George D. Watt’s Journey

I’ve heard it said before that Leroy Anderson was America’s best-known forgotten composer. It could likewise be said that George D. Watt is Mormonism’s best-known forgotten reporter.  In a recent interview at From the Desk, Kurt Manwaring discussed why Watt is important and the recent publication of his 1851 journal with LaJean Carruth and Ronald G. Watt.  What follows here is a copost to the full interview (a shorter discussion with excerpts).

In the interview, Ronald G. Watt (a former archivist for the Latter-day Saint Church Historical Department and George’s great grandson) explained that:

George D. Watt was born in Manchester, England, on May 18, 1812. He converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Preston, England, and ran a footrace with at least one other man to be the first person baptized into the Church in the British Isles in 1837.

He moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, USA, in 1842, and then returned to Britain in 1846 as a missionary. In February 1851, he traveled from Liverpool, England, to Great Salt Lake City with a large group of Latter-day Saint emigrants. The 1851 Journal of Missionary George D. Watt includes his journal of that trip from Liverpool to Chimney Rock, and we have included other items.

Watt’s main significance in the Church, though, came through his ability to report the words of Church leaders.  He had learned to use Pitman shorthand, which LaJean Carruth explained is “a form of shorthand …. [It] was the first shorthand that allowed a reporter to make a verbatim record of a person’s speech, and was widely used.”  She went on to explain more about Watt’s legacy:

George D. Watt’s greatest legacy was his skill as a shorthand reporter. It is impossible to overstate the value of the records he left us through his shorthand reporting.

While the Journal of Discourses is not an accurate transcription of his shorthand, it is the only record we have of hundreds of sermons. And those sermons include historical accounts, descriptions of contemporary events, personal experiences, and theological teachings.

His extant original shorthand records contain his reports of the actual words spoken by Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and many others.

(The Church History Library has Watt shorthand for about 235 sermons by Brigham Young alone that are not in the Journal of Discourses. This untranscribed shorthand is the only record for many if not most of these sermons.)

From this shorthand we can learn how these men actually spoke and what they said. We even learn about their personalities. For example, Watt noted that Brigham Young sometimes acted out what he was saying, pretending to weep when he described people weeping—or searching his pockets when talking about searching for something.

This is the closest we can get to their actual words (sound recordings were still decades away). I have come to know these men through their words, as reported by George D. Watt. I am personally very much indebted to him.

That is why I noted that he is the best-known (or at least one of the most important) reporter in Mormonism, even though his name is largely unknown to members of the Church.

Carruth is well-known for her ability to transcribe Watt’s shorthand and for the transcriptions she has created from Watt’s work.  Along with Ronald Watt, she recently published a journal from George D. Watt that describes his journey from the United Kingdom to Utah.  She found the journal in 2001 and first transcribed it in 2002.  In explaining the contents of the journey, Carruth said that:

George D. Watt recorded his experiences and those of his fellow travelers on all three stages of the journey:

  1. Across the Atlantic Ocean
  2. Up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers
  3. Across the plains

Travelers frequently had to stop between these stages of the journey in order to earn money for the next stage, to rest, or otherwise prepare.

Watt described his continuous journey from Liverpool to Salt Lake City, so we see his experiences throughout, and how one stage differed from the others. We see the journey as he experienced it, in his vivid and detailed descriptions. George D. Watt meant to publish it as a guide for those who came after, but there is no evidence he ever transcribed it. Still, it is a guide for us to his day and experiences. …

His journal is unique. It is his experiences recorded in his own words. He relates his experiences, the experiences of others, and his feelings about his experiences. Watt intended to publish this as a guide for those who would follow after, and went into some detail to warn, instruct, and advise them. All of these details greatly expand our knowledge and understanding of the emigrant experience.

It’s not clear why he didn’t publish the journal, though Carruth notes that “Life in early Utah was extremely demanding, establishing the settlements, trying to survive in very harsh conditions. Watt left much of his shorthand untranscribed: he simply did not have time to do it all.”  She added that: “we hope that George is pleased to finally have his guide published. Not exactly as he intended, to be sure, but published as he wanted.”

As a final note, in one of the more humorous sections of the interview, they shared George D. Watt’s description of the trail:

There is much on this journey across the wilderness to please, and amuse, and astonish the lover of nature: the endless plains covered with grass and flowers of every grade and hue from the rose to the common unassuming daisy. . .

An American feels quite at home with a whip in his hand, and two or three yoke of oxen by his side. But if ever an Englishman felt himself far from home, it is in when he has to commence, whip in hand, to drive and manage oxen.

The folks in England talk about the patience of Job, and possessing their souls in patience, and to be of an unchanged temper; but people do not know what kind of a temper they got until they try . . . to drive and manage a team of stupid oxen.

The stupid oxen quote comes up several times because it is a vivid description of the experience that Watt had in his journey to Utah Territory in 1851.

Anyway, feel free to hop on over to the full interview here.  It’s an interesting read and shares more than I’ve been able to share here, including info about sermons Orson Pratt gave on the ship as they crossed the Atlantic, why his journals were legible despite writing during the journey, how they found the journal and why they decided to publish it, and more details on the topics mentioned above.