On June 3, 1822, Martha Jane Knowlton was born to Sidney A. and Harriet Burnham Knowlton in Covington, Boone County, Kentucky. Martha “heard Brother George A. Smith preach who . . . set forth the principles of the gospel in such a plain and unmistakable manner as to completely upset all her Cambbellism.”1 Martha was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in February 1840.
Noted for her “clearness of perception and understanding of matters,” Martha married Howard Coray on February 6, 1841, in Nauvoo, and the couple taught school together.2 While Howard was away at Augusta, Iowa, on Church business, she gave birth to the first of their twelve children in April 1842.3 Hyrum Smith sealed the couple in Nauvoo on July 22. Martha served as the scribe for Lucy Mack Smith.
When the main body of Saints moved west in 1846, Howard and Martha moved too. Since Martha’s parents were living by the Missouri River, Howard and Martha stopped there while Howard worked with Martha’s father through the winter. The next summer, Howard raised corn and in the winter took a contract at old Fort Kearny on the Missouri to haul 26,000 bushels of the grain. He was swindled by the quartermaster, however, and never received payment for his work.
In 1848, the family moved to the Nishnabotna River, where with three small children, Martha tended a ferry to help support the family and provide for the move west. In the spring of 1849, the family moved to Kanesville and then that fall to the Platte River.
In late August 1850, the Corays finally arrived in Salt Lake City, where Howard worked for the tithing office of the Church. After four years’ residence in Salt Lake, the family moved to a farm in Tooele, and in 1856 the Corays moved with their now eight children to Provo, where the last four of their twelve children were born. In 1871, the family moved about thirty-five miles south to the small settlement of Mona to homestead. When the water rights of Mona homesteads were challenged, Martha spent time researching, preparing, and helping the city fight for their case. She was “appointed agent . . . to collect evidence, employ counsel and transact such business as may be necessary to prevent or meet a suit of law.”4 Although eventually they lost the case, Martha’s legal experience proved beneficial to others who would later seek her help. Because of Martha’s understanding of legal matters, she held the power of attorney several times for individuals who needed her assistance.5
In 1875, while living in Mona, Martha was appointed to the Brigham Young Academy Board of Trustees. The family returned to Provo in 1880, and Martha passed away there on December 14, 1881. Her tombstone in the Provo city cemetery reads:
While a toiler among the poor,
She was a teacher of the learned,
God and Nature were her preceptors,
Humanity was her religion, and
Maternal sacrifice her idolatry.6
1. Jennie N. Weeks and Inez S. Cooper, “Martha Jane Knowlton Coray” (unpublished manuscript, n.d.), p. 2, Coray Family Papers, 1843–1965, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, hereafter cited as BYU Special Collections.
2. “Obituaries,” Woman’s Exponent 10 (February 1, 1882): 133.
3. Howard Knowlton Coray (1842–1928), Martha Jane Knowlton Coray Lewis (1844–1929), Harriet Virginia Knowlton Coray Dusenberry (1846–1872), Mary Knowlton Coray Roberts (1848–1923), Euphrenia Seraphia Coray Lewis (1850–1923), Helena (Nellie) Knowlton Coray Alexander (1852–1905), William Henry Coray (1853–1935), Sidney Algernon Coray (1855–1943), George Quincey Coray (1857–1929), Francis Delavan Coray (1860–1908), Louis Laville Coray (1862–1949), Don Silas Rathbone Coray (1864–1899).
4. Mona Irrigation Company, Minute Book, March 27, 1875, Coray Family Papers, BYU Special Collections.
5. For a more detailed explanation of Martha’s many different legal activities, see Amy Reynolds Billings, “Faith, Femininity, and the Frontier: The Life of Martha Jane Knowlton Coray” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 2002), 117–33.
6. Much of the information for this biographical sketch comes from Howard Coray, Autobiography, Coray Family Papers, BYU Special Collections.