Latter-day Saint Women on the Arizona Frontier
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“Latter-day Saint Women on the Arizona Frontier,” New Era, Apr. 1974, 42

Latter-day Saint Women on the Arizona Frontier

Many persons have helped me with the research for this article. They include Ronald Esplin, Richard Jensen, and Maureen Ursenbach of the staff of the Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Most nineteenth century Americans derived their picture of the Latter-day Saints from occasional newspaper stories and novels. Since the news stories dealt almost exclusively with the doings of male ecclesiastical officials, knowledge of the character and personalities of Latter-day Saint women was largely confined to their depiction in the seventy or eighty published novels about the Saints.

Virtually all of these, from Mayne Reid’s The Wild Huntress (3 vols., London, 1861) to Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (New York, 1912) picture one or both of two types of Latter-day Saint women. They were either intelligent women who had suffered from the death or illness of a loved one and in moments of emotional weakness had become dupes of conspiring and lustful Mormon elders who, once the women were within their grasp, would not let them get away; or they were ignorant, submissive, depraved persons who did not have the intelligence or force of character to escape from their thralldom as possessions of the elders.

To help erase the haunting memory of the false depictions found in the novels of the period, my staff and I have read the memoirs and histories of more than a hundred Latter-day Saint pioneer women who settled in Arizona. While it is true that these may not be completely representative, they do furnish such a significant body of exceptions to novelistic characterizations that they cast convincing doubt on their accuracy. It is clear from these autobiographical accounts that LDS pioneer women in Arizona made positive contributions to the economic, political, cultural, and religious life of their communities.

These women exhibited four qualities that were important in building the kingdom and that can aid others in furthering gospel aims today. First, they possessed unbelievable physical strength and endurance, qualities that enabled them in a direct way to help the men in conquering the wilderness—and also served them well in handling the men if the latter took unrighteous liberties.

One of these enduring frontierswomen, Lucy Hannah White Flake 1 received her basic education in the home from her schoolteacher mother. The eldest of eight children, she also assumed many responsibilities in caring for the younger children. Lucy was baptized in the Missouri River at a time when the ice had to be broken to perform the ordinance. Then, along with her parents, she walked every step of the way from the Missouri River to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, arriving there in August 1850.

Lucy spent her childhood in Cedar City, Utah. There, at the age of sixteen, she met William Jordan Flake, and they were married in 1858.

After years of hard work and many disappointments, William found a ranch he could buy in what is now called Snowflake, Arizona. There the Flakes lived in a four-room adobe dwelling called the “White House.” For many years this house served as a courthouse, post office, meetinghouse, and school. Lucy eventually bore thirteen children—nine sons and four daughters—five of whom died in childhood.

Sister Flake made her life tolerable by her many religious activities and by the pleasure of doing for her family. She was an officer and teacher in the Primary, Sunday School, and religion class, and had been stake president of the Primary for five years at the time of her death in 1900 at the age of fifty-eight. Among the activities that she chronicled one spring were whitewashing her home; gardening and irrigating; gleaning wool from carcasses along the trail over which sheepmen were, by this time, making a seasonal circuit to and from the Salt River Valley, and picking, washing, and cording it to make a mattress; sewing, including making underwear, shirts, and carpet rags; tending her grandchildren; and feeding her husband and growing children. On one occasion she set down in simple detail her morning tasks, which were typical of pioneer women generally:

“I will just write my morning chores. Get up, turn out my chickens, draw a pail of water, water hot beds, make a fire, put potatoes to cook, brush and sweep half inch of dust off floor … , feed three litters of chickens, then mix biscuits, get breakfast, milk besides work in the house, and this morning had to go half mile after calves. This is the way of life on the farm. …”2

