A Schoolmarm All My Life
Joyce Kinkead, editor
Martha Cragun Cox
[p.89] The first Utah-born child of her parents, Martha Cragun grew up in an adobe along Mill Creek in the Salt Lake Valley. Her parents, having converted to the LDS church in 1843, made the trip to Zion six years later. Martha’s paternal grandfather, Elisha Cragun (an Irishman who immigrated to America), “found the gospel” and introduced it to his family.
Writing when she was seventy-seven, Martha’s 300-page account1 begins by detailing her parents’ lives in Indiana in 1814. Having been ostracized from the community and threatened with tar and feathers, they moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1844 where they lived until events made it necessary to move on. Preparations for the trip from Illinois were so intense that the “women scarcely knew when the Sabbath came round” (Cox, 7). At Kanesville, Grandfather Cragun died “sorrowing for the apostasy of [those of] his children” who remained behind and left the church. Even though Martha’s mother was really too weak to begin the long journey westward, she demanded to go: “To die on the plains is preferable to living here menaced by bad men, and if I should die it will be with my face toward the west and Zion.” Their wagon train was the second to reach Utah in 1849.
Once in the Salt Lake Valley, the Craguns found homesteading difficult but were grateful for the absence of anti-Mormon prejudice. That is [p.90] until 1857 when Johnston’s Army, representing the federal government, began harassing Utahns; however, the Utah War was a stalemate—largely because of Brigham Young’s policy of passive resistance that if the Utah Army “would be … faithful … none of them would be killed. Neither would they have to shed the blood of their enemies” (Cox, 17).
A year after the “war,” Martha began school but did not remain there for long. Her first teacher was less than “noble,” cruelly hanging children upside down from the rafters as punishment. When a different teacher arrived, Martha returned. At ten, she moved to southern Utah with her family, a marked contrast in climate to the cold weather along the Wasatch Range.
At St. George, she continued studying and writing poems, one of which was published in the Deseret News, the church newspaper. Her brother derided her writing, calling it a “waste of cedar bark” (Cox, 11). She found refuge in friends’ homes, where she read novels. Studying did not occupy her completely as she found time to attend dances; her school attendance suffered when the socializing continued until late. Martha—as most girls in early Utah—grew up quickly, taking up weaving for a trade but desiring further education and a chance to teach the rough little boys of St. George.
At seventeen, she became the third wife of Bishop Cox (he eventually married four women) and began working as an assistant teacher shortly upon their return to St. George from the Salt Lake City wedding trip. The recollections that follow include Martha’s thoughts on plural marriage, the hardships of the family, her love of learning, and her determination to be a good teacher. She taught in southern Utah, Nevada, and Mexico, contributing her wages (usually produce) to the family income. The Cox wives and children managed the farms and holdings during the years Cox was on the run from federal marshals (he lived three of these years in Mexico). After her husband’s death, Martha supported herself and her eight children (born between 1876 and 1886).
For a time, Martha’s teaching certificate was revoked for her involvement in polygamy. She records 1888-89 as “somber years” when her earnings went to pay taxes and irrigation ditch cleaning. In 1900 she moved to northern Mexico and taught at Colonia Diaz. Upon her return to the States, her teaching duties led her to Richfield, Aurora, Burrville, St. Thomas, and Gunlock. At the end of her life’s story, she says, “I’ll hide [p.91] from the cold and chilly wind and live as long as I can.” She died two years later at the age of eighty.
There are few lives so uneventful that a true record of them would not be of some worth, in which there are no happenings that can serve as a guide or warning to those that follow. I am proud of the fact that I am one of Utah’s early children, having been the first to come to my parents after their arrival in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. I am grateful to my parents that their faith and integrity to the work of God caused them to establish their children in this and, grateful for the courage they had to make that long trek in wooden wagons across the plains to the Rocky Mountains.
GETTING THE NEWS
The Saints in the valley were not greatly disturbed by the war in the East [the Civil War], but were greatly interested in it. In order that they might be supplied with the news, the men in our district, and I suppose throughout Utah, formed clubs and paid for “extras” brought in by the pony express, which was the only way we received mail at that time. They met at each subscriber’s home in turn to have this “extra” read. Now I had at this time not more than a few months of school but had assiduously applied myself to the books we had at home and had learned to read the newspapers so I was appointed to read the Extra for the club that night. I gave my own pronunciation of the word Chicago, Chi-ca-go. Tapping the floor with his cane, John Dalton called, “That word is She-car-ger, little girl.” But I could not see his pronunciation in the spelling of the word so continued with my own.
