Skip to content
Secondary Content

Conversation on Utah Historiography with Gary Topping

Editors’ note: As we seek to understand and find meaning in the past, we would do well to consider the approach, methods, and conclusions of historians that went on before us. Historiography—the study of the methods and writing of historians—is essential to understanding where and how our historical efforts ought to be directed.

Few historians know Utah historiography better than Gary Topping, a prolific author currently working as archivist of the Catholic Roman Diocese of Salt Lake City. Using S. George Ellsworth’s 1972 UHQ article as a starting point, this free-ranging conversation touches on the methods and contributions of early Utah historians, the work of so-called “amateur” historians, understudied state historical topics, and, not least, Topping’s views on the idea of kingship and queenship among Utah historians. We make available the audio and transcript below.



Jedediah Rogers: Well hello, my name is Jedediah Rogers. I am one of the managing editors of the Utah Historical Quarterly and today I am really happy to be joined by Gary Topping who is a longtime valued friend of the Quarterly and State History. Most historians will know a bit about his work. In his early career he was an archivist here at the Utah State Historical Society, and he is currently archivist at the Archives of the Catholic Church in Utah and he is author of numerous books and articles, including Glen Canyon and the San Juan Country, published in 1997; Utah Historians and Reconstruction of Western History, published in 2003; and Leonard J. Arrington: A Historian’s Life, published in 2008. Thank you for joining me.

Gary Topping: My pleasure.

JR: One thing that we hope to do today—we’re going to be talking about Utah historians and Utah historiography, and this really stems from an article that was published in the most recent edition of the UHQ by Robert Parson on the career of S. George Ellsworth and the history of Utah. So we’re going to be using as our starting point a 1972 article that Ellsworth wrote for the Utah Historical Quarterly entitled “Utah History: Retrospect and Prospect.” And one thing that Gary and I commented on before starting the recording is the need for Utah historians to assess the state of the field—to consider the historiography a little bit more often. And, in fact, we need to do articles like Ellsworth’s more often in the Quarterly and elsewhere. So, I don’t know, Gary, why don’t we start off by discussing the importance of Utah historiography for Utah historians and the kind of value and significance that this type of exercise provides.

GT: Sure. In my Utah historians book [Utah Historians and the Reconstruction of Western History] I begin by talking about a kind of inherent risk of self absorption or narcissism in looking at what we do as historians, but I would argue that any field of endeavor whether it’s history or anything else needs a certain degree of introspection. We need to look at what we’re doing. Progress becomes much more difficult if we don’t do that. And the fact that the most recent historiographical article that we could find as a springboard for this was written in 1972 is kind of indicative of the fact that we need to be doing this more often. And Ellsworth begins his article by pointing out how difficult that is. He’s surveying a hundred years of Utah historiography or so, and it’s just a big order. We need to be doing this much more often and we also need to be doing it in much smaller bites than we’re doing today. I’m, as you know, interested in Utah historiography, but I don’t know all of the kind of subfields of Utah history well at all. I know a few of them fairly well but as I was preparing for this interview I really empathized with Ellsworth and his struggle to kind of wrap his mind around the whole field. We shouldn’t be asked to do that. We ought to be doing this in smaller pieces.

So, I am hoping that you, in your position now—I know you’re very interested in Utah historiography—that interviews like this and maybe historiographical articles will start showing up more frequently and the burden will be a little less on our shoulders then.

JR: Well I think that that’s a great idea and it’s something I think that we would want to explore and try to do a little bit more often. And you know, I’m really thankful that you’re here because I can think of no other historian who has written more about Utah historiography and can provide some really insightful things to say about how Utah’s past has been treated over the years. And I know that we’re really skimming the surface here, but I hope that we talk about some interesting points that will perhaps provide a springboard for future scholarship.

GT: Hmm mm.

JR: Maybe if we dive right into Ellsworth’s piece, published in 1972, he characterized five stages of historical writing. And briefly I just want to mention that the first he says is the performing of so-called “great and heroic tasks.” The second stage is the looking back on this period of conquest and pioneering, and the third is the attempt to “identify its heroes and place them in a special patriotic aura.” And the fourth, he says, is the period of debunking the heroes and criticizing past historians. The fifth, the final stage is seeking the “essence” and “real meaning” of the past. And that was Ellsworth’s assessment. So Ellsworth suggested in his article that Utah had not yet entered into the fourth and fifth stages, the stages in which debunking and the essence of the past really is formed. He says, “We have not really had a period of debunking, certainly not with the intensity known to other fields. We have not come to this fifth stage, that of seeking the real meaning, the essence of our history.” So Gary, how would you evaluate this general characterization of Utah history?

