Early Reminiscences

Jeni Broberg Holzapfel and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, eds., A Woman’s View: Helen Mar Whitney’s Reminiscences of Early Church History (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1997). 1–12.

Helen Mar Whitney introduces readers to her life as part of the celebration of the Church’s jubilee year in 1880. Though she recalls events that happened decades earlier, “those scenes are fresh” in her memory, in part as a result of the use of primary documents in her possession. She knew that her readers would discover things about the Latter-day Saints that would be worthy of their efforts.

Helen covers the events of Missouri and early Illinois in a short summary. During a period from 15 May to 15 June 1880, she writes three separate articles. It is apparent that she did not anticipate doing so. In the final article of this chapter, she jumps back in time to discuss in more detail the events of persecution in Missouri (1838–39). The disjointed nature of her articles is in no place more apparent than in this first chapter. Yet these first articles give the reader a sense of how she understands her place and the place of the Latter-day Saints in history.

This has been proclaimed as a year of jubilee to the Latter-day Saints and I truly rejoice that I have had the privilege of being numbered with those who have come up through much tribulation and gained a knowledge for myself that this is the work of God which neither wealth nor worldly honors could tempt me to part with. This is a world of sorrow and disappointment. Life and everything here is uncertain, but Beyond is eternal life and exaltation. The experience of the Latter-day Saints during the past fifty years has disciplined and prepared them in a measure for the great and wonderful changes which are coming, while those who know not God are groping as it were in midnight darkness. The blessings enjoyed by us in these peaceful vales are very great and I think that we can well afford to be looked down upon and hated, for we know that the time has come for the Lord to favor Zion. We no longer walk by faith, alone, but by sight. In the midst of the greatest persecutions and trials that the Saints have been subjected to, they have had that to comfort and sustain them which the outside world cannot understand, and when drivings, burnings, whippings and other cruelties were inflicted upon them, their spirits would have fainted had not the Lord through the Prophet Joseph told them that in due time He would come out in swift judgment against their enemies, who should be cut off from before Him and in his own due time He would bear the Saints off conquerors in all things. In their sublime faith they trusted in his promises, and I can testify that I have witnessed during these scenes the greatest calmness and patience and they even rejoiced in the midst of their afflictions. As an example, I copy a few lines from my father’s journal. “We were brought up at the point of the bayonet and compelled to sign a deed of trust, transferring all our property to defray the expenses of the war made on us by the state of Missouri. This was very cheerfully complied with because we could not help ourselves. When we walked up to sign the deeds of trust to pay those assassins for murdering our brethren and sisters and their children, robbing us of our lands and possessions and all we had on earth and other such like services they expected to see us cast down and sorrowful; but I testify as an eye witness that the brethren rejoiced and praised the Lord, taking joyfully the despoiling of their goods. There were judges and magistrates, Methodists, Presbyterians, Campbellites and other sectarian priests stood by and saw all the goings on, exulting over us, and it seemed to make them more angry that we bore our misfortune so cheerfully. Said Judge Cameron with an oath, ‘see those d——d creatures laugh and kick up their heels, they are whipped but not conquered.’ For me to undertake to write what I saw and felt I have not the ability to do it, but I will let eternity reveal the scenes of those days. I can say before God and angels, heaven and earth that I am innocent of violating any law of the state of Missouri, and my brethren are as pure and clean as I am, true to their God and their country and as Jesus said with the measure they meted to the Latter-day Saints it shall be measured to them again or upon all those who consented to it, fourfold, running over and pressed down, and as the Lord God Almighty liveth I shall live to see it come to pass.” Missouri suffered all that at the time of the war between the North and South, and one week ago that state and a portion of Illinois was visited by a terrible cyclone which swept away whole towns and villages and men, women and children destroying everything before it. We scarcely take up a paper that has not some frightful account of deaths by cyclones, fires, railroad accidents, earthquakes, floods, the sea heaving Beyond its bounds, famines, and also pestilence which is more terrible than all the rest and when I think of the good and the innocent who must suffer with the wicked, my heart pains me and these things we know have scarcely begun.

