Anyone who studies America's pioneers encounters some amazing characters--ordinary men and women of courage and integrity. For candor and independence, it's hard to match these gritty heroes.
Consider Utah pioneer George A. Hicks. His parents joined the LDS church in 1837 when George was two years old, and Hicks recalled Joseph Smith. He believed the Mormon prophet began as a seer but got carried away with polygamy, which Hicks found "was always disagreeable" to Mormon women. The Hicks family went west in 1852. Thirteen members of his party died of cholera. George shot a buffalo along the way.
He settled at Palmyra in Utah County, fought Indians and watched grasshoppers and alkali destroy his crops. Hicks complained about the "inspired" idiots who selected the townsite, which had to be abandoned in 1856. When LDS Church prophet Brigham Young called him to pioneer southern Utah in 1861, he went with a "heavy heart." Always a maverick, Hicks was probably southern Utah's first (and, for a long time, only) Republican.
Few people in Utah Territory were brave enough to ask hard questions about the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, but George Hicks was one. In the church's newspaper, the Deseret News, he read an 1866 sermon in which Brigham Young, who was territorial governor when the Mountain Meadows killings took place, denounced the murderers who committed the crime. John D. Lee, the man later executed for the crime, publicly boasted that Brother Brigham "said it to blind the eyes of the gentiles and to satisfy a few individuals like myself."
So Hicks wrote to Young and asked: "If you are in favor of the Mountain Meadows massacre, I would like to know it." Kannarah's postmaster intercepted Hicks' humble letter, displayed it on the post office wall and, incredibly, gave it to Lee. "I went to get it and got nothing but insults for my trouble," Hicks complained. Despite his more than twenty-five years of loyal service to the LDS Church, the Lee family insulted Hicks for encouraging "the people to believe that the Sixth Commandment should be obeyed." Hicks sent the letter again.
Young may not have been happy about the massacre, but his reply to Hicks was not a model of pastoral advice: If the massacre troubled him, Hicks would find a "rope round the neck taken with a jerk would be very salutary." This didn't answer the question, but it did evoke the pioneer creed: "Mind your own business."
Hicks' raw candor and questioning eventually got him excommunicated, but he also is remembered as one of Utah's greatest folksingers. His song, "Once I Lived in Cottonwood," is a classic satire of the hardships of pioneering. The Deseret String Band still evokes his indictment of the harsh "Dixie" landscape, where "the red hills of November/Looked the same in May."
Eventually, Hicks made peace with the church and was rebaptized in 1923. Apostle/Senator Reed Smoot restored him to good standing in a ceremony at the Hotel Utah.
Historian Will Bagley would like to hear from George A. Hicks descendants at: History Matters, c/o The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City, UT, 84101.