SALT LAKE CITY — The flag that belongs to Elder Eldred G. Smith, emeritus patriarch to the LDS Church, is not an ordinary American flag. It is a flag that belonged to Brigham Young. It is a flag that was carried by the Mormon Battalion on its trek to California. It is a flag that has a secret — a secret kept hidden for more than 160 years.
I sit at my roll-top computer desk and place a photo CD into the computer. A few clicks on a mouse and photographs of the patriarch's flag appear on the screen. They are stunning. Welden C. Andersen, who photographs documents for the Joseph Smith Papers, used a 39-megapixel Hasselblad camera to take the pictures. Every fiber and paint stroke on the old flag are sharp and bright.
The flag is an American flag — 13 stripes, a blue square canton with 13 white stars surrounding an American bald eagle. So far, this flag isn't strange for its day. In the 19th century, almost anything goes in handmade national flags.
Except for the bear.
In the center of the flag is a standing grizzly bear. Above his head are the words "Life Guards." Below his feet are the words "Always Ready."
Red paint from the stripes shows through cracks in the bear's brown paint.
I zoom into the square blue canton to look at the eagle. The eagle's paint is cracked like the bear's. But wait, shouldn't blue paint show through the cracks? Instead the paint underneath the eagle is yellow. I zoom out for a wider view and then draw in a quick breath as I suddenly see it.
The eagle wasn't the first symbol painted on the flag. It was purposely painted over another painting. The eagle is hiding something.
Only a few days earlier, I am with Brad Westwood, manager of collection development for the Church History Department. By appointment, we are meeting with Patriarch Smith in his office in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Patriarch Smith, who will celebrate his 103rd birthday on Jan. 9, sits with perfect posture at his desk, the large flag carefully folded and sitting on its corner. Westwood gingerly picks up the flag and carries it as we escort Patriarch Smith to the basement photo studio.
In the studio, Andersen climbs onto a platform suspended from the ceiling as Westwood and I gingerly unfold the 9-foot-long flag on a huge sheet of pristine white paper on the ground. Andersen begins to take photographs through a hole in the platform ?— accompanied by pops as the lights flash onto the antique banner. Patriarch Smith sits straight-as-a-rail in a chair, holding onto his cane. As he watches the process, he recounts his family's traditions about the history of the flag.
Patriarch Smith's great grandfather was LDS Church Patriarch John Smith, the eldest son of Hyrum Smith. John Smith was the last standard bearer of the "Life Guards." Life Guards was a military designation common in the 19th century and has nothing to do with saving people from drowning. Brigham Young handpicked the group, which was part of Utah's Nauvoo Legion militia. The group always had someone prepared to ride at a moment's notice. This explained the motto on the flag, "Always Ready." Sometimes people would refer to them as the territory's minutemen. After the telegraph came through in 1861, much of the reason to have the Life Guards evaporated, according to Patriarch Smith. Later, after the group was disbanded, the last standard bearer took the group's proud flag and put it away. Only on occasion would it be displayed in shop windows and in parades as a relic of pioneer days. It stayed in the family until Patriarch Smith inherited it.
In July 4, 1862, Lot Smith and a company of Utah War veterans camped near Fort Bridger in Wyoming. Because the outbreak of the Civil War drew federal soldiers away from the west, President Abraham Lincoln had authorized Utah's Nauvoo Legion militia to protect the overland routes. A reference in the Deseret News found by Utah flag expert, John M. Hartvigsen, implies that the flag may also have been used during the Utah War, a conflict about five years earlier between the troops of the federal government and members of the LDS Church: "Here our flag staff was made fast to the top of one of the wagons and again our 'Grizzly Bear' waved his paws over our band of honest hearts, on the anniversary of our glorious independence."
When members of the Mormon Battalion returned from their epic march in 1848, Patriarch Smith said the flag was presented to Brigham Young. He put it in the charge of his Life Guards. It was common practice in the 19th century to paint slogans or mottos on flags that were used for specific purposes. Some member of the Life Guards no doubt painted "Life Guards" and "Always Ready" at this time.
Earlier in 1847, after a long journey of about 2,000 miles, the Mormon Battalion participated in raising an American flag at Fort Moore in Los Angeles. Two 50-foot pine logs had been put together to make a tall liberty pole. At sunrise on July 4, the flag was run up the pole while a band played the "Star-Spangled Banner." Patriarch Smith said that tradition holds that his family's flag was the very flag that was raised on that occasion — the first American flag flown over Los Angeles.
It was in California that the bear was painted in the center of the flag — a roaring grizzly bear, mouth bared, fangs showing, claws ready for action. But even if another flag was used at Fort Moore, one thing is almost certain: This banner is, in 2010, the oldest California Bear flag still in existence.
A year earlier, in July 1846, the Mormons were in Council Bluffs, Iowa Territory. Brigham Young displayed a flag as he recruited fellow Latter-day Saints to join the Mormon Battalion to serve in the Mexican War, according to Patriarch Smith. Brigham Young's flag was conscripted to travel along with the battalion. It was too big to be used as a marching flag, and so it was folded and carried with supplies in a wagon. Probably because it was going to be used for a military expedition of the U.S. federal government, a change had to be made to Brigham Young's flag. A new symbol had to be painted in the center of the stars — an eagle. Historic researcher Ron Fox believes that the painting was modeled on the eagles on the back of the "seated liberty" coins of the time. The eagle was carefully painted in the middle of a circle of 13 stars to cover up the yellow symbol on Brigham Young's flag.
Patriarch Smith's family's tradition is that this flag was originally made and painted in Nauvoo. Tradition also states that the flag was flown from the Nauvoo Temple. "Of course there's no way of knowing that for sure," Patriarch Smith said. But Brigham Young did refer to a flag later in life, according to research by Hartvigsen. The day before Pioneer Day in 1849, Brigham Young wrote in his journal, "In the evening my flag that used to fly from the Nauvoo Temple was hoisted at the east side of the bowery."
The original Nauvoo Legion may have used the flag. Hartvigsen thinks it is even possible that the flag may have even been used earlier during the Missouri persecutions. Smith family tradition, however, only pushes it back as far as the Nauvoo Temple -- flying over the City of Joseph.---
As I look at the yellow cracks in the eagle on my computer screen, I glance down below the eagle's wings. There are faint outlines of a table with stubby legs. I look at the eagle's shape again. It is painted carefully over a dome-shaped object. A dome-shaped object on a table: It. Is. A. Beehive.
The patriarch's flag carries the secret history of those who flew it. It was a call for justice from a temple soon to be burned by mobs. It was the hope for freedom in a journey of faith. It was an appeal to follow a prophet by marching to war. It gave a bold and bear-like notice of victory to the West Coast. It stood for those who were always ready to never give up. It gave courage to patriots who were falsely accused of being traitors.
Once you see the beehive on the flag, you can't un-see it.
Look. It is under the eagle's breast. Like a heart.
High-resolution photographs and Illustrator vector-based graphic files of the flag as it looked in its various stages will soon be made available on MormonTimes.com for download.