Elizabeth W. [Sermon] Camm letter, San Francisco, California, to My Dear Children, 1892 March 16.
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- Source Locations
- Church History Library, MS 12069
- Related Companies
- Edward Martin Company (1856)
Mar. 16, 1892
My Dear Children:
As I approach the end of my earthly career—and according to your request, I will try and write a few lines of my journey across the plains; although this brings back to my mind many painful remembrances and caused me many tears.
I will begin with the time I joined the Church which was in the year 1852. I was then living in London, England in quite comfortable circumstances. Your father had been employed with the same firm he was then working for, from boyhood and by his industry had saved considerable money—enough to buy two houses in the suburbs of London, one we lived in. The other was rented. Both were sold to provide funds to emigrate to America.
The gentleman your father worked for, not wishing to lose a trustworthy man, offered to raise his wages and a yearly allowance besides, but I suppose we had to come to this land and upon my insistence, the offer was declined.
Your father still could not see clearly into the religion of the Latter-Day-Saints. It appeared too high sounding a name for him and even though he could not in all conscience embrace the religion, he would not agree for me to come alone, although I was counseled to do so by the Elders. I have always felt very thankful I did not follow this counsel, still if I had done so, his life might have been spared, you children might not have been made cripples, and the many trials which we passed through would have been avoided.
On Feb. 2, 1856, we left our home, came to Liverpool and went on board the sailing ship “Carravan” which was considered an almost worn out vessel; but in all events after a long, rough, uneventful journey, landed us safely in Castle Gardens, New York; myself strong in the Faith and trusting the Servants of God, as I believed the Elders to be.
We stayed at Castle Gardens long enough to rest, clean up ourselves and clothing and make some necessary purchases. The Children—Henry—John—Robert and Marion.
We then started from New York by train for Florence, Nebraska, that being as far West as the railroad reached at that time.
When we started from New York, we were to be in an Independent Company, paying our own expenses and were to go from Florence by wagon and mules.
When paying for our railroad tickets at the station in New York some of the Elders acted very strange toward your father trying in various ways to get some of his money from him. I did not know what to think when I witnessed the actions of some of them. This was so different from my point of view. I wanted them to act honest and just as Servants of God.
Your father had never been too much impressed by this religion and these actions by the Elders, over money, just about done for him. He came to me and said “Oh Eliza, you have got among a bad lot. All they want is my money. God’s Servants look after the Souls of the Saints, not their purses. Haven’t you done wrong in leaving our home?” I told him if I had, it was the counsel of those in authority, which I considered came from God.
The Elders called your father a fool and said let Sister Sermon handle the money, she can do better than you. They would say he can never save that woman and I heard much of that doctorine [doctrine] before very long, however your father sacrificed his feelings, for me, and I was not foolish enough to listen to the Elders; although I did think your father was very wrong, then, in saying many of the things he did say to the Elders—and little did think such hardships and sufferings were before me, as encountered later.
When we arrived in Florence, a number of us rented a house at $20.00 a month. A Brother Parker and several others who had crossed the sea with us and the Parker family, all remained with us until the camping grounds were ready, then we bought material for our tent, made it, and moved into it. This was in May and it was still quite cold weather. Your father, not liking to be doing nothing while waiting, got some work to do for one dollar a day, from a person I think whose name was Clark. It was long, hard days work and your father only worked a short time, as he would not continue to do it for so small a sum, so of course our money was diminishing.
We stayed on the camp grounds, until the last company was formed, of which Bro [Edward] Martin was Captain. There being a great many Saints who left England after we did, and the Hand Cart operation was not decided on until after we left England.
Your father hesitated much about leaving Florence, consequently we remained on the camp grounds while four companies were formed and started West. Our money was getting lower and because of high prices the mule and wagon operation had to be abandoned, we were told by the Elders, even though your father had bought wagon and mules.
