Thomas L. Kane, the 19th century Philadelphia lawyer for whom Utah’s Kane County was named, was moved by his humanitarian instincts to champion causes as varied as educational reform, the anti-slavery movement, and the troubles of the Mormons. Without Kane’s timely negotiations between Brigham Young and Alfred Cumming (the newly appointed governor of Utah encamped with the federal army at Fort Bridger in 1858), the Utah War could have been far more bloody than it was.
Kane’s wife Elizabeth would have preferred that her husband stay quietly at home in Pennsylvania, building his reputation as a civic leader and providing for her and their children. Understanding, however, that her husband’s temperament compelled him to such grand gestures, she stoically supported him when he hurried to Utah in 1858, and later when he raised, equipped, and commanded a Civil War regiment.
Elizabeth’s support for her husband’s heroics did not mean that she was a passive bystander without strong opinions of her own. She was not fond of the Mormons and abhorred polygamy with all the fervor of her Presbyterian soul. While she was courteous to all she met when she accompanied Kane on an 1872 visit to Utah, her diary and letters preserve her candid, sometimes biting, opinions of the Mormon people and their social peculiarities.
The Kanes were in Utah during the 1872 Thanksgiving season and were invited to dine with Brigham Young and his wife Amelia at the home of William C. Staines, Utah’s territorial librarian, master gardener, and a man who, as Mormon immigration agent, had shepherded thousands of Europeans from the New York docks to Utah. Describing the day in a letter to her daughter Harriet, Elizabeth described Staines as “a humpbacked man with a very kind expression,” one whose invitation had been accepted when all others were declined because Staines had tenderly nursed Kane when he fell ill on his 1858 travels to Utah.
Elizabeth had seen Staines’ home (“a pretty West Philadelphia-looking villa”) near the train station – we now know it as the Devereaux House at the west end of South Temple. When her carriage driver turned east rather than west, Elizabeth started to tell him he was going the wrong way. She bit her tongue just in time, suddenly remembering that many Utah leaders had more than one home. Such was true of Staines, Elizabeth soon learned; he was “all wives, no children,” which made her recall a long-ago family pet, a “deformed rooster with his two little hens!”
Despite her disapproval of the living arrangements, which Elizabeth spelled out for her daughter, Elizabeth couldn’t help but be impressed by the dinner she was served: “First came clear gravy soup. Next, roast beef with a garnish of horse-radish, roast turkey, raw and stewed tomatoes, green peas, corn, celery, sweet and Irish potatoes, all of the very finest. The peas, tomatoes and corn had grown here and been put up in bottles by the lady of the house. The dessert was mince-pies, plum-pudding, wine jelly, plum cake, jelly-cake, and tartlets of clear raspberry jelly. Two silver baskets of different kinds of grapes, and a dish of magnificent apples completed the repast.”
What was more impressive than the meal itself, Elizabeth wrote, was the fact that all of it, from the two varieties of grape wine to the plum pudding (“boiled thirty-six hours!” Elizabeth marveled), had been raised by Staines on his home lots in Salt Lake City and prepared and preserved by his two wives, Lilias and Priscilla. Elizabeth had never known a region more productive than the Salt Lake Valley, where, she told Harriet, “they have currants as large as grapes,” as well as “exquisite peaches, apricots, nectarines, pears and grapes.”
May this Thanksgiving find us all as well-fed and aware of our blessings as Elizabeth Kane was – and may we also remember and share the bounty with others who may be in need.