Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Venus in Tahiti: Bonus Letter to Her Mother

Venus in Tahiti: Bonus Letter to Her Mother

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 09, 2013

This letter by Venus to her mother recaps the part of her diary that we have read in recent installments of the Sunday series. The stories will be familiar if you’ve read her diary thus far; because she was writing for someone who wasn’t as familiar with Tahiti as Venus had become, the letter sometimes provides explanatory details that help us understand Venus’s experiences better — it’s a good place to jump into her story if you haven’t been reading.

Venus keeps adding to her letter at various times over two months, until she finally has an opportunity to mail  the letter.

Hikueru, Tuamotu, S.I., Saturday, Sept. 18, 1915.

Here we are, on a tiny island of coral five hundred miles from Tahiti. It is one of a chain of small islands that are really nothing more than a coral formation that has grown high enough up out of the sea to be called an island. At its highest point it does not extend any more than six feet above the water. Cocoanut trees and a few bunches of salt grass are the only living vegetation to be seen, and I wonder that even that grows here for there is absolutely no soil, only the bare white rocks scattered over in places with pure white sand. There is no water except the rain water that runs off the roofs of the houses into an iron tank. This is used for washing and culinary purposes, but for drinking the pape haari or rather the fluid from the young cocoanuts is used. I did not like them at first, but now they taste better than any ginger ale I ever tasted. They have just as much nip to them and are as cool, in their thick husk and shell, as the water is at home.

We left Papeete Sept. 4 on a good sized steamer and arrived the following day in Fakarava, where we have just one family of Saints. They took us to their house and set to work preparing dinner for us, which consisted of boiled chicken, cocoanuts and pancakes without either salt or baking powder in them. They were rather tough and flat, but we ate them and they tasted good to us. The people were pleased to see us, the old lady sat by my feet and stroked my knees and hands all the time. It makes me feel sort of foolish, but that is one way they have of showing their love. We stayed with them several hours and sang hymns with them, then went back to the steamer to start for Anaa. The steamer stays some distance away from the islands and we are lowered into row boats in which we are taken nearly to shore, and are carried the rest of the way by the natives themselves.

We arrived at Anaa the next day but did not land as the steamer made only a half hour stop. One more day’s sailing and we landed at Makeno. Here we were surprised to meet Elders Pierson and Monk, who with some natives were on their way down to conference from Takaroa in a tiny sailing vessel. They were going direct to Hikueru and as the steamer was going to call several other places first, we decided to go the rest of the way on the sailer, for we had been sick all the time we were on the steamer, it being very poorly balanced and tossing about on the waves.

When we got all our things off we began to look about for a place to stay, for it was impossible for us to leave fora day or two because the wind was blowing from the wrong direction, and would not change, so they told us, until the new moon.

We have no Saints living at Makemo, but one of our people who was staying there took us to an empty house that belonged to some of his relatives. We had no dishes or cooking utensils with us, but we borrowed a kettle and a frying pan and cooked some rice and fish, that were given us, over a camp fire.We ate with sticks from out of half cocoanut shells. One of the boys whittled out a wooden spoon for me and we all sat around on the ground and enjoyed our supper. After supper we went out and told the people in the village that we were going to hold a meeting, so as soon as it was dark we started with only nine people present, but before we were through the house was crowded. After meeting, when the natives were gone, we spread our blankets out and the five of us retired for the night.

Next morning an old white man, who has a native wife and 10 children, called to see us, and brought us a rooster, some onions and a can of milk. He was an atheist, but he said he liked the “Mormon” missionaries because they were trying to do the people good, so he wanted to help us along a little. When he saw me he said: “It’s a long time since I saw a white woman in this part of the country.” He was Danish, and named Lawrence Orbeck.

That evening we held another meeting, and the people could not get in the house, so many of them sat around on the ground outside.

The morning of our second day at Makemo, the wind changed so we decided to set out for Hikueru in our little boat. Perhaps you might get a better idea of the size of the boat if I tell you that the 15 of us on board book up all the room. If anyone had told me when I left home that I would have the heart to ride the sea in such small boats I could never have believed them. Absolutely all the fear was taken from me, in fact I rather enjoyed it, for these sailors ride the waves like a cradle rocks, and I did not get sick. The sea was perfect and sailing was fine most of the time. However, there are some very disagreeable things connected with riding on sailing vessels. Imagine sitting on top of a boat under the direct rays of a tropical sun with no shelter of any kind to protect you, and having absolutely no breeze(the sailors call it striking a calm), and it certainly is, for we stayed one whole morning in the same place without moving. The sea was shining and slick as glass and the dazzling reflection of the sun on the water burned us unmercifully. My face was almost cooked. I don’t think you would recognize me if you should meet me on the street, for my face is scarlet and peeling off in large scales. My eyelids are swollen, and my lips double their size and covered with big cold sores. Even my hair and eyebrows are several shades lighter.

