JENSEN, Jens and Dorthea: Nearly Pioneers

JENSEN, Jens and Dorthea: Nearly Pioneers

Most involve building religious faith through hardships and challenges, but some early migrants to Utah don’t fit this mold. Some were disappointed by life in Utah and returned to their place of origin. Others moved on seeking greener pastures elsewhere. Still others remained in Utah but became disaffected with the dominant religion. Some became Jack Mormons, others became vocal critics of the LDS Church, and still others joined a different church. Jens Christen Jensen and his wife Dorthea were cases of the latter.


Jens Christen Jensen was born in the home of his grandmother in Torslev Parish, Hjorring County, on January 21, 1849. His parents were landless peasants who later had two additional sons, Andrew and Joseph. The parents, Christian and Kirsten, joined the LDS church in late 1854. Three years later Christian was called to be a local missionary on the nearby island of Læsø. Over a period of two years of off-and-on missionary work he made about a dozen converts on the island and organized the Byrum Branch there. Two of his converts in 1858 were Dorthea Marie Cristine Sorensen and her mother, Else Kirstine Hansdatter.

With assistance from the the Jensens saved enough for all but Jens to immigrate to Utah in 1866. With later help from his brother Andrew, Jens had enough money to leave for America in 1869. His fare to Utah was about $75. He left Aalborg by boat for the short trip south to Copenhagen. From Copenhagen Jens and about 400 Latter-day Saints sailed for Hull, England on July 10, 1869. Hans Zobell, also a passenger, recorded they traveled on a small steam ship whose hold was covered with a thick layer of sand where passengers made their beds. Before leaving Danish waters, the ship was buffeted by a storm and most of the passengers became sea sick. The weather was so severe that the Captain anchored for a day or so in the lee of Skagen, close to where Jens’ family originally lived. It is not a pleasant thought to imagine the hygiene problems endured by all these seasick passengers stuffed into a small hold for four days.

After another two days and nights the ship arrived in Hull and Jens’s group, being behind schedule, rushed off to board a train for Liverpool. About 600 LDS now comprised their group and they were billeted in the fore half of the steamship Manhattan. Single men, including Jens, were assigned bunks nearest the bow, with families finding bunks between them and the single women were located closer to the center of the ship. Soon after leaving Liverpool the LDS were organized into groups that held prayer twice daily, tended to needs of members in the group, and held services on Sunday. The ship later stopped in Ireland and took on another 600 passengers bound for America and they were housed in the aft half of the ship.

Zobell mentions that as soon as the weather improved and most people recovered from their seasickness, some weaker members began to grumble about their conditions. To introduce a bit of levity, LDS leaders asked for those who felt they were inclined to grumble to volunteer to be in charge of this activity, including being set apart for the position of grumbling leader. After 13 days on the Atlantic the Minnesota docked in New York and the passengers were taken to Castle Garden, later called Ellis Island, where they were held in quarantine for two days, after which they boarded a train headed west.

One wonders about Jens’ thoughts as he saw how vast the United States was, compared to his small homeland. He may have thought he was having a dream as he peered out the window and saw vast herds of buffalo and occasional groups of Indians, vistas that would mostly disappear within a few years. On August 6 he arrived at Tailor’s Switch, near Ogden. Andrew recorded that Jens’ trip “was the quickest and easiest trip ever made by Scandinavian Saints from the Old Country to Utah” (Journal, A, p. 165).

When Jens arrived in Pleasant Grove his father was living in Ephraim, Utah. Learning that his parents were effectively separated must have shocked Jens. His mother had lived in Ephraim with her husband Christian for a short time on several occasions, but preferred living in a humble home in Pleasant Grove. Although Christian owned some property in Pleasant Grove he eventually put down most of his roots further south in Ephraim and later in Richfield.

Concerned about the strain between his parents, Andrew went to Ephraim as a peacemaker in late 1868 (Journal A, p.136). During the visit Christian promised his son to make things right with his wife. Later, in mid-November 1869, Jens and Andrew went to Ephraim via Nephi to see their father. Christian was living then in a small unfinished home he had built on the creek near the center of town. After a short visit, the two brothers mostly walked back to Pleasant Grove, much of the time in a snowstorm (Journal A, p. 165).

