From Swansea to Liverpool

Ronald D. Dennis, The Call of Zion: The Story of the First Welsh Mormon Emigration (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1987), 7-16.

The plan for emigrating called for all Welsh Saints to meet in Liverpool by 15 February. Those who lived in North Wales would go as individuals or in small groups; those from South Wales would meet in Swansea on the thirteenth and would make the thirty-four-hour voyage together by steamer. The gathering in Swansea caused a great sensation among the residents and was even described in considerable detail in the local newspaper, The Cambrian. The tone is one of amazement intermixed with pity:

Emigration to California.—The Latter Day Saints.—On Tuesday last, Swansea was quite enlivened in consequence of the arrival of several waggons loaded with luggage, attended by some scores of the “bold peasantry” of Carmarthenshire, and almost an equal number of the inhabitants of Merthyr and the surrounding districts, together with their families. The formidable party were nearly all “Latter Day Saints,” and came to this town for the purpose of proceeding to Liverpool in the Troubador steamer, where a ship is in readiness to transport them next week to the glittering regions of California. This goodly company is under the command of a popular Saint, known as Captain Dan Jones, a hardy traveller, and a brother of the well-known John Jones, Llangollen, the able disputant on the subject of “Baptism.” He arrived in the town on Tuesday evening, and seems to enjoy the respect and confidence of his faithful band. He entered the town amidst the gaze of hundreds of spectators, and in the evening he delivered his valedictory address at the Trades’ Hall, to a numerous audience, the majority of whom were led by curiosity to heat his doctrines, which are quite novel in this town. Amongst the group were many substantial farmers from the neighbourhoods of Brechfa and Llanybydder, Carmarthenshire; and although they were well to do, they disposed of their possessions, to get to California, their New Jerusalem as they deem it, where their fanaticism teaches them to believe they will escape from the general destruction and conflagration that is shortly to envelop this earth. It is due to them, however, to state, that they are far from being smitten by that mania for gold, the discovery of which has imparted to the modern El Dorado such notoriety of late. They seem animated only with the most devout feelings and aspirations, which seem to flow from no other source (judging from their conversation) than a sincere belief that the End of the World is at hand, and that their great Captain of Salvation is soon to visit his “bobl yn ngwlad y Saint” [people in the country of the Saints]. It is their intention, we are informed, not to visit the gold regions, but the agricultural districts, where they intend, they say, by helping one another, to reside in peace and harmony, and to exemplify the truth of “brotherly love,” not in name, but in practice. Amongst the number who came here were several aged men, varing from 70 to 90 years of age, and “whose hoary locks” not only proclaimed their “lengthened years,” but render it very improbable they will live to see America; yet so deluded are the poor and simple Saints, that they believe that every one amongst them, however infirm and old they may be, will as surely land in California safely, as they started from Wales. Their faith is most extraordinary. On Wednesday morning, after being addressed by their leader, all repaired on board in admirable order, and with extraordinary resignation. Their departure was witnessed by hundreds of spectators, and whilst the steamer gaily passed down the river, the Saints commenced singing a favourite hymn. On entering the piers, however, they abruptly stopped singing, and lustily responded to the cheering with which they were greeted by the inhabitants. (The Cambrian, 16 February 1849)

The departure from Swansea was at 9 o’clock Wednesday morning, 14 February 1849; the arrival at Liverpool was the following day at 3:30 P.M. The journey, according to William Phillips, Dan Jones’s successor, was shorter than usual by four hours. Phillips accompanied the emigrants during the two-week period prior to their departure from Liverpool, not only to see them off but also to gain firsthand knowledge to share with future emigrants. In the March 1849 Udgorn Seion he published a brief account of their experiences.

In a fashion that was standard with other letter writers about the journey, William Phillips accentuated the positive aspects of the emigration and downplayed anything of a contrary or discouraging nature: “Everyone was healthy and content during the entire voyage, except that a little seasickness troubled some” (Udgorn Seion, March 1849, 59, TD6). The “little seasickness” was described in somewhat different terms by David D. Bowen, an experienced seaman who was also on board the Troubador: “All the passengers with few exceptions was very sick on the passage, by the pitching and rocking of the steamer, and no one on board except Dan Jones and myself could do any help to the sick. Everybody had plenty to take care of them selfs” (Bowen, 19). For the majority of the emigrants, this was their first time aboard a ship; thus, sea legs were slow to develop. But there is no record of any having turned back. This short voyage from Swansea to Liverpool, however, was merely a prelude to fifty days of Atlantic waves en route to New Orleans.