One night it rained and we all had to crowd into the bottom of the little boat. It was stifling hot and the smell of the stagnant water that leaks in, and the odor of all the wet natives packed so closely around us were very annoying. As soon as the rain stopped we climbed out and spent the rest of the night lying on the wet deck.

We cooked our food, or rather one of the natives who was with us did, on an iron kettle which was set on a box of rocks. Our meals consisted of rice and sea biscuits.

The morning of the third day the sailors climbed the mast and sighted land. We were quite relieved for the old man at the rudder had fallen asleep during the night and lost his course. We anchored about noon, as closely as we could to the island, and were taken to shore one at a time in a little fishing canoe.

This island, as are many of this group, is surrounded by a coral wall, and the only means of landing is waiting for a large breaker to carry you, boat and all, up over the wall. It looks to be rather a dangerous proceeding; in fact it is, but I enjoyed it. It feels something like riding “bump the humps.” Then a native man picks you up and runs for all he is worth to keep ahead of the next breaker. I can’t get quite used to that, but it’s a custom of the land, so of course when in Rome I suppose have to do as Rome does. Ern (Mr. Rossiter) climbs on their backs, but I make them carry me in their arms. There were not many people on the island, as many of them were away diving for pearl shell, but those who were couldn’t do enough for us. They gave us the best house on the island to live in, and the women carried water for us to bathe in while the men carried our boxes up to the house. Others busied themselves sweeping the house while still others brought a looking glass, dishes, bedding, etc., in fact the best each one had in his house, he carried to ours.

After cleaning up we went to meeting, which was held in a small galvanized tin building, on a 2×4 frame, with a white sand floor. For sacrament we had cookies and cocoanut milk, the only available bread and water on the island. After church the native women brought us our supper which consisted of fish and cocoanut milk.

It was dark by 5:30 and it wasn’t long before we all got to bed for we hadn’t been undressed since we left Papeete, and it certainly seemed good to creep into a soft clean bed once more.

Friday, Sept. 24, 1915.

Next morning all the children of the village brought us armfuls of firewood, and fish, and have done so ever since we arrived. The Relief society women brought five immense baskets, woven from cocoanut palm, filled with young cocoanuts for us to drink, three chickens, then they took all our dirty clothes away, after they brought back in a few days washed and ironed beautifully.

They are making a quilt to give me when I leave.

The third day after we arrived a brother came to the house at 6:00 a.m. to tell us the people were assembled in the church and waiting to have prayers with us. They are very particular about holding this meeting, for they believe Wednesday to be the day the ten commandments were given to Moses and should be observed as a day of thanksgiving and prayer.

Soon after we arrived here I set to work preparing the music and a concert for our conference. I am busy every day and all day drilling the children in duets, quartets, and choruses. They are so enthused about it, that they come before I am up in the morning, and hang around on the porch all day. I have to go in my room and shut the door and pull the blind down sometimes to get away from them.

One day I went out on the reef to watch the children spear the fish that had been left on the rocks in the shallow water when the tide had gone out. As soon as they can toddle they go, and all can swim like ducks. It is quite exciting to see the fish jump up and all the children throw their spears at them. In about half an hour they had a good size string and then sat down in the shallow water to clean them. Some bit them open with their teeth, and then ate the raw pieces of fat. They scrape them with a shell or a sharp piece of stone.

The second Sunday Ern and I called on the governor and his wife. She is a “Mormon” and although he isn’t, he attends our meetings. When we left they gave us a can of apple jelly. A Catholic who lives next door gave us a bucket of eggs and three loaves of bread. It was the first bread we had had for 22 days, so you can imagine how good it tasted. The people here are good to us, no matter what their faith is, and we certainly appreciate it.

Yesterday when Tehuihui, a cheerful faced native woman of immense proportions, came to practice her part, she gave me two beautifully matched pipi pearls, and last week she offered me her 6-months old baby girl. It is a beautiful baby. I only wish it was white, it wouldn’t take me long to accept her offer

Ern is sitting on the floor, bathing and poulticing an old lady’s foot. She has a sore on the bottom of it and comes every day, followed by a little brown pig, to have him doctor her sore. Another lady has a lame back, and when she comes to church she quietly slips off the bench, when the first song is over, and lies flat on her stomach in the aisle during the rest of the services.

