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Authors: Sally Denton

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Faith and Betrayal

BOOK: Faith and Betrayal
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For Sara Kate, Leslie, Marianne,
and Jacqueline Denton,
Jean Rio’s great-great-great-granddaughters
and keepers of her legacy

Jean Rio



And he said to the woman,
Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.

Luke 7:50


An Extraordinary Woman of Ordinary Virtues

My great-great-grandmother Jane (Jean) Rio Griffiths brought the first piano from England across the Great Plains and into the intermountain American West by wagon train in 1851. It was a feat that intrigued me as a little girl and young woman. But it was only later, when I explored her life, that I saw it was but one of her many accomplishments. Her spiritual passage was far more significant.

A recent convert to Mormonism, Jean Rio left an exceedingly comfortable life in London to make her way to the new Zion in the Great Salt Lake Valley of Utah Territory. Eventually, after a series of harrowing trials, physical and spiritual, she moved beyond the religiosity that had brought her to America, but she never lost faith in a higher spirituality, or in herself.

I was a teenager living in Boulder City, Nevada, when a distant relative—one of my father’s cousins from a California branch of the family—arrived with a typed transcript of Jean Rio’s diary, written in 1851. I was too young and too easily distracted then to follow up. The diary sat in my father’s den, where, unbeknownst to me at the time, another version typed on faded onion skin rested unread in a box of papers that had belonged to my deceased paternal grandmother, Hazel Baker Denton. The provenance of these two copies of the diary is unclear. As it turned out, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also had a copy of the same passages, as did a few of Jean Rio’s descendants. Hundreds of pages of other relatives’ diaries, letters, essays, and memoirs—portraying a tapestry of our family’s history—had also been handed down to Hazel, the designated “writer” in the clan, and eventually these passed from her through her son, my father, to me.

It was only after I had become a journalist, ten years later, that I read Jean Rio’s diary for the first time. But it would be years before I could turn my attention to her story in a deeper way. When I began my search I traveled to Denmark, England, Utah, California, and Nevada, gathering documents, oral histories, genealogical charts, letters, and newspaper articles. I found Jean Rio’s crumbling gravestone in Antioch, California, and her magnificent piano in Salt Lake City—one of the few artifacts in the church-owned museum without an explanatory notice of how it was acquired.

Though Jean Rio left the Mormon faith disillusioned with its broken promises, the church continues to capitalize on her initial conversion and her contemporaneous emigration journal, even now displaying it, along with her piano, in an elaborate presentation at the Museum of Church History in Salt Lake City. Sections of the diary were published during the twentieth century in various articles, books, church publications, and even the
Congressional Record.

In fact, there are three different parts of Jean Rio’s diary. The first journal—what I call the emigration diary—details her journey from England to Utah during 1851 and the early months of her new life in Salt Lake City. The diary falls silent after March 1852 when Jean Rio’s life becomes increasingly difficult under the theocracy of the Mormon Church. The entries briefly resume seventeen years later when she leaves Utah and resettles in California. The second—what I call the midwife’s notebook—consists of fragmentary notations about births she attended between 1873 and 1881, after she had left Utah and the Mormon Church, and which I located during my research for this book. Finally, and perhaps most intriguing, on May 8, 1880, she added a small section to the end of the emigration diary regarding her decision to leave Utah. This section describes her one visit back to Utah during which she spent twenty-one months with her son William and his family. It includes a cryptic reference to what I call the California diary: “I have kept a daily diary a good deal of the time since I have been in California, which my children can refer to, if they wish.” This journal has never surfaced.