Sometimes your father would decide not to go further, then on my persuasion would decide to go to Zion, his head was full of misgivings, so against the Elders Counsel. I stayed until the last, I did not want to leave him, but poor man, I did not think he would suffer with myself as we did. I know it was not my Father’s in Heaven’s Will, for I was faithful and willing to draw a handcart. I hungered for the Gospel of Christ. I never left my home for money or material gain.
Among one of the companys that arrived in Florence, were some very dear friends who I did not expect to see, but it made my heart rejoice to see them—Brother and Sister Binder. They were good, kind friends to me always and my heart is full of gratitude to them and many other like them.
As I said before, our original plans were to cross the plain by mule team and wagon. Your father had bought a team of mules, wagon and harness but after much discussion and counsel from the Elders we were convinced (at least I was) that it was God’s will that they be sold and we buy hand carts so that more Saints could make the journey to Zion. There were many more incidents that I do not remember clearly at this time.
At last we finally bought our cart—paid our ration money from Florence to Salt Lake and started with my husband and mate and children John—Henry—Robert and Marion. My oldest son Charles did not want to come to America when we left England, so he was left with his paternal grandparents to finish his apprentiship, we feeling surely we could send for him at most in a year or two. I never saw him again. John was aged 8 yrs., Henry 6 yrs., Robert 4 yrs. and Marion 2 yrs., when we started.
On our cart was our bales of bed and other clothing, tent poles, bake kettle, three days rations, my little girl and youngest boy.
My heart was happy and I rejoiced in singing the songs of Zion, my only hope and desire was to reach the Valley where my children could be raised in true gospel.
There was one incident which I must mention here as in the excitement of our journey about to start, had for a time escaped my memory. That was our clothing in excess of a limited amount, and my treasured possessions had to be sold by auction on the Camp Grounds—as the wagons which were to bring our baggage and other belongings, the children and sick, were all loaded with merchandise, they told us, for President Young’s store in Salt Lake, but that is to his account.
My bed weighed 160 lbs., was sold for $4.00, and my dresses, sheets, boots and shoes and all our clothing but a small box was sold—not by one—but by the ones in authority. I noticed it was all bought mostly by Elders from the Valley, they knew the value of it in Utah—so did I when I got there with nothing to wear, but what was given to me and some I worked for. I remember my old and only dress split every time I stooped—I had no stockings or shoes.
At last all was in readiness for our start on the journey. Many of the people living in Florence advised us not to start so late in the season, it was now late June, saying you do not know what a journey you are facing, but nothing daunted, we obeyed the Elders and our Captains.
We started 500 strong, full of life, hope and Faith, singing the Hand Cart Song—
“Some must push,
Some must pull,
As we go marching up the hill,
Until we reach the Valley.”
The work was hard and my bed was hard but still I kept up pretty well, and I think I pulled first rate for a new beginner in shafts and harness for the Elders said, “Sister Sermon will get there, she draws well.” I think it was my faith did it mostly, but I weakened considerably before my journey was completed, but my faith was never lost—each day we measured in mileage and so I thought, journeyed like the Children of Israel—full of good feeling and song we got well out on the prairie.
After we were out a considerable distance on the plains, the Captain emptied one wagon of flour and put 100 lbs. on each handcart which we had to draw in addition to our regular load. Our children had to walk, which greatly annoyed your father and caused me to think, but still I drawed and said nothing, knowing I was the innocent cause of your father’s troubles. These incidents did him no good and caused him to say many times to me, “I told you how it would be.”
At times, as the time passed, we were very hungry, but dared not touch the flour we were hauling. Our regular allowances was 1 lb. for each adult and ¼ lb. for each child per day. I used to make a sort of a pound cake, but we could eat it all at one meal.
The way was rough and the travel slow and hard, your father’s health began to fail, and his heart almost broken, he would say, “What have you brought us to, you, yourself in shafts drawing like beasts of burden, your children hungery and almost naked, myself will soon be gone, and My God, what will become of you and the children. You will find out how true all I have told you is, when it is too late[”]
I stopped my cart at noon that day, took the flour out of my cart and threw it on the ground. I told the Captain Martin if I and my children could not eat some of it, I would not draw it any further, it is my duty to look after my husband and family first. He told me I must be obedient or we will leave you on the plains as food for the wolves.
