[This review appeared in Journal of Mormon History 33 (Summer 2007), 226-234. Whether or not you are familiar with Jean Rio Baker's journal (links to online excerpts appear in the endnotes), you'll enjoy this exploration of what can go wrong when a non-Mormon non-historian wades into Mormon history far beyond her depth. -- Ardis]

Sally Denton. Faith and Betrayal: A Pioneer Woman’s Passage in the American West. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. xviii, 216 pp. Notes, illustrations, bibliography, index. Cloth: $23.00; ISBN: 1–4000–4135–X

Reviewed by Jeffery Ogden Johnson

Sally Denton, an award-winning investigative reporter, wrote this “history” of her great-grandmother, Jean Rio Griffiths Baker Pearce, a nineteenth-century convert to Mormonism. She and her family joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in London. After her husband’s death on September 3, 1849, she brought her children, ranging in age from four to seventeen, a daughter-in-law, Eliza, her husband’s brother and her husband’s uncle and aunt to the United States.

Jean Rio began her diary on January 4, 1851, the day before they left their London home, and concludes with only a few scattered entries after their arrival in Salt Lake Valley on September 29, 1851. The last daily entry is dated May 8, 1880, eighteen years later. This well-written diary has been published several times [1] and has long been lauded as a superior emigrant diary for its vivid details, skillful use of imagery, romantic sensibilities, and candor. The Museum of Church History and Art has Jane Rio Pearce’s diary as the narrative foundation for its award-winning exhibit on emigration from England.

I am a great-grandson of Jean Rio Pearce and Denton’s second cousin. [2] I remember fondly Sally’s grandmother, who lived in Nevada but who often attended Baker family reunions, either in Richfield, Utah, the family’s home town or in Salt Lake City. An important element in the Baker family story is a piano which we believed Jean Rio brought across the plain and which was exhibited for many years in the Bureau of Information on Temple Square (now the site of the Visitors Center South). My brothers and I would always run in to see it and feel proud of our pioneer heritage. It is now displayed in the Museum of Church History and Art.

The piano appears as a major feature in Denton’s book. I first met Sally when another cousin called and asked if I would show Sally the piano. I met her and her two teenaged sons at the museum. She told me that she had a contract with a major publisher to tell Jean Rio’s story. I was enthusiastic about this project and corresponded with her occasionally during its writing. In a pre-publication draft, I was shocked to read that the piano is in an “elaborate presentation at the temple in Salt Lake City” (xiv). I wrote Denton, asking if she thought we had been in the temple when we saw the piano. She answered that she would make the correction before the book appeared, but the error remained in the published version. [3]

In 2004 when she was touring with her first book about Mormonism, American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), she and her parents visited me at the LDS Church Office Building, and her father later donated to the LDS Church Archives the correspondence of his grandmother, Nicolena Bertlesen Baker.

The core of Jean Rio’s diary is her superb travel narrative, and Denton uses the beautiful language of the diary to tell the story of crossing the ocean and plains: “She [Jean Rio] ‘walked under overhanging rocks, which seemed only to need the pressure of a finger to send them down headlong.’ Likening them to old English castles, she gathered relics of silver and iron ore. ‘Our road is so steep as to seem almost like going down a staircase,’ she wrote. She was intrigued by ‘the property of the atmosphere’ that revealed far-off landmarks in sharp focus” (101). But Denton’s voice is always audible. When Denton tells of Jean Rio seeing graves along the trail, she talks about the problem of women’s dresses getting caught in the wheel spokes. Denton notes that American feminist Amelia Bloomer “had been advocating full trousers – known as bloomers – worn under shorter skirts. But such reformed fashion … was far from acceptable in the patriarchal Mormon society” (97). In reality Brigham Young had commented on the problems in women’s dresses several times in public speeches and advocated a Bloomer-like garment called the Deseret dress which “consisted of a loose-fitting, high collared blouse, full skirt about mid-calf in length, and full pantaloons to the ankle.” [4]

Denton’s goal was to “reconstruct Jean Rio’s life from the evidence that has survived” (xvi) and to explain why Jean Rio later left Utah and Mormonism. In her epilogue, she states: “For so many years, Jean Rio was deprived [of] her voice. Then the church distorted it. My goal has been to restore it” (183).

In my judgment, both as a descendant and as a historian, Denton has distorted Jean Rio Pearce’s voice out of all recognition, and this work should be considered fiction instead of history or biography. Among Denton’s most serious failures are: (1) she did not research the major, relevant, and readily available sources; (2) she often misunderstands Mormon doctrine and history and apparently made no effort to have her manuscript reviewed by knowledgeable experts; and (3) in the absence of information, she freely invents motivations, intentions, and conclusions.

