It occurred to me long ago that maybe, as the pioneer children walked and walked and walked and walked — and walked, they didn't really always sing and sing and sing and sing — and sing. Sometimes, maybe, they complained a little or even said, "Are we there yet?"
I have a feeling that people were people in the 19th century, and not very different from us. And yet, we know what they had to suffer.
Many of the early Saints watched their children, especially their infants, die from diseases that could not be cured in the 19th century. Nauvoo was not a healthy place, and the many removals under trying circumstances added to the death toll.
When I first began to study Latter-day Saint history, I found myself thinking that the pain of loss could not possibly have been as severe for pioneer parents as it would be for us. Didn't they know when their children were born that there was a serious chance that they would never survive to adulthood?
That was my theory. But I remember talking to my Grandmother Pierce, my mother's mother, who was born in 1892 and lived to be 98 years old. Two of her siblings died as infants, and a 14-year old brother died when she was 8. Her little sister, Millie May, died at 2 when my grandma was 16. When I probed her feelings about those losses two-thirds of a century after they had happened, she began to cry, especially when she spoke of her dear little sister.
Here's my theory now. Human responses don't change very much. Death is death, and the loss of someone we love has always been hard and always will be. Those early members didn't "get used" to losing their children; they suffered.
But there's something else I now understand. We've developed a stereotype for those hearty pioneers. We speak of them almost as though they were superhuman. "I just couldn't survive all the things they went through," we say. But let me ask, is that the right lesson for us to learn?
Why speak of our noble forebears if we're only going to use them to convince ourselves that we aren't up to much by comparison? Our heritage should inspire us. I think the right conclusion is that pioneers were regular people who did what they were called upon to do — or in many cases, didn't. Some triumphed, others failed. We honor those who triumphed. But the point is, they did what they did, still possessing all the human weaknesses we deal with. Many of them rose to the occasion and did the hard things. That ought to be a lesson to us: We can do the same.
William Clayton kept a detailed diary after he joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in England, and in it he tells of the new converts who were building the church in the 1840s. He tells of one woman who had been baptized but was now talking about dropping out because another member of the congregation was spreading false rumors that her family had "the itch."
People don't change very much, do they?
We are currently passing through a very hard time. We see far fewer infant deaths, but we deal with worse social ills than most 19th-century families ever had to face. So what can we do? We can be pioneers for the next generation and for those after that. We, in spite of our humanness, can be stalwarts.
We can teach our children to sing as they walk, and sometimes they will do it, and sometimes they'll complain of their blisters — but we can keep an image before us, keep on the trail and not expect perfection from our children any more than we should expect it from our pioneers.
In the end, average people did amazing things, and they arrived at their destination.
We can, too.
Dean Hughes is the author of "Come to Zion: The Winds and the Waves," published by Deseret Book.