Saints without Halos
Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton
Jean Baker: Gathering to Zion
[p.39]At the age of forty-one, Jean Rio Griffiths Baker was about to embark on the greatest journey of her life. She opened her diary and began to write. “January 4, 1851. I am now, with my children, about to leave forever my native land in order to gather with the Church of Christ in the Valley of Great Salt Lake in North America.”
She had been a widow for a year and a half. Six sons and one daughter, ages four to seventeen, depended on her. Gathering to Zion seemed to be the most important thing she could do for them and for herself.
So Jean and her children boarded the George W. Bourne in London, bound for New New Orleans. The ship was towed into the river, her sails ready to catch the first favorable winds—which did not rise for twelve days.
In the meantime, the Mormon emigrants organized themselves with Elder William Gibson, a Scotsman, as branch president, and divided up their provisions according to need.
Finally the winds picked up and carried the Bourne quickly out to sea. During the first two days, one of the Mormon women delivered a baby boy and Elder Gibson married a couple. Porpoises played around the ship, while the passengers enjoyed the calm waters and warm sunshine.
[p.40]After a month at sea Jean again turned to her diary to record her feelings. “I can hardly describe the beauty of this night,” she wrote. “The moon nearly at full with a deep blue sky studded with stars, the reflection of which makes the sea appear like an immense sheet of diamonds. … Well I have seen the mighty deep in its anger, with our ship nearly on her beam ends, and I have seen it, as now, under a cloudless sky, and scarcely a ripple on its surface, and I know not which to admire most. … I feel most powerfully the force of those words, The Mighty God, which Handel has so beautifully expressed in one of his Chronicles.”
But the world Jean admired so much for its great beauty also contained much sorrow. When they left England, Jean prayed that the sea air would restore the health of her four-year-old Josiah. But he continued to sink and on February 22 breathed his last. “When witnessing his sufferings I have prayed that the Lord would shorten them. He has done so and my much loved child is now in the world of spirits, awaiting the morning of the Resurrection. … The Captain has given me permission to retain his little body until tomorrow, when it will be committed to the deep, nearly a thousand miles from land.”
Her faith in God and the encouragement of fellow Saints helped assuage Jean’s grief. The sun continued to rise every day, her other children still needed her attention, and the journey had only begun.
A bugle sounds every morning to let us know it is six o’clock, when all arise. At half past seven it sounds again for morning prayer, after which, breakfast. Sometimes a few musical ones get together and have a few tunes, sometimes [we] sit down and gossip, and so the days pass along. When we have rough weather we have enough to do to keep on our feet, and laugh at those who are not so clever as ourselves. … Our general custom is to sit on the deck and take our meals on our laps. Each family have their own department in front of their berths and can have their meals without being intruded on by others. … Our president, William Gibson, is to watch over us as a pastor, to counsel, exhort, reprove if necessary; in short, to see that all our doings are in accordance with our profession as Saints of the most high God.
[p.41]Approaching the Bahamas, the Bourne encountered heavy squalls. “It was awful, yet grand, to look upon the sea,” Jean wrote. “I could only compare it to the boiling of an immense cauldron covered with white foam, while the roaring of the winds and waves was like the bellowing of a thousand wild bulls.”
On March 12 the Bourne reached the Gulf of Mexico. But the excitement of the sea-weary Saints was dampened by the excommunication of two sisters “for levity of behavior with some of the officers of the ship and continued disregard of the counsels of the President.”
A week later Jean and the other passengers transferred to a steamer which took them up the Mississippi, past grand plantations, orange groves, and peach and plum trees in blossom. Flocks of wild geese flew overhead, while foxes and raccoons were spotted along the river banks. “The only thing which detracts from its beauty,” she wrote, “is the sight of hundreds of negroes at work in the sun. Oh! Slavery how I hate thee.”
