Many Mormon Immigrants Delayed Their Journey to Utah

Becky Bartholomew
History Blazer, December 1995

At the end of her voyage to America, contemplating whether to continue to Utah or remain in Iowa for a season, Welsh pioneer Priscilla Merriman wrote: “[My husband was offered] Ten Dollars a day to work at his trade of iron roller, but money was no inducement to us….” The Evans put together an “outfit” (wagon, oxen, and supplies) and headed across the Plains. Priscilla justified this decision by writing, “Many who stayed apostatized or died of Cholera.” This sentiment was expressed in a number of pioneer journals. The result is a misconception that the Mormon immigration–both sea and plains crossing–was a uniform experience accomplished under uniform arrangements.

Actually the immigrants’ paths were much more diverse. A study of 100 British Mormon women who immigrated between 1838 and 1888 reveals that only 54 percent “went on” to Utah the year they arrived in America. The others tarried in the Midwest or eastern states for a year or longer before gathering to Zion.

Take Isabella Wade Allred’s father. He initially turned down a railroad job from Jim Boyd, instead buying a modest outfit and starting his family to Utah. But a few weeks into the trek he changed his mind, accepting work as section foreman on the transcontinental railroad. After two years, having accumulated $3,000 for a more comfortable outfit, the family continued west.

Eliza Dorsey Ashworth and her husband tarried in St. Louis long enough for two more children to be born to them. After four years they still had not been able to go west, largely because of the expense of burying the two babies and caring for a crippled son. When they had finally saved enough, Eliza was seven months pregnant again and her husband wanted to delay another year. This time Eliza said, “No…. Maybe if we wait we will be unable to make the trip for many years.”

Rachel Price’s family was another that “stopped in St. Louis to work and buy supplies.” When severe sunstroke disabled Mr. Price, even the couple’s eight-year-old found work to help support the family. Finally Price was able to return to coal mining with his 12-year-old son working alongside him. In this way the family saved enough to cross the plains.

The Dunfords spent 10 years in St. Louis, Mr. Dunford working in a men’s clothing store and serving as president of the area’s LDS Conference. Martha Hughes Cannon (later a Utah state senator) lived in New York City from her fourth to sixth years, the family being unable to continue the journey west because of her father’s ill health.

Mary Nixon Bate and her husband had temporarily settled their seven children in St. Louis when Mr. Bate took ill and died. Mary was overwhelmed with grief and despair: “No friends, relations, alone with 7 children, we did not know anything about making a living….” But she learned and within three years acquired a half-sized wagon plus team. Her wagonmaster taunted, “What do you Londoners know of driving a team?” Mary retorted, “My faith is that I can do it,” and do it she did, leading her oxen by the reins all the way to Salt Lake Valley.

The father of Margaret Ballard was counseled by Mormon Apostle Franklin D. Richards not to go to Utah in 1856 with the Martin handcart company, for which “we were afterwards very thankful…. There were many of [that] company who froze that year….” The Ballards went with a wagon company three years later.

Another family who declined to travel by handcart were the grandparents of LDS Church President David O. McKay. Thomas Evans helped build carts for others but concluded “he would not take the chance of subjecting his wife and family to undue hardships.” They remained in Iowa until he could outfit them in greater comfort.

Felicia Raynor Astle’s husband was explicitly counseled by a mission leader to find factory work in Philadelphia rather than go west the same season they arrived in America. Two years later they joined a wagon company west.

Pioneers who completed the immigration in one season seem to have had one of three advantages: the resources to pay cash for a good outfit, countrymen already established in Utah who would act as their patrons, or a husband’s or father’s leadership position which entitled the family to church assistance. Most others used the “pay-as-you-go” plan, making the journey in stages.

Sources: Rebecca Bartholomew, Audacious Women: Early British Mormon Immigrants (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995); Utah State Historical Society Library