It is forty years or more since the Latter-day Saints were driven from their homes in the state of Missouri, and although I was quite young those scenes are fresh in my memory. I well remember the night that the Prophet and others of the brethren gave themselves up to save the rest of us from being massacred, which the mob, numbering about 7,000, had threatened to do. After the brethren had delivered up their weapons, the mob surrounded the city and commenced plundering, and committing horrible outrages upon some of the helpless women, the brethren being prisoners. Our house being on the outskirts, my mother took her children and went into the heart of the city to stay all night with Sister Mary Smith, who was lying sick, but previous to going there we called on the widow of David Patten, who had been killed but a few days before. I can never forget her fearless and determined look. Around her waist was a belt to which was attached a large bowie-knife. She had a fire in her stove and a large iron kettle full of boiling water and a big tin dipper in her hand intending, she said, to fight if any of the demons came there. She did not seem in the least excited, her countenance was perfectly calm and she shed no tears, the fountains seemed to have dried up and she only thought of avenging the blood of her husband.

The parting scene between Hyrum Smith and his family was heartrending. He was marched by a strong guard of heartless fiends who ordered him to take his last farewell, and his wife was told that she need never think that she would see her husband again. In less than a fortnight from that date, her first child; a son (now one of the Twelve Apostles) was born. She and Sister Patten were very dear friends of my mother, both having lived with her in Kirtland previous to marrying Brother Hyrum. Sister Patten stopped with my mother one summer, while her husband and my father went East on missions. Brother and Sister Patten were the first to welcome us to their house in Far West, where we stayed a few days to recuperate as our bodies were weakened by sickness, in consequence of the arduous journey from Kirtland.

Woman’s Exponent, vol. 8, no. 24,
15 May 1880, pp. 188–89

Among the mob who surrounded the brethren were men who had once professed to be beloved brethren. They had piloted the mobs into the city, two of the first Twelve Apostles and two of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon and many others were led by Neil Gillium, a white man who was painted and styled himself the “Delaware Chief.” A portion of the troops were also painted like Indians. They pointed their guns upon the brethren and swore they would blow out their brains, although they were disarmed and helpless. William E. McClellen wanted to know where Heber C. Kimball was, when someone pointed him out as he was sitting on the ground. He came up to him and said: “Brother Heber, what do you think of Joseph Smith the fallen prophet now? Has he not led you blindfolded long enough; look and see yourself, poor, your family stripped and robbed and your brethren in the same fix, are you satisfied with Joseph?” He replied, “Yes, I am more satisfied with him, a hundredfold, than ever I was before, for I see you in the very position that he foretold you would be in; a Judas to betray your brethren, if you did not forsake your adultery, lying and abominations. Where are you and Hinkle and scores of others; have you not betrayed Joseph and his brethren into the hands of the mob, as Judas did Jesus? Yes, verily you have; I tell you Mormonism is true, and Joseph is a true prophet of the living God, and you with all others who turn therefrom will be d——d and go to h——l and Judas will rule over you.”

Most of the brethren had been without food for twenty-four hours, not having time to go to their houses before they were taken prisoners, and when things began to be a little more quiet my father desired to go to his home as he had been without food for many hours. He asked some who were standing near, if he could have the privilege of going to his house a little distance off; they referred him to their captain—Bogart, the Methodist preacher, he went to him and told him what he wanted. Bogart first spoke of sending someone with him, as he would be liable to be shot down if found alone, but in a short time said, “I will go with you.” This happened the day after we had stayed all night with Sister Mary Smith. My mother prepared dinner after they came, and Bogart ate and laughed and chatted as though he had been an invited guest. They then returned to where the brethren were still under guard. They were released the next day, but could not leave the city as it was surrounded by a strong guard. The Saints who had fled to Far West brought with them what they could, in their haste. Their stock were running loose in the streets, and during that time all had the privilege of killing if they were in need. During this time I remember of but once eating wheat bread. I took the wheat and went to one of our neighbors who owned a large coffee mill and was kind enough to let us use it, and it took me a good portion of the day to grind sufficient for a short cake. My mother made it for supper and my father often spoke of it afterward as being the best cake he ever ate. It contained bran and all. We had an abundance of milk and honey and hulled corn, and were blessed with health and excellent appetites, with the exception of my mother, whose health was delicate. The evening after the brethren were released, my oldest brother was sent a short distance on an errand, and before he returned, a guard had been set near our house. At my brother’s approach the guard drew his rifle and threatened to blow out his brains, if he stepped one inch further towards the house. Through the agency of some friend; father was notified of it. He went to the man and spoke to him in a friendly manner and conversed with him about the beautiful country, so much more so than England, or any of the countries or nations he had been traveling in. The guard became very much interested when father pointed out his son telling him that was his boy, and he said, “If that is your son he may pass, he may go home.” That evening he left his post and spent the whole evening at our house, and came a number of times afterward and tried to persuade my parents to leave the “cursed Mormons,” told them they were too good to follow such a d——d set, etc. William McClellen also came and spent an evening, and seemed to feel a lingering regard for father, notwithstanding he had given him so sharp a rebuke, he plead with him to leave the deluded Mormons. We had not been in Far West over three weeks when the mobbing commenced, and in the bleak month of February we started in company with Brigham Young and family and several others who left on the 14th.