Emma Swenson Hansen, another woman of great strength and endurance, regularly helped her husband in the fields when her “condition” would permit it and had the reputation for loading hay better than anyone in the community. Once the hay she was stacking slipped, and her husband saw her slide and fall to the ground. “What are you doing down there?” he asked. “I came down for more hay,” she gamely replied. Her history shows that she kept bees, milked cows, fed the calves, cared for the chickens, cut alfalfa with a scythe to give to her pigs, cured their pork, half-soled the family shoes, and made all the family’s clothing.3

Sarah Ellen Marsden Smith, who gave birth to twelve children, was the family doctor and nurse and family seamstress. She fattened hogs for winter use, made the family laundry soap and bluing, ground wheat on a hand mill for the flour, fed mail horses and kept them in readiness to go on with the U.S. Mail her husband had contracted to carry, drew water from a deep well for home use, earned her family’s livelihood while her husband served on a two-year mission to England, and found time to read good books and enjoy good music.4

Sarah Ann Salina Smithson Turley was a freighter. She plowed, cut hay, raked and hauled hay, earned twenty-five cents a day binding grain behind the man who cut it with a cradle, took in washing, and wove hundreds of yards of carpet.5

When her husband decided to drive thirty head of brood mares with mule colts from Snowflake to Tuba City, ninety miles north of Flagstaff, another frontierswoman, Susan Temperance Allen, accompanied him, modestly riding sidesaddle the entire distance.6

Emma Orrilla Perry Merrill, a widow, had a child in the school at which she herself was the teacher. During a recess her son was playing with the other children in the newly-dug basement of Thatcher Church. One of the children led a donkey over the bank causing it to cave in. Her son was buried under the avalanche. Some of the children ran immediately to tell her, and she came running and screaming.

“When I reached the cave-in I started digging frantically with my bare hands. I dug my fingers into the quick but kept digging. Finally I found one of his hands and followed it to his head. I uncovered his head just in time, for when I got him out he was black and blue with suffocation.”7

This hardy sister, incidentally, lived to be ninety-two.

All Latter-day Saint pioneer women in Arizona were frontierswomen. Many were also trained midwives. LDS women believed that their medical needs should be looked after by women doctors rather than by men, and for this reason the Mormon communities of the West boasted the largest number of women doctors and midwives in the nation. It was common for the Relief Societies to band together to send some of their sisters East to become doctors. Upon their return, these sisters not only practiced medicine but conducted winter classes, sponsored again by the Relief Societies, where other women underwent training in the crafts of nursing and midwifery. One woman doctor was Sarah Indaetta Young Vance.8

After years of frontier life and several children, Sarah, at thirty-four, decided to fulfill her “dearest childhood ambition” and study in Salt Lake to become a doctor like her father. She enrolled in a class of obstetrics under Dr. Ellis R. Shipp. John took charge of the four older boys in Arizona, while Sarah kept her three youngest sons in a rented room across the hall from Dr. Shipp. The oldest boy, age seven, sold newspapers. After six months, she completed the course in obstetrics, was given a blessing by Elder Abraham H. Cannon, member of the Council of the Twelve and advisor to the school, and returned to Arizona with her boys. Shortly after her return to Arizona, she gave birth to twin girls. One of her daughters was kicked by a horse, another child nearly drowned, but somehow they survived. Two more girls were born, and when she was forty-three, Sarah gave birth to her last child, a healthy twelve-pounder.

Sarah continued her work as midwife for forty-five years until her death in 1940. During this time she delivered 1,500 babies and never lost a child or mother. Upon the urging of her patients and friends, she took other cases as well—typhoid fever, stomach trouble, and diphtheria. She wrote that she never lost a case of this type either.

A second quality was courage. The sisters had an opportunity to demonstrate their fearlessness in the face of physical danger almost as soon as they reached the Arizona border, where the principal obstacles were the crossing of the Colorado and ascending and descending the precipitous range of mountains called Lee’s Backbone. Many a wagon narrowly missed rolling down the mountain into the river below. Here is a typical story told by Harriet Betsy Cook Teeples:

“… when we were ready to go over the mountain called Lee’s Back Bone, we found the road up the side of it to be a series of stone stairs and so steep and high we had to use all the teams in the company to take one wagon up.

