Abigail Smith Abbott: Mormon Battalion “Widow”
Abigail Abbottâ€™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. Abigailâ€™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, Abigailâ€™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: â€œOur 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.â€ She taught school for a few weeks, then â€œ 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.â€ 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.
Abigailâ€™s son-in-law, but not her husband, hurried back to the family at the end of the Battalionâ€™s march, and â€œwe celebrated Christmas with rejoicing.â€ 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 â€œany 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.â€
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 didnâ€™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)