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The Teens of the Plains

Charlotte Larcabal

Were pioneer teenagers anything like me?

When we think of pioneers, we often think about bravery and sacrifice, handcarts and oxen, and lots and lots of walking.

Do you ever think about the teenagers who made the journey to Zion? Sure they didn’t have Facebook or cellphones, but those teenage pioneers weren’t so different from you. They loved laughing and having a good time, they had crushes and heartbreaks, they made mistakes, got into embarrassing scrapes, felt alone in the world, and stood strong in their testimonies. Just like you.

Completely losing your cool

Brigham Roberts, age 10

Missing your bus is one thing, but when he was 10 years old, Brigham Roberts and his friend missed their wagon train! They spent a little too much time picking berries, and the company took off without them. The boys made a mad dash for the disappearing wagon train, but stopped short when they saw three tall Native Americans directly in their path.

Brigham Henry Roberts

Brigham Henry Roberts, 1884

As the terrified boys inched forward, the three men just watched them without moving or smiling.

The pressure must have gotten a little intense for Brigham. Suddenly, he snapped. With a wild yell, he flung his berry-filled cap and ran wildly passed them.

“They say [Native Americans] never laugh, but I learned differently,” he later said. “As the race for the train continued, I saw they were bending double over their horses with their screams of laughter.”

(B. H. Roberts, The Autobiography of B. H. Roberts, ed. Gary James Bergera [1990], 25–44.)

Falling asleep in the wrong places

Brigham’s adventures continued. One evening, he snuck into a wagon for a free ride. This was against the rules, so Brigham took the lid off of a barrel and slipped inside to hide. But as he dropped into the barrel, he found that it still held three to four inches of molasses!

Too tired to care, he crouched down and made himself as comfortable as possible, and fell asleep. (And you thought you could sleep anywhere.)

He awoke the next day completely glued to the sticky barrel. By the time he managed to pull himself free, everyone was awake.

“As I crawled out, and with molasses dripping from my trousers, I was greeted with yells and laughter by some of the teamsters and emigrants who caught sight of me. I crept away as fast as I could to scrape off the syrup.”

Sadly, molasses doesn’t really scrape off. He had no extra clothes, so he had to wear his molasses-drenched clothes the rest of the day.

(B. H. Roberts, The Autobiography of B. H. Roberts, ed. Gary James Bergera [1990], 25–44.)

Playing pranks

Riley Judd, age 16

Sixteen-year-old Riley drove an ox team for a widow and her little girl. He liked helping but often said that the woman could ask more questions than 10 men could answer in a week. A born joker, Riley often couldn’t resist giving her ridiculous answers.

Chimney rock

Chimney Rock

One day, after enduring hundreds of questions about Chimney Rock—a famous landmark on the plains, he confidentially told her that he was going to push it over. The shocked little girl begged and pleaded him to reconsider, but he insisted that when he got his hands on the famous rock, over it would go.

As they neared Chimney Rock, the little girl’s pleas turned to threats and she swore that she would tell President Brigham Young as soon as they entered the valley. Finally Riley sighed dramatically and promised to let Chimney Rock stand.

She was so delighted that she gave him an extra good dinner that night.

(Margaret Clawson, “Reminiscences of Margaret Clawson,” Relief Society Magazine [1919], 324–25.)

Living with Native Americans (What, that never happened to you?)

George Staples, age 14

When he was 14, George Staples left his family and home in England to join the Saints in Utah. He made it to the United States and joined a company of Saints, but as they crossed the plains, George caught mountain fever. He was nearly delirious and the lurching wagon was too painful, but the company had to keep moving or risk running into warring Sioux. Believing he was about to die, the company left him with a trapper.

Sioux Warrior

Photograph with inscription “Sioux Warrior”

That afternoon, a friendly band of Sioux stopped by the trapper’s home. A woman noticed George and asked if she could take and care for him. In the next few days, she and the tribal doctors nursed him with remedies the pioneers knew nothing about. Eventually George recovered and became a part of the tribe. For years, George lived as an honorary Sioux.

George became a legend. Other pioneers began telling stories about the white boy living as a Sioux. Eventually, a group from the Salt Lake Valley came looking for him. As they neared the tribe, George recognized a familiar face. With a wild whoop, he ran and fell into his father’s arms. Both father and son were thrilled to see one another, but George’s Sioux mother was devastated to lose her adopted son. So, before leaving with his father, George promised to return and visit his Sioux family. He kept his promise.

(Maurine Proctor, The Gathering: Mormon Pioneers on the Trail to Zion [1996].)

Falling in (and out of) (and in) (and back out of) love

Margaret Judd Clawson, 17

Seventeen-year-old Margaret wrote: “The night before we left, my true lover, Henry Ridgeley, came to bid me farewell, and under our trysting tree we each vowed eternal constancy, for four years at least. At the end of that time he would be of age, and then he would come claim me for his own, even if I was at the end of the earth.”

Eternal constancy gets hard when there’s no guarantee you’ll see your true lover again. Especially when there are several nice young men in your company. Soon Margaret was eying another boy.

“He used to say such lovely things to me—told me that I was beautiful and intelligent, and even went so far as to say that I was amiable, something I had never been accused of before. He told me that I was the only woman he ever loved and that we were just suited to each other. I began to believe him, and when he proposed, what could I say but “yes.” Well, the course of true love did run smooth, at least until we got into the Valley. Then we had the usual lovers’ quarrel but not the usual making up. In a short time he let me know that another girl appreciated him, if I did not.”

(Margaret Clawson, “Reminiscences of Margaret Clawson,” Relief Society Magazine [1919], 322–24.)

Bearing and strengthening a testimony

Susan Noble Grant left for Zion when she was 15 years old. She loved sitting around the campfire and listening to the adults talk about their experiences with the Prophet Joseph Smith. She and the other teenagers often took turns bearing their own testimonies to keep spirits lifted.

“You do not know how happy we were, even during these severe days of hardest trials. As young as I was, I knew the gospel had been restored. More than once I had heard Joseph Smith declare that our Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus, the resurrected Savior, had come and talked with him. To this day this testimony has never left me.”

Joseph Smith

Joseph in the Grove by Archie D. Shaw

(Carter E. Grant, “Robbed by Wolves, a True Story,” Relief Society Magazine, July 1928, 357–58.)

Sure they pushed handcarts and hauled water and would probably flip a lid if they saw a smartphone, but were the teens of the plains really so different from youth today?

President Thomas S. Monson doesn’t think so.

“What about our time? Are there pioneering experiences for us? Will future generations reflect with gratitude on our efforts, our examples? You young [people] can indeed be pioneers in courage, in faith, in charity, in determination.

“You can strengthen one another; you have the capacity to notice the unnoticed. When you have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to feel, you can reach out and rescue others of your age” (“Pioneers All,” Ensign, May 1997, 93).

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