“It was one mile to the top, and on the top there was a dugway, one mile long and so narrow that the wagon wheels would be within six inches of the deep edge in places where we could look down and see the river five hundred feet or more below. We dare not have more than one span of animals on a wagon for fear they would go off into the river. I drove a gentle team around the dugway with my baby in my lap. When we got around this, there was a flat place where we stopped and locked all the wheels with chains in order to go down the other side. As I was the last to get around the top, my husband came and locked my wheels with chains to go down the other side, and said, ‘Now you wait here until I help the others down and I will come back and get you.’ I waited until the rest were out of sight and then I started down, and as the road made a sharp turn around a big rock the wheel stuck and stopped, but I did not want to stop there as it was nearly dark so I sat my baby down in the bottom of the buggy, got out, untied the wheels on that side, got in and backed the team far enough so that I could pass the rock by turning them against the hill on the other side, and I got out and tied the wheels on that side, got in and backed the team far enough so that I could pass the rock by turning them against the hill on the other side, and I got out and tied the wheels again, and went on all right. Just after that my husband met me and said, ‘How in the world did you get around that rock?’ I told him how I had done it, and he made me feel it was all worthwhile when he said, ‘Honey, you’ll do.’”9

There were many other examples of similar courage. One day Margaret Henrietta Camp Baird, a crippled widow with eight children who lived in Holbrook, Arizona, caught a wild cow. A fighter, the cow bellowed and struggled when Margaret and her sons tried to rope her. Finally they succeeded and tied her to the snubbing post in the center of the corral. But with her lunging the cow succeeded in snapping the rope, and the boys ran for cover. Just as determined as the cow, Margaret made her way into the corral. The cow sniffed and headed toward her. Margaret raised her cane and brought it down over the cow’s head with such force that the animal’s knees buckled. According to a family report, Bossy proved to be the best milk cow they ever had. On another occasion Margaret received a call for help from a ward member about to be confined. The neighbor was a mile and a half away across the Little Colorado, which at that time was a raging torrent because of the spring melt. Margaret saddled her horse and started out with her baby strapped on her back as there was no one to leave her with. The horse had to swim across the bulging river, but Margaret and baby made it in good time to deliver the neighbor’s child.10

Another story of a different kind of courage is told of Ruth Campkin Randall, a tiny mother who had spent enough time on the frontier to become accustomed to its risks. As a safeguard from marauding enemies around Pine, Arizona, where she lived, a stockade was built. When an Indian or other raid was reported, all the residents were to get into this enclosure for protection. This occurred frequently enough that Ruth got tired of it. Finally, when a call came for all to go to the fort, Ruth said, “No, I have been dragged from pillar to post and from the post to hell, and I am not going to the fort. I’m staying right here.”11 Others soon decided she was right; there was no longer any point in running to the fort every time some Indians were headed in their direction.

Third, the pioneer sisters had “spunk.” Spunk is a sixteenth century word that meant spark, like a spark of light. More recently it has come to mean a lively creature; someone who has spirit, mettle, pluck. To show spunk or spirit means to stand up, to assert oneself spiritedly or courageously.

Sarah Rogers Driggs, who as a child had sat on the knee of the Prophet Joseph Smith and whose brother had served in the Mormon Battalion, felt such an independence of spirit. One day she was out raking the yard when Starling Driggs, a fellow who had been courting her, hurried up to her and said, “President Brigham Young told me to tell you he wants to see you up at his office.” It seems that the prophet had called Starling to go with a company to help settle San Bernardino, California. Starling told President Young he was willing to go if he could take along Sarah as his wife. He said he liked her but she didn’t seem to like him. When Starling came running up to her, Sarah thought she knew what was in store, so she quickly replied, “You go back and tell President Young, Starling Driggs, that he’s got as much shoe leather to wear out as I have, and he can come here if he wants to see me.” Then after Starling had gone, she hurriedly got cleaned up and went to the President’s office. After receiving the call to go to San Bernardino as Starling’s wife, she accepted and made the trip. Unfortunately, Starling lost his life in a threshing machine accident a few years later. Sarah did not remarry, but sustained herself and family by keeping a boardinghouse. When she was troubled by a molester, according to her family, she simply hauled out her six gun and demonstrated how accurately she could shoot.12

