On Tuesday, April 6, 1880, six months from the time they had begun what was anticipated to be a six-week journey, 230 exhausted emigrants dragged wearily into the rock-rimmed valley that would become Bluff City, UT.
They were young families — members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and they made their infamous trek in answer to a prophet’s call: an entreaty that they bring civilization to an uncivilized area.
Last Monday, on the 135th anniversary of that day, a special fireside was held in the top room of the restored Bluff Co-op.
The guest speaker was author Gerald N. Lund, who recounted the journey of those first settlers for the current Bluff Fort missionaries, docents, and their families.
“You know this story better than I do,” Brother Lund told his audience — a group comparable in size to that original pioneer company — as he began his narrative, accompanied by a slideshow.
His statement may have been true for a few participants, such as centenarian Norma Young, granddaughter to Ben and Sarah Williams Perkins, original Bluff settlers.
However, he also told the story behind the story: how he came to write his two novels about the people who came to settle San Juan County, The Undaunted: the Miracle of the Hole-in-the-Rock Pioneers and Only the Brave: the Continuing Saga of the San Juan Pioneers.
Gerald Lund first came to traverse the sandstone spine of San Juan County in 1997, at the behest of LeGrand Black. At that time, Lund was a zone administrator with the Church Educational System and Black was teaching at the LDS seminary.
The Church was sponsoring trips for CES teachers, so they could personally experience Church history sites. In a “just for your information” moment, Black told the administrators they were missing out on one of the greatest examples of pioneer courage ever demonstrated: the Hole-in-the-Rock story.
Then, to prove his point, he invited them to come to Southeastern Utah and travel the historical route.
Nevertheless, he gave them fair warning, “If you come for more than a day, the red rock dust will get into your blood and you’ll never get it out.”
Now, about 20 trips later, Lund has proved that statement to be prophetic. When he first traversed the Hole-in-the-Rock trail he felt that the story of those incredible pioneers needed to be told to a greater audience—and he wanted to tell it.
However, it would be another dozen years before he was able to get around to writing the novel he had in mind.
What Lund didn’t tell those at the fireside was that, at the time of his 1997 visit to San Juan, he was still working on his The Work and the Glory series, after which came Fire of the Covenant, and then the Kingdom and the Crown series.
Neither did he mention that this past April 6 was also the 13th anniversary of the day he was called to serve as a general authority in the Second Quorum of the Seventy (from 2002-08), which included a three-year mission to Europe as he served in an area presidency.
His book about the Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers was his first project after his release from this calling.
Before it was published, Lund wrote an article about the Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers for the Deseret News (July 23. 2009).
One of the most prolific, most widely read, and best loved LDS authors, Lund’s books have sold over three and one-half million copies and inspired three full-length motion pictures. This was something else he didn’t mention.
He didn’t say that he had served in a bishopric, as a bishop, branch president, and stake president (which makes it all the more remarkable that he has “made the time” to share his testimony through his writing).
Neither did he say anything about losing his wife last June, just days after their 50th wedding anniversary and a year, almost to the day, after losing a son.
Instead of saying anything about himself, Lund humbly and lovingly recounted the story of those stalwart pioneers “who answered the call of a prophet and went because they felt it was the right thing to do.”
Gerald Lund’s middle name is Niels. Perhaps this gives him a connection to Jens Nielson, survivor of the Willie Handcart Company, Hole-in-the-Rock pioneer and first bishop of Bluff.
Lund focused on Bishop Nielson’s story and then quoted him as saying, “[We] must go on, whether we can or not.”
And because of Gerald Lund’s recent personal experiences, it is apparent he understands Bishop Nielson’s phrase.
Editor’s Note: Gerald N Lund is currently working on the second book of a new series, Fire and Steel, which includes the story of a fictional family from San Juan County that he introduced in Only the Brave.