Mormons, Manliness, the American West

Another guest post from BCC’s friend S.P. Bailey.

Learning as a child that Butch Cassidy’s real name was Robert Leroy Parker was a revelation to me. Later I learned that Butch was born in Beaver, Utah to Mormon immigrants from England (Preston Lancashire). It seems that he dropped Parker for Cassidy (after Mike Cassidy, a horse thief and Butch’s mentor in low-down villainy) in part to avoid dishonoring his parents’ good name. I asked my mom (maiden name: Parker) if we were related to Butch. She had wondered the same thing, she told me. As far as she could tell, the answer was no. Her Parkers were from Preston Candover and none of them had settled as far south as Beaver.

Why did I and even my mother want to call Butch Cassidy kin? Weren’t pioneers and early convert-immigrants good enough for us? For my part, I was grasping for a good story. Something that turned on mythic western manliness. The stuff of western movies.

At that age, I underestimated the manliness that was all around me. My uncles working the family farm, for example. Strong, hardworking, decent men. Unlike many movie cowboys, they were not tough loners out making a stand. Likewise, they did not embody mindless violence and greed. On the contrary. Like the other men I knew they tried to do their home teaching. They were far from perfect, but they meant it when they asked their home-teaching families if there was anything they could do to help them.

Shallow pamphleteers old and new have portrayed the church and its culture as fundamentally violent. These misreadings of the church fail to appreciate what it has meant in the history of the west. For the most part, Mormonism meant family and community, stability and civilization. It meant manliness more consequential even if less cinematic. The opposite of Butch Cassidy and his gang.


  1. I’m reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series right now. Roland Deschain is my new hero, part gunslinger, part wilderness prophet, all man.

  2. John Madden is not what I consider a spiritual leader but a colleague at work told me that he attended a Boy Scout conference a few years ago where Madden was the keynote (motivational) speaker and he told the boys that “being a man” could be defined as “doing the unpleasant things with a smile on your face.” I think that description is far better than any notion of manliness being defined by some physical or even criminal activity.

  3. I don’t think that Mormon culture is fundamentally violent, but I think some early Mormons experienced a bit of the Wild West right here in Utah.

    I have an ancestor named Joseph Bartholomew who had settled in Springville, Utah. He became somewhat mixed up in what would later be referred to as the Potter-Parish murders.

    I’m still trying to understand this whole thing, but here’s what I understand at this point.

    The whole affair begins with debts that were connected to the Perpetual Emigration Fund. People who relied on this fund to get out West were expected to pay their debts and some people were trying to emigrate away from Mormon Utah to escape paying. Brigham Young sent instructions to Mormon leaders, telling them to try and prevent this from happening. Bishop Johnson, who was basically running things in Springville, Utah, seemed to determine that this meant he should kill people who were trying to run away from their debts.

    Joseph Bartholomew was assigned to be a policeman and was asked to help kill some people who were trying to run away from their debts. He refused to do so. Some people were killed anyway.

    Because he refused to participate in the killings and knew about them, they attempted to kill him as well. In fact, they thought they achieved their aim and went back to town, telling the people he had been killed by Indians. They were a little shocked when he showed up back in town. He ended up moving away and settling a very rural place that came to be called Fayette (also in Utah).

    To quote another descendant of Joseph Bartholomew:

    “Grandfather and grandmother suffered more abuse and trouble here in Springville than they did in Missouri and Illinois.”

  4. Butch dropped the last name Parker partly so to be disassociated with his family–he didn’t want them to have the shame if I remember right. Its funny, I grew up in Vernal, and knew a couple of people who knew Butch when they were little kids-my great grandfather was friends with Butch when they were kids down in southern utah. When you grow up in a place like Vernal, those outlaw stories are just part of the lore.

  5. JA Benson says:

    Oh Wow Danithew! We are kin to one another. Did you know that your Great-whatever-Grandfather Joseph Bartholomew was either the son or grandson of a Indian fighter in the Midwest? Young teenage Joseph ran away from home and was picked up by the Benjamin Benson family. He went with them to Missouri. The Bensons were (apparently still are) a very colorful family. Joseph married Polly one of the Benson daughters. One of Polly’s brothers worked on the Underground Railroad. Another brother was involved in Mountain Meadows Massacre. Two other brothers were key players in the Fort Benson property dispute in San Bernardino.

    Do you know the answer to this mystery that is plaguing the historians at the Far West Center? Benjamin Benson sued Samuel Bogart the enemies to the Mormons in Missouri please see this link for more details. What was the law suit about? The court case was lost when the courthouse was burned down during the Civil War. The historians in Missouri think that this court case might have further fueled the Bogart brother’s anger toward the Mormons.