I said, “Brother Martin, leave those two girls you have in your carriage for food to the wolves, not me.”
I was wounded and a severe wound it was, but I did not draw the flour any further, neither did a Brother Thombly draw his as did also a few others who had heard Captain Martin speak to me as he did. All those people were in our tent of the Hundred, with Captain [Peter] Mayo[h] over our ten.
Many trials came to me after this, my eldest boy had the Mountain Fever, and we had to haul him on the cart—no room in the wagons. One day we started him out before the carts started in the morning to walk with the aged and sick, but we had not gone far on our journey when we found him lying by the roadside unable to go any further. I picked him up and put him on my back and drawed my cart as well as I could, but could not manage far so I put him in the Cart which made children and my baggage, my failing husband, besides our regular load. The Captain put a young man to help me pull for a short time. My other son, Henry, at 7 years old, walked the entire 1300 miles with the exception of a few miles which some farmer, who lived between Florence and Iowa, would take up the children who had to walk and bring them along for a few miles. Some of the farmers kindly gave the children food, which I have no doubt was well received by the way it was soon being out of sight. I felt bad for my sick boy as I have no doubt most mothers did the same.
I will state here that there was not time in crossing the rivers to stop and take off shoes and stockings. We had to wade through quickly, at the selected ford corssings [crossings] so as not to hold up travel, and draw our carts at the same time. With our clothes dripping wet, letting them dry out while wearing them in the sun and dust as we wearily went on our way to the Valley—like a herd of stock, or something worse.
I was beginning to think the handcart system was not very pleasant and I felt it was the fault of the Captains, but I had yet to learn that on which I had not calculated. On some days we made good time—other days a cart or two would break down, a child would be missing, or a death, sometimes more than one would happen, and little did we think then that in a few weeks more we would witness many deaths and much suffering and sorrow.
Our food was giving out, our bodies growing weak. Cold weather chilled the body, the travel was slow and hard. The food rations were reduced to ¼ lb. per adult and 2 oz. for the children—per day. Starvation to us but not so to the Captains. By our going around camp at night where cooking pots of some of the Captains could be seen, they looked pretty full and smelled quite savory. In fact, the Captains fed well while we drank ours in porridge for I could not make bread with the small allowance of flour.
Some of the Captains of ten (I feel I must speak of their actions) had the power to “Lord it over us” all right, but it did not meet with my approval then and neither does today. One Captain [Edmund L.] El[l]sworth, considered a good man, also MacCarthy and Captain Bimher a good littleCaptain Wiley, considered not a good man. It was reported a Brother Leslie [Jesse] Haven declined to obey his command on account of the hardships of the women and children. I cannot speak of the truth of that rumor.
Captam was the Captain of our company. The Captain of the Ten was Wignal Stone, who was a butcher. We had to go out to the meetings to hear them harrangue when we should have been in our beds getting our rest, but the beast would threaten and carry out his threats and pull the tents down to make us go to prayers. I have seen that man take poor, half starved, weak men by the arm and a chip in his other hand, and drag them out of their tent to stand guard over poor cattle who could hardly stand themselves. One poor man, a tailor, used to start early to get ahead. The poor man got as far as he could and the Company would overtake him. With others he was saluted with a kick, and “why stop here”, and the poor man was left behind—he did not travel next day. People were used cruelly indeed.
I will speak of another circumstance. After poor Robert’s feet were frozen, I had to pack him to any fire I could until I got our fire started. One night I packed him to Captain Stone’s fire and set him down to get a little warm. The kind hearted Mrs. Stone lifted him outside the fire circle saying, “Go to your own fire.” I found him there crying. There were many other cruel deeds, which I cannot write about, it being too painful now. The dying and dead all around us, poor souls would sit down by the roadside, it was not often they moved again until carried into camp by handcarts or by some kind hearted person. The wagons never stopped for them. It was a miracle any of us lived.
