Women of Old Far West
By Vida E. Smith
(Granddaughter of Emma Hale Smith)
Agnes Smith Crossing the Grand River
This painting depicts the wife of Don Carlos Smith, with her infant child and a two-year-old, crossing the Grand River as a mob burned her home near Adam-ondi-Ahman in 1838.
Far West was a pioneer settlement [in 1838], and, unlike the pioneers who usually come into new country, these were not the hardy frontiersmen inured to the rough life of a new country. The women were, for the great part, women of gentle rearing; many from the thoughtful and cultured portions of the East. There were school teachers, music teachers, and makers of fine garments. Many were delicate and lacked the robust constitution that the new world needs in its reclamation. True, there were some families rugged and ready for the pioneer life. These blessed the community one way, just as the gentler ones gave grace and sweetness in their own way. Even some of their enemies admitted they were "master hands" at nursing and most excellent cooks and school teachers. And as needle women [seam-stresses], their skill was unsurpassed. It was in these capacities that our women found employment during the time they were refugees in Clay County. And when Clay County withheld her hospitality, our hero-friend (the dauntless soldier and diplomatic statesman), Alexander W. Doniphan, with his colleagues succeeded in securing a county for our people in upper Missouri.
The pilgrims of hope came trailing over the hills into this new Utopia. They brought with them the frugality, thrift, and industry of New England; the love of study and learning that has made the East proud of her schools and culture. They brought the blood that ran hot and red against King George [of England] and the cool determined spirit that laid hand to the immortal document of the Declaration of Independence. And coupled with all these, in their hearts glowed the steady white flame of the gospel of Jesus. They crossed the prairies, as of old their fathers crossed the sea, not for fame or fear or shining gold, but to worship as the free.
And as they looked over the prairie grasses, billowing in the breeze like a sea of green, they saw home and the altars every woman builds began to arise in their minds. With rekindled hope they began life anew. They were joined by companies of Saints from Canada, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, New York; and far and near there arose the first signs of home in a new country the blue smoke of a home fire. It rose like an incense offered by the women of Far West for this haven of hope.
Rude and small the first houses that were built several hundred going up in a few weeks. About the doorway the women planted the seeds brought from the old home, and trained the wild vine and cherished the sweet-scented wild blooms. They started the song of the spinning wheel; how awkward it had been to carry so far. They finished bits of warp and woof [yarn and fabric] that had lain for months close packed. They put out the carding boards [used in weaving]; they brought to the home sweet wild herbs that brushed their skirts and hung them up to dry; and, by the old magic of the times, made tonic from the roots beneath their feet. But it was a new and raw, bewildering, strange place for many of them. They looked into the sky of night and beheld there the only familiar objects known in their old homes. A few could read of the starry sky, as it was then known.
They began to sing with something of the old sweet lilt and joy, for some were trained musicians. By reason of conditions, they acquired skill in many things. They welcomed newborn babies and with the most astounding skill attended where the issues of life were slender as a hair, and conquered. But not always; nay, they folded the lifeless hands, closed the eyes, and set the needle going to clothe the dead, while they comforted the living.
How rapidly the story was made. Their comforts were few, the demands on heart and hands were constant, and the conditions such that brains were busy contriving substitutes for the real thing. The household goods of the best of the homes were few and often crude. Cleanliness found a way, for the puncheon [split log] floors were scoured white with home-leached lye and sand, and the old-fashioned "elbow grease."
This stuff called lye was the essence of the hickory and oak. The woman who failed to set up a "leach" in her backyard was shiftless indeed. A few feet of hollow log set on the smooth, split side of another log made this altar to the god of cleanliness. Into this was poured the ashes from the hearth and over it poured just enough water to keep the brown, strong essence of the ashes dripping into a vessel. Over it was placed a cover to preclude the flooding of it by rain. Here was the thrifty woman made manifest. The lye, combined with waste fat, made the supply of soap and helped whiten linen and sometimes was resorted to for medical purposes.
Moving about in house and garden we fancy these women remembered happier and more comfortable conditions, but never a brighter hope. We see them standing, the dispensing medium between the immense demand and pitifully small supply, counting mouths and dividing portions. . . . Their two-course meal of stew and hominy and spring water was served with care and yet never without hospitality.
The sweet calculations of untrammeled, unmolested church life on the wide golden prairies or richly wooded heights of Far West were soon turned to bitter disappointment. The homes were turned into bonfires. In one case, a gentle, fragile, little woman [Agnes Smith], whose husband [Don Carlos Smith] was on a distant mission was driven from her home by the mob, and by the blazing light of her burning home she walked across the country for miles, her little one[s] held in her arms. She waded the deep waters of Grand River and reached the home of [Apostle] Lyman Wight at Adam-ondi-Ahman, exhausted and ill. This was a haven of some hope, but even here the mother of the household, a little, low-voiced woman [Harriet Wight] gave birth to her baby while a howling mob beat about the solid, strongly built log house on its perch high above the valley of the Grand [River].
What a pity these women could not stand before you today and tell their story. The little woman who waded the Grand and suffered unutterable anguish to a refined and sensitive soul, gave later to the world a daughter who achieved distinction in the world as a poetess [Ina D. Coolbrith], but whose heart was embittered by her mother's sufferings until she turned from the Church and connection therewith in her womanhood. The little woman in the big, log house on Diahman's hills suffered as much and possibly more, but her children nearly all cast in their lot with the remnant that was led by the son of the Martyr [Joseph Smith III].
