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John Garratt Chambers: An Englishman’s Emigration, 1853

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 24, 2009

John Garratt Chambers was born in 1818 in Alnwick and raised in Manchester, England. He was just 13 when he began a seven-year term as an apprentice on the newspaper The Manchester Chronicle. Denied any opportunity for a formal, classical education, he used whatever free time he could find to study chemistry, geology, geography, and history, and he learned to write shorthand. He continued in the newspaper business, working as a reporter on The Manchester Examiner and Times, from 1841 to 1853.

He became a Mormon in 1851, and in February 1853, one week before sailing to America on the first leg of his emigration to Zion, he married Maria Duffin.

In 1854, after reaching Salt Lake City, he wrote at least two long letters to England, which his former editor published in the Manchester Examiner. These letters are notable for their journalistic qualities – literate, packed with detail, they take the reader along on the journey with the reporter.

He describes Mormon shipboard organization as a dispassionate observer:

Before I proceed to remark further on the progress of the voyage, I will take the liberty of giving an account of the organisation which is generally adopted by the Mormons in all their voyages. In the first place, there is a president appointed over the whole company, and he, in the next place, calls to his aid two individuals, of some experience, to act as counsellors. these are the first presidency on board the vessel, and take away from the captain all control over the company, leaving him simply to guide the ship into port. The council having been formed on board the Elvira Owen, they proceeded to form the company into eight divisions, and to each division a captain was appointed, who presided over all the men in his division. These divisions had duties to perform, such as clearing away all dirt between decks, keeping watch, and administering to the sick, &c. By this arrangement cleanliness and good order were maintained during the whole of the voyage. Prayers were conducted by the presidency during the passage – first, in the mornings, and afterwards, both morning and evening, when the weather became warmer. Divine service was conducted, also, three times a week, and the administration of the sacrament every Sunday; sometimes in the cabin, and on deck when the weather permitted.

The ship was headed for New Orleans, and Chambers gives readers several long passages of tropical travel – unusual in Mormon literature, because the church soon shifted its emigration to New York City and Philadelphia. In this passage Chambers indicates his own passion for learning new sciences as, for the first time in his life, he is able to see and enjoy the stars:

On the 27th Feb. at noon, we came within the compass of the trade winds, being in long. W. 34̊ lat. N. 27-1/2̊. the weather now became delightfully fine – these latitudes being very free from storms – and the captain assured us we would now have an onward progress, with little interruption, for upwards of 3,000 miles. During our passage in these parts we had many pleasant evenings; there were some musicians on board, and they afforded us a treat occasionally. This part of the voyage was really a pleasure trip. Sunset in this latitude is very beautiful, the sky presenting various hues of brilliant colours in rapid succession, until the refraction gives way to the light of the stars, which shine forth with great brilliancy, and many constellations are very distinct to the naked eye. It afforded me some pleasure on fine evenings to pace the deck with the mate, and glean all the information I could from him respecting this most interesting science – a privilege I could not obtain whilst in Manchester, as the atmosphere there was always overcast with the smoke that issued from its manufactories.

Smallpox attacked the ship’s company as they cruised through the Caribbean, and Chambers reports some of the measures taken to combat the disease:

The presiding elder of the Mormons proceeded to call meetings, and to give instruction to the people, and urged upon them the necessity of washing themselves, from the oldest to the youngest, in salt water. This was immediately attended to, – the females going to the stern, or quarter deck, the males to the forecastle, and the children all had a good ducking on the main-deck, and a fine stir it made, affording considerable amusement, for every bucket of water caused some of the little ones to dance and yell most vociferously. The president also appointed a fast-day to all except the sick, the aged, and those under eight years of age. All were urged to attend to their prayers, and to call upon the Lord to stay the plague. These things being attended to, and carried out with as much punctuality as though it were in the army or navy, the plague had little or no power (though in these climates the smallpox is a fearful visitor), only one young man dying of the disease.

