Edward L. Carter, utahvalley360.com
Standing at tHE FOOT of Palenque’s majestic Temple of Inscriptions, I pictured Benjamin Cluff. Nearly a century before, Cluff, then president of Provo’s Brigham Young Academy, had walked these same jungle paths in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas. I came to Palenque in May 1998 to chronicle the visit of BYU President Merrill J. Bateman, but I found myself chasing the ghost of Cluff.
Carefully, I began the steep ascent of the Temple of Inscriptions, which tour companies catering to today’s Latter-day Saints advertise as the one containing an engraving made by a Book of Mormon king. I used my hands and knees on the shallow steps leading to the top. There, I turned and looked north toward the edge of Chiapas’ highlands. The questions grew dense, like nearly everything else in this humid tropical forest.
Unlike others, I didn’t seek to unlock Mayan mysteries. Instead, I wondered what Cluff and his companions had felt after walking and riding mules two thousand miles from Provo to prove the book of their faith. The sight of Palenque must have been thrilling but also daunting. It represented both Cluff’s dream and his nightmare. By finding evidence of the Book of Mormon, he wanted to establish his school as a serious academic institution. But proving a book of scripture would turn out to be a greater challenge than Cluff imagined.
“Our visit to Palenque brought us in contact with the type of archaeological features we had set out to examine,” Cluff would recall decades later. “The visit was more than interesting. It was highly enlightening.”
My vision became filled with events of the so-called South American Exploring Expedition of 1900, when two dozen BYA students and faculty embarked on what would become one of the most incredible and infamous ventures in Utah history. For the first time, the story — which I knew well from studying the journals of expeditioners — came alive. I felt somehow connected to Cluff, and I had the impression that while telling his story might not justify Cluff’s enterprise, it might justify mine.
A MAN AND HIS DREAM
Benjamin C. Cluff Jr. was born Feb. 7, 1858, in Provo. He began attending Brigham Young Academy in 1877, just one year after it was founded. After completing his studies, Cluff became one of the first Mormons to attend graduate school east of the Rocky Mountains. Cluff earned a master’s degree at the University of Michigan despite warnings from church leaders that it would destroy his religious faith. He later succeeded Karl G. Maeser as president of Brigham Young Academy.
As BYA president, Cluff dreamed of an archaeological expedition to Latin America that would show the world the veracity of the Book of Mormon. Cluff wasn’t the first nor the last to speculate about the location of events and people in the book. For Mormons, the speculation began immediately after adventurous New York attorney John Lloyd Stephens in 1841 published Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. Stephens was not a Mormon and made no mention of the Book of Mormon, but his travelogue introduced 19th century U.S. readers to the enchanting world of ancient Central American cultures and the ruins they left behind. Times and Seasons, an LDS Church-operated newspaper, published a book review encouraging Mormons to match the cultures documented by Stephens with those of the Book of Mormon. Since that day, there have been Latter-day Saints searching for the Book of Mormon’s physical remains.
When a long pack train bound for Valparaiso, Chile, left Provo on April 17, 1900, Cluff became one of the founders of a travel industry that now includes professors, tour guides and authors who connect Utahns with Central American ruins. The members of the expedition had been carefully chosen and then set apart by LDS Church officials for the special mission. Cluff envisioned finding the Book of Mormon city of Zarahemla, which he believed to be located on the Magdalena River in Colombia.
“The long expected day has come,” student voyager Asa S. Kienke wrote in his diary. “The day seemed brightened with songs from every side, each one starting the history of a new life. In my heart I rejoiced, for to my mind I too was starting out on the success or failure of my life.”
The first phase of the trip, winding south through Utah roughly along the route of present-day I-15, was what Nephi native Kienke termed “The Period of Banquets.” Residents of nearly every town along the way feted the expeditioners, who sometimes ate two major meals in an evening and then danced until the early morning hours. Problems surfaced early: The group’s waterproof cloaks leaked (“Z.C.M.I. will find trouble,” Kienke vowed); firearms were accidentally discharged; novice horsemen had trouble with their animals; and students were reprimanded and warned of release from the journey for bad conduct that included staying out all night and “riding with girls of ill repute.”