Mid-nineteenth-century Liverpool was a bustling port city, much larger than any the Welsh had seen in Wales. Because so many neophytes passed through Liverpool on their way to parts all over the world, a group of fast-talking “sharpers” cropped up. Many a careless emigrant would find himself relieved of his baggage and his currency by these shrewd dealers. The Welsh, however, were given fair warning by their leader in his printed instructions to them (Prophwyd y Jubili, November 1848, 167, TD2). Those on board the Troubador received additional help from the ship’s captain by his landing at a place where there were no such shysters waiting. William Phillips reported later that “through listening to their leaders’ warning to take care of their possessions, all the Saints kept everything safe so that all the cunning of the predators of the place did them no harm in any way” (Udgorn Seion, March 1849, 59, TD6).

Brothers and sisters of the faith were encouraged to assist one another at every opportunity. Just as pioneers crossing the plains of America would plant crops along their way for the benefit of those who followed, the Saints in Liverpool assisted their Welsh comrades, despite a centuries-old suspicion between England and Wales. They had rented the “Music Hall,” a large, six-story building which had sufficient rooms for the entire company to take lodging in. At the rate of one shilling sixpence per night per person, the Welsh spent five nights there.

In the harbor, final preparations were being made for the vessel which would transport the company to New Orleans. At 547 tons the Buena Vista was among the smaller ships used in Mormon emigration. She measured 141 x 29 x 14.5 feet and had been built just the year before at Newburyport, Massachusetts. Her captain was Ebenezer Linnell. [1]

After five nights in the Music Hall, the Welsh emigrants were instructed to go on board the ship. David D. Bowen and a few other families were already on the ship, no doubt to conserve their money supply. Bowen described the spectacle of the emigrants as they went from one place to another in the town: “All the passingers where [sic] marching along the streets of Liverpool in one body like a regiment of solders. I thought it was the biggest sight that the Liverpool people ever seen by the way they where looking at us” (19).

Three unexpected developments took place once the entire group congregated on board the Buena Vista: first, the departure was delayed for another six days for unexplained reasons; second, seventy-seven of those who had counted on sailing on the Buena Vista would have to wait another week and sail on the Hartley along with 161 English and Scottish converts; third, Welsh-speaking ministers from Liverpool went on board to dissuade the emigrants from going.

Many stories, some very strange, indeed, had been circulated all over Wales about the Mormons. In addition to the prophecy about the sale of the emigrants into slavery in Cuba, there was also a strong rumor that widows from South Wales on board had “prepared clothes to put on their departed husbands in California and shoes to put on their feet” (Phillips, Udgorn Seion, March 1849, 60, TD6).

The Reverend Henry Rees and “some of the sectarian preachers of the town” made inquiry concerning this and other information which they had received from their colleagues in South Wales. Dan Jones and William Phillips, spokesmen for the group, replied that it was a “barefaced lie” and offered the following explanation: “There are on the ship some widows who have kept some things of their husbands out of respect, but not to greet them with in California” (Phillips, Udgorn Seion, March 1849, 60, TD6).

These reverends failed to convert any of the Mormons to the idea of staying in Great Britain, but it was not for lack of effort. One can readily sense the animosity of the Welsh Mormons toward the ministers by these comments in an article entitled “Last greeting of the emigrating Saints,” signed by twenty-five of the departing brethren:

Many preachers of the different sects, after slandering us and smearing our characters through the Welsh publications and condemning our dear religion from their pulpits, and doing everything they could to disgrace us and to shatter our feelings are even here, when we are on board the ship, and as if they had one foot out of Babylon, they are trying to frighten the Saints about the sea voyage, about the country and about everything which is good, trying to persuade them to everything except that which they should do. (Udgorn Seion, March 1849, 58, TD5)

Sacrifices had not been small for many of these emigrants to become Mormons. For them to be disowned by their families, shunned by friends, and persecuted by former ministers and fellow parishioners was not uncommon. They had been constantly graced with such epithets as “deceivers, false prophets, weakheaded and unprincipled liars, idlers, the dregs of everything which stinks in the nostrils of everyone” (Davis, 6 October 1848, 3, trans.). The label which really caused the Mormons to breathe fire was one applied to them by the Reverend W. R. Davies, Baptist minister from Dowlais; he called them Latter-day “Satanists.” It is little wonder, then, that the emigrants stood their ground on board the Buena Vista and gave prayers of thanksgiving that they would soon be free of such pernicious influences as the Welsh reverends.