Last Saturday the men caught a lot of eels, horrible looking things. They look much like a snake, only slick and slimy, and have vicious eyes and mouths. Some of them were at least seven feet long.

Last night the governor’s wife was sick so we took some medicine up to her, and then sat out on the big front porch to sing for her. It was a black night, but no sooner had I started than the whole village came creeping up out of the blackness, one by one, to listen. Ern and another elder are going to sing in a quartet with two native women for our concert.

Oct. 11, 1915.

Our conference is over, and we are waiting now for a boat to come and take us away from the island, but we cannot tell how long that will be. It may be a few days and it may be several months. We expected to have several boats come to bring people to conference from other islands, but none came, so all we can do is wait now. It does not make any difference to me how long we stay here for we are comfortable and happy, but I hope a boat comes so that I can send a letter to you. I know the Lord will bless you and comfort you with the assurance of our well being, for we are in his service.

Although we held our conference with just the Hikueru branch present, we had a glorious conference. The meetings were well attended and were thoroughly enjoyed by everyone. I spoke on the last day in native, and almost all the Saints were wiping away the tears, but I don’t know why they should because I don’t think I said anything very pathetic! Unless it was their big hearts were brimming over with joy, through the wonderful spirit that was present. I know that I never felt so lifted up before in my life, and I was stupefied to find how easily the words fell from my lips.

One afternoon we had field sports, races, tree climbing, etc. You ought to have seen the fat women’s race.

Some of them are so fat that their bodies seem to have a sort of double motion when they move about, first the front half gives an attempt at a forward motion and in a few seconds the other half follows suit. It is impossible for them to move fast.

The last night we gave a concert and every one on the island came, even the four devout Catholics brought their chairs and sat outside the church door. In fact, everyone on the island came to all our meetings regularly, but these four, Josephites, Protestants and Catholics. All the songs on the program were new ones that I had taught them, and they all did fine. Following is the program: “Beautiful Day of Rest” – All. Prayer. “How Great the Wisdom and the Love”– All. “Jesus Once Was a Little Child” – Children. “Jesus I my Cross Have Taken”– in English, by myself. “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer”– in English, by missionaries. Recitation, Moe Aro. “Kind Words are Sweet Tones of the Heart” – myself and Hokori. “In Our Lovely Deseret” – Children. “If There’s Sunshine in Your Heart” – in English, by missionaries. “Utah We Love Thee” – myself, Ern, Eravine, Temou and Tehuihui. Concert recitation– All. An old native song– Natives. “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel” – in English, by missionaries. An old native song–by natives. Native song (Taia A) – All. Prayer, Te Maku.

In the Relief society conference meeting, they presented me with a beautiful patch quilt. It has red, yellow, orange, green and white in it, and is of a beautiful design. Tehuihui cried when she made the presentation speech; in fact, we all shed a few tears before the meeting was over, Ern included. She said they had made it when they heard I was coming, to show their appreciation of my coming so far to see them.

The people have been very kind to us. Every day they have brought us fresh fish, and young cocoanut to drink, washed and ironed our clothes, and occasionally give us a roast of fresh pork or a chicken. Te Dimana, one of the Catholic men, has brought us five loaves of bread twice a week, for the past four weeks, besides figs and iitas that he grows in a tiny fenced in garden, which he has made from soil carried five hundred miles from Tahiti, and once in a while a few eggs. The children have kept us in water and firewood, and today they are carrying white sand up from the sea to spread around our house on the bare rocks.

Sunday we were invited up to the governor’s to dinner. We had roast chicken; gravy, bread, peas, string beans, roast dog, iitas and cocoanuts. Didn’t we enjoy it though, all but the dog. It was the first meal we had had since we left Papeete, that tasted like home. And what is more, it was eaten from a clean white tablecloth and we had napkins, too. I guess you will begin to think all I can talk about is something to eat. But we appreciate things so much when they are given to us down here that I have to tell you about everything that is given to or done for us.

The boys are doing the cooking here because we have to use a camp fire and Dutch oven, so I spend my time studying and teaching the children. If I could only hear how you were and be able to get my mail off regularly to you, I would be contented to stay here any length of time for I love to be among our people. They are so much different from the natives of other denominations because they have to live up more strictly to the law, in our Church, than is required of them in the others, and are naturally better, and a more enlightened people. In Papeete it is different; of course things are much more convenient and comfortable for us, but we have so few Saints there that it is just like being out in the world among strangers. Here, we are fairly adored by the people, and we feel we are doing more good to a greater number.