GT: Well I would do it in one word: baloney. I hadn’t realized until I began preparing for this interview what a predilection Ellsworth had for what we would call metahistory. Metahistory, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the idea that there are larger patterns in history, generally some kind of cycle of rise and fall, which we empirical historians, with our being confined to the archives and working on our minor little projects, we miss these larger patterns. And I just think that that’s not worth pursuing. I happen to be an empirical historian myself, as you are, and these larger patterns just seem to me to be out there in the ether. I have no idea what literature he is referring to here about the five stages of history, whether it’s state history or any other kind of history. He’s just drawing this out of the ether as far as I can see.

And in the very next paragraph he begins by indicating that this doesn’t really apply very well to Utah history anyway, and, so, why are we wasting our time on this anyway? And we’re talking about the essence. We’re talking about essences. I almost thought I was expecting him to talk about accidents as well, and if he did, I was going to put George Ellsworth aside and pick up St. Thomas Aquinas. Why am I reading Ellsworth when I could be reading St. Thomas to the same effect? You’re talking about essences. You might as well get candles lit, because we’re in the realm of theology here, not history. So, I don’t know exactly what he means by these stages. He should have given us specific examples of some work of history that would typify each of these ages.

Debunking? I would argue that almost any critical history is debunking. I think we’ve been doing that all along. I don’t see that there’s a phase of debunking. So I just think that he’s getting away from empirical history here, which is where we need to be. I just don’t see it useful at all.

JR: That’s an interesting evaluation. My reading of this is that he says the fifth stage is of seeking the essence or real meaning. It is as though the histories we write reveal in some way the true or real meaning of the past. In fact, what we do provides a meaning and an essence. That’s certainly not, I would argue, the real meaning.

GT: Well, I wonder if Ellsworth in his graduate seminars had his students pursuing the essence of Utah history. What kind of seminar would that be anyway? What sources would you use? I can’t imagine what the essence of Utah history might be or the essence of any other kind of history, ancient history or medieval history or modern French history. What’s the essence of Modern French History? I would challenge any French historian to define that. I don’t think they could do it.

JR: Mm mm, well and then he continues. This is really the first or second paragraph in his piece. And then he continues with his empirical history. He doesn’t really address this or expound on this in any further light. But what he does say, he considers the work of Utah’s three distinguished early historians—Tullidge, Bancroft, and Whitney—to be foundational, and I was hoping that you would speak to us, if you would, about Utah’s earliest historians. What contributions did they make and what can we still learn from them?

GT: If you would permit, I would like to expand that just a bit to include not only Tullidge, Bancroft, and Whitney. He doesn’t mention Andrew Jensen, I guess. Does he? I don’t remember that he does.

JR: I think he did mention him.

GT: I certainly would include him in there as well. And I would also like to expand it to include the next generation of historians—Leland Hargrave Creer, Andrew Love Neff, Milton R. Hunter, Levi Edgar Young. I would rank all of these as being kind of the founding fathers of Utah historiography. And so what contributions did they make? They made a huge contribution, because they’re the ones that defined what Utah history is. They’re the ones who kind of gave us our periodization schemes of what are the major periods of Utah history. They were the first ones to identify what sources we have in order to study that history. So I look up to those people with awe. I shudder to think what I would have done if I had been forced to kind of define Utah history just out of the whole cloth. That was a huge task.

On the other hand, what contributions? You ask me, what can we still learn from them? I think not much. And this is not to impugn their greatness at all, because I think what contributions they made have pretty much been absorbed into the literature, into later literature. Ellsworth, I think, holds them in higher esteem than I do in terms of contemporary value. I can’t imagine that Ellsworth was sitting there with Whitney’s four volumes on his desk and consulting him on a daily basis as he did his work. He wouldn’t have done that.

A year or so ago I reviewed a manuscript for a publisher about Utah history, and the author had used Leland Creer as kind of a background for general historical background and Utah history. And I said, why go back to Creer? Why not Tom Alexander or Chas Peterson, someone who’s written a much more recent survey; or Dean May’s little People’s History of Utah?[1] You know, much better, more accurate and based upon a much broader literature than Creer. I have to say that the author persisted in it, and Creer shows up not only once but twice in his bibliography as Leland Hargrave and also as Leland Hargrave Creer.

JR: Ellsworth was a bibliographic guy. So I think he had particular fondness for Bancroft and perhaps, I think, for the collection of records that Bancroft had—you know, Ellsworth’s side of Berkeley. So he was familiar with the Bancroft collection. And he actually makes the claim that “the collection of manuscripts has not been fully exploited by historians” and that “Bancroft’s footnotes are guides to sources and topics still relatively untouched.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with this collection, but is that still true today?

