Tracing my Mormon pioneer roots because my story began with those who came before.
Emma Maria Ellis Wood crossed a continent, turned her back on one God, and embraced another to become my great, great, great-grandmother.
She is wearing a dark-colored dress with a lace collar in the only photo I could find of her. Her hair is pulled back and hidden neatly under a bonnet. To me, she has gentle eyes.
In July 1824, Emma’s life began in Plymouth, England, a popular trading post for fishers and merchants on England’s southern coast. Her parents were William and Maria Crowl Ellis. Meanwhile, thousands of miles and a country away, Daniel and his first wife, Mary, were newlyweds in Canada.
Emma attended school and, at nineteen, became a schoolteacher. Like Daniel, she heard of the Mormon gospel from traveling missionaries. Emma and her mother, Maria, were interested and attended meetings to learn more. Satisfied at its truthfulness, in February 1851, she and her mother, Maria, were baptized into the Mormon church. Emma’s father was not.
After her conversion, Emma and her mother obeyed Prophet Brigham Young’s request for saints to gather in Utah. The church offered some financial assistance for English converts to join the faith community in Utah.
Emma was young, and the thought of building a life in Utah was thrilling. On the other hand, Emma’s mother, Maria, was in her sixties. Why did she leave her home, husband, other children, and grandchildren? Was she pulled by faith and adventure or a mother’s desire to keep Emma safe?
Emma’s father, William, chose to stay in England. Was he angry and heartbroken, or did he agree Maria and Emma traveling together was the safest choice? Knowing he would never see them again, I can only imagine his final goodbyes as his wife and daughter boarded the steamship set to sail across the Atlantic Ocean.
Once they landed in America, Emma and Maria made their way to Iowa to join the Jacob Gates Company wagon train. After a three-month journey, the company arrived in Utah in September 1853. By then, Daniel had been in Utah for five years.
In Utah, it was common for new arrivals to be assigned to live with saints who had already established homes, giving recent emigrants a chance to assimilate before branching out on their own.
Emma and Maria began living with the Wood family. They helped Mary and Peninah care for the house and children. Maria sewed as part of their domestic duties, and Emma knitted and crocheted. Since Emma had been a teacher for almost ten years, it was natural for her to teach the children.
Emma’s mother was called Mother Maria and acted like a doting grandmother filling the void of the grandchildren she left behind.
After living with the Wood family for about two years, Emma married Daniel in November 1853. Daniel’s second wife, Peninah, had also begun as a helper in his home. Did Daniel court Emma, or did church leaders recommend he marry her? If Emma was worried about becoming a spinster, romantic feelings about fifty-three-year-old Daniel may have been a luxury she couldn’t consider.
Some journals say Emma was Daniel’s third wife; other records show her as his sixth wife. It’s possible his wives, like Sarah Grace and Laura Ann Gibbs, who divorced Daniel, were not counted. Daniel married Sarah less than a year before marrying Emma.
I wonder how Emma got along with the other wives and if they scheduled a rotation of when Daniel would be with each of them.
For Mormon women, marriage was necessary to ascend to the celestial kingdom, the highest level of heaven. Some polygamous marriages were for procreation; others were formalities to hitch all women, even the elderly, to Mormon men. Those marriages may not have been consummated or have expectations of the couple to live as a married couple.
Teaching has been a lifelong love for me, so I was thrilled to learn that Emma was also a teacher.
Emma talked to Daniel about the importance of education for his children. Her teaching was a great blessing; her first students were Daniel’s children and grandchildren. She also taught the three native children he adopted. I wonder how Emma navigated the language barrier with Lucy, Mary, and Thomas and whether she believed she was helping to civilize them.
Mormon families were typically large because they believed spirits waiting in the premortal life needed an earthly body to return to everlasting life. With the growing number of children, Brigham Young asked families who could afford it to build schools for children in their community.
Daniel added ample space in the back of their home for a schoolroom. Grateful parents from neighboring farms offered carrots, potatoes, and other homemade goods in exchange for their children attending. As the first teacher in this multi-age school, Emma taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. The school opened in 1854 and served children for over twenty-five years.
Emma’s first two children, Celestine and Edwin, were born when she was a teacher. I imagine one of the sister wives tended the babies while she taught.
Her third child, a boy named Nathan, was born in 1857. He died months later from injuries he sustained from falling off a wagon. He was Daniel’s first child to die in Utah and be buried in the family cemetery.
Around this time, Daniel hired Charles Edwin Pearson, a young English convert, to take over as the teacher. Did Emma stop teaching because she was grieving Nathan’s death, or was it increasingly challenging to balance motherhood and teaching? Maybe the church’s message women should not work outside the home was a factor in the decision for Emma to stop teaching.
Emma and Daniel had six children over nine years. She was forty when her last daughter was born, and Daniel was sixty-four. Emma and Daniel’s oldest daughter Celestine married Albert Mabey and became my great-great-grandparents.
In 1883, when she was fifty-nine, Emma’s health began to fail. Daniel’s wives, Mary and Peninah, had died years earlier, leaving Mary as the family matriarch. Emma asked Daniel for permission to move to a three-room house about a mile away. Daniel granted her wish. She settled comfortably into life on her own in this home within walking distance of a church and market.
In September 1888, she died after a two-month illness at age sixty-four. Her family said she “departed this life, a splendid saintly woman.” Journals say she was a true Latter-Day saint, beloved and admired because she was kind, hardworking, intelligent, and faithful. Ironically, like Peninah, her family said Emma never complained.
The Relief Society, the church’s organization for women, said, “Sister Wood faithfully attended meetings, fulfilled her duties honorably, and served as a teacher for many years.” The women committed themselves to living in such a way to be reunited with Emma when they finished their earthly work.
Her family honored Emma’s desire to be buried next to her son Nathan. Emma’s mother, Maria, not wanting to be apart, died a year later and was buried beside her daughter.
I could not find evidence showing Emma disagreed with any of the church’s derogatory and harmful doctrines. She left her homeland, traveled almost five thousand miles, married a man nearly twice her age, and shared him with multiple women. All this because she believed in the truth of the gospel of the Latter-Day Saints. All of it. If she had been able to vote, she likely wouldn’t have voted that Utah be a slave-holding territory.
Emma had six children and twenty-three grandchildren who witnessed her approval of church doctrines through her participation in the church. Her children had children who did the same, and so on, until my mother had me. I continued through my church membership to show my agreement with the racist doctrines and practices.