19th Century Brigham Young Latter-day Saint History

Read George D. Watt’s 1851 Journal from Liverpool to Chimney Rock for the First Time

She came running to me, and said, “Ron, I have found a diary of George D. Watt.”

George D. Watt was the first Latter-day Saint convert baptized in the British Isles. He kept a diary as he crossed the ocean and traveled the pioneer trails on his way to Salt Lake. Watt became indispensable thanks to his expertise with Pitman shorthand, and created the Journal of Discourses. You can now read his 1851 journal, thanks to the efforts of LaJean Purcell Carruth and Ronald G. Watt.

Who was George D. Watt?

Ronald G. Watt: George D. Watt was born in Manchester, England, on May 18, 1812. He converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Preston, England, and ran a footrace with at least one other man to be the first person baptized into the Church in the British Isles in 1837.

He moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, USA, in 1842, and then returned to Britain in 1846 as a missionary. In February 1851, he traveled from Liverpool, England, to Great Salt Lake City with a large group of Latter-day Saint emigrants. The 1851 Journal of Missionary George D. Watt includes his journal of that trip from Liverpool to Chimney Rock, and we have included other items.

George D. Watt is my great grandfather.

LaJean Carruth: George D. Watt was a highly skilled Pitman shorthand reporter. He taught classes in Pitman shorthand in Nauvoo, and was sent by the Church to report the proceedings of the Carthage trial (the trial of those charged with the murder of Joseph Smith).

He then returned to England and Scotland as a missionary, until his journey to Salt Lake City in 1851. After arriving in Salt Lake City, he almost immediately began reporting sermons, meetings, court cases, legislative proceedings, and other events in Pitman shorthand.

Some of his shorthand reports were published in the Deseret News and in the Journal of Discourses, which Watt published himself.1 He recorded hundreds of sermons and speeches by Brigham Young, with whom he often traveled. I have transcribed much of the shorthand that he did not transcribe. His extant shorthand records and his published transcripts are vital to understanding Church history, and the history of Utah Territory, between 1851 and 1868.

How did you find George Watt’s missionary journal?

LaJean Carruth: I found this journal in 2001—150 years after Watt wrote it—while making a complete inventory of every item in the George D. Watt collection at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City.

I realized immediately it was a journal, kept almost entirely in Pitman shorthand, and told Ron. I first transcribed it in 2002.

Ronald G. Watt: I had arranged and cataloged the shorthand notebooks in the George D. Watt collection at the Church History Library, but, of course, I couldn’t read them. When LaJean found the journal, she came running to me, and said, “Ron, I have found a diary of George D. Watt.”

Being the skeptic I am, I said, “LaJean, I have seen every scrap of paper in this archives, hunting for such a journal, and have never found it.”

“Look, here is a date,” she said, pointing to a page. “And here is some of his writing. And here is a date, and some more of this writing.”

Finally, I had to give up and admit that she had discovered something that I could not read.

What makes George D. Watt’s missionary journal noteworthy?

LaJean Carruth: George D. Watt recorded his experiences and those of his fellow travelers on all three stages of the journey:

  1. Across the Atlantic Ocean
  2. Up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers
  3. Across the plains

Travelers frequently had to stop between these stages of the journey in order to earn money for the next stage, to rest, or otherwise prepare.

Watt described his continuous journey from Liverpool to Salt Lake City, so we see his experiences throughout, and how one stage differed from the others. We see the journey as he experienced it, in his vivid and detailed descriptions. George D. Watt meant to publish it as a guide for those who came after, but there is no evidence he ever transcribed it. Still, it is a guide for us to his day and experiences.

Ronald G. Watt: His descriptiveness makes this journal noteworthy. He is especially good on the ocean, describing the storms, and the everyday life of these Latter-day Saints on board this ship. He wanted the members who came after him to know what they would experience. To me, it is a “personal” guide. He wants people to know the personal things they would encounter.

Why didn’t George Watt follow through on his desire to transcribe and publish his journal?

LaJean Carruth: We really do not know. There is no known reference to the journal outside of the journal itself.

Life in early Utah was extremely demanding, establishing the settlements, trying to survive in very harsh conditions. Watt left much of his shorthand untranscribed: he simply did not have time to do it all.

What is Pitman shorthand?

LaJean Carruth: Pitman shorthand is a form of shorthand first published by Sir Isaac Pitman in England in 1837, the same year that George D. Watt was baptized. Pitman shorthand was the first shorthand that allowed a reporter to make a verbatim record of a person’s speech, and was widely used.

Watt left no record of how or when he learned Pitman shorthand. He was an exceptionally skilled reporter.

