Major Howard Egan Family Foundation

Sailor Rope Maker Captain in Nauvoo Legion Bodyguard to Joseph Smith Mormon Battalion Envoy Captain of the 9th 10 of the original 1847 Pioneer Vanguard Company Gold Rush Trading Post Owner Trail Blazer Cattle Drover Major in Utah War Pony Express Rider & Superintendent of Line from Salt Lake to California Stage Station Owner Friend & Missionary to Indians Salt Lake City Policeman Bodyguard to Brigham Young
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Brenden Rensink Symposium talk

Howard Egan’s Place in Western History
By Brenden W. Rensink, June 12, 2015

Mormon Trail

It is a pleasure to be here. Usually when academics give this kind of presentation, it’s to other professors and grad students. But speaking to a room full of literal biological descendants of the person you’re about to talk about, this a little more intimidating. Fortunately I don’t see any pitch forks or torches.

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I am here representing the BYU Charles Redd center. And the Center is very excitedto bring scholars together with the public and interface the two. This way scholars and researchers can learn what topics are of interest and importance to you, and then hopefully we can also share some thoughts for you to consider as well.

I’m really impressed with what you are doing here. I don’t think any other family reunions have done anything like this.

I’m here as an ambassador of Western History. I’m not an expert on Howard Egan. The experts are the people behind me, especially Bill Hartley who is writing the upcoming biography of Howard Egan.

What I’d like to do tonightis to zoom out and present some big picture ideas as a way to wrap up this evening, and to step back and look at how Howard Egan fits into some broader historical narratives, especially some Western narratives. And I’d like to attack this from two angles. First, how does he fit into the mythic West? The West of tall-tales, and legends, and dime novels, and western movies, and Louis Lamoure novels – the kind of the mythologized, legendary West that’s really come to dominate the cultural narrative about the West. Does Egan fit? Or is he an anomaly? Does he fit the standard molds? And then I’d also like to touch briefly on how he fits into the actual West, which is a very different thing.

Maybe by attacking these two angles we can start to answer why it is that Howard Egan’s story is not more well-known. If you were to go to a conference of Western historians, unfortunately, not very many would have heard of Howard Egan. And the more that I’ve read about him, the more I have puzzled over this, because he does fit, in so many ways. So I think we may try to answer that question as well.

First we have to try to decide: What is the West? Where is it? When is it? Who is it? And depending on how we answer those questions, we will discover whether Howard Egan is a Western figure or not.
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So, here are some options:


Originally the West was everything west of the fault line. How far up river can you go before you hit falls? And that’s where Richmond, Virginia is. That’s where all of the cities are located. That’s the frontier.

Some think it’s everything west of the Mississippi River. Others the Missouri. Some chop out Minnesota. Some remove parts of Iowa.

This is how Texans would like to view it.

And what about:


Is it pioneers? Is it the indigenous peoples? Is it the Spanish and Mexicans? Is it the Russians, who came all the way down to Fort Ross near San Francisco? Is it the Canadians? It’s pretty complicated.

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This is a map from the 1700’s, when they didn’t quite know what was out there. For them the West was literally a blank canvas. Lots of map makers would even take the legend and stick it over the West, saying, “Well, we’ll just put the legend over there and hopefully no one will notice that we didn’t map that area.” Sometimes they would draw in what they hoped to be out there, like the Northwest Passage – a nice long river that goes all away across the West. They would map a region on which Europeans and Americans could project all the things that they wanted to find, even the kind of society they wanted to build.

Artists did the same. Caleb Bingham’s painting of Daniel Boone escorting settlers over the Cumberland Gap is a good example. In the foreground you have this very rugged picture, with a tree all snarled and cracking. And then in contrast, like the Virgin Mary, being led out into the wilderness bringing civilizations.

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There is also Thomas Moran’s painting of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, considerably more impressive than the actual site. The West was a region where nature dwarfed man. It was big and majestic and larger than life.

This also comes out in some of our western folklore and mythology. You know many of those stories. There was Pecos Bill. And Davy Crockett, an actual historical figure, but who’s stories started to assume alarger than life fantasy. We’re not quite sure where Davy Crockett ends and the myth begins. The same for Buffalo Bill, who during his own lifetime promoteda mythology about himself. And all of this was picked up by Western movies.

