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Leaving Mormonism: Jonathan Grimshaw Crosses the Plains from West to East, 1856

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 31, 2013

By the summer of 1856, after five years in the Salt Lake Valley, Jonathan Grimshaw had had enough of Utah. Even with steady employment in the office of the LDS church historian, it was hard to find sufficient food and clothing for his wife and seven children. “I have nothing to say against the Church or its authorities,” Grimshaw told his boss, “but I think Utah is too hard a place to live.”

With two other families, the Grimshaws prepared to go to St. Louis and work until they could return to their native England. Grimshaw regretted that he could not travel with his friends Thomas Margetts and James Cowdy, who were leaving Utah with horses and a light wagon for a speedy passage over the Plains. The Grimshaws, though, could afford only a heavy ox-pulled wagon.

Grimshaw’s own three-wagon company, with 8 men, 3 women, and 16 children, followed four days later.

They reached Fort Laramie without incident, rested a day or two, then resumed their travels on the morning of September 10. Three days from Laramie, a lone Indian came in to their evening camp and spent the night with them. “He certainly did try to make us understand something of importance,” Grimshaw wrote to a brother, “but was unable, because of our utter ignorance of one word of his language.” The next day, the Indian continued westward, while the Grimshaws pushed on toward the east.

Two days later, they encountered another west-bound train, this time merchants headed toward Salt Lake. The merchants were appalled to see the small Grimshaw company, with so many children and so few men, “only mustering three guns and a worthless pistol among us.”

The freighters told Grimshaw that they were traveling in the midst of a war between the Cheyenne and the Sioux. The freighters had been attacked a few miles back and a woman traveling with them had been killed. A few days earlier, Utah’s secretary, Almon Babbitt, had been killed on his way to Utah, along with two traveling companions – one of whom, Thomas Sutherland, had been a close friend of Grimshaw’s. Even more terrifying, the Cowdy-Margetts company with whom they might have traveled had been slain. “And we were traveling unconcernedly, because unaware of our imminent peril, right into the very thick of the danger.”

The Grimshaws turned back to Laramie. There they found others in much the same circumstances as the Grimshaws, too fearful to proceed. They also learned that their Indian guest was a son of the Sioux leader Black Heart, who, through an interpreter, had told of the Cheyenne attacks – and Grimshaw finally realized that his guest had been trying to warn him of their own danger.

Col. William Hoffman, commanding the troops at Laramie, informed the stranded emigrants that a party of army dragoons was expected there within a few days. If the emigrants would push toward Leavenworth with all possible speed, he would assign the soldiers to accompany them out of the danger zone.

“We accordingly waited,” wrote Grimshaw, “and everything turned out as the Colonel anticipated. It was the 1st Regiment of U.S. Cavalry, under Captain Stuart [actually, Lieut. J.E.B. Stuart, who would become one of the Confederacy’s greatest generals], a perfect gentleman. He behaved very kindly, often relieving the necessities of some of our company, who were destitute.

“When we came to Ash Hollow, where there is a mountain to ascend nearly as steep as a house side, he ordered his men to dismount, and assist us with ropes, and even, literally put his own shoulder to the wheels. The troops traveled with us about 450 miles, warded off the Indians, and brought us through all danger.”

The Grimshaws reached St. Louis in November. Instead of returning to England as planned, they eventually settled in Jefferson City, Missouri, where Grimshaw and his son, Arthur, served terms as mayor. Jonathan Grimshaw died in Jefferson City in 1897.



11 Comments »

  1. These are the kind of posts I enjoy most, so I hate to respond by being a geography snob. But. Laramie and Fort Laramie are two different places, about 90 miles apart. I assume that when referring to the former you mean the latter, but I can’t be sure.

    Comment by Last Lemming — October 31, 2013 @ 10:35 am

  2. I don’t know which I mean, Last Lemming, although in 1856 it could only have meant the fort, right? I’ll pull out Grimshaw’s letter and post it in full in Keepa’s backstage library and we can see what he wrote, exactly (I don’t recall).