The Mormon Church exploited her story, using the first part of the emigration version to promote its ideology, idealizing her as if she had remained among the faithful, excising the added portion of the diary that chronicled her break with it. Ironically, she who recorded history with such precision became part of the church’s selective writing of history. Subsequent generations within her family—Mormon and non-Mormon alike—similarly embraced certain aspects of the diary that served their various interests. Mormon descendants of Jean Rio uphold the diary as evidence of a deeply spiritual woman devoted to the doctrines of the Church of Latter-day Saints, a woman who ultimately left Utah because of poverty rather than because of her overwhelming rejection of the church and its leaders. Non-Mormon descendants, like me, use the diary as evidence that, for many converts, the reality of nineteenth-century Utah—the church’s expropriation of property under the doctrine of “consecration,” the practice of polygamy, the violence of some of the rituals, all amid a dictatorial theocracy—was that of an oppressive regime, particularly for women.

The emigration diary—exceptional for its interpretation, analysis, description, and unfailing attention to the most mundane as well as the extraordinary details of daily life— breaks off abruptly in March 1852, when Jean Rio moves to Ogden amidst the fear and intimidation that has settled into the Mormon theocracy. The fact that she is apparently silent for the next seventeen years—until 1869 when she decides to abandon Utah—leaves us with a mystery. It is neither characteristic nor credible that a woman of such candor, literary acumen, and faithful journal-keeping, with such devotion to recording her daily life and the world around her, would have suddenly ceased writing at the moment of perhaps the most trying crisis of her life. Indeed, she makes clear that she continued a diary throughout the rest of her life. Where is that California diary? Were her papers and chronicles destroyed for the truths they revealed? Or did they simply disappear through the generations, as heirlooms are wont to do? In any case, I have reconstructed Jean Rio’s life from the evidence that has survived.

“Women have not been well served in traditional assumptions about the American frontier,” historian Ruth B. Moynihan has written. “Western mythology is replete with stereotypes about the active role of men and the symbolic function of women.” Perhaps most starkly deficient in the portrayal by male historians is the character of the pioneering woman, who should be seen not as overworked helpmate but as adventure-seeking, nature-loving, courageous, talented, and free-spirited explorer of an uncultivated and untrammeled territory. “Pioneering is really a wilderness experience,” observed a nineteenth-century woman immigrant. “We all need the wisdom of the wilderness—Moses did, Jesus did, and Paul did. The wilderness is the place to find God.”

What impelled Jean Rio to leave her friends and most of her family behind in England, to travel thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, and then to traverse thousands more miles of a partially uncharted country by steamship and ox-drawn wagon? What inspired her to forsake the silk sheets and court society of London for a faraway land unknown to her? What was the appeal to an elite English matron who seemingly had everything?

Jean Rio was born in 1810 and died in 1883. Through her diary we see and feel the expectation and wonder of coming to America, the sense of taking one’s destiny into one’s own hands, the thrill of exploring the wild and inspiring landscape of the Rocky Mountain West—a panorama we have seen largely through the eyes of men; the equally vivid accounts by women like Jean Rio have only recently begun to come to light. Without her diary, we would know virtually nothing of her life. Uncommon for its insight, observation, and sensibility, Jean Rio’s account is, like many women’s journals of the era, almost devoid of introspection. The emotions often seem diverted into descriptions of scenery that in its breathtaking splendor lends itself to the embellished prose.

From a stately London town house to a remote mountain valley in the fastness of the Rocky Mountains, Jean Rio persevered against seemingly insurmountable odds. She had a calling, and she was betrayed by the promises held out to her. But she found the strength and heroic bravery not simply to endure but to triumph. She rose to the challenges that confronted her—challenges that in many ways spanned the breadth of human experience, from the daily trials of sheer mortality to the larger tests of a changing society. While the scope of her experience, both the personal and the social, makes her an important example and metaphor for the modern woman, hers is but one of thousands of equally important stories of the women who settled the West, stories that provide a window on the capabilities of the human spirit. Jean Rio’s story is but one exploration of the strengths of human nature that propel us forward in the midst of travail and hopelessness. This was a woman who chose her own path, regardless of the obstacles. While her adopted religion broke faith with her, she never failed to keep faith with herself.

BOOK: Faith and Betrayal
10.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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