CUNNINGHAM, Elizabeth: True Grit

After years of widowhood and a life of hardship, Elizabeth Nicholson Cunningham died on March 19, 1890 in American Fork, Utah. Except for her friends and relatives, her passing wasn’t noteworthy at the time. From an historical perspective, however, she lived a remarkable life and exhibited substantial faith and grit. She and her family lived poor in Scotland and then nearly lost their lives in the handcart disaster of 1856. The clearest insight into Elizabeth’s personality is given in a cryptic statement by her son George in his autobiography: “My father was a miner by trade and being a man of weak constitution was badly adapted for such a laborious occupation. Consequently, this threw the management of affairs nearly entirely upon my mother, and to speak of her in [a] phrase, I cannot do it better than by saying she was a rustler in the greatest sense of the word.” Elizabeth was the foundation and matriarch of the family. She was the force that carried the Cunningham family from Scotland to Utah.


Elizabeth’s father, Alexander Nicholson, was born in Dirleton, Scotland, located on the south shore of the Firth of Forth, about 15 miles northeast of Edinburgh. He may have moved to Elizabeth’s birthplace, Dysart, Scotland to work in the nearby coal mines. There he met his future wife Elizabeth Agnes Allen. The couple may have had as many as 8 children, Including Elizabeth Agnes on 10 December 1807 and Margaret on 10 December 1811. To assist with family expenses, the two girls and their mother worked long hours in the local textile mills, possibly weaving linen.

In about 1825 Elizabeth married John Nicol and they had a daughter, Agnes, who was born in Sinclairtown on 18 January 1827. Sometime later John died. Elizabeth, then a single mother, moved back to Dysart with her family and earned a living working in the textile mills.

Elizabeth began a new chapter in her life when she married James Cunningham on 15 February 1834. James’ family had lived in Dysart for several generations, with the men working in the coal industry. Over the next dozen years Elizabeth had seven more children, two of whom died young.

The list of members of the LDS branch in Dysart in the mid-1850s shows that most of the males who were seven years or older worked in the coal mines. There are large coal deposits immediately west and north of Dysart and digging for coal in Scotland goes back to Roman times. During the time James and his sons Robert and George worked the mines, there were about 5 thousand coal miners in Fife, the county where Dysart is located. From about 1600 to almost 1800 “colliers” in Scotland were slaves in every sense of the word. They could not change employment without mine owners’ permission, the future labor of many children was sold to mine owners through “arling,” and large numbers of women and children worked without pay to help men fulfill their mining quotas.

After this slavery was outlawed in 1799, colliers occupied about the same social class as the blacks in the U.S. after emancipation. Although this stigma had faded a bit by the time James and his two sons labored in coal mines, the black coal dust on their hands and faces was still more than a cleanliness problem. Because of the low wages and wretched working conditions in the industry, workers periodically attempted to organize and to strike.

The typical miner’s wage for a week was 18 shillings during the 1850s, which involved working 12 hours or more per day for at least 5 days. In US currency at the time, these wages amounted to about $1 a day for backbreaking work. The small wages paid to sons George and Robert plus the earnings of Elizabeth and her daughters may have boosted the family’s income to the equivalent of a modest $2 per working day.

Elizabeth’s son, George, mentions he began working in the mines at the age of seven and his older brother Robert probably did likewise. George goes on to say he labored in the mines for six years, often working 12 to 14 hours a day. Sometime the air was so foul where he worked that a lamp would not burn. Because boys were pressed into working in the mines at such young ages, they had limited opportunities for formal education. George mentions he attended school occasionally from age five to seven. After that, his schooling likely was limited to a few evening and Sunday classes. With all of the effort the family members expended to earn a living, it is unlikely there was a lot of energy left after work to sit around the home fire studying.

In late 1855 and early 1856 there was a major attempt to organize coal miners into unions, especially after the mine owners unilaterally reduced miners’ wages by 20 percent. A subsequent strike by most Scottish miners lasted for several months in the first half of 1856 before it collapsed and miners returned to work for lower wages. This turmoil likely stimulated the Cunningham’s decision to leave Scotland for America in the first half of 1856.

