Legends of Sanpete
My Mom is positive that there are mummies buried somewhere in Sanpete County. Not your typical mummies either. Nope—these are tall, red-haired Jaredite mummies; and they happen to be buried with treasures and metal plates.
She grew up in Moroni, Utah, in the valley that her great, great, great Grandpa Isaac Morley had led Mormon settlers to in 1849. Not that the ancestry is special, because pretty much all the Mormons in Sanpete Valley are related to him too.
Sanpete valley is beautiful. Since you can only get to it by going through the mountains, my Mom says that getting there is like going through a secret passage. She thinks of Sanpete as a hidden gem. When we drove there to visit my Grandma for Thanksgiving I always thought it was pretty magical too. You really had to drive “over the river and through the woods” to get to Grandma’s house when your grandma lives in Sanpete.
My Mom remembers the people there being a pretty tight-knit group. Anyone who moved to the county was always known as a “move-in.” As in, you aren’t just Sally Jones anymore, you are “Sally Jones the move in”. The identifiers didn’t just stop at the move-ins. For a while, my Grandpa wasn’t just Ed. He was Ed from the “Wine Gang” because and his close friends were known for their drinking. My grandma made him promise to give it up when they got married—and he did—except for a sip of cough syrup now and then. My Mom remembers about half the Mormons in Sanpete county introducing themselves with the extra last name “Jack Mormon,” as in, “Hi! I’m Sally Jones the Jack Mormon.”
Growing up, my Mom had the sense that Sanpete county was special—sacred even. I remember her telling me when I was little about a vision one of our ancestors had about seeing the angel Moroni riding a white horse on the temple hill in Manti. It was our own “white horse prophecy.” I tracked down the story in the publication “Saga of the Sanpitch” and found out it was supposed to be my ancestor Betsy Bradly who told the story. Geraldine Henrie wrote an essay in 1970 that said:
“Father Isaac Morley and others were trying to decide in the spring of 1850 on a suitable place to recommend to President Brigham Young as a site for a Latter-day Saint Temple, when my great grandmother, Betsy Bradley, and her three-year-old son, Hyrum, saw a personage in white on a white horse mysteriously appear on the hill to the north east of Manti and then just as mysteriously disappear. Others may have seen this same manifestation. Great Grandma Bradley told about this mysterious appearance to everyone who desired to listen and one of the Sagas of the Sanpitch was born.” (“The Prophet Moroni Dedicated The Site of the Manti Temple!” Vol 2. pg. 27)
This local legend connecting Moroni to the temple was so strong that people started saying that Brigham Young chose the spot because Moroni had dedicated the land for a temple. Ardis Parshall has a great blog post showing that it was always just a legend, but the historical inaccuracy of the story didn’t stop it from being retold in Ensign articles, on plaques at the Manti temple visitors center, and on the Manti Temple website. There was even a statue of him on the grounds. I’m not sure if it’s there now; the other references to the legend have been removed.
It’s not hard to understand why temple hill means so much to the people of the valley, angel or no. When the Mormon settlers arrived in the valley they made their camp on that hill, sheltering in overturned wagons, and enduring a measles outbreak. When the snow thawed they were attacked by rattlesnakes. My ancestor—the same Betsy who was supposed to have seen Moroni—wrote in her personal history that Sanpete county was “a hell of a place,” but when surveyor John Gunnison visited Sanpete two years later, it wasn’t the rattlesnakes, or the measles, or the near-starvation that the locals wanted to tell him about. It was how the valley was special—divine maybe. There were some petroglyphs on temple hill, and someone told Gunnison they knew how to read them. The translation they gave him was,
“I Mahanti, the 2nd King of the Lamanites, in five valleys in the mountains, make this record in the 12 hundredth year since we came out of Jerusalem — And I have three sons gone to the South country to live by hunting antelope and deer.” [Gunnison, J. W. (John Williams), 1812-1853. The Mormons, Or, Latter-day Saints, In the Valley of the Great Salt Lake: a History of Their Rise And Progress, Peculiar Doctrines, Present Condition, And Prospects, Derived From Personal Observation, During a Residence Among Them. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & co., 1853. pg 63].
To the local Mormons, it was just a fact that parts of the Book of Mormon definitely took place in Sanpete county. Not just the Book of Mormon either; you can find large stones in Sanpete county that have the center strangely smoothed out, which are said to be altars built by Adam. There are some who will tell you they know the place where Noah’s ark was launched. There are caves that you better not explore without a vision, or at least a divine command, without risking a cave-in. If you keep your eyes open, there’s no telling what you’ll find.
When my Mom was in Jr. High, she experienced some of these legends first hand. One day she came home to find her Dad was sitting at the kitchen table with
“a guy that I knew to be John Brewer, because my Dad was the boss at the cleanup crew at the turkey plant and John Brewer worked for him and so did his wife. And so I knew who they were, because I would go down and bring my Dad sandwiches at night and meet people there... They were sitting at the table and there was just a couple pieces of old junk on the table that they were looking at. And I just looked at it and thought, ‘Oh, there’s some junk on the table.’ And then I left.”
She heard them saying something about a cave and so when he left she asked her parents what it had all been about.