FIRST SCHOOL DAYS
As I learned early the whole of the alphabet, nearly, my parents thought it well to let me go [to school] continuously, instead of as a visitor with brother and sister. One incident impressed my mind always. Twas of a boy hanging by his feet from one of the joints in the room, his face red and his eyes bulging. This was given as punishment [p.92] for some unruly act. My wonder afterward was how the teacher, she being a woman, got him up there. The children all were crying for fear he would fall. At calling of the alphabet class on the second day, I went with the rest to recite. I remembered some of the explanations the teacher had given the day before and when she pointed to the letter “T” I recalled that it was what some people drank at breakfast and quickly answered “coffee.”
My brother Elisha, older, had amused himself by twisting the curls of a little girl, sitting on one of the rude benches in front of him. The teacher decided that his own hair should be burnt as a penalty for this act. All this I took for a cold, earnest decision. She ordered him to bring chips from the yard and place in the stove. All this he did with a grin. He was bidden now to kneel and blow the imaginary fire. But when he was told to put his head in the stove that his hair might be burned off, I grew frantic. I ran to the teacher, clasped her knees and begged for mercy, all the class laughing loud, which made the scene comical. It was some time before her assurances quieted me. I was shown the dead embers in the stove. When the act was over, I was too weak to stand. At night I suffered from delirious fever and frightful dreams. The teacher was not censored for her folly, but I was laughed at. I would go no more to that school.
The next summer another English lady came to teach. She was a new convert to the Church. She was a very proper lady and preached decorum, which the most of her pupils tried to observe. As they started school in the morning, they were required to salute her with a low bow from the boys and a curtsey from the grown girls. On my first day, I seemed to be unacquainted with the regulations and walked right in. She looked at me and in a kind voice said: “Where is your curtsey dear?” I stood there puzzled to know what I had left behind. She repeated her question and said, “I want your curtsey.” I answered timidly, “Oh, I didn’t bring it with me.” I shed many foolish tears before the children forgot to tease me about this break. I had one advantage which seemed to compensate for my foolish blunders. I learned to pronounce every word in the long columns of spelling in that dear old blue-backed Webster spelling book and was thereby eligible to a reading class. Mine was a waste of time, little less than theirs. Learning the pronunciation of those long words was no help to me in learning to [p.93] read. Through all my young years, I scarcely ever met any of those words in my learning. Before the end of the short term of school, the teacher seemed to grow weary trying to bring into submission the children of the wild west and we had things pretty much as we liked, or rather the larger and stronger had.
[Martha missed the next year of school because of a harsh winter and illness.]
SCHOOLING AT HOME
With but two or three months of winter school, the children knew better than to lose time in idleness. I was attracted to a little poem in one of my school books. “The Little Grave.” I continually asked my mother to read it. At length she grew tired and said: “I shall not read it any more for you. Go and learn to read it for yourself.” To read for myself. That a ray of light was let into my soul by her words. From that time I read for myself. Every day I said at meal time: “Daddy will you buy me a book?” He brought home McGuffey’s first reader, a picture with every story, each one an index to the story. That was a lucky day for me when I wandered into school and learned the alphabet. Now I would follow my mother around all day, spelling off words by letters for her pronunciation. I did not care much for the schools in my day, only for the association of children. To spell off syllables of words and pronounce words that had no meaning and that, too, every day was a monotonous procedure, for I wanted to read. My method of learning at home was beneficial to me but it was very annoying to some members of my family.
Soon after I was eight years old, the History of the Prophet by his mother [Lucy Mack Smith] was placed in my hands. I found a sunny place by the pile of logs and not easily seen from the house, and here I secreted myself until I read the book. My next was the Book of Mormon, one of the old style. This with the Bible, one Book of the Journal of Discourses and the French Revolution and the life of Cyrus (the last two bought from emigrants in payment for potatoes) was all the reading matter in our home. These last two were of no service for I could not understand them.
