The Life of ABIGAIL SCHAEFFER WOOLSEY
As Told by Sarah Woolsey Hickerson (her daughter)
by Wilford W. Whitaker
The End of the Road
Wet and cold, the little group huddled closer together, seeking warmth from one another. Their somber attitude reflected the grey and lowering skies, pregnant with snow, while spits of snow and hail fitfully blew across them. They were miserable and shivering in the rarefied atmosphere of the high Rocky Mountains. It was early in September, 1848. They were only one day’s journey from South Pass.
They had yet to traverse up “Rocky Ridge”, where they would literally be on “top of the world”. But now they were on the headwaters of the Sweetwater River, having waded across that freezing stream for the last time, at the “Ninth” or “Last” crossing of the Sweetwater.
Headwaters of the Sweetwater River
They were following in the footsteps of their oldest brother Thomas Woolsey and Brigham Young and the Pioneers and the later companies of 1847, trying to make it to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, before winter struck them here on their last leg before crossing South Pass. But they had had to stop here, in this wind-swept prairie of bunch grass and a few stunted trees. At least there was wood for fires and good feed for the stock.
John D. Lee had been ill with a heavy fever, probably the ‘rocky mountain fever’ and he was just starting to mend when Abigail, “Momma”, came down with that same “rocky mountain fever”, and soon went into a coma.
Lee called for a stop here on the Sweetwater, where her family gathered around her and her daughters desperately tried to care for her. But to no avail. Abigail opened her eyes, looked lovingly on her worried, sad family and then died around midnight on the third of September 1848.
And now her family and a few friends were huddled near the banks of that little stream, where ice had formed the night before, and that morning, they had to break the ice in the water buckets and basins before they could splash some of the freezing water onto their faces. Although it was almost 3:00 o’clock, p.m., it was still cold and miserable. They were here to pay their last respects to their mother and grandmother, age 62.
Camp of Isereal. Sund., Sep 3, 1848. Last crossing S. water. Extremely cold & disagreeable. About midnight Abigail Lee yielded up the Ghost, after a strugle of about 48 hours.
Leading the group was John D. Lee, age 36, indomitable, resolute and implacable, though his face was still shrunken from the effects of that debilitating ‘rocky mountain fever’, which, by the way, had, the previous year, also laid up Brigham Young. Lee scrounged up an old wagon box and had carefully torn it apart, saving the metal and nails, and then fashioned a crude coffin for Abigail, one of his several plural wives, though he claimed that he had married her in name only, not as man and wife, but only to give her protection on their journey across the plains. Like the Israelites of old, they traveled in their companies of TENS and FIFTIES and HUNDREDS. John D. Lee had traveled as one of the fifty-seven wagons in the third company under William G. Perkins. , although Lee had trouble finding fifty persons who were willing to travel with him.
Standing next to John D. Lee was his first wife, Agatha Ann Woolsey, daughter of Abigail, who was “the wife of my youth”, age 34. Lee always spelled her name “Aggatha Ann”. In great sorrow, she had already buried four children, so Aggatha was acquainted with that awful specter Death.
Agatha Ann remembered her mother’s quiet, kind acceptance of her head-strong husband and how her mother had warmly responded when they first told her about the Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints. Agatha remembered their jubilant feelings when they left Illinois and journeyed to Far West, Missouri, to gather with the Saints. Here they met the Prophet Joseph Smith, who John D. Lee thought “. . . carried an air of majesty that made him seem taller than his six feet.” It was here at Far West, on the following Sunday, 17 June 1838, that Lee and Agatha were baptized.
Agatha trembled when she thought of the Missouri Mobs who had descended upon them, burning crops and barns and houses and “pillaged towns, killing animals for sport, rummaging houses, even violating women and girls.” Agatha still shivered, and not just from the cold, when she thought of the time, after moving to Adam-ondi-Ahmen, she had believed Lee had been killed by the mob, her home had been burned and she and her little Sarah Jane were crouching in one corner of the burned out house where she had put some boards and a piece of canvas for shelter. She had started a small campfire in the ruined house, and didn’t know what to do, so she put herself and daughter into the hands of the Lord.
“Lee rode up to the place before she knew he was coming. Her joy at seeing him was so great that she could only weep and cling to him.”
She remembered how Lee had packed what few belongings they had left and returned his family to Vandalia, less than a year after leaving there. Then, hearing of the new city being built on the Mississippi, Lee and Agatha removed their family to Nauvoo, Illinois, in April 1840. Still reminiscing, Agatha remembered how John D. Lee had returned from his first mission to Jackson County, Tennessee, in October 1839, and he had preached “so effectively to his wife’s people that he was able to baptize the whole family, except the father.”
