Church History
14 Hard to Be Separated

“Hard to Be Separated,” chapter 14 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)

Chapter 14: “Hard to Be Separated”

Chapter 14

Hard to Be Separated

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By the end of March 1855, Ann Eliza Secrist had not heard from her husband, Jacob, in nine months. Some mail had been destroyed during the recent conflict with Walkara. And the winter closure of the mail routes certainly accounted for part of the silence. She wanted to write to him, but she did not know where to send her letters. The last she had heard, Jacob was preaching the gospel in Switzerland. But a recent letter from Daniel Tyler, a mission leader in that country, indicated that he did not know where Jacob was serving.1

More than a year earlier, Jacob had written that he would soon be returning to Utah. The third anniversary of his mission call was six months away, and Ann Eliza expected him home around that time. Other missionaries who had left the territory with him had already returned, and the children were beginning to ask why their father had not come home as well.2

Much had happened in the family recently. When fighting broke out between the settlers and the Utes, Ann Eliza had decided not to move back to the farm but instead to stay in Salt Lake City, where it was safer. For a time she had rented part of their house in the city to a newly arrived family of Scottish immigrants. She had also raised two fat hogs that provided much of the family’s food for the winter. The children were attending school, improving as readers, and learning the gospel. Throughout Jacob’s absence she had been careful with the family’s resources and had tried to stay out of debt.3

On March 25, 1855, three Swiss Saints visited Ann Eliza and the children. One of the Saints was Serge Louis Ballif, an early convert to the Church in Switzerland. He had been a leader in the Swiss mission when Jacob arrived. Before Serge and his family emigrated to Zion, Jacob had given him a written history of his mission and gifts to give to Ann Eliza and the children.

At the end of his mission history, Jacob wrote down some reflections on his missionary service. “I have done but little as yet, and how much good I shall do while in Switzerland, time will only prove,” he wrote. “I have seen some few rejoice much under my instructions and trust I shall see the time yet in this country that Saints will rejoice in my teachings, which are simple.”4

To Louisa and Mary Elizabeth, Jacob had sent pairs of scissors, which he instructed the girls to keep shiny. To Moroni he sent a small box full of toy soldiers and some marbles to share with his two-year-old brother, Nephi. He also promised to bring the boys swords from Europe.5

After reading about Jacob’s experiences, Ann Eliza wrote him in care of the mission office in Liverpool, England. She kept her letter brief, unsure if it would find its way to Jacob before he returned home. As always, she shared news of the children and the farm.

“I have done all along the very best I knew how since you went away,” she wrote. “Praying God to bless and preserve you continually is the sincere wish of your affectionate wife.”6

On May 5, 1855, George Q. Cannon awoke to a frosty spring morning in the Salt Lake Valley. He had been home from Hawaii since late November.7 Twelve days after his return, he had borrowed an ill-fitting suit and married Elizabeth Hoagland in her parents’ home—a moment he and Elizabeth had been anticipating since before George left on his first mission.8

Now, five months after their wedding, the couple had been invited to attend the dedication of the Endowment House, a new building on the temple block in which the Saints could receive sacred ordinances while the temple was under construction.

Following the dedication, Elizabeth would receive her endowment, and she and George would be sealed together. The couple would then leave for San Francisco, where George had been called on a mission to publish the translation of the Book of Mormon in Hawaiian.

George and Elizabeth arrived at the Endowment House just before eight o’clock. It was a simple, unadorned building with solid adobe walls, four chimneys, and a sandstone foundation. Inside, the house was divided into several rooms for the endowment and sealing ordinances.

Brigham Young convened the dedicatory service on the top floor, and Heber Kimball offered a dedicatory prayer. When the prayer was finished, Brigham pronounced the structure clean and declared it to be the house of the Lord.9 Heber, Eliza Snow, and others then administered the endowment to five men and three women, including Elizabeth. Afterward, Heber sealed George and Elizabeth together for time and eternity.