Even before the ministers went on board, President William Phillips, there to see everyone off, decided to put the Saints to the test to see if he could convince some of the more homesick ones to turn back with him. The answer he generally received was “‘However much we love you, we cannot love you so much as to wish to turn back with you. Leave us in peace; it is forward that all of us want to go’” (Udgorn Seion, March 1849, 60, TD6).

The desire of every missionary had been to baptize entire families into the Church. Many times, however, only the wife or the husband would become a believer. Such situations became particularly divisive when the call came to emigrate. Accusations were launched that men were deserting their wives and children by going to Zion without them. And it is true that there were several men on board who were leaving their families behind, some with no intention of ever seeing them again. The emigrants felt justified, however, and placed the blame on the “Babylonians”:

They were so bad, some of them, that they influenced our own families, yes, our dear wives and children! so as to frighten them against coming with us! yes, to cause contention between husband and wife, between parents and dear children. What worse could they have done? They will have much to answer for! (Udgorn Seion, March 1849, 57, TD5)

The attraction to proceed to Zion was greater than the sense of duty to stay behind in “Babylon” with intractable wives and children, and the converts denounced their families as well as those who had caused their families to refuse to accompany husbands and fathers:

Yet, no doubt these themselves [the “Babylonians”] will raise their voices highest to condemn a man for leaving his disobedient, peevish and cruel wife behind when she refuses every offer to come. We assure you that there are no men in our midst who have not tried their utmost to get their wives to come with them and their children also. Do not the laws of men and God assure to the husband, as the head of his family, the choice of his country? And if they refuse to follow him, his wife or children are the ones who are leaving him, and it is not he who is leaving them! (Udgorn Seion, March 1849, 57, TD5)

Other stories had been spread about wives on board who were emigrating against the wishes of their husbands. Such stories were summarily dismissed by the signers of the “Last greeting” as baseless lies.

William Phillips reported with great enthusiasm the wondrous things which took place on board ship prior to departure: “I saw some of the Saints at times taken sick; but no sooner were hands laid on them than they were restored immediately; and I can bear witness that I have never seen more of the power of God than I saw on the ship” (Udgorn Seion, March 1849, 60, TD6). One of these manifestations of divine intervention came when Betsy David, nineteen-year-old daughter of Morgan and Elizabeth David, fell from the top deck to the bottom of the hold. Cut, bruised, and unconscious, she was taken to a hospital. When she regained consciousness the next day, no one thought she would live. But through the blessings and prayers of the elders, she experienced a full recovery and lived for another four decades (Chambers).

The nine children under the age of one were nonpaying passengers. Those between the ages of one and fourteen cost their parents £3 each, and all above the age of fourteen paid £3 12s 6d, a reasonable price considering £5 was not uncommon for such a voyage. The price also included the needed provisions. All the fares having been collected and the ship put into a state of readiness, the only two things left to complete were to organize the emigrants into different sections and set sail.

The 249 persons on board the Buena Vista were assigned to be in one of eight sections. An elder was appointed to supervise each section “to see that everyone acted properly and received justice impartially, to foster and nurture love and unity, and especially to see that all kept the places clean and healthful” (Jones, 18 April 1849, 5, TD7). To keep the ship clean, two men were assigned to arise each morning before all the others in their group to wash and dry the deck. Captain Dan Jones, very much at home back on board ship after four years on land, was the president of the emigrating company. He was assisted by the triad of William Morgan, a forty-six-year-old engineer from Merthyr Tydfil; Rice Williams, a forty-five-year-old farmer from Rhymni; and William Davis, a forty-three-year-old tailor from Rhymni. These constituted a “council” which was to organize all temporal and spiritual matters.