In early June, Cluff and his charges reached Thatcher, Ariz., where their progress stalled because of requirements placed upon them by Mexican border officials. Cluff purchased a new wagon for $67 and took Paul Henning, a recent German convert to Mormonism who had joined the expedition in Arizona, and another explorer to seek help. The trio visited Mormon colonists in Mexico and tried to convince border officials to relent. Before he left the group in mid-June, Cluff instructed those remaining in Thatcher to divide into pairs and preach as missionaries.
“This information was received with scant enthusiasm because everybody desired very much to get on with the trip and begin their explorations,” recalled explorer Eugene L. Roberts, a Provo native who would later go on to teach physical education at BYU and stage a popular annual hike of Mt. Timpanogos.
During the monthlong delay in the summer heat, expeditioners enjoyed banquets, dances and chats with welcoming families, but little missionary work was done. One exception was Walter Tolton, a 35-year-old faculty member from Beaver, who managed in two weeks to hold more than 150 “gospel conversations” and 13 meetings. However, there were many who spent little time preaching and much time suspecting that Cluff dallied in one of the Mormon colonies to be with Florence Reynolds, a former student who eventually became his third wife during the expedition.
When apostle Heber J. Grant visited the stymied and leaderless expedition in Thatcher, morale was low and behavior insolent.
At last, in the middle of July, Cluff sent word for the group to advance to Nogales on the Mexican side of the border. But customs officials’ demand of a $2,367 bond halted movement once again, and both men and boys became restless. About this time, Grant delivered in Salt Lake City a scathing report to church leaders, who decided to disband the expedition. Lack of preparedness, risk of harm, bad luck and ill feelings about Cluff’s relationship with Reynolds seemingly had doomed the trip.
On August 12, 1900, President Joseph F. Smith of the First Presidency arrived in camp and delivered the news. Smith read a telegram from LDS Church Pres. Lorenzo Snow, who said the trip should end unless Smith saw reason to believe otherwise. Cluff’s protestations (he said he had to proceed “because that which is sweeter than life itself depends upon it”) persuaded Smith to give organizers a little breathing room.
“Now I will not say for you to stop, nor to go, but to my mind, the company is too large,” Smith said during a somber Sunday afternoon meeting. “If any go, they should not be more than a few, seven or 10.”
Smith also made it clear that those who did continue were no longer on church missions; instead, he said, they must take responsibility upon themselves. But to those who did continue, Smith promised all the blessings they previously had been told they would receive. Including Cluff, nine were chosen to go on. The remainder either volunteered for church missions elsewhere or were sent home. It was a dark day for all.
“I wept like a child and so did most of the others,” recalled Kienke. “It was one of the saddest partings that I ever had.”
For nearly a month after leaving Nogales on their southward journey, Cluff and the others enjoyed the hospitality of Mormon colonists in Mexico. Cluff also apparently spent some time with his new bride, Florence. As the colonies were left behind, members of the expedition rejoiced that Florence Cluff would not follow as the group began crossing the Sierra Madres, then stopped in Mazatlan before heading for Mexico City. Kienke, who later would become a high school shop teacher in Salt Lake City and number among his pupils future LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, didn’t mince words.
“Farewell, Sister Cluff, fare thee well,” Kienke wrote on Sept. 13, 1900. “Oh happy day, thou has come at last when from females we are free.”
After months of enduring hardships that included lack of food, near-fatal scorpion bites, depression and news of family troubles at home, the explorers by late February 1901 had reached the high plains of Chiapas, located on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. While the confidence of others in the trip wavered, Cluff was as determined as ever. He seemed highly optimistic he would achieve his dream.
“Over the country we now travel lived many a happy Nephite family,” he wrote to an associate in a letter. “I am impressed more and more with the importance of this work.”
Cluff decided that he, Kienke, Henning and Tolton would leave their companions behind to rest with their animals for 18 days while the four of them undertook a 240-mile round trip walk to Palenque. They walked up to 20 miles a day, ate monkey meat, and Cluff nearly drowned when, while trying to swim across a swift river, his pants fell down and hobbled him. Once at Palenque, though, the group made its first serious — albeit weak by today’s standards — effort at archaeological study. All four explorers on the excursion to Palenque recorded observations and drawings in their journals. But they had little or no formal training in archaeology, and their writings consisted primarily of simple impressions. Kienke was convinced the ruins were “Nephitish,” and he seemed honored to be in “the city where Stephens visited 60 years ago.”
Cluff’s observations of Palenque later were lost when, in Panama City, he gave five volumes of journals to banker Henry Ehrman to ship to Provo. They never made it. Decades later, when asked about Palenque, Cluff could recall few specifics.