Walking was something that Andrew and Jens often did for exercise and also to save money. They walked to and from Salt Lake City in December 1869 trying to collect wages owed to Andrew for railroad work. The next month they walked to and from Ogden, again attempting to collect Andrew’s railroad wages. In the middle of February they mostly walked to and from Ephraim on another peace mission between their parents.

Among these long winter walks, Andrew bought 10 acres of land north of Pleasant Grove (in what was later called Manila) for $50 worth of “railroad orders” and $25 worth of labor (Journal A, p. 170). The first part of February Andrew and Jens cleared the land of sagebrush in preparation for spring planting. Andrew noted in his journal that Jens had far more agricultural skills and interest in farming than did he. The brothers planted wheat, corn, sorghum, and potatoes, but grasshoppers later devoured all but the potato crop. They only harvested about 85 bushels of potatoes in the fall. In his Autobiography Andrew also mentions working on the Provo Canal that brought water to the Provo bench during 1870. Jens likely joined in this work, and also hired out to do other manual labor whenever possible. Jens had two objectives in his work. One was to earn enough to buy land and the other was to save enough to pay for his future wife, Dorthea, to come to Utah.

Dorthea and Jens’ meeting and courtship contain elements found in the fabled romances of young love. Possibly through contacts made for her by Jens’ father, at the age of 14, Dorthea found work as a servant in the estate of Galtrup, near where the Jensen’s had recently built a new home. She met Jens while working there. Her mother, however, came to the mainland after a short time and took Dorthea back to Læsø.

Six years later, on November 2, 1867, Dorthea again returned to work near where Jens lived. She was likely his emotional support after his family left for Utah. The two may have been engaged by the time Jens left Denmark in 1869, since he promised to earn and pay her passage to Utah as soon as he could.

It took Jens two years of hard work before he fulfilled his promise. His work included digging lots of canals and ditches, building fences, clearing land, cutting and hauling timber, making adobes, and doing numerous odd jobs for people in and around Pleasant Grove. Instead of a dowry, Jens gained, a strong back, a wealth of work experience, and calluses in wooing Dorthea. She must have been elated when financial arrangements were finally completed and she left Denmark on June 20, 1871 with a large company of Danish Latter-day Saints. She arrived in Salt Lake City a month later on July 20. Only two weeks later, on August 7, 1871, they were sealed for time and eternity in Salt Lake City and then returned to Pleasant Grove to live with Jens’ mother.

In the late 1860s or early 1870s Jens’ father acquired rights to several parcels of land in Richfield, possibly through the aid of friends from Ephraim who had interests in Richfield. Jens’ brother Andrew visited Richfield in January 1872 and concluded he might like to settle there. On his way back to Pleasant Grove he stopped in Ephraim and dickered for the rights to three parcels of Richfield land his father had acquired: 12 ½ acres of farmland, 2 ½ acres of hay land, and a city lot. For these properties, Andrew gave his father shares in the Ephraim Co-operative and assumed a debt of $75 still outstanding on the Richfield properties.

Soon after returning to Pleasant Grove Andrew gave Jens the rights to the two farm parcels in Richfield he had earlier acquired from his father. Jens may have assumed the outstanding debt of $75 on the property. Full of anticipation, he and Dorthea left Pleasant Grove for Richfield on April 1, 1872. Andrew lent Jens an ox team and wagon, gave him a steer, and Jens took several additional family animals. He also had a plow and a few other farm implements that he had purchased with hard-earned wages.

Dorthea was in a family way when they moved to Richfield. Their first child, James Christian, was born there on July 6, 1872 while the family lived in a dugout. Jens was occupied during the summer and fall digging canals and ditches, building fences, clearing land, harvesting hay, and planting crops. Andrew, his mother, and brother Joseph traveled to Richfield to see Jens and family in early December (Journal A, p. 317). In spite of their poor circumstances, Andrew judged that Jens had fine prospects there. After staying for 8 days, Andrew and company, accompanied by Jens and his family, returned to Pleasant Grove. On their way back the group spent one night in Fountain Green with friends. While there they all had their heads read by a phrenologist (Journal A, p. 318). Andrew, at least, thought the reading was useful and accurate. Jens and Dorthea wintered in Pleasant Grove with Kirsten until returning to Richfield in mid-March of 1873.

