heard his ship had gone down and were grieving his loss. Oh, how welcome his letter would be! It would inspire new faith and hope.

The first part of the Blair’s dream had been realized—their oldest son had made it! The second part would come true just two years later when the rest of the family (plus a new infant son, John Heber) would cross the Atlantic and the plains to meet William at the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, deep in the heart of Zion.

The day after his arrival in the valley, after a restful night in the home of the Edward Stratton family, friends of the Blairs who had immigrated a few years before, William sought out a cobbler. As he waited for his boots to be mended, he relaxed and played merry tunes on his tin whistle, tunes he had undoubtedly played many times while crossing the plains.

When the cobbler finished, he handed William the old boots made new and asked, “How old are you?”


“Didn’t you just arrive?”

“Yes, sir. How much do I owe you?”

“There’ll be no charge; just play me another tune on your whistle.”

William gratefully placed the handkerchief of money back in his pocket, the money his mother had so delicately given him many, many nights ago, and played the whistle like it had never been played before.