GT: I have to have a disclaimer here that I’ve never used the Bancroft Collection. I’ve never been inside the Bancroft Library. But, with that caveat let me go onto comment that I cannot believe that that is true. Or maybe he’s saying something that’s meaningless. In the first place, what do we mean by the Bancroft collection? Strictly speaking it would mean the records that Hubert Howe Bancroft picked up from Franklin D. Richards as [LDS] Church Historian and took back to Berkeley to become the core of the Bancroft collection. But gee, the Bancroft collection more broadly construed has been growing ever since that time. It is just not limited to those records that Franklin D. Richards gave Bancroft. In fact, Dale Morgan, when he worked at the Bancroft Library, has a wonderful article in a book about western travels in which he talks about how he himself brought in other records to add to that collection.[2]

And so, I’m not sure exactly what Ellsworth, how he’s construing that term, the Bancroft collection. And the idea that even, let’s say even if we limited it to those records that Richards gave to Bancroft, Ellsworth goes on to list this long list of Utah historians that studied at Berkeley and would use the Bancroft collection. And he’s telling me by 1972 that that still hasn’t been fully exploited. I find that to be incredible. Now so there’s that. On the other hand I said, maybe he’s saying something that’s meaningless. If the Bancroft collection has continually grown then it’s never going to be fully exploited. Am I going to tell you that you shouldn’t go up to the Marriott Library, because it’s already been fully exploited—the special collections up there? Of course it hasn’t. What is the Marriott Library’s Special Collections? Well, it’s a moving target. It’s growing day by day. So we will always be using that wonderful collection up there.

That’s about all I can say about the Bancroft Collection.

JR: Okay. Well there’s another book. This is a wonderful book—I admittedly have not really read it more than just skimming—Utah: A Guide to the State published in 1941. Ellsworth says that it was “the very best reference tool on the greater portion of Utah’s history.” And he also makes the comment that the book launched the careers of two of the state’s most influential historians, Juanita Brooks and Dale Morgan. You know, you’ve done a lot of research on these two individuals. Talk to us about their importance in Utah historiography.

GT: I yield to none in my admiration for the Utah state guide, which appeared in 1941. It is a great piece of work, and it is still very much of contemporary value if you just make allowance for the fact that it’s however many years old. It eventually was updated by Ward Roylance in 1976, I think it was, very ineptly. Jack Goodman wrote a scathing review of Roylance’s work so—

JR: That’s too bad because in other ways I really like Roylance. I think he’s a really interesting figure but—

GT: I knew Ward Roylance very, very well. He was a very, very nice guy, kind of like Leonard Arrington, the gentlest of souls and all of that, but he wasn’t a historian and he was a publicity writer, you know. And I think that Goodman was largely right about his revision. But anyway, that is neither here nor there. The Utah state guide launched the careers of Juanita Brooks and Dale Morgan. No it didn’t. Juanita Brooks had nothing to do with writing the state guide. That was Morgan’s work and with his staff of writers. We need to make a distinction here. The WPA had two historical projects going on, the Historical Records Survey and the Writer’s Project. The state guide was produced by the Writer’s Project, which Dale Morgan worked on. The Historical Records Survey was what Juanita Brooks worked on. And, I don’t know, presumably the Writer’s Project used the records, diaries and things like that, autobiographies, things that Juanita was collecting must have fed into the Utah state guide. I’m not sure just how that worked.

But Juanita actually was of course this remarkable person. She had actually started gathering and copying diaries and autobiographies from southern Utah before the Historical Records Survey was ever created. She just kind of piggybacked onto it and was supported by that once it got started so that’s kind of the relationship there. And Dale Morgan of course later went on to become this incredibly prolific and just this iconic Utah historian. And Ellsworth is right that the Utah guide really did launch his career.

JR: Well so Ellsworth called Brooks “the queen of Utah history.” What do you make of that?

GT: Well ask the rest of the question.

JR: Okay. So Ellsworth says Brooks is the queen of Utah history and then he wrote in as kind of as a parenthetical inside, “there is no king.” And so I guess I’m wondering, you know, what do you make of that, one that Brooks was the queen of Utah history, whatever that is supposed to mean, that there is no king. Do you see his comment on kingship as a slight in any way to any of his contemporaries like Leonard Arrington?

GT: Yeah I can almost see you suppressing a smile when you read that, that there is no king because you and I both very well know that is was a slight against one of his contemporaries and the contemporary was Leonard Arrington. I’ll talk about that in just a moment.

