Photo provided by Calvin Decker from Ron McDonald research on Montezuma Creek)
Born: 11 March 1850, in Salt Lake City, Utah
Died: 9 March 1939
Married: Emma Seraphine Smith, (4 October 1869)
Father: Zechariah Bruyn Decker, Sr.
Mother: Nancy Bean
Children on the trek: Zachariah Nathaniel, Louis Addison, Emma Constance, Inez Gertrude, Jesse Moroni
(Seraphine's history below Zechariah's)
Childhood – Learning to Work Hard
Zechariah Bruyn Decker, Jr., was the first of thirteen children born to Zechariah Bruyn Decker, Sr., and Nancy Bean. His father had been a member of the Mormon Battalion, and had successfully mined for gold at Sutter’s Mill in California before he came to Utah. He met and married Nancy Bean in Salt Lake City. Zechariah Jr. was born to them 11 March 1850. Sometime in the next few years the family moved to Parowan where they took up farming.
As a small child, Zechariah Jr. was curious and excited about the world around him. He would follow his father around the farm asking endless questions about the farm and about the animals. But even when his legs grew tired, his inquisitive mind did not. He would climb into the back of the wagon, lie down on his back, and talk to the ravens flying overhead, peppering them with more questions and talking to them about the world. When “Zach” was about four years old, his father was helping build the fort at Parowan by hauling dirt with his ox team. Little Zach wanted to help too, and many times became buried in the mounds of dirt that were dumped out of the back of the wagon.
Zach learned work hard from a young age, especially since his father suffered from rheumatism and was often in too poor of health to provide well for his large family. When Zach was just seven years old, he and his brother James were given responsibility for herding sheep during the summer. At age eight, he drove a team of horses to Salt Lake City, taking his mother and grandmother to his aunt’s house at Conference time. By age ten, Zach was in charge of harrowing the fields in preparation for planting, which he did as best at even after the ox stepped on his foot one day and would not move for some time! It is told that when about this age, Zach took the family’s tithing wheat to the tithing office all on his own. The bishop at the tithing office questioned him as to who would unload the heavy sacks of wheat, to which Zach answered that since he had loaded the wheat, he would unload it as well (1).
When Zach was about fourteen years old, his father’s health had declined to the point that Zach had to assume full responsibility for the family farm. His brother James, who was three years young, helped as well. But with so much work to do – caring for livestock, planting crops, hauling and chopping wood – Zach had little time for formal education. He spent about three months in the local school learning arithmetic, but did not have much interest in other studies. At age sixteen, he was given the task of herding the Parowan sheep herd of which his father had been given charge (2). Zach spent many years riding the range and had many dangerous experiences recovering stolen animals from both outlaws and local Indians.
As a young man, he was called to be part of a local militia organized to protect the Parowan settlers from hostile Indians. Zach was chosen as a picket guard. During his second week as a guard, he discovered several clues indicating the presence of Indians in the mountains surrounding the Parowan valley. He reported what he had found to his superior officer, who was doubtful of Zach’s findings. However, two days later he spotted several Indians stealing horses and raised a warning cry. The militia men raced after the Indians, but were unable to catch them before they escaped into the trees (3).
Marriage and Call to Colonize
When he was nineteen years old, Zechariah Jr. married Emma Seraphine Smith. Seraphine, as she was called, was the eldest daughter of Emma Seraphine West and Jesse Smith, who was a cousin of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Zach and Emma had twelve children together – six boys and six girls. When she was expecting their sixth child, they were called to the San Juan Mission. Zach became part of the initial exploring party who left in April 1879 to begin the task of finding a suitable location for settlement in the Four Corners area.
Not many of Zach’s experiences on this first trip are documented, aside from the more general records that have been kept of it, except one. When the group of approximately thirty-five men, women, and children had begun to establish the settlement of Bluff that summer, they tried as best they could to maintain life as they had known it prior to their departure. Regular church services, for example, were held on Sundays in the mornings and evenings. As the fourth of July approached, celebratory services were planned to celebrate Independence Day just as it might have been back home. Elizabeth Harriman, one of two women in the company, collected as many scraps of fabric as could be spared to make an American flag. She even used part of her daughter’s blue dress for the stars’ background. But the only red fabric to be found was donated by Zach – it was his long underwear. Without his willing contribution, no flag would have waved boldly above their patriotic festivities (4).
