Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » “A Display of No Ordinary Character”

“A Display of No Ordinary Character”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 13, 2011

One hundred and fifty-five years ago, give or take a few days, a reporter for a New York newspaper visited the Mormon camp near Iowa City, Iowa. He painted a word picture of the scene for his readers in the East:

The camp, as viewed from the brow of a neighboring hill, which commands a wide sweep of country, presents a fine spectacle. Over one hundred tents, and perhaps as many covered wagons, with their spires and arches of dazzling white – contrast well with the green sward of the prairie and the sparkling ripples of the river running close beside.

The camp is reached by a side road, diverging from the great highway which leads to Fort Desmoines and Council Bluffs. In all about three thousand have rendezvoused in this spot, of whom some eighteen hundred still remain in expectation, however, of soon striking their tents for their long march. Three separate divisions have already gone forward. The remainder will start, it is supposed, in about a fortnight, and the leaders are now laying in supplies for the journey.

The tents are arranged in rows, with wide streets between them – the wagons generally in rings, with an entrance at one side, and sleeping tents on the outside.

He investigated the means by which the pioneers had arrived at that point, either by prepaying their expenses in Europe – which “insures to them a team from this city to the end of their journey – no mean advantage, by the way” – or by support of the Perpetual Emigration fund company.

On the journey these ‘Lord’s poor’ are provided with hand carts (five men to each) on which they are expected to carry their luggage, through fourteen hundred miles of weary wayfaring.

The present stock of cattle in camp is numerous and valuable. There are in all four hundred-and-forty-five oxen, twenty mules and a few horses. Really when in motion, such a train must make a display of no ordinary character.

There is seen, as you enter the camp, a smithery, a workshop and a store, all full of business and industry. There seems to be no disposition to shirk duty, however laborious. Women and children appear alike interested in getting all things ready for a start.

The start for those budding pioneers, though, would be delayed for weeks yet. The smithery and workshop were engaged in turning out handcarts, with green lumber that would soon shrink, and iron hoops that would refuse to stay connected to the warping wooden wheels. Those cattle would stampede, with many of them being lost, delaying and handicapping the companies further.

The industrious pioneers, eager to make their start, would be largely members of the two handcart companies led by Captains James G. Willie and Edward Martin; the herd of animals would be pulling the few wagons that accompanied those two companies of handcarts, and the wagons of the William B. Hodgetts and John A. Hunt companies that would travel with them and largely share their fate on the plains of Wyoming.

I have seen other contemporary news accounts of Mormon pioneer companies at the start of their journey, sometimes including interviews with their leaders. This report is, I think, the first I have seen that mentions an identifiable pioneer who was not a leader, and a woman at that.

Speaking of the fair sex reminds me that I saw one really handsome female, and many good-looking ones, during many visits to the camp. I learned that a few of them were of highly cultivated minds, and one (the prettiest too, by a curious anomaly) was pointed out to me as an accomplished poetess. All their beauty and talent, however, are consecrated to the interests of the church, and the whilom lady will pull the hand-cart cheerfully with a woman of no education or refinement. No distinctions seem to be made among them, except so far as money can make them. Children absolutely swarm in and around the encampment and I have often come near trampling on the small fry as I rode through camp on my Indian pony.

The “accomplished poetess” was Emily Hill (later Woodmansee), 20 years old and newly arrived from England, who would survive the trek. One of her poems (“As Sisters in Zion”) is sung today; others of her poems have been in earlier editions of our hymn books.

The New York correspondent concludes:

I would have been glad to write more fully respecting the organization and government of these religionists. I have made the acquaintance of their leaders, and have found them courteous, cultivated, and, in business transactions, uncommonly “sharp.” They converse freely with those in whom they have confidence, respecting their plans and prospects; and strangers sometimes can learn news of Mormon movements while the people in the camp itself are in blissful ignorance of their fate.

“In blissful ignorance of their fate.” Indeed.



  1. Then Sister Hill was not the only published poetess in the group. Mary Ann Morton Durham, who wrote “Sweet is the Peace” (published about 1851, IIRC) was in the company as well. Sister Durham would have been about 27 or 28 years old; the children listed in New Family Search for her and her husband Thomas were born after the westward journey.

    Comment by Coffinberry — July 13, 2011 @ 8:11 am

  2. Cool. I didn’t know about her. Emily Hill wrote a song about the handcarts that was sung on the trek, which was why I thought of her. I suppose then it could have been either of those women and I retract my claim for “identifiability.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 13, 2011 @ 8:36 am

  3. What a fantastic find. My brain is still trying to wrap itself around the use of “rendezvoused” though. Just doesn’t feel right, somehow.

    Comment by Chad Too — July 13, 2011 @ 9:31 am

  4. That’s funny, Ardis… you’re the one who helped me last January identify Sister Durham as being a member of the Martin Company. *grin*

    I’m working on the blog post I promised on the subject. I should post later today. This post reminded me, and vaulted it past my other to-do list things today.

    Comment by Coffinberry — July 13, 2011 @ 9:51 am

  5. PS… let’s see the song about Handcarts!

    Comment by Coffinberry — July 13, 2011 @ 9:52 am

  6. I’m afraid that my ancestors (a mother and daughter) in that group in Iowa City that day were probably among the “women of no education or refinement.”

