Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Albina Merrill Williams: Fearless, and Not to Be Trifled With

Albina Merrill Williams: Fearless, and Not to Be Trifled With

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 30, 2012

Notice: This post is saltier than the usual Keepa story, with “adult situations,” as the movie reviews say. It isn’t horrible, but you won’t be reading it for Family Home Evening.

Albina Merrill was born in 1826 in Elba, Genesee, New York. That fact will mean little to most people, but I note it because Albina was born in the same small western New York village as my own first Mormon ancestors – surely they must have known each other. But while my ancestors stayed in that town, members of the tiny branch there, until early in the spring of 1848 when they made their way to Winter Quarters and then to Salt Lake, the Merrill family gathered early with the main body of the Church and lived in Kirtland and in Nauvoo. Albina was in Nauvoo in 1846 when the Temple was completed, and was sealed there to her husband, Thomas Williams.

Albina and Thomas were in Council Bluffs, Iowa, when the Mormon Battalion was formed, and Thomas volunteered. So did Albina, and her brother and her sister and her brother-in-law. Albina, with her two very small children (Caroline and Ephraim) traveled with the Mormon Battalion for months. They were dispatched with others of the wives and children and some of the sick soldiers to Pueblo, Colorado, an old Spanish fort on the Arkansas River, where they spent the winter of 1846-47 and where Albina gave birth to another daughter. Then, in the spring of 1847, they traveled on toward Utah, arriving in the Salt Lake Valley only five days after Brigham Young. Albina’s husband later joined her there. They eventually became the parents of ten children.

Albina’s husband Thomas, and her brother-in-law Parmenio Jackman (husband of her sister Phoebe who had made the Battalion trek with Albina) were partners in a freighting business. In 1860, on a freighting trip across the Mohave Desert toward California, the two partners were attacked and killed by Indians. Their deaths are among the incidents that anti-Mormon conspiracists and revisionist historians like to claim were really crimes of the Mormons. There is no legitimate reason to make such a claim, and the revisionists can present no evidence to counteract the testimony of Parmenio Jackman, who lived for a full month after taking multiple arrows in his back and who gave repeated and detailed accounts of the battle with the Indians that killed Williams and wounded Jackman so badly that he could not live.

Most of Williams’ property (freight, mules, wagons, harness) was lost in that attack, so Albina was left an impoverished widow, age 34, with ten young children to support. It’s no wonder that someone – say, some government official, thinking highly of himself and his presumed power – might think that she was vulnerable, a woman alone, in serious financial need, and susceptible to … certain suggestions …

But he would be very, very, very wrong.

Alfred Cumming, the man sent to replace Brigham Young as governor of Utah at the time of the Utah War, resigned his commission in the summer of 1861, returning with his wife to Washington, D.C. As was his right and duty, Abraham Lincoln, as president of the United States, appointed another governor for Utah. His pick was a wannabe mover-and-shaker, John W. Dawson, of Indiana, a lawyer and newspaper editor and a many-times-failed-to-win-election politician, who was appointed to the Utah post late in October. He immediately set out for Salt Lake City, arriving there on December 7.

Two weeks later, he called on Albina.

Albina reported:

Last Saturday morning [December 21], a coulered man came to my house, he asked me if I did sewing for gentlemen, such as making shirts. I told him I did, and asked who it was that wanted shirts made; the coulered man said it was the Governor.

That afternoon, two men drove up to Albina’s door, and hitched their buggy to her fence. One of them was Henry Martin, Utah’s former Superintendent of Indian Affairs, who evidently was known to Albina, because he spoke and said, “Mrs. Williams, allow me to introduce to your acquaintance the Governor.”

Without speaking, that man, Governor John W. Dawson, walked past Albina into her home, put his hat on her table, hung his cane from her mantlepiece, and, without invitation, sat down on a chair. Mr. Martin tipped his hat and left.

Dawson: “Are you alone?”

Albina: “No, my family are with me.”

Dawson: “Have you a father, or brothers here?”

Albina: “I have no brother here, but my father lives in the north end of the city.”