“And they told me that John Brewer had found a cave in Manti and he was led to it by a Native American guy that had been living in Manti. And I said, ‘Well, what do you mean he found a cave?’ And they said, ‘Well, in the cave is all kinds of golden artifacts and artifacts that seem to have writing on it and lots of it has to do with artifacts that are directly related to Book of Mormon times. And he came to show it to me, because he wanted me to see it, because he really trusts me and he said that BYU wants to come and talk with him.’”
My grandpa told Brewer that he should let the people from BYU take a look at the cave, but Brewer said he couldn’t.
“He told my Dad something about that he couldn’t get into the cave anymore at this time, so I think that the cave… maybe shapeshifted (laughter) I don’t know. I’m not really sure whatever became of the Brewer cave. I just wanted to go see it. And I asked my Dad, ‘Do you think he’ll show you where the cave is?’ And he said, ‘If he can get to it again he’ll take me.’ But then there was another cave that he found up Wales Canyon and that’s where he found some giants in the cave and he was going to take my Dad to see that one. And I, you know, I should have paid more attention. If I would have known that I love these kind of stories back then, but, you know, I just wanted to know if I could take the car and drag main.”
My Mom is pretty sure she remembers Brewer taking my Grandpa to the location of one of the caves at some point, but the memory is fuzzy. Eventually someone from BYU did come and investigate, but soon dropped the investigation when they noticed the similarity between the figures on Brewer’s metal plates and the local cattle brands. I’ve tried to track down who the Native American might have been that showed Brewer the cave. He claimed his name was Lone Eagle, but I can’t find any records of such a person. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist. Finding the stories of my own ancestors in the valley is pretty easy, but finding the records of indigenous people is more difficult.
The Sanpete County of my Mom’s youth was overwhelmingly white, but it hadn’t started that way. The Mormon settlers had come to the valley because Chief Walkara, the leader of the Sanpete band, had asked them to come. That first winter the Sanpete band camped outside the settlers’ temporary homes made from their wagons. They suffered cold and sickness together. But relations were tenuous from the beginning. My ancestors wrote about living in fear of the Native Americans, who were starving because of the lack of resources caused by the Mormon settlement. The tensions between the groups resulted in the Walkara War and the Blackhawk War. By the time my Mom was growing up, the original people of Sanpete County were mostly living on the Ute Reservation, and the area had become a home for Mormon Scandinavian immigrants.
I’ve read about the concept of “the mound builders” as it relates to Joseph Smith’s home in upstate New York. People in the area would see these cool mound structures and imagine that they were instead built by some long-gone advanced group of white people, instead of being built by the indigenous people of the area. Jillian Sayre writes:
“These mounds, most often understood as both burial places and fortifications, held the American historical imagination in thrall… those interested in the mounds discovered in them a melancholy narrative, not of a savage Indian past, but of a ‘slain white race.’... And while the great mound-builder civilization was a Native American history, it was not an Indian history… most studies of the structures agreed that “Mound-Builders were not Indians at all but men of a different and now extinct race.” In fact, when the Indian did find his way into this narrative, it was frequently as the exterminating force, the violent usurpers that wiped this civilized people from the earth.” (Books Buried in the Earth: The Book of Mormon, Revelation, and the Humic Foundations of the Nation)
It seems as if there was probably something similar going on in Sanpete. The land became sacred, not because of the stories of the original inhabitants, but because of the story its colonizers brought to it. A story that eventually led my ancestors to justify expulsion and war. On their website, the Timpanogos Tribe tells the history this way:
For thousands of years our people have occupied a vast area, stretching far across a great territory known as the Great Basin, there was no division and people were free to travel from village to village trading with each other and sharing what they had. Each village or family clan had their own headman, spiritual leader, and warriors. Several clans or family groups would band together for hunting or exploring as they chose and all were content with this way of life.
In 1847, the first Mormon pioneers entered the Wasatch. They were different than the trappers, they began building fences and scattering our people. They had no interest in learning our ways but wanted to change our people or eliminate them. Our nation was scattered, Brigham Young was made governor of the territory and appointed himself as the first Indian Agent…
The following events took a once large powerful nation to remnant of its former self. From 1847 to 1865 the following atrocities occurred: Battle Creek Massacre, Ft. Utah, Goshen Valley Battle, Walkara War, Willow Creek, Gunnison Massacre, Allred Settlement, Tintic War, Mountain Meadows Massacre (Indians blamed), Bear River Massacre, Black Hawk War, and many other atrocities that are not recorded.
It makes sense then that when John Brewer told the story, he co-opted a native person as the one who originally showed him the cave, whether or not that person ever existed. But when my Mom first told me about Brewer’s Cave, even though John Brewer was the character in the story with the secret knowledge and access to mysteries (with his cave and his plates and his mummies), it was really my Grandpa she was telling me about. He was a man who knew every inch of the mountains and valleys of Sanpete. The man who could probably tell us even more secrets about the treasures to be found in caves and nooks and crannies if he was just still around for us to ask him. The man who was so kind and warm and welcoming to everyone he came in contact with. Of course, he would be the one you would come to and share things with. And so when I think about the legends of Sanpete county I always think of my Grandpa first, and I am almost persuaded that he could have shown me where the mummies are hidden.