excerpt – The Sum of Our Past
Stopping at the Des Moines River near Bonaparte in Iowa and having read Eliza R. Snow’s diary entry written there, I imagined this Mormon woman—called by some poetess, prophetess, priestess, and presidentess—leaning over the edge of her ox cart, her cup on a string, dipping a drink from the river.1 On the plains I remembered Edith Kohl proclaiming, “There was a pleasant flow of possession in knowing that the land beneath our feet was ours.”2 Facing a bitter wind at Devil’s Gate and familiar with Patience Loader’s ordeal here, I could feel her desperation in 1856 at be stranded with the Martin handcart company.3 Standing on the edge of the Platte River, I visualized women counting the pioneer graves that lined its banks. And observing the wheel ruts in Wyoming, cut deep into the sandstone, I envisioned the wagons as they engraved their marks and the people within the wagons who longed for a new life in the West. Examining pioneer women’s public personas and private lives as revealed in their diaries, letters, and reminiscences had opened my vision to a host of different types of frontier women. My research included a determination to retrace the immigrant trails; what was to be a physical trip became a metaphor for my own life journey. As I traveled into the lives of pioneer women of the past, I traveled deep into my own life, my past and my present.
Willa Cather wrote, “The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”4 Historian Wallace Stegner concurred: “A place is not a place until people have been born in it, have grown up in it, lived in it, known it, died in it—have both experienced and shaped it as individuals, families, … communities, … until things that have happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends, or monuments.”5 For me, the West became more real as I assimilated the experiences of those who had gone before, lending to my consciousness a more powerful sense of place.
A major discovery for me was the importance that women placed on their relationships to each other. As the need arose, they helped each other with childbirth. They talked as they walked beside the wagons. How much that must have shortened the long days! They shared recipes and cures. By spreading wide their full skirts to shield other women, they provided privacy for toileting on the empty prairies. In addition, I learned the power of women to keep family together and to preserve tradition. Many had the strength to do men’s work, yet mothers worried that their daughters would lose their femininity, sacrificed in the demanding physical world they inhabited.
I unexpectedly developed an appreciation for the rugged beauty of the West, which I had often taken for granted. During a simulated pioneer trip to the Tetons with my teenage daughter, she traveled by horseback and I rode a sure-footed mule along the cliff edges, through streams, and across meadows. I watched from a covered wagon as horses reared and raced downhill, finally stopping when one horse fell. I camped in a snowstorm. Through all of this, I absorbed the beauty: horses of all colors—ebony, roan, gray—and the clink of hobbles echoing in the clear mountain air; the calls of birds answering from the trees; mist circling through the tall grasses. Along with the beauty, I felt the grime of the trail and wondered what it would have been like to trudge through such dust week after week.
My book is framed on another trip, one my husband and I took in September 1993 along the Mormon and Oregon Trails. Neal was my driver, place-finder, and sounding board (or sounding bored, as the case would have it), as well as a foil for my attempts at humor. The material I had read about the trail, commentaries by historians, diaries of pioneers, and actual things seen on the trip, provided impetus for questions about the meaning of the pioneer experience and events in my life which have made me feel close to the trail blazers. Much of the content of this book is serious, but some is humorous. Laughter is sometimes an appropriate response to ironic situations, or even to tragic turns of event, and a response that was shared by pioneer women who sometimes found it to be the best way to cope with defeating circumstances. In addition to writing about the pioneer trails and my observations of them, I contemplate some aspects of my own personal journey from childhood to adulthood from the 1940s to the present. This journey of change is important to the book because my developing perspectives color how I view pioneer women’s lives, as well as how I continue to view my own life.
Structuring the book as a combination of historical research and personal memoir was natural for me because I have always responded to other people’s experiences by comparison to my own. I feel a kinship with women and, in writing this book, wished to solidify that bond by exploring common experiences. I hope that the reception will be one of appreciation and of mutual respect; I am nonetheless aware of the diversity that exists within the range of female experience, historically and contemporaneously. In fact, I have also felt that if modern women knew about the broad spectrum of role models from the historical past, they could rid themselves of many of the unnecessarily narrow choices they feel are available to them for their own futures. In this regard, the ability to put oneself into the place of another person is of necessity a part of building a community. The separation of public image from private attitudes has been problematic for women who view the outside appearance of public figures and compare these images to their own inner attitudes, frequently finding themselves wanting.
In order to make sense of our lives, we have to connect in various ways to the lives of other people; otherwise, we would live in isolation and in confusion about what constitutes normal. In Mormon society, we have idealized pioneer women and can drown in guilt when we feel we don’t measure up. With truer pictures of past women’s experiences, as well as of contemporary women’s struggles and triumphs, we can compare ourselves more realistically and with more gentleness.
