I love reading accounts of the Mormon emigrant experience, whether crossing the ocean, riding the trains, or traveling by wagon or handcart. Most of our stories come from the early years of that travel: Everybody seemed to recognize the significance of pioneering; fewer people recorded the experience of traveling when emigration had become “routine.” But it was never routine for the people involved – even when the months of sail travel had shrunk to a week aboard a steamer, and when months of Plains walking had collapsed to a week on the rails, “coming to Zion” was a pivotal moment in an emigrant’s life, probably the greatest adventure of his life.
On Saturday, May 21, 1887 – long after such travel had become “routine” – a company of Latter-day Saint emigrants bound for Utah sailed from Liverpool aboard the S.S. Nevada, a steamer of the Guion line, the steamship company favored by the Church. The company consisted of 130 British Saints; 34 from the Swiss and German Mission; 10 from Holland; 6 from Iceland; and 8 returning missionaries. Many of these Saints had already traveled quite a distance over both land and sea to reach Liverpool. Edward Davis, the returning elder in charge of the traveling party, wrote an engaging account of their travel. He updated his letter at frequent intervals and mailed installments to Apostle George Teasdale, his former mission president in the British Mission, whenever he had a chance. The first letter was mailed from Queenstown, Ireland, the ship’s last brush with land before it set out across the North Atlantic; from New York, reporting the crossing and the bureaucracy involved in landing in the United States, and from his home in Paris, Idaho, to say the company had safely arrived.
Such travel may have become routine by 1887, but it had lost little of its color and adventure.
Queenstown, May 21, 1887
President George Teasdale:
Dear Brother, –
At 6 p.m. we steamed down the Mersey. Before leaving smooth water we divided our people into wards and named them alphabetically and selected from the passengers some capable brethren and set them apart as teachers to assist us in looking to the welfare of the Saints. We had scarcely completed this arrangement when the vessel began to lurch about, causing a sickly expression to cover the faces of most of the passengers, and in a short time the majority of them were sick or looking squeamish.
Saturday night, 9:30. A strong wind blowing from the N.W., the vessel’s course lays within two points of the wind, and, as she cleaves her way through the turbulent waters, the waves dash themselves against her bow, and leap up with a hissing sound and spend their fury in the faces of the few people who have the hardihood to remain on deck. The sky is black and angry looking to the N.E., but sunset gave us a promise of better weather to-morrow.
Sunday, 6 a.m. A clear sky, the sun shining, the vessel’s course is now about W., which allows some canvas to be spread forward and helps to keep the vessel steady; the wind has settled down to a steady breeze; a few passengers are on deck enjoying the lovely weather.
8 a.m. All passengers are ordered on deck to give up their tickets rather a difficult order for most of them to comply with, but with a little patience the tickets are all collected and the effort to get about has created a more cheerful disposition among the people. All well and a lovely morning. We passed Tusker Lighthouse about 7 a.m.
After breakfast the most of the Saints assembled on deck; the Swiss and German are gathered in groups singing the songs of Zion – the trip across the North Sea has helped them to recover from sickness sooner than others of the Saints. The officers are very kind, and a general good feeling seems to pervade the whole of the people.
Noon. The weather is cold and wintry but fine overhead. We expect to be in Queenstown by 3 p.m. Sea tolerably smooth, and vessel steady; the wind has quieted down.
The brethren all unite with me in kind regards to you and all at the office and praying for your welfare.
I remain your brother in the Gospel of the kingdom,
P.S. Queenstown. – We are all feeling splendid, all moving harmoniously and full of hopeful anticipations of a pleasant passage.
New York, June 1, 1887
President George Teasdale:
Dear Brother, –
We left Queenstown Sunday, May 22nd, about 4 p.m., and encountered a heavy head sea that night, and from then until late on Friday, the 27th, we had rather a rough passage, the ship plunging through and rolling over huge billows for five days and nights, during which time very few escaped sea sickness. The Saints during this time seemed in good heart, with few exceptions, and managed occasionally to get together and sing a few hymns, bear testimony to the blessings of god, and listen to the counsel of those placed to preside over them. No sickness, disease, or accident of a serious nature has occurred among our people.