The errors of fact are too numerous to mention; but, for example, Denton states: “John Taylor baptized Jean Rio Baker and her husband, Henry Baker, in London on June 18, 1849” and “A fellow missionary, Wilford Woodruff, baptized the Baker children around the same time” (33, 36, 179). The baptism date is correct, but nothing else is. According to the records of Poplar Branch, the LDS branch in a middle-class area of London, Henry’s nineteen-year-old brother, Benjamin, was the first member of the family to be baptized (May 21, 1849), followed by Jean’s and Henry’s sixteen-year-old son Walter a few days later. After Henry’s and Jean Rio’s baptism, the next family member, fourteen-year-old William George, occurred in August. Two more Baker children were baptized in 1850. All of them – parents and children alike – were baptized by Samuel Purdy, a local Church leader and probably a neighbor. Neither John Taylor nor Wilford Woodruff was in England in June 1849.

Denton states that Jean Rio dismayed her son William, after they settled in Ogden, Utah, by marrying “a ‘Gentile’ named Edward Pearce – one of the relatively few non-Mormons living among the Saints” (152–53) in 1864. Edward Pearce was a Mormon, in fact, a former neighbor from Poplar in London, baptized after the Bakers had left for America. However, Samuel Purdy had baptized his daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, in February 1849 a few months before the Bakers were baptized. By the 1860s, the Pearces, the Bakers, and Samuel Purdy were all living in Ogden, Utah. Pearce’s wife died two years before his marriage to Jean Rio. This information would have been available with a few mouse-clicks from the Church’s FamilySearch website. Ward, local histories, and family biographies would have also supplied further evidence of Edward’s lifelong commitment to Mormonism. Denton’s assertion of marriage to a Gentile is pure fabrication.

Denton is also wrong in claiming that only a few non-Mormons lived in Utah in 1864. Both Salt Lake City and Ogden had non-Mormon churches in 1864. Though a minority, federal territorial officials, the officers and soldiers stationed at Fort Douglas, and non-Mormon merchants made up a sizeable fraction of the population.

Denton tries to create drama by claiming: Jean Rio “had begun to lose faith not long after her arrival in Salt Lake City and had now suffered a series of serious blows – the reality of the church’s hierarchy; the authoritarian, dictatorial patriarchy of Brigham Young; the horrendous Mountain Meadows Massacre; the church’s turning a blind eye to her poverty; even the expropriation of the piano she had brought across an ocean and a continent. Jean Rio of all people knew that rejecting the church openly was not a choice if she was to remain in Utah” (152). Although it is true that leaving the church came with social stigma, in point of fact, many Utahns “rejected the church openly.” The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints began proselytizing among Utah Saints in the summer of 1863 and baptized many Utah Mormons, including the sister of Nicolena Bertlesen Baker, Jean Rio’s daughter-in-law. Also beginning during this period was the Godbeite movement, whose leaders were from Britain and had family and economic backgrounds similar to Jean Rio’s. This movement began publishing the paper that became the Salt Lake Tribune as an alternate and usually very hostile voice.

An egregious example of Denton’s fabrications is her claim that two of Jean Rio’s sons, Edward and John, “fled Zion” in 1853 and 1859 respectively and that the “plans for escape were of necessity kept secret from all neighbors, friends, and acquaintances, and especially from their fundamentalist brother, William” (138). I found absolutely no documentary evidence – including family stories – to support this tale. Considering the difficulty of travel, there was an amazing amount of traffic between Utah and California during the 1850s and 1860s. In fact, Edward returned from California in 1857 to be endowed. [5]

Denton also milks drama out of William Baker’s marriage to the widowed Nicolena Maria Bertlesen, a Danish convert. (She was his plural wife.) According to Denton’s version, Nicolena fell in love with a fellow Dane, Christian Christensen. He was mortally wounded at the beginning of the Utah’s Black Hawk War on April 21, 1866. Denton says that Nicolena “insisted on a deathbed wedding to Christensen (147) and that, “despite her objection, her marriage to the beloved Christensen was ‘set aside’ by Brigham Young. … Her only avenue … to eternal salvation now rested with William Baker” (150). Despite Denton’s claims, all historical accounts say that Christensen was dead when he was found and there is no recorded marriage with Christensen. Nicolena Maria Bertlesen was sealed to Niels Christian Christensen on June 1, 1867, with William acting as Christian’s proxy. [6] William thus made it possible for Nicolena to be sealed to “the beloved Christensen.” Denton does not mention that, far from being forced into an eternal union, Nicolena, had her sealing to Christensen canceled and had herself sealed to William in 1888. [7] This story does not sound like the melodrama of a heartbroken heroine, but rather a generous and loving act by a man who built a marriage with the “heroine” so happy and strong that she confirmed her desire to be with him in the most emphatic terms available in her religious tradition.

