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It Happened in Parowan

By Olive W. Burt, The Friend, February 1980, pp. 2-4

On a cold sunny February morning in 1854, a young artist from Baltimore wrapped himself in a woolen jacket, put on a cap, and set out for a walk. He wanted to explore the small Mormon village in southern Utah. He had been too weak and sick to pay much attention on the previous afternoon. At that time he, with a score of dying companions, had staggered out of the mountains, not knowing whether they would live through the day, not expecting the miracle.

But what these men saw in the valley below them seemed like a miracle. A village! True, the houses were small and almost covered with snow, but from the stone chimneys rose columns of smoke--promises of food and shelter.

The artist was Solomon Nunes Carvalho. He had made the winter journey across the Rocky Mountains with Captain John C. Fremont, who wished to prove that a railroad could be built along that route and could be operated all year long. Carvalho, in spite of his Portuguese name, had been born in South Carolina. Later, he moved to Baltimore where he opened a daguerreotype (metal-plate photography) studio. On a trip to New York he had chanced to meet John Fremont, who was purchasing supplies for his fifth journey into the almost unknown West. Carvalho, who knew nothing of outdoor life and who had never built a campfire or saddled a horse, was excited over the tales Fremont told about the West. He wished he could have such adventures. So when he learned that Fremont was looking for a photographer and artist to go along and make pictures of the scenery, the Indians, and the wild animals, he applied for the job and got it. Later, he would say that he knew of no other man in the world to whom he would have so willingly entrusted his life.

Carvalho returned to Baltimore to study how to take pictures out-of-doors, but there was nobody to teach him. He was the very first photographer to accompany an exploring party, and he had to learn how to pack his materials so they would travel safely on the back of a climbing horse and yet be easy to get at in an emergency. He had to arrange packing for the heavy glass plates that were used before photographic film was invented. His friends pointed out that he might have to take pictures standing waist deep in snow or during a snowstorm. They did not believe it could be done. But Carvalho studied and planned, and when the party was ready to leave, he was prepared.

There were twenty-two men in the group: Fremont, the leader; the photographer; the topographer (map maker); seven assistants; ten Delaware Indians; and two Mexicans to care for the horses and do the camp work. There was no official guide, so Fremont would plan their route. He had already become famous as a pathfinder of the West.

All the way to the Rocky Mountains the expedition had little trouble. But by the time the men reached that forbidding barrier it was December, and the land was already in the grip of an early winter. Crossing the mountains was now difficult and dangerous. The cold and the snow slowed their travel. Indians stole supplies. Provisions gave out, and horses had to be killed for food. For more than two months the men fought their way through the mountains. Finally, on that February afternoon, sick, weary, and so weakened that one man fell dead as they emerged from the canyon, the party came upon the village of Parowan.

The 400 Mormons of the community opened their hearts and their homes to the worn-out explorers. Kind families took in one or more of the men and fed them, warmed them, gave them soft, clean beads to sleep in.

Carvalho, like the others, had endured all the hardships of the journey. He had suffered more than anyone except Fremont, for he had often stayed up in the cold, wet night to help the leader study the stars and map the route. But food and rest had restored the artist, and this morning he was out walking, observing the neat cabins, the yards, the stables, the church building, and the schoolhouse. He was amazed at what the people had done in the little valley so far away from any other community. What happened as he strolled through the village is best told in his own words:

In the course of my peregrinations, I saw a man walking up and down before an adobe shanty, apparently much distressed; I approached him, and inquired the cause of his dejection; he told me that his only daughter, aged six years *, had died suddenly in the night; he pointed to the door and I entered the dwelling.

Laid out upon a straw mattress, scrupulously clean, was one of the most angelic children I ever saw. On its face was a placid smile, and it looked more like the gently repose of healthful sleep than the everlasting slumber of death.

Beautiful curls clustered around a brow of snowy whiteness. . . . I entered very softly, and did not disturb the afflicted mother, who reclined on the bed, her face buried in the pillow, sobbing as if her heart would break.

Without a second's reflection I commenced making a sketch of the inanimate being before me, and in the course of half-an-hour I had produced an excellent likeness.

A slight movement in the room caused the mother to look around her. She perceived me, and I apologized for my intrusion; and telling her that I was one of the Governor's party. . . . I tore the leaf out of my book and presented it to her, and it is impossible to describe the delight and joy she expressed at its possession. She said I was an angel sent from heaven to comfort her.

She had no likeness of her child. I bid her place her trust in Him "who giveth and taketh away," and left her indulging in the excitement of joy and sorrow. I went out unperceived by the bereaved father, contemplating the strange combination of events, which gave this poor woman a single ray of peace for her sorrowing heart.

When I was about starting the next day, I discovered in the wagon a basket filled with eggs, butter, and several loaves of bread, and a note to my address containing these words "From a grateful heart."

The little girl sketched by the artist was Mary Ann Harrison. Her family treasured that pencil sketch, often looking at it and repeating the strange tale. In 1950 when Parowan celebrated its hundredth birthday, the original sketch was presented to the town museum, where it was been a beloved memento of that gracious act on a cold February day so long ago.

 

*The child was actually three years old.