As planned, the couple said goodbye to their families later that day. George expected their parting to be hard on Elizabeth, a schoolteacher who had never left her family, but she remained composed. Abraham Hoagland, her father and a Salt Lake City bishop, blessed the couple and encouraged them to do right. “Take care of Elizabeth and treat her kindly,” he told George.10

The couple traveled south along the same route George had taken to California in 1849. On May 19, they arrived in Cedar City at the same time as the First Presidency, who had come to inspect the town’s fledgling iron industry. George was impressed with the Saints’ progress there. Aside from establishing the ironworks, they had built comfortable homes, a meetinghouse, and a protective wall around the city.11

The following day, Brigham organized a stake and called a man named Isaac Haight to preside over it.12

Later, at the Haight home, George and Elizabeth visited with Brigham Young and Jedediah Grant, who had been called to the First Presidency after the death of Willard Richards in 1854. Brigham and Jedediah blessed George to write and publish with wisdom and inspiration and to speak without fear. They also blessed Elizabeth to accomplish a good work alongside George and to one day be reunited with her loved ones in the valley.

Afterward, Brigham encouraged George to develop his writing talents as much as possible. “Roar!” Jedediah added. “Let them know you are a Cannon.”13

Around the time the Cannons left for California, thirteen-year-old Martha Ann Smith received a letter from her older brother Joseph F. Smith in Hawaii. “I am well and hearty,” he wrote cheerfully, “and have grown considerably since you saw me last.”

Whether he meant that his growth was physical or spiritual, Joseph did not say. He seemed far more interested in dispensing brotherly advice to his younger sister than in describing his new life as a missionary in the Pacific.

“I could give you much counsel, Marty, that would be beneficial to you as long as you live upon this earth,” he declared grandly. He encouraged her to listen to her older siblings and not fight with her sisters. “Be sober and prayerful,” he advised her, “and you will grow up in the footsteps of your mother.”14

Martha Ann appreciated her brother’s advice. She had been just eleven years old when her mother died, but her memories remained vivid. Growing up, Martha Ann had rarely seen her widowed mother smile. In fact, if Martha Ann or her siblings ever made their mother laugh, they considered it quite an accomplishment. Yet Mary had been a loving mother, and Martha Ann’s world now seemed empty without her.

Martha Ann had fewer memories of her father, Hyrum Smith. She had been only three when he died, but she still recalled a time when her mother had made him a pair of trousers. After he put them on, he had walked proudly back and forth with his hands in his pockets. She remembered him being loving, kind, and affectionate with his children.15

Soon after the Smith family arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, they had settled along a creek not far from a canyon southeast of the city, and they worked together to establish a farm. A few years later, they and their neighbors were organized into the Sugar House Ward under the leadership of Bishop Abraham Smoot, one of Wilford Woodruff’s earliest converts. The ward took its name from the Church-owned factory in the area, which Bishop Smoot operated to produce molasses from beets.16

Martha Ann and her siblings supported each other as new trials came their way. The mild winter of 1854–55 had created drought conditions across Utah Territory, which depended on runoff from heavy mountain snowfall to replenish its streams and rivers. The drought strained Martha Ann’s family as it did everyone else. As weeks passed and little rain fell, the land in the valley grew drier, killing crops the Saints had planted earlier that year. Irrigation ditches started to dry out and crack.17

To make matters worse, hordes of grasshoppers infested the settlements, devouring the meager crops and ruining the prospects for a good harvest. The Saints in Sugar House and other settlements tried to plant more seeds, but the drought made cultivation difficult, and the grasshoppers kept coming.18

Trial after trial seemed to follow the Smiths, and it was anyone’s guess how the drought and infestation would affect the Saints. As the youngest in her family, Martha Ann did not have the same kinds of responsibilities her older siblings had.19 But every Saint was expected to work together to overcome hardship and help establish Zion. What could she do?

