When Brigham Young said, “we will make the desert blossom like a rose,” many pioneers took his words literally, including Elizabeth Thomas Morse and her husband Francis Young Morse. They were volunteers for the original Cotton Mission in Southern Utah, and as soon as they settled on their city lot in St. George, they began planning a home and surrounding their home with a garden of fruits and vegetables, and also of roses and other flowers.
All through the growing season, Elizabeth would go out into her garden and cut a bouquet of flowers to take to the St. George Temple, where she worked for 35 years.
Elizabeth Thomas was born in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, a village outside London.1 She entered domestic service and was working as a servant in London when she heard the missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was baptized in 1848. She wanted her family to be baptized as well, but her father was much opposed to the Church, so none of her family was baptized.
With the help of the missionary William Budge, Elizabeth was able to pay for her passage to America in 1857. She sailed to Boston, and had to stay in the area to find work so she could afford to continue to Utah.2
In Massachusetts she met Salem native Elisabeth Morse, who had been a member of the Church for fifteen years, and Elizabeth and Elisabeth became close friends. Elisabeth Morse’s brother Francis Young Morse was baptized not long after Elizabeth Thomas arrived in America.3 Perhaps the lovely English convert finally gave him a reason to take a real interest in the Church.
Elizabeth and Francis spent their honeymoon on the Mormon Trail, but due to their indigent circumstances, they had to travel with different wagons.4 Elizabeth later told her grandchildren about nearly being kidnapped by Indians when she walked ahead of the wagon train one day.
Elizabeth and Francis hadn’t been in Utah Territory long when they volunteered for the Cotton Mission and headed south to help build Washington County. Francis’s skills as a carpenter were much in demand. He built many homes and fences and buildings in the region, and had the honor of building the belfry for the Pine Valley Church.5 Meanwhile, Elizabeth raised their five children and tended their home and the surrounding garden.6
Like many other families, the Morses were very poor when they arrived in St. George, Until they got their first home built, they had to live out of a wagon box. They would have barely scraped by for years and would have gone hungry many a time. While they were raising their young children, and probably having a difficult time keeping them fed and clothed, the minutes of the Stake Relief Society note that Elizabeth donated a yard of calico, valued at 25 cents, to the charity work of the society.
Besides the mission of growing cotton, the women of St. George were called upon to help establish the silk industry in Utah. The work consisted of raising the silkworms; planting mulberry trees and harvesting the leaves to feed the worms; participating in the tedious, detailed work to process the cocoons into silk thread; and weaving the thread into fabric.
Elizabeth noted at a Relief Society meeting in 1878 that she “Went to see some silkworms felt much interested, wished to do all she could.” She was also involved in hat-making and the notes of another meeting said, “Elizabeth Morse spoke of wheat straw and that rye straw was best for braiding, her Mulberry seed had not come up she thought silk worms were not fit to have in the house, where we have to eat & sleep, felt encouraged to persevere and do all we can.”
Even more important to her than the home manufacturing was her work in the temple. The notes of one of those Relief Society meetings said:
Sister Morse felt the work in the Temple nearest her heart. We cannot go out to preach, but we can go to the Temple to redeem the dead. We are the first saviors on Mount Zion. She loved to attend prayer meetings, & to pray in secret wished to live up to our privileges & counsel of those over us.
At another meeting, “Sister Morse bore her testimony to the work of God. Said she felt well. Felt that the work in the Temple is a united one, and we should feel united out of it also.”
By the time the temple was finished in 1877, her oldest daughter was seventeen years old and could have helped care for her younger brothers, including four-year-old Jeddiah, undoubtedly allowing Elizabeth and Francis to spend many days doing temple work for their deceased loved ones.7
In the first few months after the St. George Temple opened, Elizabeth and Francis did the work for relatives including their parents and grandparents; Elizabeth’s brother; Francis’s brother Jeddiah, who died at sea; and his brother, Union soldier David Stetson Morse, who died at the Battle of Cold Harbor in Virginia.
Elizabeth also helped Wilford Woodruff and Lucy Bigelow Young finish the Eminent Women project, doing the temple work for Jean Armour Burns, the wife of poet Robert Burns, and for Emily Lamb, Lady Cowper and Palmerston.