    You have a wonder ancestor in Joseph Bartholomew.

  6. I’ve never felt like violence is a part of church culture, but I think the fairly regular evocation of rural values and the value of physical work have something to do with masculinity. One of my mission presidents repeatedly emphasized the moral benefits of having been raised on a ranch or farm, and once told us city folk that we had a lot to learn from our less urbanized bretheren.

  7. I don’t think that violence is part of our LDS heritage, but rather our Frontier American heritage. The Mormons were not an isolated bunch. Abolitionists vs. slave-owners, Indians vs. settlers, immigrants vs. natural born citizens made for a volatile America.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    My paternal line, which is Danish, had the surname “Stockfisch.” In the latter part of the 19th century my paternal ancestor and his brother changed their last name to “Barney,” which is the name I bear today. My understanding is that they were criminals; bank robbers, I think. I’ve been assuming that they had some sort of a falling out with the family, and that that was the reason they changed their name. But I had never considered the possibility raised here, that they may have changed their name so as to avoid bringing disgrace on the rest of the family. That’s an interesting possibility; I really wish I knew the story for sure.

    And my middle name is also LeRoy. My Dad’s name was supposed to be Lee Roy, but they made a mistake on the birth certificate and gave him a first name of LeRoy with no middle name, and they just kept it that way.

  9. My ancestors all seem to have married their cousins. How’s that for Manliness?

    I gave up on the Dark Tower after I joined the Church. Too much sex and violence. I can’t believe they were my favorite books in 6th grade.

  10. S.P. Bailey says:

    Kevin: You reminded me of an ancestor of mine who pre-dates Mormonism: Edward Doty. Identified as “a stranger” on the Mayflower compact, he was an indentured servant to Stephen Hopkins (Gordon B. Hinkley’s Mayflower ancestor).

    Doty was apparently an agressive, litigious man. He seems to have picked the first really good fight in Plymouth Colony. The story is told in Thomas J. Flemming’s One Small Candle:

    “…Constance Hopkins was a pretty girl with her father’s high spirits. Dotey and Leister [Stephen Hopkin’s servants, both named Edward], equally high spirited – they had been among the chief mutterers of mutiny before the compact was signed – soon found themselves competing ferociously for a kind word from her…Soon, where there had been easy camaraderie and friendship, there was sullen jealousy. Young Constance, childishly playing at courtly love, coyly encouraged the strife….At dawn on June 18 [1621], Dotey and Leister seized the swords and daggers and crept quietly out of the crowded house. Down the beach to a deserted stretch of sand they stalked. There, sword in one hand, dagger in the other, they began Plymouth’s first duel. Snarling, cursing, they raged up and down the shore. Dotey sank his rapier deep into Leister’s thigh, and Leister, with a scream of rage and pain, slashed with his dagger at this friend’s sword hand, gashing him viciously… By now their battle cries and clashing swords had awakened the colony, and several men came racing down the beach, lead by Miles Standish …Disarming the two culprits at the point of his own rapier, Standish marched them shamefacedly back to Governor William Bradford …Bradford gave the two young men a stern lecture, and then as punishment ordered them strung up with head and heels together to “cool off their hot blood”…But within an hour their cries for mercy became so pitiful that Stephen Hopkins went to Bradford and asked him to pardon them, promising that he guaranteed their good behavior. Bradford was happy to agree and quickly ordered them cut down.”

    As far as the litigiousness, there are court records of Doty’s involvement in at least 15 lawsuits in Plymouth Colony. (Something of a fun ancestor to claim as a litigator.)

    Anyway, Doty was ultimately very successful. He completed his period of indenture, became a landowner and prosperous farmer, and had many, many children.

  11. Ahhh, the west… the land of men of great manliness. However, you’d be surprised by some of the names you would find. My incomplete list of some of the ‘real’ men of the west:

    – Nikola Tesla (A brilliant scientist, who was surely out of his time)

    – Chief Ouray (A great man of peace of the Ute Indians)

    – Wilfred Woodruff (A great leader and a great church historian)

    – Levi Strauss (C’mon the man gaves us blue jeans for goodness sake)

    I’d love to hear from others some of their alternate ‘real mean of the west’ lists.

  12. JA Benson, it’s cool to hear we might be related somehow. :)

    I’ve certainly heard about General Joseph Bartholomew and how he was seriously wounded at the battle of Tippecanoe. He apparently survived and continued to play an active/positive role in local events. There is a Bartholomew County in Indiana that is named after him.

  13. JA Benson says:

    Sorry I neglected to mention which line(s). DH is a descendant of your Polly’s youngest sister Lavinia. In fact, Polly raised Lavinia’s two children when Lavinia died early from childbirth. I am descended from your Polly’s older brother Alvah. Yep, I married my cousin. Scary huh.