Joseph offered more advice in his next letter. “Have patience and long-suffering,” he wrote. “Be a Mormon, out and out, and you will be blessed.”20

On the prairie a thousand miles to the east, at a small emigrant settlement called Mormon Grove, Danish convert Nicolai Dorius and a wagon train of nearly four hundred Saints from Denmark, Norway, Nova Scotia, and England started for the Salt Lake Valley.21 Company leaders expected the journey to take four months, which meant that Nicolai could expect to reunite with his daughter Augusta, now seventeen years old, as early as September.22

Six months earlier, Nicolai had left Copenhagen with his three youngest daughters, Caroline, Rebekke, and Nicolena. His sons Johan and Carl were still serving missions in Norway, so he was unable to say goodbye to them personally.23

Emigrants like Nicolai were eager to come to Zion not only because of their faith in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ but also because they wanted to escape the wickedness of the world and find a better life for themselves and their families in the promised land. Inspired by the American missionaries’ enthusiastic descriptions of Utah, many of them pictured the Salt Lake Valley as a Garden of Eden and made every sacrifice to get there.24

It had taken about six weeks to cross the ocean. Peter Hansen, the first missionary to Denmark, took charge of the company on board the ship. He and his two counselors organized the Saints into seven districts and called elders to maintain order and cleanliness in each unit. When the ship docked at New Orleans, its captain praised their good behavior.

“In the future,” he said, “if I have my choice, I will bring none but Latter-day Saints.”25

At New Orleans, Nicolai and his daughters had boarded a steamboat and traveled up the icy Mississippi River with their company. Tragedy struck when six-year-old Nicolena took sick and died not long after leaving New Orleans. More people died in the days that followed. By the time Nicolai arrived in Mormon Grove, fourteen-year-old Caroline had died as well, leaving only him and eleven-year-old Rebekke to reunite with Augusta when they arrived in Utah.26

At Mormon Grove, the emigrating Saints found temporary work to earn money to purchase oxen, wagons, and supplies for the journey west.27 They were also organized into companies. Nicolai, Rebekke, and other Saints from Denmark and Norway were placed in a company led by Jacob Secrist.28 After being away from his wife and four children for nearly three years, Jacob was anxious to reunite with them in Utah. Since he did not speak Danish, the most common language spoken in the company, he relied on Peter Hansen to translate for him.29

The company left Mormon Grove on June 13, 1855. Moving west, Jacob was often impatient with the Scandinavian emigrants. Most of them had never driven oxen before, and sometimes it took four men to keep two oxen moving in a straight line.30 More concerning was the health of the company. Emigrating Saints usually had few, if any, deaths in their companies.31 But on the first day out, a man in the Secrist company died of cholera. Eight more deaths followed over the next two weeks.32

The elders in the camp fasted and gave blessings of healing and comfort to the sick, but cholera continued to claim more lives. Near the end of June, Jacob himself became too sick to keep up with the wagons. Other company leaders sent a carriage back for him, and when he rejoined the camp, the elders blessed him. His health continued to worsen, however, and he died on the afternoon of July 2. The emigrants wanted to transport his remains to his wife and children in the valley, but with no way to preserve the body, they buried him along the trail.33

Nicolai, Rebekke, and the rest of the company pressed on through August and the early weeks of September. There were no more outbreaks of cholera among them. On September 6, they climbed the last mountain pass and camped beside a stream a short distance from their destination.

The next morning, the emigrants washed themselves and put on clean clothes in preparation for their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley. Peter Hansen said they ought to clean up after they got to the city, since they had a dusty road ahead of them, but the emigrants decided to risk the dust.

