“Standard” church history follows the movements of Joseph Smith and the main body of the church, from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Nauvoo, and then west with Brigham Young. We are less familiar with the very many small branches of Saints who joined the church but who remained in their old homes and did not move with the main body of the church. Below is the story of one such family and their unusual route to Zion in 1848.
Stephen Taylor was born on 1 July 1794 in Scipio, New York to parents who had migrated from Massachusetts to western New York State the year before his birth. As they had done for at least two generations in New England, the family operated a tavern as well as carving out a farm in the wilderness.
Stephen had been twice widowed by 1832 when he married a third time, to Martha Turner, a Connecticut woman who had come to New York with her brothers. In addition to several children from Stephen’s earlier marriages, the couple had two small daughters of their own in 1838 when they became converts to Mormonism; two sons joined their family in the next few years, and at least two of Stephen’s older children died.
Despite their fairly early membership, Stephen and Martha did not join the main body of the Church in either Missouri or Nauvoo, but remained at home in Batavia, New York, where Stephen served at times as presiding elder to a small and sometimes bickering congregation.
In late 1847, though, missionary Oliver B. Huntington brought word that Brigham Young had reached the Salt Lake Valley and returned to Winter Quarters to make final plans for moving the Saints to the west. The Taylors decided it was time to join him. They sold their farm that winter, and early in the spring of 1848 Stephen, Martha, Stephen’s 21-year-old son (Cyrenus) by his first marriage, and their own four young children prepared to go west. One adult son, not a Mormon, remained behind.
The Taylors, along with two poorer families whose travel expenses they were paying and a few other members of the Batavia branch traveled overland to Buffalo, New York, and on April 10 took a steamer over Lake Erie to Erie, Pennsylvania. From there they entered the canal and river system – the great water highway that carried so many pioneers by a circuitous route to the western frontier. (All quotations below are from the diary of Oliver B. Huntington.)
In Buffalo we made what would be called in ordinary times a very foolish move, but which God ordered and turned out for our good – which was that we paid our fare through to St. Louis, in consequence of which we had a boat sent for by telegraph to meet us and be ready at Erie … being the first boat through that spring, as it were on express. … Our company had no head definite, but all got along very well – peace prevailed except in the minds of Bro. Cyrenus Taylor and my own to see our older Brothers (and his father one) drinking liquor at convenient opportunities, so as thinking to screen it from the company.
The first stage of the route, from Erie to Beaver, Pennsylvania (30 miles from Pittsburgh), was 127 miles and involved more than 130 locks – it took the travelers six days to cross that distance. There they waited for two days for another boat to take them down the Ohio River.
Tuesday morning the 18th we reached Wheeling in Virginia which is quite a large town … During our stay there I visited the great Virginia iron works which was a great sight. There was a bridge across the Ohio in building there of wire the same as the one across the Niagara River. Wednesday, April 18, 1848 we reached Cincinnati and left there the same evening.
Thursday morning we reached Louisville in Kentucky … a steam boat got stuck fast in the mud in the Canal through which all the boats had to pass in time of low water. So we had to wait until about noon the next day for her to get off.
To pass the time Oliver, probably together with Cyrenus Taylor with whom he seems to have been good friends, visited the “great Kentucky Giant,” advertised as 7’8″ tall. Late on the evening of 21 April, they continued their travel down the Ohio. At Cairo, Illinois, on 23 April, they left the Ohio behind and entered the great Mississippi.
On April 25, after two weeks and 1400 miles of travel, the Taylors reached St. Louis, still 700 miles from their goal of Council Bluffs. There they entered the Missouri River.
Two days before they reached that point, a party of Mormons, including apostles Erastus Snow, Ezra T. Benson, and Amasa Lyman, had left St. Louis aboard a steamboat headed for Council Bluffs. But the steamboat ran onto a rock about 130 miles upriver from St. Louis, breaking a hole in the hull and necessitating a return to St. Louis for repairs. 30 miles short of St. Louis, the captain had put all the passengers and their freight ashore, “where they waited in anxious suspense,” Oliver said, until the repaired steamboat – this time carrying the Taylors and their party – returned and picked them up.
Saturday morning the 29th of April about eight o’clock all the company of saints that were left on the west bank of the Missouri, were on board and we were on the way again. There was about 100 of them. Bro. Snow and Benson had taken another boat and gone on, but Bro. Wm. Clayton and John Scott was with us.
Travel on the Missouri River was slow, as the steamer stopped every few miles to load or unload freight. At one point the boat ran out of wood for its boilers, so the passengers were all sent ashore to collect sticks and a wooden fence they bought from a nearby farmer. At several points along the river they met other groups of Mormons traveling toward Winter Quarters, or traveling from the frontier back to their homes to collect their families for the move west. At Fort Kearney, in present-day Nebraska, they found about 70 Mormon men working as teamsters for the U.S. Army in order to earn money for the move west.
While we lay there, a very heavy rain and hail storm came, until the ground was all white.
Just after sunset on the evening of May 9, the steamboat reached Winter Quarters. Oliver wrote that on the next day, he
spent the time in helping Bro. Taylor’s family to move into a small log hut, a great disparity from what they had been used to. Yet they seemed happy and content, intent upon getting to the valley at the sacrifice of all things. On Thursday, he went to Brigham and gave him all the money he had, desiring only he would give him a fit out for the valley.
But Martha had caught the measles during the river travel. The damp hut near the river was unhealthy, and although she had been a large woman she wasted rapidly away. Martha died on 1 June and was buried near the camp flagpole, with her funeral sermon “left to be preached in the Valley.”
The grave was dug very large, and for the want of boards hewed slabs were got and the corners let in together in the grave so as to form a kind of box, three for a cover. She was let down on a board which formed the bottom. Many attended at the grave. The corpse was carried in a carriage and the mourners rode in Brigham’s carriage.
Stephen and his five children traveled on with the Brigham Young company, reaching the Valley on September 20.
Stephen returned to the East as a missionary in 1854 and died in 1855 while coming home to Utah. All five children survived to adulthood and have a large posterity today … including me.