First of all though, a general comment about that. Ellsworth is asking us to play a very sterile game here. Do we have kings and queens of history? You know, I wasn’t aware that we were in competition, Jed, you know. Every time you write a book do I get jealous because you’re working to become the king of Utah history and again you’re cutting me out of that or something? No! When you write a book, I rejoice, because it’s adding to our knowledge and you didn’t go to graduate school and I didn’t go to graduate school with the idea of being crowned the king of something. We just do our job, don’t we? So there’s that. Once again he is veering into kind of metahistory, you know. This just isn’t where we live as historians.

Now I do want to talk about Juanita Brooks as the queen of Utah history. In saying that, Ellsworth is telegraphing a Mormon bias of Utah history—and let me explain that. I don’t mean this as a criticism. If you’re going to have a bias in Utah history, and all of us do, then having a Mormon bias I think is probably the best one I think you can have, because of the predominance of Mormons and Mormonism in Utah history and Utah culture. So that’s not a bad thing. But let me just illustrate what I mean here with a personal story.

When I wrote my Utah historians book, the Utah Westerners were kind enough to ask me to come one evening and talk about it. And in the audience and loaded for bear were Mel Smith and Chas Peterson, because I had made some critical comments about Juanita Brooks in that book and they were really taking umbrage at that. So in the question and answer period they really went after me for daring to commit lèsemajesté against Juanita Brooks. And I remember Chas Peterson said, “You didn’t sit through all those Sunday School classes,” meaning those Sunday School classes where those guys were fed a huge diet of Joseph Fielding Smith, who they later came to recognize as being very compromised as a Utah historian. Very defensive of Mormonism and all of that. And the idea that Juanita Brooks came along and started to do truth telling in terms of Mormon and Utah History—[Smith and Peterson] just regarded her as the queen of Utah history. And I’m sure that Ellsworth was in that same group. Ellsworth sat through all those Sunday School classes as well, and when Juanita Brooks came along she had to have been regarded by him as really a heroine. And, of course, she was. And in my criticizing her work, and I should—when those guys were going after her, I came to realize that “look, Topping, you really were the one to write about Juanita Brooks, because if those guys had done it, you didn’t get anything objective at all.”

So I came to Utah with no background in Mormonism, no knowledge of Mormon history, and as I became interested in it then I approached Juanita Brooks just as I approached Dale Morgan or Bernard DeVoto or anybody else, not as a heroine, although I recognized that she was regarded as that, but as just another historian and vulnerable to criticism as well as she was deserving of praise, just as you and I or anybody else are. And so there’s that.

Now I’m sorry that I’m allowing Ellsworth to tempt me to play this sterile game, but I’m afraid if I had to name a queen of Utah history in 1972, I might have named Helen Papanikolos. You know, The Peoples of Utah was still four years in the future—that didn’t come out until 1976.[3] But “Toil and Rage in a New Land,” the first of only two times in the history of the Utah Historical Quarterly one author has been given the entire journal.[4] That appeared in 1970, so Ellsworth was—should have been—well aware of that. And, in fact, he does acknowledge her contribution at a later point, but boy it was Helen Papanikolas in my mind that really opened Utah history up to other than just white Mormon males. You know, I don’t do ethnic history myself, but I was in graduate school when The Peoples of Utah came out, and what a bombshell that was. I remember it very, very well. And several of my classmates, Joe Stipanovich, Phil Notarianni, Vince Mayer, Ron Coleman, all those guys were in graduate school with me, and they all made contributions in that book. And the great contribution of that book was that it indicated that there are other Utahns than just the white Mormon males that I talked about, even though I’m not going to be writing Italian or Greek history, you know. I write Catholic history and that kind of gave me the opening to pursue my own identity as an Utahn.

So, no, as far as there is no king, you’ve talked with Parson a little bit about this, and Bob knows much more about this than I do, but Leonard Arrington, when he came back to Utah and began teaching at Utah State University, had an aspiration to become a historian. His degree was in economics, not in history, and he had an aspiration to become a historian and to write Utah and Mormon history. And recognizing that he had no professional training in it, he took Ellsworth’s seminar and learned to write history from George Ellsworth. Leonard in his autobiography, Adventures of a Church Historian, is quite straightforward in recognizing what he owed Ellsworth as a historical mentor. But this article is in the fall 1972 issue of the Utah Historical Quarterly. Earlier that year Leonard Arrington had been named historian of the LDS church and I have to believe that Ellsworth would have thought, “you know, how come him and not me?” So there was bad blood between them. As you and I were talking before we turned the recorders on, I believe that the animosity was all on Ellsworth’s side and Leonard Arrington just would not have had played that game. Actually, I think Bob would tell you that it was mostly on Maria Ellsworth’s side rather than George, and she really had it in for Leonard Arrington. The sorcerer’s apprentice had exceeded the achievement of the sorcerer himself, and there was jealously there.

