The biggest problem I’m having writing about this mysterious group of pilgrims I mentioned below is that they left behind precisely one record. That’s it. Only one document written by a member of this group survives. Just one. It’s a nice letter, a helpful letter. I’m grateful that it exists. But it’s lonely.
Now, there is hope for the persevering historian soldiering on in the air-conditioned libraries and archives he calls home. There were several dozen newspaper articles about these pilgrims, a couple of accounts penned by frontier travelers who crossed their path, a fairly early history (ca. 1842) that noticed them, and a handful of brief notes written by frustrated and bewildered Shakers who, as they saw it, had the great misfortune of having to deal with these unkempt nomads invading their orderly villages.
But here is another problem—a problem that may, in fact, be more significant than the existence of that single friendless letter: all these other sources—the newspaper reports, the travelers’ journals, the curt Shaker diary entries—treat the pilgrims as singular oddities, as fanatics, as deluded souls, as religious impostors, as figures worthy of ridicule and contempt. The loathing rises out of the past like a heavy smoke.
And then there's this: modern historians who have written about these mysterious pilgrims essentially endorse the “findings” and tone of these early sources. The pilgrims’ chief modern chronicler described them as an example of American religious insanity. Yes, insanity. His words. Well, to be fair, he was quoting de Tocqueville. But let's not quibble. He was quoting de Tocqueville with approval.
But, look, I don’t buy it. I don’t think these pilgrims were insane. I don’t think they were fanatics or deluded enthusiasts. I think they are noteworthy. I think they are important. I think they are fascinating. But I don't think they were crazy. Alas, I seem to be alone in that opinion. And I note that. I wonder about it. I wonder whether I'm wrong, whether I might, in my own geeky and romantic way, be deluded as well.