Many years ago, around the time of 1854, many faithful men and woman made decisions to sell all that they own and move their families to America, to join up with the Latter-day Saints at the Salt Lake Valley in the Rocky Mountain West.
Johan and Johanna Larsen had recently been baptized and become members of the Mormon faith, along with their children. Following Mormon Church leader Brigham Young’s admonition to gather together to build up Zion, these motivated Saints, made up of 149 new Danish “converts”, prepared to embark on the long journey westward.
They must have been so excited. They must have truly wanted to do what their Heavenly Father wanted them to do. They likely had good intentions to do well, even if some had little else except the money for ship’s passage.
First they boarded the steamship Cimbria at Frederickshavn, where they joined nearly 300 other Saints coming from Copenhagen. The company was lead by Missionary and Church official in charge, Peter O. Hansen. It was officially the “Eightieth Company”
Interesting note: My friend Paul who lives nearby me, is a direct descendant of this same Peter O. Hansen, the LDS Pioneer who is credited with translating the Book of Mormon into Danish. Peter and Erastus Snow went on a mission to Denmark and converted many families, undoubtedly this included Johan and Johanna Larsen.
They set sail for Hull, England November 27th, 1854. A strong wind began to blow and fearful of trouble, the captain of the ship took refuge in a natural harbor at Mandal, Norway for a few days. Some of the Danish Mormons went ashore during that time and have been accredited with setting in motion the conversion of a few of their Norwegian hosts while they were there. Soon they pushed on toward Hull and Liverpool. Once again they were pummeled by a terrific North Sea storm. They could not proceed and now ended up seeking refuge back in Frederickshavn. The Saints had suffered due to the tempests and a few gave up right there and left the ship for good. But for the most part they bore the hardship with great fortitude and patience. Again they preached the Gospel in port while they waited out the storms.
It was December 20th when they finally made their 3rd attempt to reach Hull and Liverpool. Again they were stricken by wind and waves, but Christmas Eve brought much rejoicing as they finally anchored at Hull /Humber. They went to Liverpool by rail.
Having been delayed for so long, their original ship, the Helios, had been filled with other passengers. An alternative ship would have to be contracted. They spent Christmas in England.
The new year arrived while they were in Liverpool, and they finally departed for New Orleans on the ship James Nesmith, January 7th, 1855. They arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi River on February 18th. According to records it was a fairly uneventful voyage, although 13 Saints while under way. Overall the James Nesmith transported 440 Scandinavian and 1 British Saints, under the direction of Peter O. Hansen to New Orleans, where they arrived on February 23rd, 1855.
Now the Company of Saints boarded the steamboat Oceanan, and sailed from New Orleans, February 24th. During the journey up the Mississippi, seven more Saints died. They arrived at St. Louis March 7th.
Johan and Johanna Larsen had quite a nice savings they had brought along with them. They had sold their family tavern, which would be something like selling a motel by today’s standards. Seeing that their fellow Saints had not expected such long delays and hardships along the way west, Brother and Sister Larsen shared all the money that they had with those in need. Now they had little. Maybe not enough for their own family.
It seems the company was splitting up now. About 150 of thee Scandinavian Saints went on to Weston Missouri in an attempt to find work and raise the money they’d need to continue on to the Salt Lake Valley. They were completely broke.
Still under the leadership of Peter O. Hansen, another 175 Saints, including Johan and Johanna and the children, bought riverboat passage to Atchison Kansas, one of the designated launch points for crossing the plains in 1855. They left St. Louis March 12th on the steamboat Clara, but due to such low water levels, they only made it as far as Ft. Leavenworth. 20 more Saints caught the fever and died during the stay in Ft. Leavenworth and Father Johan was one of them!
Sister Larsen made it to Atchison, Kansas. She and her two little girls relocated to a camp 5 miles west of there called Mormon Grove. Sister Larsen would attempt to get work to raise the money needed to finish the journey to the Rocky Mountains. People were getting sick and dying. Sister Larsen got sick and died.
The Larsen’s showed a selflessness that is rare indeed. While others may not have been prepared as well as they could have been. They helped their follow Saints in need until they had no more to give. Their faith must have been amazing. I wish I knew such great people. Maybe I will someday.
Arrangements were made to get the orphaned girls to Salt Lake. The eldest girl was set to cross the plains from Atchison with Captain Hansen’s company, and the other, a little 6 year old girl named Maren Kjirstin, or Mary as she was now called, would have to wait for a family to take her. She was eventually assigned to ride with a childless couple heading west on one of 56 wagons of the Jones/Hunt Wagon Company out of Iowa City Iowa, one year later.
The Hunt Wagon Company left on August 1st, 1856, a bit later than usual. The wagons were tasked to accompany the Martin Handcart Company as a supply train. The handcart companies were poorer Saints heading west pulling small wagons or “Handcarts” with all their earthly belongings.
Having left too late in the year they all succumb to bad the weather along the Sweetwater River in Wyoming that November. They began to run out of food, they were freezing and travel slowed way down, then became impossible. Alone in the wilderness, disaster overtook them.
The Martin handcart/ Hunt wagon company tragedy was the worst disaster in the history of western overland travel...one hundred and forty-five died. The highest death rate was among fathers that gave up part of their meager rations to their starving children. Many fathers literally worked themselves to death pulling the handcarts. With the loss of so many men, the burden fell on the women and young people to pull the carts and put up the tents. In additions to the deaths, there were many left handicapped from amputation of frozen feet and fingers.
Little Mary Christine Larsen was seven years old now and stuck right in the middle of this disaster, without her parents or siblings. Grueling conditions again afflicted her young life. When she was rescued near Devil’s Gate and Martin’s Cove that snowy day in Wyoming, her feet had frozen black. Later her feet had to be amputated just below both knees.
She went on to Salt Lake and then lived with Abraham Smoot and his family near Provo Utah. Abraham Smoot was mayor of Salt Lake City and Provo. He was also one of the founders of the Brigham Young Academy (later called BYU) and was instrumental in getting Mary a sewing machine. Mary Christine Johnson (as she is now called) was able to get around ok and grew up. Using that sewing machine she learned to support herself. She married Elijah Parsons. She raised six children in Koosharem Utah. She taught her children the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
One of Mary’s sons was named William. William had granddaughter named Joan, who has a son named Steven…that’s me. I joined the Mormon Church only 14 years ago and I learned this story when researching my family history….