JR: Well it’s fun to hear some of your stories. And, you know, particularly you were talking about Papanikolas. She is much beloved here in the historical society.

GT: Oh yeah.

JR: Well, you know, it’s interesting that you mentioned that Ellsworth’s Mormon bias. He doesn’t make any mention of several other important historians who have addressed Utah topics. Granted they didn’t have PhDs in history so they may be seen as so-called amateur historians, but these are folks like Wallace Stegner, Bernard DeVoto, Fawn Brodie, I mean, giants in the field. What can you talk to us about one, why they are left off Ellsworth’s list but more important what do you make of their contributions to our understanding of the past?

GT: You’ve read my Utah historians book, you and three other people, and so for the vast majority who didn’t get around to reading it, I’ll just summarize what I have to say about it. I can do it in almost one sentence. My evaluation of those people is that they were great researchers and they were great writers, but they were not good interpreters, and so they made great contributions in terms of advancing our factual knowledge of Utah history but as interpreters they tended to be just really inept. Maybe I shouldn’t use that strong of word, but really deficient in the way they interpreted things.

Bernard DeVoto just had this almost metaphysical view of western history as manifest destiny. He really believed in manifest destiny, that he didn’t believe in God but there was some transcendent force there that was leading the western migration. That was a metaphysical interpretation that he would have scorned in anybody else, but he himself indulged in it.

Stegner was a writer, of course, and his view of history—well, particularly in his biography of Major John Wesley Powell, he sees Powell as representing science as opposed to others representing a myth. And boy I really come down hard on him about that, because Powell didn’t represent science in the least. He had no qualified scientists with him on either of these trips. They were his brother-in-law and his brother and stuff like this and the boats were inaccurate. They were not properly designed, and on and on. So he doesn’t really represent the triumph of science. Eventually he did. Powell grew into the role, and so did others that were in the party, but it wasn’t science as opposed to myth.

And Fawn Brodie—psychology, reading psychology into these people. Brodie, as her biographer as Newell Bringhurst points out, was sexually troubled, and she tended to be attracted to people who had sexual problems of their own. And I don’t know if you can call Joseph Smith as being a sexually troubled person, but he was the originator of Mormon polygamy, and so she was interested in that. Richard Burton, this Victorian libertine, she was attracted to that. Thomas Jefferson and Thaddeus Stevens, she wrote biographies of both of those guys. Both of them had African American mistresses. So there was that kind of thing. She was writing about herself really in writing about those other people. Now that’s not to say that she didn’t do good work. I am still a great admirer of No Man Knows My History. I still would even prefer that to Richard Bushman’s book, even though Bushman’s book is based on much more extensive research. And her biography of Thaddeus Stevens, nobody else has written a better biography of Thaddeus Stevens than that. It’s just the standard work in the field. Her other book, Thomas Jefferson, was much reviled, because she was just speculating about the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. It turns out she was right about that, but as I point out in my book it was a lucky guess. It was only circumstantial evidence. And her biography of Richard Nixon is just vitriol. She just hated everything that Nixon ever stood for, and just can’t be regarded as objective in any way.

Could I go on to talk a little bit about amateur historians in general? Would that be okay?

JR: Absolutely. Given your comment, you know, the lack of analytical, interpretive ability of folks like Stegner and Devoto and—granted I want listeners to understand that certainly there will be those who disagree with these points, and I think we can have an honest disagreement and perhaps conversation about this, but I think it’s worthwhile talking about their so-called amateur status and how that maybe affected their interpretation of the past.

GT: Well I wanted to talk about other amateur historians as well, because I think that, I don’t know, Utah is the only state with the history that I am really familiar with, but it seems to me that the large part of the really good work here on Utah history has been done by people without history degrees. Utah, of course, is the home of genealogy, and genealogists often go on to write family history and to do really good work. I’ve just handed you a book that was given to me, a compilation of all of the military veterans in Piute County alone, and I’m looking at the book here. It’s probably over two inches thick, and here’s Piute County, one of our smallest counties, and the idea that somebody would devote themselves that single-mindedly to researching that one little narrow topic is just remarkable to me.

