When the Saints came marching north

Robert Cleland Christie April 3 1965

When the Saints came marching north

Robert Cleland Christie April 3 1965

When the Saints came marching north

A cold rain was falling on the vast unknown land as the weary band of 41, vanguard of Mormon emigration to Canada, crossed into Alberta from the United States 78 years ago, ending a gruelling 800-mile trek. Behind lay religious persecution. Ahead lay hardship, controversy — and a unique contribution to Canadian life

Robert Cleland Christie

ON A RAINY JUNE MORNING seventy-eight years ago. the wagons of an American party of fortyone men. women and children lumbered into Canada at a point near today’s Whiskey Gap, Alberta. The teamsters, indifferent to the rain, bared their heads and cried, “Three cheers for our liberty!”

The eight families who had undergone the hardships of eight hundred miles of trackless mountains, deserts and plains to reach an unknown land were the vanguard of Mormon emigration to Canada, fugitives from the Edmunds-Tucker Act, forbidding polygamy. Despite the protests of the Mormons — members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — that the act was an unconstitutional infringement of religious liberty, U. S. marshals were enforcing it rigorously in the communities of Utah. Federal officers entered homes, even by night, without warrants on “wife-counting” forays; informers with grudges to settle were everywhere. “Judas wore many faces,” a contemporary chronicler observed; children were tricked into betraying their fathers and mothers. Mormons declared that court hearings under the Edmunds-Tucker Act were often

travesties of justice. “The juries trying us for unlawful cohabitation,” they alleged, perhaps with more bitterness than logic, “would convict Jesus Christ Himself.”

Suspected men went into hiding or left Utah. Both Canada and Mexico suggested themselves as places of refuge until the anti - Mormon storm finally blew itself out.

But Charles Ora Card, the man who led the first contingent of Mormons into Canada, was looking for more than temporary refuge. His plans for his handful of followers were to make a new home in the northern country — and he felt no doubt his stalwarts would succeed. (Although the Mormons were leaving their Promised Land to escape the ban on plural marriage, they decided it would be discreet to enter Canada with only one wife per man. And, with rare fortitude, they rejected the merely decorative or charming womenfolk in favor of sturdy ones more likely to endure the privations of pioneering. Viewing his redoubtable collection of followers, Card could

confidently write in his journal: “Truly I feel we have a band of exiles here who are bound to make a mark in the land that will weigh up on the credit side for the Saints.”

How has that expression of confidence stood up under the passage of nearly eighty years? Today upward of sixty thousand Canadians are Mormons, a small percentage of the country’s population which does not reflect the variety of roles members of the Mormon church play, or have played, in Canadian affairs.

Politics, business, the professions, the arts, the armed forces and sports — Canadian Mormons have made places for themselves in all these, a fact that should demolish once and for all the argument, still occasionally heard in church circles, that seldom have so few been misunderstood for so long by so many.

While no Canadian Mormon has yet risen to the prominence of such U. S. Latter-Day Saints as Michigan’s Governor George Romney, Eisenhower’s Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson and film actress Laraine Day (briefly an Alberta resident), several Canadian Mormons are widely known. One is Nathan Eldon Tanner,

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Their welcome was snow—in June


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Speaker and cabinet minister in the Alberta legislature, who as organizer of Trans Canada Pipe Lines became a controversial national figure during the bitter protracted debate in the House of Commons over the company’s terms of incorporation. Today, a resident of Salt Lake City. Utah, where he was born in 1898. Tanner is a member of his church’s three-man First Presidency, the summit of Mormon power and authority. Canadian Mormons currently hold a two-to-one majority at this ecclesiastical pinnacle, for the other counselor is Hugh B. Brown, formerly of Lethbridge.

Other members of the church have been prominent in politics since 1905 when John W. Woolf, a youngster at the time the first Mormons crossed the border, was elected Liberal member for Cardston to the Territorial Assembly (and in 1905 elected to the first Alberta legislature). Another Cardston son is E. W. "Ted" Hinman, who until his recent disagreements with Premier Ernest Manning was for a number of years Alberta’s provincial secretary.

