Thousands of new converts arrived in Nauvoo with eagerness and anticipation in the early 1840s. But probably none came with more urgency than the exhausted band of nine black Saints who entered the city late in 1843.1 They were led by a free black woman, Jane Elizabeth Manning, and had walked over 800 miles.
They could not know, however, that Nauvoo would be a temporary stop. The respite there would be broken when Jane, with the body of the Church, would be driven from Illinois. She would endure the hardships of pioneer life to become part of the first black community in the Salt Lake Valley.
As the nine travelers made their way through Nauvoo in 1843, Orson Spencer was kind enough to direct them to the home of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Jane’s “Biography” records the events and conversations of her first meeting with the Prophet’s family.
As Jane and her followers neared the newly completed Mansion House, they saw a tall, dark-haired woman standing in the doorway. “Come in, come in,”2 welcomed Emma Smith, who guided them into the house. The Prophet gave a warm greeting and placed extra chairs around the room for his new guests, and for Emma, John Bernhisel, and other members of the household. After a round of introductions, Joseph Smith took the chair next to Jane.
“You have been the head of this little band, haven’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” answered Jane.
“God bless you! Now I would like you to relate your experience in your travels.” The Prophet sat back to listen.
No one came to Nauvoo without a sense of adventure. Even the act of joining the Church demanded courage. But the account Jane gave to the Prophet about her life, conversion, and refusal to be defeated when she met prejudice and hardship was indeed unusual.
Jane Elizabeth was born to Isaac and Eliza Manning in Wilton, Connecticut, in the late 1810s or early 1820s. While a young girl she lived as a servant—but not a slave—in a prosperous white farmer’s home. Her adherence to Christian principles (she became a member of the Presbyterian church) helped prepare her for the message of two Mormon missionaries who traveled in the area where she lived. When Charles Wandell preached the message of the restored gospel in Connecticut, Jane embraced it and acquainted her relatives with it. As preparations were made for the Saints in the area to immigrate to Nauvoo, Jane and eight members of her family joined the larger group.3
In October 1843, the new Mormons traveled together from Wilton, Connecticut, to Buffalo, New York. Jane recorded that the Manning family became separated from the main group when boat authorities refused them passage. As the other members of the Wandell party boarded the vessel, Jane’s little group began walking the eight hundred miles to Nauvoo. Jane recalled:
“We walked until our shoes were worn out, and our feet became sore and cracked open and bled until you could see the whole print of our feet with blood on the ground. We stopped and united in prayer to the Lord, we asked God the Eternal Father to heal our feet and our prayers were answered and our feet were healed forthwith.”4
Upon reaching Peoria, Illinois, the Mannings were puzzled when local authorities threatened to place them in jail because they could not produce their “free papers.” Finally able to convince the men that they had never been slaves and did not need “free papers,” they were allowed to go.
Frightened at the threat of imprisonment, they were anxious to move on but were slowed by a river. Seeing no bridge, they forded it by walking into the stream until the cold water swirled around their necks. Afterward, wet, cold, frightened, and hungry, they pressed on their way, sleeping sometimes in the shelter of a log cabin, other times in the open, even when the snow fell. Jane remembered the faith that sustained them when she said, “We went on our way rejoicing, singing hymns, and thanking God for his infinite goodness and mercy to us, in blessing us … protecting us … and healing our feet.”5 As they approached La Harpe, Illinois, they prayed for a sick baby and it was healed. It was an exhilarating experience and gave them new hope as they entered the city of Nauvoo.
Joseph Smith and the others listened attentively as Jane finished her story. “What do you think of that, Doctor?” he said, slapping Bernhisel’s knee. “Isn’t that faith?”
“Well, I rather think it is,” was the reply. “If it had … been me I fear I should have backed out and returned to my home.”
Joseph turned again to the Manning family. “God bless you. You are among friends; now you will be protected.”
They were invited to stay at the Mansion House until other homes could be found for them. Within a week all, with the exception of Jane, were settled and had secured work. On the morning that Jane’s family left the Smiths for their new jobs, the Prophet Joseph came in to say his usual good morning to her. He found her weeping and inquired as to the cause of the tears. “The folks have all gone and got themselves homes, and I have got none.”
“Yes, you have,” he said, “you have a home right here if you want it. You mustn’t cry, we dry up all tears here.” He left the room and returned shortly with Emma. “Sister Emma,” he said, “here is a girl that says she has no home, haven’t you a home for her?”
Emma offered Jane the same warm hospitality she had given scores of others in similar need. Satisfied that the tears were over, the Prophet left Emma and Jane to arrange the details. Jane was a willing worker and told Emma of her skills. She could wash and iron clothes and was a good cook and housekeeper. “When you are rested,” Emma said, “you may do the washing, if you would just as soon do that.” Jane began the following morning.