Some of these spunky women were instrumental in bringing education, culture, and women’s rights to their communities. At age fourteen Ida Frances Hunt Udall13 had progressed in her education to the point where she served as bookkeeper for the Beaver Woolen Mills. One of a family of eight children, she made the cloth she received in payment for her work into dresses for herself, her mother, and her five little sisters. When she was eighteen her father moved the family across the mountains to Joseph City, in Sevier County, where Ida taught in a log cabin school and continued to develop her musical abilities.

In 1877, when Ida was nineteen, her father and mother responded to the urge to move to Arizona. Ida drove one of the teams on the three-month journey and kept a daily record of that journey in pencil on a still extant stub of a receipt book.

There Ida spent several years teaching until David Udall went to Snowflake, Arizona, searching for a Spanish-speaking clerk for his store in St. Johns; he found much in common with Ida. After several months she became his wife. That was in 1882. In the years that followed Ida bore six children, a daughter and five sons, the rearing and caring of whom devolved mostly upon her because of Bishop Udall’s important Church and civic responsibilities. In the words of Pauline Udall Smith:

“She half soled their shoes, barbered their hair and made every article of clothing they wore until they were nearly grown. She made butter and cheese for sale, raised chickens and a garden each year, while at the same time cooking for hired men. … [She also] found time for the refinement of life. There were petunias blooming in the window or mignonettes in the yard. On the wall hung pictures, the frames of which she had fashioned from pine cones. The Mexican house in which she lived, often ran tubs of water through its leaky roof, yet she never gave up the yearly going over its ceilings and walls herself with the white wash brush. The rag carpet on the floor had taken hours of her time to make, but brought comfort and cheer to her home.

“On the Sabbath day, she was often seen in the cart with its shafts drawn by one horse, accompanied by her children and their cousins on the way to the school house, one mile distant, or perhaps walking another time. There, a Sunday School class would be taught by her or a choir practice held. In the evening, the hired men and boys gathered around the coal-oil lamp, after the evening meal, and listened to Aunt Ida, as everyone called her, play the guitar and sing.”14

Despite crop failures due to drouth and many health problems, this serene intellectual introduced culture and education into many frontier LDS communities in Arizona.

One of Ida’s friends, whose contributions were of major significance not only in the cultural arts but in the ecclesiastical and political affairs as well, was Mary Jane Robinson West. 15

Mary Jane’s mother was a woman of refinement and culture and had been brought up in a wealthy Southern family. She took pains to pass on this heritage to Mary Jane, who loved books and became a fine actress, speaker, and dancer. Her dance instructor was John A. West, whom Mary Jane married when she was not quite seventeen. Shortly after their marriage John was called on a mission to Hawaii, so Mary enrolled as a student in a private school. Four sons were born in the six years after her husband’s return. At that point John was called to return to Hawaii, during which time Mary Jane supported her family by teaching school. In a gesture that would seem insanity to many people, while John was in Salt Lake City preparing for his mission, he purchased an organ and sent it to Mary Jane in Parowan with an accompanying letter saying he had also arranged for Professor Thomas Durham of Parowan to give Mary Jane instruction in how to play the instrument. Mary Jane did learn to play, and the family had a full repertoire by the time John completed his mission.