The late Solon Low. another Cardstonian, was national leader of the Social Credit group in the House of Commons. John Blackmore. also of Cardston. was another Social Credit MP. Until his defeat in 1957. he untiringly attacked in parliament such pet bogeys as Canada Council and UNESCO. Both. Blackmore repeatedly charged, harbored Communists in large numbers. Stalwart in support of Red-baiting U. S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, Blackmore felt Canada needed a similar witch-hunter. When other of his remarks were widely construed as a defense of polygamy, old indignations again stirred to life. But the sharpest and most effective criticism directed at Blackmore came from Mormon authorities themselves.

Politics is not the only enterprise Canadian Latter - Day Saints have found congenial. Calgary's Clifford R. Walker, son-in-law of N. E. Tanner, is a millionaire oilman whose business interests reach into many other fields. (Walker, observing the tenets of his faith, built an oversize bar in his palatial home that dispensed nothing more potable than ice-cream sodas.) Vermilion-born Dr. Alexander B. Morrison, a convert along with his wife, won the Nutrition Society of Canada's Borden Award for 1963 for his research contributions. Dr. Morrison. an Ottawa resident, is the director of the Vitamins and Nutrition Section, Department of Health and Welfare.

A random listing of other descendants of the Saints who trekked north would include Colin Low, of the National Film Board, one of this country’s most brilliant director-producers (Circle Of The Sun. Universe. Corral. The Days Of Whiskey Cap and other international award winners); Duncan de Kcrgommeaux. one of the better-known young abstractionist painters now at work in Canada: Lieutenant-Colonel Vern Hyde, director of Canadian Forces Postal

Services; Roy Cahoon. chief engineer for the CBCs transcontinental transmissions, and the late George Woolf, a top jockey.

It was not always thus. In the beginning the Mormons in Canada had everything yet to win — survival, acceptance and success. Canada's welcome to the two score souls who arrived on Lee’s Creek — site of the future town of Cardston. Alta. — June 3. 1887, was unsummery in the extreme. The travelers looked out of their frosted tents on the morning of June 4 to a landscape covered with eight inches of snow. It was a singular sight, since the luxuriant grass of the plains — at that time belly-high to a saddle horse — speared up, tall and vividly green, through the snow. The newly arrived Saints, whatever else they had ever beheld, had never seen June snow yield so fine a crop of hay.

Mrs. Josiah Hammer, one of the pioneer women, reproachfully asked the leader. Card, "Heavens, is this the kind of place you’ve brought us to?”

Card’s reply was cheerful. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asked the distressed lady. "Ever seen anything like it before, Sister Hammer?”

Card’s enthusiasm and buoyant manner got the back of Mrs. Hammer's tongue. “I certainly never have!" she snapped.

Card's eye told him the simple and wonderful, the nearly unbelievable truth. Here, safe at last from pursuit, arrest and persecution, the Mormons under his guidance had reached a rich and unspoiled land.

Strangers in the buffalo land

An ocean of grass rolled west, finally to break against the mountains. To the southwest, appearing closer in the clear air than actually it was. Old Chief Mountain wore his rocky, flattopped hat at an altitude of nearly two miles. To the east Milk River Ridge rose from its prairie bed. The St. Mary’s River looped its bright scar across the immense land, and Lee's Creek, fathered by the snows of the foothills, burbled past the newcomers’ camp.

Although the Mormons could see no sign of human habitation, they were not alone. Fort Macleod. forty miles northwest, established thirteen years earlier as the first Northwest Mounted Police post in the west, was headquarters for "H" Division, with a strength of ninety-six officers, NCOs and men. Nearer at hand, the Mormons were welcomed and helped by such oldtimers as E. N. Barker, Percy Ashe and Fred D. Shaw. No record exists of what Red Crow, head chief of the Blood Indians, said or thought of these strangers now' on his people's ancient buffalo grounds. It appears Red Crow was amiable in the restrained, aristocratic way of his kind, and two thousand Blood tribesmen took their cue from him.