Destiny led some (destiny I say, in the form of earthly ties), led some to the West. In the beautiful valley of San Bernardino I made friendship with a sweet, meek, little mother [Mrs.Olive Ames] who witnessed the massacre at Haun's Mill, knew the agony of motherhood on a "Mormon" march [from Haun's Mill to Nauvoo and Utah], and once wandered forth from a polygamy-cursed home, her two babies with her, seeking a place for tryst with death but who lived to see her home restored and happiness crown it with the coming of the reorganization of the Church. She gave to the Church of today some of the sweetest, noblest of women whom she called granddaughters. She kept her sweetness and cheeriness to a blessed old age. These women who survived told to another generation the makeshifts of those times, and handed down some of the genius that was begotten in the days of Far West. . . . They borrowed from the sun to dry their wild fruit, abundant and varied in Missouri then, and they made the smoking of meat an art. They learned the ways of nature and were wonderfully clever companions of the world old dame, working with her to the supplying of their needs. But they burned out many a high ambition in the white fire of sacrifice. The sun that rose on the far horizon of Far West's gold-en meadows, or tipped the wooded heights of Adam-ondi-Ahman, found women busy and as a rule cheerful.
There, laughing children and lovers and all the wonderful and magical instincts of human life abounded with promise of prosperity, peace, and plenty; but for the spirit that dwelt in some of earth's foulest clay. These [mobs] came with guns and the governor's order to exterminate, and the hills and prairies received a baptism of tears and blood and fire that ought to sanctify the memory of every woman whose feet have touched her soil. If out of bitterness grows the sweet, how sweet will this new Far West be. How sweet and glad indeed!
These women of old Far West were women of graceful and noble bearing, and they rode the old horse or mule with the ease of a circus queen, and could have managed a Hudson Six [automobile] with the skill of their fair granddaughters, had it been in their generation. Many of them were as skillful in bagging the wild fowl, with the family firearms, as they were in parting the bones of the game and turning them before the glowing fire to a perfect brown. They gathered with swift and strong fingers the soft feathers on the wild ducks and geese for future use in bedding. They utilized the skins of beasts for caps and mittens and cape linings. They knew the value of shrub and tree for coloring matter and could slap the dirtiest garment clean in the running stream, armed only with a wooden paddle, a few feet of puncheon or a flat stone and their homemade soap. They knew wonderful beauty secrets the sleep of early hours, the swift action of limbs, the dip in the dew-wet grasses, and the night wash of buttermilk. They could estimate the relative value of a piece of venison or half a dozen partridge, a peck of meal, and an unexpected crowd of hungry menand that, too, without cookstove or electric grill. They were even under the necessity of themselves grinding by hand the corn for the meal at times. Cornmeal had many possibilities, but to many was a poor substitute for the wheaten products of their former homes.
The new country had no tannery and upon the mother often fell the work of clothing the feet of the children. The Mormon women were called "prudish" by some of their neighbors, and they no doubt won this by their modest conduct. They were called proud and haughty too, by reason, I think, of their reservation and quiet dignity. They were "clannish" one writer tells us.
Not without a reason were the women of old Far West bound together and suspicious of their neighbor's advances, but no one has ever said with a grain of reason that they were rough or unwomanly or cowards. When they visited their husbands and fathers in their places of unjustifiable imprisonment, they carried spirits of cheerfulness and comfort. One delicate woman [Athalia Rigdon Robinson] with her tiny baby stayed for weeks in the hateful prison room [Liberty Jail], nursing her sick and feeble father [Sidney Rigdon] and comforting the whole body of prisoners with her sweet and wholesome personality; and never once was she allowed one moment of privacy with husband [George W. Robinson] or father, subjected daily to the sound of most loathsome language from the guards. Sweet and gracious, she went about her ministrations, undaunted and unruffled by their insolence.
It was the women of Far West who stood guard night and day over their honor and their homes, when the State had robbed them of their natural protectors [their fathers, husbands, and brothers]. And that march from Far West to the banks of the Mississippi was in the great part women, tenderhearted, loving, gentle women, whose hands were powerless to help the children who fell by their side, or the aged who sank in feebleness. These exposures and privations and toil they bore in Far West were the sowing. The old Mormon graveyard in Nauvoo, the wayside woodland and prairie, gathered the harvest. The spirit of them was dauntless, but the physical "broke on the wheel."
In the record of those months following the fall of Far West, the list of mothers, wives, and sisters who "passed away" is appalling. Women in the flower of womanhood fell like storm-swept lilies before the breath of death.
But over the golden meadows and wooded heights of Far West they left a deathless spirit. I felt it when I stood in the summer sunshine on the spot where my father [Alexander Smith] was born. I looked at the little scar on the sod that had once been the place of his mother's [Emma Smith] abiding, and reflected on the cause that had led these women to bear sons in this new land. And I felt the sweet stir of the breeze like a whisper from those womenit sounded out of the grass at my feet and in the treetops near, a benediction on the wide, far landscape a consecrated land because of the sacrifices of those women of old Far West who left an untainted record of womanliness to the woman of today.
(Vision 35:6–8; Journal of History 11 [October 1918]: 427–434)
Prints of Agnes Smith Crossing the Grand River by Nancy Harlacher are available in various sizes for purchase at the Restoration Bookstore or from our online store.