When students are asked, “What is the West?” They usually say, “Cowboys and Indians.” Or “Pioneers.” Others say, “Railroads.” Sometimes they say “Vigilante justice and violence.” All of those things are in the West, but they are only a small part of the picture, and often an exaggerated part of the picture.

So how does Howard Egan fit into all of this?

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Remember his wager that he could ride a mule from Salt Lake City to Carson City in ten days, and he makes it in eleven? There is a tall-tale nature to the bet. He fits in the mythic West.

He’s not a cowboy, but he does have a lot of interactions with native peoples, and even learned the Goshute Indian language.

If you look in the canon of Western figures, one thing that might strike you is how many different professions each of these frontiersmen had. Howard Egan also had many. Look at all of the flags hung here tonight, each one identifying one of his many adventures and entrepreneurial exploits. In terms of careers, he was all across the map, quite literally, and also in terms of what he was doing. And that is very much in line with some of the other larger-than-life mythologized figures of the American West.

And in terms of the violence in the West, Howard Egan killed the man that impregnated his first wife. He is then acquittedbased on the rule of Mountain Justice. You could read into that a lot of other narratives about western violence and frontier justice.

So I would argue that in many ways the Egan story is relevant through many of the popular lenses of the mythic West. He fits very well, but we do not find him in the history of the West. And you are not going to find a dime novel from the 1800’s about him.

In 1890 the US Census Bureau said that the frontier was closed. There’s no more American frontier. There’s no more contiguous area of land withnot very many people living there.

In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner wrote an essay called The Significance of the American Frontier in American History. In it he argued that it was the frontier, and the experience of settlers coming out to the untamedterritory, conquering it, then rebuilding a new American civilization, that generation after generation of this is what made America. Because when they came out to the West, the new civilization that they built was unique from the one they left in the East – and the frontier no longer existed. So people were really worried how all these new immigrants – some of them Irish immigrants – were going to be American if they didn’t have a frontier experience to go through.

Well, this is what Turner was saying, and then later in the 20th century it was a way of trying to answer the question, not just of what makes Americans American, but they were trying to use the West as their own national origin story.

So here is how we get to my answer as to why Howard Egan is not found in the history or lore of the West.

Hefits very well into the actual West. He is doing a lot of things that other very notable people of the West are doing, but he is somehow missing from the history of Western inheritance. He also fits very well into the mythic west.

For a lot of American history we have looked to the West to define ourselves. It’s what makes us American, or at least not Europeans. How do Mormons fit into this? — And here’s why I think Howard Egan maybe slips through the cracks. — During this exact time period in Mormon history they’re under extreme persecution, and they have been for a few decades, due to polygamy and other things. And America is defining the Mormons largely as the antithesis of what American is. During the 1850’s part of the Republican Party’s platform was to strike down the twin pillars of barbarism,which were slavery and polygamy. Mormons were regarded as the opposite of Americans.

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And this maybe part of the answer of why this Mormon frontiersman is missing from the history of the West. He maybe not quite American enough. He is suspect because he’s Mormon. Also, some of his exploits perhaps fall through the cracks because they come a generation too late. Many of the big stories we have of blazing new trails are of the prior generation, like Charles C. Fremont (whose map apparently wasn’t very accurate,) or Jedidiah Smith, or some of the others who blazed trails a few decades earlier.

In any case, I think that Howard Egan’s history in many ways highlights how much work there is to be done, not just in Western history, but in trying to integrate Great Basin, Utah, and Mormon history into the broader narratives of Western history. It’s a history that if we study it more, I believe we will come to better understand ourselves. Perhaps you specifically, can better understand yourselves because you’re Howard Egan’s descendants. In his history we can learn a lot,just as we can in studying the broader narratives of Western history. So I would encourage you all to read and study some Western history. I believe it will make you a better person. Also read Howard Egan’s history, as it appears that many of you already are doing.

I commend for coming to a late evening academic presentation. You are brave, brave souls. Again, I’m grateful to be here and thank you for allowing us to come.


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