John and Mary Jane were called to go to Arizona in 1879. They left in November, reached Snowflake in February, and as a symbolic gesture, Mary Jane had the boys lay strips of carpet in their tent as soon as it was pitched and set the organ down on the carpet. Then all the family joined in singing “Home Sweet Home.” Four more children were born to Mary Jane in Arizona—two of them girls to go along with the eight boys. In addition, for many years Mary Jane also looked after her widower brother Solomon and his many children.

In 1892 Elder Karl G. Maeser, Church commissioner of education, went to Snowflake to open a Church academy. As president of the ward Relief Society, a position she held for fourteen years, Mary Jane led a movement to make the academy possible. The sisters loaned their Relief Society hall for a classroom and saved their Sunday eggs to sell in Fort Apache for funds to assist in the building. Old-timers suggest that the sisters are the ones who really made Snowflake Academy possible.

In the 1890s Carrie Chapman Catt of the National Woman Suffrage Association came to ask Sister West if she would accept the county chairmanship of the Woman Suffrage movement. Upon consultation with ecclesiastical authorities, she accepted the appointment and took a lead in the territorial suffrage movement. Her sister Relief Society officers in Salt Lake City, Eliza R. Snow, Susa Young Gates, Sarah Kimball, and others, had led the movement in Utah, in which territory the women were the first in the nation to exercise the franchise.16 For a number of years Mary Jane wrote a regular column for the monthly Relief Society paper, The Pearl, proclaiming women’s rights and opportunities. After her release from her civic positions and an extended visit in Salt Lake City, Mary Jane returned to Snowflake to become stake Relief Society president, a position she held for seven years.

Many other Relief Society sisters were ardent women’s rights workers. The Relief Society minutes of Snowflake Stake for July 12, 1896, state: “We are now required to take up the study of Woman’s Suffrage in connection with the R.S. work. If we attend to the duties of the different societies and the studies of government and strive to become learned in every branch, we will bring forth great children. Great men have never brought great sons into the world, it is the great women who do this.”

Mabel Ann Morse Hakes, president of the Mesa Ward Relief Society for five years and counselor and then president of the Maricopa Stake Relief Society, was the Mesa representative to the Woman’s Suffrage Convention in Chicago in 1893. When one irate gentleman speaker said that “women have no business in public affairs; they should be home sewing buttons on shirts and darning their husband’s socks,” Ann arose and informed him, “Sir, you will be pleased to know that all of my husband’s buttons were on and the socks darned before I left home.”17

Other sisters who were active suffragettes include May Hunt Larson, Francell Eugenia Haskell Robson, and Elizabeth Williams Layton. The latter was not only the mother of ten children, a Relief Society officer, and politically active, but also a director of the local Citizens Bank—perhaps the first woman bank director in Arizona. Not all women, of course, were so active. Perhaps the general attitude was that of before-mentioned frontierswoman Lucy Hannah White Flake:

“There is much [to be] said of women’s rights. I don’t believe in equal rights. I would like the Franchize, but feel willing for the men to kill the snakes, build the bridges and smoothe down the high places, and hold the offices. [But] I would like to see womens rights respected and held sacred at all times and in all places.”18

Many sisters were also actively concerned with the welfare and achievements of those whom they referred to as their Lamanite sisters. They organized Lamanite schools and participated actively in Lamanite wards and branches where women were involved in teaching native American peoples. Susan Savage and Sarah Tiffney, for example, were engaged in this cause for at least seventeen years, perhaps more.

