Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: Views of Race and Pratt’s 1851 Journey to California

By August 27, 2009

Well, here is my modest and somewhat impromptu contribution to this most excellent series. Pratt’s Autobiography offers the reader some interesting perspectives about his views on race and native populations. This great series inspired me to dust off my copy of the Autobiography and give a brief look at how Pratt deals with these issues on his Chilean Mission. For time and other constraints, I have not done the extensive reading or thought that this topic merits, but I offer the following, very preliminary, observations as food for thought.

Parley P. Pratt was set apart as President of the Pacific mission in 1851 and left for Chile via California on March 16, 1851 in company with other missionaries. Pratt?s description of the Indians they encounter on the route to California illustrates a hierarchy of civilization and savagery perceived by the Mormon travelers. In Southern Utah, the company stopped at the Red Creek settlement (present day Paragonah) which was buzzing with activity according to Pratt.  Pratt observed that the Indian servants there were ?just being tamed and initiated into the first rudiments of industry.?[1]

Moving on from Red Creek, Pratt observed that ?The country through which we have passed is a worthless desert, consisting of mountains of naked rock and barren plains, with the exception of here and there a small stream, with feed sufficient for our cattle.?  In this wilderness, the company missed two head of cattle. Pratt attributed it to Indian theft.  Moving out to the Muddy River, and a more inviting terrain, Pratt observed that the Indians in that area ?already? grew wheat and corn. These Indians had advanced farthest in their progress toward ?civilization.? Pratt and his company would soon encounter, however, an untamed contingent of Indians as their camp came under attack by a barrage of arrows from ?the savage mountain robbers.? [2] The language he employs is perhaps an allusion to the Gadianton Robbers of Book of Mormon fame who, it was believed, had inhabited (and still haunted) that region of Southern Utah.[3] As further evidence of their savagery, their arrows fell ?promiscuously among men, women, children, and cattle.?  From ?savage? and ?promiscuous? to ?just being tamed? to ?already? cultivating the ground, Pratt reveals a progression of redemption for the Indians of southern Utah–a redemption that was tied more to (at least in this instance) cultural expectations than to religious.

At times, it seems, Pratt seemed to tie his notions of landscape with that his views of its inhabitants. The naked, barren mountains invoke images of the practically naked, shorn-headed Gadianton Robbers and their modern descendants while the fertile, comely, and industrious oases with their ?tame? and industrious Indians hearken back to the Nephites who were industrious and labored with their hands and to the People of Alma, who were industrious and tilled the soil in the land of Helam (Mosiah 23:5).

Pratt’s view of his world was steeped in cultural attitudes which may have often been reinforced as well as shaped by his reading of scripture.

[1] Parley Parker Pratt, Autobiography, Scot and Maurine Proctor, eds., 476.

[2] Pratt, Autobiography, 478.

[3] See W. Paul Reeve, ??As Ugly as Evil? and ?As Wicked as Hell?: Gadianton Robbers and the Legend Process among the Mormons,? Journal of Mormon History 27:2 (2001), 125-149.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Nice, Jared. There’s also evidence that the Gadianton Robber motif shaped Pratt’s 1839 history of the Missouri persecutions, with Pratt referring to the Missourians as “Robbers” throughout and hints that Boggs was a modern Gadianton (although I think that’s only explicit in the autobiography revisions).

    I think you’re right about Pratt’s indianisms. In part his reading seems fairly typical of Anglo American views of Natives as savages, but with an interesting Mormon twist. I don’t recall if Pratt discusses blacks in his auto. He does say that Boggs carried with him the Mark of Cain, as a murderer, but it’s not presented in a racial form. Do you get a sense from his Chile mission that he differentiated between mestizos and indigenous Chileans?

    Comment by David G. — August 27, 2009 @ 10:50 pm

  2. Cool, Jared. Angles I’d never considered.

    Comment by Ryan T — August 28, 2009 @ 12:35 am

  3. Thanks, David. I’m gonna explore the Chilean portion next Thursday since I didn’t get to it yesterday. He’s even more detailed about his views of mestizos.

    Ryan, thanks!

    Comment by Jared T — August 28, 2009 @ 9:31 am

  4. David Knowlton gave a paper at MHA in Salt Lake on these themes. He talked about Pratt in California and Chile and noticed that he mainly talked about the white people (or something like that).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 28, 2009 @ 9:44 am

  5. Thanks Steve, David had mentioned to me that he had a paper on the subject. I originally intended to get him to guest post on this, but just didn’t get around to it by yesterday. Now that there will be a 2nd post, I’ll have to make a better effort to contact him. I know it’s a years old memory, so I’ll be interested in seeing what he has to say.

    Comment by Jared T — August 28, 2009 @ 9:54 am

  6. Very interesting. Pretty dang awesome, in fact, for an “impromptu” performance.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 29, 2009 @ 6:12 am

  7. Thanks, Ed!

    Comment by Jared T — August 29, 2009 @ 10:56 am

  8. […] is continued from the previous PPP post. As with the other, this is a only a preliminary set of observations and explorations. With that […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: Racial Perceptions and Pratt’s 1851 Mission to Chile — August 31, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

  9. Sweet, Jared. Looks like Pratt had some 1 Nephi 19:23 “likening” going on.

    Comment by BHodges — October 16, 2009 @ 10:14 am

  10. Indeed, Blair. Thanks!

    Comment by Jared T — October 17, 2009 @ 9:01 am

  11. Have anyone written up all the Gaddianton robber stories of southern Utah? I’d never even heard about it until a few years back when in the San Rafael Swell. I was surprised by those stories and the associated ghost stories.

    Comment by Clark — October 17, 2009 @ 8:30 pm

  12. Clark, did you see footnote #3?

    Comment by Christopher — October 17, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

  13. Thanks for this post Jared. Elder Pratt’s allusion to the Gadianton Robbers is intriguing, to say the least.

    Comment by Greg — November 22, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

  14. Thanks, Greg. If you or anyone would be interested, I can send you a .pdf of Paul Reeve’s paper mentioned in the footnotes. It’s worth a look. Send an email to our admin address:

    juvenileinstructor AT gmail DOT com


    Comment by Jared T. — November 22, 2009 @ 6:14 pm


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