“Dad,” said the voice over the phone, “I need your help to write a paper about the ‘Old West.’”
My daughter, Tara, in order to improve her lot in life, had gone back to school at age 34. Because of my love for all things ‘western,’ I took on the challenge. We explored some possibilities and finally decided to take a look at some of our own family’s experiences in the westward expansion of the nation.
I dug out some musty old papers relating to our family history and read details about some of our forebears that had been tucked away in the back of my memory but almost forgotten. As I re-read their histories, often in their own words, I was awestruck at their perseverance, patience, ingenuity, the ability to make do with practically nothing, and, perhaps most of all, their devotion to God and to each other.
In 1837 at age six, my great grandmother, Almeda Day, moved with her family to New York State from Canada. They crossed the Saint Lawrence River on the ice in a covered wagon so their men folk wouldn’t be conscripted into the British army. A year earlier, missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had converted her parents to this new “Mormon” religion.
They cleared land and farmed. They lived in their wagon box and homemade log cabins. They worked at just about anything they could in order to keep body and soul together. They eventually decided to gather with “The Saints” to Nauvoo, Illinois, making the trip via the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes. Almeda’s mother told her that the devil was in the bottom of Lake Huron and wanted to get them. They narrowly escaped drowning when a terrible storm tore off parts of the boat in which they were traveling. In Wisconsin they fought rattlesnakes and fed them to the hogs.
In 1844 the family arrived in Nauvoo where her mother died in childbirth. In 1846 religious and political persecution forced the “Mormons” to leave their beautiful city in the middle of winter. They crossed the Mississippi on the ice by foot, by horseback, and by covered wagon. Their temple was desecrated and burned. They huddled in makeshift housing and in tents at Winter Quarters, Nebraska, until they could make the long trip to the Great Basin in Mexican territory.
In 1847 Almeda met William Carroll McClellan who had just returned from the Mexican War where he marched with the “Mormon Battalion.” “We reached our destination,” William said, “after losing four men by death and suffering untold hardships, wallowing in snow half clad and half starved.” When recruiters had asked Brigham Young for 500 men to march to California, young William’s father told him he could either join the army or take care of four families whose men had signed up. He had quickly enlisted. William and Almeda married in 1849.
In 1850 they endured four grueling months of travel to Utah by ox-drawn covered wagon. Almeda nursed her own newborn baby along with three others. They survived an outbreak of cholera and went on to found several settlements in the mountain west. William farmed, dug canals, and did carpenter work. In 1866 and 1867 he fought Indians during an uprising in that part of the country. When their church asked them to found new settlements in Arizona and New Mexico, they packed up the family and moved into the wilderness again.
For a time they lived on an Indian reservation and later built a sawmill high in the mountains. On one occasion during an altercation between soldiers and Indians at Fort Apache, Indian mothers, fearing they would be killed by the soldiers, took 17 little ones and hid them in the McClellan’s cellar until the situation was resolved.
In 1885 when persecution reared its ugly head again, William and Almeda were forced to flee to Mexico where they, along with hundreds of others, established eight Mormon colonies in two Mexican states. While there, their sons built them a beautiful two-story brick house. It had no indoor plumbing and no electricity but it was the finest home in which they had ever lived. Then came the Mexican Revolution in 1912. On less than a half hour’s notice, at gunpoint, they packed a small trunk and took some bedding, boarded a train and headed for El Paso with their children in tow. They eventually returned to Mexico in 1916 where William died at age 88.
In 1933, Almeda died at age 101. Surviving her at that time were 439 descendants. She had given birth to twelve children. She had never owned a stove until she had five children. Prior to that, she cooked over an open fire. She made her own soap. She carded wool and spun it for knitting and sewing clothing, but she never owned a sewing machine until after all twelve of her children were born.
On her 100th birthday, a reporter asked her, “What did you do and what did you eat?” She replied, “I took care of my work and tended to my own business. I ate anything I could get!” Earlier, she and William were asked about having to leave their homes and start over on multiple occasions. “Wasn’t that hardship and trials?”
“Humph,” Almeda responded. “All in the day’s work.” William added, “What we did was just ordinary. Just what we had to do. You do what you have to do in this life, and that was all we did. We just happened to live in that time.”
They took in stride the portion that was dealt to them. I decided that perhaps I would stop complaining about being raised prior to computers, space shuttles, and cell phones.
In fact, I think I’ll just drown the memory of my hardships and sorrows by running down to the corner store and buying a half gallon of nutty chocolate ice cream.