They traveled the last few miles full of hope, eager to see the place they had heard so much about. But as they entered the valley, they did not see a Garden of Eden. They found a drought-stricken basin covered in sagebrush, bone-white salt beds, and grasshoppers as far as the eye could see.34

News of Jacob Secrist’s death appeared in the Deseret News on August 8, about a month before his company arrived in the valley. His death was reported along with those of two other missionaries, Albert Gregory and Andrew Lamoreaux, who had also died on their way home to Utah. “These our brethren were prosecuting their way homeward with heart beating joyously,” the news article stated. “But the decrees of an all-wise Providence went forth, and like good soldiers they meekly bowed with their armor on and now rest from their labors, and their works will follow them.”35

Around this time, Ann Eliza received her final letter from Jacob. The letter was dated May 21 from St. Louis. “I am in good health and about ready to start up the Missouri River,” it read in part. “May the God of Israel bless you with the blessings of His Spirit, and health, faith, and long life.”36

After his company arrived in early September, two men delivered Jacob’s personal belongings and a horse to Ann Eliza. As promised, Jacob had brought back a sword for each of the boys as well as material for nice suits. For the girls he had brought back dresses and fabric. His wagon also contained his letters and other papers and a year’s supply of goods for the family.37

As she had planned to do a few years earlier, Ann Eliza moved with her children back to the farm north of Salt Lake City. The letters she and Jacob had exchanged were stowed and preserved. In one of them, which Ann Eliza had sent during the first year of Jacob’s mission, she reflected on the sacrifice they had been called to make.

“It looks hard to be separated from those that we love most dear on earth,” she had written, “but when I contemplate what they are sent for, even to assist in rolling forth the kingdom of God, I have no cause to complain or murmur.”

“Nor need I do,” she wrote, “knowing that my exaltation will be greater in that world, where there is no sorrowing nor weeping, but all tears shall be wiped from our eyes.”38

By the October 1855 general conference, Brigham Young knew the Saints in Utah Territory were in trouble. Grasshoppers had ravaged many of their gardens and fields, and the drought had destroyed what the grasshoppers had not. Dust clouds blew across the valleys, and wildfires burned through the dry canyons, destroying fodder for cattle. With no way to feed the ox teams hauling stone to the temple site, work on the house of the Lord ceased.

Brigham and his counselors believed the drought and infestation were a “gentle chastening” from the Lord. “Give heed unto the whisperings of the Spirit and tempt not the Lord to bring upon us a heavier rod of discipline,” they instructed the Saints that fall, “that we may more fully escape those judgments of high heaven’s King.”39

More concerning to Brigham was the effect of the devastation on the gathering. While the missions to India, China, and Siam had resulted in few conversions, the missions in Europe and South Africa had produced branches of Saints who now wanted to gather to Zion. Emigration was expensive, however, and most of the new converts were poor and needed loans from the Perpetual Emigrating Fund.40

Unfortunately, the drought had wrecked the economy in Utah, which depended almost entirely on successful harvests. Robbed of their livelihood, many Saints could not pay tithing or repay their loans to the fund. And soon the Church accrued a steep debt by borrowing money to help finance the large wagon trains coming west that year.41

In an October 1855 epistle to the Saints, the First Presidency reminded Church members that donating to the emigrating fund helped to bring their fellow Saints to a place where they could enjoy industry and honest labor. “This is true charity,” the presidency declared, “not only to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but to place them in a situation where they can produce by their own labor their subsistence.”42

Brigham and his counselors urged the Saints to donate what they could to the Perpetual Emigrating Fund. Aware that most Saints could not contribute much, they also proposed a more affordable way to gather. Rather than coming to Zion with expensive oxen and wagons, future emigrants could come by handcarts instead.

Pulling handcarts over the plains, the First Presidency explained, would be faster and cheaper than traveling by wagon. Each handcart would consist of a wooden box sitting on an axle and two wagon wheels. Since handcarts were smaller than wagons, the emigrants would not be able to carry as many supplies and provisions with them. But wagons from the valley could meet the handcarts partway to provide assistance as needed.

“Let all the Saints, who can, gather up for Zion and come while the way is open before them,” the First Presidency declared. “Let them come on foot, with handcarts or wheelbarrows; let them gird up their loins and walk through, and nothing shall hinder or stay them.”43

Brigham immediately shared the plan with apostle Franklin Richards, the European mission president. “I want to see it fairly tried,” he wrote. “If it is once tried, you will find that it will become the favorite mode of crossing the plains.”44