Your father continued failing. A young woman, Caroline Merchant, assisted me with the cart for some time. I believe she later married a Bishop Herricks of Ogden. I have heard nothing of her since.
One day I got into a slough with my cart. Having the children in the cart, I could not get out. One after another passed me by and left me. Brothers and Sisters passed, neither had hardly sufficient strength to get along themselves. When the last cart came along, a Sister ran out of her cart and helped me out. Then of course, I could not catch up with the Company, so it was late and dark before I got into camp. The wolves were howling around me, but they did not come too close and I got in all right. With a good shaking and blow from the Captain for being late and giving them extra trouble, they said, but I think I was the one who had the trouble.
The weather was getting colder, food was getting less and storms more frequent. The animals drawing the wagons were getting weaker, and to lighten all loads, we stopped at what I believed was Devils Gate to cache the Church merchandise. I think it was 6 days we stayed there. We then traveled on for a few days as best we could until a heavy snow storm overtook us and further progress could not be made. The Captains called usall [us all] together and stated we must lay our bodies down and were we willing to do so for the Gospel’s sake? Many poor, starved men shouted with their remaining strength, “Aye”, but mothers could not say that, and so leave their children, and were quiet.
We went back to our tents. Food would have suited us better for we did not think all together about religion, but my faith was still in my Father in Heaven. I have never lost my faith in Him. It is as sweet today to trust in Him and my prayers are that I may always trust Him. He is a Friend that has never failed when asked. You may perhaps say, “Why not have asked Him to save you then when you needed it.” I did and he spared me through many trials to my family. I have struggled long and hard for you all and have done my best if it is small. I have done the best with what I have had to do with. Your poor father’s suffering has always pained me and I will never forget it.
At Devils Gate, John’s feet began to freeze severely. I cannot remember the names of places. It was after wading a very wide river that the freezing commenced. We had no wood, only sagebrush. I went out and cut the sage to keep a fire all night, covering you all with your feet to the fire and heads covered over, and then I went out and cut more sagebrush and kept the fire as well as I could—my clothes frozen stiff like starched clothing. Well, we got through that night.
Next day we moved on over our way again, painful and slow. Your father could hardly walk now. He would get into wagon after wagon only to be turned out. The oxen were giving out and everyone had their own friends. Friend death soon ended his sufferings but he kept up bravely to the end.
John, Robert and Marion had to ride, Henry walked. Your father would take my arm, walk a little distance, fall on his knees with weakness, then try again. And so we moved on from Devils Gate, I believe it was. I do not wish to make any false statements. If I am wrong in this, it is because of the length of time that has elapsed since then, but my memory is still pretty good.
Brother David Kimball packed us over a river as well as many more besides us. Your father blessed him.
After our food had given out, as I said, we went to our tents a great many to die. Myself, I always thought I should get through to Salt Lake and tried so hard to encourage your father, but he was starving. He had always lived good at home and could not stand the severe hardships.
Next morning there was a shout in camp. Joseph A. Young and Brother Little had come on pack mules, brought us some flour, meat and onions. I got some. I took off the fat from the meat, chopped it fine, minced the meat and onions and made dumplings. We had no salt but we had a good meal and blessed Brother Joseph and Brother Little from the depths of our hearts. Whenever I think of them since, my heart is full of gratitude.
They told us we had 70 miles to travel to get to the wagons that had been sent from Salt Lake with food and clothing, but some clothing had come to us by pack mule. Your father, after having some food and clothing, seemed to revive. He called you children to him and told you to be good children, do all you could for me, then he said to me, “God Bless you, Eliza”, that being the name he called me, “you have saved my life this time. I will try hard and hold out now and get to the wagons.” He had to go back to ¼ lb. of flour again very soon and failed fast under the short ration and hard strain on his bodily strength. I think he would not have died if we could have gotten food, but he was spared the trial. We went to bed about 3 o’clock, he put his arm around me and said, “I am done” and breathed his last.
