It was the great unknown, this vast wilderness the Saints needed to pass through in order to reach their new home. And what then? What would they find? And what could they make of this place the Lord would give them?
“Brigham Young knew that he would probably lead the people into the deserts of the Great West, and into the Rocky Mountains, and as a wise and cautious leader, he did not propose to go until he was instructed by the Lord; nor would he go without full and adequate preparation,” wrote the leader’s daughter Susa Young Gates, as recorded in "The Life Story of Brigham Young" by Gates and Leah D. Widtsoe. “Many counsels were held in the temple rooms.”
The last dictated entry in Brigham Young’s Nauvoo, Illinois, office record might well be the clarion call — the mission statement of this “peculiar people” — of the trials they had overcome and the epoch experiences that lay ahead: “Our homes, gardens, orchards, farms, streets, bridges, mills, public halls, magnificent temple and other public improvements, we leave as a monument of our patriotism, industry, economy, uprightness of purpose and integrity of heart, and as a living testimony of the falsehood and wickedness of those who charge us with idleness, dishonesty, disloyalty to the Constitution of our country” (see "The Life Story of Brigham Young").
Following a long winter and spring in Winter Quarters — where 700 homes had been built and the camp of 12,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints divided into 22 wards — the first company was readied to make the journey. Some of the most seasoned and reliable brethren were selected, and at first the 148 in number were to be men only.
But Brigham Young gave way to entreaties, especially those of his brother Lorenzo, who wished his unwell, asthmatic wife, Harriet, to be allowed to accompany him. Eventually, it was decided that she and her two sons could join the group, as well as Brigham’s wife Clara Decker (who was Harriet’s daughter by her first marriage), and Ellen Sanders, one of Heber C. Kimball’s wives (see "Brigham Young: An Inspiring Personal Biography" by Susan Evans McCloud).
Surely their presence made a difference to the men. Unless otherwise noted, information about these women has been compiled from familysearch.org, the Deseret News archives, each woman's listing on findagrave.com and history.lds.org.
Harriet Wheeler Young was born in 1803 in New Hampshire and was of Welsh ancestry. She married Isaac Decker at age 18 and bore him six children. The couple joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ohio and experienced all the sufferings of that place and of Missouri. While in Nauvoo, Illinois, she separated from her husband and married Lorenzo Young, having two additional children with him.
Harriet brought to the Salt Lake Valley her cow and some chickens, which laid three precious eggs a day. She churned some of the cream of the cow’s milk by putting it in a lidded bucket and letting the jolting of the wagon churn it into butter.
Harriet was both fiercely determined and quietly capable. With skill and insight, she kept Lorenzo’s books for years while seeing to her own work as a housewife. These two were the first to move out of the old Salt Lake fort with their infant son, who was born on Sept. 26, 1847, and who was the first male child born in the Salt Lake Valley.
He was delivered by the skilled and well-loved Patty Bartlett Sessions, who had only just arrived in the valley and recorded in her journal: “It was said to me more than five months ago that my hands should be the first to handle the first born son in the place of rest for the Saints, even in the city of our God. I have come more than one thousand miles to do it since it was spoken" (see "Women of Faith in the Latter-Days," 1775-1820, p. 314).
One day while Harriet was alone with her baby boy, she saw a rather fierce-looking Indian at her door, demanding food. She gave him three small biscuits, which was all she had. But he, angry and disbelieving, drew his bow and pointed an arrow at her heart. Fearing for her life and the life of her 3-month-old child, she suddenly remembered that her husband’s large mastiff dog was in the next room.
Signing to the Indian that she would look for more food, she released the dog, gave it the order to attack and unleashed it on the intruder until he begged for mercy. In keeping with her kindly nature, she cleaned and dressed the man’s wounds before sending him on his way.
This noble, tireless woman died in 1871 in Salt Lake City at age 68.
Harriet’s daughter, who went by Clara or Clarissa, married Brigham Young when she was 16. She was considered a beautiful girl, small in stature, rather retiring in nature, gentle and charitable to all. She was a great reader and loved the arts.
In the early days in the valley, Clara rescued a tiny Indian prisoner, saving her from a gruesome death. She named the girl Sally and raised her to womanhood. Sally then attempted to rejoin her people, but the hardships of their life contributed to her early and sorrowful death. Clara also raised five children of her own and was a loving, devoted wife to her husband. When Clara died in her old home on State Street in Salt Lake, she was the last of the three original pioneer women who entered the valley together.
Ellen Sanders’ people came from a small village in Norway. Her nature was kind and sympathetic, but her moods were extreme, taking her from great merriment to melancholy. She possessed an intelligent mind and a brave heart.
She emigrated with her family to America at the age of 13, but a year after their arrival, her mother died. Scarcely three weeks later, her father also died, and the children were left to the mercies of those around them, dwelling with relatives and others who spoke their native tongue.
It was not until 1842 that Mormonism was preached to them in LaSalle County, Illinois. Ellen joined the church with her brother Sondra and, later, her sister Harriet. The little family of four children made their way to Nauvoo and worked in the dwellings of members there. In January 1846, Ellen and Harriet became wives of Elder Heber C. Kimball.
Ellen continued to suffer the challenge of great loss. Three of her four children died before adulthood. She lived in the Bear Lake Valley for many years, patiently serving those around her.
It was not until 1871 that she returned to the Salt Lake Valley.
These three women were invaluable in nursing the sick men and animals during the hazardous journey, and not one person died before reaching their goal. The men had their hands full, removing big rocks, cutting back brush and building roads through the mountain wildernesses.
It was from the summit of Big Mountain that the little company first saw the valley. As the little group entered the valley through what was later called Emigration Canyon, they saw “several small willow-fringed creeks flowing out of the canyon mouths,” according to "The Life Story of Brigham Young." But the sweeping expanse was largely empty and desolate.
Gates describes the overwhelming experience with vivid sensitivity in "The Life Story of Brigham Young": “Men may plough and build, but women and children give life, cohesion and glory to these outer substances. Harriet Young, wife of Lorenzo Young, cried out at the desolation about her. ‘Weak and weary as I am,’ she said to her husband, ‘I would rather go a thousand miles further than stay in such a forsaken place as this.’ But she was a heroine and quietly accepted her lot. Ellen Kimball said nothing, but she worked with zeal to make a home in the wilderness. Clara Decker Young, Brigham’s lovely young wife, said, ‘I am satisfied. We enjoyed the social life of Winter Quarters; but things do not look dreary to me here. There are no trees, but they can be planted.’ And she went calmly to work making a peaceful home out of the wagon boxes.”
That evening a gentle rain fell, accompanied by the applause of thunder, and “washed the entire valley as a benediction on that first Pioneer Day” (see "Brigham Young: An Inspiring Personal Biography").
The magnificent, historic exodus was well on its way. But the first steps had been taken, the first eyes had beheld and the first hearts had embraced. Among these were what Gates called a “trio of lovely women.” Her words in "The Life Story of Brigham Young" of gentle tribute and praise can sing softly to our hearts today — more than 160 years after that remarkable time and those remarkable people:
“They were a type of all the gentle, patient and sympathetic wives and mothers who were to follow in their footsteps. They imparted to that pioneer camp the halo of their refining influence.”
Has it not always been thus, where noble women lead the way and beckon us to follow?