ADAMS, Arza Madsen

ADAMS, Arza Madsen

A muggy evening added to Arza’s discomfort with the chills and fever. Malaria had driven him to bed for several days, even though he had much work to do on his farm located just north of the village of Carthage, Illinois. It was dusk when William and John Barnes, two non-Mormon acquaintances, knocked on the cabin door with devastating news: Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum had just been murdered in Carthage. One of two survivors, , wrote a short letter describing the disaster and asked the Barnes brothers to deliver the letter to Arza Adams, one of the few Mormons living near Carthage. Although seriously ill, a surge of adrenaline permitted Arza to drag himself out of bed, saddle his horse, ride to Benjamin Leyland’s cabin and ask him to join in a dash to Nauvoo. They were fearful of taking the main road to Nauvoo, so they took a round-about way, not arriving in Nauvoo until dawn. The note delivered by the pair on June 28, 1844 was the first verification to reach Nauvoo of the tragedy in Carthage.


Among the earliest LDS missionaries, John E. Page was perhaps the most successful. Often working alone, he made hundreds of converts in Ontario, Canada during 1836-37, three of whom were Arza Adams, his wife Sabina, and his brother Barnabas Adams. Page had earlier converted some of Arza’s relatives who lived further south in Bastard Township, near where Arza was born. The religious message that Page brought had an instant effect on the Adamses. Only two weeks after hearing him first preach, they celebrated Christmas by being baptized in a hole in the ice in a small river near Perth, Canada. In addition to the discomfort of being baptized on an extremely cold day, becoming a Mormon, and later migrating west, their conversion caused additional family problems. Arza and Barnabas gave up secure positions working in the mills of their prosperous father, Joshua Adams. They also caused stress in a family that had been strong Methodists.

After serving a local mission, Arza and his family joined thousands of Canadians, including many LDS converts, who moved to the western frontier of the United States in early 1838. The family included four children: Nathan, Joshua, George and Sabina Ann. The Adams’s route took them over the St. Lawrence River, through northern Ohio to Kirtland, then down through the mid-west to DeWitt, Missouri where they planned to settle. Unbeknownst to the Adamses they were walking into a buzz saw. Hearing that the Mormons planned to settle in large numbers in DeWitt, several hundred anti-Mormons invested the community about the time Arza and his family arrived there. The belligerent vigilantes blocked access to arriving immigrants and forced those Mormons who were there to leave at the point of a gun in late September 1838.

As Arza and his family left they must have been puzzled by what happened in DeWitt and worried about what they would face in Far West. Several vigilante leaders were prominent religious leaders. If the Adamses had still been Methodists these hostile leaders would have welcomed them with open arms into their congregations. The only difference between the vigilantes and those being driving out of town was that the latter were Mormons. As rough as the Adamses and other Mormons were treated in DeWitt, at least many of them weren’t murdered, as occurred a month later in the Haun’s Mill Massacre about 30 miles northeast of DeWitt. Being driven out of DeWitt was only the first of various up-rootings that Arza and his family would endure over the next several decades.

The refugees from DeWitt found little respite in Far West. They faced a severe housing shortage, food scarcity, sporadic vigilante attacks, threats from the state militia, and an early and severe winter. After finding shelter for his family, Arza was drawn into the military clashes that preceded the incarceration of Joseph Smith and other church leaders. Amid this chaos, Arza and 30 other men were ordained Seventies on January 5, 1839. Only three months later, as soon as the weather warmed, Arza and family again pulled up stakes and fled 150 miles east to Quincy, Illinois.

Quincy residents responded to the pitiful conditions of the LDS refugees by providing food and emergency shelter. Only a month after reaching Quincy, Sabina had her fifth child and they named him Sidney Moses. In all of this confusion Arza was fortunate to arrange a two-year lease on a farm located about four miles northeast of Quincy. With the help of his brother Barnabas, he soon planted crops there and moved his family into a refurbished cabin. Shortly thereafter, about the time his family felt somewhat settled, Arza received a mission call. After all of the turmoil his family endured over the previous year, one wonders how he mustered the willpower to leave a nearly-destitute family to seek converts in Canada. He was forced to borrow $25 from his brother to finance the journey.

He left Quincy on July 11, 1839 and travelled mostly by water in returning to his parents’ home near Perth, arriving there on August 2nd. After being gone for more than a year, Arza had much to share with his parents. It must have been painful and perhaps embarrassing for him to describe the persecution his family endured in Missouri and to describe their humble circumstances in Quincy. Whatever their feelings, Arza’s parents gave him support and a place to rest during the time he sought converts in the area. He was a successful missionary. In less than a year he and an occasional companion, Christopher Merkley, baptized about six dozen people, including a couple of families, the Motts and the Plunketts, who later settled near Arza in Utah.

