Thousands of converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived in Nauvoo, Illinois, during the early 1840s. Probably none arrived more exhausted than did the band of nine Black members led by a free Black woman, Jane Elizabeth Manning. When they reached the city in 1843, they had walked over eight hundred miles.
Born to Isaac and Eliza Manning in Wilton, Connecticut, Jane Elizabeth learned early how to work, and to work hard. As a young girl, she was employed as a servant—not a slave—to a farmer’s family.
While still a child, she joined the Presbyterian Church. Later, when two Mormon elders preached the gospel near her home, Jane immediately felt the Spirit of the Holy Ghost and asked to be baptized. Following her example, several members of her family were also baptized.
Wishing to join the Saints in Nauvoo, Jane and eight members of her family joined other converts and traveled from Connecticut to Buffalo, New York, in October 1843. There the others in their group boarded a boat to continue the journey, but the Manning family were denied passage because of their race. Jane and her family began walking the eight hundred miles to Nauvoo.
In her journal, she wrote, “We walked until our shoes were worn out and our feet became sore and cracked open.”
When the Manning family reached Peoria, Illinois, the sheriff threatened to put them in jail because they did not have papers to prove that they were free. Finally Jane convinced him that they had never been slaves.
Frightened by the experience, they moved on. They came to a river and crossed it by walking into the stream until the icy water swirled around their necks. As they continued their trek, they were often cold, hungry, and frightened. Sometimes they found shelter, but often they had to sleep in the open, even when snow fell. They relied on their faith and each other, and when conditions became unbearable, singing hymns and praying kept them going.
When they reached Nauvoo, Orson Spencer directed them to the home of the Prophet. Joseph and Emma Smith welcomed them, inviting the Mannings to stay at the Mansion House until they found homes. Eventually all the members of the Manning family found jobs except Jane. The Prophet and his wife urged her to stay with them.
Jane did stay for several months. When the Prophet was martyred, Jane grieved for him, saying, he was “the finest man I ever saw on earth.”
Following Joseph’s death, Jane lived with President Brigham Young’s family until the Saints fled Nauvoo. During that time, she met and married Isaac James, another free Black, who was also a member of the Church.
After the Saints left Nauvoo in 1846, Jane gave birth to a son, Silas, at Winter Quarters. When the first pioneers left Winter Quarters in 1847, the James family were in the lead company of the main encampment.
Jane’s family struggled during their first years in the Salt Lake Valley, and though they lacked even the most basic necessities, Jane shared what little she did have with her neighbors. When Brother Lyman, a neighbor, received a call to serve a mission in California, he left his family with few provisions. His wife, Eliza Partridge Lyman, wrote, “Jane James let me have two pounds of flour, it being half of what she had.”
Jane worked hard to provide for her family, spinning and weaving cloth, making her own soap, and raising a large garden. She also worked as a laundress to earn much needed cash. Just as it seemed the family was starting to prosper, Jane’s husband left them. Twenty years later, he returned and made his peace with Jane and the Church. Jane held his funeral in her home when he died in 1891.
Despite her meager earnings, Jane James donated to the building funds of the Logan, St. George, and Manti temples, as well as to the Lamanite Mission. When asked how she managed to care for her family and still contribute to the building of the kingdom, she replied, “I pay my tithes and offerings, keep the Word of Wisdom, go to bed early, and rise early. I try in my feeble way to set a good example to all.”
Jane died in 1908. President Joseph F. Smith and other General Authorities spoke at her funeral, praising her unwavering faith and commitment to the gospel.