from History of Utah, Vol.4
by Orson F. Whitney
William Jennings chief title to fame is in his career as one of the principal founders of Utah’s commerce. An early advocate and establisher of home industries, he was also a merchant, a cattle man, a railroad magnate, a city councilor, a member of the territorial legislature and finally mayor of Salt Lake City. A man of wealth, a generous and hospitable entertainer, he welcomed across the threshold of his home the most distinguished visitors to Utah, including President Grant, Ex-Secretary Seward, General Sherman, General Sheridan, Lord and Lady Dufferin and many more. It was at the Jennings home on Main street that the Colfax party was entertained in June, 1865; and it was at the Devereux House, on South Temple Street—Mr. Jennings’ later residence—that President Brigham Young met Ex-Secretary Seward in 1869.
That the Utah merchant enjoyed these visits of the great is certain, but it is also true that these famous personages were no more welcome in his spacious parlors and at his sumptuous table than the old-time friends whom he had known in the days of poverty and famine. He was not an enthusiast in religion, but he accepted the fundamentals thereof, and exemplified in characteristic directions his faith in Mormonism. At his death, Utah lost a financial genius, one of the main pillars of her commercial life. Buildings, farms, railroads, gristmills, factories—these were his monuments. He accumulated a handsome fortune and was known as Utah’s merchant prince. He gave much to charity, established worthy enterprises, provided employment for industrious hands, and in various ways built up his adopted country. Local investment was his motto, home development his aim, and to give Utah pre-eminence his leading ambition.
An Englishman by birth, the son of Isaac and Jane Thornton Jennings, he was born at Yardley, near the city of Birmingham, September 13, 1823. His father came of a good family and made himself wealthy in the butchering business. William did not receive much education, owing in part to a disinclination for the hard, dry tasks of the school-room, and in part to a delicate constitution, which his parents were unwilling to jeopardize by close confinement and discipline. When he was seven years old he accidentally broke his thigh bone and for fifteen months was on crutches. His five brothers and five sisters went to boarding school and were well educated. William left school at the age of eleven, and at fourteen plunged into business as an assistant to his sire.
Even at that early day he manifested the keenness, sagacity and business promptitude that made him in time one of the leading merchants and financiers of the West. It is related how he went to Coalsell Market on a certain occasion to buy cattle. Having made some first-class selections, he asked the owner his price. Amused at the lad’s precocity, the farmer, in a bantering spirit, put a very low figure upon the cattle. “I’ll take them,” said Jennings, and the farmer, still in jest, concluded the sale; whereupon William, taking out his scissors, quickly cut the Jennings’ mark on each of the beasts and paid the money. The joking farmer then tried to recede from the transaction, but the boy, unawed by his bluster, appealed to the bystanders, who sustained him in the fairness of his purchase. Chagrined for having paid so dearly for his whistle, the seller reluctantly yielded the point and surrendered the cattle.
William Jennings came to America the year that Salt Lake Valley was settled. He was not at that time a Latter-day Saint, and in leaving home and beginning life for himself in a foreign land among strangers, was actuated purely by that spirit of independent enterprise which was so notable a characteristic of his nature. His parents and other members of the family did not approve of the step, but offered no strenuous opposition. In leaving home at such a time he forfeited his family portion, but the fortune afterwards amassed by him was much larger than that divided among his father’s heirs. He landed in New York early in the month of October.
There he remained through the winter, working at six dollars a week for a Mr. Taylor, a pork-packer of Manchester, England. The next year he made his way to the State of Ohio, where he was robbed of all the money he possessed—some four or five hundred dollars—and in absolute destitution sought and found employment as a journeyman butcher at a small salary.
In March, 1849, he left Ohio for Missouri, staying a while at St. Louis, and then proceeding to St. Joseph, where he worked at trimming bacon and butchering. In the fall an attack of cholera prostrated him for four weeks, and on recovering he found himself again penniless and two hundred dollars in debt. In this extremity he was befriended by a Catholic priest, one Father Scanlan, who lent him fifty dollars, which small but timely loan, judiciously handled, put him on his feet again and gave him his first successful start in the New World. Mr. Jennings’ well-known friendly feeling for the Catholics is thus explained.
While at St. Joseph he married Jane Walker, a Mormon emigrant girl, on her way to Utah from her native England, and though he did not immediately join the Church of which she was a member, this marriage was the beginning of his relations with the Latter-day Saints, and it undoubtedly led to his settlement in the Rocky Mountain region. The date of the marriage was July 2, 1851. The young couple left St. Joseph in the spring of 1852, and arrived at Salt Lake City early in the fall. Mr. Jennings brought with him three wagons loaded with groceries, in which all his means was invested. These goods he sold in Utah at a handsome profit. Soon after his arrived here he joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and on July 28, 1855, married his second wife, Priscilla Paul, another young English girl, who had recently emigrated from the land of her birth.