Hole in the Rock
Zach returned from the exploring expedition in the fall, collected his family and more provisions, and joined the main group of San Juan pioneers at the Hole-in-the-Rock. He helped with the blasting of the rocks and building of the road down the “slanticular” canyon (5). When it came time for him to take his wagons down the “Hole,” Zach hooked them together with a large tree tied to the back. He then locked the back wheels of the wagons, and hitched his six horses to the front. Almost as soon as the horses began their descent, the braking mechanism in the hind wagon gave out, and Zach had to drive the horses down at a run to keep up with the momentum of the wagon. One of the horses fell and was dragged along, becoming badly injured. Seraphine and the children did their best to make it down the “Hole” on foot. Much to her dismay, she realized she had left the baby asleep in the back of one of the wagons. She screamed to Zach to stop, but it was too late, the wagons were already careening down the slope. Amazingly, the baby slept peacefully through the wild and dangerous ride (6).
One night, Zach and a companion returned along the trail to find those who were following behind the wagons herding cattle and horses. They found them just in time to avoid a potential tragedy. The cattlemen had reached a watering hole prepared by the exploring company the previous year, only to find it in the possession of local Indians. The Indians refused to grant them access to it, which angered the pioneers. They managed to tie the Indian chief (named Pecone) to a wagon wheel and then proceeded to water their stock. Incensed, Indian warriors were gathering in preparation for a fight. Zach was able to diffuse the situation by immediately releasing the chief, speaking to him kindly in his native tongue, and then giving him one of the best steers as compensation. The chief acknowledge Zach as a “wise counselor” and called off his warriors. Zach and the cattlemen rode hard that night to put as many miles as possible between them and the Indians (7).
Trouble with Indians continued to plague Zach after he reached Montezuma Creek. He and his father had brought some blooded race horses with them to the San Juan. One Sunday as he was heading towards home after Sunday School, Zach saw Indians heading toward his place from a distance. His four oldest children were with him at the time, riding on the frame of the wagon as the wagon box had been removed. Zach told his children to hold on tight and then raced his horses home just in time to get his gun out of the house before the Indians arrived. That night he dreamed that the Indians would steal his and his father’s horses. Upon waking, he saddled his horse and rode to his father’s house to warn him. They discovered that the horses had indeed been driven away by the Indians. They found them nearly thirty miles up-river in the possession of four Indians who were just across the river from a larger Indian camp. The Indians in the camp spotted Zach and tried to warn the horse-thieves, but their cries merely served to distract them from Zach who was then able to take them by surprise and recover his horses (8).
In the summer of 1881, Zach moved his family to Snowflake, Arizona. Initially he worked for a grading company, until one afternoon he angered his employer. The man ordered Zach to leave but Zach refused, as he had not been fully paid, and instead sat down to eat the meal that was provided with him for his work. The man yelled and cursed at him, but Zach calmly finished his meal. Then he asked to be paid for the work he had done. The man refused, to which Zach replied, “‘You’ll feed me and my teams and pay us wages from the time I started on this job until I get paid in full.’”(9 ) Realizing that Zach would not back down, his employer gave him an invoice to present to the contractor for full payment. The contractor was impressed with Zach’s gumption and hired him on the spot to haul supplies. It turned out to be a better job than the one he had just lost.
In 1884, Zach leased some sheep from a man named William Flake. He set his oldest sons to work helping him care for the sheep about fifteen miles outside of Snowflake. The next year, however, the Aztec Land and Cattle Company obtained some of that land which had once been part of a government railroad grant. The Aztec cattlemen brought in scores of Texas long-horned cattle that made grazing sparse for Zach’s sheep. They tried to force local sheepherders and cattlemen to move their herds to the east side of snowflake, but Zach refused. He maintained that the Aztec men were only legally entitled to forty acres of land on either side of the railroad line. To complicate matters, the presence of so many cattle and sheep in the area invited the presence of cattle rustlers, horse thieves and outlaws, in addition to the Aztec employees who were often men of low character. Zach’s determination not to be bullied made him a prime target for their threats and unlawful activities. He had many experiences where his life was in danger as he protected his sheep. Finally, in 1886, Zach decided to trade his sheep for property in Snowflake where he could establish a farm and be away from the outlaws.