After several long and beautiful paragraphs describing tropical sunsets and marine life, Chambers describes the ship’s arrival at New Orleans, with a scene I have read nowhere else:

New Orleans has a magnificent appearance as you sail along its quays, wharves, and pierheads. It is very extensive, and has a frontage to the river of seven mils. Spring is the finest and most healthy time of the year to arrive at this port. Like most seaports, this place is infested with a band of ruffians, who board all emigrant ships immediately on arrival, and if the passengers are not prepared to receive them, they will rush below into the steerage and ransack and pillage everything they can lay their hands on. The captain has not power to prevent this; – the deck and bulwarks of the Elvira were covered with these characters, whose looks were more like those of demons than anything else. the greatest number of them were Irishmen. The Mormons were aware of all this, and the president provided for it by doubling the guards at each hatchway, and they had instructions not to allow anyone to go below without knowing his business. This plan completely thwarted the object of this desperate gang of loafers, and for some time they sat upon the bulwarks of the vessel, grinning like fiends. They tried to effect an entrance by stratagem: one of them dressing himself in the garb of a female, came about sundown, and said he wanted to see one of the passengers named “Mary Ball,” but the guards were on the alert; they knew no such person in that ship. the ruse being discovered, the mate was informed, who told them who he was, and that if they did not go ashore right away, he would pretty smartly call the policemen on board, and give them in charge. The bold front displayed by the mate, put a check on the audacity of the Orleans land pirates, and they retired, apparently much mortified at the failure of all their projects to plunder the Mormons. Where no organisation exists, they make common plunder; from this cause, the Irish emigrants suffer greatly, as they are generally in disorder.

A second letter describes Chambers’s overland travel, again with a paragraph praising Mormon organization and describing in greater than usual detail the labors of the Mormon men who traveled ahead of the wagon companies to smooth their passage:

Many rivers lay in our path, which we had to cross; some by ferry-boat, others we ran our teams through without stopping. Sometimes it was rather difficult to cross these streams by ferry boat, with heavily-laden waggons, owing to the sand-banks, snags, &c.; but these things appeared to be little in the way of the Mormons, for us soon as the difficulty presented itself, a dozen men were immediately at hand with spades, shovels, and pickaxes, to remove any obstacle that might be likely to retard our progress. In fact, a company of pioneers was formed – a man out of every twelve being required every morning. This party had a captain over them, and he called them out, and went ahead of the camp; and on perceiving any bad or difficult places, they endeavoured to smooth the path for the coming train, reducing, where possible, sudden descents and steep inclines, filling up sloughs and mud holes with prairie grass and brushwood, covering all with soil, thus giving a firmer footing for the cattle; forming bridges and repairing those that were broken down or carried away by the floods. In this manner the train met with little or no delay until they camped in the evening.

Chambers’s travel across the plains is typical for Mormon companies: he describes encounters with Indians, and beautifully reports on the Midwestern thunder storms that are so unlike anything he had ever witnessed in England. He describes a particularly dangerous event that befell his company late in the season:

On the 29th of August we started on our journey as usual, but the day proved a rather eventful one. We had gone a short distance previously to camping for dinner, and for that purpose we turned a little out of our path, and proceeded towards the river Platte, where there was a deal of dry bunch grass, which is good feed for cattle. We halted, the cattle were unhitched from the waggons, and driven in a herd to the water. Orders had been given by the captain that no fires should be lighted, as, from the dryness of the grass, it was dangerous to do so. Two or three of the company did not hear the order, and without thought lighted fires. The inflammable nature of the prairie grass caused the flames to spread with considerable rapidity, being also aided by the brisk wind that was blowing. It appeared a critical moment. The flames, in some instances, reached the tops of the wagons, and set the canvas on fire. Horror was depicted on many countenances, and it seemed as though the whole company would be destroyed. Every exertion was made to put out the flames, men pulling off their coats, and women their shawls, to batter out the fire, but it was all to no purpose. The fury of the fiery element increased, and roared like thunder as it rolled along the ground, the heat being so great that it singed the men as they attempted to move the wagons to windward.

The captain, however, gave orders for the oxen to be brought up, and hitched in. A movement to an adjacent hill was commenced, and as soon as we got there out of danger, we again halted, and sat down on the grass to dine, watching the progress of the fire, which had by this time well-night reached the river, and there was presented to our view a large blackened surface – the effects of the destructive element.

Chambers’s full letters can be read here; I continue to search for additional letters to his paper.

Upon arrival in Salt Lake City, Chambers was almost immediately drafted to work for the Deseret News. He worked there for about ten years (accompanying the press to Fillmore during the Move South at the end of the Utah War), and was a founding member and longtime clerk of the Typographical Association of Deseret, a significant early Utah organization fostering the arts and sciences through education and publication.