My father remaining behind to help the poor Saints in getting away, as well as to assist the Prophet and his brethren in making their escape from prison. He being almost a stranger there could stay with less danger than Bro. Brigham, who was obliged to keep himself disguised, and he was seen but little with us in the daytime. We suffered considerably from cold at the start, as the people for some distance around Far West were very bitterly opposed to the ‘Mormons.’ The day we started the weather was terrible, and my mother and Sister Young, with their children, stopped at a house and asked the privilege of warming themselves. There were no men, only women there, but they began talking about the horrible “Mormons” and eyed us very closely. Sister Young and my mother appeared to believe all they said, and looked horrified, and we children imitated them. We found some who were more humane and we were allowed the privilege of staying all night, at other times we were obliged to content ourselves with a fire by the roadside. Our bedroom was one little wagon, which contained all we had left. One day in particular I remember was so cold we were obliged to walk to keep from freezing. My oldest brother, who drove our cow, had gone ahead, and becoming very sleepy in consequence of the cold, got off from his horse, and putting the bridle over his arm laid down to sleep. Dr. Levi Richards, who was traveling with us, and had also gone ahead of the wagons, soon overtook him, and by hard shaking and a few well meaning blows, which made him angry enough to fight, started the blood to circulating and saved his life. We soon after arrived at Bishop Vincent Knight’s house, where his feet were found to be badly frozen. We remained there until the next morning. The Lord was with us, and although we never heard from my father for nearly three months, yet we found friends as the Lord told him that we should. We crossed the Mississippi to the town of Atlas. There through the instrumentality of Bro. George Pitkin, my mother was introduced to a widow by the name of Ross, who let her have a nice room and the privilege of cooking in her kitchen, and was as kind to her as an own mother or sister. She seemed greatly interested in her history, and wanted to introduce her to her most intimate friends. A very sweet lady, a relative of hers, who was also a widow, manifested much sympathy and invited us to her beautiful home where we were treated with the greatest politeness. They appeared to look upon my mother as one who had known better days. Bro. Brigham rented a vacant storehouse for his family a few rods from us. We tarried there seven weeks and only had to pay fifty cents a week. At the end of that time John P. Greene came and moved us up to Quincy and rented a comfortable room. My father in his journal says: “My family having been gone about two months, during which time I heard nothing from them. Our brethren being in prison, death and destruction following us wherever we went, I felt very sorrowful and lonely. The following words came to me, and the spirit said unto me write, which I did by taking a piece of paper and writing on my knee as follows: Far West, April 6, 1839. A word from the Spirit of the Lord to my servant Heber C. Kimball. Verily, I say unto my servant Heber: Thou are my son, in whom I am well pleased; for thou art careful to hearken to my words and not transgress my law, nor rebel against my servant Joseph, for thou has a respect to the words of mine anointed, even from the least to the greatest of them; therefore thy name is written in heaven no more to be blotted out forever because of these things; and my spirit and blessing shall rest down upon thy posterity forever and forever, for they shall be called after thy name, for thou shalt have many more sons and daughters, for thy seed shall be numerous as the sands upon the seashore, therefore my servant Heber, be faithful, go forth in my name, and I will go with you, and be on your right hand and on your left, and my angels shall go before you and raise you up when you are cast down and afflicted; remember that I am always with you, even to the end, therefore be of good cheer, my son, and my spirit shall be in your heart to teach you the peaceable things of the kingdom; trouble not thyself about thy family, for they are in my hands; I will feed them and clothe them and make unto them friends. They never shall want for food nor raiment, houses nor lands, fathers nor mothers, brothers nor sisters, and peace shall rest upon them forever, if thou wilt be faithful and go forth and preach my gospel to the nations of the earth, for thou shalt be blessed in this thing, and thy tongue shall be unloosed to such a degree that has not entered into thy heart as yet, and the children of men shall believe thy words, and flock to the water for baptism even as they did to my servant John; for thou shalt be great in winning souls to me, for this is thy gift and calling, and there shall be no gift withheld from thee, if thou art faithful, therefore be faithful and I will give thee favor in the eyes of the people: be humble and kind and you shall obtain kindness; be merciful, and you shall obtain mercy, and I will be with you even unto the end. Amen.”

