Many of the early pioneers who came to the Inter-Mountain West in the mid-1800s were individuals who drew little attention from later writers. Some of them, such as Elizabeth Gaskell, lived obscure, although interesting lives. She was born September 30, 1817 in Pennybridge, Lancashire, England and her parents were William and Hannah (Ann) Gaskell.
Elizabeth came to Utah in the John A. Hunt wagon company that arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in early December 1856. Only her age and where she came from, England, are recorded in the company’s journal. Most of her companions were converts from the United Kingdom or Scandinavia. Elizabeth was the only Gaskell in the group. In two places in the journal Elizabeth’s name is listed immediately after Ruth Billington’s, suggesting they traveled together. Ruth, reportedly 64 at the time, was apparently a single woman of some means since she purchased a wagon and two spans of oxen for the trip. In contrast, Elizabeth listed no assets. She may have worked for Ruth, or at least was her traveling companion. The fact that no other member of the company had the surname of Billington, along with Ruth’s age, suggest she may have required assistance in making the arduous trip from England to the Rocky Mountains.
Mature, single women who were early converts and emigrants to Utah have received short shrift in Latter-day Saint History. It was extraordinary for two single women to accept a new religion in England and then depart for the Rocky Mountains without the help of relatives at a time in their lives when security, not adventure, should have been of prime concern. Their journey was far more arduous and dangerous than they possibly could have anticipated. Death exacted a heavy toll on the late immigrants to Salt Lake Valley in 1856, primarily because so many of them started the journey too late in the year with too few supplies. Although the two ill-fated handcart companies of 1856 suffered most of the deaths, several of the wagon companies that were bringing up the rear, including the one in which Elizabeth traveled, were also caught in the early winter storms that swept the barren highlands of Wyoming in October and November.
Elizabeth and Ruth sailed to the U.S. on the Thornton that left Liverpool on May 4, 1856 and later docked in New York City. It was one of eight ships in 1856 that carried 4,400 Latter-day Saint converts to the U.S. There were 764 passengers on the Thornton with about two-thirds of them drawing on the Perpetual Emigration Fund for their expenses. Because of the large number of converts who wished to migrate to the U.S., and the difficulties in contracting shipping to accommodate them, the Thornton and several other ships carrying converts were a couple of months behind schedule in arriving in New York. The unexpectedly large number of immigrants who flooded into Iowa City in mid-1856 – the end of the railroad west at the time – overwhelmed the arrangements that had been made for their transport to the Great Basin. Church leaders had earlier asked those using Perpetual Emigration Funds to economize on expenses by pulling handcarts from Iowa to the Great Basin, but few of these carts had been built by the time the immigrants arrived in Iowa City. There was a long delay involved in building additional handcarts and assembling supplies for the trip west.
Well behind schedule the Willie Handcart group started west, followed a few days later by the Martin Company. These two handcart groups were trailed by two wagon trains, Hodgett’s and Hunt’s, comprised of some converts who could afford wagons and draft animals and also by teamsters who were transporting merchandise from the east to Salt Lake City. Elizabeth and Ruth were in the John A. Hunt Company with about 50 wagons that was organized on July 13, 1856 but didn’t leave for several weeks. The distance to Salt Lake was about 1200 miles, a distance that can now be comfortably covered in two days in a modern car. In the 1850s it was a formidable journey that, under the best of circumstances and with seasoned teamsters took three months or more to complete. Finding forage along the way for draft animals, along with finding firewood were often major problems for travelers, late in the year.
Elizabeth’s companions had no frontier experience, and their late arrival in Iowa caused them to start their journey several months after the prime time for trekking west. In contrast to much of the romanticism attached to the American West in England, Elizabeth and her companions faced a difficult and deadly journey. Her group did not leave Iowa City until about August 1, 1856 and proceeded slowly for several weeks. During this time they undoubtedly learned what gee and haw meant. They took nearly a month to travel the relatively short distance to Florence, Nebraska, where they took on provisions and received encouragement from church leaders. A reason for their slow movements was to slow their progress until the two handcart companies they were to accompany caught up with them.
A record of the group’s travel, along with life stories by members of the wagon train, describe the increasing hardships that Elizabeth and her companions endured as they moved up the Platt River across Nebraska and into Wyoming. This included brief stops for births, reports of Indian attacks on other travelers, various difficult river crossings, wagon wheels falling off, wagons turning over, and the first death on September 21. Buffalo meat provided only occasional relief from the tedium of dry foods. Most of their calories came from an initial ration of a pound a day of flour. A very cold morning on September 18th found them still in western Nebraska – not half way – and signaled the arrival of an early winter, although the group probably missed the full import of this grim signal at the time.