With all that behind her, now she was going to bury her “Momma” – who had nursed her through several sicknesses and cared for her through several pregnancies, who had accepted the Gospel with her. Her mother – upon whom she had depended so much, and had been eagerly looking forward to entering the Great Salt Lake Valley with the Saints. Her mother – who had kept the family together after the death of their father Joseph Woolsey in 1839, back in Fayette County, Illinois. Her mother – who heart and soul had encouraged her family to migrate west with the struggling band of Mormons. Her mother – who would not see the Valley.
Now she was going to be laid here in a hard, cold grave in this forbidding and lonely land, far from her family and the Church, far from anywhere.
Gathered around Aggatha Ann were her children:
- Sarah Jane Lee, age 10, who had gone through the terrible experiences in Missouri with her.
- John Alma Lee, age 8, born in Nauvoo, Illinois.
- Mary Adeline Lee, age 6, born in Nauvoo, Illinois.
- Joseph Hyrum Lee, age 4, clinging to his mother’s leg and wondering why they had to stand out here in this freezing cold, and why Grandma was put in that old box.
Standing on the other side of John D. Lee was Rachel Andora Woolsey, age 23, a younger daughter of Abigail Schaeffer and Joseph Woolsey, who was about six months pregnant with her first child, who would be born Dec 1848, in Big Cottonwood, Utah, and named Elizabeth Abigail. [Elizabeth for Lee’s sister and Abigail for her mother Woolsey.]
Rachel remembered the good times she had at home and the young men who had come “calling”. She particularly remembered the fervent conversations she had with her mother concerning the Mormon Church and their doctrine of Plural Wives. She had a particularly hard time coming to grips with that doctrine, but then, after deliberation and prayer, and upon her mother’s advice, she accepted Lee’s offer of marriage.
She had been “sealed” to John D. Lee as his sixth wife, in Nauvoo, Illinois, on 3 May 1845, the same time as her mother was “sealed” to Lee as wife number five. Rachel was one of the most faithful of Lee’s wives, attending to him in his extreme need while he was incarcerated in the Utah Territorial Prison and up until he was shot by the government for his participation in the Mountain Meadow Massacre.
Rachel thought of her mother, remembering the good times they had had together, as the Woolseys were “a large, sociable group”, and how Abigail had welcomed the promising young man, John D. Lee, into their family of six girls and six boys. She remembered the brief courtship of Lee and her older sister Agatha Ann and their sumptuous wedding party fifteen years ago, and how Agatha Ann had acted with enthusiasm when Lee related his experience with the Mormon missionaries to her and how quickly they had joined the Mormon Church, firing the Woolseys with their eager new way of life. And now Momma was no longer with them. Would they be able to carry on?
Next to Rachel was her older sister, Sarah Woolsey Hickerson, age 28, small, but wirey and tough. Sarah had buried two children and was now about two months pregnant. Sarah remembered her mother and how she had been such a comfort when those two children had died. She remembered the good advice her mother gave her and her help and willingness to help out, in the garden, in the orchard, when canning, or soap making and the thousand and one chores that one always had on the farm. Oh, how she would miss her Momma.
Would they be able to live up to her mother’s expectation and “endure to the end” as Momma had done? Next to Sarah was her husband George Washington Hickerson, age 35, a veteran of the Illinois Black Hawk War, in which Abraham Lincoln also participated. ‘Wash’ had given up a prosperous farm and his status as a Justice of the Peace in Vandalia, Fayette County, Illinois, to join the Mormon Church and move to Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois. Sarah remembered the hard struggle that “Wash” had before he decided to join the Church. Would they regret that decision? What lay in the future for them?
Huddled in front of them were their children:
- Isaac Woolsey Hickerson, age 8
- Susannah Woolsey Hickerson, age 6
- George Washington Hickerson, Jr., age 1
Standing a little apart from the rest of the group was Abigail’s youngest son William Andrew Woolsey (the first), age 15. The family had nearly come to blows over William when his older brother James Hopkins Woolsey insisted that their mother Abigail remain in Illinois with James and threatened to take William Andrew away from her, to try to force her to remain, and not to travel west.
With his brother-in-law, George Washington Hickerson, he went to California, in 1849, “to see the elephant”, where they dug for gold without much success, and had better luck raising and selling vegetables. He was single until 1857 when he married a California girl Emily Brazier.
Now the oldest of the Woolsey family and the patriarch of the family, standing behind the Woolsey girls, was Jacob C. Woolsey, Joseph’s younger brother, age 67, born in Washington County, Virginia, to Richard Woolsey and Nancy Plumbstead. Jacob C. Woolsey is an elusive character, may have been married three or four times and certainly left a large posterity, but has been most difficult to trace.