Although Denton calls William (her direct-line ancestor) a “fundamentalist” (by which she means ultra-orthodox) because he married a plural wife, the term is wrong-headed on a couple of counts. Nicolena was his only plural wife, married when plural marriage was official Church policy. Nothing in his letters, his mother’s diary, or his public and Church activities can be construed as an excess of zeal. He was very active in Sevier County’s cultural and political affairs.

Nor did he take what might be considered an ultra-orthodox position of severing relationships with his relatives who left the Church. Although Jean Rio considered herself a former Mormon after she went to California in 1869, he maintained a close relationship with her and his three brothers in California (Walter followed Jean Rio in November 1870), as well as with his inactive sister and brother-in-law in Ogden. Jean Rio records in her diary visiting him in 1875, spending several months with him and his plural families. After her death in 1883, William visited his brothers in California commemorated by a family photograph showing all the brothers.

Denton’s grasp of Mormon history is best described as shaky. For example, she states that “Wilford Woodruff’s proclamation … left Nicolena to fend for herself and her large family in a primitive village” (179). This statement shows ignorance of the most immediate effect of the 1890 Manifesto. In reality, it virtually ended the relentless process of arrests and prosecutions called “the Raid” that had harassed plural families since the early 1880s. William had moved Nicolena to Monroe, a village south of Richfield, during the polygamy raids; but after the Manifesto she moved back to Richfield, where William could more easily care for both his families.

Denton’s skimpy research fails her altogether at several points, but she blithely fills in the blanks with irresponsible conjecture, often not even bothering to label them as such. For example, because the family preserves an unproved (and so far unconfirmable) story that Jean Rio’s mother was French, Denton asserts: “The guillotine was ‘an instrument adopted by the Revolutionists for the more scientific and humane beheading of the condemned.’ Almost all the members of the Rio family from Lamballe, Brittany – renamed Cotes-du-Nord by the revolutionary government – were among them” (5). She therefore connects Jean Rio’s middle name with a French family, which she assumes is Jean Rio’s mother’s family (5–6). In point of fact, “Rio” came from the paternal line. Denton simply states that Jean Rio’s parents were “distant Rio cousins” (9), a statement for which there is no proof.

Denton also refers to Jean Rio’s father’s family descended from Scottish aristocracy (8) although the genealogical records themselves show that the family was decidedly middle class. She also overstates how much money the Bakers had in England so that she can contrast it with admittedly straitened circumstances in Utah: “In 1840, Jean Rio’s paternal great-uncle, William Rio McDonald, bequeathed a substantial amount of property and cash to her. … What is obvious is that Jean Rio Baker was a very wealthy woman in her own right by 1840” (14, 15). The census does not support that statement.

Denton repeatedly mentions Jean Rio’s piano, using it as a symbol of Brigham Young’s oppression and dictatorial nature. She claims that in 1854 “Jean Rio was required to convey all of her property, including cash and goods as well as her beloved piano, to Young as ‘Trustee in Trust’ of the church. … The piano wound up in Amelia’s Palace, the home of Young’s favorite wife, a beautiful Englishwoman named Ann Eliza Webb Dee Young Denning, who would ultimately scandalize him and the church by filing for divorce and giving lectures nationwide critical of Mormonism” (129; she repeats the claim that Brigham Young took Jean Rio’s piano on pp. xvi, 129–30, 152, 165, 169, 181).

Since I had showed Denton the piano, I took particular umbrage at her misrepresentation of this artifact. Denton has confused two of Brigham Young’s wives, Amelia Folsom and Ann Eliza Webb. Neither was English. Ann Eliza never lived in Amelia’s Palace. Amelia moved into it only after Brigham Young’s death (1877). Furthermore, Jean Rio’s piano does not appear on any of the inventories of the Gardo House (Amelia’s Palace). Many of the items in the old Bureau of Information on Temple Square had first been collected by the Deseret Museum (1869–1919), which had gathered and exhibited relics from pioneer families. Any items connected with Brigham Young or his family were carefully identified as such in the catalogs, many of which still exist. None of them mentions this piano. I also examined inventories of Young family furniture, none of which list this particular piano.

Brigham Young did own pianos. Horace S. Eldredge, the Church agent in New York City, wrote Brigham Young that he was looking for suitable piano. [8] He evidently succeeded, and Brigham Young wrote to a piano company in 1864, complimenting it on the “excellent” instrument. [9]

The piano that the family has identified as Jean Rio’s still has its original label. It was made and sold by the London-based firm of Collard & Collard; the manufacturer’s mark dates its construction as during the 1830s. Although it would not have been uncharacteristic for a family to keep an instrument for decades, newer and better pianos were available at least twenty years before Jean Rio immigrated to America. Furthermore, despite the detail of Jean Rio’s diary, she nowhere mentions a piano. If she had brought it, it must have posed significant problems in shipping and transporting, and would have probably needed some disassembling and crating to be transported by ox-team.