[p.94] CALL TO DIXIE 
I had now reached the period of romance. I had read a story from Henry Ward Beecher published in the Tribune. Oh what splendid visions opened to my mind. Then I was fascinated with Jane Eyre. As all reading matter I could obtain was borrowed, it fell mostly to story papers, as people did not like to loan their books. [Uncle] McCarty took an interest in me and I used to sit by their fire evenings or in the dooryard and listen to the historical tales he told his children. He secured a history of Daniel Boone’s life of Washington, Lady Jane Grey. … One day I made some remark on the slave question, and he said, “You must read Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
One day in an ugly mood, I complained bitterly of the injustice I thought I received. I wanted to go to school the coming winter, but the outlook was not promising. I wanted to go to school very badly. I should have the privilege of school, better clothes in compensation for the work I did [at home]. My father heard what I said though I did not intend he should. He came in and said to me that if I had to earn my own living, I would go naked and starve compared with what I was getting at home. His words did not wound me as much as they surprised me. If they were true, I was getting more than I deserved. I thought it could not be possible to be so dependent. I believed that every free-born person should be independent, that if left to myself I could earn not only better clothes but much leisure and books as well. I thought it over a long time and then wrote on the beam of the loom, “Martha Cragun, earn your own food and clothes or starve.”
A Miss Romney came from Salt Lake to help in the Sunday School teaching. She made a survey of the classes and I remember my feelings when she said, “I would prefer to teach this Testament class.” As I walked away, I took note of the many children who beamed because of the new teacher. It hurt me some (for I had been teaching them), but I made a mental picture showing the contrast in my own appearance. She was not only neatly but very richly clad and rings gleamed underneath her silk mitts and on her white and beautiful hands, and she had breast pins and ear jewels. I was a sorry opposite in my homemade dress and homemade shoes with no ornament whatever, and I did not blame the children. … but I went no more to Sunday School. I turned my time to reading on the Sabbath. [p.95]
ATTEMPT TO WRITE POETRY
The sympathy I felt for a poor woman who buried a dear little babe inspired me to write a poem of consolation to her. This little poem found its way into the Deseret News. I wasted no daylight hours in this pernicious practice but with slate pencil and paper I sat by the fireplace every evening scribbling, scribbling by the firelight. At length, my brother could bear the sight no longer and gathering up my material put them under lock and key, saying: “Too much waste of cedar bark!”
McCarty came to my relief. He offered to give me board and schooling for the winter for help in his home. He was teaching his second winter in Santa Clara. My answers to some of his questions were amusing. I stated that I knew considerable about arithmetic, but long division bothered me some. I knew all about geography, was good at reading and a good speller. But frankly confessed that I despised grammar and did not mean to take up that study.
I was brought to see that I did not know considerable about some and all about other subjects. I learned that meeting with friends three nights a week to read novels had not made me acquainted with literature. That rhyming is not writing poetry and that much of that stuff called sentiment is vile trash.
I loved to dance and almost any kind of dance was better than none. The boys wore heavy boots and they were usually noisy, and the shoes of the girls were not such as the fairies wear.
MCCARTY LEAVES DIXIE
McCarty grew dissatisfied with Dixie. He had a hard time to make ends meet, a large family, not much land and was a poor manager generally. In 1867 I think it was, he concluded to go out into some of the more prosperous settlements for a few years and see if times would not be better. He did not ask permission to go for fear the authorities would advise him not to go. He settled at Summit, Iron County, and built a log room for each of his wives (two). He had a good market for all he produced in the mining town of Pioche.
HAS A DESIRE TO TEACH
Br. John McFarlane taught school in our third ward. That was a [p.96] gay season for St. George. The influence of school and study bore light weight (1868) against that of theatre, parties, and balls. When I woke in time to get off to school in the morning, I went. If too much of the morning was spent in restoring the strength lost from the night before, I stayed at home and prepared for the dance on the following night, or wove a few yards of cloth, as many people still held to the home weaving. The routine of my life was that of every other girl in school.
One day I was taking from the loom a piece of [cloth] that I had woven for a pair of pants for Br. Jeffreys, a cultivated English gentleman. It had been made from nappy yard, and I told him it did not reflect credit on the weaver. “O well,” he said, “twill only be for a little while we’ll heed it,—Twill soon be worn out and then my happy cloth and weaver’s work will be forgotten—and the weaver too, though she becomes round shouldered over the loom in trying to serve people with good cloth, will wear out and be forgotten and no one will know that she wove.”
