It’s a powerful story. The young Joseph F. Smith, fresh off his mission to the Sandwich Islands, is traveling through Southern California on his way home to Utah in late 1857/early 1858. The Mormons are viewed with mistrust and hostility: rumors surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre are fresh on everyone’s lips as Johnston’s Army converges on Utah. Joseph F.’s party is confronted by a band of rough and tumble men on horseback, looking to pick a fight with any Mormons they can find. Joseph F.’s fellow travelers scatter, and when one burly ruffian pointedly asks Joseph F. if he is a Mormon, the young returned missionary responds, “Yes, siree, dyed-in-the-wool; true blue, through and through,” diffusing the tense confrontation by staying true to his identity.
But was he really “dyed-in-the-wool, true blue, through and through”?
As far as I have been able to ascertain, none of Joseph F.’s contemporaries recorded the story prior to his death in November 1918. Three different versions of the story emerged, each printed in 1919. (A fourth version, written by Joseph Fielding Smith, was included in Life of Joseph F. Smith in 1938.) Each version contains subtle differences that call into question the real details surrounding JFS’s experience. That they all emerged after Joseph F.’s death, and over sixty years after the original incident is also telling, since Joseph F. was susceptible, as we all are, to exaggerating stories and remembering events incorrectly (as I explored in this earlier post).
The first version was published in the January 1919 Improvement Era, and was authored by Presiding Bishop Charles Nibley. Nibley was a long-time friend and confidante of Joseph F. Smith, and shared many personal stories about his recently deceased friend. This article contains the simplest version of the “True Blue” story.
Nibley’s recollections were republished, with slight modifications, several months later in the appendix to the first edition of the new Melchizedek Priesthood quorum manual, Gospel Doctrine: Selections from the Sermons and Writings of Joseph F. Smith. The volume had been completed shortly before Joseph F.’s death under the direction of John A. Widtsoe and several others. This version of the “True Blue” story contains only slight modifications on the Era version (see comparison below). It is possible that the modifications were made with Nibley’s knowledge, though the Gospel Doctrine editors indicated that this version was taken from the Era article.
The third version of the “True Blue” story also appears in Gospel Doctrine’s appendix, as part of a biographical tribute by Edward H. Anderson. The tribute is an expanded version of Anderson’s 1900 article in the Juvenile Instructor that was also published in a separate volume, Lives of Our Leaders. The original 1900 and 1901 biographies did not include the “True Blue” story, though it is probable that Anderson heard the story from Joseph F. Smith sometime in the 19 years before updating his tribute for Gospel Doctrine. (Anderson was long-time associate editor of the Improvement Era from the turn of the century to the 1920s.) It is certainly more embellished than Nibley’s accounts, and includes more details than either.
Joseph Fielding Smith’s version of the story is the final “original” version, that is, an original retelling from someone who likely heard it directly from Joseph F. As near as I can tell, all other printed version rely on one of these four versions, appearing side by side below. I have taken some editorial license for comparison purposes.
|Charles Nibley, Improvement Era Version (Jan. 1919)||Charles Nibley, Gospel Doctrine Version (1919)||Edward H. Anderson, Gospel Doctrine (1919)||Joseph Fielding Smith, Life of Joseph F. Smith (1938)|
|Another incident which I have heard him relate which shows his courage and integrity, occurred when he was returning from his mission to the Sandwich Islands, in the fall of 1857. He came home by way of Los Angeles, by what was called the Southern Route.||Another incident which I have heard him relate which shows his courage and integrity, occurred when he was returning from his mission to the Sandwich Islands, in the fall of 1857. He came home by way of Los Angeles, by what was called the Southern Route.||After his release, and while returning from the mission in Hawaii, this incident occurred….he and others left the company and made a visit to San Bernardino on their way to the Salt Lake Valley.||[In San Bernardino] Elder Smith found work by which he was able to procure for himself sufficient clothing to travel comfortably the rest of the journey to the Salt Lake Valley….he obtained employment from George Crisman as teamster to drive a team across the desert to Salt Lake City.It was while on this homeward journey that he was forced to pass through a very trying scene.|
|In that year Johnston’s Army was on the move for Utah, and naturally enough there was much excitement and bitterness of feeling concerning the “Mormons.”||In that year Johnston’s Army was on the move for Utah, and naturally enough there was much excitement and bitterness of feeling concerning the “Mormons.”||It must be said that the feeling against the “Mormons,” first, on account of the exaggerated reports of the Mountain Meadows massacre, and secondly, because of the coming of Johnston’s Army to Utah, was exceedingly bitter on the coast….||It should be understood that the feeling existing towards the Latter-day Saints was running very high. The terrible scene at Mountain Meadows was fresh in the minds of the people, and of course they erroneously blamed President Brigham Young in particular, and all of the “Mormon” people of being guilty of that horrible deed. Then, also, the army of the United States , their coming being based upon false charges that had been made by government officials from Utah who were extremely antagonistic against the Latter-day Saints. There were many men scattered abroad who had murder in their hearts and who said they would not hesitate to kill “Mormons” wherever they were found.|
