Facing new frontiers within themselves, women find strength

July 1997 will mark the sesquicentennial of the arrival of the pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley. Continuing through December 1997, the Church News will publish articles on the epic trek and the establishment of the Church in the Rocky Mountains. The series began in June 1995. This is the 17th article in the series.

"The place where we have settled for winter quarters is one of the most beautyfull flatts I ever see," wrote Mary Haskin Parker Richards in October 1846 to her husband, Samuel, serving a mission in England. "It is about one mile square . . . the scene is quite Romantic."1

In retrospect, "romantic" may not have been the word Mary would have chosen to describe the 18 months she spent at Winter Quarters until Samuel's return in May 1848. Her detailed diary for the period is filled with varied sentiments. Like thousands of other Saints in the temporary settlements they established along the

Missouri River, she encountered sickness and death, faced unremitting cold, wet and mud, and passed joyful hours in close association with family and friends and the community of Saints. The temporary settlement had a permanent impact on Mary and other women who confronted in the wilderness not only the elements of nature, but new frontiers within themselves.

By January 1847, the "great city, which sprang up in a night as it were, like Jonah's gourd," was "a city of Logs and Mud, but mostly of Logs," with upwards of 700 houses and divided into 22 wards.2 Happy to interrupt the tedious life on the trail from Nauvoo, women generally did not complain about the rough shelters they found at Winter Quarters.

At the end of October 1846, Eliza R. Snow and the Markham family with whom she was traveling moved into one of the nearly finished houses. They had surrendered their wagon to a company journeying for supplies. The house was "built of logs, with openings only partly chincked and mudded" and "the wind cold and blustering found plenty of crevices on the sides through which to play; while the roof was shingled only on one side, with a tent cloth thrown over the other: and besides it was minus a chimney," Eliza remembered, not forgetting the smoke that permeated the house when she and Sister Markham tried to build a fire.3

In addition to log houses, there were "gopher holes" or dugouts as well as houses built of turf, willow and straw. Jerusha Blanchard described how "the men drove stakes and then wove willows in and out until the walls were up. This was filled in with prairie grass and mud inside and out. The roof was made by tieing bundles of prairie grass together and covering them all with mud."4 Melissa Jane Lambson Davis began life in a Winter Quarters dugout. "My father made a cave in the side of a hill. One of the oxen died and Father kept the skin, stretched it and used it to cover the floor. I was born in this cave in the side of the hill."5

A number of Saints were obliged to remain in their wagon boxes and tents until houses and dugouts were vacated by those traveling to the Salt Lake Valley.

In May 1847, Mary Richards recorded her joy at moving into "the first house we have lived in since we left Nauvoo on the 19th of May 1846 . . . got all things fixt in order. I put on a clean dress & sat down. And our little house seemed to me almost like Palace I rejoiced to think that after passing through such a dreary Winter living in a Tent. and wandring from house to house to keep from perishing with the Cold. suffering almost every incoveniance and often very unpleasent feelings' I had once more a place I could call my home."6

These were the shelters in which women endeavored to survive and bring some normality to their nomadic lives. They had to find, prepare and preserve food; make, mend and wash clothing; fight off the terrible sicknesses which besieged them and their families; and deal with the emotional demands of constant hardship. Life at Winter Quarters was grueling, but not entirely cheerless.

Food supplies were generally inadequate. Eliza R. Snow recorded enjoying with friends an occasional special meal of veal pot pie or roast turkey, but Fannie Parks Taggart recalled eating "corn boiled in weak lye water to take off the husks, then washed and boiled until tender. I can remember thinking it quite a treat when a child, but come to live on it for months it was quite another thing." Fannie was pleased when spring came and the greening vegetation appeared.