I draw a considerable amount of strength from the various roles I have filled throughout my life as the daughter of a traditional mother and blue-collar father, wife of a businessman and community figure, mother of six children, a social worker in Los Angeles for a time, a teacher here and abroad, a local journalist, and as a “mature” graduate student. The variety of profiles one assumes in a lifetime allows connection with a wider range of women despite differing ages, nationalities, faiths, social and ethnic groups, life styles, and family backgrounds. I find a strong thread of commonality in women’s experiences despite the diversity in heritage and lifestyle.
For instance, I have included in this book some material about my husband’s colorful grandmother, Dorothy Delilah Hickman Pectol. She represents the pioneer woman in an isolated locale, in this case in Caineville, Utah, one who felt especially vulnerable when her husband was away from 1907 to 1909 in New Zealand. Her story is an often untold part of Western history: the woman left behind in otherwise stirring tales of Mormon missionary adventures. Exploring “Dot” Pectol’s dependence and independence is a way of exploring my own dependence/independence, which frankly has been the source of some misunderstanding and tension in my marriage and family.
One important reason for writing this book was to convey my thoughts to my daughters. Certainly, over the years, I have shared similar thoughts with them and listened to their ideas, but I wanted something permanent for them to read when I am no longer here. I want them to value their heritage and see their personal expressions of individuality, so different from one another, as a positive force in broadening how the world defines women. 1 also want them to know the feelings that pioneer women had in embracing—at times confronting—life as a woman so that their own encounters with society will be more contextualized and less threatening. In writing for my daughters, I discovered that I was also writing for my sons, who might better understand the women in their lives through this. In addition, I am writing for my husband so that he can better understand me. I hope this will be equally helpful to other women and the men in their lives.
Of course, my husband and children know me well beyond what I write and will see me differently than those who encounter me only through this narrative. As I have tried to write an honest confessional—connecting what I find in the writings of real pioneer women, separate from their more staid public images—there may be some surprises in store for my family. But I have not attempted to pen a personal, family history—only in the sense of “cannibalizing [my] life for [its useful] parts,”6 as Annie Dillard has described the process of writing a meaningful memoir.
One realization along the way was the discovery that there are many women whose experiences are so much like my own, we could be sisters. I was an only child, and I can’t say that I missed having sisters; but I think I miss them now. I have enjoyed the sister-like feelings that come through associations with like-minded people including classmates, professors, and mentors, whose interests and experiences are so similar to mine, and the connection I have come to feel with pioneer women themselves.
Other major revelations resulted from the intellectual stimulation of going back to school after having spent a life as a teacher. It was delightful to be on the other side of the desk for a change. In a creative writing class, I learned to be more honest in my writing, to avoid the image-building cliches that come far too easily and conceal what one really feels. A frequent comment in the margins of my papers was “Who is your audience?” Initially I assumed an audience of middle-aged women, feeling that I could speak to those who had been where I had been. Over time, I dropped this mental image and decided that I could also address younger people who would be going where I had been and could benefit from my experience. I began to see men as part of the audience as well. Being questioned repeatedly by readers, “What exactly do you mean?” taught me to refine my ideas.
In trying to better communicate, I had to probe deeper inside and then search outside myself for other words and methods to communicate ideas I hoped would be evocative to others.
Women in the past fifty years have experienced alterations in their role definitions. For many women, this has produced a “future shock” as the world they anticipated gave way to an uncharted path and unpredictable future. Exploring changes in women’s lives through history and literature, and considering the personal impact of former encounters with modernity, helped me see where women are now and where they may be headed. It helped me understand, as I compared my perceptions with those of other women, that differences of age, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic level, educational background, and marital status must not be barriers to understanding.
Recent historical research has focused attention on a broader body of women’s literature including private writings which were once considered of little literary merit. The recovery of these narratives has become a way of validating female experiences and telling “the other half of the story,” while also individualizing women and helping them emerge from the oblivion of stereotype.
In the seventeenth century, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, appended her autobiography to her husband’s longer one. In justification for this, she posed a rhetorical question: “Why hath this lady writ her own life?” She answered, “Lest after-ages should mistake in not knowing I was the daughter to one Master Lucas of St. Johns, near Colchester, in Essex, second wife to the Lord Marquis of Newcastle; for my Lord having had two wives, I might easily have been mistaken, especially if I should die and my Lord marry again.”7
Historian Maureen Beecher thinks that “Margaret was right. Historically she had no identity separate from that of her father and her husband; the existence of other daughters and other wives might obliterate from memory her very existence. ‘Ultimately,’ writes critic Sidonie Smith, ‘the issue is one of identity versus anonymity. Cavendish is writing for her very life.'”8
Preserving diaries and personal writings has saved thousands of women from oblivion, no less the women of Utah, many of whom would have disappeared altogether. Looking at the broader field of pioneer women in general, I might be still wandering the musty archives of various libraries and trying to detect meaning from yellowed scraps of pioneer memoirs without the published works of such scholars as Glenda Riley, Elizabeth Hampsten, Joanna L. Stratton, and Lillian Schlissel, to name a few.