Between missionary forays, Arza worked in his father’s mill, sold some property, and most likely, received some inheritance from his parents. This allowed him to buy new clothes and return to Quincy with a team and wagon loaded with some of his family’s goods. Young John Nicoll accompanied Arza on his wagon trip back to Illinois. They left on May 6, 1840, and by putting in long days they reached Quincy on June 5th. Sabina left no record of her feelings about Arza’s return, but she must have been tremendously relieved. Her joy was short lived, however, since, within a few days, Arza again left to help his brother float a raft of timber down river to St. Louis. The two brothers returned to Quincy by steamship, but during the trip Arza came down with the ague (malaria), an illness that bedeviled him off-and-on for the next several years.

Between bouts of malaria, Arza felt his life was returning to a semblance of normalcy after two years of turmoil. But, in early August disaster struck when his two youngest sons, George and Sidney, died from cholera. Given the unsanitary conditions in which they lived, it’s a wonder that more members of the family didn’t perish from this terrible malady that periodically swept up the Mississippi River.

Arza was resourceful and hard working. Anticipating the end of his farm lease, he scouted around Nauvoo for property. With money he brought from Canada, he purchased a couple of urban lots in Nauvoo and several parcels of land east and south of Nauvoo, along with property across the river in Iowa. Being a skilled lumberman and carpenter, Arza soon erected a cabin in Nauvoo and moved his family there in early August. With his brother, he harvested and sold timber, and was also employed in constructing the Law and Foster store in Nauvoo.

Over the next couple of years Arza joined the Masons, built another home in Nauvoo, and joined his brother in harvesting timber on an island in the Mississippi River. He also worked on the new temple, between farming, lumbering, and buying and selling land. His increasingly normal life was again interrupted when he was called on a mission to Michigan/Canada. In the dead of winter, on January 25, 1843, he began his third mission by leaving on foot for Port Huron, Michigan. Along the way he stayed with church members where he could, paid to stay in several inns, and traded copies of the Book of Mormon for other lodging. Arza kept a journal on this and earlier missionary assignments, but he seldom recorded emotions. An exception was mentioning how tired and depressed he was when he finally arrived at his destination in Michigan.

His mood quickly improved, however. During the four months that he did missionary work alone in St Clair County he kept up a frantic pace, preaching about 100 times. Arza didn’t mention meeting any LDS church members so he apparently made all his contacts from scratch. People liked him. He stayed with many families, only some of whom were later baptized. In all, he converted 16 or 17 people and organized a small branch near Newport (Marine City), Michigan.

In addition to his religious calling, Arza had other motives for going to St. Clair County. In 1836 his father was granted several large parcels of Crown Land, including 200 acres just across the St Clair River from what is now Marine City, Michigan. Most likely, Arza was given this parcel as part of his inheritance. After selling the property, Arza bought a horse from one of his converts and rode back to Nauvoo. Taking two weeks to complete the trip, the weary traveler rode into Nauvoo on June 27th. He reported finding his family, “nearly naked and almost out of provisions.” Their lot was quickly improved, nonetheless, with the money realized from the sale of the land in Canada.

Shortly after returning from his mission, Arza joined the Nauvoo police force. They were formed, in part, to protect church leaders, especially Joseph Smith. They were also charged with, “ferreting out all grog shops, gambling houses, brothels, and disorderly conduct.” The city council and mayor authorized them to cuff the ears of anyone who resisted arrest, shoot to kill anyone who pointed a gun at them, to guard against horse theft, to enforce city ordinances, and to preserve the peace. Much of their service was rendered at night and they were paid a dollar a day. Arza had this job for only a few months before renting a farm a mile-or-so north of Carthage and moving his family there. The few months that he spent on the rented farm were not a happy time for the family. In addition to dealing with the nearby deaths of the two Smith brothers, Arza was sick off-and-on much of the time with malaria and his harvests that fall were skimpy. Although he doesn’t mention it in his journal, the increasing threats from vigilantes may have also prompted their move back to Nauvoo in November 1844.

Bouts with malaria continued to dog Arza in Nauvoo, and this led to him asking for a blessing from church Patriarch John Smith on May 16, 1845. Elder Smith rebuked the fever that preyed on Arza and promised him he would recover if he worked on the temple. Soon after, Arza left his sickbed, took up his carpenter tools, and commenced working on the temple. He recorded in his journal that it was hard at first, but that over time he gained strength and continued to labor on the public works until fall. Not being a reflective person, he never, later, recorded how he felt about leaving a sick bed to complete an edifice that was abandoned just a few months later.