As luck would have it, however, Zach’s trouble with outlaws was not over yet. The next year, Zach had a run in with a man named Jim Stott, who had been heard to say that he would kill Zach Decker if ever given the chance. His chance came one night when Zach stopped at Stott’s ranch in search of his prize gray mare. The mare was missing, and Zach suspected Stott had stolen her and her colt. Zach spent the night at Stott’s, and when Stott left before breakfast the next morning and headed for the range, Zach followed at length behind. He tracked them for several miles out on to the neighboring Indian Reservation, where he soon found the mare and colt, but no Stott. He could tell by the tracks that Stott was already doubling back towards home. So after collecting his animals, Decker likewise returned to Stott’s ranch, where Stott greeted him cordially and inquired where he had found his animals. ‘”Right where you left them, Stott,’” was Zach’s reply. When Stott was asked why he did not shoot Zach when he had the chance, Stott replied that “he had too much respect for Decker’s gun.” About a year later, Stott was among a group of three men hanged by a band of vigilantes (10).
The year of 1887 proved to be one of change for Zach. It began with a solar eclipse on New Year’s Day, which he witnessed with awe and wonder just as the sun began to dawn. During the course of the year, the shadow of darkness passed over Zach’s life just as the moon had briefly blocked out the sun that first morning. He had sold his land in Snowflake and purchased a share in the Shumway grist mill with a farm nearby. He moved his family there, and while Seraphine home-schooled the children, Zach ran the mill. All seemed to be going well for the family until autumn came and several in the Decker household, including Zach, contracted diphtheria. Four of the children died within a week of each other, though Zach’s life was spared. It was a sad time for the family during which their faith in the Lord was tested and strengthened. In total, Zach and Seraphine were the parents of twelve children, the last being born on 16 September 1892. They fittingly named him Silas Smith after the leader of the San Juan Mission that had brought them south in the first place.
Just before the birth of little Silas, Zach moved his family back to Snowflake so the older children could attend formal schooling. They lived on forty acres in the settlement of Taylor, just outside Snowflake. On January 5, 1894, Zach was ordained to the office of High Priest and set apart to be the bishop of the Taylor Ward by Brigham Young, Jr. (11) Though it was a calling he had never desired or sought after, he willingly accepted it and served faithfully for sixteen years.
Once, during his tenure as the bishop, he and some friends had gone out on a wild horse round up. Among the horses they had caught was a high-spirited stallion that none of the men dared to try and ride except Zach, who after some coaxing by his companions, mounted the wild horse. Immediately the stallion began to buck and kick and pitch, trying hard to throw Zach. He stayed on the horse as best he could, only to find that once he was finally off it, he had lost more than just his hat! His knife, keys, coins and other items from his pockets were scattered all over the ground, and his spurs were turned around over the insteps of his feet. It had been a wild ride that left his friends highly entertained (12).
Zach’s beloved wife, Seraphine, died of breast cancer in 1909 (13). At the time of her passing, they still had two teenage children living at home. In 1915 Zach married Carilena Closcious (Lena), but sadly she also died of cancer only seven years later. For the next seventeen years Zach lived mostly alone, being too independently minded to live with any of his children. He spent a few winters in Mesa doing temple work, but then returned home to Snowflake. He became quite lonely and discontented in his final years of life, especially after his hearing became impaired and it was difficult for him to converse well with others. He died 9 March 1939, just two days before his eighty-ninth birthday (14).
Sources and article compiled by by C.S.M. Jones LLC, Family Heritage Consulting for Hole in the Rock Foundation
1. Francine Decker Holt, “History of Zechariah Bruyn Decker, Jr. and Emma Serphine Smith,” unpublished history from the files of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, Salt Lake City, UT.
2. Francine Decker Holt’s account states that Zechariah Jr. was herding cattle, not sheep. 2.
3. Decker, Louis A., “Brief Sketch of the Life of Zechariah Bruyn Decker, Jr., son of Zachariah Bruyn Decker and Nancy Bean,” unpublished history available in the LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT, 2.
4. This anecdote is related by George Hobbs in his narrative of the first exploring party found in the “San Juan Stake History” available at LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT. Also noted in David E. Miller, Hole-in-the-Rock: An Epic in the Colonization of the Great American West (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1966), 29.
5Francine Decker Holt, 3.
7.Ibid.; Louis A. Decker, 2-3.
8. Francine Decker Holt, 3-4; Louis A. Decker 3-4.
9.Louis A. Decker, 5.
10.Louis A. Decker, 8-9; Francine Decker Holt, 5.
