The Case of the Missing Pioneer

Most people with even a general sense of the Mormon pioneers are familiar with their “roadometer,” a set of cog wheels fastened to a wagon wheel, which measured and recorded distance traveled without the need for a human observer to count the revolutions of the wheel. The roadometer, very like the model in this photo, was used by Brigham Young’s vanguard pioneer company in 1847. The distances recorded were used in the compilation of a trail guide that assisted thousands of Mormon pioneers (and countless others) in their migration across the Great Plains of North America.

Book Cover

History credits William Clayton with devising the roadometer, with the mathematical assistance of Orson Pratt; Appleton Milo Harmon constructed the roadometer, first used on May 12, 1847. There were problems with that first roadometer, however, and in the first week of August, 1847, William A. King built a second device in the Salt Lake Valley.

After building the improved roadometer, William A. King returned east with Brigham Young and other members of that initial company, and then

And then?

Well, he disappeared. There is no record of a return to Utah, no indication of a marriage or children, no further appearance in Mormon history. Ancestral File suggests that he died in Boston in 1862, but that incomplete date, coupled with his total absence from later Mormon history and his disconnection in Ancestral File from known LDS families who might have contributed his data casts doubt on its likelihood.

I sometimes tackle “mystery” pioneers to fill in the gaps in the church’s wonderful Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database. It seems too bad that Mormon converts who made the heroic effort to gather with the Saints in those early, difficult times vanish as they sometimes did. It is especially provocative when someone like King disappears, if only because historians have written so often about that 1847 company that we really ought to tie up the loose ends. Yet King remained a mystery, so much so that one recent author footnoted King’s data with the plea for anyone who knew what had become of him to kindly contact the writer.

It took me almost 45 grueling, gut-wrenching, mind-racking (okay, I’m showing off) minutes to trace the outlines of William A. King’s life.

We know from Nauvoo-era records — temple endowment, King’s membership in a 70s quorum — that he was born in Paris, Oxford Co., Maine, on 3 July 1821. There is a History of Paris, Maine, from Its Settlement to 1880 (1884), conveniently online, if inconveniently on a commercial site, which lists “William Arridus [King], b. July 3, 1820. Joined the Mormans [sic] at one time, and was one of the committee that went to Salt Lake to select a location for the Saints.” William Arridus was the son of George and Polly (usually a nickname for Mary); this record gives the names and a few genealogical facts about five of his siblings.

Even with the one-year discrepancy in William’s date of birth, there is no doubt that this is the right William. Unfortunately, the book provides no data on wife, occupation, migration, or death.

The 1850 census for Paris names William A. King, age 29, living in Paris with George and Mary. So that’s where he went after he returned from the Salt Lake Valley. The record tells us where, but of course cannot tell us why. Did he actively abandon Mormonism? Did he go home hoping to convert his family and return to Utah? Did he go home to say good-bye, and for some reason never quite get back to the Saints?

The U.S. census, taken every ten years, is a marvelous tool for tracking the movements of 19th century Americans, especially since it has been indexed and automated. That’s the logical place to follow King down through time. It isn’t always easy, though. The 1860 census lists 2,687 men named William King — never mind how many additional men apear as “W.” or “W.A.” Only 23 of those were born in Maine; only 4 were born within 2 years of 1821 (you have to allow a little leeway on the census, especially for people born in the summer, because you can’t be sure whether the enumerator went by just before or just after a birthday). There is only 1 William King living in Paris, Maine, 1860, but his middle initial is O., and he has children ages 10 and 12 who did not appear with “our” King in 1850; the others live in Connecticut, Wisconsin, and elsewhere in Maine. There is no obvious way to know which, if any, of those Williams is the one we want.

One genealogical rule of thumb is that if you can’t find your man, trace his family; if you can’t find your family, trace the neighbors. Despite the mythic “rugged individualist,” 19th century Americans far more often moved with family, friends and neighbors.

King’s siblings fortunately had more distinctive names than his: Augustus, Erastus, Octavius, and Cyrenus. What do you know? — there is a Cyrenus King living in Milwaukee in 1860, a few doors away from a William King. Both men were born in Maine; their ages accord with those given in the Paris town history. What’s more, that William is a carpenter and joiner, exactly the right skills for a man who had built a wooden roadometer. He is married and has a son, additional match points that make it easy to follow the family down through the years: 1870, still in Milwaukee; 1880, again in Milwaukee; 1890, not available (that year’s census was burned); 1900, widowed wife and single adult son, still in Milwaukee; 1910, wife is gone, but son, still single, still in Milwaukee; 1920, son, still single, in Milwaukee; 1930, son, age 70, never married, moved to a rest home in Colorado.

A quick check of the death register for Milwaukee, available on film at the Family History Library, provides a death date of 12 August 1899 for our William A. King. There is a discrepancy in his father’s name (King’s wife and son never met the father, who died before King was married, so their error is easily understood), but the birth date and birthplace confirm that this is our man.

