By Victoria Riskin
Victoria Riskin is an award-winning television writer, former president of the Writers Guild of America West, and the author of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir.
Or download the audio file here: Daniel Webster Jones: A Western Hero
A statue of Daniel Webster, the great American statesman, stands in New York City’s Central Park, largely unnoticed by the thousands of visitors who pass him by. My mother, actress Fay Wray of King Kong fame, was the loyal exception. In her twilight years, when she was living in mid-Manhattan and well over ninety, she often went to the park in her wheelchair, guided by her caregiver, to watch children play in the red leaves of fall or to eat vanilla ice cream in summer. When she approached the stony Mr. Webster, it was her custom to thrust her hand in the air, point at his massive figure, and proclaim, “That is my grandfather!” Her caregiver, a young Tibetan doctor named Phuntsog, wasn’t sure whether to believe her, as my mother’s mind now sometimes floated between dream and reality.
“Is it true?” Phuntsog asked me privately when I walked with them one day. “She stops here every time we come.”
“It’s not true.” I smiled. But I knew what she meant. Daniel Webster had the same name as her grandfather, Daniel Webster Jones, a towering figure in her childhood pantheon of heroes. My mother had met her famous grandfather, with his flowing white beard and soft blue eyes, only once when she was four years old. He was a legend in his own right from the unruly Wild West.
Daniel Webster Jones was on born 26 August 1830 in Fayette, Howard County, Missouri on a farm his grandparents had settled twelve years before, four miles outside of town. Daniel was the fifth-born, and his four older sisters lavished him with affection while a colored nurse managed his care.
But in 1839, just before Daniel’s ninth birthday, the household’s lively chatter suddenly turned to whispers. Young Dan was left in the care of his mammy for several days until he was finally taken back to the front parlor of his house. His little sister Susan was lying in a white coffin, his grieving parents surrounding her. A few months later, his father died, too. Dan’s uncles assumed management of the farm and packed his grieving mother off to Whites Creek, Tennessee where her parents lived. Though she desperately wanted to take all her children with her, her husband’s brothers persuaded her that Dan should stay behind and learn a trade.
It may have been his uncle’s stern hand, or perhaps mere loneliness, that motivated Dan to suddenly take off at age 13, striking out alone on a 150-mile journey to the rough river town of St. Louis. Whether he knew anyone in St. Louis he doesn’t say, but during the next years he eked out a living as an apprentice saddle-maker and eventually became a master leather craftsman. Then, at age 17, when the United States declared war on Mexico, he enlisted in a Missouri infantry regiment, hoping to follow the Santa Fe Trail that the legendary Kit Carson (another Howard County boy and local hero) had so romantically described. But he wound up in the hard, dusty town of Chihuahua, Mexico, where a year later he was discharged without having ever battled any Mexicans. But he found the culture and people of Mexico kind and welcoming, so he stayed, made saddles, and learned Spanish. When he found his way to Santa Fe two years later, he said, “I found myself among rough people in a wild country, among those who knew no law but the knife and pistol.”
Kit Carson himself was in Santa Fe and encouraged my great-grandfather to earn money by joining a company driving 8000 head of sheep through Ute country over the Old Spanish Trail to California and then Salt Lake. Few white men had been through this territory and some of the local mountaineers said he would never make it. Although peace had been settled with the proud Ute nation, this simply meant a white man might be robbed or killed but not scalped—scalping was a sign of war—or so Dan Jones was told.
It was a hot summer day in 1850 when his outfit of 50 men and eight thousand sheep worked their way up the Dolores River that spanned the Colorado and Utah territories. The Indians had threatened them several times, but each time their guide and Mexican Indian interpreter, Thomas Chacon, talked them out of trouble. This day was different.
A powerful chief of the Ute Nation, Elk Mountain, sent emissaries to their encampment to say that his son had died—killed by white men apparently—and demand the sacrifice of one of their men lest there be all-out war again. Enraged by the command, the company captain told the emissaries he had no intention of giving up anyone and was prepared to fight.
It was a sleepless night as the company erected barricades with fallen trees and stacked packs. In the morning they looked up to see two hundred well-armed warriors in war paint and on horseback making a formation across the river. The men scrambled to their positions but, as my great-grandfather wrote, their old guide advised them to hold their fire. “There ain’t enough yet to shoot at: you might miss some of ‘em.” He was right. Looking to their left and their right, they saw other warriors arriving by dozens to form a semi-circle of over 500 angry Utes. My great-grandfather believed his life was about to end, but the captain told them he would take the first shot if need be.
The men at the barricades gripped their guns as the first Indians, Elk Mountain in the lead, slowly crossed the river. They approached within 200 feet, where the chief issued his demand again. The captain sent old Chacon over to say that they did not wish any trouble—they only wanted to pass through and would respect all the chief’s rights. Would he come closer so they could talk with one another? The chief approached and a negotiation between the two proud men began, each one measuring the other, Old Chacon interpreting. Their meeting lasted for hours, the captain offering the chief beads, tobacco, and paints—anything to make a treaty, anything but the flour he was carrying—food was scarce. At sundown, a deal was finally struck. “In those days,” my great-grandfather wrote, “before the white men taught them to lie and betray, the word of an Indian was sacred.” Before Elk Mountain departed that night, he handed over some meat as a gift for the captain to share with his hungry men.