And we’ve had other people who have done things like that as well. I’m thinking of Stephen Carr’s [book on] Utah’s ghost towns.[5] Stephen Carr was a pediatrician. He wasn’t a trained historian at all. I’m thinking about Harry Campbell. Campbell’s Tokens of Utah, which is just the ultimate study of currency in Utah.[6] Who in the world else is ever going to study something like that. It took this monomaniacal single-minded person who got hooked on tokens. I’m thinking more recent about Brock Cheney’s book about Mormon pioneer food.[7] It’s probably the only book he’s ever going to write, but he has studied that just down to the ground, and it’s just a fascinating little book, which tells us incidentally that we all would like to talk about the Mormon suffering pioneer, but he points out in there that they weren’t suffering all the time. Some of the food they ate was really pretty exotic and pretty interesting. So, anyway, that’s the kind of stuff that Utah amateur historians have done. And we are just really in their debt.

And for all of my criticism of DeVoto, Brodie, Morgan, Stegner, and Juanita Brooks, I criticize them out of great, great admiration. I’m not going to waste my time criticizing a minor historian. Why do that? So, I am trying to evaluate the people who have risen to the top of the profession and hoping that we can rise even farther because of that critical look.

JR: Wonderful, wonderful. Well let’s turn in the time that we have remaining to us to the second half of Ellsworth’s essay in which he really provides kind of an extensive list of topics little studied by historians as of 1972. And of course much has changed since then, four decades of really intensive historical writing. We’re going to make this article available to readers on our website, so you can read Ellsworth’s piece. We can’t, you know, summarize everything for listeners now, but, Gary, why don’t you give us your general impression of Ellsworth’s list of understudied topics.

GT: Okay, and here’s the place where my knowledge is going to fail me pretty quickly, because he mentions a lot of things, and in some cases I wish that he had been a little more specific. When he talks about social history like what things did he want us to study. Political history? What did you want there? So it, that’s all kind of vague. I think we’ve made great strides on virtually everything that he talks about. One of the things that he talks about is kind of sub-regional history like rural Utah—that we don’t know much about large parts of the rural part of the state. He mentions the settlement of the Uintah Basin—and, of course, your grandfather has filled that gap in a very splendid way. He talks about southeastern Utah. Bob McPherson has done a tremendous job in studying southeastern Utah, but there are other parts [of the state that remain understudied]. We have published recently an article about Frank Beckwith in Delta, and, boy, we could use a lot more studies of small communities like that if we have the sources or the historians to go after it.[8] We don’t know much about Box Elder County. We know a lot about Washington County because of Juanita Brooks and Karl Larson and others there.[9] So anyway, that’s still a gap.

I’ll just go through this very quickly. I’ve made a list of some of the things that he talks about that I happen to know a little bit about. He talks about Bolton’s translation of the Escalante diary.[10] That was just great. Well, it wasn’t so great, and in 1976 we had this massive project to study the Escalante expedition. The Escalante diary was retranslated by Fray Angelico Chavez in beautiful—I don’t read Spanish, but they tell me it’s just really nice idiomatic Spanish that was undoubtedly what the friars intended. The route of the Escalante party was studied by several teams of scholars, so we know much more about that. We know a lot more about the—well, there’s been a recent biography of Don Bernardo Miera by John Kessel, the great New Mexican historian, which we know about his artwork, the statues that he carved, also about the Miera map of the Escalante party. Ellsworth wonders about that. And others: Sondra Jones on the Indian slave trade and Joseph Sanchez on the Indian slave trade. We just know a lot more about that Spanish and Mexican phase of Utah history.[11]

We were talking about this before we turned the recorders on. Ellsworth says that the Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre have been well worked over. Well they haven’t been at all. Hadn’t been in 1972. We had Juanita Brooks, and that was just about it. And, boy, since that time in the last decade or so we’ve just been inundated with studies of those issues. I think about Bill MacKinnon’s two volumes about the Utah War; Will Bagley’s book; [Rick] Turley, [Ron] Walker, and [Glen] Leonard and those studies; and there have been other articles as well in the Quarterly and other outlets about the whole general topic of Mormon violence in the nineteenth century.[12] So we’ve got a lot on that.

He talks about the cultural and the national traits of immigrants. Well, just talked about The Peoples of Utah, which was this great bombshell in Utah history, and we talked about “Toil and Rage.” Forrest Cuch’s anthology of articles about Utah Indians has really advanced that subject.[13] And I would talk also about Indians. The founding of the antiquity section here at the historical society in the 1970s really advanced that. Most of what we are ever going to know about Indians we have to know through anthropology, not through history, and so that was a tremendous step forward.

