When she first heard the restored gospel in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where she was born on July 29, 1831, Mary Jane Dilworth knew it to be true. Her family and many of their friends and neighbors also believed the teachings of the elders. All were baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
After the Prophet Joseph Smith was killed, the Dilworths traveled to Illinois to join the Saints preparing to leave Nauvoo and journey west. When the Dilworths arrived, they found that many Church members had already been forced to leave the city. Helped by her three married sisters and their husbands, Mary Jane and her family soon set out across Iowa for Council Bluffs (Winter Quarters) on the Missouri River.
At first, the younger children enjoyed running and playing alongside the wagons as they traveled through the tall grasses, but when the weather changed and they had to stay in their wagons, boredom set in. Fourteen-year-old Mary Jane decided to entertain them by pretending to be their school teacher. She sang with them, told them stories, and taught them spelling and arithmetic. The time seemed to fly. Part of every day from then on was spent “playing school.”
After they arrived at Council Bluffs, Mary Jane found herself appointed nursemaid to about a dozen young children. She did the same thing that had worked so well on the trail. She began amusing them with rhymes and pictures (drawing with charcoal on the tailgates of wagons) to teach them their ABCs. She sang songs, told stories, and played games.
One day Brigham Young paused to listen. He was impressed with her manner and with the attention she received from the children in her care. Months later, when he had led the first pioneer company to the valley and was returning to Winter Quarters for another group, he passed the company Mary Jane was traveling west in. After again observing her teaching the children, he said, “Sister Dilworth, … I have a special mission for you. As soon as you reach the city, I want you to start a school for the younger children. Let any who wish to, attend, and encourage all to do so. And God bless you.”
Two weeks and three days after arriving in Salt Lake Valley, on October 19, 1847, Mary Jane Dilworth, then sixteen years old, welcomed children to the first school in the area that would later be Utah.