He then decided to try his hand at farming in the lush new settlements of Cache Valley. After five years of battling crickets, Chambers moved to Ogden and assisted T.B.H. Stenhouse with The Telegraph, until that paper folded a few months later. He then worked for a time as a laborer on the railroad, then, when another newspaper opened in Ogden, he went back to press work. He continued to work as a pressman until July of 1892, and for a time operated a bookstore and newsstand in Ogden. He died on 26 October 1892, his widow Maria following him on 2 January 1894. They left ten children, all seemingly as active in the Church as their parents had been.



8 Comments »

  1. I love reading this stuff, Ardis!

    Of the accounts of the pioneers I’ve read, it seems like there are a lot of stories about the organization and the necessity of listening to the leader. It seems like there are a lot of stories where the leader said to do X, but brother/sister so-and-so did Y, and such were the consequences. My question is, are there truly a high proportion of such stories, or does it just seem that way because they’ve been selected to illustrate the point? Most of the accounts I’ve read were written after the fact, so they may also be heavily influenced by the follow-the-leader emphasis in Utah. What’s your take, Ardis?

    Comment by Martin — August 24, 2009 @ 9:49 am

  2. A lot of people comment on the Mormon organization because most other people traveling by ship were traveling without any organization larger than their own family, and there were serious problems with disorder and competition. (Overland travel is another matter; non-Mormon overland companies often had agreed-upon rules, even written constitutions, for their travel.)

    Off-hand, I don’t recall any particular stories of going contrary to a leader, so I’d have to say they’re aren’t over-represented or loom large in my mind.

    There isn’t much better than a first-hand account, is there?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 24, 2009 @ 10:02 am

  3. Ardis, this is very cool. I know what sometimes goes into the bits you mention after the letter-quotes. The stuff I put up about Jon Grimshaw was tough to come by. Nice.

    Comment by W. Smith — August 24, 2009 @ 10:24 am

  4. W., yeah, sometimes the least exciting “framework” that is necessary to put an exciting item in context takes the most work. You know it!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 24, 2009 @ 10:54 am

  5. I note from your link that the Chambers were in the Cyrus Wheelock company crossing the plains. I’m scanning through the list on the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel site to see any ancestors. I don’t. My ancestors who came to Utah that year came in the Joseph W. Young Company, and if my sources are correct, Joseph W. Young was in charge of the members in John Chamber’s ship, the Elvira Owen.

    (I do note in the Cyrus Wheelock company a woman named Hannah Last Cornaby. She wrote the hymn “Who’s On the Lord’s Side?” And Cyrus Wheelock wrote “Ye Elders of Israel.” Rather a literary company.)

    Thanks for the interesting post!

    Comment by Researcher — August 24, 2009 @ 11:28 am

  6. And thanks for your pointing out the hymns connected with members of this company. (Every time I read some 19th century condemnation of Mormon converts as “the dregs of society,” I snort.)

    Your ancestors must have got wet by the same thunderstorms then, after escaping from the same New Orleans land pirates.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 24, 2009 @ 11:56 am

  7. And Popeye wrote the music to go with Sister Cornaby’s text. :-)

    Well, that’s mostly true, sort of.

    My great-great grandfather and his family were on a ship that left Liverpool two weeks after the Elvira Owen and in a company that left for Salt Lake City two days after the company John Chambers was in. Since my ancestors were not among the literary sort (to be fair to my great-grandfather, he was just a boy of 8), it’s nice to have this account from a near fellow-traveler!

    Comment by Mark B. — August 24, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

  8. Great to have an account from someone with literary skills for such a detailed information. The issue with the thugs at the dockside was interesting, nothing I had heard of before.

    In regards to the leadership issue, some of my ancestors came in an 1857 handcart company that had some difficulties with their leader, a Scotsman. Most of the company were Danish, spoke little or no English, and the captain no Danish. There were numerous difficulties, including forcing some of the sick to walk behind the wagon they were supposed to be riding in to “strengthen” them, and the captain traveling so far ahead of the handcarts that they often took wrong turns. They were overtaken after a few weeks by a group of returning missionaries, including one Christian Christiansen, who was fluent in Danish, and agreed to replace the despised captain. Christiansen was much loved and appreciated by the Danish members of the company, and the rest of the difficult journey became much easier. Leadership matters.

    Comment by kevinf — August 24, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

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