Dawson: “You Mormons I like pretty well, but the men keep their women entirely too close. They keep all the good things to themselves. My informant tells me you are a widow, proud, reserved, and cold. I thought I would come down, and see if I could not thaw you out. I want you to be my friend and confidant, and to allow me to come and sleep with you occasionally.”

Albina permitted no more. Ordering Dawson from her house, she seized the fire shovel from its place on her hearth and raised it in a threatening gesture. Dawson reached for his cane and hat, and left, saying, “You will say nothing about this. I wish to part as friends.”

Albina went to someone – the law? a church leader? Her affidavit resides among Brigham Young’s office papers – and reported the indecent proposal. Whoever she told made a private call on Dawson and let it be known that such things would not be tolerated in Utah.

The following Thursday, December 26, the governor sent a go-between to talk to Albina, a doctor named Chambers, who called on her at her house.

Chambers: “Do you not consider what Governor Dawson said to you a jest?”

Albina: “I do not!”

Chambers: If you will contradict the statement you made relative to that interview, the Governor will give you a fortune. If the story becomes publicly known it will injure him at Washington.”

Albina ordered him from her house (the record doesn’t mention the fire shovel this time).

Not every woman in Salt Lake had the self respect and moral determination of Albina Williams. A young woman, 21 years old, named Lydia Ann Katz, a native of Pennsylvania, in the recorded word of a man who was in a position to know, “gratified” the governor in the days after Albina drove him from her hearth. Miss Katz married within a few years, then moved to California and spent the rest of her life there, unaffiliated with Mormonism.

On December 31, exposed and branded a “disgraced libertine,” Dawson tendered his resignation to Frank Fuller, the federally appointed secretary of Utah, and left town on the mail coach. When the stage stopped for the night at the Pony Express station at Mountain Dell, a gang of Utah’s rowdier young thugs, drinking heavily, plundered the governor’s belongings and gave him a beating and a boot-stomping. Rumors persist that the governor was castrated, and that the thugs were put up to the deed by Mormon leaders. I do not find either accusation reliable: those making such charges have produced no contemporary testimony or documentary evidence, mostly citing each other in a circular pattern of weak support. Most or all of those engaged in the beating were soon dead, killed in confrontations with the law.

Albina lived on in Utah, never remarrying, through the 1880s. At some point, and at rather an advanced age, she filed for homestead land in Idaho. She died at Pocatello on November 28, 1914, and is buried at Soda Springs.



  1. At least he didn’t waste much of her time with candle-lit dinners and chaperoned buggy rides around the city, but got right to the point.

    (Just trying to find one thing in the governor’s favor.)

    And, nice to see things moving quickly–10 days from indecent proposal to resignation! If only the wheels of justice turned so smoothly these days.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 30, 2012 @ 7:42 am

  2. I have heard of the Governor’s proposal before, though I am no expert on it. Your contribution to this is certainly meaningful, lending additional credibility Albina’s aafidavit. Is there enough to justify formal publication or is this blog as far as you intend to take this?

    Comment by Bruce Crow — May 30, 2012 @ 7:50 am

  3. It was indeed a swift and effective system, Mark!

    Bruce, I don’t have plans to do anything more with this. The only new fact (at least, I haven’t seen it elsewhere) that I’ve contributed is the name of Miss Katz, and the spin of telling the story from Albina’s point of view rather than focusing on Governor Dawson who always seems to be the star of the story as it is told by those who interpret his short administration as a black mark on the Mormons, rather than on his own degraded character. I’d like to see a really careful study done by someone who didn’t merely repeat the tired, unsupported statement “the Mormons done it!” in both the case of Dawson’s beating and Williams’ death in the Mohave desert.

    For Keepa I’ve always tried to tell stories that haven’t been told anywhere else before. If there’s a good reaction to this one, I may tell more stories that are widely known among historians but perhaps not familiar to most of Keepa’s readers.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 30, 2012 @ 8:09 am

  4. Well, I had never heard of it, but then, I’m neither a historian, or from Utah!

    Comment by Tiffany — May 30, 2012 @ 9:07 am

  5. Please tell us more stories like this one, Ardis.

    Comment by Joey — May 30, 2012 @ 9:48 am

  6. I’ve never heard this story either! Way to go Albina! Interesting indeed.

    It is too bad justice {or action} is not as swift nowadays. When I lived in Georgia the Mennonites definitely had swift justice. One young lady in the society was raped, the man who did it caught and put in jail. The leaders of the society pooled their money and tried to bribe the sheriff to let them have ten minutes with the man. The sheriff would not. A couple of days later the man had mysteriously escaped from jail. They found him in the woods tied to a tree, castrated.