But in other quarters, the Saints' welcome was less than cordial. The Edmonton Bulletin editorialized that these American settlers were undesir-

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“Hurry—get in the hay! Them Mormons is praying for rain!”

able because of polygamy. In distant Quebec the Montreal Star bluntly said further immigration of the Saints to Canada should at once be discouraged.

On the other hand the Lethbridge News, a young weekly, defended the Mormons as “all steady, industrious men who were and arc for the most, men with sufficient means to make farming a success. They appear to belong to the most desirable class of settlers and their immigration deserves to be encouraged rather than discouraged.”

Some men, men familiar with the country of that day, did not think the Mormons would like their taste of Canada, and would shortly return to their former homes. One such skeptic was W. F. Cochrane, manager of the Cochrane Ranching Company. Riding one day over his vast cattle domain, Cochrane and his foreman, Dunlop, drew rein on a hilltop overlooking the Lee's Creek settlement. The two cattlemen were of the opinion that the Mormons were trespassing on part of the Cochrane lease. Dunlop wanted to move the Mormons off at once.

Cochrane thought it over for a moment. The encampment below didn’t look like much when scaled against the country overwhelming it on every side. He said finally, “Why bother chasing them out, Dunlop? They'll winter-kill anyhow, and the job’ll be done for us.”

Some of the new settlers themselves were far from confident about their Canadian future. They were homesick for the prosperous valleys they had known. They felt poor, alone and deserted. Card had scant sympathy with some of his brethren's complaints. He was a pioneer of pioneers, a man who himself had westered across the plains in 1856 as a member of a handcart company, and now at forty-seven was making a fresh start.

Charles Ora Card was himself a polygamist, and this circumstance had been the immediate cause of his flight to Canada. A former wife had laid cohabitation charges against him, and U. S. marshals arrested him. He escaped from custody, but realized it was no longer safe to remain in Utah. He sought the advice of the church’s president, John Taylor, who was himself in hiding. Taylor suggested that Card explore British Columbia for a suitable place of refuge.

“I am impressed to tell you to go to the British Northwest,” Englishborn Taylor counseled Card, “for 1 have always found justice under the British flag.”

British Columbia did not seem to offer much to Card and the two men who accompanied him. But on the verge of discouragement they met an old frontiersman who regaled them with yarns of the vast buffalo pastures spreading east on the other side of the Rockies.

"Brethren.” Card declared. “1 have an inspiration. Buffalo Plains is where we’ll go. If buffalo can live there, so can the Mormons.” And thus it came that Card and his followers crossed a year later into that part of the Northwest Territories that was to become Alberta.

In their first settlement, then called Lee’s Creek, there was never any doubt as to who was the first lady. She was Zina Young Card, the handsome and spirited wife of Charles Ora Card, and daughter of Brigham Young, the most dominant and despotic figure the church ever produced. In later years Mrs. Card was known both to local Saints and to “gentiles” (non-Mormons) as “Aunt Zina.”

The early homes were rude and small — one family spent its first Canadian winter holed up in a hillside dugout. Straw frequently served as carpeting and the tiny cabins were roofed with sod. Interior decoration was simple and austere. If the neighboring Blood Indians condescended to part — always at a price — with a buffalo robe, the robe would be employed as a rug, perhaps even as a bed. Ornaments, lovingly packed and brought north by the women, consisted of family daguerrotypes, shadowboxes and hair flowers. How else to bring near, even in memory, distant homesteads and easier times?

The summer of 1888 was so dry crops were threatened. The Saints dealt with this predicament after their own fashion, setting aside a day for fasting and public prayer. It chanced that cowboys from the nearby Cochrane Ranch — with what deviltry in mind no one can now guess — attended the meeting. The first prayer offered lacked neither detail, length nor eloquence in drawing the Almighty's attention to what was requested of Him.

The Cochrane foreman, never having heard such a religious pitch in all his years, was moved to action. He rose abruptly, his spurs rattling irreverently, and signaled for his men to follow him. Then he said, “Look! You fellas climb on your horses there and beat it for the ranch. I don’t think we got much time to get up the rest of our hay — them damned Mormons in there is praying for rain!”

