James Thomas Belliston was born on 18 February 1819 at St. Giles in the Fields,Westminster, London, Middlesex Shire, England. He was the oldest of twelve children of John Belliston and Elizabeth Carpenter. Only six of these children lived to maturity. The family were members of the Wesleyan Church; James Thomas joined the Baptists in about 1843, after he had moved to Birmingham and had married Louisa.
James Thomas had learned the harness business from his father. But for reasons we do not know, moved away from London, to Birmingham, Warwickshire at the age of eighteen.Maybe the attraction was Louisa Miller, to whom he was married a year and a half later. Louisa was just a month younger than he. Louisa had been born in Birmingham on 24 March 1819, the daughter of Robert Miller and Louisa Wooley. Her father died when she was a baby, leaving her mother with two small children. Her mother remarried, to a man named John Proctor, and bore four other children.
According to Louisa’s granddaughter, Pearl Belliston Greenhalgh, Louisa was keeping company with a close friend of James’. The friend went away on an extended trip and left his girlfriend in the care of James Thomas, who won and married her before the friend returned home! James and Louisa were age 19 1/2 when married on 10 September 1838. According to the wedding license he was “of full age” and she “a minor.” James signed the license, while Louisa and both witnesses “signed” with their mark. These two later joined the pioneers of the American West. They were never prominent, but in the eyes of their family became “uncommon common people,” from whom have come a noble posterity.
In Birmingham, James had learned the trade of scale making and just after his marriage,opened his own business, which he operated for fifteen years from the front of the home in which they lived. The family heard the Mormon Elders and were baptized by John Clark on 4 December 1849. After six months James became president of the Priests Quorum; a year later became an Elder and President of the Sutton Branch in Birmingham.
Shortly after joining the Church, while still under thirty years of age, James wrote a remarkable letter to his former minister, a Mr. New, to explain his reasons for leaving the Baptist congregation. This letter was published in the “Millennial Star,” the LDS newspaper for England, on 15 July 1849. This letter may have been edited somewhat for publication to polish up the grammar and punctuation, which are superior to that found in his missionary journal years later. But the message is an outstanding expression of his faith in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
These people were deeply religious and took most seriously their new church membership. To them, it was worth leaving everything they had, including both families with whom they had very close ties, to journey halfway around the world to a new home in the desert.When they arrived in Zion, there was no need for scale makers. Further, James probably had never dealt with animals or had anything to do with farming. In the new land he did the best he could as a farmer and supplemented the family income with any work he could find: making adobes, mending pots and pans, cutting and hauling wood, freighting, etc. James Thomas had a reputation as an energetic man. On the frontier, one worked in any honorable way to keep body and soul together.
The Journey to Zion
The Perpetual Emigration Fund was organized by Brigham Young to assure that all worthy Saints, regardless of economic circumstances, could come to Zion. Members paid into the fund what they could afford, drew what was needed and endeavored to repay any difference as soon as possible after arrival.
James Thomas paid into this Fund sufficient to provide an outfit for the journey across the Plains. Then, after making a visit to London to bid farewell to his family there, the Bellistons packed their provisions and took the train for Liverpool, the most common point of departure for Mormon Emigrants to the United States. They left three children buried in England and took with them four living children: William Robert, age nine; Thomas, just turned seven; James Thomas Jr. just five and Louisa Maria, not yet six months old. They sailed on 15 February 1853 aboard the sailing vessel Elvira Owen, in a company of 343 presided over by Joseph W. Young. Six weeks later they arrived in New Orleans.
It is a credit to the masterful organizing efforts of presiding Church authorities of that time that so few lost their lives in the crossing. Many immigrant vessels were lost at sea, but of 333 transatlantic crossings of Mormon emigrants, not one vessel was lost. Most in that time had never traveled far from their homes and were ill prepared for such a journey. They suffered great hardship, sickness and disease. But their faith sustained them.