Friday and Saturday, 27th and 28th, we traveled into the ice neighborhood, and for two days and one night we could not see but a few hundred yards in either direction, the fog horn was sounded every few minutes, and part of the time the speed of the vessel was reduced.
On Sunday morning, the 27th, having obtained permission of the captain, I preached to the Saints and strangers on the upper deck, forward, the wind was blowing strong at the time, and an occasional shower of salt water had the effect to shorten my remarks.
The Swiss and German Saints held a meeting in the afternoon, and gave evidence by their spirited testimonies that they have the Spirit of God alive int heir hearts, and are zealous in the Gospel. Elders [Christian Friedrich] Bessler and Staheli addressed them also.
Sunday evening, Major Wrench, a saloon passenger with whom I have had conversations upon the Gospel, informed me that several saloon passengers, including the captain, doctor and purser, wished me to I’ve them a lecture, or speak to them upon Mormonism. I willingly complied, seating myself among them in the cabin on deck. I briefly related to them the early history of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the visits of angels to him, how he obtained the plates and translated them, how he received the Aaronic, and Melchisedec Priesthood, and the authority to preach and administer the ordinances of the gospel, the testimony of the three witnesses, explained the first principles of the gospel, and our views upon plural marriage, where we derived it from, viz: from heaven by revelation, and why we gathered.
They all listened with interest and paid respectful attention. Towards the close of my remarks, Elders [James P.] Lowe and [James] Nye came in, and several questions were asked of us, which we answered to the best of our ability.
Monday, May 30th. The weather is charming this morning, just wind enough to form pretty little ruffles on the surface of the pure blue green water, the sun is shining out from the pale blue sky, adorned with light silvery clouds, which latter look like they might be resting places for angels of God, while being wafted through space.
All our people are on deck, except two or three who are still delicate. The vessel is gliding smoothly along through the great waters diligently speeding her way toward the promised land, the great western continent which, in a few years, will be the great arena of the most marvelous events that have occurred in the history of the world.
The passengers are variously occupied; some of the young playing at skip rope, others reading and lounging about the deck, some of our good sisters are busily engaged knitting, others writing letters to loved ones at home. On the after deck, a game of quoits is being enjoyed by a few saloon passengers; from the cabin come occasional sounds form the violin and the piano; a few Irish passengers are crowded together on the deck forward listening to a song from one of their number, at the conclusion of which a round of hearty applause greets our ears; and thus the hours are wiled away, and the vessel continues to speed on, industriously cleaving her way through the great waters, which seem to have no end.
The Saints all seem happy and contented, they have been singing the songs of Zion to their hearts’ content. Our brethren have been diligent in visiting among them, giving them words of cheer and counsel, and we have had good assistance form the brethren selected to assist the Traveling Elders.
I have had very able assistance from my two counselors, Elders Lowe and Bessler, although the former has suffered considerable with poor health a good deal of the time.
Tuesday, the 31st. We had an enjoyable meeting with the Saints last night in the steerage, the Spirit of God was manifest in the powerful testimonies borne by the brethren and sisters of different nationalities. We have had a fine day, and quite a few of the Irish passengers have been enjoying themselves in dancing on the upper deck. We met together with the Saints again to-night, and gave them counsel and instructions how to conduct themselves when landing.
Wednesday, June 1st. Went on deck at 3 a.m. to find the cause of the engines being stopped; wind from E., and heavy rain, very dark. I learned from one of the officers that we were in shallow water, and being so dark it was not safe to proceed until daylight.
5:30 p.m. We have made out the land, long Island is on our starboard bow, but, like a low cloud bank, scarcely visible through the teeming rain. We are now steaming full speed for Sandy Hook light-ship. It is still raining fast.