As a result, I have concluded that Jean Rio did not bring a piano with her. I suppose I have Denton’s sloppy research to thank for prodding me to do the research to dispel a myth, even a cherished childhood one.

In conclusion, I hope Denton’s two irresponsible forays into Mormon history will be her last. She engages in conspiracy thinking, claiming that the Church “excis[ed] the added portion of the diary that chronicled her [Jean Rio’s] break with it” (xv).In fact, in 1981 Church Historian Leonard J. Arrington and Assistant Church Historian Davis Bitton published a biographical sketch about Jean Rio that includes quotations about her dissatisfaction with the Church.[10] Far from the Church’s sinister suppression of the diary, it was the LDS Church Archives which preserved, cared for, and gave researchers access to copies of the full diary. Denton self-righteously claims that “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” (xvii). That is not true. An inseparable part of my childhood stories about Jean Rio was that she had second thoughts about the Church and its doctrines. It came up, in tones ranging from regret to admiration, at every reunion I attended. Her descendants who left Mormonism but attended the family reunions would not have allowed such sugarcoating. Jean Rio’s statements of disillusion with the Church were a part of the diary we read and continue to read in our families.

Denton also posits a conspiracy to have destroyed diaries that she thinks Jean Rio kept in Utah. Her “evidence” is: “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” (xvi). This statement simply ignores the fact, plainly visible in the holograph diary, that Jean Rio stopped writing daily entries on March 22, 1852, and then started again, in the same book, indeed on the same page, eighteen years later. She begins by summarizing her activities since she stopped writing, surely an unnecessary act if she had been keeping a journal continuously. Also, why would she not have kept writing in the same book?

This catalogue of Denton’s failures is far from complete, but her greatest failure is not allowing Jean Rio’s true voice to speak. This failure causes me both anger and deep sorrow. I bought a paperback copy in a small bookstore in Peterborough, Vermont – hardly Mormon country. Because Denton was able to find a national publisher, this inaccurate and sensationalized book has found an undeservedly wide audience.

[1] Two published versions contain only the emigration (1851) portion of the diary: (1) Kenneth L. Holmes, ed. and comp., “By Windjammer and Prairie Schooler, London to Salt Lake City: Jean Rio Baker,” in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840–1890 (Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1984), 203–81; and (2) Emma Cynthia Nielsen Mortensen, Two Mormon Pioneers: History of Alva Benson; Diary of Jean Rio Baker (Hyrum, Utah: Downs Printing, 1986), 135–95. A third version is complete: “Jean Rio Griffiths Baker,” in Daughters of Utah Pioneers Lesson Committee, comp., An Enduring Legacy, 12 vols. (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1978–89), 193–240. The ocean voyage has been reproduced as in Kenneth W. Godfrey, Audrey M. Godfrey, and Jill Mulvay Derr, “Jean Rio Griffiths Baker (Pearce) (1810–1883),” Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982), 203–21. It was also partially serialized by Marcus L. Smith, as “Jean Rio Baker: Sunday – A Beautiful Morning,” Latter-day Women 2 (June 1994): 29–34 (January 4–February 24, 1851); “Jean Rio Baker: ‘O Slavery, How I Hate Thee!’” ibid., July 1994, 39–45 (February 24–March 22, 1851); “Jean Rio Baker: Unseen and Unknown Danger,” ibid., August 1994, 50–55 (April 19–May 21, 1851).

My grandmother, Elizabeth Baker Ogden, and Denton’s grandmother, Hazel Baker Denton, were half sisters. Their father (their mothers were plural wives) was William George Baker, Jean Rio Pearce’s son, who was a teenager when they emigrated from England. My grandmother died before I was born.

[3] Jeffery O. Johnson, Email to Sally Denton, April 21, 2005; Denton to Johnson, April 21, 2005.

[4] Gayle V. Fischer, “Dressing to Please God: Pants-Wearing Women in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Religious Communities,” Communal Societies 15 (1995: 55–74; Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 71.

[5] Endowment House Records, Book B, p. 124, #0183404, Family History Library.

[6] Endowment House Sealing Records, June 1, 1867, microfilm #1149515, Family History Library, Salt Lake City.

[7] Manti Temple sealing records, August 3, 1888, Family History Library.

[8] Eldredge to Young, June 23, 1863, Brigham Young Papers, LDS Church Archives.

[9] Young to William A. Pond, December 16, 1864, Young Papers.

[10] Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, “Jean Baker: Gathering to Zion,” in Saints Without Halos: The Human Side of Mormon History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1981), 39–48.

JEFFERY OGDEN JOHNSON is an archivist and researcher at Family and Church History Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, and has published historical articles in the Journal of Mormon History, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon History, and Sunstone. He is currently researching a history of Brigham Young’s wives.

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