On 30 June 2002, during the final dedicatory service of the rebuilt Nauvoo temple, President Gordon B. Hinckley spoke of Parley Street, which leads to the site of the old Nauvoo Ferry, from which the early Nauvoo Saints began their trek to the Salt Lake Valley. Then he extended a heartfelt request that those present in the temple take time upon leaving the service to walk down Parley Street. He asked that as they did so, they think of a young pioneer family and imagine the difficulty of leaving a comfortable home and departing for an unknown destination.
Those present at that dedicatory session received President Hinckley’s invitation with enthusiasm. Thousands poured out of the temple and nearby meeting places and proceeded down the length of Parley Street. Fathers carried children on their shoulders, and mothers pushed babies in strollers. Some walked the entire length of road on crutches; others were pushed in wheelchairs. The stream of people continued until after dark.
As I thought about my own ancestors who had lived with the Saints in Nauvoo, I began my own “walk down Parley Street.” But my walk did not take place on cobblestone or gravel roads. As a professional genealogist, I made my walk through the old records and maps of Nauvoo and the journals, letters, and diaries of people who lived there in 1845 and 1846. As I read these historical documents, a picture began to form in my mind of my third great-grandfather William Atkins Gheen and his wife, Esther Ann Pierce Gheen. They had heard the gospel in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and were baptized in 1840. A year later they sold their home and left all that they held dear to move to Nauvoo. William and Esther had eight children, all of whom lived to adulthood, a rare blessing in that day. William died in Nauvoo during the summer of 1845, at the age of 46, following a severe illness, leaving Esther to raise and care for their family.
As each new tidbit of information in my research came to light, Esther Ann Gheen and her story began to unfold before me. She became more than a name on a pedigree chart; she became a personality, a woman of strength. And my heart turned to her. What follows are my impressions of Esther Ann Gheen’s walk down Parley Street on 24 February 1846.
Like many of the families leaving Nauvoo, the Gheen family was unable to sell their home, so they simply walked away from it. I imagine Esther Ann Gheen rearranging the crockery on the table and adjusting the curtains over the window one more time before willing herself to look away from her parlor. Then, gathering her four youngest children, she picked up the smallest, wrapped her in Grandmother Pierce’s handmade quilt, and left.
I can easily imagine how the children felt as they stepped out of their warm house into the bitter cold Nauvoo morning, the snow crunching under their feet. The Mississippi River had completely frozen over between Nauvoo and Montrose, Iowa, and families with their wagons had been crossing over since early morning. I picture Esther leaving the house last, turning to the wagon where her eldest son, Thomas, was helping the younger children onto the buckboard. She likely stopped to gaze at the temple. Her home on Partridge Street was at the foot of the rise that led to the temple two blocks away.
Tender thoughts must have come quickly to mind when she looked at the temple, realizing then that she would never enter it again. She had received her endowment two months earlier on 18 December 1845. It must have been a wonderful day, and the covenants she had made with the Lord must have filled her heart with hope and peace. Then on 2 February 1846, Esther had been sealed for time and all eternity in the temple to her deceased husband, William.
William Atkins Gheen had loved the temple and had worked on it nearly every day since his arrival at Nauvoo in 1841. Then he had become ill with a cold that settled in his lungs. Elder Heber C. Kimball, a counselor to President Brigham Young, recorded in his journal that he and President Young had often gone to visit William Gheen and give him a blessing. But on 15 July 1845, Heavenly Father called William home.
I think Esther would have gotten up early on the morning of 24 February 1846 and visited William’s grave. Even though she knew their union would be eternal, it must have felt as if she were leaving part of herself behind.
Now Esther and her family headed down Partridge Street toward Parley Street, where they would join a host of other families moving toward the ice-covered river. A block away, Esther’s daughter Margaret and husband James Downing may have fallen into step with them. The Downing family wasn’t leaving Nauvoo, but I think they surely would have walked with their mother and brothers and sisters to the ferry.
A block past the Heber C. Kimball home, Esther and her family turned onto Parley Street, passing the home of Bishop Newel K. Whitney, Presiding Bishop of the Church. Bishop Whitney had remained in town to assist the Saints, and I can picture him out on the street, helping families with their supplies.
At the corner of Hyde and Parley Streets, Gully’s Store would have been teeming with activity as emigrants made final purchases.
Across the street to the north stood William Clayton’s house—now empty. William Clayton had gone to Iowa with the Brethren, leaving his wife in the care of her parents until the delivery of their baby. After being notified of the birth of that baby seven weeks later in April 1846, William Clayton composed and wrote a hymn now known as “Come, Come, Ye Saints.”
I imagine Lucy Mack Smith saying farewell to passing friends. Mother Smith had spoken at a general conference held in the temple the previous October 8th and had encouraged the Saints to follow the Quorum of the Twelve. She expressed her wish that she could go with them. But she was old, and her husband and four sons were buried in this place. Her surviving son, William, chose to remain in Nauvoo, as did her three daughters and many of her grandchildren. She wanted to go, but her ties to Nauvoo were strong and her health was declining.
Passing Main Street, Esther would have seen the Mansion House, two blocks to the south on Water Street. This was where the beloved Prophet Joseph had lived with his family. His widow, Emma, remained there with her sons, bound to the city by bonds she would never break.
The last imposing structure on Parley Street was the Seventies Hall, where many of the brethren of the Church had met for instruction. It was a stately two-story brick building, and William Gheen had visited there often to learn more about the priesthood and other gospel principles, which he then shared with the family.
The Gheens arrived at last at the Mississippi River. The old elm tree at the ferry, a landmark for steamboat captains and their crews, was bare of leaves and stood as a stark sentinel for the departing Saints. The ice was thick and solid, but they climbed out of their wagons to lighten the load as they crossed the two-mile stretch between Nauvoo and Montrose.
I imagine Esther, like many others, turning for a final look back. Even in the harsh cold of winter, Nauvoo was beautiful. The nearly completed temple rose above the city—standing as a symbol of sacrifice, dedication, and obedience. It had served its purpose—5,600 had received their endowments and helped establish the restoration of these sacred covenants in this dispensation. Esther finally turned and went on.
Thomas Gheen accompanied his mother and family to the camp of Heber C. Kimball at Sugar Creek, and then they tearfully parted as Thomas returned to Nauvoo. Esther and her children joined the nearly 300 men, women, and children traveling west in the Kimball Company.
Once in Salt Lake City, Esther’s children grew and married. Esther passed away in 1858. Daughter Margaret remained in the East with her family, and son Thomas served the Union cause during the Civil War and was killed. But promises were fulfilled. Years later, when new temples were built, descendants of William and Esther served as proxy for Gheen family members who needed their temple ordinances performed.
I realize I can never think of these beloved ancestors again without thinking of walking down Parley Street with them. I love them. My heart has been turned as promised in Doctrine and Covenants 2:1–2: “Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers.”
But I am not alone. The building and dedication of the new temple in Nauvoo has provided an opportunity for the hearts of many to turn to their ancestors, whether they lived in Nauvoo or not. We can all symbolically take a walk down Parley Street and think of our own ancestors and their sacrifices in our behalf. And we can make sure we perform temple ordinances for them. By so doing, we help move the great work of temple and family history work forward with more strength than ever before—“If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming” (D&C 2:3).