Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Last Crossing

The Last Crossing
   by lady red

This is a story of family, and a story of faith. It is also a story of America, and the remarkable resilience and spirit that forged our fledgling nation.

Our tale begins at, well, the beginning: in the boondocks of western New York, in the decades following the Revolutionary War. During the period of what is now known as the Second Great Awakening, there lived a family named Smith. They lived in the "Burned-Over District", so named for the religious evangelical fervor that was embraced by its residents, led mostly by the Baptists and the Methodists. The Smith family was no exception, and they spent many an evening reading the bible and discussing religion. 

Joseph Smith Senior and his wife Lucy Mack Smith had eleven children; a son that died as a baby, Alvin, Hyrum, Sophronia, Joseph Jr., Samuel, Ephraim who died as a baby, William, Catherine, Don Carlos, and Lucy.

Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph Senior's wife, was the great granddaughter of John Mack, who immigrated to America from Scotland in 1680. Joseph Smith Senior Was the 2nd great grandson of Robert Smith, who immigrated to the colonies from Lincolnshire, England. They were in many ways an ordinary family of the early 19th century, living a typical American life. That is, until their teenage middle son Joseph Jr. had a visitation from an angel, and founded a mighty religion. 

Joseph Smith Jr. must have been convincing, because his father, his mother, and all of his siblings believed him, and believed in the golden tablets he purported to have dug up on the instructions of an angel. His neighbors believed him. His mother Lucy's family believed him; in fact, Lucy's cousin Almira Mack was one of the great early Mormon leaders. Dozens of true believers became hundreds, hundreds became thousands. It was akin to striking a match and touching it to dry prairie grass. Men left their families in those early decades of the founding of the Mormon church to travel the world on missions, converting the Anglicans of England, the Catholics of Germany, even Africans and Mexicans.

However, not everyone appreciated the teachings of Smith, and he and his co-religionists were hounded from New York, then Ohio, then Missouri, then Illinois. They were persecuted, mocked, jailed, and murdered. Still they believed, and their numbers grew. Smith was killed in 1844, and that's when Brigham Young took the reins of the young church. He gathered up the converts and moved them across the wilderness to Utah Territory.

Although it begins with Joseph Smith's unworldly charisma, this story is not about Smith. This is the tale of an ordinary English family named Parkinson, who embarked on a epic journey from Preston, Lancashire, England to the Great Salt Lake Basin in 1856, and it is the story of a catastrophic decision by Brigham Young which must still haunt the pioneer trail even today. Most of all, it is a story of faith.

We know a few things about John Parkinson. He married Ellen Smalley in June,1837 in Preston, England and we know that he was baptized into the LDS church on 2 September of that same year, at the age of 19. He was one of the very first English converts. Ellen was baptized in October. For almost 20 years they made a good life; John was no pauper; he was a successful shoemaker and had his own shop. They had a houseful of children, and a strong Mormon congregation. John even did missionary work for the young church. I'm sure he and the other Mormon families in England received their share of hostility and disdain from their neighbors for believing so completely in young Joseph Smith and his tablets of gold, but they were steadfast.

Meanwhile, in Salt Lake, Brigham Young was gathering in as many true believers as he could to assist in building the Salt Lake Valley, and he desperately wanted to provide a safe sanctuary for the converts. He started a Perpetual Immigration Fund to bring in Mormon immigrants. The Fund paid expenses, and when the pioneers reached Salt Lake and were able, they repaid the fund. It worked well, but trans-Atlantic voyages and wagon trains were expensive. That's when Brigham Young made the financial decision to have the pioneers travel with handcarts instead of by wagon train. Said he:

"They can come just as quick, if not quicker, and much cheaper—can start earlier and escape the prevailing sickness which annually lays so many of our brethren in the dust. A great majority of them walk now, even with the teams which are provided.”

Young believed the pioneers could make the long trip in 70 days, and could average 20-30 miles per day. The first three companies that summer of 1856 made the journey and arrived in Salt Lake. There were a few deaths along the way;  a young man succumbed to tuberculosis, and a toddler perished from unknown causes. However, the last two groups of immigrants, the Willie Handcart Company and the Martin Handcart Company, will live in the Mormon conscience forever.

This is indeed a story of faith. And of winter.

The Parkinson family answered Brigham Young's call to come to Utah. John and Ellen, both 37 years old, with their children Samuel (18), Joseph (16),  Elizabeth (11), Margaret(9), John (7), Ellen (5), Mary (3), Ester (2), and baby William, joyfully walked away from their good life in England and boarded the ship Horizon at the port of Liverpool in May 1856. Sadly, baby William died on board the ship during the journey. The family debarked in Boston in June, and piled onto railway cars with other European Mormon adventurers for the overland trip to Iowa City, Iowa. 

The handcart company the Parkinson family was assigned to, led by Edward Martin, left Iowa City, Iowa with 575 souls, 145 handcarts, and 8 wagons. It was July 28, 1856. They faced over one thousand three hundred miles of plains and mountains, pushing and pulling the flimsy carts laden with food and clothes, carrying children, assisting the elderly and infirm. These were city folks, from Europe, and utterly unprepared for life in the American wilderness. 

