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History stirs in Camp Floyd letters

Rare find reveals soldier's view of Utah in 1860

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue

Deseret News

Published: Saturday, April 11 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Joseph C. Clark wiped the dust of Emigration Canyon off his brow under a hot August sun 148 years ago as the stagecoach he rode in passed a train of oxen and Mormon women wearing rags for shoes.

Not too long after, he sat in a tent on a Virginia battlefield, weary from the Civil War and the loss of 10,000 men.

What Clark saw among pioneers and soldiers is being relived through 95 letters he penned to his wife, Mary — letters rediscovered by history detectives after they had been tucked away in a box stuffed in a closet of a Pennsylvania home.

By reading those letters, it has now become Vern DeLong's turn to be carried along on Clark's same journeys, to travel by stagecoach to Camp Floyd for the so-called Mormon Rebellion, to camp by the Weber River and to gaze at the valley of the Great Salt Lake after cresting the mountains of the Wasatch Range.

DeLong's father and brother purchased the contents of a woman's home earlier this year. Calling the woman a pack rat would be an understatement, DeLong said. "We've been collectors for a long time. You call and you walk through and you don't know what is in there. But that is part of the treasure in doing this stuff."

DeLong, an admitted Civil War history buff who lives in Johnsonburg, Pa., was dumbstruck when his brother told him about the nondescript metal box of letters and documents that had been found.

"My brother called and wanted to know how I had missed the box. And I don't know how I did. I should have been able to smell those letters. I went and looked at them before I went to work that day because I just had to see them."

Since then, DeLong has embarked on the painstaking process of getting the letters scanned into a computer, organizing the computer files and dissecting the words scrawled in fancy penmanship across the pages.

As he did, the lives of Joseph and Mary. Clark and their children began to unfold again so many years later.

"This man was an avid writer," DeLong said. "He wrote letters two or three times a week back to his wife. You basically know the family after reading these letters."

Aug. 16, 1860, Great Salt Lake City:

Dear Mary,

"…We reached the highest point of the South Pass about dark and rested at the Pacific Springs, the water of which flows toward the Pacific Ocean. We passed two or three Mormon ox trains with emigrants for their 'land of promise'; most of them appeared to come from England, Wales and Switzerland. They were from the lower walks of life and not at all attractive in their appearance, but when they get the dust of travel washed off them they may look somewhat better."

Clark, an 1848 West Point graduate, was among nearly 3,500 troops dispatched to Utah by President James Buchanan, who believed the Mormons were rebelling against U.S. law.

They established Camp Floyd in western Utah County to suppress the alleged rebellion. For a time, Camp Floyd was the largest military installation in the United States.

The rebellion never happened, but it was a period of ill feelings and mistrust between the military and Mormons, said Ephriam Dickson, curator of the Fort Douglas Museum.

Aug. 16, 1860, Great Salt Lake City, continued:

"About 3 or 4 miles from the lower end of Echo Canyon, the Mormons were stationed to dispute the pass with the Army, during the difficulties with them. The side of the canyon on the north is in some places about 200 feet high and nearly perpendicular; on top, they were stationed to hurl rocks on the troops below..."

Earlier, Clark described in the same letter seeing a Mormon handcart train and described the sight to Mary, concluding, "It seems strange to see women well in the decline of life on such a pilgrimage."

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