A Study in Scarlet

A Study in Scarlet Summary and Analysis of Part II, Chapter I: On the Great Alkali Plain


Part Two opens with a description of the vast, uninhabitable region of America that stretches from the Sierra Nevada to Nebraska, the Yellowstone River to the Colorado. It is a massive, uninhabited desert filled with "barrenness, inhospitality, and misery.” It is covered with patches of alkali and offers no evidence of movement or life or vitality.

On May 4, 1847, however, someone looking down upon this scene would discern a traveler who may have been either the "very genius or demon of the region." He was haggard, emaciated, and dirty. He was toiling with some difficulty to climb down a ravine while looking for water. It was evident to him that he was actually going to die, as there was no water anywhere in sight. He set the large bundle he carried upon the floor, and to an observer's surprise, a young child tumbled out of it. She was small and lovely and not as near to death as the man.

The little girl's mother had died recently and when the man told her that they too would most likely die soon, she was actually pleased because then she could see her mother in heaven. The man was very kind to her, answering all of her childish questions about the land and indulging her request to get on their knees and pray. The two of them eventually fell into an exhausted sleep.

Across the plain something else was happening- a massive array of canvas-covered wagons and horsemen were moving across the plains in their journey to the West. The people were not merely seeking new opportunities; they were nomads looking for an entirely new country to escape persecution.

The grave men at the head of the train consulted with each other about their surroundings. They were interrupted when one cried out and pointed above them to the crags where a wisp of pink ribbon was espied. One brave man asked Brother Stangerson, one of the Elders, whether or not he should go and investigate. A few of the young men thus climbed up to where the mysterious ribbon awaited, and soon glimpsed the old man and the little girl sleeping. Above them rested three large and evidently hungry buzzards, which began to scream raucously.

The sleepers awoke, and when the man saw the other travelers in front of him he was convinced he was delirious and they were apparitions. After he was finally convinced otherwise, introductions were made. The man was John Ferrier and he called the little girl Lucy Ferrier, as he was now her guardian. The young men said they were "the persecuted children of God -the chosen one of the angel Merona" who had come from Illinois to "seek a refuge from the violent man and the godless, even though it be the heart of the desert." John Ferrier correctly identified them as the Mormons.

The young men took the Ferrier man and child down to their leader; this man was young but stern and resolute in appearance. He explained to Ferrier that the two could only travel with them if they joined their faith, as it was far better for "your bones to bleach in this wilderness than that you should prove to be that little speck of decay which in time corrupts the whole fruit." Ferrier smiled and agreed, and the caravan soon continued along its way to Zion.

The Elder who was to care for the travelers brought them to his wagon to give them food, and told them that they would soon recover from their fatigues and that they were now part of the Mormon religion -"Brigham Young has said it, and he has spoken with the voice of Joseph Smith, which is the voice of God."


The tale readers were involved in suddenly shifts gears, both in time (back to the 1840s) and in location (to America). Although there is no clear identification of who is telling this story, it is clear that it is somehow fleshing out the background information regarding the murderer, Jefferson Hope, and his two victims, Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson. The readers are introduced to John Ferrier and his adopted daughter, Lucy, as well as the formidable and charismatic Brigham Young, the leader of the Mormons.

The Mormon exodus is indeed what readers are confronted with in this first chapter of the second part of the novel, and the religious travelers above all appear hardy, industrious, and persevering. There is also a tinge of severity and strictness in Ferrier's almost-forced acceptance of the faith, but as he himself admits, there was not much choice in the matter.

Doyle describes the land in a very detailed fashion: it is "arid and repulsive," with the "common characteristics of barrenness, inhospitality, and misery," (69) and "no shadow of a sound in all that mighty wilderness" (70). This harsh description of the wilderness in all of its solemn brutality foreshadows the conflicts that the Ferriers will have with the Mormons themselves. This massive desert is not actually geographically accurate, but the literature of this time period tended to conflate actual deserts.

The character of John Ferrier is influenced by the characters of James Fenimore Cooper, a writer whom Doyle admired. Natty Bumppo/Leatherstocking/Hawkeye can be observed in the rendering of Ferrier. In Owen Dudley Edwards's footnotes to the Oxford World's Classics edition of A Study in Scarlet, he writes that "Cooper's romanticism, idealization of the young girl, and his tremendous landscapes, would have been powerful influences on ACD."

As for the Mormons, also referred to as the Latter Day Saints, they were heading toward a new land led by Brigham Young. He was not actually the young age of thirty when they migrated west, but this evocation of youth reinforces his power. He was initially a Methodist who converted to Mormonism after reading the Book of Mormon. He was chosen the third of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, then the first, then the leader of the Church after Joseph Smith died. It was his idea to move westward. Edwards writes that he was a "brilliant if despotic organizer of virtually no education, [and] he was an inspiring master of sublimity and invective, with little interest in theory."