  14. JA Benson,

    S’okay … I’m still getting these lines all figured out. I’ve relied too much on my mother to do all the genealogy and it’s time for me to get this stuff figured out.

    BTW, I haven’t heard of the controversy at the Far West Center before. I’m looking at the site you linked to and working on getting this figured out as well.

  15. My dad is good friends with a man who is related to Butch Cassidy. I always got the impression that it was supposed to be a family secret, but they were so proud of the connection that they all blabbed it anyways.

  16. tesseract says:

    ahaha. One of my best friends is related to Butch Cassidy. He is male, LDS, and gay.

  17. I think Mormonisms mollifying effect on cultural violence is unsung. Look at the Nauvoo Legion after the death of the prophets and the Utah War. Things could have gone really, really, badly.

  18. capt jack says:

    I’m related to Butch Cassidy; I think it’s great, but my wife is embarassed by the fact.

  19. Oh, for the days when one could brandish a firearm in the temple and feel not ashamed!!!

  20. Ardis Parshall says:

    Butch had a wonderful heritage. You’ve heard the story about the small boy lost on the plains whose mother sent his father back to look for him? “Here’s my red shawl — wrap my son in it if he is dead, or wave it as soon as you are in sight to let me know he is alive” — that story? The couple in that story were Butch’s grandparents, and the lost child was his uncle Arthur.

    Then there’s Butch’s father Maximilian who has to be one of the quietest, most charitable men I have run into in all my researches. He’s the one who, when a neighbor burns to death, rides his horse many miles to the nearest telegraph station to notify the dead man’s family. He’s the one who, when a neighbor has appendicitis, gets him to Salt Lake for surgery. Over and over, Max is there, quietly doing whatever needs doing. (I’m not a relative, by the way, just an admirer after my work in Piute County history.)

    I think we should all be a little more careful than we are about retailing half-remembered, poorly understood accounts of Mormon violence. Much of what has been told comes from writers who glory in thinking the worst of us, and whose tales are sensationalized in our own drama-seeking imaginations. The truth is far more complex than our shoot-’em-up slapdash comments would indicate. I’m not advocating a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but I do think it is as irresponsible to err on the simplistic, sensationalist side as to say nothing at all.

    “Mormonism meant family and community, stability and civilization. It meant manliness nmore consequential even if less cinematic.”

    Exactly. Well said.

  21. I wish that, rather than celebrating them, we had the good sense to be ashamed of our criminal forebears.

  22. Doug Evans says:

    Steve Evans has a wonderful heritage of men who were truly men who sacrificed endured enormous challenges to ensure their families had food on the table, a roof over their head and that they learned important principles of living right and how to survive and raise decent families, even though things were very very tough.

    Two men in particular standout. One was Issac Rogers Robbins who along with his brother John and both their families travelled on the longest and toughest voyage that anyone could possibly imagine to reach the promised land in the West. The voyage was on the famed ship Brooklyn with Samuel Brannan. These were very difficult times and it required faithful and committed men and women in order to stay alive against the elements that destroyed many men. They were valiant to the end and have left a heritage that is almost unequalled in maritime history. Issac was my great grandfather and Steve’s great great grandfather.

    The second mann is John Robbins,my grandfather, who unfortunately died when I was a young boy. He was a son of Issac Rogers Robbins and you can tell from hearing his story that he was a rugged and yet a true family man. He struggled greatly to earn enough money to look after his family. They lived in a small two room home, about 9 or 10 of them, in the undeveloped prairie land of southern Alberta Canada after emigrating from Utah. My mother has told stories about how her dad, John Robbins, used to be away from home for months shearing sheep and gambling with cards that he marked at home. He made and saved enough money to have his 3 daughters learn how to be exceptional violinists (later playing in the first Symphony Orchestra started in the city of Calgary.

    Talk about courage, determination and commitment. They were great men and I think about them and their struggles with great pride and the knowledge that Steve, his three sisters and my now 13 grandchildren have inherited some wonderful genes that has and will continue to help them achieve much in their lives.

  23. Steve Evans says:

    And I thought my ancestors just gave me good cheekbones.

  24. “I wish that, rather than celebrating them, we had the good sense to be ashamed of our criminal forebears.”

    This reminds me of a Brady Bunch episode…

  25. “I wish that, rather than celebrating them, we had the good sense to be ashamed of our criminal forebears.”

    Just be glad you know something about them, anything. Too many of my ancestors are inscrutable, with nothing but a census entry and a tombstone to testify of their existence.

  26. Well, I think it’s manliness to have a horde of kids – but just as long as you look after them, and don’t shirk your manly duties.