|In southern California, just after the little train of wagons had traveled only a short distance and made their camp, several anti-“Mormon” toughs rode into the camp on horseback, cursing and swearing and threatening what they would do to the “Mormons.”Joseph F. was a little distance from the camp gathering wood for the fire, but he saw that the few members of his own party had cautiously gone into the brush down the creek, out of sight.||In southern California, just after the little train of wagons had traveled only a short distance and made their camp, several anti-“Mormon” toughs rode into the camp on horseback, cursing and swearing and threatening what they would do to the “Mormons.”Joseph F. was a little distance from the camp gathering wood for the fire, but he saw that the few members of his own party had cautiously gone into the brush down the creek, out of sight.||It was under such conditions, and such prevailing sentiment, that President Smith, then a lad of nineteen, found himself on his journey home, and on his trip to San Bernardino.With another man, and a mail carrier, he took passage in a mail wagon. They traveled all night, and at daylight stopped near a ranch for breakfast.The passenger and the mail carrier began to prepare breakfast, while Joseph went a short distance from camp to look after the horses. Just while the carrier was frying eggs, a wagon load of drunken men from Monte came in view, on their road to San Bernardino to kill the “Mormons,” as they boasted.The oaths and foul language which they uttered, between their shooting, and the swinging of their pistols, were almost indescribable and unendurable. Only the West in its palmiest frontier days could produce anything like its equal. They were all cursing the “Mormons,” and uttering boasts of what they would do when they met them. They got out at the ranch, and one of them, tumbling around, caught sight of the mail wagon, and made his way toward it. The passenger and the mail carrier, fearing for their safety, had retired behind the chaparral, leaving all the baggage and supplies, including the frying eggs, exposed and unprotected.Just as the drunken man approached, President Smith came in view on his way to the camp, too late to hide, for he had been seen. The ruffian was swinging his weapon, and uttering the most blood-curdling oaths and threats ever heard against the “Mormons.”||Under these circumstances the members of the Church were forced to travel in small companies on their journey homeward bound.One day after the little company of wagons had traveled a short distance and made their camp, a company of drunken men rode into camp on horseback, cursing and swearing and threatening to kill any “Mormons” that came within their path.It was the lot of Joseph F. Smith to meet these marauders first. Some of the brethren when they heard them coming had cautiously gone into the brush down the creek, out of sight, where they waited for this band to pass. Joseph F. was a little distance from the camp gathering wood for the fire when these men rode up. When he saw them, he said, his first thought was to do what the other brethren had done, and seek shelter in the trees and in flight.|
|When he saw that, he told me, the thought came into his mind, “Shall I run from these fellows? Why should I fear them?” With that he marched up with his arm full of wood to the campfire where one of the ruffians, still with his pistol in his hand, shouting and cursing about the “Mormons,” in a loud voice said to Joseph F.,||When he saw that, he told me, the thought came into his mind, “Shall I run from these fellows? Why should I fear them?” With that he marched up with his arm full of wood to the campfire where one of the ruffians, still with his pistol in his hand, shouting and cursing about the “Mormons,” in a loud voice said to Joseph F.,||“I dared not run,” says President Smith, “though I trembled for fear which I dared not show. I therefore walked right up to the camp fire, and arrived there just a minute or two before the drunken desperado, who came directly toward me, and, swinging his revolver in my face, with an oath cried out:||Then the thought came to him, “Why should I run from these fellows?” With that thought in mind he boldly marched up with his arms full of wood to the campfire. As he was about to deposit his wood, one of the ruffians, still with his pistols in his hands and pointing at the youthful Elder, and cursing as only a drunken rascal can, declaring that it was his duty to exterminate every “Mormon” he should meet, demanded in a loud, angry voice,|
|“Are you a ‘Mormon’?”||“Are you a ‘Mormon’?”||‘Are you a —– —– —– “Mormon?”’”||“Are you a ‘Mormon’?”|
|And the answer came straight,||And the answer came straight,||President Smith looked him straight in the eyes, and answered with emphasis:||Without a moment of hesitation and looking the ruffian in the eye, Joseph F. Smith boldly answered,|
|“Yes, sir, true blue, through and through.”||“Yes, siree; dyed in the wool; true blue, through and through.”||“Yes, sir’ee; dyed in the wool; true blue, through and through.”||“Yes, siree; dyed in the wool; true blue, through and through.”|
|At that the ruffian grasped him by the hand and said,||At that the ruffian grasped him by the hand and said,||The desperado’s arms both dropped by his sides, as if paralyzed, his pistol in one hand, and he said in a subdued and maudlin voice, offering his hand:||The answer was given boldly and without any sign of fear, which completely disarmed the belligerent man, and in his bewilderment, he grasped the missionary by the hand and said:|