Church officers helped solve problems of routing, scheduling, provisions, on-shore lodging and leadership. They chartered the most reliable ships at the best possible rates and planned the most efficient routing, which usually took English voyagers from Liverpool to New Orleans, thence up the Mississippi River to Omaha-Council Bluffs and on across the Great Plains to Utah.
For many, the sea voyage was more frightening and dangerous than crossing the Plains in a covered wagon. Everyone was seasick, especially in storms. In the cramped, dark, suffocating cabins, the odors and misery were extreme. Food was never ample and never appetizing.Rations consisted of beef, pork, peas, beans, potatoes, barley, rice, prunes, coffee, tea, rye bread,herring and oil for the lamps. Space for so many humans was inadequate. Beds were uncomfortable. Germs of all kinds thrived in the close quarters. It was a test for the hardiest.But it was often fatal for the infirm and for children, who were buried at sea encased in a canvas shroud, after a simple service.
The Saints on the Elvira Owen landed at New Orleans on 31 March 1853 and departed as soon as possible up the Mississippi River. This journey too was difficult. River paddle wheelers made about six miles per hour against the river current. Fire, collision and exploding boilers were dangerous and threatening. In the forty years between 1810 and 1850, more than 4,000 people lost their lives in steamboat disasters. But the Bellistons apparently made it to Keokuk without serious incident. They were among a sizable group who disembarked at Keokuk, Iowa,across the river from Nauvoo. Here they acquired the ox team, covered wagon and other supplies arranged through the Perpetual Emigration Fund.
For this one year the staging point for LDS immigrants was in this new city, where the pioneers found work building city streets and other improvements while awaiting assignment to a company for the journey across the Great Plains. Their company was to follow the trail of the Nauvoo refugees across Iowa to Council Bluffs, and from there to the Valley.
Across the Great Plains
The journey across the Great Plains of America was not uneventful. It is almost certain James Thomas had never driven an ox team and that the family had never ridden in a covered wagon or even camped outdoors in primitive country. As he shouted “giddup” and learned “gee”and “haw” on the first day’s journey, everyone on board was well outside their comfort zone. They were very soon in Indian country where there were often serious encounters. They were surrounded by new friends sharing their same situation, but were troubled by an unsympathetic Captain.
Before many days, an incident occurred which tells a lot about James’ attitude toward draft animals. His granddaughter, Pearl Allen Read, tells of the company coming to a bog of mud in the trail which caused many wagons to get stuck. As each team came to the bog, the Captain standing there would join the drivers in whipping the animals to get them through.When it was his turn, James forbade the Captain. “These are my animals and no whip is to be used on them.” Although James’ team pulled through the bog successfully, the Captain was angry and thereafter continued to find fault with this independent member of his company. James Thomas’ lifelong insistence that his animals be treated well was admired by those who knew him and was learned and perpetuated by his children throughout their lives.
Not much later another, more serious incident occurred with the Captain. He had been complaining that the Bellistons were overloaded. To satisfy him, a valuable set of tools was sold for $5.00 and Grandma’s cooking stove was discarded. Shortly after, their wagon was being pulled by two teams of oxen, with two dairy cows helping out. One of the old, seasoned oxen got stuck in a mud hole during the noon hour and could not be rescued. As no replacement could be found, its mate was sold for $20.00, and the company moved on without the Belliston family.
In telling this story, Thomas treats the incident matter-of-factly, without recrimination toward the Captain. But for this family of city-dwellers to find themselves all alone, helpless and friendless in the middle of the Indian-infested wilderness must have been traumatic.
From the journal of Thomas, the son of James Thomas:
“A few days later, Brother Cyrus H. Wheelock came along with his train. When he saw father he asked him what he was doing there. After a little explanation, he exclaimed, ‘If Brother Wheelock gets to the Valley, Brother Belliston shall if he wants to go.’ We appreciated his kindness, and hitched up the oxen (blackones named Peter and Michael) and the cows (Prim and Rose). We were soon on our journey again.”