Jane remained part of the Smith household for several months. While there, she enjoyed the association of Joseph and Emma’s family and visited often with the Prophet’s mother, Lucy. Eventually Jane became friends with other members of the household such as Sarah and Maria Lawrence and Eliza and Emily Partridge.
When Joseph Smith campaigned for President of the United States in 1844, Jane, in particular, must have felt a sense of personal importance that one of the planks of the platform was a strong proclamation to “Break off the shackles from the … black man, and hire him to labor like other human beings; for ‘an hour of virtuous liberty on earth is worth a whole eternity of bondage.’”6
Jane revered Joseph as “the finest man I ever saw on earth. … He was a fine, big, noble, beautiful man!” She personally knew his kindness and generosity. The desolation she felt at his death was clearly expressed when she said, “When he was killed, I liked to a died myself.”7
Jane lived with Brigham Young’s family during the disruptive period between the martyrdom and the exodus. Although she remembered it as “that time of agony and sorrow,” she was courted by a young black man in the Church named Lewis. Before Nauvoo was abandoned, however, she married another free black, Isaac James, who was also a member of the Church.
After the Saints left Nauvoo for the trek west in 1846, Jane gave birth to their son Silas at Winter Quarters in the inadequate shelters that served as makeshift homes for the fleeing Mormons. In 1847, the first pioneers left Winter Quarters, some weeks after Brigham Young’s advance company. Black faces turned resolutely toward the west; Jane and Isaac James, their son Silas, and Jane’s son Sylvester, were counted in the lead company of the main encampment. Fording streams, fighting fatigue and dust storms, always seeking forage which often proved sparse, they probably arrived in the Salt Lake Valley with an advance group on 19 September 1847.8
The James family managed through the first years, when even the necessities of life were not available. Jane commented later: “Oh how I suffered of cold and hunger and keenest of all was to hear my little ones crying for bread, and I had none to give them.” She shared what little she did have with her neighbors. Jane’s friend, Eliza Partridge Lyman, whose husband had just left for a mission to California, wrote:
“April 13th  … May the Lord bless and prosper them and return them in safety. He left us without anything from which to make bread, it not being in his power to get it. … Jane James, the colored woman, let me have two pounds of flour, it being half of what she had.”9
The James family’s hard work, thrift, and perseverance helped them acquire a home and farm animals. Jane spun and wove the cloth for the family’s clothing. But the sought-after prosperity became an elusive thing. Just as it seemed possible to rejoice in their bounty, “the grasshoppers and crickets came along carrying destruction wherever they went, laying our crops to the ground … bringing poverty and desolation throughout this beautiful valley.”10
Six more children were born to the family between 1848 and 1860. Jane’s son, Sylvester, was a member of the Nauvoo Legion in Utah.11 The children helped with the sheep, and despite the growing number of family members they steadily increased their holdings. Three horses replaced the ox, a new “vehicle” replaced their aging cart. “Only four other households in the First Ward held more property than the Jameses.”12
But another blow awaited the family. Jane’s husband, Isaac James, left them in 1869. He sold his share of the property to Jane for $500. Years later, Isaac returned to Salt Lake, reestablishing his relationship with both Jane and the Church. Jane held his funeral in her home when he died in 1891.13
During the twenty-year separation, Jane managed her home and raised her family. She always had food from her garden. Her spinning, sewing, and soap-making provided them with the other necessities. A meager cash income came from her work as a laundress, and she and her family moved into a two-story frame house with a white picket fence. Their household was one of the poorer ones in the Eighth Ward, 14 but the activities of children, grandchildren, and relatives compensated for the absence of material possessions.
Jane Manning remained active in her faith. She was a steadfast member of the Relief Society, and, in addition to the regular activities of the Society, she helped with special projects. Jane donated to the building funds of the St. George, Logan, and Manti temples, and her contributions were also added to the funds supporting the Lamanite Mission.15 Recognition of her service came from beyond the boundaries of her own ward in her later years when Church authorities regularly reserved seats in the center front of the Tabernacle for Jane and her brother.16
Her undaunted faith, combined with her loving generosity to her family and church, prompted her to respectfully request permission from the First Presidency for her family to be sealed to her. Although that permission was denied at the time,16 Jane was able to be baptized for her kindred dead. (Temple work—endowments and sealings—has recently been done for Jane and her family.)
Throughout her life, Jane maintained her identification as both a black and a Mormon and retained her sense of personal worth and dignity. The difficulties of life never changed her open commitments to the gospel. Toward the end of her life, though almost blind and crippled by a fall, she said:
“I want to say right here, that my faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, as taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is as strong today, nay, it is if possible stronger than it was the day I was first baptized. I pay my tithes and offerings, keep the word of wisdom, I go to bed early and rise early, I try in my feeble way to set a good example to all.”17
When Jane Elizabeth Manning James died in 1908, President Joseph F. Smith was one of the Church authorities who spoke at her funeral.18