45 minutes. That’s all. That still doesn’t answer the most important question — why did he not remain with the church? — but at least we can fill in the blank concerning that member of the most famous Mormon pioneer company.

It isn’t always that easy. But don’t be afraid to tackle your own family or historical research, no matter how green you feel, because it isn’t always hard, either.

30 comments for “The Case of the Missing Pioneer

  1. By the way, William Arridus King has one more connection with Mormon history. His brother Augustus had a son, Francis Eaton King, who migrated westward in 1857. Somewhere along the trail he hooked up with a wagon company of Arkansans. When the company reached Salt Lake City, Francis Eaton King dropped out of the company and stayed in Salt Lake to give his wife time to recover from an illness. Their traveling companions passed on through Salt Lake and down the length of Utah, stopping to give their teams a chance to rest and recuperate, in September, at Mountain Meadows.

    Francis Eaton King remained in Utah the rest of his long life, except for a short residence in Oregon after the turn of the 20th century. He joined the church and has LDS descendants.

  2. Thanks for this.

    My daughter gave a presentation on the pioneers and Nauvoo to her 5th-grade class recently, and one of the “highlights” (and most interesting element, to the 5th-graders) was the roadometer.

  3. It took me almost 45 grueling, gut-wrenching, mind-wracking…minutes

    What took you so long? :) Actually, when I read the first part of this sentence I anticipated that you were going to say days. Nice work. Thank you for taking us through your interesting trip through the records.

  4. Ardis, your first comment deserves a post all its own. Heck, it deserves a historical novel with film rights sold to Miramax all its own.

  5. I love it when you take us on the journey and show us how you find this stuff. Great fun.

  6. So fascinating! Merci, Ardis!

    #9 – yes, indeed. For when a documentary-kind The Work and the Glory by AP with only real people?

  7. Ardis, BBC or PBS should give you your own detective series. But don’t take any offers from Lifetime (aka the “Pain & Suffering” channel). You have too much class for that!

  8. For a man of good health in this time frame, would the military records from the Civil War be another place to look? Since hundreds of thousands pariticpated, many died, and others had lasting associations growing out of their military service, it seems like a place to find a lot of the men in that era. While he might have been too old to be drafted, there was no obstacle to him enlisting or working for a government contractor.

  9. Raymond (14), yes, anybody searching to flesh out the life of just about any male in America during this time ought to consider Civil War records. Although King is on the outside age for service, his carpentry skills could theoretically have made him useful in an engineering unit. (My gr-gr-grandfather, born in 1829 and so just a tad younger, filled such a role.)

    Military records themselves — enlistment, muster rolls, sick lists — from the Civil War are not particularly useful for identifying a man like King, because they seldom contain anything but name and unit (if you *know* your man anyway and are looking for any clue to his life, you would still want these records). Far more useful for identifying and tracking an unknown quantity like King would be if he had served, survived, and filed a pension claim — the real gold is in the pension records. Those records fully identify a man (in order to be sure the money goes to the right one), and outline his service in detail, and track his movements since the war. If his widow filed a claim she had to prove her connection to the soldier, so you often find useful documents relating to her marriage and her children.

    Records of southerners are easy to find at the Family History Library. They were preserved and carefully housed and indexed in Washington immediately after the war as captured war documents. Records of Union men can be a little harder because the FHL has only indexes; you have to order — and pay through the nose — from the National Archives. The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (google it) is a great online resource for identifying the unit, enlistment, and usually discharge dates of soldiers. The veterans’ schedules of the 1890 census (which, unlike the general population schedules, did survive the fire) can also give you clues to Civil War Service. Local histories written in the heyday of the 1870s and 1880s very often list every local man who served. Each town in New York state has a special set of records for local men — you’re lucky if grandpa came from NY. Most of the southern states made efforts at various times to identify ex-Confederates; they were not eligible for federal pensions, of course, but some of the states did provide state pensions. Grand Army of the Republic records and their Confederate equivalent can also be useful — but you generally have to know a great deal about your man already before you can locate and use those. The military history division at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania has also been collecting photographs of as many soldiers as they can convince families to donate (I’ve given mine), so you may get lucky if a second cousin has turned in your ancestor’s picture.

    I’ve never seen Civil War-era records for private employers, even those contracting with the military. You have to think, who would have collected and preserved them, and why? It’s possible, though, that contractors’ records may have landed in local historical societies or in the archives or universities.

    In other words, military records can indeed be a wonderful resource for 19th century men in America.

  10. Hi Ardis –

    I have one relative that arrived in SLC with the Mormon Battalion in July 1847 only to promptly leave the church and head back home to Iowa. That issue might have been a disagreement over the Utah LDS then practice of polygamy.

  11. Question.

    I’ve been doing my family history on my own for some time, and I’m having a really hard time putting the names I’ve found into their proper generations.

    Any suggestions?

