David Roberts received his Ph.D. from the University of Denver and taught for nine years at Hampshire College before embarking on a career as a freelance writer that has spanned almost thirty years. During that time, he has produced several books on Native Americans and the American West, including Devil's Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy, due out this September.
What drew you to this story? Could you describe its genesis?
I was doing research on the Mormon handcart tragedy when I came across information about Brigham Young sending out missions to the Indians in 1855. The great question is: "What were these missions about?" Were they, as alarmists claimed at the time, about actually trying to recruit Indians as allies to fight the government?
The United States came within a whisker of invading Utah in 1858 and starting a civil war three years before the Civil War. Because the conflict ended up fizzling out, it's not the most dramatic story about the West. It comes across as a huge anticlimax, but it was a beneficent one, because it would not have been pretty if we had tried to wipe out Utah. All these amazing events that happened in the 1850s in Utah really intrigued me and I think most readers will be greatly surprised to learn about them.
What was your favorite moment during reporting?
I started out my research by flying to Las Vegas. There is a partially reconstructed fort in downtown Las Vegas, which nobody ever visits, but which recreates the original mission. In fact nobody realizes that Mormons were the first Americans to settle Las Vegas.
Trying to see the landscape from the point of view of these very scared missionaries, I retraced by auto the routes they had followed in 1855. If you drive into Moab from the north you just cruise in on a highway. Right at Arches National Park, the highway blasts through what was once a cliff and you don't even notice it. The Elk Mountain missionaries there had to actually take their wagons apart and lower them down this cliff. I stood in the parking lot at Arches and studied the cliff and tried to imagine these guys. They could see the Colorado River in the distance and knew it was the place where they wanted to build, and they're taking their wagons apart and lowering them and putting them back together. That kind of on-the-ground retracing and re-imagining was really fun.