We have had kind treatment and polite attention from all the officers and servants of the Nevada, and our efforts to enlighten their minds concerning our religious principles have had the effect of awakening greater interest towards us, and, added to the kind sociable disposition manifested to us from the captain, purser, and other officers, also from the saloon passengers, several of the latter have exchanged cards with me, and expressed a desire to visit Salt Lake City.
We have now reached the place where the quarantine officers board the vessel, the engines are stopped and the vessel is allowed to drift about while the examination takes place. Notwithstanding the pouring rain, the steerage passengers are ordered on deck, and men, women and children are compelled to stand in the drenching rain. I applied to the doctor to know if they could not go below until the rain moderated or ceased. He replied they could not. after waiting some time and seeing nothing being done, and some weakly looking and poorly protected from the rain among the sisters, I again asked the doctor if he did not think that some of them could go below for a while; he replied, rather sharply, that I could go below. I rejoined I did not wish for myself, but there were some women with infants and I did not think this severe wetting would conduct to good health. After waiting some little time, the passengers were allowed to go below, and the doctor examined them there. I presume they, the doctor, could not stand the rain on deck. he is not very popular. it is his first trip, and unless he cultivates more sympathy for persons in a feeble condition, it will be to the interest of the Guion Company to have a more kindly disposed man for that position.
We are now steaming past the great Bartholdi Statue of Liberty. It has an imposing appearance, but like most all monuments, it is memento of that which is dead.
We are now landed at the Guion wharf, and the pleasant, genial face of Elder J.E. hart has shone upon us. After a few hours of patient searching, and hurrying from place to place, we have transferred the passengers and luggage from the Nevada to the river boat. We steam up to Castle Gardens, get the passengers all registered without much trouble, and from thence back to the Old Dominion wharf. Change again on to the S.S. Roanoke, and after getting them some food sent aboard, which Elders Lowe and [Orvil L.] Thompson kindly undertook to distribute among them.
I seek a quiet spot to write you these particulars. Thus far our journey has been a prosperous one, and although we have passed through many trials and a few hardships incident to a rough sea passage, the trials are now past, and we can smile when looking back upon them, and offer thanks and praises to God for bringing us through safe and well. To-morrow at 3 p.m. we sail from here to Norfolk.
The Elders and Saints join with me in good wishes and kind greetings to you and all at “42” [headquarters of the mission were located at 42 Islington, Liverpool]. Praying for the blessing of God to rest upon you all, I remain your brother in the gospel of the kingdom of God.
Paris, Bear Lake Co., Idaho, June 21, 1887
President George Teasdale:
Dear Brother, –
We arrived at our destination in Zion on June 8th. Nothing transpired to mar the pleasure of the trip, all enjoyed good health, and the Saints have all found homes or friends to receive them.
The grand picturesque scenery on the D. and R.G. route is magnificent, the Saints were delighted at the wonderful sights to be seen from the cars as the train climbed around and over the tops of the snow capped mountains, until we were more than 10,000 feet above the sea level. The mind is almost bewildered with the wonderful scenes which are presented to the eye with ever changing beauty and variety of wonders, and at the engineering skill of man, who has succeeded in hewing a pathway up these lofty peaks, for the iron horse to climb, and from which we can look out upon the wonderful works of God.
[summary of his missionary activities in Britain]
I am now at home surrounded by loving companions, and as I look out from my cottage door across the grassy valley to the distant mountains, and view the quiet, peaceful settlements of the Saints in the distance, the pure, clear sky and atmosphere, which allows objects ten miles distant to be seen as plain as if only two or three miles away, my heart swells with gratitude to God for the abundance of His mercies and blessings, and I feel that I have been honored in being called to go to the world and advocate the principles of the government of God. My testimony is strengthened thereby, and I feel more determined than ever to labor in the interest of this great latter-day work.
With kind and affectionate greeting to you and those associated with you at the office and to the faithful Saints,
I remain your fellow servant in the Gospel of the kingdom of God,