Although less important than coal mining, various types of textile manufacturing in and around Dysart were an important source of income, especially for women and girls. Elizabeth and her oldest daughters, Agnes and Catherine, worked in some parts of this industry. For many years spinning locally grown flax into linen on power looms was an important activity around Dysart. During the first half of the 1800s, however, the linen industry gradually declined and weavers turned to cotton, wool, and jute. The atmosphere in loom shops was usually unpleasant and often quite unhealthy. High moisture, unpleasant gases, long working hours, and poor ventilation endangered workers health.

In addition to working in textile mills, girls and women also did knitting and specialty work at home. The facts that Elizabeth later made part of her living in Utah from needlework and sewing, and that her daughter Catherine was proficient in knitting woolen goods later in life, suggests they may have done similar piece work in Scotland, in addition to sometimes working in the mills.

The Cunninghams considered Dysart their home, but they apparently moved around some, possibly seeking employment. In 1834 they were living in Wellwood, where son Robert was born. By 1838-40 the family returned to live in a small village called Boreland, located on the north edge of Dysart. Daughter Catherine and son George were born there. Sometime later they apparently moved again into Dysart proper where the last two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, were born in 1843 and 1846 respectively.

LDS missionaries first went to Scotland in 1839. From 1840 to 1855 they organized 70 branches, with one in Dysart. The first person in the Dysart area to join the LDS Church was Mary McCourt, who was baptized on September 26, 1840 by Orson Pratt. Conversions gradually accelerated until a significant portion of the residents in the area became members. Elder William McLean baptized an additional four people in the branch during 1841: Thomas Richardson, James Herd, Elizabeth Herd, and Margaret Herd. McLean baptized 14 more individuals in Dysart during 1842, including James and Elizabeth Cunningham, Elizabeth’s daughter Agnes Nicol Adamson, and four other members of the Adamson family.

James and Henry Adamson were baptized on the same day, 2 May 1842. Elizabeth and her sister Margaret Adamson were also baptized on the same day two weeks later, 16 May 1842. Son George remembered that 20 to 30 families eventually joined the church in the community where the Cunninghams lived. Later, for a time, the Cunninghams were members of the nearby Dunfermline Branch. About the first of 1855 their memberships were transferred back to the Dysart Branch.

James was ordained an elder on July 15, 1855, and his son Robert was ordained a priest on the same date, both by James L. Chalmers. The Cunningham home in Dysart was a rest stop for missionaries. Son George mentions that on several occasions Elizabeth gave missionaries borrowed money that she had no easy way to repay. George goes on to quote his mother as saying that God would provide a way for her to repay the borrowed money. Apparently Elizabeth, with James’ support, was the spiritual leader in the family. Her faith was strong and she taught her children LDS principles.

The lives of the Cunninghams and the Adamsons were intertwined, and the two families were the cornerstone of the LDS branch in Dysart. Elizabeth was especially close to her younger sister, Margaret who lived in the nearby community of Boreland. Margaret married Henry Adamson. In turn, Henry’s much younger brother, David Patterson Adamson, married Elizabeth’s first daughter Agnes Nicol. Henry and Margaret moved to Utah in the 1860s, eventually settling in Franklin, Idaho.

In 1861 two of Henry’s sons, Alexander and Peter, migrated to American Fork. These nephews were especially solicitous of Elizabeth after she became a widow. Granddaughter, Mary Adams Andersen, recalled that Alex would visit Elizabeth virtually every Sunday and wind her clock. David and Agnes Adamson were the last of the clan to migrate, leaving Liverpool on June 29, 1883 on their way to American Fork.

Partly responding to the call to gather, and partly reacting to the declining economic opportunities in Dysart, the Cunninghams decided to migrate to the US in early 1856. The decision to migrate must have been a difficult one, especially for Elizabeth. It involved leaving their many friends and relatives, their culture, and the security that familiarity provides.

Migrating and camping are similar challenges for women: they are expected to continue doing their regular family tending without the conveniences found at home. This explains why many women dislike camping and why many wives have reservations about migrating to a completely new and distant place. Elizabeth may have had a number of restless nights before she and James decided to cast their lot with the saints in the Great Basin. Whatever her initial misgivings, she never looked back or grumbled after they started their journey.

While friends and relatives would later follow them, Elizabeth and her family were pioneers in initiating the LDS migration from Dysart. Elizabeth left behind her oldest daughter and son along with their families. She and the rest of her family made the trip without the support of any friends or relatives. Elizabeth and James must have overlooked the obvious hazards of the journey and relied on faith that God would provide a way. The family sold their modest household effects, bade goodbye to their friends and relatives and took the train to Glasgow. Next, they endured a rough sea voyage and sea sickness on a steamship to Liverpool. There they joined more than 700 other LDS on the US sailing ship the Thornton.