It is worth noting that this same Cyrus H. Wheelock, in the terrible Martin/Willey Handcart Company ordeal of 1857, distinguished himself as one of the most valiant of the rescuers. He was one of the returning missionaries from England who discovered the plight of those companies. When Brigham Young called for rescuers, Cyrus had just arrived and met his family after years away. But he left immediately with a wagon load of supplies. As advance scouts, he and Joseph Young were first to meet the desperate companies, and Cyrus was among the last to stay with the survivors as they made their agonized way into the Salt Lake Valley.
The company with the Bellistons reached the Salt Lake Valley on 6 October 1853, just under eight months from their departure from England. No modern city welcomed them. The Pioneers had arrived only six years before and the desert was still waiting to blossom. They had been a long time without the comforts of a home. They were greeted by friends from England,the William Reeves family, and moved in with them. When the Reeves moved, they continued to occupy the home which belonged to Orin Woodbury until they were able to build their own small adobe home at 268 West 6th South in Salt Lake City. James Thomas had worked in the adobe yard and sold adobes and had also made enough for his own home. He traded work for other supplies and finally traded his best suit of clothes for enough lumber to finish the house.
Sadness came to the family while they lived in the Woodbury house. William Robert died soon after his tenth birthday, just three months after their arrival in the Valley. Death struck again shortly after they moved into their own home, taking their second daughter, little two year old Louisa Maria, who had been named for her mother, Louisa. This left only two of their seven children living, until the birth in 1855 of Emily. Later, in a dugout in Payson, where the family had fled from Johnston’s Army, Joseph Ephraim was born. Sarah, their last child, was born in Nephi in 1864. Although it was not unusual in their time to lose children to untimely deaths,these deaths brought with them great sadness.
It is likely the family would have continued to live on their property in Salt Lake City,had it not been for Johnston’s Army. When this large militia approached the Valley in 1857 to put down a phantom “rebellion” of the Mormons, Brigham Young dug in his heels and sent his own militia out into Echo Canyon to prevent their entry. James Thomas joined this force of 1200 men, which successfully stalled Johnson’s advance. But in May of 1848, when Johnston’s Army entered the Valley, the Bellistons and many others left their homes and moved away from the city. Later James sold that house, which had cost about $400, for a mere $100.
They moved to Payson, piled all their worldly belongings on the ground under the wagon cover, secured a small lot and proceeded to dig a hole in the hillside, surround it with homemade adobes and cover it with a sod roof. In this makeshift home with a dirt floor, Joseph Ephraim was born a few weeks later. One year later, James Thomas sold the dugout for a pig valued at$20 (which was promptly butchered for meat), paid Edward Jones $80 for a lot at 225 South First East in Nephi and built another home, where he and Louisa lived until their deaths.
Back to England
At age 56, twenty-two years after leaving England, James Thomas returned as a missionary for eighteen months. In addition to his proselytizing labors, he enjoyed locating and visiting with every relative of his or of Louisa’s whom he could find. These good folk often gave him lodging, money for his work and gifts for his family at home. He always explained his purpose in coming to England and preached to them as best he could. However, we have no documented record of any relative being baptized as a result. He located his Aunt Marriah; with difficulty they recognized each other. He had many visits with his sister Marriah, with whom he developed a close bond. Edith Beckstead, who did much research, has information that his sister, Marriah, later came to Utah, married a man named Evans and did temple work for her parents in the Logan Temple in 1886.
It is of passing interest that one of James’ close associates, who served as district president in his area, was Elder William H. Maughan, age 41, the third son of Peter Maughan.This Peter Maughan was the great-grandfather of Elsie Maughan Belliston, who married Albert Belliston, a grandson of James Thomas Belliston.