My father found us at Quincy, 111., well and in good spirits, on the 2nd day of May, 1839. He says: “In reading the words of inspiration which I had written, my wife bore record to the truth of that part which says ‘trouble not thyself about thy family,’ etc. She had had no lack of friends and had every comfort bestowed upon her that she could have had among her own kindred, and I say in my heart God bless them all, and my brother Brigham for his great kindness in assisting them into Illinois. God bless all who aided and assisted my family; for Jesus says every man shall be rewarded for every good deed that he doeth. In relation to that part which said I should have many sons and daughters, my wife rather doubted that, as she considered she was too far advanced in years, and the thought had never entered her mind, or mine, that the Lord would establish in this Church the doctrine of plurality of wives, in our day, still I believed it would be restored to the earth at some future time.”

Woman’s Exponent, vol. 9, no. 1,
1 June 1880, p. 5

When I first commenced these reminiscences, I only gave a short sketch and did not think to continue them, but having been urged to write more, I will copy a few more lines from my father’s history to show some of the cruelties and injustice of our enemies and that there were a few in the state of Missouri who revolted at the horrible deeds that were committed. “The legislature of the state of Missouri appropriated two thousand dollars to be distributed among the people of Davies and Caldwell Counties, the ‘Mormons’ not excepted. Judge Cameron, Mr. McHenry and others attended to the distribution. Judge Cameron drove in the hogs belonging to the brethren, many of which were identified, shot down in the street and without further bleeding they were half dressed, cut up and distributed by McHenry to the poor, charging four or five cents per pound, which, together with a few pieces of refuse calico at double and triple prices, soon consumed the appropriation.

“The Prophet and others petitioned Judge Tomkins or either of the supreme judges of the state of Missouri for a state’s writ of habeas corpus, that he and his brethren might be brought before either of those judges, that justice might be administered. I was requested by Joseph to go to Jefferson City and present the petition. The committee met and appointed Theodore Turley to accompany me. We took copies of the papers by which the prisoners were held, with the petition, to the supreme judges, and immediately started a distance of 300 miles, visited the judges and laid the whole matter before them, individually, according to our best abilities. Neither of them would take any action in the case, although they appeared friendly and acknowledged that they were illegally imprisoned. We also presented a petition to the secretary of state, the governor being absent, he appeared very kind, but like the other officers he had no power to do good. We immediately returned to Liberty and made Joseph and the brethren acquainted with the result of our mission, through the grate of the dungeon, as we were not permitted to enter the prison; Joseph told us to be of good cheer, and get all the Saints away as fast as possible. In company with Brother Turley I visited Judge Austin A. King, who was angry at us, for presenting his illegal papers to the supreme judges. He treated us roughly. At a meeting of the committee Brother Daniel Shearer and I were appointed to visit Judge Hughes, who had formerly been an Indian agent, and get him to go to Davis and attend the sitting of the court there. He expressed himself in friendly terms towards Joseph and the brethren; being a very rough man in his language, he G——d d——d the judges, and the governor and everybody else that would not step forward and help those men out of the hands of their persecutors, for he did not believe they were guilty of any of the crimes alleged against them. Said he, ‘the Mormons have been treated d——d mean,’ looking us directly in the eye he said, ‘By G——d, look at their eyes, see how bright and keen they are, they are whipped but not conquered, you can see that in their eyes.’

“There were several men in Liberty who were friendly to the brethren; I called on them when I went there, and they treated me with great civility, Generals Doniphan and Atchison and the tavern keeper where I put up, and several of the foremost men, who belonged to the Masonic fraternity. At the tavern the hostler was a black man, and being friendly to me I gave him a dollar and told him I had to ride much, and requested him to be kind to my horse and brush him down well. Next morning, when I came to take my horse out of the stable, he was foundered and so stiff I could hardly get him out of the stable; the hostler had given him too much grain. Those men whom I have named, and several others, revolted at the scenes enacted against the Mormons, and would have liberated the brethren had it not been for the ‘outside pressure,’ that is, the strong prejudices imbibed by the people against us, and the bloodthirstiness to kill the Prophet, which was in the governor who should have been a father; but, because he was a tyrant, he will be d——d and go to h——1, with all who raise their tongues against this work and people. The committee made me a present of a fine sorrel horse, as I had considerable traveling to do.