In a sense, I have written for the “very life” of the women I discuss and my own “very life”—defining, assessing, shaping, sharing, and knowingly living it. To borrow Beecher’s metaphor, I have been piecing together scraps from my life and the lives of others to present a collective work—a quilt, so to speak—depicting a unity of shared experiences. This process both creates and preserves identity.
Psychologist Bradley L. Edgington has found in south central Utah, where I live, a persistent identity crisis that fosters discontent: women who marry in their teens or early twenties just wanting “to be loved and cared for by their husbands,” only to express pro found dissatisfaction with the limitations of this “loving and caring” five, ten, or twenty years later. This change of heart is frustrating to their bewildered spouses, who cannot understand why their wives would suddenly want lives of their own.9 In an interview, Dr. Edgington observed that although he repeatedly sees this problem elsewhere, he encounters it more frequently in small communities. Perhaps it is necessary to first define one’s own life before sharing it with someone else as a wife or mother. My book explores such issues.
Much of the problem in female identity has to do with the undervaluation of the domestic sphere, which is so central to women’s lives. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s meticulous analysis in her book, A Midwife’s Tale, was the catalyst for broader discussion of the importance of women’s influence through their home life. As a woman, Ulrich was able to enter Martha Ballard’s “woman’s world” and, in a sense, live her subject’s life—one that male scholars had previously found domestic and trivial.10 Is found Ulrich’s approach an excellent model for understanding pioneer women. Is had to step into their lives before I could understand them as people, just as other women scholars had entered the lives of their prominent and not so prominent female subjects.
I think it is legitimate to lend a sympathetic but subjective ear to historical voices, knowing that it may not always be possible to know what a diarist or other writer meant. I have tried to listen more closely, not only to what is written, but to what remains unsaid between the lines, as Professor Beecher has noted: “Silences, the unwritten spaces of women’s life writings, are as significant as the written lines themselves.”11 The voices and silences of historical women are like the threads flung out by Walt Whitman’s noiseless patient spider, “Surrounded, detached in measureless oceans of space / Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing …” Retrieving fragile threads of meaning in order to see an entire web of experience takes patience as well.
One thread of meaning I detected was the connection of women to their mothers. Sections of my book discuss my relationship with my own mother and the comfort she has always been to me. In childhood, I remember her holding me close in the middle of a room while a wild electrical storm raged outside. Reading between the lines and finding the “silences” Maureen Beecher suggests, I realize now that when I married, I wanted a husband to take my mother’s place, someone who would calm my adult fears rather than allow me to face them alone or expect me to calm his fears. A source of some tension between my husband and me has been the attention I give instinctually to my children, yet assume my husband can fend for himself in an emotional sense. In other words, we have difficulty defining the kinds of support we are willing to give each other.
I write about my mother ironing my cotton dresses and making sure that every ruffle stood out, starched and creaseless, also applying this same care to my father’s heavy work clothes. What I don’t say is that the reason this seems so remarkable to me is because I hate ironing. I resented the imposition of my children’s choice of cotton clothes after I was liberated by polyester. I made them iron their own clothes. I ironed my clothes or my husband’s as little as possible because of the resentment that welled up in me when I became hot and bored and angry at wrinkles that wouldn’t come out, as I longed for polyester. For years I felt guilty because my mother ironed so well and willingly. To be a good woman, I should do the same, I thought. After much effort, I finally voiced my frustration about what I thought to be a senseless, time-wasting activity; in finding a sympathetic ear in my husband, I freed my self-image from the ironing board. Now my husband, although somewhat less than graciously, refuses to let me iron his clothes.
I write about my mother turning the jump rope for my friends and me as if nothing else in the world were more important to her. Between the lines is a hidden message about my mother finding nothing more important than supporting me. In fact, I was her only child. She chose not to pursue a college education or career. In a sense, I was her education and career. She turned the jump rope for one period in her lifetime, while I did it again and again as I reared one child after another. I spent years pushing children on swings, reading stories to them, and turning jump ropes, mostly in joy but sometimes in boredom. For me, there were other alternatives. I wanted a teaching certificate, to be an educator, to write a newspaper column, to do oral history projects, to get my master’s degree, and I had to fight the guilt that in doing so, I was spending less time with my children. Now at age eighty-seven, my mother openly wonders if she should have pursued other options in her life. Was it enough for her to be the supportive audience to the “others” in the family? I am just beginning to read between the lines of my mother’s life in conversation with her, seeking to hear some whispers of aspirations and, by contrast, of things she found satisfying and would have done exactly the same if she had it to do again.
In doing the research for this book, I have read the words and read the silences of women of many different voices. I am now ready to send both my own words and my own silences out to other women (and men), who may find some comfort in my candid perspective and will hopefully find at least, within this book, grist for further conversations.
