A Blind Man and His Harp

Lyndia Carter
History Blazer, March 1996

Wherever Thomas Giles went, music traveled with him. Crowds gathered to hear this master coax lovely melodies from his harp. He was much in demand throughout northern Utah, and nowhere was his music more welcome than in Brigham Young’s home. His talent and skill were unusual, but there was something else that made Giles special: he could not read music because he had no sight. His music came from his heart and carried the tones of troubles and triumphs, mourning and merriment. He earned fame as the blind harpist of Utah.

Born and raised in Wales, Giles made his living as a coal miner, a very hazardous occupation then. In 1848 a large piece of coal fell on him, causing severe head injuries and leaving him totally blind. Yet, a month later he was up and carrying out his duties for the Mormon church, often guided from place to place by a family friend, the widow Hannah Evans Bowen. Sometime after the accident Mormons in Wales gave him a harp as a gift of love and respect. He learned to play it skillfully. In 1856, 36-year-old Giles and his wife Margaret decided to emigrate with their children Joseph, Hyrum, and Maria, ages 9, 7, and 1.

With limited financial resources the family had to travel with a handcart company. Seventeen pounds was the limit for personal belongings on the carts, so most likely the harp was left behind to be freighted to Utah later. Sorrow struck again when little Maria became sick and died. The Gileses were part of the Edward Bunker company of handcarts, composed almost entirely of immigrants from Wales. Despite the difficulties of handcart travel, music was part of the Welsh soul, and the people often burst into merry song as they walked. Blind as he was, Thomas pulled and sang with the rest. Alfred Reese, his partner with the cart, led the way for him. However, troubles followed them westward. Not far from Fort Laramie, Margaret gave birth to baby Elizabeth, but neither mother nor child would survive. Then, because of Thomas’s blindness, his two boys were sent back along the trail to join the Hunt wagon company with which some Welsh immigrants were traveling. Friends of Giles would care for Joseph and Hyrum.

Alone, grief-stricken, and concerned about his sons, Giles traveled on. As they neared Fort Bridger he became seriously ill. For a couple of days the group delayed for him, but when the captain felt there was no hope for his recovery, they left him in camp with two men to bury him. Giles had heard that Mormon Apostle Parley P. Pratt was coming east. Hoping to be healed, Giles was determined to stay alive until he could see Pratt, whom he had met in Wales. Pratt arrived and blessed Giles, who regained his health, caught up with the company, and entered Salt Lake Valley on October 2, 1856.

Meanwhile, snow was about to delay the Hunt wagon company, traveling with the Martin handcart company. Hannah Evans Bowen, immigrating with her daughter Ann, took responsibility for Joseph and Hyrum Giles during the terrible storms that left the two companies snowbound. Though emaciated and frostbitten, the boys survived the tragedy that took so many lives and were able to rejoin their father. Hannah, who had cuddled the boys in her long skirts to keep them warm, suffered severely frostbitten feet. She remained with the Giles family as a housekeeper at first and then as wife and mother. She became Thomas’s eyes. They had one son, Henry Evans Giles.

To make a living, Giles’s hobby became an occupation. He used a harp owned by Brigham Young until his own harp arrived. Young gave him a letter of introduction that allowed him to travel through the settlements giving concerts. Large audiences came to hear him play the harp and sing hymns and popular songs. Admission cost whatever the people could contribute. Luke Gallup attended a concert in Springville, paying in wheat, and felt that Giles had entertained them well for it. Giles also played and sang at dances, socials, and church services. Sometimes the family traveled as far north as the Mormon settlements in Idaho, but for many years Ogden was home, since Thomas’s mother and a sister lived there. In Ogden he was the leader of community singing, particularly of popular songs. In October 1869 he led the Tabernacle Choir during the Weber Stake Conference. Later the family moved to Salt Lake City. Brigham Young especially enjoyed his music, and Giles often played for parties and social functions at the Beehive House, the Social Hall, and occasionally the Salt Lake Theatre. When Thomas’s harp was accidentally damaged beyond repair, Brigham Young replaced it with a valuable new one now on display at the DUP Museum in Salt Lake City.

Music was a family affair. His sons traveled and performed with him. Hyrum played the violin to accompany his father on the harp. Later, Henry, who learned the violin from his brother, joined the ensemble. Henry also played the piano and organ. Joseph, Hyrum, Henry, and Thomas all sang beautifully as well. Their concerts and dances provided the family income. After a concert the chairs were moved to the edges of the hall and dancing would begin. The Gileses provided the music and “called” the dances, brightening many a pioneer evening.

Thomas and Hannah spent their twilight years with Henry’s large family in Provo where Henry taught music. On November 2, 1895, the harp became silent; the blind harpist had died at age 75. Thomas Davis Giles gave to Utah his musical skill and provided entertainment for its citizens, but, more important, he left a legacy of personal courage and resilience.

Sources: Andrew Jenson, LDS Biographical Encyclopedia, vol. 2 (Salt Lake City, 1914); Kate B. Carter, comp., Heart Throbs of the West, vol. 10 (Salt Lake City, 1949); Ruby K. Smith, John D. Giles, Modern Trail Blazer (n.p., 1961); Dorothy Giles Topham, “Thomas Davis Giles (‘The Blind Harpist’) and Hannah Evans,” Helen Sharp Madsen, “Thomas Davis Giles of Blenavon, Monmouthshire, England,” MSS in LDS Church Archives; Luke Gallup, “Reminiscences and Diary of Luke Gallup,” MS in Lee Library, Brigham Young University; interview of Henry E. Giles by Harold H. Jenson.