“As I remember, the builders of the structures that now lay in ruins were considerably advanced in science and art,” he said near the end of his life. “Their carvings were excellent and displayed a high order of craftsmanship. The buildings had been solidly constructed.”
WHEN YOUR HERO FAILS
A century after Cluff and his companions camped in one of Palenque’s ruins, I realized the day was nearly gone. I climbed down the steps of the Temple of Inscriptions.
Then, and for a long time after, I had Cluff on my mind. Back home, I sought answers to the questions that sprouted during my own exploring expedition to Central America.
I discovered some of the trip’s successes. Henning, who stayed in Central America even after the other explorers left, made significant progress in translating indigenous languages and studying Central American cultures. Chester Van Buren, a biologist, collected and shipped to Provo a substantial collection of Central American birds. John B. Fairbanks, an artist whose sons Avard and Leo later became well-known sculptors, documented the expedition in a series of paintings. Individual explorers like Roberts attributed much of their lifelong interest in adventure and the outdoors to the trip. Tolton, who later would write that he believed some “white Indians” he had seen in Mexico were descendants of the Nephites, said he gained a strong spiritual testimony of the Book of Mormon.
But Cluff’s reputation had been damaged beyond repair because he wouldn’t give up on a fantasy doomed to fail. Although he eventually reached Colombia, he was forced by civil unrest in that country to retreat to Provo for a temporary furlough that would last forever.
When he returned to Brigham Young Academy in 1902, Cluff encountered allegations about his leadership of the expedition. He was forced to stand trial before BYA’s Board of Trustees for charges of mismanagement and immorality, the latter stemming from his marriage to Reynolds.
Although acquitted of all but a minor charge, a disillusioned Cluff lost support of the board. One of his final acts before leaving Provo was to oversee the transformation of Brigham Young Academy into Brigham Young University.
Cluff then tried his hand at running a rubber plantation in Mexico. That failed, too. Years later, Roberts would find Cluff selling fruit at a roadside stand in California. Cluff didn’t receive due credit for the good he had done at the Provo school, Roberts believed. After decades of estrangement, Cluff finally was invited back to campus on June 4, 1946, to receive the BYU Alumni Association’s “Distinguished Service Award.” While acknowledging the honor, Cluff didn’t attend and Roberts accepted the award for him.
Although largely ignored as a scholarly contributor, Cluff did prove at least one thing about the Book of Mormon. In the article “How Far to Cumorah?” preeminent Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley wrote that Cluff’s journey “proves that Jaredite or Lamanite armies could easily have followed the old established patterns of making yearly raids of continental scope.”
Fifty years after the original Zarahemla expedition, BYU archaeologists organized a follow-up trip to Central America. In 1952, BYU established the New World Archaeological Foundation, and several faculty members achieved recognition for their work during the ensuing five deacdes.
Cluff himself foresaw this when, in 1947, he said that his 1900 expedition may not have recovered evidence of Book of Mormon peoples, but it had opened the door for further research in Central and South America.
Two years have passed since I sat atop the Temple of Inscriptions and thought of Benjamin Cluff. In that time, I followed him east to graduate school, earning a master’s degree at Northwestern University. As he had, I returned to Provo and taught college students. I spent countless hours pondering the vision and courage of his trip, as well as its many faults.
Sometimes, I tell friends about my dream to return to Central America. If I could just get to Panama City and track down Cluff’s five volumes of lost writings, I say, I might be able to help others understand the expedition and its leader. I even hope for what seems improbable — that I might discover something that would redeem Cluff’s name.
But when my hero is a failure, my dreams are easily misunderstood. Some say my admiration for Cluff is as misplaced as his own hopes for the expedition were. I accept the fact that Cluff’s taking of a plural wife even after the Manifesto of 1890 tainted the Central American trip.
But Cluff’s was a Quixotic quest, almost reckless in its unabashed purpose and certainly reckless in its execution. But I identify with Cluff more than with his detractors. When I think about the moxie and adventurous spirit that would lead a man to attempt something so grand, I’m able to picture Cluff from atop the Temple of Inscriptions with unmatchable admiration.
Edward L. Carter covered Utah County news for three years for the Deseret News. He is now pursuing a degree at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School and teaching journalism as a part-time BYU faculty member.