I have been teaching the children “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” in English and last evening about dark I heard one of the little girls singing it off in the distance. I was sitting thinking about home, and for a moment my heart nearly stopped beating, it was so much like Little Sister Dorothy’s voice, that I couldn’t hardly realize it wasn’t she. But I soon roused myself to find I was still out on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific, instead of the dearest place on earth.

October 27, 1915.

We finally got away from Hikueru. On the morning of the 16th a tiny sail was sighted and by noon a sailing boat anchored at the reef. It was a grading vessel on the way to Mangareva, but it was going to call at Marokau on the way so we decided to go, thinking we might have a better chance to get back to Papeete from there than Hikueru because the natives were diving there for pearl shell and it was more than likely there would be plenty of boats.

We immediately began preparations for leaving and the natives came pouring in with presents of pearls, beads, food, etc. The whole village came down to the shore to see us off and when we left they all sang,”God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” Some of the people cried when we left, especially Tupu Teata, a young girl about 12 years old, who used to almost live at our house and the governor’s. I was sorry to leave, I had become so attached to the people.

It is only 40 miles from Hikueru to Marokau and we should have arrived there the same day, but we fell into a calm and did not reach there until the following Monday morning. It was raining when we landed and we did not have any place to go because it was a Catholic village, and they always receive us coldly, but we were finally taken to an empty store that belonged to one of our people who used to live there. We had bought some rice and beans and a few other things from the captain of the boat, so we soon cooked breakfast on a campfire under the shelter of a big piece of tin roofing.

The “Mormon” village was across the lagoon, about ten miles away, and as we were anxious to get there we got an old man to take us across in a small boat. It took us three hours to cross, and another small boat passed us on the way and told the natives the “Orometuas” were coming, and by the time we arrived they were all down to the shore to meet us.

We haven’t very many people here, but the few we have are certainly good to us. The president of the branch moved out of his house for us to live in, carried water for us to bathe and brought us all kinds of food. After we were settled, the natives all gathered around our house and we sat on the ground out in the moonlight singing and talking till midnight. We then retired for the night to our beds on the floor.

We cook our meals over an old steering wheel out under a cocoanut tree, some distance from the house. After breakfast we went for a walk around the village and to see our new meeting house which is being built.

This island is much more pretty than Hikueru, for which I am very glad. I don’t believe there is a more desolate place in the world than that island since the cyclone. The pigs, dogs, and cats there are so thin they can hardly walk around, they get so little food.

Our house is made of roofing tin set up on poles about four feet from the ground, and we climb up into it by a little ladder at one end. It is out in an opening without any shade around it, and is so hot inside that it fairly burns our skin. The natives wanted to build us a thatched house, which is much cooler, but we wouldn’t let them because we do not expect to stay here very long.

We held one and two meetings a day during the week with six on Sunday ever since we came here. The meeting house is a little, low, thatched affair and has no seats in it. They all sit on mats on the floor, but they have managed to scrape up three chairs in the village for us. The Relief Society and Sunday school have been disorganized here for some time so we have appointed new officers and got them into working order again. There are only five families here altogether and these are paying for their new meeting house themselves, by donating all the pearl shell they gather on Wednesday of each week, but they are having quite a hard time since the war, because the price of shell has dropped from 30 cents to 6 cents a pound. So we are going to ask some of the other branches to help them.

Yesterday the natives caught an immense turtle, so we went up to see it. Both Ern and I had a ride on it before it was killed. They fight like a tiger, and are so strong that half a dozen men can’t hold them when they get mad. But when they are turned over on their backs they are helpless. A turtle causes excitement and the whole village gathers around to see it killed and get their portion. They cut its throat, and clean it out saving its gallons of blood, also the intestines to make soup. They put the whole turtle on a pile of heated stones, until the under skin is softened enough to be pealed off. When this is done the meat is cut up in pieces and dealt out to all people. They gave us a nice big steak and it was fine, fried with onions. The turtles have eggs very much like a hen’s eggs and from this turtle they got two large dishpanfuls. We made an omelet from the eggs they gave us, and I even ate a piece of its heart.

These people are like children over the least little pain, and we have to carry a drug store along with us. The other night about 2 a.m. a woman came to our house with a pain in her hand, and we gave her some olive oil, and rubbed her hand with some for about half an hour. She was whining and crying when she came, but went away happy and cured. We told her to put a warm cloth on it when she got home, and since then she has kept it wrapped up in a big turkish towel.