Increasing conflict led church leaders to abandon Nauvoo and move their flock west. A flurry of temple ordnances and frantic efforts to sell assets followed. Arza and Sabina received their endowments on December 31, 1845, but Arza realized little for his attempts to sell land. He laments in his journal that he “sold” 40 acres, located about six miles southwest of Nauvoo, for “love and good will.” During the increasing turmoil he may have moved his family across the river to Montrose, close to where his brother Barnabas lived. There, Arza and Barney worked in a shop making wagons and wagon wheels for the exodus.

The Mormon flight from the Nauvoo area began in early February 1846 but wasn’t completed until the middle of September. Arza recorded that his family left for the west during the summer with two wagons, one driven by Arza and the other by his oldest son Nathan. The second oldest son, Joshua, was in charge of the lose cattle. Arza and Sabina must have reflected on their 5 year sojourn in and around Nauvoo. Sabina had nurse Arza back to good health, and added two more children to the family, Elizabeth and Theothen. Arza had completed a successful mission, reached a mid-level position in the church, and they had both participated in spiritual experiences in temple ceremonies. At the same time, they lost most of their property and experienced being driven from their home at gun point for the third time.

At the time that Arza’s family arrived in western Iowa, Latter-day Saints were concentrating in two locations, one on each side of the Missouri River near Council Bluffs. His family settled on the east side of the river, on Pigeon Creek about six miles north of Miller’s Hollow. Shortly thereafter, Arza’s brother arrived with his new wife and settled in a nearby community called Farmersville. The two brothers helped each other build cabins and provided their families with shelter from winter storms. The birth of another son, named Joseph Smith Adams, on December 14, 1846 meant that Sabina dealt with eight people crowded into a small cabin.

During the winter of 1846-47 Arza and Henry W. Miller were hired to tend a large herd comprised mostly of church-owned cattle some 50-60 miles north of Council Bluffs. That spring Barnabas joined Brigham Young and others in the scouting party that made its way to Utah in 1847. Arza and Sabina looked after Barnabas’s wife, Julia Ann Banker, until Barnabas returned in the fall.

Initially, Arza planned to move his family to Utah in the spring of 1848, but at the last minute concluded he was too short of resources to make the journey. To accumulate money, he worked for the U.S. Army, first helping to build what would later be called Ft. Kearny, and in the fall and winter working in and out of Ft. Leavenworth. Arza and his family joined the flood of people who flocked west in 1849, most of them seeking California gold. By mid-June nearly 7,500 wagon-loads of gold seekers past what would later become Ft. Kearny in central Nebraska. The Adamses were in the first of five wagon trains that left Winter Quarter in 1849. They entered Salt Lake Valley in late September. In a few days they located on the lower reaches of Mill Creek where they stayed for almost a year.

Arza’s first job in the valley was working for a Mr. Giles in a mill on Mill Creek. During the hard winter of 1849-50 some of his livestock died. He later obtained use of a small farm along the creek, but harvested a skimpy crop, perhaps because he had little experience with irrigation. Because much of the good land in Salt Lake Valley was already claimed, Arza looked elsewhere for a place to settle. In the early summer of 1850 Arza and a cousin, Stephen Chipman, along with two of their sons, were freighting goods to Ft. Provo in Utah Valley. They camped on and liked what they saw there. Soon after, Arza helped with a survey of Utah Valley conducted by Captain Stansbury. This included doing a baseline from Salt Lake City to the southern end of Utah Valley, and later doing a more detailed survey of the area around American Fork Creek.

The custom at the time was for Brigham Young to authorize the settlement of new communities. Arza and Stephen Chipman sought and received permission to settle the area along American Fork Creek. The place was originally called McArthursville, later Lake City, and still later American Fork. In the fall of 1850 Arza built a cabin on the creek and soon moved his family there, thus becoming the first settler in the community. Initially, the settlement was organized as a joint stock company, including about two thousand acres. By the spring of 1851 enough people had settled in Lake City to justify organizing a church branch there. Leonard Harrington was named bishop with Arza and James Guyman as his counselors.

Soon after settling in Lake City, Arza build a small grist mill on American Fork Creek, the first such mill in northern Utah Valley. Indian threats in 1853 led to the settlers concentrating most of their homes within the fort, forcing Arza to move his mill to the north edge of the fort wall. He demonstrated his independence by building his home and mill outside the fort walls. A few years later he built a third mill about a mile further north on the creek.

In late 1853 Arza entered the practice of polygamy when he married Editha Morgan Anderson. She was a 50-year-old school teacher and had not been married previously. Editha was only Arza’s spiritual wife. She lived separately and was always known by her maiden name thereafter.

