“Antonio’s Book,” Ensign, Mar. 1991, 29
This is the story of how the Book of Mormon helped a starving company of Saints survive their first winter in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.
The story actually begins in the 1840s in northern New Mexico, where Francisco Esteban Salazar became friends with a young member of the Mormon Battalion who was probably on his way to Pueblo, Colorado, with other men who were too sick to join the rest of the battalion. Before they parted, the young man gave Francisco one of his most precious possessions—a book—and asked him to read it.
When Francisco later opened the book, he saw that it was written in English—which he couldn’t read. But because he was so impressed with his young friend, he kept the precious book in a special place.
One day Francisco’s son Antonio found the book and asked his father about it. Francisco told him about the young man who had given it to him and said that it was called the Book of Mormon. Then Francisco gave the book to Antonio.
Here, details of the story differ and fade into history, but all accounts agree that his early reading in the Book of Mormon changed Antonio’s life. Antonio’s friends and family noticed that he began to look at life differently and to treat others, including his father’s Indian servants, with more respect.
Antonio eventually fell in love with Dolores Romero, a young woman who was half Spanish and half Navajo. Both had been reared in the Catholic Church. In February 1872—the year before Francisco died—Antonio and Dolores were married in Conejos, Colorado. Antonio and his wife then moved to the San Luis Valley. Over the next six years, the Salazars established a large sheep and cattle ranch. (Eufemio Salazar, oral history interviews by Gordon Irving, 1976; typescript, the James Moyle Oral History Program, Church Archives.)
One day during the winter of 1878, as Antonio was riding along the fences of his ranch, a neighboring rancher rode up and told Antonio about a company of settlers who had arrived in the valley from Pueblo. The rancher said the settlers were poor and unprepared for the weather, but he told Antonio not to help them because they were “Mormons.” The word rang in Antonio’s ears, and he remembered what his father had told him about the black book and the special young man who had given it to him.
Later, when two men rode to Antonio’s ranch and asked if he could help the Mormon settlers, Antonio gave many of the settlers shelter and jobs on his ranch. Some ranchers couldn’t believe that Antonio would help the Mormons so freely, but they soon followed his example.
The only thing Antonio asked in return for helping the Saints was that they tell him more about the Book of Mormon. A few months later, the missionaries visited Antonio and Dolores and began teaching them the gospel. (Salazar, p. 2.)
Opposition to the Saints and their religion was strong. Antonio attended a meeting held on 3 January 1879 by an angry priest. Several Mormons were present, including Bishop Hans Jensen. Bishop Jensen wrote of the meeting:
“Last Friday the priest came to this place. I and four more of the Saints went into the meeting, stood in front of the priest as innocent as lambs while he scolded us for one hour. … [He] called for help to throw us out, although we went quiet and peacefully. It had a good effect on the people present, for yesterday I baptized twelve and blessed five children, and am now anxiously waiting for the priest to come back and drive off another lot, and we will gladly receive them through the waters of baptism. There are yet many that have faith and feelings for the Gospel.” (Deseret Evening News, 6 January 1879, p. 3.)
Antonio was so impressed with the Saints’ meek conduct that when they left the meeting, he left with them. He knew in his heart that it was time to be baptized.
On 5 January 1879, the Salazars and the missionaries put up tents, built big fires, and chopped a hole in the ice on the Conejos River. Antonio, Dolores, two of their daughters, and Dolores’s Indian grandmother were baptized. Antonio was the only one of his eleven brothers and sisters ever to be baptized. Though he and Dolores suffered because of their religion, they remained faithful Church members for the rest of their lives. (Salazar, p. 2.)
The settlement of Saints grew, and on 5 February 1879 they purchased state lands on the north branch of the Conejos River. They named their new settlement Manassa, after the son of Joseph in the Bible.
So it was that the Salazar family was baptized and the Latter-day Saint community of Manassa was established—both as a result of an unusual chain of events set in motion by a young man from the Mormon Battalion who gave his Book of Mormon to a friend.
Two men, Lawrence M. Peterson and James Z. Stewart, played key roles in the decision for the Saints to establish a settlement in the San Luis Valley, in lower central Colorado.