During the first three years of his residence at Salt Lake City, Mr. Jennings devoted himself exclusively to the butchering business, a line of industry that had made his father wealthy, and which he himself had followed in a small way with varying success after his arrival in America. At the expiration of that period, he added to his meat-shop a tannery, manufacturing leather from the hides of his slaughtered beef, then working up the leather into saddles, harness, boots and shoes. His original venture and each succeeding extension of his business was a success.
During a mission to Carson Valley in 1856, he supplied with meat the mining camps of that region. He built himself a substantial house of logs, which he had cut from the surrounding mountains. In this humble abode his wife Priscilla lived, and there her first child was bom—Captain Frank W. Jennings, February 25, 1857. The sire was absent upon this mission sixteen months, returning to Salt Lake City in the summer of 1857.
On arriving here he found the people greatly excited over the prospect of a collision with the general government. Johnston’s army was on its way to Utah, industry was paralyzed and business almost at a standstill. Undaunted by the prospect of invasion and devastation, which were the common talk, the returned missionary embarked in business on quite an extensive scale, building on the spot afterwards occupied by his Eagle Emporium a large meat establishment, which he maintained as best he could during the absence from the city of almost its entire population. The Jennings family spent the period of “the move’’ at Provo.
In the year 1800 the head of the house branched out in the mercantile business. He purchased from Solomon Young a stock of dry goods amounting to forty thousand dollars. He was now the leading merchant of Utah. In 1861 he contracted to supply poles upon which to stretch the wires of the Overland Telegraph Line, between Salt Lake City and Ruby Valley. He also took a large contract to supply grain for the Overland Mail Company. The same year found him in San Francisco, purchasing merchandise for his store. After the establishment of Fort Douglas, the commissariat relied upon him for much that it consumed. In 1865 he added to merchandizing banking and brokerage. He exported Utah products to the mines outside of the Territory, and is said to have been the first Salt Lake merchant to buy and ship Montana gold-dust. He was also the owner of the first steam flouring mill in Utah.
In 1864 he built the Eagle Emporium, and during that year purchased large quantities of goods in New York, St. Louis; San Francisco and Salt Lake City. In addition to these purchases, and against the advice and protest of his business managers, he also bought from Major Barrows a mammoth train-load of goods, amounting to a quarter of a million dollars. This bold and hazardous venture proved to be the luckiest hit of his mercantile career. He not only reaped handsome profits from a ready sale of his merchandise, but enhanced his prestige as a merchant, and indirectly the commercial standing of Utah, by the extensive and successful deal.
Two anecdotes told of Mr. Jennings aptly illustrate his native shrewdness and sagacity.
The first pertains to his grain contract with the Overland Mail Company in 1861. Seventy-five thousand bushels—about all the grain the Territory then produced— was needed by that company, and the contract to supply it was made binding upon Mr. Jennings by a forfeiture of five thousand dollars if not fulfilled. The compauy itself was not placed under bonds. The merchant at once began to buy grain, and contrary to his understanding at the time of signing the contract, the company began buying also. He protested, but his protest was unavailing, and Mr. Jennings soon saw that it would be impossible for him to fulfill his contract– if the company persisted in buying in opposition to him. However he kept on buying and filling his bins and cellars with grain. The company also continued buying. Finally Jennings, seized with an idea, asked the other parties if the payment of the five thousand dollar forfeiture would satisfy the contract. There was a prompt answer in the affirmative and a no loss prompt payment of the forfeiture. The contract was cancelled and the merchant was free, with thirty thousand bushels of grain on hand, nearly half the grain product of the Territory and nearly half the amount needed by the Overland Mail Company.
Both parties continued to buy, but Jennings, having the inside track as a member of the community, as well as his native push and ability as a trader, soon distanced his competitor and succeeded in corralling the greater part of tho grain product. And now came the climax, with a triumph for Jennings, which his opponents might have foreseen had they been anywhere near his equals in business acumen. The Mail Company, which needed the grain, must either purchase it from Jennings at his own price—which was now a high one—or else freight grain from the Missouri River or the Pacific Coast. Distance and delay forbade the latter course, and at length they came and bought the merchant’s grain at a much higher price than he had paid for it, thus wiping out the forfeiture and giving him a heavy margin besides.
“When a boy,” said Mr. Jennings, “my father told me always to look for a thing where I had lost it. I had lost five thousand dollars on that grain contract, and it was to the Overland Mail Company that I had to look for it. The experience taught me, however, never to bind myself in a contract unless I bound the other party equally.”
The other incident happened in 1865. For two years Mr. Jennings had been engaged in buying gold-dust and had bought as high as ten thousand dollars’ worth in a single day. Mr. Halsey, the superintendent of Ben Holladay’s local banking house, was also in this business, and in order to get rid of the Jennings competition, he went to the merchant and requested him to stick to his legitimate vocation and not buy any more gold-dust. Jennings replied that he was the oldest gold-dust buyer in the country, and he did not propose to retire that early from a branch of business which had been so profitable to him.
‘Well,” said Halsey, in anger, “If you do not quit buying, I will run you out of the business.”