It rained.

Scant time was lost in building a

meeting house — a log structure approximately twenty feet square — which served as chapel, school and social centre. A girl, fourteen-year-old Jane Woolf, was the first teacher. Though they then possessed little enough, the Lee’s Creek settlers, conforming to established custom, practised tithing — the offering of one tenth of a member’s income. A Relief Society, organized by the women, provided for the needy, nursed the sick, visited the lonely, heartened the discouraged, and prepared the dead for burial. The frontier, as exemplified in these good souls, was -compassionate.

But on other fronts affairs were less well-handled. Mormon leadership committed a grave tactical error in the fall of 1888, when Card, John Taylor and Francis Lyman journeyed to Ottawa for an audience with Sir John A. Macdonald. Sir John A.’s manner was curt. “What, gentlemen, is your business here?”

He soon learned. The trio of Saints wanted to determine what prospects existed for them and other of their brethren to bring into Canada their plural wives who had been languishing in Utah.

The Mormon delegation made other requests: for low-priced land, virtually unrestricted use of timber resources, and customs concessions on imports from the U. S. The prime minister dismissed his visitors with a request that they commit their case to paper so that it could be studied.

As an argument to justify the importation of polygamy (for Mormons) into Canada, the deputation submitted the statement that “all the practice of plural marriage among the Latter-Day Saints in the United States, so much talked about and so greatly exaggerated, has never induced one individual not of our faith, to undertake the practice. Thus it has never been a menace to the United States and won’t be to the Dominion of Canada

That trip showed no favorable result. On the contrary, it launched

a virulent antipolygamy campaign. Canada’s newspapers printed column after column of unflattering comment. Even the Lethbridge News, until now benign and friendly, roared. “The truth of the matter is that our Mormon neighbors have made a grand mistake ...”

At the height of the outcry some cdd and untruthful allegations were 'od^ed against the Saints. One of the wildest was that they were debasing the neighboring Blood Indians by preaching polygamy to them. Had the charge been true, such missionary efforts would have been redundant, for the Bloods had been taking more than one wife long before the Mormons appeared.

Strangely enough, one doubt produced by the spate of legal opinions on the subject was whether Canadian law actually forbade polygamy. The Criminal Code was accordingly amended on April 11, 1890, making the practice a crime. This loophole was stuffed tight somewhat tardily, for the Mormon church itself, at its General Conference in October of that year in Salt Lake City, issued a Manifesto declaring future plural marriages illegal.

Cardston — no longer Lee’s Creek but now named in Charles Ora Card’s honor — continued to grow. Many new people flowed in from the south. C. E. Snow started the village’s first bank in 1895. The Cardstone Record, a weekly newspaper, appeared in 1898. The Mormons built a telephone line, connecting Cardston with Lethbridge. William Aldridge discovered oil on Cameron Creek, the well’s light flow being sold locally both as a lubricant and as a medicine. Construction of the St. Mary’s Canal for dryland irrigation was begun the summer of 1898.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have contributed impressively to life in southwestern Alberta, which to this day is regarded as “Mormon country.” Yet their critics claim — apparently with some justice — that even after eight decades the Mormons have not all become wholeheartedly Canadian.

The reason for this is that from the beginning a strong north-south axis has linked Canadian Mormon communities with Salt Lake City, and Saints in this country have always been drawn to Utah. Many, though born here, return for their education, marriage and careers and thus are lost to this country.

Many non-Mormons find it difficult to understand why people whose forebears got little mercy from the United States government of the day should, even under radically improved circumstances, wish to return. It is forgotten that most of the escaped Negro sh'.ves who reached Canada via the Underground during the American CiviWar, returned to the scene of their bondage after the war with an alacrity that astounded their rescuers. The Mormon flowback is, in basic human terms, no different. For what Mecca symbolizes to the Muslim, Rome to the Roman Catholic, Salt Lake City symbolizes to a Mormon. It is the visible head and fount of his faith. To many a Canadian Mormon, Utah remains at least his spiritual home. ★