Abigail Smith Abbott: Mormon Battalion “Widow”

Abigail Abbott’s life in 1847 was not unfolding as she had probably expected it to be. She and her husband Stephen had gathered to Nauvoo in 1842 shortly after they were baptized. That was a relatively peaceful time for the Church, and Abigail may have hoped to raise her children in Nauvoo, under the leadership of Joseph Smith, preparing for the coming Millennium.

But Stephen had been called as a missionary to go to Wisconsin, to cut pine logs and float them down the Mississippi for use in building the Nauvoo Temple. Constant exposure to cold and damp brought on pneumonia, and Stephen died in October 1843. With no resources other than her own labor, the widowed Abigail conducted a small school and worked in the fields to support her eight children, ages 1 to 16.

In February 1846, as the Saints hurried to complete their temple work and flee from Nauvoo, both Abigail and her oldest daughter married. Abigail’s new husband crossed the Mississippi with a wagon load of goods, promising to return for Abigail and the children as soon as he had made arrangements for them on the Iowa side of the river. Edward Bunker, Abigail’s new son-in-law, helped her move the younger children across the river, where they found rough shelter within the frame of a building under construction. Edward hurried ahead to join the main body of the Church who had already pushed deeper into Iowa.

The next news Abigail learned was that both her husband and her son-in-law had joined the Mormon Battalion and were beginning their long march across the continent. No arrangement had been made to send a wagon back for Abigail; she was stranded with the poorest of the Saints, on the bank of the Mississippi.

Eventually Abigail and another widowed mother secured a single wagon between them and set out in pursuit of the Saints. She and the older children walked all the way to Garden Grove. Abigail slept little during the 17-day march: besides taking her turn guarding the camp at night, she worked to shuck the corn that filled their wagon, clearing space for more children to ride.

She later described her labors at Garden Grove: “Our diet [was] some times corn or buckwheat bread, and a few beans made into soup with pepper and salt for seasoning. Through the winter, had a few lbs. of wild pork, bought a few lbs. butter, and bought a few pumpkins, and made a little pumpkin butter.” She taught school for a few weeks, then “ went to making garden. I put in one acre of corn and beans, and other seeds. I then … got the privilege [of] taking two acres of land, in the wild state of nature, and had to help clear it off, and bought some buckwheat and raised a crop of twenty-two bushels. I spun twenty lbs. of wool, taught school six weeks in the summer and started for the bluffs or Winter Quarters, about the 12th of October.” All this Abigail did with the help only of her youngest children, as her two oldest daughters were sick much of the time; the oldest daughter gave birth, assisted by Abigail.

Abigail spent another year at Winter Quarters, working just as hard as she had at Garden Grove. She taught school, nursed a family sick with measles, hauled buckwheat two miles home and then threshed it by beating it with a stick on a blanket. She gleaned turnips, exchanging her labor for every third bushel, and husked corn in exchange for every eighth bushel. She taught school, hauled wood, spun wool, and gathered fodder to sell to those lucky enough to own animals.

Abigail’s son-in-law, but not her husband, hurried back to the family at the end of the Battalion’s march, and “we celebrated Christmas with rejoicing.” Life was easier in 1848 with the help of her son-in-law, who raised a good crop of wheat, corn, beans and potatoes, while Abigail again taught school and helped with the harvest. The family outfitted themselves to cross the plains in 1849.

When Abigail told her tale, she told it with modesty. If her example could be of “any use or satisfaction to my brethren and sisters who were connected with the Battalion or belonging to it, they are welcome to it, for what it is worth. If it is not worth attention, please throw it under the table.”

Abigail was no nearer to perfection than any of us: she refused to live with her husband once they met again in Utah, and she didn’t find frontier life especially easy or attractive. But she found the faith and courage to do what needed to be done.

(Originally published June 2005)

15 comments for “Abigail Smith Abbott: Mormon Battalion “Widow”

  1. Randy B.
    January 4, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    Thanks, Ardis. These are great; keep them coming!

  2. Matt W.
    January 4, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    I don’t quite understand. What happened with her husband? Did she feel abandonned by him? Was she abandonned by him?

  3. January 4, 2007 at 4:27 pm

    Matt W. — He abandoned her in the sense that he stranded her in a city under siege by driving off with the family wagon and household goods, and made no provision for taking care of her or her family. Granted, once he had joined the Mormon Battalion he couldn’t be there in person to help her — but contrast his silence and absence with the behavior of Abigail’s son-in-law, also in the Mormon Battalion, but who hurried back for his family as soon as he could and then helped his wife’s family get to Utah. When Abigail reached Utah, her husband tried to pick up again as husband and wife, but she wouldn’t have it. I don’t mean to condemn her husband (which is why I don’t even name him), but to praise Abigail for not letting her family disappointment cripple her progress.

    Abigail amazes me for her determination to follow the church, which required her to tackle one hard job after another in order to provide for her family. Her reminiscence carries no complaint, no bitterness, no self-congratulation, just a matter-of-fact report of what she did month after month. The specific tasks are different, but struggling modern Saints, both men and women, often do pretty much the same thing in the way of “keeping on keeping on.” Hooray for the unnoticed heroism of ordinary Saints!

  4. Matt W.
    January 4, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    Sorry to keep prodding. Should I assume they divorced and Abigail did not remarry, or were the just seperated. Did husband make any effort to support her past this point, or did he go his seperate way and let it go. If you don’t know, that is fine, but this has really piqued my interest.

    The true heroes are never superman, but are always a member of the rank and file who perform what is needed. Abigail’s fortitude is wonderful.