And little did they know, as they sang their way across the sweltering plains, that winter was stalking them with every breath of wind that touched their sweaty cheeks. 

The first leg of their journey brought the large family and their co-travelers to Florence, Nebraska. There the Mormon leaders huddled in heated, sometimes angry, meetings. It was late in the year; too late to make the journey through the mountains to Salt Lake. Should they winter in Nebraska, and continue in the spring? The immigrants were broke; everything they owned was tucked into the handcarts. Most of them did not have the funds to remain where they were, so with joyful hearts they decided to continue their trek. Levi Savage, a Mormon frontiersman well acquainted with the territory, did his utmost to halt the troop in Nebraska and wait out the winter. However, he was outvoted. He stood and gazed into the hopeful faces of the immigrant families, and he said:

"Brethren and sisters, what I have said I know to be true, but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help you all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, will suffer with you, and if necessary I will die with you. May God have mercy bless and preserve us."

And the wind whispered from the mountains...

Winter. Is. Coming.

The handcarts the immigrants utilized were thrown together quickly, often with green wood which seasoned and cracked as they pushed and pulled the 3 foot by 5 foot carts. There were five people assigned to each cart, which contained a meager supply of food, some clothing, and household goods. The wagons carried flour and meat. Each person was allowed 17 pounds on the handcart. As they reached Wyoming, strength and supplies were both low. The immigrants were cut to ten pounds per person, so they off loaded bedding and clothes, and burned them. This mistake would have ghastly consequences. 

Onward they plodded, one foot in front of the other, cold, dirty, tired, and hungry. And they sang, lifting their hopeful, battered, weary faces to the icy blue Wyoming sky. Some travelers fell by the wayside, and were buried on the windswept plains. The prairie was rough traveling, and the wind was relentless and had turned bitter cold. Provisions were low. The saints were exhausted, and their forward movement slowed with each passing day. Somewhere along the trail, 16 year old Joseph Parkinson died in his harness, pulling the Parkinson handcart, his grave lost to time.

A group of returning missionaries on horseback passed the Martin Handcart Company in Wyoming, and a few days later passed the Willie Handcart Company. When the missionaries reached Salt Lake in early October, they informed a stunned Brigham Young that the two companies were still on the trail, cold, sick, and starving. Brigham Young declared:

"I shall call upon the Bishops this day. I shall not wait until tomorrow nor until the next day, for sixty good teams and 12 or 15 wagons. I do not want to send oxen. I want good horses and mules. They are in the territory and we must have them. Also twelve tons of flour and 40 good teamsters beside those that drive the wagons."

All of the saints of Salt Lake quickly and desperately put together a rescue team, laden with what little food they could spare, clothes, and blankets. Women contributed the shawls from their shoulders, men their only horse, mule, or wagon. They prayed for their brethren in horror as the rescue team headed east, through the snowy mountains, in search of the two companies.

On October 19, the Parkinson family reached the North Platte River in Wyoming. They forded the icy Platte, numb from the waist-deep water, shivering from exposure, exhaustion, hunger, and disease. 

Then, right then, RIGHT THEN, as the immigrants splashed up the far bank of the Platte, winter unleashed its fury on the bone-weary travelers.

A deadly snowstorm struck the frozen company, swooping across the barren plains. They had jettisoned most of their clothing and bedding earlier along the trail to lighten their load. The immigrants were wet and cold to the bone, and they couldn't find wood to start a fire. The ground was so frozen that they could not drive tent pegs for shelter. They were weak with hunger. Many crawled underneath the tents that night, shivering and sick. As food rations dwindled, many of the men had forfeited their share to their young children, and thus were emaciated, exhausted, and out of strength. The night was black, the wind was howling, and the snow flying. The temperature was sub-zero.

The Parkinson's had 7 children depending on them. William and Joseph were dead. Did they dream of the warmth and civilization of their home in Preston that brutal night, or did they only have dreams of Salt Lake? Did their faith warm them as their feet turned blue and raw, and their children wept with hunger and cold?

John and his wife Ellen crawled under their tent with their remaining children; Samuel (18), Elizabeth (11), Margaret(9), John (7), Ellen (5), Mary (3), and Ester (2). Mom Ellen, lying next to her husband, realized he had passed on to heaven in the night. She removed his coat for warmth, but she was weak and frozen. The next night she too went to her reward. 

18 year-old Samuel Parkinson decided to not go on. He abandoned the Martin Handcart Company, and his brother and sisters, at Red Buttes, Wyoming, choosing to spend the winter at Fort Casper. Samuel's desertion must have been a crushing blow to the orphaned Parkinson children, now left in the care of 11 year-old Elizabeth Jane. 

The aftermath of that bitter winter crossing also claimed the little girls Mary and Ester. Only 11 year old Elizabeth Jane, 9 year old Margaret, 7 year old John, and 5 year old Ellen survived the days following the Platte and Sweetwater river crossings. From a healthy, joyful family of 11, only four remained in the Handcart Company, all little children.