“14th—The committee moved 36 of the poor and helpless families into Tenney’s Grove, about 25 miles from Far West. I was obliged to secret myself in the woods and cornfields during the day and went evenings to counsel the committee and brethren in private houses.

“18th.—This morning, as I was going to the committee-room, to tell the committee to wind up their affairs and be off, or their lives would be taken, I was met on the public square by several of the mob, one of them asked if I was a d——d Mormon. I replied, I am a Mormon.’ They answered, ‘Well, G——d d——n you, we’ll blow your brains out,’ repeating the oath again, they tried to ride over me with their horses, in the presence of Elias Smith, Theodore Turley and others of the committee. It was but a few minutes after I had notified the committee to leave, before the mob gathered at the tithing house and began breaking clocks, chairs, windows, looking glasses and furniture, making a complete destruction of everything, while Captain Bogart, the county judge looked on and laughed, and a mobber named Whittaker jumped about and laughed like a madman; and all this at a time when we were using our utmost endeavors to get the Saints away from Far West. The brethren gathered up what they could and fled from Far West in one hour; the mob stayed until the committee left and then plundered thousands of dollars worth of property which had been left by the brethren and sisters to assist the poor to remove to Illinois.

“One mobber rode up and finding no convenient place to fasten his horse, shot a cow that was standing near, while a girl was milking her, and while the poor animal was struggling in death he cut a strip of her hide from her nose to her tail, to which he fastened his halter. At that time the great crime consisted in being united and having bishops, priests, etc., and believing in the spiritual gifts of the gospel which Jesus taught his disciples; but now we are told that the practice of polygamy is the only thing they have against us as a people. What nonsense and how foolish this sounds to those who remember all these things and the scenes which the Saints have passed through. The ignorance of the mass is only surpassed by their intolerance. Our greatest persecutions and our drivings were before the principle of plural marriage had been revealed. The ‘Mormons’ who were driven from Missouri were mostly from the eastern states and were industrious and enterprising and much more refined than the majority of the western people, who were satisfied to live in little log huts, with one pane of glass and often none at all; their fireplaces generally covered one side of the room, and that with the broad chimney and one door, which was generally left open winter and summer, to let in the light, served their purpose. Their living consisted mainly of coffee, hominy, and corn dodger, cornmeal wet up with cold water, without any shortening, and transparent bacon. The richest land, stock and slave holders aspired to little more: but the spirit of union, industry and enterprise which they saw in our people filled them with jealousy and hatred like unto Cain, and this spirit was encouraged by apostates, who sold the Prophet and his brethren, and they received money for betraying them. Governor Boggs and his minions were guilty of offering their prisoners the flesh of their murdered brethren to eat, and when our cause was laid before the President of the United States, his answer was, ‘Gentlemen, your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you; if I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri.’ And this is a land of liberty, freedom and equal rights. None but Saints would have endured such wrongs, and they are the only people who practise what they profess, or even believe these words of the Savior, “The servant is not above his Lord; if they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also,’ and that all the trials through which the Saints have passed are in fulfillment of the words of the prophets since the world began. It would be well for the world to discern the signs of the times, and more especially those who profess to belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but are careless and lukewarm, that the day of the Lord may not overtake them as a thief in the night.”

I have not indulged in these reminiscences out of any feeling of revenge, no, my heart aches for the suffering, even of our enemies. I pity and feel to pray for them, for they know not what they do, but the blood of the innocent is crying for vengeance. This nation has a terrible debt to pay. In Illinois the Prophet and Patriarch were murdered in cold blood and the Saints again forced in the dreadful month of February, 1846 to leave their beautiful city and their hard-earned homes to their enemies, who hoped and expected they would all perish. The poor and the aged, sick and infirm were afterwards driven across the Mississippi in the sickly season of the year, and scores of them died. They took from us five hundred of our young able-bodied men to fight in the Mexican war, which made it impossible for us to travel, and hundreds died at our Winter Quarters from diseases brought on by privations; being so long without vegetable food and the hardships and exposures endured on that journey.

The travels of the Saints from Nauvoo to these valleys were marked by the graves of their loved ones. The Saints have borne all in patience because they had faith in the Almighty who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.”

Woman’s Exponent, vol. 9, no. 2,
15 June 1880, p. 10