Of all the pictures I have the natives like that one of the house you sent me, the best. Every day they come to look at them and when they have finished they keep that one out and gaze and talk about it for hours at a time. There isn’t a quarter of an inch of it that they haven’t asked questions and wondered about – the hedge, lawn, trees, vines, paths, flowers, windows, doors, porch, roof, number of rooms, what’s behind all around it, inside, and all about you folks. And when they have finished they say “Utaha Nehehehe!” (Beautiful Utah). The back and edges of the picture are covered with greasy finger marks. I wish you could send a picture of the interior of the store. The natives can’t imagine a big store that sells nothing but shoes.

November 4, 1915.

The steamer is just coming in the bay, so I can send this letter. We are not going to take this boat because this branch is disorganized, and there is a lot of work here for us to do. There haven’t been missionaries here for four years, so we will not get back to Papeete until the middle of December, at which time I hope to get three months’ mail.

We are well and happy, but up to the neck in missionary work. Hoping you are feeling better now, from your loving daughter,




  1. What a wonderful letter! I wonder if my writing would get better if I had to let it sit for six weeks before hitting “Send.”

    Comment by Mark B. — May 9, 2013 @ 9:21 am

  2. This was such a great ‘back story’ to her journal entries.

    Comment by mahana — May 9, 2013 @ 10:50 am

  3. Part way through I started to wonder how her mother would feel, reading all that. Perhaps a combination of distress at the primitive conditions and dangers, and joy at getting news, and getting to share it with family and friends? It certainly would have been a great occasion to receive a letter like this!

    Comment by Amy T — May 9, 2013 @ 12:12 pm

  4. Hadn’t read any of the previous installments, so this letter was a great introduction. I’ll go back and read the journal entries so far, and follow along. This is really fascinating.

    Comment by kevinf — May 9, 2013 @ 6:54 pm

  5. Ardis, when you find a treasure like this letter, are you transcribing from sheets of paper folded in an envelope? If so, what is the condition of the paper and how many pages is the letter? Was postage calculated by weight? Or did letter packets from far-distand islands simply pass hand-to-hand until they reached their recipient? I’m always curious about such details. Is her penmanship as beautiful as her prose style?

    I loved every minute of this letter! Roast dog. Coconut water zippier than ginger ale. Harvesting meat and eggs from angry giant turtles. ( I’m sure her mother loved these details too.) Her poignant account of hearing a native girl sing in the distance who sounded like her own sister. The great bit about the native woman who proudly carried her cured, oil-rubbed hand wrapped in a big turkish towel. The fabulous description of the double movement of the truly obese, like a slinky dog with the back needing to catch up to the front. The islanders’ wonderment at her photo of her Utah home. The daily singing, singing, and more singing. Ahh.

    Thanks so much for posting this, and apologies for this very long post.

    Comment by Marilyn O. — May 10, 2013 @ 12:12 am

  6. What a wonderful writer.

    Comment by Stephen Taylor — May 10, 2013 @ 4:11 pm

  7. She’s delightful, isn’t she? I’m glad more of you are discovering her.

    Marilyn, I’ve waited to respond until I could post a sample of Venus’s handwriting:


    Even if that’s too small to read, you can probably tell that her handwriting is clean and regular. She’s very easy to transcribe, except that her T’s and F’s are indistinguishable. My reading of her Tahitian names beginning with either letter are highly suspect and should be checked with maps and lists of proper names.

    Tahiti had a regular postal system, although boats traveling among the islands or between Tahiti and San Francisco or New Zealand were not very frequent. It appears that Venus got mail from home, and was able to mail her own letters, once a month when she was at the mission home at Papeete, but far less regularly when she was visiting the Saints on other islands. Envelopes were addressed and stamped pretty much as they are now. The Church History Library collects the original letters of missionaries and other church figures when they are available, or photocopies, or microfilms. Letters can often be found in other places– copied into diaries, published in newspapers, or because the writer kept a rough draft of outgoing mail among his or her other papers. I love using letters — they’re so personal and immediate.

    As for Venus’s diary, it was nice quality paper bound in a leather (but brushed, like suede) binding. Friends in her home ward gave it to her just before she and Ern left on their mission. You know how Venus writes about all the rain, and about how silk rots so quickly, and other problems with how the weather affects belongings? The diary is pristine — no water damage, no smudged ink from spills or humidity, very clean. Yet we know she carried it with her. It must have meant a great deal to her, because she took such good care of it.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 10, 2013 @ 4:43 pm

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