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.
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).
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 Massacre, appeared 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.
- 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?
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:
- A brief excerpt from Eber D. Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed. Self-published, 1834.
- Governor Boggs’s Mormon Extermination Order, from the Missouri Mormon War, Oct. 27, 1838.
- “Arrest of Joseph Smith, The Mormon Prophet — The Governor, &C.” Sangamo Journal/Illinois State Journal, Jun. 18, 1841. Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections.
- “Mormon Disturbances. The Assassination of Joe and Hiram Smith; [the Mormon Account].” Sangamo Journal/Illinois State Journal, July 11, 1844. Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections.
- Uncle Dale’s Readings in Early Mormon History, Dale R. Broadhurst’s archive of scanned and transcribed Mormon newspaper articles.
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:
- "The Mormon Hegira,” Odd Fellow 2, No. 14, Dec. 31, 1845: Contains both anti-Muslim and anti-Mormon content. Both this article and First Trail portray the LDS Church as a threat to U.S. society.
- “From the Rocky Mountains: The Mormons in Distress,” Odd Fellow 3, No. 17, July 22, 1846.
- “State of Deseret,” Odd Fellow 10, No. 6, Oct. 31, 1849.
- “Progress of the Mormons at Salt Lake,” Odd Fellow 15, No. 1, Apr. 7, 1852.
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.
History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
- Bowman, Matthew. The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. Random House, 2012.
This accessible one-volume survey of LDS history is ideally suited for general readers as well as high school and undergraduate students.
- Gordon, Sarah Barringer. The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America. University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
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, Max Perry. Race and the Making of the Mormon People. University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
Mueller centers BIPOC voices as he explores the subordinate status of non-white Mormons in the nineteenth-century Church.
- Newell, Quincy D. Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon. Oxford University Press, 2019.
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, Laurel Thatcher. A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women's Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835–1870. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.
Ulrich’s engrossing book uses a feminist lens to understand the workings of the plurally married LDS family.
- Walker, Ronald W., Richard E. Turley, Jr., and Glen M. Leonard. Massacre at Mountain Meadows. Oxford University Press, 2008. Companion website: https://mountainmeadowsmassacre.com/.
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, J. Spencer. A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America. University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
Fluhman takes a thematic approach to understanding anti-Mormon discrimination in the nineteenth century.
- Givens, Terryl. The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy. Oxford University Press, 2013.
Givens charts literary and artistic depictions of Mormons (including in pulp fiction) during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
- Gorman, Jr., Daniel. “The Untold Stories of Mormonism Exposed: Material Culture, Dime Novels, and Mormonism in American Society.” Concept: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Graduate Studies 38 (Villanova University, 2015): 18–45.
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.
- Johannsen, Albert. The House of Beadle and Adams and its Dime and Nickel Novels: The Story of a Vanishing Literature. University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.
- Lambert, Neal E. “Mormons, Image of: Fiction.” In Encyclopedia of Mormonism. 1992. Brigham Young University, 2007, 948.
- Monstery, Thomas Hoyer. “The Life-Saving Techniques of Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery.” Martial Arts New York, Mar. 7, 2016.
- Monstery, Thomas Hoyer. Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies: A Nineteenth-Century Treatise on Boxing, Kicking, Grappling, and Fencing with the Cane and Quarterstaff. Edited by Ben Miller. Blue Snake Books, 2015.
- “Mountain Meadows Massacre.” In Encyclopædia Britannica, revised by Amy Tikkanen, May 22, 2018.
- Weiser-Alexander, Kathy. “Moses Embree ‘California Joe’ Milner — Scouting the West.” Legends of America.
- Whittaker, David J. “Danites.” In Encyclopedia of Mormonism (1992; Brigham Young University, 2007), 356–57.