Lawrence M. Peterson
Lawrence M. Peterson, a recent Mormon convert, had lived among the Spanish Catholics for most of his life. It was he who first suggested to President John Taylor that the Saints settle an area near the Conejos River in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.
Brother Peterson had an interesting conversion story of his own. He was a Scandinavian whose parents had joined the Church when Lawrence was a young boy. During the family’s voyage to America, both of Lawrence’s parents died, but he remained with the rest of the Saints going to Zion. In the summer of 1854, eleven-year-old Lawrence strayed from his camp of Saints near Kansas City, Missouri. After a fruitless search, the rest of his family and friends, thinking they had lost him forever, continued their trek to Utah.
In the meantime, Lawrence fell in with some Spanish traders from New Mexico who convinced him to return home with them. He subsequently became proficient and literate in Spanish and English, married a Spanish woman, and was elected county recorder. While serving in this position, he began corresponding with the recorders in Utah. They helped him discover the whereabouts of his elder brother, Hans, who was living in Manti.
Lawrence and his family visited his brother in Manti and embraced the gospel. Elder Erastus Snow baptized them in 1875. Brother Peterson was ordained an elder, and he returned with his family to Colorado, where he had commenced a quiet missionary labor among the Spanish Catholics. He translated selections of Church works into Spanish and, using the Spanish translation of the Book of Mormon, eventually baptized about forty people. (From a letter written by Erastus Snow, 4 May 1877, Nephi, Utah; in the San Luis Stake Manuscript History, 1878.)
In time, Brother Peterson’s brother Hans was called to take charge of the Conejos Mission, and several missionaries assisted him in the establishment of a Latter-day Saint colony there.
James Z. Stewart
Meanwhile, in Salt Lake City, James Z. Stewart was called by President John Taylor to assist a company of Saints traveling by train from Scottsboro, Alabama. These Saints arrived at Pueblo, Colorado, on 25 November 1877, under the direction of John Morgan, president of the Southern States Mission. They temporarily settled there in some lumber barracks on an island in the Arkansas River to await further directions from Church leaders about where they were to settle permanently.
Elder Stewart, who had just completed his second mission to Mexico, contacted the leader of these Saints, John Morgan. Elder Morgan explained to him how poor and ill-equipped they were for locating and making a living in a new and unimproved section of the country. Elder Stewart then called on President Taylor, anticipating that he would offer financial aid from the Church to help them settle.
“President Taylor looked at me,” wrote Elder Stewart, “and said, ‘Brother Stewart, the Lord will open up the way.’ Well, I knew that ‘the Lord could do it,’ but I must confess that I thought it was the hardest mission that I had ever been called upon to perform, but I did not feel like flinching or faltering, and after being set apart … I borrowed sixty dollars and started that afternoon for Pueblo, Colorado.” (James Z. Stewart, “Settling the San Luis Valley,” in the San Luis Stake Manuscript History, 1878.)
James Stewart arrived in Pueblo in March 1878. He, John Morgan, and three other colonists journeyed on to the San Luis Valley, where they purchased two ranches near the town of Conejos that had good homes already built on them. Elder Stewart bought a yoke of oxen and a plow, then arranged with some Mexican families for the Saints to borrow wagons and other tools needed to plant crops and gardens.
Elder Stewart writes of one helpful rancher in particular: “Upon arriving [in October] with the colonists at the ranches I had secured, I called on a wealthy Mexican rancher [thought to be Antonio Salazar] some miles away and explained to him that I had brought some colonists, poor people and located them near las Cerritas and that they needed some cows to milk and asked him if he had any to spare, and the next day he brought down twenty-one cows with young calves and told me that … they were welcome to the use of the cows.”
“I left the colonists feeling contented and happy with good prospects before them,” Elder Stewart concludes. “Thus was fulfilled what was to me, one of the most remarkable prophecies, that I ever knew of, and I wish to testify that I know that President John Taylor was a prophet of God. His promises were completely and most wonderfully fulfilled.” (In the San Luis Stake Manuscript History, 1878.)