The diary of Patty Sessions includes a few notes on foods she prepared: "Tried my lard." "I have baked some mince pies." "Strained some honey." She divided with friends the quarter of deer sent to her by another friend. She "bought 5 cents worth of horse redish. Set some of it out, sowed some garden seeds in trays of dirt and put some into the ground." She recorded one day with obvious satisfaction that "she cooked for the widow orphan and poor that they might feast and have thier hearts made glad today in the counsel house." A week before leaving Winter Quarters June 5, 1847, she noted packing "186 pounds of pork for the mountains."7

Lack of fruits and vegetables contributed to the sickness that plagued families at Winter Quarters during the winter of 1846-47 and kept Patty, a midwife, busy nursing the sick and dying.

The crops the Saints planted in the spring of 1847 yielded a welcome harvest. Mary Richards had managed to get a little fruit even before then - dried apples, gooseberries, and blackberries - but she was delighted in July 1847 to have string beans for dinner, "the first I had seen for 2 years." She took a walk along the bluff and looked down upon Winter Quarters and the "beauty full Gardins and extensive Fields' Clothed with the fast growing Corn and vegetables of every description' above all things pleasing to the Eyes of an Exile in the Wilderness of our afflictions."8

Home manufacture of clothing was an important part of frontier households. Knitting, sewing and mending were essential aspects of women's lives. At Winter Quarters Patty Sessions picked bits of debris from wool and then carded it and spun it into yarn. She scoured the yarn, counted her skeins, and knitted comforters for her husband and son and mittens for herself and others. Mary Richards noted nearly daily in her diary: "sewing" or "knitting." On the days she washed, Mary did little else.

Patty Sessions, too, wrote of wash day, and noted making her own soap in preparation for it. In warmer weather some women took their wash to small streams where an abundance of water hastened the chore, which still usually required a full day. Cleaning house, gathering wood, fetching water, baking bread, making cheese, washing dishes, exchanging patterns, ironing and mending clothes, molding candles, repairing wagon covers, and quilting all formed part of the women's work.

In addition to demanding household chores, many women engaged in cottage industries and other employments in order to support themselves and their families at Winter Quarters. "We are not Idle," Mary Richards wrote to her missionary husband, Samuel, in England. "I expect I shall have to work this sommer in order that I may eat. So I have chosen the straw buisiness as my ocupation."9

Mary braided straw that could be sewn into hats. So did Eliza R. Snow, who worked primarily as a seamstress. "I go to my trade - make pr. pants for David," she noted in August 1846.10 Patty Sessions was in demand as an experienced midwife. Adelia Rider Carbine "took care of two old people for which she got a little pay." Emmeline B. Whitney [Wells], Ellen McGary and Mary Aikens Smith all taught school.11

Services and goods were generally bartered or traded. Eliza Snow lined a hat for Patty Sessions and in exchange Patty's girls did Eliza's wash. Such exchanges were occasions for sociability, adding to the formal and informal gatherings in the "miniature city."

Stephen H. Goddard established a singing school for all ages that developed into a fine choir. "I went to singing Scool and had a very good sing," noted Mary Richards.12 Hiram Gates's dancing classes attracted students male and female, young and old, and prepared them for the community's most popular pastime.

Visiting, an integral part of 19th century women's lives, continued at Winter Quarters despite snow and mud. Women tramped from house to house or tent or cave to "call" and spend a pleasant afternoon or evening, sometimes staying through the night. Vilate Kimball's daughter remembered that many of her mother's visits were for "ministering food and consolation to the sick, and pouring out blessings upon them, during which time she scarcely touched food herself." Through Vilate and the sisters who accompanied her, "by their united faith and works, with fasting and prayer, the sick were healed."13

In addition, there were informal "female meetings" where women assembled to pray and sing and feel the rich outpourings of the Spirit. All of these gatherings nurtured a sense of connectedness among those suffering privations in the wilderness, forging the wandering exiles into a community of Saints, a holy nation.