In New Orleans Jean and her children stayed with Mrs. Blime, the sister of a friend, who took them to a slave auction:
It is a large hall, well lighted, with seats all round on which were girls of every shade of colour, from 10 or 12 to 30 years of age and to my utter astonishment they were singing as merrily as larks. I expressed my surprise to Mrs. Blime and she said “Though I am an English woman, detest the very idea of slavery, yet I do believe that many of the slaves here have ten times the comforts of many of the laborers in our own country with not half the labor. I have been 13 years in this country and although I have never owned a slave, or intend to do so, still I do not look upon slavery with the horror that I once did. There are hundreds of slaves here who would not accept their freedom if it was offered to them. For this reason they would then have no protection, as the laws afford little or none to people of color.” I could not help thinking that my friend’s feeling had become somewhat blunted, if not hardened by long residence in Slave States.
After visiting New Orleans, the Bakers boarded the riverboat Concordia for Saint Louis, a trip of 1,250 miles that took six days. Saint Louis was a boom town, frequently used by [p.42]Mormon immigrants as a stopping off place where they could rest and regroup for the overland journey. The city’s rapid growth afforded employment opportunities which many needed to earn provisions for the final leg of their journey.
At Saint Louis, Jean rented a two-bedroom house for a month. The first evening in her new home a man came to the door and introduced himself as “Brother Howard,” a member of the Church. During the next few weeks Brother and Sister Howard helped Jean and her family adjust to their temporary home. Their children played together and on Sundays they attended the Mormon services in the concert hall on Market Street. One week Jean was amazed to find the 3,000-seat hall “filled to overflowing and the staircase and lobby crowded with those who could not get inside.” The branch even had its own orchestra and a good choir.
But Jean’s ultimate destination was still the Salt Lake Valley. She purchased eight yoke of oxen and four wagons, and on April 19 boarded the steamboat Financier for Alexandria, Missouri. Barges were lashed to both sides of the steamer, one for wagons, the other for cattle. Jean and her family waived their right to berths in the Financier to remain with the wagons, where they could sleep in comfort, free from the constant jerking caused by the steamboat’s machinery.
At Alexandria Jean’s family did their first camping out. When they had made a fire, watered and fed the cattle, and made their beds in the wagons, they huddled together and “unitedly offered up our thanksgivings to the God of Heaven for bringing us here in safety, through unseen and unknown danger, and then retired to rest, feeling sure of His protection during the night.”
Soon they were making their way across Iowa. “Do not expect me to describe our road, as they call it,” Jean wrote in irritation. “It is a perfect succession of hills, valleys, bogs, mudholes, low bridges, quagmires with stumps of trees a foot above the surface of the watery mud, so that without the utmost care, the wagons should be overturned ten times a day. Oh for the Town Roads of Old England.”
Such conditions led to accidents or damage to almost every wagon in the company. When one of Jean’s wagons became [p.43]stuck, the sudden yank meant to dislodge it broke the tongue pin. They decided to stop for the night and soon had a fire and kettle on. “While we were preparing our supper, a farmer-looking man accompanied by a tall, well-looking negro came up and offered to assist us in repairing our wagon, and setting to work at once, in about two hours all was right again. The farmer then bade us good night, refusing all recompence and taking two of the lads in order that they might bring back a supply of corn for our cattle.” Meanwhile, the “black visitor” remained for supper and entertained the camp until midnight with his tales of Indian wars.
Jean and her companions were favorably impressed with Iowans.
Nothing can exceed the kindness of the people as we pass along. Many a time when our wagons have been in a mud hole, the men working in the fields have left their plow to come and help us out. Men, too, who in our country would be called gentlemen, owning 500 to 1,000 acres of land. But it seems to be a rule among them to help everyone who is in need and they are ready at all times to impart any information which they think will be useful to us. Their wives are just the same. We try to encamp near a farmhouse for the convenience of supplying ourselves with butter, eggs, and milk. We are sure to be invited to their houses in order to partake of the hospitality.
She was delighted with the variety of flowers growing on the prairies. “We are constantly walking over violets, primroses, daisies, bluebells, the lilly of the valley, columbines of every shade, from white to the deepest purple, Virginia stocks in large patches. The wild rose, too, is very plentiful, perfuming the air for miles.” But flowers did not entirely compensate for the tedious travel, quagmires, broken wagons, and accidents in which wagons ran over women or children. In the first thirty-two days out of Alexandria they had traveled only 116 miles.