Like most others on the Thornton, the Cunninghams relied on the Perpetual Emigrating Fund (PEF) to finance most of their trip to Zion. They may have made a modest down payment for their voyage and likely paid their own rail and sea passage from Dysart to Liverpool. The PEF probably paid the rest of their expenses. For a family of six this amounted to more than several hundred dollars. Apparently, PEF procedures at the time were for immigrants to sign a promissory note for these expenses as soon as they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley.

A search of PEF financial records failed to uncover the amount of debt the Cunningham family incurred for their trip. It appears that none of the members of the Willie or Martin handcart companies, including the Cunninghams, were asked to sign promissory notes. Understandably, LDS church leaders may have been too mortified by the suffering of these two handcart companies to ask for loan repayments from the survivors.

The Thornton departed on May 4 and took a long six weeks to reach New York. The Cunninghams arrived in New York Harbor on June 14 and were allowed to leave the ship two days later on the 16th. Curiously, on the New York passenger list for the Thornton, James gives his occupation as shopkeeper, hinting he may have been too infirm to engage in mining for some time before leaving Dysart. James’ problematic health may have been an additional factor that prompted the Cunninghams to migrate. They may have hoped that the dry Utah climate would be beneficial, which it apparently was. James lived to the age of 77, far beyond average life expectancy at the time.

A few days in New York, a steamboat to Albany, a train ride, another trip on a sailing ship on the Great Lakes, and still another train ride via Chicago landed the group at the end of the rail line in Iowa City, Iowa the latter part of June. The conditions along the way included traveling in shabby rail cars, sleeping in warehouses, and suffering a drenching rain in Iowa City without shelter. One wonders how women such as Elizabeth provided meals for their families, managed laundry and personal hygiene, found clean drinking water, nursed the ill, and dealt with grumbling. The hardships she endured during her earlier life apparently stiffened her backbone sufficient to endure the harsh conditions of the trip.

The story of the travails and rescue of the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies has been eloquently recounted by a number of authors. They tell the full story much better than can I. Suffice it to say that the Cunninghams participated in all of the challenges faced by the Willie Handcart Company after it left Iowa City on July 15. They most certainly found new muscles as they walked and pulled-pushed their handcart across Iowa to Florence, Nebraska, where they were re-supplied for the journey west.

The Cunningham family had a unique experience much later in the trip, just a few days travel east of South Pass. By then their group was essentially running on fumes and eating their last morsels. Between the fifth and sixth crossing of the Sweetwater a severe early blizzard engulfed the company. The storm, fatigue, hunger, and hypothermia ground them to a halt at about the sixth crossing.

It was during this bitter weather that Elizabeth again displayed her grit and faith when she left her 12-year-old, comatose daughter, Betsy, for dead along the trail during the ferocious snow storm. The ground was too frozen to dig a grave so Betsy was simply wrapped in a blanket and left by the side of the trail. The rest of the family struggled on in the blizzard to save their own lives. After getting her family settled at the campsite, Elizabeth felt inspired to walk back in the dark and bring Betsy’s body to camp. Miraculously, Elizabeth found Betsy undisturbed and lugged her body back to camp. There she put some warm water on the girl and saw her twitch. Heroic efforts miraculously revived the girl.

What did Elizabeth face during that awful day and night? She and her family likely had little to eat that morning when they awoke with a cold front moving in from the northwest. If Betsy didn’t die during the night, Elizabeth most certainly put the ailing Betsy on the cart until they later thought she was dead. Faltering James may then have taken Betsy’s place on the cart. About noon it began to snow, with a stiff wind blowing into their faces as they trudged steadily uphill. While the day drew on, the company began to string out with stragglers and the weakest falling to the rear. Elizabeth and her family struggled to cover the 16 miles and likely staggered into camp long after dark. She probably helped her children erect a tent and start a fire before she turned around and trudged down the trail several miles to recover Betsy’s body. One wonders how she mustered the strength and fortitude to accomplish what she did.

