Most people with even a general sense of the Mormon pioneers are familiar with their “roadometer,” a set of cog wheels fastened to a wagon wheel, which measured and recorded distance traveled without the need for a human observer to count the revolutions of the wheel. The roadometer, very like the model in this photo, was used by Brigham Young’s vanguard pioneer company in 1847. The distances recorded were used in the compilation of a trail guide that assisted thousands of Mormon pioneers (and countless others) in their migration across the Great Plains of North America.
History credits William Clayton with devising the roadometer, with the mathematical assistance of Orson Pratt; Appleton Milo Harmon constructed the roadometer, first used on May 12, 1847. There were problems with that first roadometer, however, and in the first week of August, 1847, William A. King built a second device in the Salt Lake Valley.
After building the improved roadometer, William A. King returned east with Brigham Young and other members of that initial company, and then
Well, he disappeared. There is no record of a return to Utah, no indication of a marriage or children, no further appearance in Mormon history. Ancestral File suggests that he died in Boston in 1862, but that incomplete date, coupled with his total absence from later Mormon history and his disconnection in Ancestral File from known LDS families who might have contributed his data casts doubt on its likelihood.
I sometimes tackle “mystery” pioneers to fill in the gaps in the church’s wonderful Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database. It seems too bad that Mormon converts who made the heroic effort to gather with the Saints in those early, difficult times vanish as they sometimes did. It is especially provocative when someone like King disappears, if only because historians have written so often about that 1847 company that we really ought to tie up the loose ends. Yet King remained a mystery, so much so that one recent author footnoted King’s data with the plea for anyone who knew what had become of him to kindly contact the writer.
It took me almost 45 grueling, gut-wrenching, mind-racking (okay, I’m showing off) minutes to trace the outlines of William A. King’s life.
We know from Nauvoo-era records — temple endowment, King’s membership in a 70s quorum — that he was born in Paris, Oxford Co., Maine, on 3 July 1821. There is a History of Paris, Maine, from Its Settlement to 1880 (1884), conveniently online, if inconveniently on a commercial site, which lists “William Arridus [King], b. July 3, 1820. Joined the Mormans [sic] at one time, and was one of the committee that went to Salt Lake to select a location for the Saints.” William Arridus was the son of George and Polly (usually a nickname for Mary); this record gives the names and a few genealogical facts about five of his siblings.
Even with the one-year discrepancy in William’s date of birth, there is no doubt that this is the right William. Unfortunately, the book provides no data on wife, occupation, migration, or death.
The 1850 census for Paris names William A. King, age 29, living in Paris with George and Mary. So that’s where he went after he returned from the Salt Lake Valley. The record tells us where, but of course cannot tell us why. Did he actively abandon Mormonism? Did he go home hoping to convert his family and return to Utah? Did he go home to say good-bye, and for some reason never quite get back to the Saints?
The U.S. census, taken every ten years, is a marvelous tool for tracking the movements of 19th century Americans, especially since it has been indexed and automated. That’s the logical place to follow King down through time. It isn’t always easy, though. The 1860 census lists 2,687 men named William King — never mind how many additional men apear as “W.” or “W.A.” Only 23 of those were born in Maine; only 4 were born within 2 years of 1821 (you have to allow a little leeway on the census, especially for people born in the summer, because you can’t be sure whether the enumerator went by just before or just after a birthday). There is only 1 William King living in Paris, Maine, 1860, but his middle initial is O., and he has children ages 10 and 12 who did not appear with “our” King in 1850; the others live in Connecticut, Wisconsin, and elsewhere in Maine. There is no obvious way to know which, if any, of those Williams is the one we want.
One genealogical rule of thumb is that if you can’t find your man, trace his family; if you can’t find your family, trace the neighbors. Despite the mythic “rugged individualist,” 19th century Americans far more often moved with family, friends and neighbors.
King’s siblings fortunately had more distinctive names than his: Augustus, Erastus, Octavius, and Cyrenus. What do you know? — there is a Cyrenus King living in Milwaukee in 1860, a few doors away from a William King. Both men were born in Maine; their ages accord with those given in the Paris town history. What’s more, that William is a carpenter and joiner, exactly the right skills for a man who had built a wooden roadometer. He is married and has a son, additional match points that make it easy to follow the family down through the years: 1870, still in Milwaukee; 1880, again in Milwaukee; 1890, not available (that year’s census was burned); 1900, widowed wife and single adult son, still in Milwaukee; 1910, wife is gone, but son, still single, still in Milwaukee; 1920, son, still single, in Milwaukee; 1930, son, age 70, never married, moved to a rest home in Colorado.
A quick check of the death register for Milwaukee, available on film at the Family History Library, provides a death date of 12 August 1899 for our William A. King. There is a discrepancy in his father’s name (King’s wife and son never met the father, who died before King was married, so their error is easily understood), but the birth date and birthplace confirm that this is our man.
45 minutes. That’s all. That still doesn’t answer the most important question — why did he not remain with the church? — but at least we can fill in the blank concerning that member of the most famous Mormon pioneer company.
It isn’t always that easy. But don’t be afraid to tackle your own family or historical research, no matter how green you feel, because it isn’t always hard, either.