    Comment by Chocolate on my Cranium — May 30, 2012 @ 10:15 am

  7. Speaking of fast, the Governor didn’t waste any time getting to Utah to begin his duties (civic and otherwise)–from Indiana to Utah in about six weeks, and probably from the Mississippi River onward by coach, since the railroad went no farther west in 1861, makes it appear that he was in a hurry.

    And the Williams family–ten children in 14 years of marriage!

    Comment by Mark B. — May 30, 2012 @ 10:27 am

  8. Fascinating.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 30, 2012 @ 10:45 am

  9. Good for Albina and her fire shovel. Thanks for adding a lot of detail to a story I have only heard in the vaguest of terms before.

    Rumor has it that Dawson wrote poems under the pen name Banbury Cross.

    Comment by kevinf — May 30, 2012 @ 11:33 am

  10. Ardis,
    Thanks for this account of Genesee County grit. You’re proof it hasn’t died out.

    Comment by Stephen Taylor — May 31, 2012 @ 11:02 am

  11. “Rumors persist that the governor was castrated, and that the thugs were put up to the deed by Mormon leaders. I do not find either accusation reliable: those making such charges have produced no contemporary testimony or documentary evidence, mostly citing each other in a circular pattern of weak support. Most or all of those engaged in the beating were soon dead, killed in confrontations with the law.”

    I’m writing the Biography of Moroni Clawson (my ggggrandfather), one of the “thugs” responsible for giving Governor Dawson his going away party. Considering your comments, I think you’ll be surprised at what I’ve found. Stay tuned. As always, great job Ardis!

    Comment by Kris Wray — June 1, 2012 @ 12:14 am

  12. Kris I heard your presentation on Dawson at the Universtiy of Utah several years back. Incredible, and spooky, stuff. I’d hoped you would have published your findings by now. Do you have a time frame in mind for when you’ll be done?

    Thomas Williams, Alibina’s husband, has an interesting story too, as Ardis points out. Does anybody know if a biography or history of him exists?

    Comment by Jason Taylor — June 1, 2012 @ 11:01 am

  13. Hi Jason, I remember talking with you there. Good to hear from you! I actually started out writing just about Moroni, but I decided to include the Clawson family story one generation before and one after Moroni. Then it grew to include Porter Rockwell, Bill Hickman, Lot Huntington, Ephraim Hanks, John Dawson, Jean DeBaptiste, and others, since they all play an intregal part of Moroni’s story. I also focus on the Danites, blood atonement, Utah crime in the 1850-1860s etc., etc. I’m sure you get the idea. I do agree with Ardis that most of the things that have been written concerning the Dawson affair are rehashes of each other and offer very little new information. I hope everyone enjoys what I’ve put together as much as I have. You can’t make this stuff up, and you won’t believe some of the things that have never come out. I hope to be done in around two years or so. Back to the lab…

    Comment by Kris Wray — June 2, 2012 @ 11:27 pm

  14. Cheryl Gunn Maxwell:

    If you were more than a drive-by troll, you would have read this comment so often that it would be as tiresome to you as it is to me: With rare exception, I do not post source citations publicly. For many years I have earned my living as a free-lance researcher. When I post citations, my work tends to disappear into other people’s writings, without payment and without attribution. People with legitimate need to know citations can contact me (there is a contact link prominently displayed at the top of this and every other page); I can provide those citations for a fee, and often (at my discretion entirely), I provide those citations without cost. Your insinuation that I have some underhanded reason for not posting citations, perhaps to the extent that I have made up the whole thing, is hogwash.

    Your comment is not being posted for several reasons, not the least of which is that you make allegations about Albina and others which I do not know to be true and which you have done nothing to verify.

    Please find somewhere else to peddle your trash; you are unwelcome here.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 17, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

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