Fourth and most important, the sisters had a praiseworthy spirituality. The minutes of Relief Society show that the Lord blessed them with many spiritual gifts. The sisters often prayed together for the health of their families. As examples of what they did to improve spirituality in their homes, Sarah Roundy Berry held a family hour by lamplight each morning, during which she read from the scriptures and led the family in prayer and in a song or two while the wholewheat cereal intended for breakfast was cooking.19 Another sister, Alzada Sophia Kartchner Palmer, learned to play the piano at the age of sixty so that when her children and grandchildren came to her house they could all sing together while she played.20

The sisters’ strong faith induced in them a willingness to sacrifice for worthy goals. After two of her children had been born, Barbara Ann Phelps Allen’s husband was called on a preaching mission to the Southern States. He left in June, and Barbara Ann milked from eight to ten cows while he was gone. Nine years later, by which time she had six children, he was called on another mission to the Eastern States, and she performed the same task. To cap it off, after their children were reared, she and her husband filled a mission together.21

Another example of dedication is found in the life of Julia Smith Ballard. Julia made a burial suit for one of her little nephews when she was sixteen and another the next year for one of her sisters. She found satisfaction in this occupation and took it up as a lifetime call. For the next thirty-five years she made temple and burial clothing for more than 400 persons, nearly all without special remuneration.22 At one time one of her daughters—she had twelve children—had been promised a new dress for a special occasion. She rushed home from school full of anticipation only to find her mother sewing on burial clothes. Her disappointment was so great that she burst into tears and said, “I wish folks would quit dying so us kids could have something to wear.”23 Thus did Julia show her love for the gospel.

It should be clear from the preceding sketches, and these are quite typical of the hundreds that could be presented, that pioneer Latter-day Saint women were intelligent, resourceful, productive, and cheerful. They contributed much to the building of the kingdom. May we all cultivate the resourcefulness, boldness, selflessness, and nobility of character that were a part of their lives.


  1. The major source for the information that follows is Roberta Flake Clayton, Pioneer Women of Arizona (mimeographed, Mesa, 1969), a 716 page work that gives brief life histories of approximately 200 pioneer Arizona women, mostly Latter-day Saints. The life histories are based upon diaries, autobiographical accounts, and histories by children and grandchildren. The Lucy Hannah White Flake biography is in Clayton, pp. 139–46.

  2. “Autobiography and Diary of Lucy Hannah White Flake,” II, May 16, 1896, MS, Historical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, hereinafter cited as Church Archives. I have introduced some punctuation and capitalization for clarity.

  3. Clayton, pp. 201–7.

  4. Clayton, p. 604.

  5. Clayton, p. 630.

  6. Clayton, p. 12.

  7. Clayton, p. 404.

  8. Clayton, pp. 640–45; Sarah I. Y. Vance, “The Story of My Life,” typescript, Church Archives.

  9. Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Heart Throbs of the West (12 vols., Salt Lake City, 1936–1951), VII, p. 481.

  10. Clayton, pp. 16–17.

  11. Clayton, p. 508.

  12. Clayton, pp. 114–17.

  13. Clayton, pp. 633–40; also Arizona Pioneer Mormon: David King Udall, His Story and His Family, 1851–1938, written in collaboration with his daughter, Pearl Udall Nelson (Tucson, 1959), pp. 259–67.

  14. Clayton, p. 638.

  15. Clayton, pp. 655–60.

  16. It is well known that Wyoming was the first territory or state to adopt woman suffrage legislation. It is not as well known that Utah Territory adopted similar legislation shortly thereafter. Since Utah’s election was held the following August, while Wyoming’s was in November, Utah women were the first in the nation to exercise the franchise in voting for territorial officers on a regular basis. See A. L. Larson, “Woman Suffrage in Western America,” and Thomas G. Alexander, “An Experiment in Progressive Legislation: The Granting of Woman Suffrage in Utah in 1870,” Utah Historical Quarterly, XXXIX (Winter, 1970), pp. 7–30.

  17. Clayton, pp. 186–87.

  18. “Autobiography and Diary of Lucy Hannah White Flake,” II, March 15, 1895. Punctuation introduced.

  19. Clayton, p. 26.

  20. Clayton, p. 462.

  21. Clayton, p. 3.

  22. Heart Throbs, VII, p. 486.

  23. Clayton, p. 23.

Illustrated by James Christensen