Busk Richfield, Utah
* * * * *
An early photograph of Nauvoo, its stately temple topping a hill in the distance, shows numerous wooden buildings—even what looks like an outhouse—in the crowded collection of structures in the foreground. These dwellings contrast with the statelier brick houses tourists visit in restored Nauvoo. In the brick structures, ample room, attractive furniture, a handmade cradle, or a skillfully carved toy suggests an ideal atmosphere for child rearing. In contrast to this ideal, one- or two-room cabins like those suggested in the photo often housed large families. Curiously, the how of raising children in such a small space is never explained in the pioneer diaries I have read, this amazing feat becoming another addition to the lore of pioneer ingenuity. The why of so many children is another provocative question seldom discussed in diaries of Nauvoo women or pioneer women in other parts of the West.
The nursery rhyme parody, “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, she had so many children because she didn’t know what to do,” reflects a common belief about why pioneer women had large families. Victorian mores prevented mention of such things as pregnancy in diaries and journals. There are brief entries about “not feeling well” or being “put to bed,” followed by the announcement of a boy or girl. Birth control is talked about even less. Historian Elizabeth Hampsten has probed the issue of pioneer family planning and quotes from confidential letters exchanged between women suggesting calendaring “safe days,” using a preventative device called a pessairre which cost one dollar and was used to treat a tipped uterus as well, and of nursing children until the age of two.53
For some women, pregnancy prevention required extreme solutions. Christina Neher, a German-Russian immigrant homesteading in Oregon in the early 1900s, received unsolicited help from an older and wiser German neighbor. After Christina gave birth to her second child, one year after her first, Frau Jäger set up sleeping quarters for Christina and her children in the Jägers’ unused summer kitchen, then warned Christina’s husband, Ludwig, to leave his wife alone. Less than two months after his wife’s delivery, Ludwig complained about this separation by saying die Natur verlangt’s (“nature demands it”), but was nevertheless barred from entry by Frau Jäger, who told him he should abstain; Du sollst fasten (“you should fast”). Christina returned to her own home when the summer kitchen was again needed by the Jägers. Seventeen months after the birth of Ottilia, Christina bore her third child. Without Frau Jäger as a buffer, “nature” soon won out as Christina bore five more children. One wonders if she was happy about so many children or if she tried other methods of birth control which failed.54 She may have followed a prominent nineteenth-century doctor’s advice to restrict intercourse to the “safe” time in the middle of the menstrual cycle, a recommendation which might account for the high birth rate among pioneer women.55
I empathize with Christina because of my own fertility. Unlike many pioneer brides, I and my husband determined when to have children. Our first, Kerri, was born eighteen months after our wedding, Michael two-and-a-half years later, and Kirsten two-and-a-half years after that. The fourth child, Chris, was born after a reprieve of six years, as planned, and I became pregnant with Jeremy while I was nursing Chris. So much for that pioneer myth about relying on nursing as a prophylactic. My last daughter, Noelle, was conceived when I was thirty-six and Jeremy was one. Having confirmed that a sixth was on its way, I felt a need to tell my teenage daughter the news one day as I was standing by the dryer, folding diapers for my one-year-old. Trying to sound as casual as I could, I said, “Guess what? We’re going to have another little baby at our house.”
Kerri eyed me with disbelief and burst out, “You’ve got to be kidding!” A few weeks later, my mother, visiting and newly aware of my “condition,” asked, “Don’t you know where babies come from?” My students must have had similar thoughts. Teaching sophomore English in three different classrooms on my half-day assignment, I navigated crowded high school halls, balancing books on my abdomen as student whispers followed me. “Is she pregnant again?” they said in disbelief. In a little more than three years, I had borne three children. Pioneer fertility, with or without planning, doesn’t surprise me.
My husband was present in the delivery room at the births of our last three children, something not allowed in the 1960s California hospitals where our first three children were born. I was comforted by the blessings he gave to me during each of my labors. His strong hands lay on my head and his reassuring voice seemed to calm my fears about imminent delivery. I think pioneer women in Nauvoo were calmed by blessings they received in the upper rooms of the temple beginning in December of 1845 as they prepared to abandon Illinois. Perhaps blessings of health and protection made pregnant women feel immune from the difficulties of delivery during the westward trek.
Historian Wallace Stegner says that most of the women would not have had to bear their children along the trail in wagons or tents if they had not chosen to do so: “No one actually is pressing them this hard: they could stay a week or a month and have their babies under a roof. But it is as if they covet the opportunity to drop their young like animals in any crude shelter available to God’s chosen people.”56 Eliza R. Snow reported that nine babies were born in the ice-bound tent town of Sugar Creek across the Mississippi one night in February 1846.57 Eliza’s biographer, Maureen Beecher, feels that the “nine babies born” statement made years later in the 1870s may have been an embellishment to engender public sympathy. Beecher clarifies that many women did, in fact, stay behind to have their babies in the city, coming west later. The case of Diantha Clayton is cited as an example. But for women who chose to travel in late pregnancy, delivery in a tent or wagon, rather than in a home in Nauvoo, may have been a demonstration of faith and dedication and defiance in the face of persecution.