Women. He, I think, mentions Tullidge’s Women of Mormonism, which is this extravagantly written book, but once again a pioneering thing and written, of course, with the background of the polygamy struggle of the 1880s in mind.[14] We have the Utah women’s history anthology edited by Linda Thatcher and Pat [Lyn Scott].[15]

That’s just some of the things that he talks about that I would be able to comment on.

JR: Well, tell us—I mean, yeah, we could discuss any of these particulars in some depth and we unfortunately don’t have the time—but talk to us about, you know, too often historians conflate Utah history solely with Mormon history and I know that’s something that you have maybe commented on even here. Talk to us about how well historians have addressed, for example, religions other than the LDS church.

GT: Okay. Yeah, this relationship between Utah and Mormon history is a very interesting relationship, because Mormonism of course is both larger and smaller. Mormon history is both larger and smaller than Utah history. We’ve had Mormons in other places than in Utah and if you look at Utah we’ve had other people than Mormons around here. And so we need to make and be careful about that distinction.

I think, and this has all been or almost all been since Ellsworth’s article, that we have made some great advances in the history of non-Mormons in Utah. We have Bernice Mooney—The Story of the Cathedral of the Madeleine and then, later, her Salt of the Earth, which is a story of the entire Catholic Diocese and went through three editions.[16] We have Fred Quinn’s history of the Episcopal Diocese.[17] We have a history of the Unitarians by Stan Larson and someone else.[18] There’s a history of the Presbyterians in Utah.[19] There’s still room for more of that, of course. You know, the Catholics—I talk tongue in cheek when I say this—are the largest religious minority in Utah, but they’re so tiny but that’s almost ridiculous to say that. We’ve never been more than nine or perhaps ten percent of Utahns. And so when you figure all of the other groups are smaller than that, you’re really slicing thinner and thinner, but there’s still room for histories of other people. Of Evangelicals—the people who yell at Mormons outside the Conference Center at their semi-annual conference. I suppose those people’s point of view need to be told and so on. I think we’re doing pretty well on that.

JR: Well why don’t you give us a list of those topics you think are especially underrepresented or under-addressed, not just up to 1972 but up to the present. What are the major roles you see in Utah’s historiography?

GT: You know, I’ll tell you, Jed, I’m not really good at that and one of the reasons I’m not very good at that is that I’ve never taught anything other than the lower division courses at Salt Lake Community College. I haven’t been forced to come up with research topics for graduate students, you know, so I generally don’t tend to think in terms of that. I think up topics for myself, and that’s just in the narrow field that I’m interested in. But I in terms of sketching out larger subjects that need to be dealt with, I’m not very good at that.

I did talk about kind of kind of rural regions in the state that those are kind of underrepresented. But on the other hand, we had that bicentennial series of county histories, which have done a lot to fill that gap. And then you and I talked earlier about my own field of interest in historiography, that we need to be doing this—what you and I are doing right now, much more frequently and in much smaller bites. So that would be the, kind of the major recommendation that I would have.

JR: You mentioned the need for these local histories like the Piute County military study. Do you agree with Ellsworth’s contention that historians tend to overdo micro studies, and that the need really is to provide more of a synthesis of what we already know?

GT: If Ellsworth is asking for more thoughtful historical writing, I couldn’t agree more. Of course we need more thoughtful writing. But when he denigrates these people who are doing these micro studies, I would just point out that if you’re going to build a brick house, you have to have bricks. And so those people and especially these so-called amateurs that we’ve been talking about, those people provide the bricks, you know. If we’re going to write about urban history in Utah, we need Stephen Carr’s ghost towns book. Those were urban experiments that didn’t work out, you know, and that part of the story needs to be told.

So yeah we need more thoughtful historical writing. We always do but on the other hand we need the nuts and bolts history, the kind of stuff that I write. I think—I hope I’m doing good work.

JR: Right. Well, you know, I mean going along with that, so Ellsworth ends his piece by paraphrasing John Widtsoe, who once remarked that “when their history came to be written it would be by one who had the mind of a historian, the heart of a poet, and the soul of a prophet.” And then this is what Ellsworth says about this: “Just when we will get a person of such a remarkable combination of talents and virtues, I do not know. I do not see him on the horizon.” What do you make of that comment?

GT: I make of it the same as my initial comment on this interview—baloney. When I read that I’m reminded of one of the critics of the composer Richard Wagner who said that Wagner thought of himself as Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Plato all rolled up into one. Maybe he was that. I don’t know. I’m not a music critic. But are we going to sit around and wait for this magnificent historian in shining armor to come riding up over the horizon? Ellsworth says, “I don’t see him on the horizon.” I don’t either, and I would add I’m not looking for him.