Evidently, the teaching style of Elder Belliston was very direct and forthright. Though his journal speaks of his effort to avoid any offense, he testified with courage and seldom backed down when confronted. His missionary journal is now housed in the Brigham Young University library. Family members have copies. The following entries from his journal will illustrate:
“Talked to her daughter, Agnes, who was opposed to us and belonged to the Methodists. Talked until 1:00 (a.m.) and prophesied that she would become a Latter-day Saint.”
“When passing a chapel I was impressed to go in and did so, and prayed that the preacher might be confused. . . . He was so confused he stopped his talk much earlier than usual and forgot the singing, but closed with prayer. . . . I got in conversation with the leader and requested the privilege to preach in the chapel at night, but of course was denied. . . . We talked about 45 minutes, having quite a number of the congregation listening. . . . I bore testimony to the truth of the Gospel.”
“Made arrangements for a meeting at night. When the time came I saw two men come in, one of which I had seen in a vision the night before. I felt that I should need great wisdom in what I said that night. . . . I had told my dream to Sister Cartwright. One of them said to her, You know what we have come for. . . .I opened the meeting with prayer and bound every spirit that was not of God. . . . I got up freely, full of the Spirit of God and had great freedom of speech. One of the men I saw in my dream held down his head all the time and neither of them had power to speak, although they had come on purpose to break up the meeting.At the end of the meeting they thanked me and left.”
“I sat with [the old gent and his daughter] 3 1/2 hours, explaining the word of God to them, the old gent shedding tears many times, saying he felt to be a great sinner and had need of a Saviour. . . . I told him I sat there as Peter and Paul,and wanted to say, as they said, Arise, be baptized and wash away your sins. . . .He was 35 minutes late and left with great reluctance. I then had another talk with his daughter Marriah and believe she would have demanded baptism, but just at that time another sister came in filled with the spirit of the Evil One, and began to talk about President Young, saying he ought to be shot. . . . I rebuked the sister in strong terms and told her even if she thought so it was not wise to say so, as the Bible tells us not to speak against the Lord’s Anointed. . . . I blessed [Marriah] in the name of the Lord, praying for the Spirit of God to be with her. . . .I left them, bearing a faithful testimony to the truth and returned home, feeling that truly the Spirit of God had been abundantly on us that day and that we had done a good work. Then had prayer and retired.”
James Thomas evidently was a good speaker. At a meeting where he had baptized two sisters he “arose, full of the Spirit and spoke with great freedom for fifty-five minutes. At the close many said they could have sat for another hour. . . .”
Friday, 10 September 1875: “My wedding day thirty-seven years. Went to get measured for a pair of pants for which the Conference was to pay for them. Went and got my shoes mended, which I paid one shilling for.”
So far as we know, Louisa never kept a journal and little secondary information about her is available. She was a quiet woman, a devoted wife. Her courage speaks for itself, as a Pioneer mother who journeyed with her husband, without complaint, from her home in England to an inhospitable new land, and made the best of it. She was a pretty lady. Grandchildren remembered her lovely hair in curls. She was a kindly person with a keen wit, was respected as a Relief Society teacher for twenty-three years. For the last twenty years of her life she was blind,or nearly so, but patiently endured this as she had all previous trials. To the end of her life, she insisted on doing her own housework, sometimes crawling around the floor to be sure everything was clean. She continued to attend church faithfully each Sunday. She made Christmastime unique with her traditional Christmas dinner for the extended family and her famous plum pudding, which continued to supply a daily treat for members of the family for many days after the holiday.
Louisa’s Plumb Pudding
- 1 lb. raisins 1/2 cup of molasses
- 1 lb. currants 2 cups of bread crumbs
- 2 cups of suet 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 1 cup of milk 1 tsp. nutmeg
- 4 eggs 2 tsp. baking powder
- 3 cups of sugar 4 cups of flour
- Mix ingredients well; tie in a cloth and boil, No time limit.
Louisa died on 5 October 1894 and James Thomas died just four months later on 10 February 1895. The couple had been happily married for fifty-six years and became the progenitors of a noble posterity who honor them as their Pioneer forebears.