'Extra' blessing from '17 Miracles' movie

Published: Saturday, June 4 2011 4:30 a.m. MDT

An especially difficult day for the sojourners in the Willie Handcart Company was Oct. 3, 1856. They pulled their carts 21 miles that day, a significantly greater distance than usual. Plus, the terrain the pioneers traversed was hilly Wyoming landscape, and they had to camp that night without reaching water.

Sarah James, who was a teenager during the trek, later wrote about an event that occurred that day. A young man became so fatigued and disheartened that he surrendered to the extreme difficulties. Resigning himself to defeat, he laid down in the shafts of his handcart and started sobbing.

According to Sarah, a group leader took action. He slapped the exhausted young man in the face a few times until the 18-year-old arose and began to run with his handcart. No doubt feelings of anger were a part of his change in attitude. “I thought it was a mean way to treat the poor (young) man, but now I’m sure it saved his life,” Sarah wrote.

I included this face-slapping episode in the handcart history reports that I was providing to film producer T. C. Christensen last year during filming of "17 Miracles" and recorded the incident in my journal.

At the end of each week, I email my preceding week's entries to our six children and their spouses. Sending my entries to our children each week over the years has been my easy way of writing them a regular “letter” to inform them of happenings in the lives of their father and mother.

I received the following email from my son-in-law Bryant Slade shortly after sending him my journal writings:

“I just read your recent journal entries and was excited to read about the Willie Handcart Company story where the man slaps another man. That is a story I have heard all of my life. The man doing the slapping was my great-grandfather Jens Peterson of Denmark. The way that I have heard it, 36-year-old Jens slapped the young man enough times to get the young man mad enough to chase him. Jens wanted to get the young man’s adrenalin pumping again to save the young man's life.”

At the time I received Bryant’s email, my wife Dianne was working as a "17 Miracles" extra. She was thrilled to learn that our son-in-law and three of our granddaughters were descendants of a member of the historic Willie Handcart Company. Knowing of Christensen’s interest in using descendants of the subjects of his historical movie productions as extras, Dianne informed him of our discovery.

Christensen and the producer, Ron Tanner, made the necessary arrangements for my family members to work as extras during filming near Snowbasin. It was “extra” special for Bryant, Skyler and Sibley to be a part of this historic movie and to gain a deeper appreciation for an ancestor's sacrifices.

John Enslen is a courtroom lawyer in Alabama who writes about Mormon history. He has been a history consultant for film artist T. C. Christensen and authored "The Bible and the Book of Mormon — Connecting Links." His email is jeenslen@gmail.com.

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