What I’m looking for is some grubby little guys like you and me—I shouldn’t include you in this, but guys willing to lock ourselves up in the archives and take those notes and sit on these hard chairs and do the job of an empirical historian. If the mind of a historian, the heart of a poet, and the soul of a prophet comes out, that’s great. I’ll rejoice in his emergence, or her emergence, just as much as Ellsworth would, but are we going to sidetrack what we’re doing here as historians while waiting for this paragon to come along? I hope not.

JR: Well, what about the larger point I think that’s made here that, you know, to do good history requires both—it’s both an enterprise of the mind but also one of the heart and perhaps of the soul too, although you’re really diving into the metaphysical . . .

GT: Yeah, that’s metahistory there too.

JR: You know, this whole idea that you need more than sort of the analytical, but you also need kind of perhaps passion is what he is referring to. Do you agree with that?

GT: I certainly do, but on the other hand, let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, okay. When I do research, I put as much as my limited physical capacity has into chasing down sources, and I put as much into it as my feeble mind can in terms of interpreting this as sagaciously as I can, and once in a while I hope I come up with a lyrical moment in the prose in which I write it all out. But I’m not Beethoven, Plato, and Shakespeare all rolled up into one, and I don’t think you need to be in order to get the job done.

JR: Well you are, as always, very, very fun to talk to and I think there’s some great, great insights that you provide. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

GT: It’s been my pleasure Jed. I’ve enjoyed talking with you too.


[1] Thomas G. Alexander, Utah, The Right Place, revised and updated edition (Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 2003); Charles S. Peterson, Utah: A History (New York: Norton, 1977); and Dean L. May, Utah: A People’s History (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987).

[2] Dale Morgan, “Western Travels and Travelers in the Bancroft Library,” in Travelers on the Western Frontier, edited by John E McDermott (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970).

[3] An edited collection of essays published by the Utah State Historical Society.

[4] Volume 38 (Spring 1970).

[5] The Historical Guide to Utah Ghost Towns, updated edition (Western Epics, 1987)

[6] Privately printed by the author in 1980.

[7] Plain but Wholesome: Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2012).

[8] David A. Hales, “The Renaissance Man of Delta: Frank Asahel Beckwith, Millard County Chronicle Publisher, Scientist, and Scholar, 1875–1951,” Utah Historical Quarterly 81, no. 2 (2013).

[9] See, for instance, Juanita Brooks, On the Ragged Edge: The Life and Times of Dudley Leavitt (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1973), and Andrew Karl Larson, “I Was Called to Dixie”: The Virgin River Basin: Unique Experiences in Mormon Pioneering (

[10] Herbert E. Bolton, Pageant in the Wilderness: The Story of the Escalante Expedition to the Interior Basin, 1776 (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1951, 1972).

[11] John L. Kessell, Miera y Pacheco: A Renaissance Spaniard in Eighteenth-Century New Mexico (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013); Sondra Jones, The Trial of Don Pedro León Luján: The Attack against Indian Slavery and Mexican Traders in Utah (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2000); Joseph P. Sanchez, Explorers, Traders, and Slavers: Forging the Old Spanish Trail, 1678–1850 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1997).

[12] William P. MacKinnon, ed. At Sword’s Point, Part I: A Documentary History of the Utah War to 1858 (Norman: Arthur H. Clark, 2008); Will Bagley, Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002); Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., Glen M. Leonard, Massacre at Mountain Meadows (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[13] Forrest S. Cuch, ed.,  A History of Utah’s American Indians (Salt Lake City: Utah State Division of Indian Affairs / Utah State Division of History, 2003).

[14] Edward W. Tullidge, The Women of Mormondom (New York, 1877).

[15] Patricia Lyn Scott and Linda Thatcher, eds., Women in Utah History: Paradigm or Paradox? (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2005).

[16] Bernice Maher Mooney, The Story of the Cathedral of the Madeleine (Salt Lake City: Litho Graphics, 1981), and Salt of the Earth: The History of the Catholic Church in Utah, 1776–2007, 3rd ed.(Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2008).

[17] Frederick Quinn, Building the “Goodly Fellowship of Faith”: A History of the Episcopal Church in Utah, 1867–1996 (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2004).

[18] Stan Larson and Lorille Horne Miller, Unitarianism in Utah: A Gentile Religion in Salt Lake City, 1891–1991 (Salt Lake City: Freethinker Press, 1991).

[19] Frederick G. Burton, Presbyterians in Zion: History of the Presbyterian (U.S.A.) in Utah (New York: Vantage Books, 2010).