Review of “Faithful and Fearless; Major Howard Egan: Early Mormonism and the Pioneering of the American West by William MacKinnon.  

 

During World War I, while two of Howard Egan’s sons struggled financially and editorially to publish Pioneering The West, “an invaluable collection of Egan-related documents and materials, but not a biography” (xvii), one of them complained that “if the Egan family doesn’t show more interest than at present I am afraid we can not raise the money to publish the book” (462). Such was hardly the case a century later when a battalion-sized association of Howard Egan’s descendants engaged Professor William G. Hartley of Brigham Young University to write this biography and then supported him with a plethora of research materials, anecdotes, folklore, speculation, and clerical help. Notwithstanding this assistance, the author makes clear that with Faithful and Fearless, he alone retains responsibility for the book’s structure and interpretation.

With sensitive subjects such as illegitimacy, homicide, polygamy, divorce, and perhaps even a brush with treason coursing through the complex, colorful story of Egan’s life, his descendants chose well in selecting a professional of Hartley’s caliber. The result, published in close proximity to the author’s death, is a sterling, judicious study that is neither hagiography nor family history at its stereotypical worst. In thirty well-documented chapters, Hartley chronicles not only an individual’s life but the development of a religion and the geographical region in which it grew to prominence. In writing this biography, Hartley and his sponsors aimed for a study that would be “thorough, honest, accurate, and that it must be a history my academic colleagues could respect and that the general public–including Egan descendants–would enjoy reading” (xvii). They have succeeded admirably.

In a review of this length, it is impractical to list all of the adventures, travels, and occupations that engaged Egan between his birth in Ireland in 1815 and his death in Salt Lake City in 1878. There are few major events in the development of Mormonism, Utah Territory, or the American West during this period in which Egan was not somehow involved. He participated actively in the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo to the Salt Lake Valley, the Mormon Battalion, the Gold Rush, the development of Fort Limhi, the Utah War, the fatal Morrisite conflict, and more. Prominent exceptions were the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the Civil War, a conflict during which Egan managed the operations of first the Pony Express and then the Overland Mail Company in the hazardous deserts between Salt Lake City and California. After reading Faithful and Fearless and digesting what this Forrest Gump-like pioneer accomplished under daunting circumstances, many of us will feel lazy.

After sixty years of studying Mormon, Utah, and Western history, I thought I understood the broad outlines of Egan’s life story. Accordingly, I was stunned at the surprises Hartley presents in this study, especially the scope of his travels on church missions and personal business: six round trips between the Missouri River and Salt Lake Valley alone and even more extensive treks (perhaps as many as fifty) between the Great Basin and the Pacific coast. For years, the historian Will Bagley and I have debated which American frigate Egan served n during the 1830s, only to have Hartley demonstrate that it was most likely in the British Royal navy that Egan shipped. For those who think they understand Egan’s 1851 assassination of James Madison Monroe, with whom his wife had an affair, it is in Faithful and Fearless that one learns the important Nauvoo backstory to this tragedy. Equally surprising is the quiet role that Egan played in pioneering an efficient central route between the Sierra Nevada and Wasatch Front for which U.S. Army Captain James H. Simpson later received credit after he retraced much of Egan’s trail between Camp Floyd and Carson Valley in 1858 and published an account of the route. That Egan lied about the place of his birth throughout marriage to his first wife, Tamson, a New Hampshire native rabid about the Irish, is as stunning as it is revelatory and might help to explain his willingness to forgive her dalliance with Monroe.

Among the book’s strengths are its maps, a welcome aid to understanding Egan’s travels. So too is the genealogical table that Hartley provides to help both non-Egans and descendants navigate the intricacies of a family tree rooted in Egan’s four marriages.

Most valuable to readers of a book this long is the summation constituting its final chapter, aptly titled “Major Howard Egan: The Man and His Legacy.” Here Hartley deals frankly with the negative impact of Egan’s long absences from home on his family life. Many of these separations were in pursuit of church callings so frequent that they border on seeming exploitive to a twenty-first-century non-Mormon. Other absences were clearly voluntary, taken in pursuit of personal business opportunities or wanderlust. Hartley notes that “in the Egan home in the [Salt Lake] Nineteenth Ward he was more visitor than resident,” a pattern that the author attributes to the fact that Egan “grew up with no model of married life or family life to learn from” (476). In a sense, this pattern was an indirect cause of the Monroe-Egan affair, as well as the fact that all three of Egan’s plural wives divorced him to marry other men, in including in one case Brigham Young.

In this concluding chapter, Hartley also provides us with his assessment of what he describes as Egan’s major historical contribution: his pioneering of a central route from Salt Lake City to California, south of the Great Salt Lake and more direct than the northerly Humboldt River route. This improvement facilitated the ability of Utah cattlemen to exploit the Pacific coast market and provided a more practical route for constructing the western half of the transcontinental telegraph and moving mail and stagecoach traffic between San Francisco and the rest of the country.

If Faithful and Fearless has flat spots, one of them is Hartley’s devotion to detail, which in places exceeds the need for many readers to know such factoids as the location of campsites, the menu of individual meals, and the placement of windows in one of Egan’s cabins. There are also occasional misstatements of fact, most of which for some reason are clustered in the treatment of the Utah War in chapter 22. Among the book’s most jarring missteps is its bland description of Egan’s chance trailside encounter with a stagecoach containing a cheerful, chatty Porter Rockwell and the bullet-riddled corpse of the equally notorious Lot Huntington, a tableau that Hartley fails to tell the reader was the bloody follow-on to Huntington’s brutal attack of Utah governor John Dawson.

That many of the most helpful records of Howard Egan’s life on which Bill Hartley relied are housed in a collection of Western Americana at Yale’s Beinecke Library rather than in a religiously oriented repository is emblematic of the author’s view of his subject as a fearless pioneer of the trans-Mississippi West and a faithful Latter-day Saint. Unknown to Hartley, in 1955, Ralph Babb, a Yale University librarian, described the chain of events by which these records migrated from Utah to Connecticut as one in which the New York book scout involved fled Salt Lake City with these treasures in fear of his life. It was a drama that would have amused Howard Egan as well as his accomplished biographer.

– William P. MacKinnon
Montecito, California

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