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Living History: Pioneer generosity shines in a time of need

Published August 4, 2012 8:49 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The early years of Anglo settlement in the Salt Lake Valley were years of shortages. Some later told their children that seagulls had beaten back the crickets one year and saved part of the growing grain, but the crickets came back year after year.

And no seagull — or anything else — could prevent wear and tear to a laborer's clothing, nor produce the fabric to make new clothing before Utah's woolen industry was developed in the 1860s. Cloth was one of the scarcest necessities in the early territorial period, all of it freighted at heavy expense across the continent. The amused comments of travelers often note the scarecrow-like appearance of Utahns of the 1850s.

Samuel Lorenzo Adams and his wife, Emma Jackson, typified the problem. They emigrated from England in 1852, marrying just three days before their ship sailed from Liverpool. Samuel, 19, and Emma, 22, crossed the Plains that year, members of the first Perpetual Emigrating Fund company. Because their travel was financed by that charitable fund, the Adamses were severely limited in the amount of personal property, including clothing, they could bring with them. They had the clothes they were wearing, plus a change, and that was about all.

Samuel, young as he was and untrained for any of the limited occupations needed by pioneers, found work as a blacksmith's helper. He built an adobe room, 12-by-14 feet, with one door and one window. He roofed it with wooden slabs covered with dirt, and he and Emma moved into their first home. They had a homemade bed (poles driven into the dirt floor and wound with rawhide strips to support a straw-filled ticking), but no table or chairs or cupboards.

The ticking didn't last long. Emma soon had to cut it and remake it a foot shorter. She needed the fabric to patch the knees and seat of Samuel's trousers.

Emma did all right, at first, keeping the family clothed, but by the spring of 1853 she was in trouble. The couple were expecting their first child. Not only did Emma need to remake her dress to fit her growing waistline, but she also had to prepare for the baby. Somehow she found the fabric for two small nightgowns and two diapers — her entire layette. So imagine their feelings on Aug. 3 when not one baby, but twin girls, were born.

"Eleanor and Emma were made welcome to all we had," wrote Samuel, "and it took it all to clothe them once and nothing left."

An hour later, having heard the news, the Adamses' neighbor, Mary Smith, widow of Hyrum Smith, rode up to the adobe home on an old gray horse. She brought a basket of the best food she had: a cooked chicken, buttermilk biscuits, and two lumps of butter — the first butter that had ever entered that door.

Realizing the scanty stores in the Adams home, Mary went home and called a council with her three teenage daughters, Jerusha, Sarah and Martha Ann. The four women inventoried their stock, sacrificing petticoats and linen sheets, and spent much of the night sewing. The next morning the three girls knocked at the Adamses' door. "We have come to see your prize, and ask the privilege of washing and dressing them both."

Emma and Samuel, trying to conceal their poverty, thanked them but tried to send them away. The girls would not go. "We cannot be put off that way. We realize how matters are and have come prepared."

Then they produced a large clothes basket they had until then concealed. "We have worked nearly all night, and we are going to dress those children."

Beneath the stacks of diapers and other baby clothes was another gift of food, as much as the widow and her girls could spare.

"And God has been thanked scores of times," recorded Samuel, "for the kind hand extended by the family" that day.

Ardis E. Parshall is a Utah historian who welcomes feedback from readers. She's at AEParshall@aol.com.