I am tracing my Mormon pioneer roots because my story began with those who came before.
Mr. Bonny, a Mormon, was trying to buy horses he could not pay for in full. Non-Mormons knew the saints planned to move west once winter was over, so many were leery of extending credit to church members.
Mr. Cottrell, a non-Mormon, agreed to take credit for some horses he was selling. Since Mr. Bonny didn’t have the clout to take on the entire debt, the terms included holding a cosigner’s assets if Mr. Bonny didn’t make his payments.
Mr. Bonny asked Daniel to be his cosigner. With a cosigner, per county law, Mr. Bonny had an additional six months to pay. Daniel agreed to sign the note for a hundred and sixty dollars, saying he would pay if Mr. Bonny defaulted.
Mr. Cottrell began boasting to his neighbors that the property consigned to secure the debt was worth more than the horses. After a few months, Mr. Cottrell told a judge he feared Mr. Bonny would not finish paying the loan. The judge agreed to execute an order against Daniel’s property to pay the balance Mr. Bonny owed for the horses.
That evening, a squire and constable visited Daniel, telling him of the judge’s orders. They demanded a wagon and a horse to clear the debt. Daniel told them the value of Mr. Bonny’s property which Mr. Cotrell had access to, was more than enough to pay the debt. According to Daniel, asking for his property also was unfair.
His argument did not sway the squire and constable. They took one of Daniel’s horses and wagon and brought both down the road to a neighbor’s house to board for the night. They intended to come back the next day to give them to Mr. Cottrell.
In the morning, the neighbor, boarding Daniel’s wagon and horse, came to Daniel’s farm. The neighbor was sympathetic and agreed it was not fair.
Daniel hatched a plan to get his property back. He knew he would need help and had to act quickly. Daniel asked a man who was new to the area for his assistance. The man agreed to let his boy take the horse and wagon to a different farm a mile away. If caught, Daniel said he would take the blame.
The farmer at this farm agreed to dismantle Daniel’s wagon and put the pieces on a sled. Once taken apart, the farmer covered the wagon parts with hay and drove the sled several miles out of town to another farmer Daniel knew and trusted. This farmer agreed to keep it out of sight from the law.
They had vanished when the constable returned to retrieve the wagon and horse. Locals told the constable they saw a boy driving a wagon, but no one knew who the boy was. After considerable searching, the constable gave up.
The squire, however, was not keen to let it go. A few nights later, he returned to Daniel and demanded to know where the wagon was. Daniel lied, saying he had no idea. Since Daniel often spoke of the morality of honesty, maybe in his mind, God was okay with this particular lie.
Daniel went on to tell the squire; he had sought a lawyer’s advice and learned it was illegal for a squire to have taken the property. Seizure of property could only be done by the constable alone or by a posse at the constable’s direction.
Daniel said he could prove it was the squire, not the constable, who hauled the horse and wagon away. With this technicality in his favor, Daniel implied he was considering going before a judge with an illegal seizure charge. Probably surprised at Daniel’s cleverness, the squire decided it was not worth the added hassle and agreed to clear the debt.
While my grandfather helped a wagon escape because his outrage moved him to take action, others were taking action to end the greed-fueled brutality of enslaved men, women, and children, living their entire lives as someone else’s property.
Most enslaved people who escaped did so with help. Help might come from whispered tips on how to get away and who to trust. Or following a courageous conductor of the Underground Railroad like Harriet Tubman.
Instead of taking wagons apart, some made wagons with built-in platforms halfway down to hide enslaved people. Cargo and crops placed on top of the false bottoms enabled these wagons to get through checkpoints set up to catch and return them to men who called themselves masters.
Somewhere between 30,000 to 100,000 enslaved people escaped. It is both a substantial number and a tiny drop compared to the millions of Africans kidnapped from their homeland.
My grandfather had the skills to help people escape but chose not to. He was willing to break the law by doing what he felt was right. Each time he married another plural wife, dressed up as a militia member to hide the fact he was a Mormon, and stood in line to get food not meant for him, he was breaking the law. But he didn’t break the law for those in bondage. He’d shown he was capable of bold action even if he was afraid. But not for them.
What if he had hidden enslaved people instead of the elaborate ruse he created to hide wagon pieces under the hay? What if he had enrolled his neighbors to help hide them in wagons lying silent and tense and wondering if today would bring their freedom?
The wagon my grandfather helped escape is long gone. The wood decayed to dirt. But if he had saved a person. Just imagine who that person might have been if given the opportunity. Who might they have loved, laughed with, and built a home and family?
I wonder if I am brave. But if I have any bravery, I want to use it to save people, not wagons.