After leaving Nauvoo, my husband and I drove across Iowa. I rested on a bed in the back as our van creaked and rattled along a rough stretch of road. For a few minutes I imagined being a pioneer woman in labor, pushing to deliver a child. In doing so, I contrasted my own hospital births, made bearable by anesthetic, with the painful birthing of days gone by. The matter-of-fact nature of pioneer women’s accounts amazes me. Nancy Hunt, a woman traveling overland to California, writes: While the young folks were having their good times, some of the mothers were giving birth to their babes. When I first read this statement, I wondered if a cause-and-effect relationship was unwittingly implied. Hunt continued:
Three babies were born in our company that summer. My cousin Emily Ibe … gave birth to a son in Utah, forty miles north of Great Salt Lake, one evening; and. the next morning she traveled, on until noon, when a stop was made and another child was born–this time Susan Longmire was the mother made happy by the advent of little Ellen. The third birth [was to] the wife of my cousin Jacob Zumwalt who gave birth to a daughter while traveling in the Sierra Nevada. To this baby they gave the name of Alice Nevada.58 Roxana Cheny Foster, a woman of thirty-six traveling to California in 1854, tells of stopping with no other wagons near: We set up our tent and before twelve o’clock a baby boy was born to us, probably the first person born in Ogden. We rested three days and then went slowly on.59 The entry is so brief, I question what details remained unsaid. Roxana expressed no concern about bearing a child with only the help of her husband, no longing for another woman who had borne children and could understand her pain. She mentions no sense of relief at the child’s first cry, that he had survived delivery, or that she no longer had to worry where and when and how her child would be born.
I prepared for the birth of my first child by getting regular pre-natal care, taking supplemental vitamins, quitting work in my sixth month, and avoiding long trips after the seventh month. I also took classes in preparation for childbirth. Each subsequent pregnancy was equally protected. My mother came to help after each birth. My daughters have had sonograms during their pregnancies, and I have been there to help them after deliveries. Pioneer diaries chronicle pregnancy as wholly unremarkable if even mentioned. Historian Lillian Schlissel says:
Childbearing did not in any degree alter the determination to emigrate. The decision to make the journey rested with the men, and farm men of the early nineteenth century were not inclined to excuse women from their daily responsibilities to prepare for the occasion of childbirth. Women were expected to be strong enough to serve the common needs of the day, and strong enough to meet the uncommon demands as well. The society of emigrants yielded little comfort to frailty or timidity—or for that matter motherhood.60
I believe my maternal great-grandmother, Kirstine Sandersen Sorensen, was “strong enough to serve the common needs of the day, and strong enough to meet the uncommon needs as well,” at least until she died in childbirth along with her sixteenth baby. When I was so young that I had not yet asked how babies came to be, I can remember my mother and her sisters maligning John Sorensen, their grandfather and my great-grandfather. They talked about him as if he ought to have been tried for the death of his wife.
I visited the small town of Æbelnæs on the Isle of Møn, south of Zealand, the island on which Copenhagen is located, where Kirstine was born in 1843. A large yellow stucco, thatch-roofed house looked so old that I wondered if it could be the very one she passed by on her way to work every day as a servant when she was a young girl. The open fields must have looked much the same then, grasses waving in the wind and brushing her long skirts as she made her way across the pastures.
Parish records show that she was dobt (baptized) into the Lutheran Church on Sunday the 17th of December 1843 in Damsholte. Her daab (christening) was witnessed by several Æbelnæs men, who were blacksmiths, and their wives. On a June morning in 2000, the sun just drying the last drops of a spring rain, I visited the parish church where this christening occurred. It was hexagonal and of the same yellow stucco as the thatch-roofed house, beautiful in its symmetry, set in the midst of a kirkegård, the Danish name for church garden or cemetery. Inside the chapel, a miniature ship hung from the high ceiling, poised above the pews. Ships like these were typical ornaments in Danish churches because parishioners were often seafarers looking for protection in their work. I wonder if Kirstine walked along the seashore not far from Æbelnæs prior to her emigration and contemplated the possibilities of her new life in Zion.
She was baptized into the Mormon church at the age of twelve in 1855, having possibly heard about this new gospel preached in the home other employers. Being poor and illiterate, she had likely begun working as a scullery maid or nursery maid when she was ten or eleven. Her parents and other members of her family were baptized later than she, no doubt partially through her influence. At age nineteen, she shows up on immigration records traveling in 1862 with the Fredrick Christiansen family. Since she did not borrow money from the Perpetual Emigrating Fund, the Christiansen family may have paid her passage. They embarked in the early spring, going from their home to the island of Lolland where a steamboat carried them to Kiel. I wonder, once in landlocked Utah, if Kirstine remembered her last view of the Baltic Sea and if she longed for the brush of salty breezes on her cheek and the smells of a beach.
