The Voyage of the Amazon

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

In June of 1863 the Amazon, a passenger ship with 891 Latter-day Saints aboard, set sail from London. Just before the voyage, many Londoners—government officials and clergymen included—came for a firsthand look at the Mormons and their traveling arrangements. Among the visitors was author Charles Dickens, the be-centennial of whose birth we celebrate this year, who spent several hours on board the ship questioning British Mission President George Q. Cannon and quietly observing the Saints.

A month later Dickens published an account of his visit to the Mormon emigrant ship. He pointed out that these were primarily working-class people, including craftsmen in many trades. Though he remained skeptical about what the Mormons would find when they reached Utah, Dickens was impressed by their thoroughgoing organization, their calmness, and their quiet self-respect:

“I went on board their ship,” he said, “to bear testimony against them if they deserved it, as I fully believed they would; to my great astonishment they did not deserve it; and my predispositions and tendencies must not affect me as an honest witness. I went over the Amazon’s side feeling it impossible to deny that, so far, some remarkable influence had produced a remarkable result, which better known influences have often missed.” Of the people themselves Dickens wrote that had he not known they were Mormons, he would have described them as, “in their degree, the pick and flower of England.” 

Dickens was right: a remarkable influence had indeed produced a remarkable result. The influence enabled this group of Saints to become, in effect, a large family that worked successfully together toward a difficult goal. Other observers marvelled at the success of the Mormons’ emigration and often pointed to their thoroughgoing organization as the key. But Dickens, a shrewd observer, raised the central question: What was behind the organization and its smooth operation? Only through the Spirit of the Lord could the full answer be found.

Fortunately, records kept by the British Mission and by the Amazon passengers and their descendants make it possible to look closely at the ship’s family before, during, and after the voyage. Founded by Joseph Smith (1805-44) the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” was constituted in Seneca county, New York on 6th April,1830, the year in which my house was built and the year in which my two Grannie’s Uncle Ned, Edward Lennox Sloan, the “Bard of Conlig”, was born . Missionary work began in the British Isles in 1837 and Uncle Ned was an early convert in his teens, part of the great wave of conversions that followed Elder Wilford Woodruff’s missionary labours in 1840. Little did Uncle Ned know then that he was destined to meet the great Charles Dickens.

During the next fifty years converts were urged to emigrate and strengthen the Latter-day Saint base of operations in America, answering the call of Brigham Young to consolidate in the face of intense persecution. With such strong encouragement to emigrate, one might expect Latter-day Saints to have left their homelands soon after conversion to the gospel. The experience of the Amazon emigrants suggests, however, that preparation for emigration was usually a long, slow process. Uncle Ned published his poems as early as 1854, and several of them exhibit the pain of leaving Old Ireland, nine years before he and his family eventually boarded the AmazonFinances were obviously a problem for growing young families as his.

The voyage itself had its share of challenges and difficulties, which gave the emigrants opportunity to use their religious teachings and their ward organizations. At 5:30 each morning the Saints were to “rise, receive water, clean out berths, scrape the decks and prepare for prayers in the various Wards at 7 o’clock.”  However, because many became seasick right away, caring for and administering to the sick caused a relaxation of that rigorous schedule. At times the ship was becalmed; at times the crew fought headwinds. One Sunday the ship was hit by a violent squall while ward meetings were being conducted on the lower deck. One sail was “torn into ribbons like paper,” and water poured down the hatches before they could be closed. But the singing of the hymns continued. The second mate was heard to exclaim how astonished he was at “the nonchalance displayed by the sisters in such a season of apparent peril.” 

After their arrival in New York on July 18, the Amazon Saints were taken by rail and river steamer to Florence, Nebraska. Though the Civil War was raging at the time, they were largely unaffected by it. At Florence, teams and wagons provided by the Church met those who could not afford to provide their own transportation. They then divided into several companies for the final leg of their journey.

From Salt Lake City, Elder George A. Smith of the Council of the Twelve sent Charles Dickens a final report on the progress of the Amazon’s emigrants:

“The whole company arrived in this city, and encamped on the Union square on Saturday & Sunday Oct. 3rd & 4th, in good health and fine spirits. After attending the General Conference, they distributed themselves among the people of the Territory, like the water of a river as it empties into the sea, and could now only be found by searching 25,000 square miles of country, and by their industrious habits, they are placed where they will soon put themselves in possession of the necessary comforts of life.”

The temporary “family” which had worked so closely together aboard the Amazon now dispersed. Most became part of another kind of family, the ward organizations of the various Latter-day Saint settlements. A high proportion settled first in Utah. Of the Amazon passengers for whom information has been located, ninety-eight percent lived in Utah during 1863–65. By 1891–1900, eighty-four percent still lived in Utah, while thirteen percent were in Idaho and three percent were elsewhere.

Success and tragedy alike met the immigrants in the western United States. One was struck and killed by a railroad train, leaving a large family. Another committed suicide, apparently in despair over the recent death of his wife. William Fowler became a school teacher in Manti, Utah, but died only two years after he immigrated. Some had marital difficulties. A few became disillusioned with their religion and left it entirely or abandoned church involvement. From all indications, however, the vast majority remained faithful to the Church, and most received the sacred ordinances of the Endowment House, which was used before temples were completed in Utah.

The Amazon immigrants’ achievements as individuals were notable. Edward L. Sloan became an outstanding writer and newspaper editor. Lavinia Triplett became Utah’s leading female vocalist in her day . The Castleton family became prominent merchants, the Larkins respected morticians. William McLachlan became the first president of the Pioneer Stake in Salt Lake City. And George Sutherland, an infant when the Amazon sailed, became a U.S. Senator and a justice of the United States Supreme Court. Others were bishops, patriarchs, state legislators, and fine parents—people who contributed in many ways to the building of their communities. To use Charles Dickens’ phrase, they became the “pick and flower” of western America.

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