The words fell on me solemn-like and prophetic, and I pondered on them deeply. “What profit is there finally,” I said to myself, “in all this round of never ceasing labor? Weaving cloth to buy dresses to wear out in weaving more cloth to buy more dresses. When my day is part—my warp and woof of life and labors ended and my body has gone to rest in the grave, what is there to mark the ground on which I trod? Nothing!” and the thought made me weep. After that I could not throw my shuttle as readily and swiftly as before. If I could only do some undying thing, I felt it would move my arm to action.
In my dilemma, I went to McCarty. I told him what Br. Jeffreys had said to me. “What could I do that my work and myself would not be forgotten?” I asked. He answered: “You might plant.” To this, I replied that the day would come when Joe E. Johnson with all his fine trees, flowers, and vegetables that he had given St. George would be forgotten by the people and his fine gardens vanished. “Plant in the minds of men, and the harvest will be different,” he said. “Every wholesome thought you succeed in planting in the mind of the little child, even, will grow and bear eternal fruit that will give you such joy that you will not asked to be remembered.” His words, though they enlightened, brought to me an awful sadness of soul. I was so ignorant. I could realize how dense was my mind. I saw that I had hitherto [p.97] lacked ambition for I had been content to dance, laugh, and sleep my leisure time away, never supposing that I might reach a higher plane than that which enabled me to support and clothe myself.
I one day passed a group of boys who had stolen out of school to play marbles on the street. The poor old crone who was trying to teach them must have been glad they had played truant for they were of the age and disposition to be most trying in school. And truly, the fact that a great many children were growing up on the streets of St. George without schooling or moral training even, was indeed alarming.2 I said to the boys: “If I were your teacher, I’d be sorry to have you out of school.” A big fellow answered, “Oh, the old woman’s glad we’re out.” I told the boys I was sorry to see them growing up without education. “If you’re sorry for us,” they said, “why don’t you teach us? We wouldn’t stay out of school if you taught us.” “I wish I knew enough to teach you,” I said, “and I’d see whether you would.” One bright little fellow spoke up and said, “I should think you’d teach us that you do know.” Here was a new thought. There were many children who knew less than I. Why not give the little I had, if I could not give much. The bantering words of these rude boys on the street aroused a feeling hard to resist. And I resolved that henceforth as far as it lay in my power to do so, I would spread light into the darkened chambers. I decided to become a teacher.
DECIDED TO TRY PLURAL MARRIAGE
[On 6 December 1869 Martha married Bishop Cox, becoming his third wife.] I could not say that I had really loved the man as lovers love, though I loved his wives and the spirit of their home.
That Monday following our return home on Tuesday, I was engaged as assistant to Brother McFarlane, who was teaching in the first ward. My salary was twenty dollars per month taken in produce of the country. This was one step in the direction of what I wished to accomplish. This was a mixed school and my task was to teach the little classes. The little miserables of St. George who seemed to be continu-[p.98]ally evoking a band from Mac’s mahogany ruler. There was one called “Tutt” Larson who seemed by his very visage and appearance calling out a rap on the knuckles. His punishments came generally for being late. On such mornings, I would see a grey eye applied at a knot hole in the door. When I came before the door with my class, that aperture would open and Tutt would glide snakily into his seat behind my skirts or to his place in the class. That winter completed the educational era for Tutt. Once when under arrest for stealing, he heard my name mentioned and broke out: “God bless that woman, she educated me.” That winter I saved Tutt’s spindling form and dirty knuckles from many a hard knock, and he was always grateful to me for it. The proceeds of that short term of school went to help pay for a piece of land in the [Santa] Clara field.
In the winter of 1869, Richard S. Horne came to teach in St. George. Rettie, the eldest daughter in our house, and I attended together. She was a faithful student and one of great ability.
DECIDED TO TEACH SCHOOL—DIFFICULTIES AND EQUIPMENT
I decided to teach school and help with the family finance, but it was in the days before free public schools and I had no building in which to work.3 Brother Charles A. Terry loaned several planks and blocks with which to improvise seats. Sister Whitmore loaned me an old kitchen table of small size for a desk. I mustered up another degree of courage to ask the loan of a blackboard from the school. Their refusal abashed me and I felt belittled for having been turned down. Auntie came to my relief. She took the large bread board and painted it. This great board, four feet by two and one-half, I carried to Brother Kelsey that very night under cover of darkness, and for five cents, he gave me a good coating of blacking. A piece of white chalk from my husband’s tool box, and I was equipped. Now for my trial class. Mrs. Whitmore admonished me to take children from the Select families.
