Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Eminent Women: Mary Parker Chidester and Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Part 1

Eminent Women: Mary Parker Chidester and Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Part 1

By: Amy Tanner Thiriot - October 18, 2012

The story of Zion’s Camp is a well-known tale in Mormon history. Less well known is that the hardship of frontier travel, the mud, the snakes, the weather, the cholera, and the search for food and clean drinking water, was shared not just by the hardy frontier men, but also by a small group of women and children.

Mary “Polly” Parker Chidester and her husband John Madison Chidester were natives of New York State, a fact proudly engraved years later on their grave marker. They married and almost immediately moved to Michigan, where they heard the gospel and were baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

After moving to Ohio to join the Saints they volunteered for Zion’s Camp and began the cross-country trek to Missouri with their two-year-old son and infant daughter. [1] Mary’s husband remembered many years later:

My first recollection of seeing the Prophet Joseph Smith was at a place about sixty or seventy miles from Kirtland, where two companies of Zion’s Camp met. My impression on beholding the Prophet and shaking hands with him was, that I stood face to face with the greatest man on earth. I testify he was a Prophet of God.

Zion’s Camp, in passing through the state of Indiana, had to cross very bad swamps, consequently we had to attach ropes to the wagons to help them through, and the Prophet was the first man at the rope in his bare feet. This was characteristic of him in all times of difficulty.

We continued our journey until we reached the Wakandaw [Wyaconda] River [2], having traveled twenty-five miles without resting or eating. We were compelled to ferry this stream; and we found on the opposite side of it a most desirable place to camp, which was a source of satisfaction to the now weary and hungry men. On reaching this place the Prophet announced to the camp that he felt impressed to travel on; and taking the lead, he invited the brethren to follow him.

This caused a split in the camp. Lyman Wight and others at first refused to follow the Prophet, but finally came up. The sequel showed that the Prophet was inspired to move on a distance of some seven miles. It was reported to us afterwards that about eight miles below where we crossed the river a body of men was organized to come upon us that night.

At one point, Joseph Smith was going to leave the women to camp while the men went ahead, but he turned to them and asked them what they wanted to do. The women were touched and impressed that he sought their opinion: “they liked Brother Joseph better than before for the privilege he gave them of continuing in the camp.” [3]

Besides the generally accepted theory that Zion’s Camp was a training ground to shape the early leadership of the Church [4], it also created at least one long-lasting friendship for the Chidesters, as will be seen later.

Mary Chidester lost two infants during the difficult times in Liberty and Far West, Missouri, [5] and then lost another in Nauvoo. She and her husband received their endowments at the Nauvoo Temple before they left for the West with John’s twice-widowed mother and their five young children. [6]

The family eventually settled at the southern end of Utah Lake. One of their neighbors was James Thompson, another former member of Zion’s Camp. The oldest Thompson daughter Leah, just 16 years old, became pregnant. In this great difficulty, the Chidesters agreed to help the Thompsons and Leah became John’s second wife just one month before her son was born and named James, probably after his grandfather Thompson. When Leah died a year later, Mary raised James until his untimely death at age six. Mary must have been still mourning the loss of her three babies so this entire experience, including the fact that one of the children she lost was also named James, must have been a deeply emotional one for her.

In 1864, John and Mary traveled 300 miles from their new home in Washington County to Salt Lake City to attend a reunion for the members of Zion’s Camp. The reunion included addresses and shared memories and music. Mary would have been there when “Presidents Young and Kimball and Elder Hyde, each in his order, lifted up their hands towards heaven and blessed the members of Zion’s Camp … in the name of the Lord.” The reunion continued until the early hours of the morning with feasting, speeches, and dancing.

A few years later, Mary’s husband married again. As before, his new wife was in difficult circumstances. Anna Charlotte Eldridge Hinkle had left a husband, William Hinkle, and her children in Missouri. Her brother had lived by the Chidesters in Utah County, and it was probably due to this association that the Chidesters became acquainted with Annie and welcomed her into their home.

When the St. George Temple was finished in 1877, the Chidesters often traveled there from their home in nearby Washington. Mary and Annie and several other family members helped Wilford Woodruff, an acquaintance from Zion’s Camp, with his Eminent Men and Eminent Women temple work project. Mary and John also visited the temple in 1878 to have all of their children, living and dead, sealed to them.

Mary died in 1879 before federal persecution began in the 1880s, so her husband did not have legal difficulties due to polygamy, but one of her sons, David, served six months in the penitentiary. He was the only Chidester child to be involved in a plural marriage, and like his father’s plural marriages, his second marriage served as a social safety net since his second wife was a young half-sister of his wife, widowed and then divorced, left penniless with two young sons. [7]

Mary left no known writings: no letters, no autobiography, so it is difficult to get a sense of her personality. But one can imagine some of what she suffered with the deaths of her children, the persecutions of Missouri, the flight from Nauvoo, and the hardships of building a series of new homes in the desert. One can also imagine what she was like by reading about her daughters, affectionate women, very loyal to their families. Her children were generally respectable hard-working citizens. In 1877, Mary did the temple work for American novelist Catharine Maria Sedgwick. Sedgwick wrote about the intelligent women of the new republic and the importance of civic duty and raising children to be good citizens—a role epitomized by Mary Parker Chidester.

