Polly Aird's book was a wonderful surprise, although it was pushed onto me as required reading as a direct----but distant---relative of Peter McCauslan. Her book is not a sentimental retelling of the McCauslan clan but meticulous history with real bite.
We start in Scotland near Loch Lomond where the McCauslans eked out an existence as farmers tilling the poor soil. Then, they, like thousands of others, were driven off the land in the early 1800's for more profitable sheep ranching. They migrated to small manufacturing towns near Glasgow that were truly Dickensian in horror: miasmas of water and air pollution, cholera and typhus. In order to survive, they worked in the textile industry, six days a week, 12 to 15 hours per day but their wages were relentlessly driven down below subsistence levels as both women and children were forced to work to survive.
All attempts at legitimate change failed. They were denied the right to vote, their unions were destroyed, their union leaders either imprisoned or shipped off to Australia. The only group that promised a better life before death were the Mormons. The McCauslans converted and began the hazardous journey to Utah.
The difficulties of the voyage as well as the trek overland were enormous. Their ship could have been easily wrecked by bad weather en route to New Orleans; food and water was scarce; privacy and cleanliness nonexistent: several on board died during the voyage. New Orleans was an exotic never never land to the poor from Europe: the architecture, the colors, the flora, the plantations, the slave markets were both beautiful and repellent.
The upriver trip was hazardous and slow; more died along the way. Finally, they reached the inland trail head and began the overland journey. These poor working people from the British Isles were untrained as how to manage oxen and wagons and live off the land for their thousand mile journey. Many more died along the way.
However, the Mormons did provide practical assistance during the inland journey to Utah. Without their help, it is doubtful that anyone would have survived. The McCauslans arrived in Utah, beaten but grateful, and then reinvented themselves again, this time as farmers. Once again, the Mormons provided invaluable assistance in this transition.
However, a series of natural calamities reduced the Mormon settlement in Utah to semi starvation. There were horrible storms, drought, and plagues of insects. There was little to eat and hardly any hope of surviving the brutal winters without wood to burn and clothing that had been reduced to tatters. The reaction to these natural calamities by the Mormons was to create a human calamity: the Mormons blamed the settlers for straying from God's path because how else could they explain why God would punish them with such horrific, Biblical plagues? The Mormons and the settlers were the victims of their own relentless religious logic.
Utah became a vicious police state which secretly murdered and plundered their perceived enemies. Then the Mormons made the mistake of taking on the US Government. All too predictably, the US army arrived in substantial force but it could make little headway against a tightly knit religious group. The irony is that the original settlement only survived as a result of the US Army: the settlers worked for them and sold them supplies; and, as a result the impoverished group received a much needed influx of cash and goods. But the murders, the secrecy, the intolerance of the Mormons were too much for Peter McCauslan to bear. He and many members of his extended family finally left under armed escort from Utah by the US Army; they were delivered out of harm's way to Nevada; from there they continued unescorted to California.
In California, Peter McCaulsan's story ends as a peaceful farmer in the great Central Valley. In Biblical terms, he had finally reached the Garden of Eden, the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the modern equivalent of the Tigris and Euphrates. He had returned to what his ancestors in Scotland had done for centuries: farming. So what are we to make of Peter McCauslan?
An independent, tough farmer, at the end of his life, he devoted enormous energy to the religious mishmash called Spiritualism. Bright and industrious, he invented himself three times: first as pattern designer, then as an overland pioneer, finally as a farmer. A gifted artist, he left no visual record of Scotland, Utah, or California, nor did he recreate his religious visions with Blakian images. Appropriately bitter at the plight of the working poor in Scotland, he never spoke out against the mistreatment of the American Indians, despite the obvious parallel between the Scottish aristocracy forcing his ancestors off their land and the American settlers forcing the indigenous peoples off their land. Repelled by the murders, lies, and intolerance of the Mormons, he finally left Utah, never to see some members of his family again, but he never spoke out against the secret Mormon murders, even from the safety of California. Peter McCauslan walked a fine moral line in a brutal world of false choices.