11.Andrew Jenson, ed., “Decker, Zachariah Bruyn, Jr.,” Latter-Day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia (Salt Lake City, Utah: Western Epics, 1971), vol. 4:618. It should be noted that Zach’s date of death is incorrect in this volume.
Decker article by C.S.M. Jones LLC, Family Heritage Consulting for Hole in the Rock Foundation
He and Emma Sedraphine are listed as pioneers who came to Utah prior to May 10, 1869
Decker genealogy lines
Additional information from Ron McDonald: "When Zac and Seraphine Decker arrived at Montezuma Zechariah was thirty, and Saraphine was twenty-seven. Quoting from Zechariah; “Erastus Snow asked me to take charge of the place called Montezuma. I did my best.”
Four of Zechariah’s brothers and his sixty-four year old father were also Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers. Zechariah Sr. chose to begin his ranch next to his son Zechariah Jr. and their family. Zechariah, who was usually referred to as Zack, along with his father located on land two miles north of Fort Montezuma on the bank of the Montezuma Wash which would be the site for their cattle ranch. Corrals were built first, followed by construction of two cabins. Zechariah Sr.’s cabin was a fair distance from Zack’s. They were probably planning to apply for homesteads of 160 acres each.
During the 1800s, Montezuma Wash carried a significant year-round stream with a few exceptions
when a long drought would dry it up. This occurred at least one time during 1875. In 1880, the
headwaters of Montezuma Creek at Blue Mountain included North Creek, South Creek, Upper
Montezuma, (now called Verdure), Devils Canyon, and a number of smaller tributaries and springs,
some of which have since been diverted. No water from Blue Mountain has reached the San Juan River
by way of Montezuma Wash for many years.
They called it Montezuma Wash, because rainstorms would swell the stream, making it better described as a wash than a creek or stream. The location probably looked inviting to Zach and his father, because there was water, but unlike the San Juan River, it was much smaller and less threatening. However, they were tempting fate by setting up housekeeping in a corridor regularly traveled by renegade Indians. They would have visitors."
During June of 1881, Zack abandoned everything he had built at Montezuma Wash, taking only what they could fit in the wagon. The family set out to join Seraphine’s family at Snowflake Arizona. Their remaining possessions on arriving at Snowflake were the wagon, four horses, 200 pounds of flour, and $100. Snowflake would become their permanent home. (Ron McDonald, Fort Montezuma 1879-1884 An account of the first Mormon settlers in San Juan County, Utah.)
Born: 12 August 1853 in Parowan, UT
Died: 27 December 1909 in Taylor, AZ
Married: Zechariah Bruyn Decker, Jr., on 4 October 1969
Parents: Jesse N. Smith and Emma Seraphine Smith
Emma Seraphine Smith Decker, who was named after her mother but called by her middle name, Seraphine, was born in Parowan, Utah. Her father, Jesse N. Smith, was a cousin of the Prophet Joseph Smith and younger brother to Silas Sanford Smith, President of the San Juan Mission in 1879. Seraphine’s father was often away from home on church assignments or missions, and since she was the oldest child with six sisters born after her, Seraphine grew up doing a lot of outdoor chores around the family farm. She shared a bed with her grandmother, Mary Aikens Smith, who had once been a school teacher and who became her tutor until she could attend school.
When her father left on his second mission to Denmark, he gave young Zechariah Bruyn Decker, Jr., permission to escort Seraphine to school activities and dances. Zach would arrive at the social function with a bag of grain on one arm (it was his ticket in) and Seraphine on the other. On at least one occasion, Seraphine made her dance dress all by herself – from carding the wool and spinning yarn, to weaving it into a woolly linen fabric and sewing it. She loved Zach’s curly hair and kind smile. He was not a man of many words, but he treated her in such a way that she always knew he loved her. They were married October 4, 1869, before Seraphine’s father had even returned from Denmark. Seraphine was seventeen years old; Zach was nineteen.
Their first child – a little girl – passed away in infancy. The cause of the baby’s passing is attributed to “incompetent nursing” according to one of their other daughters . No doubt it was a difficult time for the young couple. But in addition to her heartache, Seraphine suffered from “milk leg” during her postpartum weeks. (“Milk leg” is a condition in which blood clots form in the femoral vein after childbirth and cause swelling and great pain in the leg). It was a dangerous condition that continued to bother her as she gave birth to eleven more children. With the birth of her twelfth child she experienced another particularly bad attack and was bedridden.
