On August 15, we’ll be hosting an open house at the home Nels and Emma built in 1887. It made the National Register of Historic Places last year. More details on that are available here.
In honor of Sesquicentennial Plus One, I’m devoting the Speaking of Idaho blog to my family’s history during August.
Blackfoot River, Idaho Territory
March 8, 1879
My Dear Father:
Here I have been so busy relating the details of family life that I have forgotten to mention the coming of the railroad. When we settled here, my husband always said there would be a railroad in ten years and his prophesy has been fulfilled in about seven as it reached the little burg of Blackfoot fifteen miles from us, sometime during December. Now, I've had a ride on the steam car. Would you believe it? And a visit to the city of Zion, the Zion that you brought my mother six thousand miles to see.
It is very changed since I saw it last in the sixties, but I took little note of its improvements for my mind was too much engrossed in the three-months-old baby in my arms and in the fact that I was the star witness in a murder trial. Can you imagine it Father? Your little Em taking such a part in the affairs of men.
I did not realize that my testimony was of such vital importance until it was all over, then the remark of the attorney was heard to the effect that I was the one witness they feared, but wait, I have not told you. One cold night in February a very unusual looking man appeared at the door and after making several inquiries, drew out the subpoena that called me as witness on the trial of Robert T. Burton being held on the charge of murder at Salt Lake.
In the years of our trials of homesteading, I have tried to forget the details most unpleasant of all our early experiences, the Mormon-Morrisite war. As I have grown more mature in judgment, I have realized that we poor misguided Morrisites were very much at fault, for in defying the sheriff 's posse as we did, we were really defying our government, for even though the posse was formed from the pillars of the Mormon church they were vested with the authority from Washington and we should not have tried to evade arrest. But this is all looking backward and I must proceed with my adventure.
Of course, first of all, I protested that I could not leave my family but Nels said it was my duty to go and he felt sure that my memory could not fail to bring the guilty to justice.
So I went but with a sinking heart! I regretted to leave my four boys that I had never been away from overnight; I regretted to take my tiny infant among people where might lurk the germs of every dread disease; and I regretted most of all, going among the Mormon people. They say a burnt child dreads the fire, so I guess a child that has been shot at cannot help fearing the hand that pulled the trigger. Every foot of the way we traveled I expected the train would be blown off the track, for it carried a number of witnesses, or I expected we would be burned in the court room, anything to wreak the Mormon vengeance as I had known it. But the Mormons are changed since those days, Father, they are a different people.
Still, frightened as I was, when I sat in the witness chair the old scenes came back to me as vividly as if they had occurred but yesterday.
I saw the hills blackened by the approaching enemy, heard the bugle call, our own beloved Morrisite call, that assembled us in the bowery and I knew again with what joy and trust I went forth expecting to be delivered by the hand of the Almighty. Then I saw a cannon ball come rushing through that humble gathering, fired by the waiting hordes on the hillside, and two of our trusting Morrisites lying dead in the bowery. Yes, I saw it all, father, and told them as only one who had seen could ever tell it, and the Mormons assembled there in the name of the law, began to fear me just as I had at first feared them.
I told them of the babe in its mother's arms falling to the ground at the boom of the first cannon and before the firing ceased, falling again when its second protector was killed. I told them of a woman, then in their city, who had lost the entire lower part of her face when the first ball was fired into that defenseless gathering of men, women and children.
I told them of the hoisting of the white flag by our terror stricken band and of the Mormon warriors, less heeding than any savage tribe of the wilderness, continuing to fire, killing four right under the flag of truce.
I told them how, on the second day, I had gone skipping across the public square in childish fearlessness with "cannons to the right of me and cannons to the left of me" to find my mother huddled in the little cellar under our house, white as in death, marking the number of cannons fired with a stick in the dirt. She had counted seventy-five that one day. Oh, Father, I can see her always, poor suffering creature, as she took me in her arms saying: "Thank God, my child, you are safe.” I looked at her in childish eagerness and dismay saying: "Why, mother, is your faith weakening? God will punish these foolish destroyers." But she only hugged me closer sobbing: "My child, bullets will kill"
I told them how after three days of almost continuous firing, they had surrounded us taking our men prisoners after having killed our beloved prophet, Joseph Morris. I told them how in the struggle that followed his fall, you stood by the lifeless form of the prophet and said to the Mormon that had once posed as our friend: ''You've killed him, now you better kill me." And of his attempt to shoot you had his gun not refused to obey his will. Then I told them of the gentle creature, Mrs. Bowman, who came forth during the struggle calling one of the leaders "A blood thirsty wretch." I told them how, before my childish eyes the fiend exclaimed: "No woman shall call me that and live." and suiting the action to the word, he shot her down.
And so after all these years, I was the instrument to avenge these wrongs to what mild extent it could ever be done. I was in the witness chair and my word would send to the gallows the murderer of that poor woman.
After questioning me sufficiently, they asked me to look around the court room and see if I recognized anyone. Did I? Well, I certainly did, just as I would recognize you, my own father, after all these years of separation. There he sat with his same flowing beard and gleaming eyes. His face had been the one thing that I could see distinctly all during my examination, as it had looked when I saw him years before and as it looked then. I think it had really served to bring the scenes before me more vividly as I recounted the details, particularly when it had come to the point of his pulling me roughly away from the body of Joseph Morris just after I had seen him slay Mrs. Bowman, but at this point my memory only served to set him free.
You father, no doubt would have remembered correctly, but the two leaders, Stoddard and Burton, had always been pointed out to me together and just as sometimes will occur, I had transposed the names, and the guilty man that I saw before me was the one I had always believed to be Stoddard. It so happened that the man Stoddard had been dead a good many years, so my testimony simply laid all the crimes on to the dead man and set free the criminal before me. So ignorant was I of courts and counsels, and so dependent upon my childish recollections, that it never occurred to me there was any chance for mistake until I had killed my own evidence.
Anyway, I was glad to be through with it and be free to come back to my little boys and my home. I had been gone for two weeks and had never heard a word for each day they expected I would be back. Each day Nels had sent a team to meet me only to find a letter saying the trial dragged on. I guess it seemed long to them but it was surely an eternity to me, and I have never smelled anything so sweet as the sage brush that crushed under the wheels that night when they brought me home. It was a mild spring night and had been raining so that everything was fresh and pure in such contrast from the coal smoke I had been obliged to breathe. I found everyone well though the children had been sick during my absence and we were a happy family indeed to be reunited. I think that home homecoming will always stand out as one of the happiest times of my life and in spite of my failure as a “star witness.” I hope this letter will carry to you a portion of the contentment that is in my heart.
Always the same,
Tomorrow, the story of Nels and Emma building their brick home in 1887. That home will be open for public tours that day. Click here for the details.