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Devil's Gate reviews

DEVIL’S GATE: Owning the Land, Owning the Story, by Tom Rea, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006), 307pp., $26.95 hb.

            In his introduction to Devil’s Gate, Tom Rea reiterates an historical truism: the stories told by the victors get institutionalized while those told by the survivors are pushed to the margins.  In order to better understand the stories of the latter, Rea decides to “look at a small part of the West where many interesting things have happened” (p. 6). Thus while Devil’s Gate is manifestly a history of the middle of Wyoming along the Sweetwater River, its themes of native/newcomer relations, colonialism, and contested histories are emblematic of the West as a whole.
            Beginning with a brief history of the northern plains tribes, Rea touches on many of the West’s most important stories: Frémont’ s expeditions; Mormon conflicts; railroad expansion; Indian wars; and fencing the range.  By bringing some fascinating detail into his narrative, however, he covers such extensive ground without falling into simple caricatures. This highly readable synthesis therefore, could be used very effectively in undergraduate classrooms.  In one particularly interesting passage, for example, Rea describes the delicate procedure Frémont followed in order to take a barometer reading, reminding us that even colonial projects as institutionalized as surveying were reliant upon such human elements as steady hands.

            While Rea frequently gestures towards academic arguments, the book is intended for a general audience and as such, he does not pursue his thesis as rigorously as he might were this written for an academic audience. Thus, while the theme “owning the land, owning the story” has much potential, Rea uses it mostly as a narrative hook. It is not until the final pages of the book, in fact, that it becomes clear who does own the land and thus the story—the Mormons.  Their particular story, however, is just one that takes place in the region and Rea does an admirable job synthesizing many of these stories into a cohesive narrative.

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Journal of the West, Manhattan, KS, July 2007



Devil’s Gate: Owning The Land, Owning The Story
By Tom Rea

Reviewed by Melvin C. Johnson, Angelina College, Lufkin, Texas
On 11/4/2008

University of Oklahoma Press, 2006 Hardcover:
307 pages
ISBN-10: 0-8061-3792-4
ISBN-13: 978-0-8061-3792-6 Price: $26.95

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) purchased the Tom Sun Ranch very near Martin’s Cove, which is located close to the Devil’s Gate on the Sweetwater River in Wyoming. Thousands of Mormon handcart pioneers suffered great hardships during the trek of 1856 across plain and mountain, and two trains of them were trapped by the oncoming winter, hundreds dying before the arrival of relief wagons from Salt Lake City. The Cove is sacred space to the LDS Church, and it venerates the pioneer hardship. Acquiring a federal lease to the site, the church’s primary activity is interpreting the Mormon handcart calamity and ignores what Tom Rea believes are other worthy stories of the Devil’s Gate area as well.

In Devil's Gate: Owning the Land, Owning the Story, Rea certainly believes the church’s retelling the pioneers’ suffering worthy of legacy and memory, but insists it is only one story among many other valuable narratives about the area. The author makes the claim that the land itself, spatially and temporally, possesses and holds the stories and their meanings, not the land’s owner or lessee. He considers the Latter Day Saint insistence on emphasizing its ancestral story at Martin’s Cove at the expense of the other stories a major fracture in the narrative of Devil’s Gate, the Sweetwater, and Martin’s Cove. The question arises whether the LDS Church, instead of simply telling the story, is being self-serving, even if unintentionally, in contouring a narrative to serve selfish institutional needs. Of course, that’s what the church’s leadership does, because that’s what humans and institutions do. While not evil, the LDS version is certainly human and incomplete.

Rea gives a fuller and more sophisticated recounting of the Devil’s Gate. He begins noting that it is “Time is the answer” that shapes the land and its narratives. “. . . time which feels no more constant in its flow than a western river in drought, still alters everything. It changes rocks, climate, birds, and people. It changes memory, and sooner or later it changes historical meaning” (12). Rea explores a host of stories. He considers the Indian use of the land from the 1830s to the coming of the immigrants in the following decade. The white incursion grew to a flood and changed the Indian concept of communal ownership of the land to one that land could be owned individually, could be made to produce a product, either for personal subsistence or for the market economy. But in order to own land, it requires measuring much to the dictate of the Land Ordinance of 1785. Thus the writer back tracks in time to create a very well-written discussion of Captain John Fremont’s journey of mapping and exploration in 1842. And, in moving forward and dropping backward then loping forward once again to the immigrants of the 1840s and 1850s moving along the Sweetwater, Rea creates a sense of time that is not linear but rather cyclical, that the story of a place moves back and forth, to and fro, not just from “back then” up to “now.”

A theme of conflict -- man with nature, man with himself, man with the legacy of Devil’s Gate -- rolls forward, as the author weaves in the French-American plains traders making a living along the River, the chapter of “Brigham’s Curse” as his mistaken leadership and poor planning creates a horrific genesis of Mormon myth-making at Martin’s Cove, to later an increasing struggle for control of land and water leading to struggles and lynchings and family heartaches and community headaches. And, in the end, the LDS Church becomes the lessee of Martin Cove, becomes the guardian of the story, and the story becomes almost exclusively that of the Latter Day Saint handcart pioneers and their tragedy along the Sweetwater long ago in the late fall and early winter of 1856.

Rea’s prose seems at times a pattern of buckshot from a scattergun: people, facts, incidents, topography, geography, demography flying about like buck shot. The book can use a more disciplined approach, I think, but I also feel a sense of ‘story’ in Rea’s buckshot approach. The story seems like minnows darting in the sun-glittery shadows of the Sweetwater, back and forth and up and down and side to side, hard to completely see, much less be able grasp and study and understand. And all of this might be the strength of the book -- that only the land can own its story, and people can only possess the land but for a time.

Copyright 2008

The Assoiciation for Mormon Letters, P.O. box 970874, Orem, Utah 84097-0874