After living four years in Richfield Jens and family moved back to Pleasant Grove in the spring of 1876 (Journal B, p. 285). Jens apparently sold all of his interests in Richfield when he moved to Pleasant Grove. Perhaps their return was because of Dorthea’s health problems after the birth of her third child, Else Kirstine, in March 1876 (Journal B, p. 285). Or, maybe the dissolution of the United Order in Richfield prompted Jens’ move. Another possible explanation is that he returned to provide more support for his mother and youngest brother. Discomfort with some of his father’s actions may have also stimulated his move. A further possibility is that he saw more possibilities in Pleasant Grove than he did in Richfield.

Whatever his feelings about Richfield, Jens had climbed a step up the economic ladder while there. In addition to any cash he might have brought with him, he also owned a pair of oxen and a wagon that he used during the summer and fall of 1876 working for a Mr. Swensen in Little Cottonwood Canyon. With this income he had enough money to buy another farm just north of Pleasant Grove. In early September he purchased 20 acres in the North Fields from a Mr. Lyon for $200. Earlier in the year he traded two lots in Pleasant Grove with Andrew for the 10 acres that Andrew purchased in 1869. These thirty acres would comprise Jens’ farm until he retired in 1909 and turned the land over to his daughter Anna and her husband Daniel E. Adams.

Jens built two homes on his 10-acre parcel, the first made of adobe, and the second constructed from soft rock taken from the William Wadley quarry. He was in the process of putting up the small adobe building in August 1877 when Andrew mentions helping in the construction for a day or so (Journal B, p. 340). This small home, later demolished, was located just north of the larger soft rock home that Jens constructed during 1882-83 (Journal C, p. 5).

Jens had a hurtful brush with the law in September 1877 in Pleasant Grove (Journal B, p. 341-343). On about September 4 one of Jens’ oxen wandered into a field of alfalfa, ate too much of the lush forage, and bloated. Jens was unable to save the ox so he butchered the animal. He then hauled the meat to Pleasant Grove and sold portions to town residents. In his broken English he told most of his customers how the animal died, but apparently, while trying to serve several customers at the same time, he failed to tell one of them, a Samuel S. White, that the animal had died of bloat.

Shortly thereafter, when White learned that the meat came from a bloated animal, he became angry and filed a charge against Jens for selling tainted meat. The case was tried on September 18 before the Pleasant Grove justice of the peace who was David West, a friend of White’s. Jens’ brother Andrew acted as his informal lawyer and interpreter. Despite testimony from several of Jens’ Danish friends who also bought meat and said there was nothing wrong with it, Judge West found in White’s favor. The judge ordered Jens to pay a fine of $5 plus court costs of $6.50.

This judgment split the Pleasant Grove community with many of the Scandinavians siding with Jens, and the non-Scandinavians mostly taking White’s side in the dispute. The case was interpreted by many of the Danes as an extension of the subtle and not so subtle discrimination against them by earlier settlers who owned most of the good farm land, made fun of their broken English, their poverty, and their clannishness. It wasn’t a compliment to say that one lived in the part of town called Little Denmark in the 1870s. Andrew Jenson was still smoldering over the decision when he translated his journals to English five years later in 1882.

After seeing how serious the split was in the community, bishop and mayor Brown interceded to limit the damage. On appeal he ruled that the judge should remit to Jens both the fine and the court costs. Eventually, the judge only gave back the fine and half the court cost. From a distance of more than 130 years it is impossible to determine the part this distasteful affair played in Jens and Dorthea joining the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints () a few years later, but it possibly had a substantial influence on their decisions. It certainly added to the problem that Jens had with his father divorcing his mother and then practicing polygamy by marrying a couple of other women.

RLDS missionaries had three spurts of success in the Intermountain West, largely related to polygamy: 1863-1868, 1869-1871, and 1879-1900). In the first phase, led by missionary E. C. Brand, something more than 500 converts were made and a number of RLDS branches were established in northern Utah and southern Idaho. Utah Valley groups were formed in American Fork, Pleasant Grove, Provo, Spanish Fork, and Payson. The first RLDS building in the Great Basin was built in Malad, Idaho in 1867 with the support of about 90 members. Aside from the congregation in Malad, however, most RLDS branches soon withered in this first period, or disappeared, as converts moved on to California or migrated back to Missouri. Some RLDS converts were harassed before leaving the Great Basin because they had not paid debts incurred to the Perpetual Emigration Fund. By the spring of 1867 only the branch in Malad, a handful of missionary families, and a few additional RLDS members remained in the Territory.