Later that summer, a more frightening incident occurred that made my great-grandfather begin to think kindly of the “red man.”
Sometime mid-August, they reached the Green River not far from where the Denver and Rio Grande Railways would one day cross. While they were at work in the sweltering heat, constructing rafts from cottonwood trees to carry their supplies and move the sheep across the river, my great-grandfather was putting his pistol back in his holster when the hammer caught on its edge. It pulled back and the gun went off, the bullet piercing his groin and thigh, passing through tissue and muscle. He started to lose blood and was soon in unbearable pain. His companions, unable to do much for him, put him under a cottonwood tree and continued their work for three days, whispering to each other—audibly, apparently—that Dan Jones would soon die and they would no longer be burdened with his care. Despite the fever, pain, and lockjaw that set in, my great-grandfather mustered what voice he had and shouted curses their way, swearing to outlive them. He moaned every half-hour to make sure they knew he was still alive.
At dawn, Old Chacon slipped out of camp and found his way to the encampment of Chief Tabby of the Ute Nation to tell him about Dan’s predicament. Chacon brought the Indians to where my great-grandfather still lay in the shade of the cottonwood tree. “The Indians came, men and women, and I can never forget their expressions of sympathy and their looks of kindness . . . They offered to take me and try and cure me.”
But, as it turned out, his companions decided to care for him after all, rigging up a frame and strapping him onto the back of a donkey. They transported him for fifteen days toward a settlement where Chacon said they would find some Mormons. This did not comfort great-grandfather, who had heard at length from his companions that Mormons were “bad people who had been driven out from the States because they were thieves and murderers . . .” But Old Chacon quietly reassured him that he knew the settlers at the Provo fort to be decent people.
My great-grandfather’s conversion to Mormonism did not take place in an instantaneous flash of revelation, nor under the sway of some proselytizing believer. He was converted over time by the kindness of the Mormon families who cared for him. It also helped that he had believed since childhood that he was destined to find a way to serve God—plus, he had developed a dislike for the hard-edged frontiersmen he had lived among for so long, given to fighting, foul language, and liquid Taos Lightning. He also appreciated the kindness shown by at least some of his Mormon friends toward the maligned and brutalized Indians he had come to respect.
It was in Salt Lake City that he met my great-grandmother, Emily Colton: the love of his life. “She was my heart’s choice from first sight and so continued till the day of her death,” he wrote. He married her in short order and settled down to run her family farm outside Salt Lake City, to help her birth and raise their fourteen children, and to begin his life as a guide through Indian territory into New Mexico and Arizona.
The incident in Daniel Webster Jones’ life that left a mark on Mormon history, and captured the imagination of Wallace Stegner (who wrote a chapter about him called “The Man Who Ate His Saddle” in his book The Gathering of Zion) took place six years later.
Beginning in 1856, hundreds of Mormons originally from England, Wales, Scotland, and Scandinavia set out from Iowa and Nebraska on what is now known as the Mormon Trail—the final leg of their journey to the “Promised Land” in Utah. Most of them hauled their worldly goods (up to 500 pounds) in handcarts because they were too poor to own horses and covered wagons. Already, thousands of Mormons had successfully made the 1300-mile journey across the Great Plains, following old Indian trails or the track of the ill-fated Donner-Reed Party, to settle near the Great Salt Lake.
But this year, the history books say, the Mormons started their journey dangerously late and were caught in an early snowstorm and freezing temperatures. Stegner wrote: “The story of the Mormon Trail is as pat with crises as a horse opera; especially in 1856, ordeal along that thoroughfare was not climactic but serial . . . Its hero, except for his Mormonism, could step into the boots of any western hero who has been endangered, tested, suspected, and finally vindicated . . . His name was Daniel Webster Jones.”
In his autobiography, Dan Jones writes about how, at an October 1856 meeting in Salt Lake, Brigham Young asked forty men to go in search of the handcart emigrants who might have lost their way in a terrible storm. Dan Jones immediately accepted the assignment. The search team packed up food and blankets, appointing my great-grandfather—now 26 years old—the cook. They headed out in a blinding snowstorm, riding hard through wet, freezing winds, stopping only briefly for rest or food. They finally found a white man’s shoe on the trail and worked their way back along the path until they reached the first company of two hundred lost Mormons—nine already dead and many more dying. The rescue team was greeted as a band of heavenly angels; they led the frightened wayfarers to a place called Devil’s Gate, about 60 miles southwest of Casper, Wyoming, where they found shelter in a cluster of log cabins.
My great-grandfather and two of his companions were selected to head back out into the storm to search for the others—instructed to return only when they had found them. They beat their way through a raging blizzard that had already lasted for nine days until they finally found the 1200 worn out, starving people in a state of torpor, awaiting death. My great-grandfather prodded, cajoled, and finally persuaded the beaten-down pilgrims to rally themselves and keep moving toward Devil’s Gate, even if only a mile or two a day; otherwise they would surely die.
