History PhD Candidate, University of Rochester

California Joe’s First Trail (1884) Spotlight

About the Novel

Col. Thomas Hoyer Monstery’s California Joe’s First Trail: A Story of the Destroying Angels (1884) is a prime example of anti-Mormon prejudice in American literature. With its Western plot tropes and use of the Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, as villains, First Trail anticipates Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage by nearly thirty years. The novel's portrayal of the LDS Church as a militant secret society bears no resemblance to reality, but it illuminates the suspicion with which Americans outside of Utah regarded the Mormons in the late nineteenth century. 

First page of Beadle's Half Dime Library no. 376, featuring an illustration of California Joe.

The story is set circa 1850 “during the gold fever of the early days of California,” but after “the fever had lasted a year or so” (page 2). These statements place the story’s events immediately after the Mexican-American War, in which the U.S. annexed nearly half of Mexico. As Americans colonized the new territories, they displaced the Native American nations located near key natural resources, triggering the “Indian Wars” of the mid- to late nineteenth century. Western colonization also meant extending U.S. control over “Deseret,” the Latter-day Saints’ theocratic state in present-day Utah, where Mormons practiced communal economics and plural marriage, or polygamy. Monstery’s readers in 1884 would have been aware of the Supreme Court’s ruling against plural marriage and the government’s prosecution of LDS men who had multiple wives.

First Trail follows two families, the white Scotts and the Creole Gabelles, traveling to California. They are joined by a young adventurer named Moses Embrie Milner, alias “California Joe,” who is a fictionalized version of the real Moses Milner. Milner was not a novice frontiersman, but rather a Mexican War veteran and experienced scout (Weiser-Alexander). Joe’s foil is an apparent Methodist deacon named Simplicity Fox, who reveals himself to be a Mormon and converts the Scott family. Fox tells Joe that he commands the “Destroying Angels,” a paramilitary group that attacks wagon trains and kidnaps women to become Mormon plural wives. The deacon has led Joe’s wagon train into Native American territory outside Salt Lake City; if the travelers disobey Fox, then the Native forces will attack. Joe uses his new frontier knowledge to save himself and a kidnapped woman named Alice from the Mormons. 

Monstery incorporates widespread prejudice against Native Americans and Mormons by presenting them as two specters haunting the West. Indeed, Monstery has Native American and Mormon characters jointly attack a wagon train, while a horrified Joe watches. The grotesque sequence is inspired by the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which LDS and Paiute forces attacked a pioneer convoy ("Mountain Meadows Massacre" 2018). Monstery, indulging in anti-Mormon sensationalism, suggests that massacres like the one at Mountain Meadows were routine for the Mormons, and that the raids were used to force women into sexual slavery. This stereotype of Mormons enslaving women was a common plot device in dime novels (Lambert 1992). Monstery’s portrayal of the Angels as a paramilitary group draws on American fears of the “Danites,” a short-lived organization from the Mormons’ time in Missouri. Rumors of Danite conspiracies endured for decades, inspiring pulp authors such as Zane Gray and Monstery (Whittaker 2007).


Moses Embree Milner (1829-1876), also known as "California Joe"

Racist stereotypes suffuse First Trail. Monstery uses an anti-Semitic slur as early as page 4. The Scotts and California Joe are described as healthy, vigorous white people, in contrast to the mixed-race Gabelles, the “savage” Native Americans (page 2), and the duplicitous Mormons. The one Native American character with dialogue speaks in broken English, and the Native Americans have no agency in the plot, instead obeying the Mormons’ commands. Monstery presents the Mormons as racial and ethnic others by describing Fox’s Destroyer uniform as “Mexican” and calling two of the Mormon Angels “savage-looking” (page 8). Through the use of “savage,” Monstery positions both Mormons and Native Americans as threats to California Joe, a rustic yet civilized American.

Monstery complicates his racist messaging slightly: The Scotts are foolish and easily manipulated. At one point, the narrator calls the Scotts “ignorant crackers” (page 7). It is Pierre Gabelle, a Creole man, who recognizes the danger of the Scotts’ conversion and warns Joe. In this way, a person of color is the most alert character. Yet Gabelle and his family disappear from the narrative, as Joe and Alice leave them in Salt Lake. By letting only Joe and Alice escape, Monstery reinforces his racial hierarchy — resourceful whites like Joe at the top, gullible whites below them, Creoles (and, by implication, Black Americans) below them, and alien figures like Native Americans, Mormons, Mexicans, and Alice’s Asian servant at the bottom.

California Joe’s First Trail was published in Beadle’s Half Dime Library no. 376 on October 7, 1884. It was later reprinted in Beadle’s Pocket Library no. 351 (1890) under the title Rocky Mountain Joe; or Deacon Simplicity on the War-Path. A sequel to the novel, California Joe's War Trail; or, The Minnesota Massacreappeared in Beadle's Half Dime Library no. 395 on February 17, 1885. That novel takes place twelve years after the events of California Joe's First Trail and deals with the Dakota War of 1862.

About the Author

The cover of First Trail identifies Col. Thomas Hoyer Monstery as “Champion-at-arms of the two Americas” (page 1). As self-indulgent as this statement may sound, it is based in reality. Although he was born in the United States in 1824, Monstery served in the Danish navy and received military training in Denmark, his parents’ home country. He traveled and studied throughout Europe and served in the U.S., Honduran, and Nicaraguan militaries. He could charitably be called a soldier of fortune; less charitably, a mercenary. Later, Monstery taught physical education and stage combat in the U.S. Col. Monstery’s life spanned the rise of the U.S. to imperial power. He died two days into 1902 (Johannsen 1950).