The rescue of the Martin and Willie Handcart Companies was heroic in the best sense of the word. However, 145 souls from the Martin Handcart Company perished on the brutal journey to Salt Lake, and 68 souls from the Willie Handcart Company. Without the extraordinary measures taken by Brigham Young and the rescue teams, the death toll would have been even higher; perhaps all would have perished in the howling, icy wind of Wyoming's winter.

But faith lives on, and hope perseveres. 

11 year old Elizabeth and her younger siblings completed their journey to Salt Lake, and were taken in by members of the church.

Young John Parkinson survived the ordeal, but died in Salt Lake in 1864 at the age of 15. Margaret married William Deppe and they had 8 children, She died in Salt Lake at the age of 42. Samuel, who abandoned the family, found out years later that some of his siblings had survived. I wonder how he felt? Did he regret abandoning them? He married Ellen Hallet, had 6 children, and he died at Cherry Creek, Nevada at the age of 41. Ellen Parkinson, 5 years old at the time of the journey that claimed the lives of most of her family, married Hyrum Covey and they had 11 children. Ellen passed in Salt Lake at the age of 64.

Elizabeth married Joseph Covey and they had 7 children. She died at the young age of 44 in Salt Lake. I've wondered if the torment John, Margaret, Elizabeth, and even Samuel, endured on the trail shortened their life spans. I think it must have. Ellen, who was so little at the time, lived a long life, but her brothers and sisters died young. 

There are many descendants of John and Ellen Parkinson of Preston, England, many generations of grandchildren who can reflect and draw strength from their tragic story; a story of faith, strength, adversity, courage, and profound loss.  

This is a story you won't find in history books; it is a story of the forging of America, and the remarkable people who are her backbone, then and now. 

Elizabeth Jane Parkinson Covey

Market Square in Preston

John's Actual Hymnbook

Artist's Rendering

John's Hymnbook-it is said that he led the singing across the plains. This book is now in the possession of his daughter Ellen's descendants.

Cold. So cold.

This is the saddest painting...I can picture young Joseph carrying one of his younger sisters.


  1. I hope you all enjoy this story. It's taken me months to compile/write it. There is much information about this from the Mormons, but they can be a bit prickly on sharing information sometimes, and some of the information is conflicting and/or sanitized for public consumption. Any historical errors are mine.

    A big thank you to "iloveviolin10" at Ancestry.com for sharing the photo of Elizabeth, and photos of John's hymnal.

  2. Very good work, LadyRed. Fascinating.

    1. Thanks Matt. It was a fascinating project!

  3. I echo what Matt said, very nice research, lady red. those times were very tough. It's mind-boggling comparing what pioneers fought and endured compared to say...the students and activists at Mizzou.

    Are the Parkinsons your ancestors?

    1. Yes. Elizabeth Jane Parkinson is my great grandma Covey's grandma. I was doing research for someone else and stumbled upon my own family. While I knew that the Parkinson's had been part of a handcart company, I had no earthly idea what that entailed or that so many had perished. I am also directly descended from Almira Mack in the story (she married Benjamin Covey). I might do some digging there too when I have time.

      Strangely, I had the most pushback from my Mormon relatives while researching this story. I came across one snippet of info that Elizabeth lost her feet at some point after the journey, presumably to frostbite. Inquiries about this were met with utter silence. I have a feeling that several, perhaps many, of the survivors lost limbs.

  4. Great read lady red. Thanks for sharing with us.

    1. Thanks for indulging me Fay! I know that all the dates and ages and such can be dry and boring, but I love this stuff! Some gals knit; I poke around dusty courthouses and wander old, spooky graveyards. Hah! :)

  5. Lady Red ... good job. Your compilation reminds me that I am fortunate to still have a deer skin bound (rebinding by hand with fur still on it) Protestant Prayer Book owned by one of my ancestors (Protestant side)...from what I can read it was published in 1749 or so. The hand written notes indicate it was owned in Antrim Country Northern Ireland...long before the Thompson clan migrated to the USA around 1890. The font, typesetting, and layout is similar to that hymnal. Perhaps I should research the background of that side of my family as I have done the other side who emigrated here in 1735.

    1. That's awesome Aridog! Could we see a photo of it?

  6. I might just go ahead and do the research thank to your piece here. I have always wondered why all of my male first born ancestors on that side of my family tree were named either William James or William John, sequentially, James or John, thus no "the 2nd" etc....until my mother broke the chain and named me Richard. (Drat!) What was the significance of the sequential naming? It's worth a look since it dates to so far back in time. One of the "William's" married a Catholic girl and was more or less ignored...I might not have been born in the USA without that foible.

    1. It's amazing how the decisions of our ancestors profoundly impact those that come after. Yes, the name thing can be a challenge in some families.

      One branch of my ancestry is Adams, and it seems like each father named a son Spencer and a son John (with lots of Williams thrown in for good measure). And these people had lots of kids! It's a tangled up mess that has kept genealogists happily busy for many years.

      I hope you enjoy your research and the journey!

  7. lady red, that's an amazing story. Not to mention harrowing.

    It seems like putting together a story like that is like a jigsaw puzzle; you don't get all the pieces in one place and you have to fit them together...