Heavy clouds were gathering as they started out, and soon another intense storm was underway. As they inched forward, my great-grandfather wrote, “A condition of distress met my eyes I’d never seen before. The train was strung out for three or four miles. There were old men pulling and tugging their carts, sometimes loaded with a sick wife or children—women pulling along sick husbands—little children six to eight years old struggling through the snow. As night came on, the mud would freeze their clothes and feet.” Along the way many died, “the men faster than the women and children,” until those remaining finally reached safety at Devil’s Gate.
After a few days at Devil’s Gate, the food supplies were almost gone. My great-grandfather and others suggested the travelers leave their personal belonging and push forward the 315 miles to Salt Lake. A few men would stay behind to watch their goods. But the rescue party captain said there was not enough food to sustain anyone who remained; besides, who would be willing to stay in such circumstances? “Any of us would!” my great-grandfather asserted, which apparently got the captain’s attention. “I never thought I would be selected,” Dan wrote, “. . . (but) leaving these goods meant to abandon all that many poor families had upon earth.”
The captain instructed my great-grandfather to choose seventeen reliable men to remain behind with him. It took three days to unload the handcarts and store the displaced goods before the exhausted travelers moved on.
Thus, in early November, Daniel Webster Jones and his 17 men were left alone with 50 emaciated cattle and 20 days of meager supplies. Dan hoped to find wild game for his men to live on, and some grass to fatten the cattle until help returned. But the blizzard raged on through December, the cattle dying quickly, their carcasses devoured by packs of ravenous wolves.
By January, my great-grandfather and his men were completely out of food. For three days they went without eating a morsel. Finally, they scraped the hair off some animal hides and boiled them in water, glue and all. Many fell ill, but after more foodless days and the cries of empty stomachs, they boiled more hides. Eventually, they even boiled their moccasin soles and ultimately their saddles and harnesses.
The winter hammered down on their modest shelter through February, March, April. They lived on faith, cooked hides, and an occasional wolf or buffalo they shot when the blizzard subsided long enough to hunt. They were 50 miles from Last Crossing where mountaineers occasionally wintered and 215 miles from Fort Bridger, both too far to reach in their weakened condition. They once were rescued from starvation when Indians sold them a few pounds of meat, and again in spring by a few mountain men passing through. Once, when some stray oxen were spotted near their shelter, my great-grandfather and one of his companions chased after them futilely for miles. When night fell, they slept in the snow, chattering, shuddering, and hugging one another for warmth. In the morning they tried to stand but their legs were too numb. They fell, bumping into one another like drunken sailors, laughing uncontrollably.
Dan Jones and his men stayed at Devil’s Gate knowing if they left they might not survive and, knowing, too, that Indians would descend upon their encampment and take off with the possessions they had promised to protect. Dan writes that they often prayed to God for help. Remarkably no fights broke out, no delirium, no madness, no despair.
Not until May, when the welcomed thaw finally began in earnest, did reinforcements arrive. Dan Jones and his men packed up the remaining goods and transported them to Salt Lake.
This is where I initially thought the story would end, and happily. But when Dan Jones returned, though Brigham Young issued a proclamation citing his heroism, a handful of emigrants were much less generous. Angered that some of their belongings were missing—no doubt lost during their long, miserable journey—they accused my great-grandfather of stealing them. They brought their allegations to the High Council, using as evidence the fact that my great-grandfather had charged them so little for his services, asking only to be compensated for what he had paid to the Indians for food. Brigham Young exploded, “The men who find fault with the labors of Brother Jones the past winter, we wish their names sent to this office, and when the Lord presents an opportunity we will try them and see if they will do any better.”
Still, I can sympathize with the anger of the grieving devotees so far from home. Many had lost loved ones on the miserable journey and were no doubt crushed to find personal things missing: perhaps a child’s blanket, a family bible, a sweater knitted by a grandmother, the things anyone would cherish. They may have also been disappointed by the harsh realities of the “Promised Land,” especially after all they had suffered.
As for Daniel Webster Jones, he remained loyal to his church, spending the rest of his life traveling through Indian country for President Young, finally establishing a settlement that became Mesa, Arizona. Despite his devotion to his faith, he followed his own moral compass. He refused to take another wife, even after his beloved Emily died when a tent-pole collapsed and killed her. He loved the Indians and continued his missionary work with them throughout his life, influenced by the Book of Mormon, which said that when the gospel was brought to them, they would rejoice in it.
While my mother only met her legendary grandfather once when she was four years old, she said his influence ran deep. She too had a pioneering spirit, and when she was a young girl, came to Hollywood to be in the movies. She succeeded beyond her dreams but never forgot her past. She often drew upon her memories of her grandfather to fortify herself—reflecting on his integrity, optimism, and resilience. Once when were on vacation in Santa Fe, where Daniel Webster Jones had stayed before heading out into Ute territory, she said, “You know darlin’, my grandfather once ate his saddle.” I must have looked startled. “Well he did!” she said. “And that’s the truth of it.”