No autobiography explains her experiences, but a great-granddaughter, Norma Sorensen Taylor, has reconstructed Kirstine’s life, using marriage and birth records as well as historical records and events of the time period. It is a chronicle of hardship in birth and death as Kirstine became a polygamist wife and mother of sixteen under difficult circumstances, finally dying in childbirth at age forty-two.61
Following their arrival in Kiel, a railroad trip took the emigrants across the German peninsula to the seaport of Hamburg, Germany. On Wednesday, April 9, 1862, they boarded the ship Humbolt under the direction of Captain H. B. Boysen; they set sail with 323 emigrating saints in the care of Elder Hans C. Hansen. Elder Hansen had been laboring as a missionary in Scandinavia and was returning to his home in Zion.
The Humbolt crossed the Atlantic in a scant five weeks, arriving in New York Harbor on the 20th of May 1862. As other immigrants then, Kirstine was processed through Castle Garden before being allowed to enter the mainland. The company of Saints was met by American elders who served as agents to help them further their journey.
As the Danish Saints who came in 1862 were soon to learn, New York was not America, but it was part of the spirit of America—big, garrulous, bustling, noisy. The great buildings, massive piles of masonry blackened with soot, filled a narrow neck of land skirted by two rivers that poured into the ocean to form a natural harbor; it was impressive. It is doubtful that the Danish emigrants, hard pressed by their own problems, had more than a vague realization of the bloody Civil War raging in the land of their adoption. They had their own appointment with destiny and no time to lose.
The Humbolt was the first ship of the four ships carrying Danish saints to arrive in New York that year. Passengers of the four ships would eventually meet in Florence, Nebraska, to continue their journey to Utah. The passengers of the Humbolt began their journey by railroad to St. Joseph, Missouri, and from there by steamship up the Missouri River to Florence.
Florence was a bustling frontier camp located on the west bank of the Missouri River at a point now known as North Omaha. Here, for the time being, was one of the spots where the East and West met face to face. On one side were the railroads and civilization; on the other, vast stretches of wilderness, Indians, deserts, mountains—the great land of the future. As might be expected, the place was seething with people: scouts, traders, freighters, home seekers, soldiers. With the Civil War raging, the demand was limitless for horses, mules, oxen, cattle—everything used for transportation or food. Needs were increased by the constant stream of Mormon emigrants going west. The half-bewildered Danish Saints were confronted not only by many strange people but also by strange conditions.
The area contained thousands of head of livestock. Wagon trains were being outfitted by Mormon scouts and plainsmen, some of them sent directly from Salt Lake City.
The Danish saints from the Humbolt, Franklin, Athenia, and Electra were reshuffled into four companies for crossing the plains. Two companies were organized from those who had financial means to buy all their necessary equipment. These were placed under the leadership of Elders Hans C. Hansen and Ola N. Liljenquist. Kirstine and the Fredrick Christiansen family were members of this wagon train, which broke camp at Florence on July 14. For several days they had trouble learning to drive the oxen. Not only were the drivers inexperienced, but also, the oxen didn’t understand Danish. It has not been recorded which had to learn a new language, the oxen or the drivers, perhaps both, for they came to understand one another and the journey resumed successfully.
The journey across Nebraska and Wyoming and into Salt Lake Valley was accomplished in the heat of summer. Food was scarce and everyone able-bodied enough walked beside the wagons. They reached the Salt Lake Valley on the 23rd of September 1862.
A great many Danish saints were sent to Ephraim, and that is possibly where Kirstine met John Sorensen [twenty-two years her senior, an emigrant who, with his wife Else Marie, had left Denmark in 1854 and apparently lost three children on the journey; three more children were born to them in Utah, but only one lived to adulthood]. Kirstine and John were married for time and all eternity on the 27th of December 1862 in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City.
John and Kirstine settled in the area now known as Gunnison. During 1862 and 1863, the two settlements previously called Chalk Hill and Kearns Camp were being amalgamated into one settlement on the present site of Gunnison to be safe from spring floods. Most homes were built during the spring of 1863; winter must have been difficult in temporary housing.
Kirstine was a plural wife, for John had married a woman named Hannah Andersen. Hannah was also a Danish immigrant but much [sixteen years] older than Kirstine, which must have caused some friction. Else Marie, John’s other wife, isn’t listed in the Gunnison Ward records … and … the 1870 census doesn’t list Else Marie [who apparently died sometime between censuses, joining two of her children who died]. An eleven-year-old daughter of John and Else, Mary Christine, is listed on the census.
On November 11, 1863, Kirstine gave birth to her first child, a daughter she named Maria. Sadly, Maria died on the 23rd of December 1863. On the 9th of February 1864, Hannah had her first child, whom she named Hannah. Kirstine and Hannah must have struggled to establish a home in the newly settled area. … On the 7th of November 1864, Kirstine gave birth to a son they named John after his father. She must have worried she would lose her second child when winter marked an outbreak of smallpox, but John beat the odds and lived to adulthood.