After a nine-day wait and after one-fourth of the group had been reassigned to sail a few days later, the Buena Vista was ready to be dragged out to sea; two large steamers performed the task. Tears of joy, excitement, and anxiety rolled down the passengers’ cheeks. Tears of sadness were in the eyes of William Phillips, Abel Evans, Elieser Edwards, John Davies, David Jeremy, and Daniel Evans, brethren who had come to bid farewell to the emigrants. Tears of disappointment were on the faces of the seventy-seven who had paid to be on the Buena Vista but who still had another week of waiting in Liverpool. Dan Jones described the departure:

On Monday, the 26th of February about two o’clock in the afternoon, we set sail from the port, and all the Saints, accompanied by the harp, sang “The Saints’ Farewell” as we left the dock. Their sweet voices resounded throughout the city, attracting the attention of and causing amazement to thousands of spectators who followed us along the shore as if charmed. (18 April 1849, 6, TD7) [2]

Phillips and the others had purchased oranges to hurl to the outstretched hands of the passengers as the ship was being dragged from the Waterloo Dock. Fresh fruit was expensive in Britain, and the Saints were poor; consequently, appreciation was all the greater. When the ship had gone out of reach for throwing the oranges, handkerchiefs were then waved as a final farewell and “the winds of February . . . turned into summer breezes” (Jones, 18 April 1849, 6, TD7).

Thomas Jeremy became very nostalgic at the prospect of being separated, perhaps permanently, from his brethren in the gospel:

Oh, how lovely was the association I had with some of these brethren on numerous occasions in Wales. Sometimes the day was too short for us to talk about the things pertaining to the kingdom of God, and we would frequently take the night as an extention to it. And sleep would stand in the distance from us while others would be abundantly comfortable in its grasp. At that time it came to my mind, “When will I see them again?” I imagined hearing something in answer that it would not be long before seeing them over in Zion. And at that I took courage. (18 April 1849, 21, TD8)

The opposition back in Wales had by no means ceased with the departure of this first group of Welsh Saints. In fact, the departure was used as a reason for further agitation. The date of 27 February 1849, just one day after the Buena Vista had left Liverpool, was applied to a letter sent to John Davis, editor of Udgorn Seion. Signed “Capt. Dan Jones,” it contained some rather startling declarations:

My dear brother in the Lord—I am pleased to be able to inform you that we have landed safely in New Orleans, after a short and comfortable voyage. There is evident care in our behalf, clear proof to the world of the truthfulness of our faith, in spite of so much talk against it by the numerous false religions of the world; and perhaps this letter also will come to your hand rather miraculously; if so, proclaim it before the public, and proclaim in Gath and Ashkelon about the providential care of our Heavenly Father over us. We are going from here to Nauvoo, on the banks of the Mississippi River, in the State of Illinois, and from there to Council Bluffs in the State of Missouri. An angel showed to you in a dream the directions; inform everyone of this also. Tell all the brethren that we are well and comfortable, and convincing the world as we go forward; our numbers will be thousands by the time we reach the end of our journey, and before long we shall overthrow all the kingdoms of the earth, and we shall live one thousand two hundred and sixty years after that happens. I do not have time to write much to you, for I have much to do. I am yours affectionately, Your father in the Lord, Capt. Dan Jones. (Davis, Preface, iii–iv, trans.)

One could disregard, perhaps, the placing of Council Bluffs in Missouri, but to have the immigrants go first to Nauvoo en route to Council Bluffs three years after the Saints’ exodus from Nauvoo was more than Davis could accept. In addition, he noticed the emblem of the Odd Fellows on the stationery and declared the letter a clumsy forgery. He printed it in his foreword to the pamphlet containing Jones’s and Jeremy’s “authentic” accounts of the Buena Vista crossing (TD7, TD8), as a further caution to the already cautious Welsh Saints to beware of the continued efforts to hamper the progress of Mormonism.


[1] In Welsh Mormon folklore there is a faith-promoting but apocryphal story about the “sinking of the Buena Vista.” “The boat was a leaky one that the English said, ‘Let them have it and it will go down with all the damned Mormons on board.’ But Jones, being seaworthy and wise, repaired the ship and, with prayers each day for safety, they came across the ocean, unloaded everything upon the docks (much of it water soaked and spoiled . . .) and the ship sank in the harbor” (Heart Throbs, 2:4).

[2] One is led to wonder at Jones’s estimate of the number of onlookers. The emphatic use of hyperbole is not unusual in Jones’s writings.