  12. Thanks, Ardis. This is fascinating – especially comment #1. That simply is too odd to categorize as coincidental. Truly fascinating.

  13. Ardis, you are terrific!

    A friend of ours is a Harmon, the 2nd or 3rd great granddaughter of Appleton. Still members of the church, and a lot of cousins, so the story is a lot easier to track.

    But, kudos to you for tracking down one who’s tracks wandered off and died out a generation later.

  14. Ardis,

    Great post, adding to what you said about tracing people in the US, I also find that houses in Britain can get passed down. We had one that got passed via the mother for about four generations. That can make for some interesting research.

  15. Thanks for the appreciation, all; it’s fun to know that others enjoy the detective work and the O. Henry twists of history. You couldn’t invent some of this stuff!

    #2, geek, good for your daughter. Do you live in the Mormon corridor where the pioneer story could have been familiar to many of the 5th graders, or was it an entirely new adventure for them?

    #16, Roland, who was your Battalion ancestor, and what became of him? Although polygamy hadn’t been publicly announced in 1847, it certainly was more openly practiced in Utah than it had been in Illinois, so it’s possible he became aware of it for the first time. But there are lots of other reasons why a man may not have stayed in Utah that early — unless you have some indication (a diary? letter?) that such was the explanation, you might want to consider the other possibilities, too.

    #17, Paradox: I don’t often have stray names that I need to arrange in their generations, because I don’t usually pick someone up for my records without there being a visible connection — the census generally groups families, marriage licenses name fathers, obituaries list family members, and so on. Have you perhaps been gathering information on all the Paradoxes in your family’s place of origin, without necessarily establishing their connection to a known family member first? I’d be glad to offer suggestions, but I need a little more information since I can’t quite picture the information. Write to me at AEParshall att aol dott com if you’d like.

    #19, Mark B, I hope the Harmons won’t be offended at my pointing out that the first draft of the roadometer didn’t quite work well enough. It’s always easier to edit than to write from scratch, and I suspect King had an easier time refining Harmon’s original than Harmon had in making the prototype.

    #21, Jon W, I spoke tonight with a woman tracing her cousins in Ireland, who has recently found that they are living in the same (greatly modernized) house that her family lived in as far back as the 1840s. That boggles my mind, since my family moved every few years. Stability like you mention has to have considerable advantages for documenting a family.

    Thanks again for all the pleasant comments.

  16. Ardis,
    As always, careful and insightful. You do the historical profession proud.
    I really like your use of a visual aid. I didn’t know Times and Seasons could do that. This opens up some interesting possibilities……
    One small correction. The odometer that you picture was indeed made “out West.” But it was actually made in Franklin, Idaho and was used to measure the distances to the Little Colorado settlements in Arizona.
    Thanks again for a very informative post. You are the Agatha Chrisy of Mormon History!

  17. Richard O. — Thanks!

    One of the archivists warned me about the differences in the odometers. Without being able to find a photo of King’s (does it survive?), I wrote “very like the model in this photo” to indicate this was *not* King’s — but we might as well have the record completely straight.

    Yes, we can paste in images of all kinds. Do I sense this as temptation enough to lure a guest post out of you?

  18. Having some experience with woodworking, I regularly give thanks to the gods for electric motors, tungsten-carbide tipped saws and finely calibrated measuring devices–tapes, squares, etc.

    That anyone, Appleton Harmon or William King or anybody else, could build an odometer with the tools available at Winter Quarters or Great Salt Lake City (?) in 1847, is testimony to a remarkable level of skill that most of us could ever attain. The Harmon family have ample reason to be proud of Appleton in that the initial device worked at all, no matter what improvements King made to it.

    Besides, they can always point out that it was his odometer that calculated the distance measurements for the first pioneer company.

  19. Lovely little research project. Thanks for an adventure in historical research, Ardis!

    Thanks also to Richard O. for mentioning that the pictured odometer was used to mark the road down to the Little Colorado settlements.

    One of my ancestors served a mission in his native Denmark before settling in Sanpete County long enough to fight in the Black Hawk conflict. He was then called to help settle the Little Colorado region.

    This ancestor had a partiality for distances. Maybe it was because he was a skilled carpenter and was always measuring things. During his mission, he carefully recorded the number of miles he walked. When he was called with others “to Settle and mak Homes … on the Lettle Colorado River” he carefully recorded James S. Brown’s instructions on the number of miles between each point of the journey. (For example, “Cros the Mountains and to House Rok……..27. To Jacob Pool….12, Soap Krick….13.”)

    I never stopped to wonder how they knew these distances. So, thanks to both of you for answering a question I didn’t even know I had!

  20. Thanks, Justin. Very helpful. The second link is older than I remembered (1997-98), but that’s the one where the author asked for King biographical help from readers (p. 112).

  21. Great post! What I miss, though, is an exploded diagram and an explanation of how the thing works. It’s a beautiful device. =)

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