Indians that had been camped near Gunnison contracted smallpox and they blamed the settlers. War was inevitable because of the anger of the Indians, so plans were devised to protect everyone. For three years, Indian raiding parties plagued the Gunnison settlement, which was located halfway on the three-hundred-mile battlefront.
On the 25th of May 1866, Kirstine gave birth to a daughter they named Christine. During this time the Indian raids were particularly frequent so Judge Peacock came with directions from Brigham Young to build a fort. Cabins were to be moved in line for the outside walls of the fort. With ready obedience, the people set to work enclosing four city blocks. Walls between the cabins were rocked up to a height of seven feet with peepholes near the top. At each corner, circular structures with many lookouts served as small camps for the watchmen. There was a substantial gate on each side in line with the cross streets. In less than a month’s time the fort was in fair condition against attacks. During July of 1866, in the midst of all this chaos, the baby Christine died. The Indian raids stopped during the winter to give the settlers a respite, but spring and summer brought renewed attacks.
Mary Ann, John’s and Kirstine’s fourth child, was born the 13th of June 1867. Hannah also gave birth to 1867. A peace pact was consummated with Chief Black Hawk in the fall of 1867. Unfortunately some of his warriors weren’t ready for peace, especially Jake Arapeen, whose father had contracted smallpox and died in 1864.
Fort Gunnison became a haven for settlers from many settlements during 1867 and 1868. A sense of normalcy was provided by organizing activities such as Relief Society, Sunday School and Priesthood quorums. Quilting bees, singing, dancing, as well as worship services, helped to balance the normal work of sustaining a family. Finally on the 19th of August 1868 peace was negotiated between Jake Arapeen and the other hostile warriors. The settlers decided to remain in the fort until spring.
In the spring of 1869, the people moved from the fort to their city lots; there they set out fruit trees, shade trees, planted gardens and made improvements to beautify their homes and make them inviting. During this beehive of activity, Kirstine gave birth to her fifth child, a daughter they named Minnie Martine, who was born on the 17th of June 1869. Peace brought many changes as men worked to make life easier by building a sawmill, a co-op store, and by establishing a cattle cooperative. Women kept their homes, tended the children, planted gardens, made tallow candles, and mended and performed the hundreds of little tasks needed to survive in a pioneer settlement.
A Deseret News article written in 1870 by Hans Thunnison, the postmaster, explains conditions:
We have but a small settlement of 90 families. The grasshoppers preyed heavily upon us the last years. The losses sustained from them and the burdens we had to endure during the Black Hawk War were equally severe, but we are improving. Our fields at present look barren and desolate, except about 250 acres planted with wheat, mostly late grain, which looks very promising and will, we hope–with addition of peas, potatoes, corn, etc., all of which appear to be doing well–suffice to feed the inhabitants of this place for the coming year,
A new rock schoolhouse 24 x 24 feet will soon be finished. With the good road now made up Twelve Mile Canyon we expect an abundant supply of lumber. The people appear to be well generally, the weather is fine and as soon as the grasshoppers get wings they take their flight to other parts.
On the 19th of February 1871, Kirstine and John were blessed with twin daughters, which they named Amelia and Emma Eliza. Unfortunately, these little spirits weren’t long for this life for on the 14 of April 1871 Emma Eliza died and Amelia joined her twin on May 7,1871.
On September 28, 1871, John and Hannah filed a mutual petition for divorce, which was granted. Hannah received custody of their two daughters, Hannah, age six, and Maria, age four, as well as a property settlement. On May 13, 1872, a daughter was born to John and Kirstine, whom they named Victoria … but in August Victoria died. On December 24, 1873, a son named Christian Louis joined the growing Sorensen clan.
In 1874, John began farming in an area that eventually became known as Mayfield. Kirstine and the children remained in Gunnison during this time. On December 26, 1875, Kirstine gave birth to a son she named Sanders after her father. He died the same day he was born. Sanders was the last child born in Gunnison, for the family moved to Mayfield in the spring of 1876. It is possible that John and Kirstine were called by church authorities to Mayfield to participate in the newly organized United Order [a communal society], for they settled on the north side of the creek where it was being practiced. On the south side of the creek, another settlement was established by English immigrants who had moved from Ephraim. The settlement was called New London and they had a separate ward and bishopric until 1877 when the two settlements were combined.
During the rigors of moving, Kirstine was pregnant. She worked throughout the summer and fall to build a home. In addition to caring for her family and helping with hard work, she waged a constant war on lizards, snakes, and rodents that would share her dwelling in spite of all she could do. On November 9, 1876, Kirstine gave birth to her eleventh child, a daughter named Ricka Malinda [my grandmother].