The system of joint ownership of land in the community was mostly disbanded only a year or so after it was established. The breakup put the Bishop, Leonard Harrington, in the middle of parceling out farm land, city lots, timber lots, and water rights. In Mormon settlements the bishop was the judge and jury in both civil and ecclesiastical affairs. This arrangement was problematic because disagreements about civil judgments spilled over into tests of religious faithfulness. Regardless of what decisions the bishop made, some of them were bound to hurt someone’s feelings. Early settlers, such as Arza, probably felt they deserved priority in the allocation of resources, while the bishop must have tried to treat everyone equally, first-comers and later-comers alike. The bishop’s decisions about resource ownership and use upset Arza and several other members of the community. Hard feelings were compounded when Brigham Young intervened and approved diverting part of the water from American Fork Creek to the residents in nearby Lehi.

When the dispute began is unclear, but it came to a head when Arza resigned as Harrington’s counselor in late 1853. The problem festered until the next spring when Arza was called before a Bishop’s Court to defend his church membership. Since Bishop Harrington was a party in the dispute, a travelling Bishop, Alfred Cordon, conducted the court. His judgment was that, “Brother Adams had a lack of respect for God and had said things against the priesthood.” He was cut off from the branch in Lake City until he made restitution. In the church meeting the following Sunday Arza confessed speaking against those placed over him and wished to be forgiven, which he was.

Despite his contrition, Arza continued to have problems with Bishop Harrington, faced another Bishop’s Court in early 1855, and lost his church membership for about five weeks. A high level council including Joseph Young, Orin Porter Rockwell, Joseph Gates, and met with Arza and smoothed the troubled waters in the community. Arza and his two oldest sons, Nathan and Joshua, were re-baptized shortly thereafter. In the next few months the stress between Arza and the bishop lessened and they cooperated in building a meeting house. Harrington was the superintendent while Arza was the woodwork foreman. Nonetheless, the disputes about allocation of communal land in Lake City were not completely resolved until two years later.

In early 1856 Arza and several dozen other men were called on a mission to reinforce settlement of Fort Supply in Southeast Wyoming. His experience with grist and lumber mills were likely reasons for him being included in the call. Over the next year Arza made several trips to Ft. Supply, including taking some of his livestock there and building a cabin. On his last trip he was accompanied by his oldest son Nathan and his wife. The plans were for Nathan to set up a grist mill and settle his family there in Ft. Supply. Arza even gave some thought to moving his whole family to Ft. Supply. The news that Johnson’s Army was on its way to suppress the so called rebellion in Utah put the chi bash on these plans. In short order the settlers in Ft. Supply burned their buildings and returned to Utah.

During 1857 Arza married three other women: Marilla Olney and Catherine Cunningham on March 7th, and Elizabeth Gaskell on August 11th. Arza had children with Marilla and Catherine, but the marriage to Elizabeth was only a spiritual arrangement.

With the turmoil of the Reformation during 1856, and the confrontation with Johnson’s Army in 1857 behind them, Arza’ life settled into the routine experienced by many others who lived in fledgling communities in Utah. In addition to operating his grist mill, he also farmed, had some livestock, and even experimented with Angora goats. After his first wife, Sabina, died in 1861 Arza built separate homes for Marilla and Catherine. Over a period of 44 years Arza had a total of 27 children, the last being born when he was 72. Seventeen of his children grew to adulthood and he had 139 grandchildren, most of them growing to adulthood. Several of his sons and sons-in-law would become prominent sheep men in central Utah.

Although still hale and hearty, Arza semi-retired about 1873 when he sold parts of his farm land along with his grist mill. Earlier, Arza had served as city alderman and he continued to serve as a director of the cooperative store. He spent an increasing amount of time visiting with his old friends, some of whom were his Canadian converts. He youngest son Daniel remembered accompanying his father on some of these visits and hearing them talk about battles in Missouri and the adventures of moving west. Perhaps because of his advanced age, Arza was not hounded during the early 1880s because of his plural marriages. Surrounded by family he passed away in American Fork on April 15, 1889.

Several features of Arza’s personality and character stand out. He was remembered for being independent, not always going along with the crowd, and reacting negatively to being pushed or crowded. His family remembered him as a good provider. Even though he had a large family, and encountered a number of challenges during his life, he always landed on his feet and provided ample food and shelter for his family.

From an historical standpoint, Arza’s latter life illustrates the problems associated with joining temporal and spiritual issues. His religious fervor waned substantially after his run-in with Bishop Harrington over the distribution of property rights in Lake City. Several of Arza supporters in the fracas left the church because of their disagreements with the bishop over temporal matters. Harrington and Arza later tolerated each other, but were never close after this affair. The problem was extended while Harrington served as bishop for 27 years. Perhaps this is an additional reason for having bishops serve for only a few years.

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