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From footnote in history to prominence: Milestone events mark Church's role in California saga

The spirit of the ship Brooklyn lives again in the hearts of California Saints.

And, according to a modern-day apostle, their efforts to honor their seafaring pioneer predecessors and the challenges faced on their 1846 voyage "paints an image to the 20 million people in California that members of the Church are good people, they love the Lord, and they love their neighbors."Following festivities commemorating the sesquicentennial of the arrival of the Brooklyn, carrying some 238 LDS settlers from the East Coast to San Francisco by way of the tip of South America, the Church News spoke separately with Elder David B. Haight of the Quorum of the Twelve and Elder Loren C. Dunn of the Seventy. Elder Haight, a former mayor of Palo Alto, Calif., 27 miles south of San Francisco, and Elder Dunn, president of the North America West Area, participated in several sesquicentennial activities. Such events included performances of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and a re-enactment of the arrival of the ship at Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco. (Please see Aug. 3 and Aug. 10, 1996, Church News and page 8 in this issue for additional articles on Brooklyn sesquicentennial activities.)

Elder Haight commended the California public relations committees who organized the commemorative events. He also praised the stake presidents and "all of the committees on the stake and ward level for the hours and hours of work in planning and rehearsing and of the very thoughtful way in which this whole recognition event was staged.

"All the work done under the direction of Elder Dunn was meaningful and was exciting enough to the citizens of Northern California to give us good coverage every day. The television stations, the radio stations, the newspapers all carried the news of this outstanding sesquicentennial celebration."

In speaking of the tributes to the seafaring pioneers, "these brave, brave people," Elder Haight referred to the re-enactment as "a tremendous program in honoring and reading the names of the 238 people who rode that little, old ship for six months through all the storms of the Atlantic and the Pacific. If you read the diary accounts, it would make your hair stand up to know what they went through.

"Members of the Church in California have picked up on that; they've read the accounts, the diaries and have put the spirit into the commemoration of this event."

Both Elders Haight and Dunn spoke of the positive impact of the sesquicentennial and of how these events have brought from obscurity the contributions and "firsts" of the Brooklyn Saints. Of the many benefits these activities have fostered throughout California, the General Authorities specifically spoke of the following:

  1. An increased awareness of the role the Brooklyn voyage played in early Church history.

Elder Dunn said: "This celebration has helped to bring the Saints of the ship Brooklyn from a footnote in Church history into a place of prominence, alongside the Saints of the Mormon Battalion and those who came with Brigham Young.

"In fact, this six-month voyage with all its challenges and difficulties was probably the most difficult trial that the Saints had to pass through in coming west, with the possible exception of the Martin and Willie handcart companies. Therefore, the voyage should be appreciated as part of the heritage of members of the Church."

Elder Dunn added that in view of Church history, there were three main bodies of Saints migrating west, the first two being the overland group led by Brigham Young and the Mormon Battalion.

"But the third group is not as well known. These are the Saints of the Brooklyn who sailed from New York Feb. 4, 1846, the same day the Saints left Nauvoo. They were organized officially by the Church. They were made up of members of the Church from New England and the Atlantic seaboard who didn't have the finances to buy wagons and teams and provisions to come overland. The Church advised them to organize themselves and to see if they could charter a ship to come around South America and Cape Horn and come into California that way. The Church even sent Orson Pratt to New York to help organize the expedition.

"The ship cost $1,200 a month provided the passengers would bring their own provisions and if the men would handle the cargo. The captain of the ship ordered the space between decks changed into living quarters. A long table and backless benches and sleeping bunks were built and all were securely bolted to the deck. They lived in cramped quarters with low ceilings. Only the children could stand upright.

"Most of them suffered seasickness and the storms in the Atlantic blew them almost to Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa. They underwent severe storms all the way around Cape Horn where the ice became so bad that some had to be lowered to the sides to chip ice off the ship."

Some of the California "firsts" of the Brooklyn Saints include the following:

  • First colony to settle in California after the United States flag was raised.
  • First Anglo Americans to arrive in California by water.
  • First establishment of a public school.
  • First newspaper in northern California. Samuel Brannan, the leader of the group at the time, was a printer and brought with him a printing press, type and paper and published the California Star.
  • First known agriculture colony. "Twenty pioneers from the Brooklyn founded the colony and called it New Hope and planted the first wheat," Elder Dunn noted.
  1. An increased awareness among the general California population of the role Mormon pioneers played in California history.

"A classic example of this was during the first performance of the Tabernacle Choir. I was sitting next to Elihu Harris, who is the Oakland mayor. When he first came in, he was very cordial but rather official. But as the choir performed, he warmed up to the choir and the music. You could see he was enjoying himself.

"Part of the program was The Spoken Word,' and during that Lloyd Newell gave an overview of the history of the Brooklyn pioneers and what they did to help develop California. After that, Mayor Harris turned to me and said,I didn't know that.' He was very impressed by the realization of the role of some of our pioneers in founding the state."

Speaking of the participation of government leaders and an official state historian in sesquicentennial events, Elder Dunn explained: "These prominent people are coming to the realization that members of the Church, who they had respect for but looked at as relatively recent parts of the California community, helped lay the foundation of the state itself."

Concerning the cooperation of the historical society and the port authority in exhibits and the re-enactment, Elder Dunn added: "These government groups were more than anxious to cooperate with us when they found out the role of the pioneers in the settling of the state of California."

In addition, he noted, the city of San Francisco, in tourism announcements, "played up the coming of the replica ship as the important thing to see in San Francisco that day."

  1. An increase in positive initial missionary contacts.

Elder Dunn explained that full-time missionaries serving in the Bay Area spend a lot of their time street contacting. "They found an increasing number of people who were aware of these activities. It allowed the missionaries to talk to more people who had some understanding of how Church history fit into California history."

A letter to Elder Dunn from Barbara Salsbury, Menlo Park (Calif.) multi-stake director of public affairs, probably best exemplifies the benefits of the sesquicentennial. Near the Oakland Temple Visitors Center, she noticed a young man, a descendant of Samuel Brannan, looking at a plaque dedicated to the voyage.

"I asked if he had enjoyed all of the events," Sister Salsbury wrote. "With tears in his eyes, he turned to my husband and me and said, `I can hardly wait until Sunday. It's testimony meeting. I can hardly wait to bear my testimony that I can now claim my pioneer heritage."

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