On July 26, 1848, Thomas Davis Giles' life was changed forever. An estimated ton of coal separated from the ceiling of the Welsh mine where he was working, striking him on the head as it fell. The force of the blow opened a big gash in the back of his head and, worse, forced his eyes from their sockets.
That Giles survived the accident was miraculous. That he used the years of life he gained to make music with his harp, despite being blind, was a blessing to many. The Welsh pioneer became known throughout Utah Territory as the blind harpist.Born Nov. 28, 1820, in Blaenavon, Pembrokeshire, Wales, Giles joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1844 when about 2,000 of his countrymen allied themselves with the new religion.
Before and after the accident that took his sight, Giles labored as a missionary to bring others into the church. After he was blinded, he traveled throughout southern Wales with a guide.
In 1856, he emigrated to the United States with thousands of others determined to help build the New Zion. As a departure gift, friends gave him a harp, hoping music would fill some of the empty places in his life. The Giles sailed to Boston and then traveled overland to join the Edward Bunker handcart company to continue their westward trek. The company consisted almost exclusively of Welsh converts.
Being sightless did not excuse Giles from pulling his own handcart, loaded with all his possessions except one that he most valued - his harp. He had to leave the instrument behind temporarily because of stringent 17-pounds-per-person weight limits.
His personal sorrows multiplied along the trail. One historical source says he lost a small daughter and then his wife. A family account, however, says first a toddler, Maria, and then his wife, Margaret, and baby Elizabeth were put to rest in hastily dug graves along the trail.A longtime family friend (and ultimately his second wife) Hannah Evans, was walking along the trail with a later company and spotted a piece of shawl sticking out of a grave. She recognized it as Margaret's. She felt Giles had left the shawl exposed to tell her of Margaret's death.
To add to Giles' sadness, he was deprived of the companionship of his young sons, Joseph and Hyrum. They were assigned to another company because he could not care for them in his handicapped condition. With a partner, Alfred Reese, Giles continued to wrestle their cart along the rough terrain of the Pioneer Trail.
Grieving and ill, Giles appeared near death when his company reached Fort Bridger. The group delayed two days, anticipating he would die, but there was an urgency to keep moving to avoid late-autumn storms in the mountains. The leader left two of the company with Giles, expecting that they would bury him and then catch up with the main body.
Giles had been told that his old friend, Elder Parley P. Pratt, was expected in Fort Bridger en route to a mission in the East. Determined to seek a priesthood blessing from the man who had introduced him to the gospel, Giles simply refused to succumb until Pratt arrived. The church official blessed the Welshman that he would continue to live a long and useful life and he did.
Separated from their father and cared for by Hannah Evans, the Giles boys were subjected to the hardships of the Martin handcart company. Overcome by severe early storms at Martin's Hollow, Wyo., the company suffered heavy losses. Hannah wrapped her friends' sons in her skirts to keep them from freezing. She herself came out of the ordeal with frozen hands and feet and a frostbitten face before rescuers from Salt Lake Valley reached the stranded handcart companies.
Meanwhile, Giles had rejoined his own company and arrived in the valley Oct. 2, 1856. Reunited with the boys soon afterward, he later married Hannah and they became a family. Another son, Henry, was born to the new marriage. The family was a mainstay of the Welsh immigrant community, meeting countrymen as new wagon trains arrived, then providing them help in setting up homes in the territory's colonies.
Giles longed for his harp. President Brigham Young filled the void for him, donating a family harp until Giles' own arrived. The leader of the Mormon exodus and colonization admired Giles and became his champion, opening up opportunities for him to entertain. The blind harpist performed in the old Social Hall, Salt Lake Theater, countless churches and civic gatherings. His sons later joined his musical presentations.
The family lived for a time in Ogden, where Giles was invited by President Young to lead the Weber Stake choir for a conference.
In 1886, Henry Giles was called to Provo to organize the music department of Brigham Young Academy. He also headed music programs for Utah Stake and Provo city schools. His father and Hannah joined him. Thomas died there on Nov. 2, 1895, slightly more than two months before statehood became a reality. Utah was welcomed into the Union as its newest state.
The harp that had given pleasure to so many pioneers under the hands of the blind musician was displayed for a time in the state Capitol, then moved to the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Memorial Building.