|“Shake, young fellow, I am glad to see a man that stands up for his convictions.”||“Well, you are the ______ ______ pleasantest man I ever met! Shake, young fellow, I am glad to see a man that stands up for his convictions.”||“Well, you are the —— —— pleasantest man I ever met! Shake. I am glad to see a fellow stand for his convictions.”||“Well, you are the ______ ________ pleasantest man I ever met! Shake, young fellow, I am glad to see a man that stands up for his convictions.”|
|These incidents show the inherent bravery, courage, integrity, of the man, and also tenderness and pity for the little helpless sister. These are the qualities upon which great men are builded.||These incidents show the inherent bravery, courage, integrity, of the man, and also tenderness and pity for the little helpless sister. These are the qualities upon which great men are builded.||Then he turned and made his way to the ranch house. Later in the day, on seeing President Smith, he only pulled his slouch hat over his eyes, and said not a word.||Joseph F. said in later years that he fully expected to receive the charge from this man’s pistols, but he could take no other course even though it seemed that his death was to be the result. This man, evidently the leader of the band, then rode off, the others following him, and the Mormon company was not molested further. It was a tense moment, nevertheless, and the company thanked the Lord for their safe deliverance.|
A number of questions jumped out at me in examining the different retellings:
First, the details surrounding the atmosphere in 1857-58 vary between authors, with Joseph Fielding Smith providing the most description. Likewise, Anderson provides more descriptive language related to the “ruffian” band. One of the glaring changes is in the two Nibley versions, the earlier using only the words “Yes, sir; true blue, through and through,” with the later adding the language that appears in all other versions, “Yes, siree; dyed in the wool; true blue, through and through.” A list of questions could easily be drawn up: Did Joseph F. really see the leader later in the day, as Anderson says, or was this a one-time meeting, as all the other accounts suggest? Did the “ruffian” simply have a pistol/pistols in his hand, point them directly at Joseph F., or wave them in his face? Was Joseph F. tending the horses or gathering firewood? Were their only three members of his traveling party, or more? Were the ruffians on horseback, or riding in a cart? Were they truly from Monte, and how would Joseph F. have been able to ascertain that?
Furthermore, why the changes? Why the differing versions? Why did all three feel the need to share their own version of the “True Blue” story? I think this speaks to the desire of each of the individuals to show their unique connection with Joseph F. Smith. He had (presumably) told the inspirational story to each, and possibly to others. And as Joseph F. likely changed the telling of the story for each audience, Nibley, Anderson, and Smith each heard different versions from the teller’s mouth. So the different versions are, in a sense, personal memories of how Joseph F. Smith interacted with each of the hearers. This makes them valuable, I think, for what they can tell us about what Joseph F. wanted each listener to get out of the story, and also what each listener valued from their heard version of the story.
One last note: the “true blue” story bears striking resemblance to another story that Edward H. Anderson recounted in his expanded biographical Sketch for Gospel Doctrine. While traveling through Iowa on his way to serve in the British Mission, Joseph F. and Samuel H.B. Smith encountered much ill will toward the Mormons. As Anderson tells it,
Landing at Montrose, where the boat took on freight, the feeling was still more bitter. The Saints were cursed, and boasts were made of what evil would befall any “Mormon” who would dare make his appearance. Getting on board the skiff, next morning, which was to carry them over to Nauvoo, the young men found that the spirit of the mob was just as bitter as ever, but it was not known here that they were “Mormons.” Several men asked them who they were, and their replies were evasive. Finally, a Catholic priest came to them and asked where they were from. “O! from the West,” was the reply.
“How far west?”
“From the Rocky Mountains.” But the priest finally pinned them down by asking, “Are you ‘Mormon’ elders from Utah?”
President Smith says that under those circumstances, for a moment, never had temptation to deny the truth come to him with stronger force, but it was only for a moment. He answered, “Yes sir, we are ‘Mormon’ missionaries on our way to England.”
The reply seemed to satisfy the priest; and, contrary to expectations, it did not in the least increase the imprecations of the passengers. When they landed at Nauvoo, they went directly to the Mansion House, and, strange to say, the Catholic priest also stayed there. If they had not truthfully answered the queries on the boat, he would have found them out here, to their shame.
“I had never felt happier,” says President Smith, “than when I saw the minister there, and knew that we had told him the truth about our mission.”
Whichever version of the story you prefer, it has remained an important part of Mormon culture. Its most recent retelling (as of last summer) is a short video produced for inclusion in the updated Prophets of the Restoration exhibit in the Church History Museum. I’ll let you decide which version influenced the producers (but rest assured that the ruffians don’t call anyone a blankety-blank anything in this production!).
 Charles Nibley, “Reminiscences of President Joseph F. Smith,” Improvement Era 22:3 (Jan. 1919), 191-98.
 Salt Lake City: The Deseret News Press, 1919 (1st ed.).
 Ibid., 665.
 Ibid., 666-682.
 Edward H. Anderson, “Lives of our Leaders—The Apostles: Joseph F. Smith,” The Juvenile Instructor 35:3 (1 Feb. 1900), 65-71.
 Var. authors, Lives of Our Leaders: Character Sketches of the Living Presidents and Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1901).
 Gospel Doctrine, 675-76.