    And thanks for the remark “posts I enjoy most.” :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 31, 2013 @ 11:24 am

  3. I wouldn’t be surprised if Grimshaw referred to the place as “Laramie” even when he meant Fort Laramie–it’s not as if he could run his fingers over the keyboard and spin out characters at 100 wpm!

    The useless Wikipedia entry for the city of Laramie says that it was settled in the “mid-19th century” along the Union Pacific railroad line. I can’t find a chronology of UP construction, but I’d guess the city of Laramie didn’t show up until at least 10 years after the Grimshaws’ grim journey.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 31, 2013 @ 11:39 am

  4. Oh, and J.E.B. Stuart was remarkably successful as commander of the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia. And he knew it. Unfortunately, it got to his head, and he was off on a spectacular and ultimately worthless raiding party in late June/early July 1863 when Lee could have used him closer to Gettysburg where he could have provided some useful intelligence.

    In those days before aerial or satellite reconnaissance, the cavalry was most valuable in gathering intelligence. They were no longer any good against massed foot soldiers, especially if the foot soldiers were supported by artillery. Just ask Lord Cardigan’s men who survived Balaclava. Or read your Tennyson.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 31, 2013 @ 11:47 am

  5. So did Jonathan Green retain any ties to Mormonism in Jefferson City? It seems he was leaving because of climate, not theological differences. But I suppose that in that era, leaving Utah was synonamous with leaving the Church. Or maybe not?

    Comment by The Other Clark — October 31, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

  6. Um… I meant Jonathan Grimshaw obviously,

    Comment by The Other Clark — October 31, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

  7. I share The Other Clark’s question, and Last Lemmings love of these particular species of posts. ;-)

    Comment by Juliathepoet — October 31, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

  8. He and his family were never again associated with Mormonism, TOClark. Some of the family became leaders in a Jefferson City Protestant church.

    This was a piece I wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune where I didn’t want to emphasize religious differences but only to illustrate the difficulties of leaving frontier Utah (or getting there in the first place, I suppose). I should rewrite this for a Mormon audience addressing more of those questions of interest to Mormons.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 31, 2013 @ 4:11 pm

  9. It’s an interesting collection of people in that group: 8 men, 3 women and 16 children.

    All sorts of possibilities spring to mind:

    Three couples, five single men, and the kids
    Three couples, some adult children of those couples, and the kids
    Three couples, some widowers, and the kids (including motherless children of the widowers)
    Polyandry!

    Comment by Mark B. — October 31, 2013 @ 4:20 pm

  10. The travel difficulties of 1856 were an interesting side-bar, but what struck me more was the comment from Jonathan Grimshaw that “Utah is too hard a place to live.” It caused me to reflect on people I know who have said, in effect, that the gospel is too difficult to live and have left the fellowship of the Saints. They return to former lives or begin new ones without the gospel and find themselves caught in the midst of “Cheyenne and Sioux” wars that can wound or kill them spiritually. This causes me to wonder what I can do to be the person who warns them what they are getting into and tries to help them back. If the Grimshaw’s became leaders in a Protestant church, I wonder how their talents could have been used in the Church if they had stayed with it.

    Comment by Chris M. — November 3, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

  11. I have just written an article about the Margetts-Cowdy massacre, the rumors surrounding their deaths and the death of Almon Babbitt, and the reasons for the Cheyenne Overland Trail attacks of Aug/Sept 1856. I would love to look at the Grimshaw letter, is it available online somewhere? JEB Stuart was not on the Platte as yet in Fall 1856–this is Captain George H Stewart (1st Calvary Company K) who is credited with leading the attack on the Cheyenne war party camped near Fort Kearny that triggered their Platte road revenge killings. However, HW Wharton writes to Sec of War Jeff F Davis that he led the Grand Isle raid and Stewart led the hunt for kidnapped SLC-bound young mother Mrs. Wilson. Thomas Margetts 2nd wife Zilphia was also taken hostage–this is the topic of my next essay.

    Comment by Catherine Judd — June 7, 2014 @ 10:58 pm

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