Col. Thomas Hoyer Monstery (1824-1901)

Monstery’s nonfiction book Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies was reprinted in 2015. Ben Miller, who edited the Self-Defense reprint, has published several articles compiling period newspapers and other records about Monstery. Additionally, the Martial Arts New York website has reprinted Monstery’s essay on lifesaving.

There is an important caveat when discussing Monstery’s authorship. Monstery was something of a celebrity in his time, and it was not uncommon (as is still the case today) for a famous name to be applied to a ghostwritten text. The numerous works credited to “Buffalo Bill” are another example of this phenomenon. Dime novel historian Albert Johannsen uncovered suggestions that some or all of the novels credited to Monstery may actually have been written by Civil War veteran and prolific dime novelist Frederick Whittaker. Johannsen suspected Monstery had some involvement in the novels, but he could not find conclusive evidence one way or another.

Discussion Questions

  • Have you read or watched Westerns? How does California Joe’s First Trail remind you of them?
  • The fact that California Joe “looks … as if he was a white man” is enough for Mr. Scott to let Joe into the wagon train (2). How does Monstery characterize whiteness in the story? How is being white presented as different from being Creole, Mormon, or Native American?
  • How are the Gabelles portrayed in the course of the story? What do you think happened to them after Joe and Alice left them behind?
  • Follow-up discussion ideas: The instructor could discuss the arrival of real migrants to Mormon Utah and the exclusion of men of color from LDS priesthoods in the nineteenth century.
  • What do we learn about the LDS Church in the course of the story? How are these facts different from actual LDS religious beliefs?
  • Monstery’s portrayal of Native Americans is deeply stereotyped. Have you seen or read other media with problematic depictions of Native Americans? If so, discuss one work.
  • The Destroying Angels’ attack on the wagon train is disturbing. Does Joe do enough to resist Fox’s orders? How would you write the scene differently?
  • Joe has a wife in Missouri, yet on page 12 Monstery includes a creepy passage describing Joe’s attraction to Alice. What other examples of the author’s misogyny appear in the story?
  • Were you surprised that the villains did not receive a comeuppance at the end of the story? 

Classroom Activities

Teaching California Joe’s First Trail poses an interesting challenge, as it contains rampant misinformation about the Latter-day Saints and Western history. A lesson on nineteenth-century Mormon history incorporating this dime novel should address anti-Mormon prejudice in the United States, the LDS settlement of Utah, and genuine LDS religious beliefs.

After introducing Joseph Smith and the major tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the instructor should review examples of anti-Mormon literature. Possible primary sources aside from First Trail might include:

Students can read these documents silently or aloud to the class, and group discussion can follow. The instructor must be tactful and sensitive when discussing the Mormon extermination order, as students may be upset to learn that a U.S. governor called for genocide against the Mormons. This section of the lesson should conclude with the death of Joseph Smith and the transfer of LDS leadership to Brigham Young. Once the instructor has established the backdrop of anti-Mormon persecution, the instructor can pivot to the Mormons’ crossing of the Great Plains and settlement in Utah. The following web publications chart the journey:

  • “Go West — The Mormon Migration: A Story Map.”: This Story Map contains numerous images, but there is no information about the Story Map’s creators. 
  • “The Mormon Trail.” Digging In: The Historic Trails of Nebraska, edited by Paul Demers. University of Nevada-Lincoln, n.d.: This article explains the stages of the Mormon migration and provides a detailed map of the Mormon pioneer trail in Nebraska.
  • “The Westward Movement of the Church.” Church History Maps (Intellectual Reserve, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2013): This annotated map documents the LDS path from Ohio in 1831 to Utah in 1847. 

For primary material about the journey, a series of articles from the Massachusetts periodical Odd Fellow may be of interest:

These Odd Fellow articles were found via OMNIA (https://www.omnia.ie/), so instructors may wish to explore the database further. 

In the last portion of class, students should examine primary sources about the LDS families and individuals who settled in Utah:

  • Hangen, Tona. Mormon Migration. Digital Public Library of America, 2017: This curated collection includes maps, documents, and photographs about the Mormon pioneer experience. Classroom prompts and recommendations for further reading are included. 

The instructor should contrast Monstery’s depiction of nonconsensual plural marriages with primary sources about consensual plural marriages among the Mormons.

For a follow-up homework assignment, students could research the records of Mormon pioneers. The LDS Church’s Pioneer Database, 1847–1868, provides records for 61,000 LDS migrants. Additionally, students could write a book report about a Mormon pioneer diary from BYU’s collection of such diaries, Trails of Hope. The Trails of Hope database is substantial, so the instructor may wish to select three or four diaries, share the permalinks to the documents with students, and let students choose one text to read. 

Further Reading

History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

This accessible one-volume survey of LDS history is ideally suited for general readers as well as high school and undergraduate students. 

Gordon looks at the U.S. government’s crackdown on plural marriage after the Civil War, culminating in the Supreme Court case Reynolds v. United States. 

Mueller centers BIPOC voices as he explores the subordinate status of non-white Mormons in the nineteenth-century Church.  

Continuing the recent academic study of BIPOC Mormons, Newell profiles Jane Manning James, a Black Mormon who worked for both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. 

Ulrich’s engrossing book uses a feminist lens to understand the workings of the plurally married LDS family. 

This book launched an ongoing public history project supported by the LDS Church, providing a full reckoning with the massacre and its fallout.  

Anti-LDS Prejudice in the United States

Fluhman takes a thematic approach to understanding anti-Mormon discrimination in the nineteenth century.

Givens charts literary and artistic depictions of Mormons (including in pulp fiction) during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

I explored the production of a small pamphlet called Mormonism Exposed, its relationship to other forms of pulp literature, and its anti-Mormon bias. Note: I surveyed the cover illustrations and interior artwork of several anti-Mormon dime novels, including First Trail, for this paper.