Who’s That Pioneer?: Reconstructing a Life Using the Church History Library (Part 1 of 3)

by Jay G. Burrup, Church history specialist and archivist
15 September 2020

The Church History Library’s collections tell countless stories about historical figures both famous and forgotten. In this first of a three-post series, follow along with one of our archivists as he uncovers the life history of an unknown pioneer.

Years ago, while pursuing research at the Church History Library, I came across two documents in Bishop Edward Hunter’s papers listing personal property belonging to Franklin Knox Shedd. One document, dated April 21, 1848, listed his possessions, some of which were held or stored by several friends; another document, dated eight days later, detailed the sale of his property at public auction, including the sale amounts and the names of those who bought the items.

I knew the names of many pioneers from that time period, but I didn’t recognize Franklin K. Shedd. Fueled by curiosity, I endeavored to learn as much as I could about him. Who was he? Why was his property auctioned off? What became of him?

Searching the documents at the Church History Library uncovered brief biographical glimpses of Franklin in diaries of early pioneers, letters, newspaper articles, Salt Lake Stake records, and the Church History Library’s Pioneer Database; there were even two poems written about his death. Additionally, since the name “Franklin Shedd” is uncommon, and because I had an approximate date of death and a place of death, I pinpointed him relatively quickly at FamilySearch.org.

Based on those sources, here is his story.

He was born on May 19, 1825, in Brighton, Massachusetts, to Thomas and Abigail Hoppin Greenleaf Shedd. Franklin was one of 10 children. His father died in Massachusetts in 1848; Franklin’s mother lived until 1863.

Franklin was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sometime prior to May 6, 1846; that was the day that he and five other members of a committee organized in the Boston (Massachusetts) Conference signed a resolution expressing support for Brigham Young’s legitimacy as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, for the authority of Elder Jesse C. Little to supervise the Church in the “Eastern [U.S.] lands,” and for the organization and coordination of an emigration plan to “California.”

On April 12, 1847, the firm of Mullet and Bradbury of Charlestown, Massachusetts, wrote a letter of recommendation for Franklin. Apparently, the firm contracted with the U.S. Navy to supply mechanical lubrication products. The authors, who had employed Franklin for two years, stated that “we do willingly reckermend [recommend] you to be a young man of good Habits—and possessing a character for honesty—and well calculated to do business for your self, or for anybody that may sea [see] fit to employ you.” (The letter eventually ended up in the possession of Edward Hunter, the Presiding Bishop of the Church, whose papers are held by the Church History Library.)

Emigrating Church members formed the Jedediah M. Grant–Willard Snow Company on June 21, 1847; when they organized the company at an outfitting point on the Elkhorn River, about 27 miles west of Winter Quarters, Nebraska, Franklin was there. We don’t have any record of how he got from Massachusetts to Nebraska, a journey of over 1,400 miles. However, once he embarked on the trek west, Franklin began writing letters to his family—letters which tell of an amazing journey.

Top Image: Salt Lake City in 1850, as drawn by Samuel Manning (image taken from Samuel Manning’s American Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil, 1876)

In part two of this series, see what our archivist discovered about Franklin Shedd’s trip to the West.