How did LaJean Carruth learn to read old Pitman shorthand?

In 1974, I was a financially challenged graduate student at BYU. I asked Dennis Rowley, the manuscripts librarian in the BYU Library, if he would hire me to transcribe manuscripts written in the Deseret Alphabet (which I had learned at age 11).

He said he would give me a part time job if I would learn to read old Pitman shorthand. So, I taught myself to read it, and began transcribing. I have been employed by the Church History Department since 2000.

Is the shorthand in George Watt’s missionary journal more difficult to read because of things like waves on the ocean or bumps on the trail?

LaJean Carruth: The quality of the shorthand in his journal is consistent throughout. He probably wrote the trail portions at night (it would have been impossible to “drive and manage stupid oxen” and write).

Journals written in shorthand are typically more carefully written—and therefore more readable—than shorthand written from dictation, when the reporter struggles to keep up with a speaker. Watt’s journal reflects this. It is more carefully written than his record of Orson Pratt’s sermons on board the Ellen Maria, and his other shorthand records.

Do we learn anything noteworthy about Orson Pratt or early Latter-day Saint teachings from George Watt’s accounts of Pratt’s discourse on the Ellen Maria?

LaJean Carruth: George D. Watt’s shorthand record of these three sermons by Orson Pratt is the only known verbatim account of a sermon delivered on board a Latter-day Saint emigrant ship. That alone is noteworthy. I am impressed by the depth of the doctrine in these sermons to relatively new converts to the church.

February 16, 1851 sermon by Orson Pratt

In the first sermon, Pratt discusses the seriousness of leaving the church and the saints, sons of perdition, and the increased accountability of those who have accepted the gospel.

When you become acquainted with these ordinances, if you should then turn away from righteousness . . . the Lord will deal with you very differently than he would with mankind [in general] for the same sins, after so much information and light has been given to the Saints of the Most High.

Orson Pratt, February 16, 1851 Sermon Delivered Aboard the Ellen Maria

March 2, 1851 sermon by Orson Pratt

In the second, he tells of the Civil War between the north and south, still a decade in the future, describes in detail the past persecutions of the saints, and how they must learn.

March 9, 1851 sermon by Orson Pratt

In the third sermon, Orson Pratt describes the nature of God, nature of man, body and spirit, resurrected bodies, and exaltation. again discussed how the saints had been driven from place to place, but stated:

Each time that they have been thus persecuted the Lord has brought them into better circumstances than what they were formerly in.

Pratt does not mince words or soften circumstances, but shows what the saints have experienced—and what they will yet experience. He also emphasizes the importance of individual responsibility and growth, along with some very practical advice about life aboard ship and in general. I appreciate his blunt honesty and openness.

What does George D. Watt say in his missionary journal about the Haun’s Mill massacre?

Ronald G. Watt: When the steamboat The Robert Campbell could not get across a sandbar at the entrance of the Missouri River, it dropped the passengers, including George D. Watt off, at the town of Kansas.

George D. Watt knew that he was in Jackson County, Missouri, the county that had expelled the saints in 1831. He knew the history of the church. He pronounced all sorts of curses upon the people of Jackson County for the tragedy at Haun’s Mill:

“Wo unto you for there is a troubled day for you to meet and awful retribution for you to endure. It shall come upon you without mitigation. Every grain of it shall be rewarded to you there shall be none to plead for you.”

He continued on with these words for three more sentences.

How did the Winter Quarters period influence the John Brown Company that George Watt was a part of?

Ronald G. Watt: I think that the Winter Quarters period influenced the John Brown Company very little. Winter Quarters had been abandoned before the Brown Company arrived, and all the Saints left from Kanesville, where the Church agent, Orson Hyde, could help them.

Because of Winter Quarters, though, the Church knew the best time of year the companies should leave for Salt Lake. Young had also received Section 136 there that told them how to organize the companies.

What is an entry from George Watt’s missionary journal from the ‘end of the trail’ that stands out?

Ronald G. Watt: The outstanding entry to me comes from his letter to his sister and brother-in-law. Watt summarizes his journey up to that point, almost to Fort Laramie. He describes the ocean journey and gives thanks to a Heavenly Father who had preserved them.

He writes about the beautiful countryside they were now traveling through with grass growing up to the bellies of the oxen. And he also relates how difficult it was to drive and manage a team of “stupid oxen.”

LaJean Carruth: George D. Watt’s letter to his sister and brother-in law, his description of the trail, and his sharing his own feelings and frustrations:

There is much on this journey across the wilderness to please, and amuse, and astonish the lover of nature: the endless plains covered with grass and flowers of every grade and hue from the rose to the common unassuming daisy. . .