These newly forged bonds were particularly important since Winter Quarters was marked by disrupted family life. Many husbands, fathers, and brothers had left their families to march with the Mormon Battalion. Others were serving missions or left the main camp early as part of the vanguard Pioneer Company. Ada Winchell Clements experienced a different kind of separation. Her husband, Albert, had been converted to the Church after hearing the gospel message from Sidney Rigdon in 1832. Following the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith, he chose to follow Sidney Rigdon while Ada was convinced that Brigham Young should lead the Saints. "This difference of opinion soon led to a rift in the once happy marriage," and Ada and her children left Nauvoo as part of the westward exodus. Albert, after helping all he could to provide food and other necessities for his departing family, "bade them goodbye in great sorrow." For Ada, Winter Quarters became a season of prayer: she had promised Albert "she would never cease to love him, and would always pray for him to see the truth and follow them to the Rocky Mountains." He did, but only after many years had passed.14

Other women whose husbands were absent from Winter Quarters learned, like Ada, to develop personal resources and forge strength and self-reliance initially foreign to them. Fannie Parks Taggart recalled that "when the call came for 500 men to go in the Battalion, my husband was one of them." Friends helped her make her way to Winter Quarters with the baby daughter of her husband whose first wife had died. When Fannie arrived, she "was looking for the families of the Battalion to be assisted, but everyone had to do the best they could and as I had no relatives there I did not know how to act nor what to do, so I went to President Brigham Young and asked him what I had better do and he told me to hunt up some acquaintances and get in with them until I could get a house. On my hearing this the tears came in my eyes and I felt like having a good cry. Well thought I, this will never do, I must do something." Fannie wiped her eyes, sought out friends who welcomed her "to such accomodations as they had," and got work nursing two sick children of a widower and later caring for a woman "who had been laid up with the scurvy for two months and her limbs were so drawn and the muscles and cords so contracted that she could not stand on her feet nor walk a step." Following Fannie's gentle nursing and numerous vinegar and pepper rubs, the woman was able to walk with crutches.

Remembering Winter Quarters with tenderness and pride, Fannie recognized that there she had grown to cherish her young step-daughter who was "a great comfort to me." Indeed, she recalled, "I was not alone," but "blessed with kind friends and never was without food, raiment or shelter."15

Unquestionably, death was the greatest disrupter of family life at Winter Quarters. Catherine Van Never Geyer's husband, Edward, while "bringing in the Church cattle . . . was gored by one of the bulls and died from the effects of his wounds."16 Sickness was widespread and severe, due to fatigue, inadequate food and shelter, and the prevalence of malaria in the river lowlands. "There was not a wagon in the whole camp, but what had sickness in it," recalled Drusilla Dorris Hendricks."17 Harriet Carter recounted how an epidemic of black measles spread through the camp during the winter of 1847. A 12-year-old, she helped nurse one sibling after another - ages seven, 14, 16, and 9 - witnessing all their deaths, crowned by the death of her mother, within six weeks.18

Between June 1846 and October 1848, some 2,000 Saints died at Winter Quarters and other small settlements across the Missouri River. Though Latter-day Saints retained sad memories of that difficult period, they long remembered the charitable acts, kindnesses, and closeness that soothed their sorrowing.

For every sorrow, it seemed, there was help at hand. Nancy Porter's mother died at Winter Quarters when she was three years and six months old, but she remembered with tenderness her 17-year-old step-mother Lydia Ann Cook: "A wonderful mother she proved to be through all the trials that she passed, as we were then in the midst of poverty."19

Taken sick in August 1846, Eliza Snow "had the satisfaction of experiencing kindness from many of my friends, which is indelibly inscrib'd upon my memory: Particularly Cornelia C. L. - Sis. Whitney - Sis. Kimball, Sis. Young, Sis. Lott, Sis. Holmes & Sis. Taylor. Without whose attentions I must have suffered much more." She concluded: "The Lord preserv'd my life & while I live I will speak of his goodness."20

Mary Richards felt blessed by the extended family and friends who nurtured her at Winter Quarters in the absence of her missionary husband, Samuel. She, too, praised the Lord for His goodness. She wrote to Samuel: "Do not feel uneasy about me my dear for I have a father who has watched over

meT from the earlyest period of my existence unto the present time and who blesses me from day to day with strenth' and patiance to endure all the trials through wich I am called to pass and to him be all the glory for ever."21

Jill Mulvay Derr is a research historian with the BYU Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History and a member of the Alpine 11th Ward, Alpine Utah Stake. She also serves on a Church curriculum writing committee.


