A Roof of Willows and Earth

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(This is an excerpt from the book Eliza by Karen Lynn Davidson and Jill Mulvay Derr.)

Eliza had entered the valley on October 2, 1847, little more than two months after the historic arrival of the Saints’ “vanguard company” on July 24. She regularly recorded in her diary the simple pleasures and common privations of her new beginning in the wilderness the Saints now called home. She described the October weather as “quite warm” and then a week later “too cold for me to sit out at meeting.” On November 2, snow fell. Food was scarce enough that she noted the bits and pieces she received: two quarts of meal and a little flour, two quarts of beans, four sea biscuits, a quart of dried apples, a piece of beef. When she made a cap for a friend, she was paid in soap: “1 lb. & 15 oz. so much I call my own. I now begin once more to be a woman of property.” The counterpoint to this scarcity was the joy of living among her fellow Saints in this, their new Zion. “I feel truly blest of the Lord,” she wrote one day, and on another: “This week the Lord has blest me abundantly with strength to labor.” The women’s prayer and blessing meetings that had so refreshed her in Winter Quarters resumed in the valley. She described a meeting of “mothers in Israel” as a “rich treat” and a meeting with younger women as “a time of the outpouring of the spirit of God.”

Eliza’s first residence in the valley of the Great Salt Lake was in the “Old Fort,” a temporary housing complex of some 450 dirt-roofed log cabins spread over thirty acres. There she shared a fourteen-by-sixteen-foot cabin with her sister-wife Clarissa (or Clara) Decker Young, who was one of the three women who had journeyed with the vanguard company that had entered the valley in July. “Have my things put into Clarissa’s room, who said Prest. Y[oung] wrote her that I would live with her,” Eliza noted in her diary on October 3. At the same time, Clarissa wrote to their husband, Brigham, that “Sister Eliza Snow is coming in the morning to live with me. I was much pleased with the arrangement.” Also living with Clarissa and Eliza for some time was an Indian girl named Sally. The Indians had threatened to kill her if the settlers did not “buy” her and take her to live with them, and Clarissa’s brother, Charles Decker, traded his horse and rifle to the Indians in exchange for Sally’s life. Eliza and Clarissa were initially put in charge of Sally’s housing and education, and Sally continued to live with various members of the Young family and later married Ute chief Kanosh. “She proved to be a good, virtuous woman, and died beloved by all who knew her,” Eliza wrote.

Eliza’s only complaint about her accommodations was that “this hut . . . was roofed with willows and earth,” with the roof being “nearly flat. We suffered no inconvenience until about the middle of March, when a long storm of snow, sleet, and rain occurred.” One night, “despite all discomfitures, I laughed involuntarily while alone in the darkness of the night I lay reflecting the ludicrous scene. The earth over head being fully saturated, after it commenced to drip, the storm was much worse inside than out, and as the water coursed through the willows and patterned on the floor, washed the stones from the earth above, and they went clink, clink, while the numerous mice which the storm had driven in for shelter, ran squealing back and forth.”

(Jill Mulvay Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson, Eliza: The Life and Faith of Eliza R. Snow [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013], 75-77.)

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