In the newly emerging community, settlers found a need for recreation. In a delightful nook on a bend of the creek, all of the trees, shrubs, and turf were cleared of dead branches and a bowery was built. In this beautiful little park, called the Grove, both aesthetic and practical needs were satisfied. Meetings and socials were held in the bowery, picnics and games were enjoyed in the shade of the tall cottonwoods, and the “old swimming hole,” screened by squaw berries and birch, provided pleasure on hot summer days. Here the family water barrel, mounted on a two-wheeled cart in summer and a bobsled in winter, was filled as needed from the creek. Baptisms were also performed here.
Brigham Young dedicated the Manti Temple site on April 25, 1877. The Twelve Mile (Mayfield) residents counted the milestones from twelve to one as they plodded by ox team to witness the groundbreaking ceremonies.
The United Order was disbanded in 1877 and sometime thereafter Kirstine and John moved to the south side of the creek and built a home. Four children were born to John and Kirstine in the next five years. Their twelfth child, David was born on January 4, 1879. A daughter named Ephalone was born May 27, 1881, and died on June 8, 1881. Louis was born August 27, 1882, and died a scant two and a half months later on November 2,1882. Joseph Alma was born December 5, 1883. On December 17, 1885,
Kirstine died in childbirth [ten days short of her twenty-third wedding anniversary, and the child also died]. Her married daughter, Mary Ann, helped her mother in her struggle, but to no avail. At the age of forty-two, Kirstine Sandersen Sorensen left this life as she had lived it, struggling. She was buried in the Mayfield Cemetery, but unfortunately the location of her grave and the graves of her babies is unknown.
Apparently the original grave marker, assuming there ever was one, was made of wood and disintegrated. The cemetery records do not chronicle where Kirstine was buried, only that she was interred. Long after her death, a grandson had a granite marker for her placed next to his family plot. I can hear my Aunt Blanche, were she alive today, cursing John Sorensen for not putting a permanent marker on his wife’s grave at the time of her death, one more insult to her. But how do we know what his feelings were at the time; perhaps he was overcome by grief, perhaps even by guilt and remorse. Without a diary or memoir, what can we know? No picture of Kirstine exists that I have been able to locate, so I cannot even visualize her appearance.
Considering the beliefs about the importance of raising posterity, was Kirstine a willing partner in the conception of sixteen children, children she believed would be hers “on the other side of the veil? Was this “the why of so many children? Did Kirstine and her husband rejoice in each birth; and after the death of each child, did Kirstine long for a new baby to fill the void, one to cradle in her empty arms, to nestle at her breast? Did she feel blessed to be free of the scourge of biblical women who begged for a cure for barrenness: Sarah before she bore Isaac, Hannah before she bore Samuel, Elisabeth prior to delivering John? Did Kirstine consider herself a handmaiden of the Lord as well as the wife of John Sorensen? And finally, did the women who lived in those small cabins visible in the photograph of Nauvoo consider themselves handmaidens of the Lord, finding Nauvoo beautiful because of their fulfilled calling to multiply and replenish the earth?
1. Kenneth M. Godfrey, Audrey M. Godfrey, and Jill Mulvay Derr, Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter Day Saints, 1830-1900 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book,1982), 157.
2. Lillian Schlissel, Byrd Gibbens, and Elizabeth Hampsten, Far from Home: Families of the Westward Journey (New York: Schocken Books, 1989), 123.
3. Godfrey et al., Women’s Voices, 222-42.
4. Willa Cather, O Pioneers! (New York: Signet, 1989), 50.
5. Wallace Stegner, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs (New York: Random House, 1992), 201-02.
6. Annie Dillard, “To Fashion a Text,” in Inventing the Truth, ed. William Zinsser (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), p. 70.
7. Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, “A True Relation of My Birth, Breeding, and Life,” in The Lives of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, and of His Wife, Margaret Duchess of Newcastle, ed. Mark Antony Lover [Lower] (London: John Russell, 1892), 309-10; qtd. in Domna C. Stanton, The Female Autograph (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 14.
8. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, ‘”Tryed and Purified as Gold’: Mormon Women’s Lives,'” typescript, Alice Louise Reynolds Lecture, Harold B. Lee Library, 17 March 1994, 5.
9. Telephone interview with Bradley L. Edgington, psychologist, 20 January 2003.
10. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Vintage/Random House, 1990/1991).
11. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, lecture, Women’s Texts class, Brigham Young University.
12. William E. Hill, Mormon Trail (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1996), 53.
13. Lillian Schlissel, Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey (New York: Schocken Books, 1982), 111.
53. Elizabeth Hampsten, Read This Only to Yourself: The Private Writings of Midwestern Women, 1880-1910 (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1982), 102-10.
54. Schlissel, et al., Far from Home, 204-05.
55. Hampsten, Read This Only to Yourself, 108.
56. Ibid., 47.
57. Wallace Stegner, The Gathering of Zion (Salt Lake City, Utah: Westwater Press, 1963, 1981), 50.
58. Schlissel, Women’s Diaries, 123.
59. Ibid., 120.
60. Ibid., 123.
61. Norma Sorensen Taylor, “History of Kirstine Sandersen Sorensen,” typescript in possession of the author; used by permission.