Jenny Baker Stanford Bridged the Mormon-Gentile Gap

Becky Bartholomew
History Blazer, December 1995

Much has been written about Mormon-Gentile conflict in early Utah. But at least one non-Mormon came, saw, and conquered the hearts of her pioneer Mormon friends. Jenny Baker was born in London in 1850. Her law-clerk father, after release from debtor’s prison, abandoned the family, causing it to break up. Jenny, the youngest, was placed in a private home where she was well treated and educated. When grown she “went out” as a governess to British families posted throughout Europe. The other siblings became domestics and apprentices, having little or no contact. John, seven years Jenny’s senior, was working at a Southampton hotel when he converted to Mormonism. Preparing to emigrate, he said his last farewells to his mother. Two sisters refused to see him. He could not locate Jenny before sailing in 1862.

But nine years later John received a letter from Jenny, then 21. Upon their mother’s death she had learned his whereabouts. This began a correspondence that lasted 19 years. Jenny saved her brother’s letters, bringing them with her when she finally visited Utah. In almost every letter John urged her to come to Utah, portraying it as a place of glowing opportunity (although at times he gave her “both sides of the picture” so she would not be disappointed should she actually come). He even sold his half-interest in a mining claim to pay her fare.

Jenny was ambivalent. Once she responded that she had raised half the passage and wanted John to assure her of a position with an expatriate British family. But in a later letter (she was then living with her older sister, Fanny, who was against her going) she wrote that she “was perfectly content.” She was self-supporting and enjoying the most practical and interesting of educations—travel. One position took her to the Austrian Tyrol, another to Rome and Venice, still others to Ireland and Germany.

The letters show an affectionate, frank relationship between Jenny and John. He once teased her: “We were going to name the baby Jenny but as you seemed to think it one too many, Susan had it named Lucy. We think different here about large families than most people do….” In another letter she chastised him for “his feelings against England and his friends there.” He apologized, adding that his new loyalties were natural, America having given him so much.

In May 1879 he told of attending the April LDS Conference but did not reveal that while there he had taken two plural wives. Not until 1888 did he tell Jenny the truth: “I…have failed to inform you…for fear that in your want of understanding of the principle you might condemn me….” He described his daughter “Myrinda 8 years old who often says ‘Father, why don’t Aunt Jenny remember me as well as Jennie & Birdie…?'” and his expectation of being imprisoned at any time for cohabitation.

It is not clear why Jenny finally decided to visit. She had grown tired of travel. Most of John’s children were now grown, and his first wife gone; perhaps she felt it was then or never. In June 1890 John ecstatically sent a money draft through Mormon emigration officials for her passage. That fall Aunt Jenny arrived in Newton, Cache County. Her nieces and nephews finally met the source of all those loving gifts and letters.

John had warned her that only in Salt Lake or Ogden could she obtain the employment she knew. So after a while Jenny moved to Salt Lake City as a companion to Mrs. Jennings, “wife of a mining magnate”—probably William Jennings, Salt Lake mayor, businessman, railroad developer, and gold dealer. Mrs. Jennings would have been one of his two wives: Jane Walker Jennings or Priscilla Pead Jennings, both ex-Britons. The Jennings family occupied the former Staines mansion (renamed the Devereaux House for Jennings’s boyhood home) where they entertained a U.S. president and many other dignitaries.

Jenny traveled again, certainly to Alaska and no doubt also to the West Coast. In Salt Lake she made friends with the Jennings’s horticulturist, Stephen Stanford. Two years later they were married—in two ceremonies, one Mormon, one Church of England. Now a matron, Jenny continued to win over friends and family as “a gentle, refined lady, kind and generous.” The marriage endured until Stephen’s death in 1909. That is the year John took a mission to England, probably to escort Jenny home. She died in 1934.

Jenny Barker Stanford was not just the bridge between a family torn apart by custom and religion, but one of many bridges between Mormons and gentiles.

Source: “Letters of John H. Barker” in Kate B. Carter, ed., Our Pioneer Heritage, vol. 4 (Salt Lake City: Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, 1961).