    I’d be happy to be proved wrong on that, but haven’t any evidence.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 13, 2011 @ 10:08 am

  7. What a cool post. Kinda sad that I had to look up the word “whilom”.

    Comment by middle-aged Mormon Man — July 13, 2011 @ 10:09 am

  8. Coffinberry, I’m getting so old and tired that somebody is going to have to start wiping my chin and tying my shoes for me, as well as reminding me of things I used to know. *sigh*

    Emily Hill’s song:

    Oh, our faith goes with the hand-carts,
    and they have our hearts’ best love;
    ‘Tis a novel mode of traveling,
    Devised by the Gods above.

    Hurrah for the Camp of Israel!
    Hurrah for the hand-cart scheme!
    Hurrah! Hurrah! ’tis better far
    Than the wagon and ox-team.

    And Brigham’s their executive,
    He told us the design;
    And the Saints are proudly marching on,
    Along the hand-cart line.

    Maybe it lacks the fine poetic nature of the “nincompoops of Nimrod,” but it was just as sincere.

    Thanks, Chad. And Mark, maybe your ancestors were “whilom” ladies before they put their hands to their carts. MMM, I was so unsure that was a real word that I typed “[sic]” there when I transcribed it.

    We see so many eastern newspaper descriptions of Mormons traveling that portray us as ugly, and beasts, and brainwashed and downtrodden. It was a fun thing to see us portrayed as united and organized, in idealized surroundings.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 13, 2011 @ 10:41 am

  9. I suppose then it could have been either of those women and I retract my claim for “identifiability.”

    Any pictures of these two women? If we can see who is the prettiest, we have our poetess. Basic science, you know.

    Comment by Last Lemming — July 13, 2011 @ 10:41 am

  10. There were no pretty pioneers, despite what this reporter says. All pioneers, even the children, were really old, old people with lined faces, gray hair in tight buns (women) or bald and heavily bearded (men), dressed always in black.

    Or at least those seem to be the only photos I’ve ever seen.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 13, 2011 @ 10:59 am

  11. The ratio of 440 oxen to only 20 mules and even fewer horses matches other historical accounts I’ve seen. In movies and reenactments, wagon trains are almost entirely pulled by horses, since virtually no one has harness-broke oxen today.

    Comment by The Other Clark — July 13, 2011 @ 11:10 am

  12. I was too quick to hit “empty spam” a few minutes ago and out of the corner of my eye saw a comment from Coffinberry that had been trapped in the filter.

    Too late to post your comment as left, Coffinberry, sorry, but I did retrieve the link to the post about Mary Ann Morton Durham, the poetess/handcart pioneer mentioned in comment #4.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 13, 2011 @ 11:15 am

  13. Yeah. Horses and mules were expensive, and horses, at least, required grain to stay healthy — heavy stuff to haul in quantity over hundreds of miles — while oxen were cheaper and could forage quite successfully.

    Just for fun, let me link back to a post from three years ago: How to Handle Your Oxen When You Cross the Plains. Just in case, you know, some of you are going to be working oxen this summer.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 13, 2011 @ 11:20 am

  14. Not to mention that a wooden yoke could be hacked out of a cottonwood log fairly easily, and stored virtually anywhere (Compared to a custom-fit leather harness and hames that need to be stored out of the weather.)

    Comment by The Other Clark — July 13, 2011 @ 11:26 am

  15. Regarding contemporary accounts, this description of a later (1860) company by Sir Richard F. Burton amuses me no end:

    The road was now populous with Mormon emigrants; some had good teams, others hand-carts, which looked like a cross between a wheel-barrow and a tax-cart. There was nothing repugnant in the demeanor of the party; they had been civilized by traveling, and the younger women, who walked together and apart from the men, were not too surly to exchange a greeting.

    I like to think that my great-great grandmother, a 22-year-old single woman who pulled a handcart that summer, was one of those “civilized by traveling” and “not too surly” to say hello to her famous countryman. :-)

    Comment by SLK in SF — July 13, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

  16. One of the reporters’ comments caught my eye (emphasis added:

    No distinctions seem to be made among them, except so far as money can make them.

    Is this talking about whether people could afford wagons or handcarts, or is it actually more egalitarian than it sounds, or am i completely missing something obvious?

    Comment by David B — July 14, 2011 @ 7:42 am

  17. I interpreted it as the difference between wagons and handcarts, and whatever other material provisions might have been evident; that otherwise, in their feeling, and fellowship, and mood, and personal appearance, and faith, and how they treated each other, and whatever else wasn’t a purchasable commodity, they were united and equal and egalitarian.

    Otherwise (i.e., if the possession/lack of money made a difference in how they treated each other), there would seem to be no purpose in making the statement — what, besides physical and behavioral, would be left to comment on as being without distinction?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 14, 2011 @ 7:54 am

  18. Fascinating stuff as usual, Ardis. Thank you!

    I just returned from four days of “trekking” in Wyoming with youth, and I wish I’d had this article before I left.

    I too had ancestors in the Martin company (a mother/daughter pair — perhaps Mark B. and I are related?), and it’s been a great opportunity to learn more about what they went through and ponder what life might have been like for them. Your historical posts have been invaluable in that processes. Thanks again!

    Comment by lindberg — July 18, 2011 @ 1:59 pm

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