    But I still want the dirt… :)

  5. January 4, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    Dirt Digger — I don’t think there was a formal divorce, just a refusal to live together again. That didn’t stop the husband, who married one of Abigail’s daughters upon their arrival in Utah (how’s that for fanning the prurient flames? :-) ). He may have helped Abigail directly, or through her daughter; I just don’t know.

  6. January 4, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    I’m repeating what I’ve said before, Ardis, but thank you for these stories of extra-ordinary ordinary Saints. Many of us need these stories more than we need the stories of those who were merely extra-ordinary. Knowing about these people strengthens my faith and gives me hope. Thanks very much.

  7. Matt W.
    January 4, 2007 at 5:14 pm

    Oh! Ardis, that just makes me ache all over!

  8. mami
    January 4, 2007 at 5:45 pm

    Actually– I want to jump in here. There is a website for the Brown family (Abigail’s second husband). I will put up a link as soon as I find it for anyone who wants to read all the details. The real story is much better.
    Abigail’s first husband and her second husband were best friends. They both agreed that if anything ever happened to one, the other would take care his firends family. This is precisely what happened. Cptn. Brown, her new husband, actually took very good care of her. When Abigail left her first home and sold her farm, she got about $10 for all of it. Her second husband gave her about $28 when he left to get herself and the family to the Valley–this was not a small sum of money. That is how she was able to procure wagons, etc to travel. They were very good friends.
    Captain Brown was constantly working for the church–and even in the Salt Lake Valley running back and forth between CA and UT for Brigham Young.
    The two actually did divorce when he rejoined her in the valley. The reason: Captain Brown married Abigail’s oldest daughter, infuriating Abigail. She remained close to her daughter the rest of her life, but would only visit when Cptn. Brown was not at home. When he passed away–the mother and daughter pair spent much time together.
    It all makes much more sense now, doesn’t it?

  9. mami
    January 4, 2007 at 6:13 pm

    Here is the link, correcting the mistakes I made from memory and showing even more details.


  10. January 4, 2007 at 6:15 pm

    Aargh. I knew that if this veered off into a discussion of why Abigail was on her own that I would either offend Brown family members (who are a numerous and faithful Mormon clan) or run afoul of family legends. The reports of James Brown’s concern for Abigail’s family are found among the descendants of Abigail’s daughter Phoebe, the one who married Capt. Brown. Those stories are not found among the other branches of the family. The claim that Capt. Brown left money with Abigail to get herself and family to the Valley is flatly contradicted by Abigail’s 1852 account of her experiences — she states in so many words that she was left in Nauvoo expecting Capt. Brown to return for her when she received the unexpected news of his enlistment in the Mormon Battalion, and that thereafter she was left entirely to her own devices to support and move her family, except for the help she eventually received from Edward Bunker, her son-in-law. In fact, $28, if Capt. Brown did provide that to Abigail, was a laughably trivial sum for supporting a large family for two years and fitting them out for transcontinental travel — cattle for pulling wagons cost $60-$100 each during the 1850s-60s, for instance. And I have been unable to find evidence of a divorce — there may have been one; divorces in plural marriages were easily obtained at the request of the wife; but BY’s records of divorces granted are an exceptionally tightly held set of records at LDS Archives.

    But again, let me emphasize that the point of this article is not that the absent husband was a bad man. I don’t know that he was, and there would be no point in announcing such a thing even if I had indisputable evidence of it. Even with the best of intentions on the part of all parties, Abigail did unexpectedly find herself responsible for providing for her family and getting them to Utah, and she rose to the task in magnificent style.

    Sometimes I hear people say, “Oh, I could never have been a pioneer!” I suspect we could, were we to find ourselves in that position, as long as we approached it with the right attitude, and one step at a time.

  11. mami
    January 4, 2007 at 6:16 pm
  12. mami
    January 4, 2007 at 6:22 pm

    Thanks Ardis! I have no family connections with these people. I do find them fascinating! I don’t think people will get too defensive about dead people we don’t know–even if they are our great-greats…
    It’s interesting to hear all sides of the story, it’s hard to interpet history from bits and pieces of journal entries, letters, etc.
    I really love these–please keep posting them!

    You seem pretty fair–I don’t see you demonizing anyone:)

    I admit, when I read these I always think, “I couldn’t do that,” and I really don’t think I could.

  13. tom
    January 11, 2007 at 2:19 pm

    dear A.P. —i love these stories. have you ever come found any history about games or toys that children might have had? also when did cats and dogs show up in uath? a dog may walk along with a handcart or wagon but it is almost impossible to walk a cat
    please keep up the insights

  14. Aeneas
    January 16, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    It’s impossible to say without examining all the relevant original sources, of course, but the fact that the customary qualifications one would expect of a balanced account (e.g., “Abigail later asserted that. . .”) are missing from claims like “No arrangement had been made to send a wagon back for Abigail,” and the out-of-hand dismissal of Mami’s references to mitigations and plausible defenses of Captain Brown’s behavior as “family legends,” leads me to suspect that this account of Abigail’s travails isn’t exactly an objective one. Nor does the remarkable pairing of Brown with Abigail’s own daughter—which one could hardly explain if Brown were as a black a figure and Abigail as much a saint as is here suggested.

    Yes, Abigail had a hard time of it. But was Brown’s constant service to the Church and extended separations from all his loved ones, not just his spouse, any less trying? This “modest” account would have us think so. Why is that?

  15. February 20, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    I dont really understand! Im doing a Biography Poster for school and I decided to do her ans I just cant find anything inportant that she said! I think Im not going to make a very good grade on this. Oh well at least I tried.

Comments are closed.