The whole Willie Company came within a whisker of perishing there on the windswept frigid upper reaches of the Sweetwater. With rescuers’ assistance, the Company stumbled over the awful Rocky Ridge and then moved on through South Pass. They were a sorry looking lot when they finally pulled into Salt Lake City on November 9. They had lost 74 of their company since leaving Liverpool, a mortality rate of about one in six. By the law of averages, Elizabeth should have lost at least one member of her family on the trip, particularly her infirm husband. That she avoided a family death is a testament to her strength, skill, and determination.

Church leaders in Salt Lake rapidly parceled out the survivors among friends, relatives, and other church members to provide temporary housing. Nothing is recorded about the good Samaritans who sheltered the Cunninghams while they stayed in Salt Lake for about a month before they were transferred to Lake City (American Fork).

The Cunningham’s health and strength gradually improved over the winter of 1856-57. Only three months after she arrived in American Fork, daughter Catherine married Arza Adams on March 7, 1857, becoming his fourth plural wife. .

Bishop Leonard Harrington gave the Cunninghams a small parcel for a homestead soon after they arrived in town, and they probably built a log or adobe dwelling there during 1857-58. The 1/3 acre lot was located near what is now Main Street and First East in American Fork. In his book on the history of American Fork Shelley provides a map of the town in 1857 that shows the Cunningham lot inside the partially built fort. The 1860 Federal Census, however, shows that Elizabeth and James were then living without children in Pleasant Grove, where they may have resided for several years before returning to their home in American Fork. James apparently owned some property in what was then called Battle Creek. The 1860 Census records he had $150 worth of real estate, the value of a small lot and home, along with $250 worth of personal property. What James did in Pleasant Grove is unknown, but he might have been employed in digging irrigation canals or in some mining efforts. He is listed as a laborer in the 1860 census.

In the 1870 Census James and Elizabeth were again in American Fork, and he reported his occupation was farming. Both of his sons, George and Robert, are also listed as farmers in this Census. They may have had a joint family farming venture, with the boys doing most of the heavy lifting.

How much James contributed to the family’s sustenance after the family arrived in American Fork is unknown. His granddaughter, Mary Adams Andersen, relates that James, “because of poor health had little to do with the keeping and caring for the family.” In his biography, son George describes going to work soon after he arrived in Utah, including taking a harrowing journey, mostly alone, to southern Nevada when he was only 18. Thus, a major part of the burden of maintaining the household fell on Elizabeth’s broad shoulders.

Mary Andersen provides a unique description of Elizabeth in her later years. “She was of large stature, (with) large blue eyes, and a woman of great faith and courage. She had a sweet smile and pleasant ways. She was also a popular midwife who did a lot of nursing, thinking nothing of walking almost to our neighboring towns each morning to care for new mothers and babies. She was also known for her skill with a needle, something she likely learned early in Scotland.” She was especially renowned for the men’s clothing she made. Elizabeth perhaps earned most of the family’s income through her needlework, nursing, and midwifery.

After suffering severe pain for three years, James died on May 30, 1878. His obituary mentions he called his family together before he expired and exhorted them to stand firm in the gospel. Elizabeth continued to live in their home and supported herself. Elizabeth died without fanfare. She finally set aside her burdens and was laid to rest beside her husband in the American Fork Cemetery.

Following family tradition, most of the Cunningham family and their kin initially clustered around Dysart, Scotland. After major portions of the extended family, along with many Scottish friends, moved to Utah they also clustered in American Fork, Utah. The Cunninghams were a family that helped, liked, and enjoyed each other. The cohesion of the family undoubtedly stemmed from Elizabeth’s nurturing. Moreover, a substantial number of people with American Fork/Scottish roots owe a debt of gratitude to Elizabeth for pioneering the trail to Utah Valley. Without her extraordinary efforts, many of her Cunningham kin might be mining coal in Scotland.

The most important lesson that can be drawn from Elizabeth’s remarkable life is that some otherwise ordinary people can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Elizabeth survived losing her first husband and being a single mother. She overcame living in poverty and marrying a man who was only a modest provider. She got over losing two of her children. Despite the hardships along the way, Elizabeth never expressed any second thought about striking out with her family to relocate in a completely new environment. Her brush with death in Wyoming brought out the strongest elements of her character, rather than inducing depression. Elizabeth wasn’t the only humble woman who rose above herself in the handcart tragedy of 1856, but she is a sterling representative of that group.

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