The brother-in-law of Abigail, he dug her grave, which was not an easy thing to do, having to use a pick and shovel, to make any progress through the stubborn shale and caleche, especially for a 67 year old man. With him was his wife Elizabeth, age 38 (she may have been his third wife) and their children:
- Melinda Woolsey, age 5
- William Woolsey, age 1
Some, if not most, of the wagon trains left a fairly complete roster of the people who traveled in them, and although John D. Lee had been specifically chosen by Brigham Young to keep a roster of this train, and had even told Brigham Young that the roster had been made, no list has been found, that purports to name the members of these companies. So it is not surprising that we don’t know for certain who these members were.
Abigail’s two older sons, Thomas Woolsey (a member of the Mormon Battalion and also a Pioneer into the Valley of the Great Salt Lake in 1847, went back to Pottawattamie County, Iowa) in the fall of 1847 and farmed the ‘Summer Farm with his brother Richard Woolsey remained there until 1852, when they brought their large families and wives, with Lavinia Patterson Woolsey [wife of James Hopkins Woolsey] to Utah Territory.
There were two others sons of Abigail who were in Utah before 1850, and most likely, came with the wagon train in 1848.
Hyrum Woolsey, age about 42, was in Utah before 1850. There has been some controversy concerning him because he has become mixed up with other members of the family, in the early Church records. With him were his wife Rachel Mitchel, age about 41, and their son:
Joseph Hyrum Woolsey age 22, with his wife Lucinda Jameson, age 22.
James Hopkins Woolsey, age 26, had left his wife Lavinia Patterson and family with his two older brothers back in Pottawattamie County, Iowa. This family would come out with the two older brothers in 1852. But James Hopkins Woolsey had left with another woman, and had, probably, come in the train in 1848, to Utah and then headed for California. He would later come back to Utah and try to make up with his first wife but Lavinia would have none of him.
John D. Lee, the patriarch of his family, and widower of Abigail, would have presided over this small congregation of Saints and family. He would have made some appropriate remarks and perhaps had called on a family member to speak, and then dedicated the grave. Consigning her body to the care of the Lord, and filling in the dirt and stones over her coffin, family members would have brought stones from the surrounding area to heap on top of her grave, to keep the animals out and protect this sacred site.
Her lonely grave, presided over by a stone with her name and date of her death engraven on it, is located in the eastern Wind River Range, of Wyoming, on the headwaters of the Sweet Water River, about 10 rods North of the Uper Road at the foot of the hill and about 5 rods south E. of the river bank.
Abigail had two other children who joined the Mormon Church and came west in 1852. They were the oldest son Thomas Woolsey [as stated above], who joined the Mormon Battalion, started marching with them, then was detailed to Pueblo, Colorado. He and John Tippetts were then commissioned to travel back to Winter Quarters, Nebraska Territory and then he came west with the Pioneer Company and Brigham Young, arriving in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake in July 1847. He then went back across the plains and spent the next four years working on the “Summer Farm” and preparing to bring his families to Salt Lake. [See Thomas Woolsey on the Woolsey Website.]
His younger brother Richard Woolsey remained in Pottawatamie County, Iowa, working on the ‘Summer Farm’, where they chiefly raised corn for the Saints coming later, and then the two brothers headed west in 1852, accompanied by their growing families and also by Lavinia Patterson Woolsey and her children, wife of the brother James Hopkins Woolsey, who had left them to wander to Utah and California.
There were four children of Abigail and Joseph who remained in the Mid-west. They were:
- John Woolsey, a Mexican War Veteran, married the widow of George King, Jane Haley. After John’s early death, she received his pension and remained in Fayette County, Illinois and married, as her third husband, James Tucker. This researcher has found no record of him as a member of the Mormon Church. He probably did not join the Church.
- Mary Woolsey married Thomas Whitson in Jackson County, Indiana, and remained there, so it is highly unlikely that she joined the Church. No record has been found for her as a member of the Church.
- Nancy Woolsey married Thomas A. Gateway in Fayette County, Illinois and remained there. It is quite likely that she, too, did not join the Church, as no record for her has been found.
- Elizabeth Woolsey married John B. Henninger of Fayette County, Illinois and remained there. No record of her joining the Church has been found.
All of these children had fairly large families and descendants are still living there today.
- A Mormon chronicle: the Diaries of John D. Lee, 1848-1876 edited and annotated by Robert Glass Cleland and Juanita Brooks (1955), 1:30-79.
- Alexander Neibaur journal, 1841 February-1862 April, 26-38.
- Partial diary of Hannah B. Morley found in Morley family histories, undated.
- The First Fifty Years of Relief Society:Key Documents in Latter-day- Saint Women’s History, document 1.2.