I called Brother John Abey, and we sewed him up in a quilt with his clothes on, except his boots which I put on my feet and wore them into Salt Lake. His overcoat I put on John to keep him warm. This coat later disappeared, I think it went to Fort Bridger. Some friends later tried to get it for me but did not succeed.
In the early morning, your father was buried with eight others in one grave. I stood like a statue, bewildered—in tears—the cold chills, even now, as I write, creep over my body and it seems I can still hear and see the wolves watching for their bodies, as they would come down to camp before we were very far away. I again went into the harness and pulled the cart.
All that could, had to walk to get to the wagon. Poor Robert had to ride from this time on and most times also John, as well as Marion, and frequently Henry for a time. When we got into camp, I would clear the snow away with a tin plate, gather my wood, get my bed clothes from the wagons, I was too weak to haul much, get my allowance of flour, then pack the children to the fire, make their bed on the ground. The tent was so frozen and the ground so hard we could not set the tent up—I think it was two weeks that we were without a tent. We went to bed without supper so that we could have more for breakfast. I found it some help to toast the rawhide on the coals and chew it; it kind of kept the terrible hunger away, for I assure you, I was feeling it rather keenly now.
Today, it pierces my very soul. I had to take a portion of Robert’s feet off—portions that were decaying. I severed the caders with some scissors I carried by my side. Little did I think when I bought them in old England, they were bought for such a purpose. Every day some portion was decaying and had to be removed, until the poor boy’s feet were nearly all gone. Then John’s feet began to freeze and after a while, my own, but thank God none had to be cut as much as Robert’s.
We now commended [commenced] meeting teams and wagons from Salt Lake which rendered all the assistance they could. I remember asking one of the drivers to give me a cob of dried corn to eat. He looked so pitiful and said, “Oh, Sister, I hate to refuse you, but my horses have not enough to eat now and I do not know how we will get back to Salt Lake if the horses give out.” I said, “I ought not to have asked you, but my children ane [and] myself are so hungry.” He said, “Keep your faith up, Sister.” A loaf of bread would have given me great faith then and would have satisfied a hungry stomach as well. The bread turned out to be not too many miles away from me and when I did get it, it was the sweetest bread I ever ate.
One circumstance occurred—poor Brother [David] Blair—he had been, I believe, in the Life Guards in London and was a very tall man. Poor man, he was starving and was eating a piece of his cake; another brother, gaunt and hungry said to him, “Brother Blair, do give me a piece of your cake.” Brother Blair said, “I cannot do it, I want it all myself.” Poor fellow, he died in the night and so on, one after another, passed away; fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, families and friends, all because through some misguided scheme and speculations, which will, some day have to be atoned for. Many, many honest souls laid away in Mother Earth—for what! I do not want to judge.
The Brethern from Salt Lake continued meeting us and some times, we had a good cheering fire built for us when we got into camp.
I was terribly put for clothes to wrap my poor boys legs in—Robert’s feet were almost gone—the others, not so bad. But all needed attention. I got all I could around the camp, then I used my under—clothing until I had but two shirts [skirts] left on my body and so with such, I finished up my journey, for my wardrobe could not be replenished where I was.
Well, we finally met up with the main body of wagons that were sent out to us. We got to the wagons and some days we rode all day and got a little more food. A severe storm came up, I think it was on the Sweetwater, but I was so troubled I forgot all about the names of the places. My eldest boy, John, his feet decaying, my other boys, both of them losing their limbs, their father dead, and my own feet very painful. I thought—“I cannot die”—my first thought of death for myself.
Brother Patton, later located in Payson, took us in his wagon, blessed me for my integrity, also blessed us with tea and bread and so on with what food was so hurri[e]dly sent us by the people of Salt Lake, our lives were spared and on a bright Sunday morning, we went down Emigration Canyon, where we were met by hundreds of people in buggies, wagons and on horseback to see us.