An American feels quite at home with a whip in his hand, and two or three yoke of oxen by his side. But if ever an Englishman felt himself far from home, it is in when he has to commence, whip in hand, to drive and manage oxen.

The folks in England talk about the patience of Job, and possessing their souls in patience, and to be of an unchanged temper; but people do not know what kind of a temper they got until they try . . . to drive and manage a team of stupid oxen.

I can feel his frustration even now—over 170 years later.

What is George D. Watt’s legacy—and how does his missionary journal contribute?

Ronald G. Watt: His legacy was in his ability to write verbatim in shorthand the sermons of Brigham Young and others. His legacy is the creation of the Journal of Discourses for without that we would not know everything the leaders of the Church, especially Brigham Young, preached. Without George D. Watt, we would know less about Church records, our heritage, our history, and the doctrines of the Church.

His legacy was also believing in this new gospel of Christ, when the missionaries came to England—and being the first to be baptized in that foreign land.

Because of Joseph Fielding’s letters to his brother, George Watt knew before they arrived that these missionaries brought the eternal truths that he wanted. He followed up his great beliefs when it came to being baptized. As I mentioned before, George was so excited to be baptized that he ran a footrace to be the first in the water.

LaJean Carruth: George D. Watt’s greatest legacy was his skill as a shorthand reporter. It is impossible to overstate the value of the records he left us through his shorthand reporting.

While the Journal of Discourses is not an accurate transcription of his shorthand, it is the only record we have of hundreds of sermons. And those sermons include historical accounts, descriptions of contemporary events, personal experiences, and theological teachings.

Lajean Purcell Carruth describes her work transcribing pioneer-era Church documents using Pitman shorthand.

His extant original shorthand records contain his reports of the actual words spoken by Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and many others.

(The Church History Library has Watt shorthand for about 235 sermons by Brigham Young alone that are not in the Journal of Discourses. This untranscribed shorthand is the only record for many if not most of these sermons.)

From this shorthand we can learn how these men actually spoke and what they said. We even learn about their personalities. For example, Watt noted that Brigham Young sometimes acted out what he was saying, pretending to weep when he described people weeping—or searching his pockets when talking about searching for something.

This is the closest we can get to their actual words (sound recordings were still decades away). I have come to know these men through their words, as reported by George D. Watt. I am personally very much indebted to him.

His journal is unique. It is his experiences recorded in his own words. He relates his experiences, the experiences of others, and his feelings about his experiences. Watt intended to publish this as a guide for those who would follow after, and went into some detail to warn, instruct, and advise them. All of these details greatly expand our knowledge and understanding of the emigrant experience.

George D. Watt and other shorthand writers would draft letters in shorthand, then presumably transcribe the draft and mail the transcription. His letter to his sister and brother-in-law records additional experiences and feelings, including Watt’s exasperation with the oxen.

Why did Ron Watt and LaJean Carruth decide to edit and publish George D. Watt’s missionary journal?

Ronald G. Watt: It was LaJean’s idea. She from the very first said, “We should publish it. George wanted it to be published, so all the world to see.” So, we finally did. LaJean and I made a great team.

LaJean Carruth: When I transcribed George D. Watt’s journal, I knew it should be published. I knew his experiences, feelings, observations and information; his vivid descriptions of life on the Ellen Maria, on the steamboat and crossing the plains needed to be, as he intended to do himself but never did.

I considered the matter many times over the years, and occasionally discussed it with Ron. But life is life—and neither of us moved forward on the project until about five years ago. That’s when I told Ron that he and I were Watt’s greatest fans. I said that if we did not publish Watt’s journal, no one would—and it needed to be published.

He agreed, and we began serious work on this book. We did make a good team. And we hope that George is pleased to finally have his guide published. Not exactly as he intended, to be sure, but published as he wanted.

About LaJean Purcell Carruth

LaJean Purcell Carruth is a senior historian at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City. She is the coeditor of Mountain Meadows Massacre: Collected Legal Papers.

About Ronald G. Watt

Ronald G. Watt is retired after working thirty-five years for the archives of the Latter-day Saint Church Historical Department. He is the author of four books, including The Mormon Passage of George D. Watt: First British Convert, Scribe for Zion.

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Further reading

George D. Watt resources


  1. As was typical for the time among shorthand reporters, Watt altered and edited his shorthand records as he transcribed. For more information on differences between his shorthand record and transcriptions, see Preached vs. Published: Shorthand Record Discrepancies (Part 1 of 3).

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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