In their later years the aging couple spent their time working in their garden. Francis died in September 1912, and after attending his funeral, Elizabeth went home to rest. Two days later she passed away quietly in her sleep.
A Note About Polygamy
Like more than half the married women in St. George, Elizabeth was not polygamous. Kathryn Daynes recently took a close look at the numbers of polygamous marriages in St. George, basing her statistics on the 1880 census and on prior work done by Larry Logue and Ben Bennion. She found that 46 percent of married women were polygamous. That was a high number for a Mormon community, and as Davis Bitton and Val Lambson suggested, was above sustainable levels.
The 61 Washington County women involved in the Eminent Women temple work project had an even higher incidence of polygamy: 64 percent (39 of the 61 women) were involved in polygamous marriages at some time during their lives.
That means that 22 of the women were never married polygamously. Elizabeth Thomas Morse was one of those 22. In a recent discussion on another Mormon-themed blog, a claim was made that members of the Church at that time could not avoid polygamy without suffering significant social and religious consequences, but a look at the names of these 22 non-polygamous women, all involved in temple work, all married at least once, makes that claim seem simply absurd.
See Kathryn M. Daynes, “Striving to Live the Principle in Utah’s First Temple City: A Snapshot of Polygamy in St. George, Utah, in June 1880,” BYU Studies 51:4, 75, as well as other articles in the same issue.
The first picture is from Margaret Jarvis Overson’s genealogy of George Jarvis. It shows Mabel Jarvis in her rose garden, probably a garden similar to the one grown by the Morses.
The second picture is from Margaret Schow Potter’s thesis about the silk industry (sericulture) in Utah. It shows a group of women and girls who were members of the St. George Silk Association. I don’t know if Elizabeth Morse is in this picture, but if she was, the woman sitting in the center looks like her. (Top row, third from the left looks like another of the Eminent Women, Rose Jarvis.)
The third picture is Elizabeth, and was kindly provided by her descendant David Butler and his parents. As always, I very much appreciate the contributions that the descendants of these women make to this project.
- Elizabeth’s parents were John or James Thomas and Phoebe Body Thomas. There is some disagreement about her birthdate. She was born in either 1829 or 1830 in Gerrard’s Cross, Buckinghamshire, England. James (John) and Phebe Thomas, both born in Buckinghamshire, show up in the England Census living on the outskirts of London and then in Hertfordshire. The father was a lime burner; the mother was a midwife. Elizabeth went into service and in the 1851 England Census was working as a household servant for the Meeres family in London. Some of the information about her family could be double-checked by examining the temple books from the St. George Temple at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, since she would have known the names of her parents and other family members for whom she did temple work. [↩]
- Elizabeth sailed on the George Washington, the same ship carrying my ancestors, George and Ann Prior Jarvis. The Jarvis family also remained in Boston to find work. Ann’s biographies give some sense of the bitter struggle involved in finding work and surviving in Boston in the late 1850s. [↩]
- Francis Young Morse was not related to either Brigham Young or to Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, who was from the exact same town in Massachusetts. His Morse line was descended from an entirely different colonial American family. [↩]
- Francis’s sister Elisabeth may have traveled with them to Utah, or she may have crossed the plains in 1860 or 1861. In Utah she married a man named Purse, Pirce, or Pierce; and she supposedly died the day she was married. She was not listed in the Mormon Overland Travel database, so I submitted her name, and Sister Wood listed her along with some notes about the problems of tracking her movements. [↩]
- The Pine Valley Chapel is one of the architectural treasures of pioneer-era Utah. A replica can be found at This is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City. Francis Young Morse also helped build the Manti Temple. [↩]
- One of her sons died when he was two; the other children lived to adulthood. Her children were: Lydia Young Morse Rowley (1860-1934), Francis Young Morse, Jr. (1862-1956), John Thomas Morse (1866-1953), William Bent Morse (1868-1870), and Jeddiah Young Morse (1872-1959). [↩]
- A granddaughter preserved stories of the dreams or visions Elizabeth had of her parents when they died in England. After she received word of their deaths by mail, their temple work was done. [↩]