The Sea Trek 2001 adventurers arrived in New York City ten days ago, completing their commemoration of 19th-century Mormon transatlantic migrations. Although it is impossible to truly re-create the past, the experience gave participants a taste of how truly awful the past could be as they endured a few of the hardships some of their ancestors faced on their way to Utah. And for hardships, it is hard to top the voyages of John E. Davis.
Like tens of thousands of other poor Britons, Davis was enamored of early Mormonism and answered the call to Zion. When he left Wales in 1853 at the age of sixty-two, he was partially blind and, by the standards of his day, already an old man. He proved to be one tough old man.
Davis signed on with the Perpetual Emigration Fund's Ten Pound Plan, an LDS Church charter operation that transported European Latter-day Saints to Utah for about $1,000 in today's money. His six-week voyage to New Orleans on the Jersey of Charleston was a piece of cake, darkened by only a single death but enlivened by about eight marriages. A steamboat took the converts to Keokuk, Iowa, to join a company under Brigham Young's son, Joseph W. Young. Ten to twelve people shared a wagon, and they had to walk most of the hard road to Utah. The emigrants survived on a pound of flour and a little milk per day, plus a scrap of bacon every week, although the bacon ration was reduced in Nebraska.
The younger people were constantly hungry, but Davis had been able to buy a little extra food and wrote that old men did not get as hungry. When the oxen began to drop from exhaustion and starvation, the travelers had an extra source of food. But they had to yoke the cows as replacements and the cows went dry. Davis arrived in Utah in October and was distressed to see that those who had no money got no food. He went to work in the canyons trimming timber until the snow fell.
Life in Zion proved to be no picnic. Discouraged, he decided to return to Wales, although fearing he would be shot for being a "back out." Long before the "like Utah or leave it" philosophy appeared, Davis told his neighbors he was moving to Box Elder. But in July 1854, he set out for California with an immigrant who had wintered in Salt Lake City. On the trail, his companion cheated him out of the little money he had managed to save, and Davis feared the man would murder him.
Arriving broke but alive in San Francisco, Davis signed on with a guano barge bound for Peru and beyond. (Guano? Don't ask.) The ship was chronically short of provisions and proved to be a leaky tub barely able to stay afloat. Somehow, the ship survived a twenty-three-day storm and rounded Cape Horn. Besides being constantly hungry, Davis now had the pleasure of being constantly wet. After 437 days at sea and a series of adventures that would have killed a dozen younger men, he arrived in London in February 1856.
Davis never left his home in Wales again, but his odd odyssey had a happy ending of sorts. He wrote a forty-eight-page potboiler pamphlet, Mormonism Unveiled; Or a Peep into the Principles & Practices of the Latter-day Saints. It went through several printings. He probably even made back his ten pounds.
Historian Will Bagley learned of the adventures of John E. Davis from historian Lyndia Carter.