Occasionally, there were terrible thunder and rain storms. Once when she went to a farm house a mile away in search of butter,
heavy rains came on so that I could not return to the camp, the water being in the hollows higher than my knees. I have stayed all [p.44]night at the farm house. The thunder has been fearful. It seemed even to have frightened the wolves, who have been howling and yelping around the house all night. We have had thunderstorms every day for four weeks …. I cannot describe the thunder. It is unlike any I have ever heard. As to the rain upon our wagon covers, I can only compare it to millions of shot falling on sheets of copper. Sleep is out of the question as well as conversation, for though Aunt and I were in the same wagon it was with difficulty we could make each other hear.
With rain almost every day, they encountered many swollen streams and inundated bottomlands. They put seven or eight yokes of oxen to each wagon to pull it through the mud, stopping every few minutes for the animals to recover their breath.
Finally, on July 2, they arrived at Kanesville (now Council Bluffs, Iowa). Jean found it a pretty town and the surrounding scenery beautiful. “And there was a good omen,” she wrote. “I heard a whippoorwill this evening.”
Four days later, their company of fifty-four wagons was organized for crossing the Plains. John Brown, an experienced frontiersman, was captain.
As they neared Fort Kearney, Nebraska, one of Jean’s finest oxen fell down and died in just a few minutes. Fortunately, she was able to buy another two days later for $30.
As they crossed the Platte, Captain Brown passed the word for all wagons to keep as close together as possible. They were in Indian territory. Soon they were greeted by
ninety of the principal warriors with their families, going to a great council of various tribes, to endeavor to settle their differences and bury the tomahawk. They made a grand appearance, all on horseback and gaily dressed. Some with lances, others with guns or bows and arrows, also a number of ponies carrying their tents, and the men passed on one side of us and the women and children on the other, but all of them well mounted. Their clothing was beautiful, trimmed with small beads. Altogether it was quite an imposing procession.
When she reached the Rocky Mountains, Jean wrote, “The scenery is grand and terrible. I have walked under overhanging rocks, which seemed only to need the pressure of a finger to send them down headlong. Many of them resemble the ruins of [p.45]old castles, and it needs but a little imagination to fancy yourself in the deserted hall of a temple or palace.”
Passing Fort Bridger, the company “crossed over a high mountain so long and steep as to make it very hard on the oxen. We had ten yoke to each wagon. On descending we came to Bear River, a swift stream abounding with trout and thickly bordered with trees. We encamped on its banks.”
Finally, on September 26 they had their first view of the Salt Lake Valley. “Here we were met by several men with teams, ready to assist those who needed help. The descent of the mountain was very steep and awfully dangerous for about four miles. … When I arrived at the base of the mountain I turned to look at the coming wagons, and was actually terrified to see them rushing down, though both wheels were locked, and no accident occurred.”
On September 28, within a few miles of their destination, Jean wrote:
Of all the splendid scenery and awful roads that have ever been since creation, I think this day’s journey has beaten them all. We had encamped last night at the foot of a mountain which we had to ascend this morning. This was hard enough on our poor worn out animals, but the road after was completely covered with stones as large as bushel boxes, stumps of trees, with here and there mudholes in which our poor oxen sunk to the knees. Added to all this there was Kanyon Creek, a stream of water running at the bottom of a deep ravine, which intersected our road in such a zigzag fashion that we had to ford it sixteen times. One of my teams was forced down an incline with such rapidity that one of the oxen fell into the stream and was drowned before it could be extricated. This makes six oxen I have lost in the journey. …
The grandeur of the scenery to my mind takes away all fear, and while standing in admiration at the view, Milton’s expressions in his “Paradise Lost” came forcibly to my recollection. “These are thy glorious works. Parent of good, in wisdom hast thou made them all.” And I seemed to forget all the hardships of our long journey. Suddenly I heard a sound as of rushing waters on my left hand and looking in that direction I observed that the mountain stream buried itself among some bushes and, sure enough, there was the prettiest waterfall I have seen yet. … The cataract itself was comprised of fifteen separate falls, over as many pieces of rock; the whole perpendicular height being about thirty-five or [p.46]forty feet. It struck me with both awe and delight. I felt as though I would like to have lingered a long time watching it.