She was a southern woman and felt that “poor white trash” didn’t amount to much. I first tried for subscription at the house of a gentleman of culture and education, one of the leaders. Bishop Granger’s wife volunteered information and advice: I had married into a poor fam-[p.99]ily—was no better than other wives. Go home and take hold with them in the work of the family, and not be setting myself up for a school teacher. I tried to walk out with the air of an independent Republican, but I felt mighty small. I tried several of the homes of the well-to-do, and “upper class,” but without avail. The last answer I received woke me up. “No, I don’t wish to trust my children in a class built up for a teacher’s test.” I had confessed that I did not know I could teach. When I reached my friend’s home and she learned the results of my visit, she said, “I guess your plan is a failure.”
I told her, “That is just what Sheriff Hardy says. It will be a failure because I have your [Mrs. Whitmore's] house. He will not let his children have the association of yours. He says your children know nothing except to straddle a horse and swear.” Mrs. Whitmore was a rich cattle woman. This changed her mood somewhat. She said she would not let me have the house if I took Hardy’s children. Just then Mrs. Andros came by. “I hear you are taking up teaching.”
“Yes, I’m going to teach.” With my head high I said, “Whatever I do is going to be teaching, teaching of as high an order as anyone else’s.” Mrs. Andrus said she had run up to see if she could get her children in my class. That settled it. The Andrus family was one of Mrs. W’s best friends, and except herself, the richest family in the south. She stood by my school and myself to the end of the month promised. The class filled to overflowing. Some came for the love of learning and others because no fee was attached to the registration. At the end of a month, I was in a dilemma. Now the two best women in the world [her two sister-wives] came forward with their helpful advice. During the summer, we had built a new room of good size. It was unfinished, had neither floor nor windows yet. They said, “Let us put a floor in that room and bring your school home.” The father being away from home, the task looked impossible. We had the lumber for the floor just from the mills, with the children’s help we carried it in and fitted a floor. The uneven edges of the boards made ugly cracks, but it was the best we could do, and we were thankful for it. While we were at work, a letter came to Lizzie, the second wife, with five dollars enclosed in pay for some obligation. With this five dollars, we put glass in the windows. With boards and blocks, we arranged seats and by the [p.100] following Monday, I was ready for my class. The front yard given over to the children for a playground.
MORE ON TEACHING
In the fall of 1872, I was employed again in the Fourth Ward. It was hard to secure teachers in St. George, the pay was too poor—generally the produce of the country, and had to be collected by the teacher. Had it not been that I took children from our house and thus saved their tuition and gave them a chance to learn, I don’t believe I would have born the trial of school.
In the winter of 1879, a German teacher, a Mr. Schoppman, came to be principal of schools. He taught in the basement of the Tabernacle. At first I refused to be taken from the Ward schools. As it was, I could see no way to yield. I was given the sixth grade class in an inner room next to that of the principal—at the right and left were low basement windows that could neither be raised or lowered. Can it be wondered that my children turned savage and broke two or three window lights? I was glad when the term closed. My wages were $75.00 per month. On October 24 of that year, my little daughter Amelia was born. I did not go that winter into the public schools. I concluded to teach our own children and a few friends in a new room we had built for a granary; but this did not amount to much.
DECIDES TO GO TO MUDDY VALLEY TO TEACH
I taught the Third Ward school in 1878-1880. Then I decided to go to Nevada. Hylia and I both went to Pioche. We got into town the day after the [teacher] examination. I was treated coolly by Alexander. He could not call the examining board together, neither would he grant me a permit to teach on my Utah certificate. As I turned to leave his office, though I felt down and out, a spirit of strength and peace came to me. I told him the people in the Muddy [Valley] were poor, and many of them miserable. It was difficult for them to secure a teacher, that I had promised them I could do what I could to help them. … He told me to be seated, and he would see what he could do. He went out and came back with a lawyer and said they would give me an examination. I explained I was asking for a second grade certificate, and these papers were arranged for high school and academy. I asked them what it mat-[p.101]tered to children in the Muddy if I could write Latin phrases, and finally they consented to give me the regular examination. “From what college did you graduate?”
I chose to answer the Dr. I said, “In southern Utah.”
He said, “They have high schools there I suppose.”
“Yes,” I replied. “They do, but the learning that has served me most as a teacher, I burned the midnight oil for.” Then I saw I had won them both as friends. They both declared they had been over the same road I had.