by Aubrey Watts
Of all the stories in the exhibit, William Clayton’s life and service has always stood out to me. This was a man of many accomplishments and who had studied and learned much. He is a wonderful example to us here at BYU of how we can use our learning to serve others—those within and without the Church.
William Clayton was born in England in 1814, and was the oldest of 14 children. He held a job as a factory clerk in his early adulthood, which laid a foundation from which he would go forward to use his skills as he served and worked in Zion.
Introduction to the Church & Nauvoo
Clayton first heard of the LDS church from two of the Apostles—Orson Hyde and Heber C. Kimball—when he was 22 years old. He was baptized shortly thereafter in October 1836 along with his newly-wed wife and other family members. Clayton came to Nauvoo only four short years after being baptized.
There he served in many capacities, including scribe and clerk to the Prophet, elected treasurer of Nauvoo, officer in the Nauvoo Music Association, and many others:
The Trek West
After Joseph Smith was martyred, and Brigham Young had been called as the President of the Church, Clayton served as a scribe to Young. He was part of the vanguard group that trekked the plains to eventually settle in the Salt Lake Valley. It was during this trek that Clayton’s creativity and curiosity really came to benefit the Saints.
As they began to make their way across the plains, Clayton wanted a way to measure the distance they had travelled. He began by tying a piece of cloth to one of the wheels of a cart, and counting each time the wheel made a full rotation, then he would calculate distance traveled from the circumference of the wheel and the number of rotations. However, this quickly became tiresome, and Clayton looked for another way to solve the problem: he drew up a design of a wheel with a mechanism which would count or record the revolutions of the wheel. The company’s carpenter, Appleton Milo Harmon, then completed the mechanism. The “roadometer” was first used on May 12, 1847, and became the precursor to the modern Odometer.
A great lover of music, Clayton wrote lyrics for hymns along the trail to Salt Lake. He penned the words for the well-loved hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints”—set to the tune of the traditional English song “All is Well”—in response to the birth of his son. He said “I feel to thank my heavenly father for my boy and pray that he will spare and preserve his life and that of his mother and so order it so that we may soon meet again” (Journal of William Clayton, April 1846).
The hopeful words of this hymn inspired many as they crossed the plains through terrible conditions and with depleted resources.
Journal and Record Keeping
Clayton’s personal travel journal is one of the more well-known pioneer journals today. He and John C. Frémont kept a meticulous record of the trek—with immense help from his “roadometer”—including distances, paths, suggestions for places to set up camp, and descriptions of the landscape. This record was later published as the “The Latter-Day Saints’ Emigrants’ Guide”, and was used by other Mormon migrants, as well as people of other faiths traveling to the Oregon and California territories.
William Clayton was a wonderful example because he used the resources and knowledge he had in order to serve others around him. His service benefited not only the members of the church, but countless others who travelled across the plains, and even us today with the odometer.