1Mary H. Richards to Samuel W. Richards, September and October 1846, in Winter Quarters: The 1846-1848 Life Writings of Mary Haskin Parker Richards ed. Maurine Carr Ward (Logan Utah: Utah State University Press, 1996), p. 92.

2The Municipal High Council to Elders Hyde, Pratt, and Taylor, 7 January 1847, Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1846-1847 ed. Elden J. Watson (Salt Lake City: Widen I. Watson, 1971), p. 494.

3Eliza R. Snow, "Sketch of My Life," in The Personal Writings of Eliza Roxey Snow ed. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995), p. 24.

4"From the `States': Jerusha Celestia Walker Blanchard," Our Pioneer Heritage 6:512-13.

5"A Pioneer Story: Melissa Jane Lambson Davis," Our Pioneer Heritage 12:107.

6Diary of Mary Haskin Parker Richards, 30 April and 1 May 1847, in Winter Quarters: The 1846-1848 Life Writings of Mary Haskin Parker Richards ed. Maurine Carr Ward (Logan, (Utah: Utah State University Press, 1996), p. 121.

7Diary of Patty Sessions, 2 and 6 January, 3 and 23 February 1847, in Women's Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints ed. Kenneth W. Godfrey, Audrey M. Godfrey, and Jill Mulvay Derr (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982, pp. 184, 186-87.

8Diary of Mary Haskin Parker Richards, 9 July 1847, in Winter Quarters: The 1846-1848 Life Writings of Mary Haskin Parker Richards ed. Carr Ward (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1996), p. 151.

9MH Richards to Samuel W. Richards, 15 April 1847, in Winter Quarters: The 1846-1848 Life Writings of Mary Haskin Parker Richards ed. Maurine Carr Ward (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1996), p. 133.

10Eliza R Snow Trail Diary, February 1846 to May 1847, 29 August 1846, in The Personal Writings of Eliza Roxcy Snow ed. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995), p. 143.

11"William Van Orden Carbine," Our Pioneer Heritage 6:205; "Traveling the Lonely Trail: Mary Aikens Smith," Our Pioneer Heritage 3:116.

12Diary of Mary Haskin Parker Richards, 3 January 1847, in Winter Quarters: The 1846-1848 Life Writings of Mary Haskin Parker Richards ed. Maurice Carr Ward (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1996), p. 104.

13Helen Marr Kimball Whitney, "Scenes and Incidents at Winter Quarters," Woman 's Exponent 14 (15 September 1885):58.

14"Traveling the Lonely Trail: Ada Winchell Clements," Our Pioneer Heritage 3:111.

15"The Soldiers W Fannie Parks Taggart," Our Pioneer Heritage 11:386-88.

16"Zion - Their Goal: Catherine Van Never Geyer," Our Pioneer Heritage 2:334.

17Drusilla Dorris Hendricks, "Historical Sketch of James Hendricks and Drusilla Dorris Hendricks," photocopy of typescript, Church Archives, Historical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

18Harriet's Story," Our Pioneer Heritage 2:296.

19"Nancy Areta Porter Mattice," Our Pioneer Heritage 113:463.

20Eliza R. Snow Trail Diary, February 1846 to May 1847, undated entry following 29 August 1846, in The Personal Writings of Eliza Roxcy Snow ed. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995), p. 144.

21Mary Richards to Samuel Richards, 29 January 1847, in Winter Quarters: The 1846-1848 Life Writings of Mary Haskin Parker Richards ed. Maurine Carr Ward (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1996;), p. 129.

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