When we were living in the USA in 2000-1 we flew to Jackson Hole in Wyoming via Salt Lake City. That last flight to Jackson Hole was the most unpleasant flight I’ve taken before or since, shaken and bounced over mountain thermals in a small plane. Other than that, Northern Utah and Salt Lake City are not places I know.
On another trip to Wyoming we visited Independence Rock and at Guernsey, the rutted trails through rocks of the Oregon and the Mormon Trail. From these visits, and to forts on the trail, combined with long forgotten black and white films, I had some vague knowledge of the movement of people east to west in the USA in the 1850s or thereabouts. But what I was not aware of was the role of Welsh settlers in Salt Lake City and the Mormons or of the experience of the Welsh emigrants on the Mormon Trail.
At the start of the lockdown though, I came across a new book (strictly an English translation of a book from a couple of years ago orginally publioshed in Welsh) by Wil Aaron, telling the story of this Welsh emigration.
For anyone interested in Welsh history the book is fascinating and informative. It draws on various sources and diaries (often in Welsh) and tells a story of suffering and endeavour over 15-20 years or so of difficult emigration on the trail. It is an incredible story.
I found the book interesting and enjoyable, but accept this may be a minority interest. There is though a retail link as well. I was taken by a retail story in the book around a pioneer Mormon called William Ajax, originally from Llantrisant in South Wales (a few miles from where I was born).
In 1869 he opened a store in Salt Lake City but came into competition with Brigham Young and the Mormon Church when they set up the Zion Co-operative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI) aiming to defeat non-Mormon businesses profiting from Mormons. Brigham Young told Mormons to only shop at the ZCMI and apparently banned the faithful from Ajax’s shop, excommunicating him for good measure.
The book reports that Ajax moved to a remote area and then quietly opened up another shop – this time underground. The book says this is due to the heat and dust, but one does wonder. The underground store was at least four tennis courts in size, from where he sold a wide range of goods, and the store came to be known as the ‘eighth wonder of Utah’.
Following William Ajax’s death in 1899, the store declined, as competition from catalogues, the decline of local mining and the increase to access to the city brought about by the railway coming, all combined to end the shop and the village. Nothing remains today. (A YouTube video of the site and the historical marker is available here)
Having visited a small part of the trail, and seen trading posts and shops in historic ghost towns, one can only marvel at the fortitude of these emigrants and wonder at how supplies were obtained, delivered to the stores and then sold. Many stories and aspects remain untold.
The Welsh on the Mormon Trail is a niche interest, but I found it fascinating and testimony to complex societal, religious and personal struggles.
Aaron W (2019) Welsh Saints on the Mormon Trail. Y Lolfa, Talybont. ISBN 978-1-912631-20-9.