“How?” asked the merchant.
The banker replied: “I carry the express, and I express for whom I choose.”
Jennings retorted, “I don’t care a d—n for you or your express either.”
They parted, each resolved upon a financial fight. Jennings led out by paying for gold-dust twenty-five cents more an ounce than previously. Halsey retaliated by paying fifty cents more an ounce, and thus they went on until gold-dust was worth more in Salt Lake than in New York.
Jennings, through another person, then sold all his gold-dust to Halsey at the greatly advanced figure. He quit buying for a few days till the price fell to its former level, when he revived the competition until gold-dust again ran up above New York figures. Again and again he sold to Halsey through another man, until finally the banker, getting wind of the game, cried quits, acknowledged himself beaten, and asked Jennings to come to terms, by signing an agreement between them. The merchant refused to sign, but verbally agreed upon a cessation of financial hostilities.
In 1867 Mr. Jennings purchased from Hon. Joseph A. Young, who had previously purchased it from Mr. William O. Staines, the property afterwards known as the Devereaux House and grounds, adding to the original lot several pieces of realty on the same block, and superseding the handsome Staines cottage with a more pretentious mansion, while retaining and improving the rare orchards and flower gardens which the original owner had planted and cultivated.
The Devereaux House was called after the Jennings family residence in England. It became noted for its hospitality, especially as a place where distinguished visitors were entertained. With one exception, it was the only private home honored by President Grant with a personal call during his brief stay at Salt Lake City in 1875. The following year Mr. Jennings, with his daughters Jane and Priscilla, while on their way to Europe, called upon President and Mrs. Grant at the White House in Washington, and were cordially received and entertained.
William Jennings was one of the organizers of the Utah Central railroad company in 1869, at which time he became the vice-president of the road, holding that position during the remainder of his life. He also helped to organize the Utah Southern railroad company, and succeeded Brigham Young as its president. Prior to this he had sat in the Legislature under the administration of Governor Doty, who commissioned him a lieutenant-colonel in the Militia. In later years he was a director of the Deseret National Bank.
At the inception of Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution, when the Gentile merchants of Utah were in open hostility to the movement, and many Mormon merchants were hesitating, William Jennings threw the weight of his wealth and influence into the scale with President Young and those who stood by him in the inauguration of the mighty enterprise, thus contributing greatly to its success. He was the first to lease his premises and sell his stock to the institution, in which he became a shareholder to the amount of seventy-five thousand dollars. From November, 1873, to May, 1875, he was superintendent of Z. C. M. I., and from October, 1877, to the date of his death—January 15, 1886—was its vice-president. He was also superintendent from February, 1881, to May, 1883.
The year 1882 witnessed the election of Mr. Jennings as Mayor of Salt Lake City. He made a good record in that capacity and one that gave general satisfaction. It was during his administration that Liberty Park was formally opened to the public. Had it not been for the anti-polygamy crusade under the Edmunds law, which caused him to be temporarily disfranchised, he would have been nominated for at least another term as mayor. He had but one plural wife, uaitielv Mrs. Priscilla Paul Jennings, already named, whom he had married prior to the enactment of the anti-polygamy law of 1862. This
marriage, therefore, did not violate that law, which, while it prohibited plural marriages, was silent upon the subject of maintaining polygamous relations. This practice, under the term “unlawful cohabitation,” along with polygamy or the marrying of plural wives, was made punishable by the Edmunds law of 1882; but by that time Mr. Jennings was no longer in polygamy, his first wife having died eleven years before the Edmunds law was enacted. Since her death he had continued to live with his second and only remaining wife. Thus he had violated neither the law of 1862 nor the law of 1882; yet under the strained ruling of the Utah Commission, expressed in the phrase “once a polygamist always a polygamist,” he was denied registration as a voter, and until the Supreme Court of the United States shattered the unjust decision, he remained disfranchised. His right to vote and hold office being restored to him,he was urged by Gentiles as well as Mormons to run again for the mayoralty, but declined. The following year he died.
William Jennings was the father of twenty-five children, thirteen of whom, with his widow, survived him. To these he left the bulk of his fortune. He had eleven children by his first wife and fourteen by his second. His eldest living child, the son of his first wife, is Thomas W. Jennings, Esq., of Salt Lake City. His three surviving daughters, Jane, Priscilla and May, are respectively Mrs. James A. Eldredge, Mrs. W. W. Riter and Mrs. Scott Crismon. The first Mrs. Jennings was a very estimable lady, and the present Mrs. Jenuings, (the mother of Mrs. Riter and Mrs. Crisinon) is no less so. A woman of generous sympathies, exceptionably kind-hearted and benevolent, her life is filled with deeds of charity and philanthropy. She is socially prominent, public-spirited, and active- in woman’s work. Her name is connected with sericulture and other industrial enterprises, likewise with Temple ministrations and various religious functions. In short, it is a synonym for hospitality, liberality, and helpfulness to every worthy cause.