Every few days someone died, animals wandered off and oxen expired. They occasionally passed eastbound groups. Elizabeth and others must have been crestfallen when members of one group heading east told them that the people in Utah were poverty stricken. On several occasions returning church missionaries and leaders passed them on their way to Salt Lake and urged the trekkers to hurry. Elizabeth’s wagon train finally pulled into Ft. Laramie in eastern Wyoming on October 9th with the most difficult part of the journey still ahead. A couple of days after leaving the fort several families in the group returned to Ft. Laramie because of wagon problems, shortages of provisions, weather, or exhaustion.
A winter storm hit them about the time they made the last crossing of the North Platt River where modern day Casper is located. The Martin Handcart Company and the accompanying wagon trains hunkered down near Red Butte a few miles west of the crossing to wait out the storm. Hypothermia, starvation, and exhaustion began to take their deadly toll, especially among the handcart group. When Elizabeth’s wagon train reached Devil’s Gate and Independence Rock hundreds of freezing and starving Latter-day Saints were huddled there. Here the two wagon trains merged and much of the merchandise in the wagons was stored in several cabins. The weakest of the handcart people were loaded into the wagons, and the remainder of the Martin Handcart Company sought shelter from a winter blizzard in a nearby cove (Cristy, Jones). Unbeknownst to Elizabeth a future wife of her future husband, Arza Adams, was enduring the same blizzard a hundred miles ahead with the Willie group. Her name was Catherine Cunningham, my great-grandmother.
Still far from crossing over South Pass, Elizabeth’s group awoke on October 22nd to find the ground covered with eight inches of snow and many of their cattle lost in the storm. The increasingly cryptic entries in the camp’s journal reflect the declining energy of the group as they struggled up the Sweetwater River to South Pass. Shortly before going over the pass Elizabeth’s group passed the site where the Willie Handcart Company had earlier endured their most desperate days.
The camp journalist recorded little about the last month of their travel. He was undoubtedly too busy trying to keep from freezing to record at night their travails. Elizabeth’s group finally staggered into Ft. Bridger on December 4th and the last members of the combined wagon train did not arrive in Salt Lake Valley until December 15th, many of them with frozen toes or fingers that later required amputation. Survivors of the Willie and Martin Handcart companies, along with those in the combined wagon train, were squeezed into cramped quarter with earlier settlers or relatives until they found other shelter.
Elizabeth and Ruth likely moved to American Fork, then called Lake City, in 1857. Not long after moving to Lake City Elizabeth was married to Arza Adams who was the first settler in the community. On August 10, 1857 Arza recorded in his journal about leaving American Fork for Fort Supply in Wyoming, a journey that took him seven days. In route he stopped in Salt Lake City and was sealed in the Endowment House to his fifth and last wife, Elizabeth, on August 11th. Aside from the brief mention of the sealing in his journal, her name is not mentioned again in the journal or in family tradition. The sealing appears to have been more a “spiritual adoption” than a regular marriage. Elizabeth likely continued to live with or near Ruth Billington who was listed as being blind in the 1860 Census.
Elizabeth continued to live in Lake City with or near Ruth. Sometime prior to March 1862 she married John Hiott in a civil ceremony. Two years later she was sealed to John in the Salt Lake Endowment House. Records indicate that John was sealed to his deceased first wife, Kataline Harriet Jones, on March 19, 1864. At the same time John was also sealed to Elizabeth. Curiously, no records exist of Elizabeth’s sealing to Arza being annulled. John had worked for Arza Adams and may have boarded with Elizabeth and Ruth before marrying Elizabeth.
Leonard Harrington, Elizabeth’s bishop in American Fork, provides one of the few recorded insights into her character. He remarks that Elizabeth … “has some little property, but she is one of the smart kind and knows how to manage better than anyone else.”
Elizabeth and Ruth disappear from records in the mid-1860s. John was called on a mission to settle on the Muddy River in southern Nevada in 1865. Skimpy records of that mission show John arrived in what was then St. Joseph with his family in June 1865. Since John had no other known family member in the U.S., Elizabeth and Ruth must have comprised his family in St. Joseph. What happened to these two women after this is a mystery. They are not recorded as being buried in American Fork, in St. George, or in the Muddy River communities. Neither do their names appear on any existing church records. John married a widow from St. George in 1870, suggesting that Elizabeth and Ruth sought greener pastures earlier, possibly in California or in one of the mining communities in Nevada or Utah.
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