Led by Alexander and David Smith, two of Joseph Smith Jr.’s sons, the RLDS church renewed missionary efforts in the area in 1869. This led to almost a thousand converts over a three-year period and formation or strengthening of about ten branches, including one in Lehi, Utah. In spite of efforts by President Joseph Smith III, RLDS missionary efforts in Utah, nonetheless, languished during the 1870s. Apostasy, internal strife, continued migration of members, and few converts sapped the vitality of the movement.

On his second visit to Utah, in 1885, President Smith spent nearly two weeks in Utah Valley visiting what he described as “his little bands of believers.” On July 6, 1885 he stayed in American Fork for a few days before going on to Provo. While in American Fork he preached in the schoolhouse and stayed with Hosea Sterrett. Jens and other RLDS from Pleasant Grove and Lehi most certainly attended these meetings. In Provo, Smith preached in a schoolhouse on three evenings before returning to Pleasant Grove where he participated in several meetings while staying with the Pamela Sterrett family. Regarding his meetings in Pleasant Grove, perhaps held in the United Order Hall, Smith recorded the “audiences were not large, but still fair for the size of the place.”

After nearby branches disbanded in the 1870s, a new RLDS branch was formed in Lehi in 1880 that absorbed the few members left in the north end of Utah Valley. In 1891 the members voted to change the name of the branch to Pleasant Grove. Subsequent church meetings were mostly held in the home of Hosea B. Sterrett on Main Street in Pleasant Grove, until a new chapel was built in 1895. After Hosea Sterrett and his family moved to Independence, Missouri in 1901, and the polygamy issue faded, the branch contracted in size. Jens was chosen branch president on 14 March 1906 and apparently served in that capacity until the branch was officially dissolved five years later.

Why Jens and Dorthea joined the RLDS is a mystery, and no single explanation is robust. The fact that his younger brother, Joseph, also joined the RLDS suggests a common reason for their disaffection. Perhaps their father’s shoddy treatment of their mother, his other marital adventures, or his participation in polygamy drove them into the anti-polygamy camp. Another explanation might be that Jens became disaffected with his LDS neighbors after his rough treatment in the meat affair in 1877.

Dorthea was remembered by her daughters as a hardworking woman. Jens was not fond of killing animals, so Dorthea ended up with this task. She joined Jens in the fields during planting and harvesting and expected her daughters also to do manual labor. Dorthea commonly did the milking. She was a skilled sheep sheerer. On occasions she hired out to do sheering.

Not having much money, Jens owned only one pair of shoes. He didn’t want to go to church with soiled shoes, so he visited the barn each Sunday morning and painted his shoes with oil that he used to keep harnesses and other leather goods supple. The oil made the shoes look a bit better, but it also stained his pants several inches above his cuffs. Not to worry, he had dressed up for church. Jens was also remembered for never shaving. He occasionally trimmed his beard but wore facial hair all of his adult life.

Dorthea died on January 7, 1916. After being a widower for three years Jens married a widow by the name of Bengta Thomsen on March 25, 1919. She was originally from Lehi where Jens may have met her. Jens and Bengta were companions for about 10 years until she died on November 1, 1929.

Jens passed away at his daughter Anna’s home on March 15, 1931. His death, like part of his life, was a religious anomaly. Although only a modest farmer in Utah County, and not a member of the LDS church, his obituary was published on the front page of the Deseret News on March 16. Likewise, his funeral services took place at the LDS Timpanogos Stake Tabernacle in Pleasant Grove, perhaps reflecting the religious commitments of his daughter Anna and brother Andrew, rather than any wishes that Jens may have had.

The Jensens were typical of early Utah settlers: living in dugouts, worrying about Indians, being overwhelmed by grasshoppers and crickets, and struggling to channel water from canyon or river to crops. On a social level, these new emigrants endured the agonies of being annealed into the American culture, including discrimination against newcomers, struggling with a new language, having their brushes with the law, and, like some, joining dissident religious groups. They were likewise challenged by social experiments such as polygamy, the United Order, and a theocratic political system. Some, such as Jens and his wife, were so challenged that they abandoned their LDS faith and joined a splinter religious group.

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