At sunset they emerged from the canyon and caught a faint view of the valley that was to be their home. They camped in a hollow just at the entrance of the valley. The next day she wrote: “Rose this morning with a thankful heart that our travels are nearly finished. I can hardly analyze my feelings, but the prevailing ones are joy and gratitude for the protecting care had over me and mine during our long and perilous journey.”
Jean and her family spent the first few days in Salt Lake at the home of a Sister Wallace, whose husband, a missionary in England, had sent a letter to his wife with Jean. On October 6 Jean purchased a small four-room house with an acre of garden attached to it. She was especially pleased with the garden, which contained Indian corn, potatoes, cabbages, carrots, parsnips, beets, and tomatoes.
After traveling around the Salt Lake Valley, she went to Ogden, where she purchased twenty acres of land and arranged to have a small house built during the winter. While there she was shown several specimens of produce. “I brought home with me a pumpkin weighing fifty-three pounds, but I saw some weighing ninety pounds, also potatoes weighing three pounds and perfectly sound throughout.”
The following March she moved to Ogden with her son William and the younger children. “Now I suppose I have finished my ramblings for my whole life,” she mistakenly concluded.
The Ogden experience was not happy. In September 1869 Jean wrote:
I have been 18 years this day an inhabitant of Utah territory, and I may say 18 years of hard toil and continual disappointment. My 20 acre farm turned out to be a mere saleratum patch, killing the seed that was sown instead of producing a crop. After spending 7 years work on it, we abandoned it and I am now living in Ogden City in a small log house, and working at my trade as a dressmaker. The famine of the year ’57 and the move South in ’58 are matters of history, and I need only say that I passed through both and a bitter experience it was. I have buried my youngest boy at 9 years of age. William has been married 11 years. Edward and [p. 47]John went to California—Edward in ’53 and John in ’50. They could not stand poverty any longer so ran away from it. I sometimes think I shall go, too, but I must leave that for the future to decide. … I should hate to leave [my daughter] and her brothers, and I have no idea they would like to leave their homes, as they all have young families.
I have tried to do my best in the various circumstances in which I have been placed. I came here in what I believed to be a revelation of the Most High God, trusting in the assurances of the missionaries, whom I believed to have the Spirit of Truth. I left my home, sacrificed my property, broke up every dear association, and what was and is yet, dearer than all, left my beloved native land, and for what? A bubble that has burst in my grasp! It has been a severe lesson, but I can say it has led me to lean more on my Heavenly Father, and less on men’s words. In 1864 I married Mr. Edward Pearce. I had been a widow 15 years. … I hoped that my old age would have been cheered by his companionship—that I would no longer be alone. But it was not to be—he lived only 6 months, but that was a time of unbroken peace and comfort, and his sudden death was a severe blow to me. Perhaps I was not worthy of being the wife of so good a man, for he certainly was one “in whom there was no guile.”
Two months later, Jean visited her sons in San Francisco. They persuaded her to remain with them, although she resolutely insisted on working “at my trade so as not to be burdensome to my children till old age prevents me from helping myself. And then the sons and daughters that God has given me I know will look after my comfort.”
In 1875 she visited her children and friends in Utah, returning to California in the spring of 1877. On her seventieth birthday she made this reflective diary entry:
Well may I say “Hitherto has the Lord helped me.” I have good health and am spending my time among my children, sometimes at one home, sometimes another. … I do not suppose I will have any more entries to make in this journal that will be of any interest. My life bids fair to be a very quiet one. I have every temporal comfort my heart can desire. My children vie with each other in contributing to my happiness, and I can truly say I have but one wish unfulfilled. That is that I may live to see every one of my children and grandchildren faithful members of the Kingdom of God. I can not expect to see many more birthdays and as every hour brings me nearer to the final one, I feel to say with Toplady, [p. 48]”When I draw this fleeting breath, when my eyelids close in death, when I rise to worlds unknown, and behold Thy Judgement Throne, Rock of Ages, shelter me, let me hide myself in Thee.”
Three years later at the age of seventy-three, Jean Baker Pearce passed away, leaving a large Mormon posterity in Utah and California, and in her diary an eloquent record of one immigrant’s gathering experience.