Catharine Sedgwick’s history will be the next in this series. (Catharine Sedgwick.)



[1] The sources disagree whether Eunice Chidester (later Harmon) was three months old or fifteen months old.

[2] The Journal of Stephen Watts Kearny, reproduced in The Annals of Iowa (Harlan, Vol. 10, Series 3, 1911-1912, 370) mentions a Wakendaw River some miles south of the mouth of the Des Moines River. A foray into the amazing maps at David Rumsey Map Collection identifies this as the Wyaconda River in Missouri.

[3] “History of Joseph Holbrook,” as quoted in Andrea Radke, “The Women and Children of Zion’s Camp, 1834.” You can download this article at BYU Studies.

[4] “Most camp members felt more loyal to Joseph than ever, bonded by their hardships. The future leadership of the Church came from this group.” (Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 2005, 247.)

[5] John Chidester left an affidavit detailing the family losses in Missouri. In part he stated: “The State of Missourie to John M Chidester … Damages … Mooveing and also being insulted and threatend by James Brown and others time after time … $2,660.00 … I hereby certify the above to be a true Copy of my of my Damages & losses sustained in the State of Mo … Quincy Ill May 8th 1839 John M Chidester …”

[6] After she arrived in Utah, John Chidester’s mother Mary Ann “Polly” Gifford Chidester Darrow married John Young as a plural wife. John Young was the brother of two members of Zion’s Camp, Brigham Young and Joseph Young. Young died in 1870 and Mary spent the rest of her life living with her son, John Chidester and his family. Her gravestone reads, “Mary Ann Polly Gifford Chidester … Family Matriarch.”

[7] I found the relative lack of plural marriage in this family striking since all six surviving children were members of the Church and married during the polygamous period. However, Larry Logue’s A Sermon in the Desert: Belief and Behavior in Early St. George, Utah notes that of all St. George households (1870-1880), 30-33 percent were polygamous. Of the six households of the Chidester children, most in the St. George region but not in St. George proper, only one was polygamous, but to adhere to the St. George statistics, just one more child needed to be involved in a polygamous relationship. In the absence of any contemporaneous information about family views of polygamy, it would be hard to draw any conclusions from this data.



  1. Amy T, nice addition to this series. It seems somehow tragic when you know someone has gone through extraordinary circumstances, but you can’t find any of their own words to know how they really felt. You can only guess, based on the records of others, but you still know that these folks must have experienced sorrow, guilt, joy, happiness, and other emotions, yet never have the full measure of it. Thanks for sharing this.

    Comment by kevinf — October 18, 2012 @ 10:13 am

  2. Thanks, Kevin. One of the projects I have on my list for when I finish the Eminent Women is to transcribe and annotate the diaries and histories of another St George pioneer woman, Ann Prior Jarvis. It’s been touching to learn about her experiences: the conversion, the hardships, the losses, the healings, the visions and dreams, and all the complaints. (Lots of those! Keeping it real!)

    Mary Chidester and so many other women would have quite a story to tell, and it’s a curious and endearing process to piece together the threads of their lives, but it would be so much better to have their actual words.

    Comment by Amy T — October 18, 2012 @ 11:22 am

  3. I knew a Chidester in college. A descendent, probably?

    I agree with the wish for more direct records! I have two great^n grandmothers who survived in the Martin handcart company; if either of them ever wrote anything about it, it’s lost. All I know of is one paragraph about their experiences, written by a son in his (also maddeningly brief) life history.

    Comment by lindberg — October 18, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

  4. My favorite line is one of the last: “Sedgwick wrote about the intelligent women of the new republic and the importance of civic duty and raising children to be good citizens—a role epitomized by Mary Parker Chidester.”

    I know these women of St. George were not deliberately paired to the women whose work they did — which makes it pleasing that you so often do find a connection between them, as if this woman were just the right one to stand as proxy for that woman. Your ability to do that betrays your thoughtfulness: these are real people to you, not just ink on a page.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 18, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

  5. Another fine addition to this series. Thank you, Amy!

    And I’m with all of you in wishing they had written more. I too have ancestors who were in the Martin handcart company–mother and daughter–and neither of them seem even to have told any of their descendants of their experiences. Not a whisper has come down through family lore.

    I suppose all we can do to solve the problem is to start writing so our descendants in 150 years won’t have the same complaints about us.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 18, 2012 @ 1:59 pm

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