Hole in the Rock
Seraphine and Zach had been married ten years when they were called to the San Juan Mission. She was expecting their sixth child at the time, (counting the baby they lost at the first), and their other children ranged in age from seven years down to seven months. They were one of the few pioneers who had a stove in their wagon! When it came time for them to make their descent down the Hole-in-the-Rock, Zach tied their two wagons together and then hitched all six horses to the front wagon while making sure to lock and block the brakes on the hind wagon. One of the brakes broke, however, as the horses began to plunge down the slope. Consequently, the momentum of the back wagon forced Zach to whip his teams along even faster and more recklessly than perhaps he would have liked. One of the horses fell and was dragged along as they went. By the time they reached the bottom of the steep canyon, Zach’s wagons and teams were in a tangled heap.
Seraphine and the children were making their way down the slope as best they could on foot when all this occurred. Watching the horses go crashing down the rocky road sent a wave of panic through Seraphine. She screamed to Zach that the baby was asleep in the hind wagon! Amazingly, the little babe did not even wake during the dramatic ride, but was delivered to his mother’s arms safe and sound asleep at the base of the rocky walls.
After the Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers had made their descent down the rocky canyon, and safely crossed the raging Colorado River, they spent nearly two weeks building a road up the Colorado Plateau. As the Deckers began their upward climb, they fell behind the main group in company with the Jim Decker family and the Mons Larson family. It was bitterly cold, and Sister Larson had carried her two boys – one on each arm - up the Plateau, for their little feet were frostbitten and purple. She no sooner reached the top than was in labor with her third child. Seraphine and her sister-in-law (who had given birth at Fifty-mile Spring) were there to help with the delivery, which was accomplished during a fierce snowstorm. Brother Larson desperately tried to pitch a tent so his wife could have shelter and some semblance of comfort. But she gave birth lying across the spring seat of the wagon as the snow swirled around her. Three days later, the two Decker families and the Larsons packed up and headed after the main wagon train. Seraphine wanted the new mother and her baby to ride in their wagon with them, since they had the comfort of a stove in it, but Brother Larson declined their offer – he did not trust anyone but himself to drive his precious new cargo.
Seraphine and Zach each drove a wagon as they traveled on to Bluff. Unfortunately for Seraphine, one member of the team she was driving was a very stubborn and frustrating mule. At one point along the way, the mule caused the wagon to tip over. Precious grains of wheat, meant for seed in the spring, spilled out all over the ground – wasted!
The Deckers did not settle in Bluff, but moved up river to Montezuma Creek. They lived there for two years during which time Zach served as the Presiding Elder of the settlement.
In 1881 Zach and Seraphine moved their family to Snowflake, Arizona. They traveled by way of Fruitland and the old Santa Fe Railroad trail until they reached Brigham City (Winslow) where Seraphine’s father was working in railroad commissary for John W. Young, the railroad contractor. Seraphine arrived at her parent’s home on her twenty-eighth birthday – their journey’s end being a welcome birthday present. While living in Arizona Seraphine gave birth to six more children. Sadly, however, four of her children died of diphtheria in 1887. Yet in spite of her trials and difficulties, Seraphine never complained. She accepted with faith whatever circumstances came her way.
Seraphine served faithfully in many church callings and capacities. She especially loved working with children, and was the Snowflake Stake Primary President at the time of her death in 1909. She died in Taylor, Arizona, at the age of fifty-six from breast cancer after months of suffering and decline. Her passing was keenly felt by those who knew and loved her, particularly her husband of thirty-nine years. Nevertheless, she left behind a legacy of faith and courage and is honorably remembered for her life of service and devotion to God.
Daphne Decker Bushman, “Emma Seraphine Smith Decker,” unpublished history from the files of Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Salt Lake City, UT.
Ellen Johanna Larson Smith, “Biography of Mons Larson, Pioneer,” unpublished history from the files of Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Salt Lake City, UT.
Francine Decker Holt, “History of Zechariah Bruyn Decker, Jr. and Emma Serphine Smith,” unpublished history from the files of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, Salt Lake City, UT.
Louis A. Decker, “Brief Sketch of the Life of Zechariah Bruyn Decker, Jr., son of Zachariah Bruyn Decker and Nancy Bean,” unpublished history available in the LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.
Decker articles by C.S.M. Jones LLC, Family Heritage Consulting for Hole in the Rock Foundation