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Westward, Ho!


My issues with religion are deceptively simple: I support freedom of religion, but also freedom  from it. So believe what you like and permit me to do the same. That being said, there is one boatload of cockamamie belief in circulation these days. We don’t have a corner on that market. Never have. Probably never will. Nevertheless, it is astounding what crap people will use to set their moral compass.

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

Westward, Ho!

Joseph Smith, Jr., Prophet, Seer and Revelator of the newly formed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had been imprisoned in the spring of 1844 for separatist intentions. He and his brother Hyrum were jailed in Illinois on charges of treason, while tensions mounted among the mixed but largely Mormon population of Nauvoo. On the night of June 27th, a mob with blackened faces broke into the jail, shot Hyrum and subsequently killed Joseph as he attempted escape (aided by a hand gun smuggled into his cell). Word spread rapidly among the faithful and into the wider Gentile world that Smith had hoped to “save.” The news must have dumbstruck the motly band of converts led by Benoni Wester when it reached them near the Indiana-Illinois line.

Estimates of their numbers vary but seem to have been fewer than two dozen, including Wester and a young wife he had married by his own authority somewhere in Ohio. There were seven familes in total with Yankee names like Edwards, Floyd, Harris, Sims, Tully and Ward–folks you’d expect to meet for coffee after church, but who seemed to have slipped into the gaps of a pre-Civil War economy. Wester (or Wistar, as it sometimes appears in census records) had begun to receive his own Divine guidance, detailed messages concerning where to camp and what food and supplies might be conscripted for their use, despite the protestations of other lawful owners. Hard Times can increase the slack we cut one another, so the Westerlings were more often than not encouraged to “move along, now, and don’t look back.” Sound advice in the best of times.

Smith’s death created an unexpected leadership vacuum in the LDS hierarchy; sadly, at thirty-eight, Smith had not prophesied his own premature end. History is written by the winners, however, so the scramble for power was probably more turgid than we’ve been led to believe. For Wester’s part, the clumsy transition allowed him to claim a degree of ordinance directed by God; that these were, indeed, the End Times; that they must hasten to an appointed Rapturous place revealed in the fullness of time. That time would be February 1846 and that place would be in northwestern Iowa.

Dancing Water

The sac and Fox people had long occupied western Iowa when Europeans began to arrive in the 19th century. But long after the dubious effects of Christian missionaries, the Sac and Fox retained a spiritual view of their landscape, including a shallow light-dappled bend of the Muskrat River called “dancing water.” Popular with White settlers as a convenient ford, it was also a traditional place for spiritual cleansing. somehow, Wester and his Westerlings were drawn to the Dancing Water and camped in anticipation of their rapture. But as time passed and supplies dwindled to exhaustion, Ben Wester received a faulty message to hasten their journey heavenward.

The concoction is unidentified; its active ingredients unrecorded. Amos Beddowes, Indian Agent, and his wife She-listens-to-the-moon found the Wester group strewn about their campsite, most of them dead, some still in writhing but beyond help. Beddowes tried to record their tragic end as his wife administered a purgative—too late. Soon, volunteers appeared at the cottonwood grove and elected to bury the dead where they lay. Their few possessions—horses, oxen, wagons, and personal effects—were sold and the proceeds used to mark the graves, many of them now weathered to anonymity were it not for Amos Beddowes’ notes. Finally, a 1938 WPA marker recorded the Westerlings tragedy ninety-two years after the fact, though its details will never be certain—especially the garbled tale of Benoni Wester and his conversation with God.


What’s in a name?

Chicago architect Louis Sullivan (mentor of my great uncle Anson Tennant) had a business partner, Dankmar Adler. When Adler’s mother died in childbirth, his father–a rabbi–chose to name the child Dankmar, “bitter thanks.” Imagine bearing that name to the grave; reminded each day that your life might be linked with the death of another as cause and effect. Ben Wester bore a similar burden.

Benoni is Hebrew. Old Testament. It means “son of my sorrow.” Explanations aren’t always necessary, but in this case it helps–if only a little.

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