Being Ishmael Johnson

Adopting the Pioneer Persona of An Original Sanpete Settler

It’s that time of year again, when I let my chin-whiskers grow a bit, dig the period costume out of my closet (blue, band-collar shirt, suspenders, wool breeches, suitably weathered scally-cap), and rehearse the history—the ups and downs, joys and sorrows, triumphs and tribulations—that all came with the settling of this pioneer valley in which we live.

And, once the transformation is complete—having donned the clothing of that period, assumed the requisite accent, and gotten myself into the mindset of a rough and rugged 19th Century pioneer—it becomes a rather transcendental experience.

As “Ishmael Johnson” (a fictional fellow I invented, but compositely created from recorded accounts of actual settlers), I can perch myself upon a stump, and commence to whittling on a stick with an old Bowie knife, while spinning colorful yarns from those frontier days of yore, for anyone who might care to listen.

I might recount Brigham Young’s exploratory visit to the valley in 1850, before sending the James Allred Family, along with 11 others, down to this high mountain valley, to scout out a decent spot for homesteading.

I could relate a number of harrowing accounts from that very first winter, when food was scarce, and Indian attacks were all too common.

I’ll probably explain that we sometimes sent cryptic status reports back to Salt Lake City by a crude method of air-mail: tying scribbled notes to the legs of homing pigeons that could fly the 100-mile journey in a single day.

I might talk about our urgent request for reinforcements to increase our manpower in the face of incessant attacks; and how our request was answered in the form of a southward migration of Danish immigrants to the Sanpete Valley. (So many Danes, in fact, that our settlement became known as, “Little Denmark,” before it became, “Spring Town,” and finally, “Spring City,” as it’s known today.)

I’ll likely speak of the necessity, in those early days, of occasionally retreating south to either Fort Manti or Fort Ephraim, whenever hostilities with local tribes would flare; and about the Blackhawk War, which continued until the treaty of 1869.

I will certainly talk about the hard work of shearing sheep or felling trees or milling logs, and of farming and lumbering and ranching—and of Ol’ Hans Hansen (a Dane), who took two whole days to shear a single sheep, because he couldn’t find his shears, and finally just gave up and used his pocket-knife.

Oh, I may tell of a typical Saturday night dance party, in a local home, with a newly-laid, rough-plank floor, and how we’d spread sand and sawdust around, to effect a sort of communal sanding of that new floor, while we all waltzed, two-stepped, and Turkey-Trotted the night away.

I might mention that the price of admission—whenever one of these dances was convened at the home of a local widow—was usually a decent piece of firewood, so that, by the end of the evening, she would have a nice stack of ready fuel for the winter.

By the time I’ve finished weaving my tales from those bygone days, and answering questions, I’ll slip away to change clothes. But, even after morphing back into my modern self, I will still be left with those lingering effects of having inhabited that character for a time—feelings of closeness, of kinship, and of connection, to those significantly storied times, and to those steely and stalwart folks who tamed a landscape—a cosmic feeling of having maybe really been there—in another lifetime, and in a different body—more burly, muscled, sinewy and with honest-to-goodness calluses on my hands from the hard work of living so close to the land.

I am descended from actual Danish Pioneers, so that’s something.  And, since moving here, I have chopped my own firewood, and grown tomatoes and carrots from seeds, so that’s also something.

But I want to feel like I actually could be Ishmael Johnson, that hardy pioneer settler, able to build a stone house, and a log barn, with my own two hands; and to survive on my wits and my cunning; and to eke out a subsistence for my family with only the crudest of implements.

And I can, sometimes, while dressed as Ismael, and inhabiting such a formidable persona, actually believe that I too am made of such stern stuff, and not merely a pretender.

But, then, I imagine those true pioneers, gazing down on my rehearsed affectations, noting the soft, lily-white hands, the less-than-taught midsection, and glancing skeptically at one another, amid shakes of their venerable old heads, before exclaiming in unison… “Nah!”

[Comments welcome: ahalfbubbleoffplumb@gmail.com]

If you’d like to meet Ishmael Johnson in person, and hear him recount tales from his life as an original settler of this valley, come to Spring City’s annual Heritage Day event on May 29.  (friendsofhistoricspringcity.org).