William Wood’s teenage years ended while he was serving in the British navy. Now, after war experience in the Crimea and China, and a three-year voyage around the world aboard the (His Majesty’s Ship) Retribution, the sailor enjoyed being home again on the Isle of Sheppey, near the mouth of the Thames River. He relayed and became reacquainted with his relatives, none of whom had appreciated his joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints five years earlier.
After being home two weeks William looked up the local branch of the Church. His sister went along, thinking he was just going for a walk. They ended up at a Mormon meeting in Sheerness held in “a little upstairs room in a dirty back alley.” William received a hearty welcome from the branch president and the few Saints who had known him before.
They called on him to speak at the meeting and tell about his sea experiences. His sister was surprised, he noted, “at finding me still a Mormon and hearing me preach.”
To supplement his discharge pay of 80 pounds sterling, William found work as a butcher. He was hired at good wages by none other than his former employer at Maldon, Mr. Blaxall, the man who fired him years before for joining the Latter-day Saints. William returned to Maldon and worked for about a year, during which period he had two pressing goals: emigrating to Zion and “selecting me a wife.”
Early in 1862 the seaman met and fell in love with Elizabeth Gentry, the attractive, 16-year-old daughter of the branch president in Maldon. Her mother had joined the Church in 1853, Elizabeth in 1854, and her blacksmith father the next year. Brother Gentry and William, converts the same year, had served together as priests at preaching services around Maldon before William’s navy service.
When William and Elizabeth became engaged, they counseled with traveling elder Francis M. Lyman about immigrating to Zion. Elder Lyman, later a member of the Council of the Twelve, advised the couple to join the emigrating company he was then organizing.
The couple joined other emigrating Saints at London and then the group traveled to Liverpool and boarded the old sailing ship William Tapscott, which had been specially chartered by Church emigration agents. For the voyage, the vessel received one of the largest Latter-day Saint companies ever to emigrate together across the Atlantic, numbering 800 souls from the British Isles, Denmark, and Sweden. “It was an interesting sight,” William reported, “to see the Saints boarding the ship with all kinds of tin utensils tied in bunches and some were carrying their straw mattresses on their heads, while others were carrying all kinds of parcels and lunch baskets. Some had old pieces of furniture … or some old picture of great-grandparents.”
William thought it remarkable how quickly the large crowd, divided into shipboard wards headed by specially appointed presiding elders, became orderly. “I do not think the same number of non-Mormons would have settled down to such order,” the veteran of shipboard life observed. “Nothing but the Spirit of the Lord would produce such harmony.” The ship left the Liverpool docks on May 13, 1862.
Ward teachers were assigned to each family, and Elder Lyman requested William to be responsible for the welfare of seven emigrants, including Elizabeth. The seaman obtained their rations, arranged for their food to be cooked, and performed other needed services. The slow, six-week voyage, characterized by rough seas and much sea-sickness, ended at Castle Garden in New York. The company passed health inspections, then boarded trains for St. Louis, Missouri. Because the American Civil War then was escalating, “we were moved and changed about a number of times. At one place we were hustled on board of a freight train. The cars had been loaded with hogs and they had not been swept or cleaned out, thus we were choked with the dust and could taste it for days afterwards.”
At the Missouri River they transferred to a small steamboat. It arrived near Council Bluffs, Iowa, very late at night, in the darkness, and passengers and baggage were unloaded at a fast speed and in confusion. At daybreak the weary travelers located their scattered luggage, then assembled at the Church’s emigration campground. There they were organized into companies of tens, fifties, and hundreds by Church emigration agent Joseph Young. William, being a military veteran, was named captain of the guards.
Wagons and teams had to be prepared, baggage loaded, food supplies purchased and packed, and teamsters trained. While this work was being done the camp was struck by a violent storm with high winds, torrential rains, and vivid lightnings. Cattle broke loose and stampeded, doing great damage. Lightning killed at least two Saints and badly injured several others. Floods washed gullies 3 meters deep in places. During the storm William, as captain of the guards, was called on to help a sister give birth under a collapsed tent—both mother and son remained his lifelong friends in Utah. The company needed two or three days to recover from the storm, and many Saints never found boxes and bags washed away by the flash floods.
A Brother Cooper, noticing William’s skill with cattle, hired him to train his teams to work together in a yoke and then drive them to Utah. In return William and Elizabeth were promised free transportation. A few days later, however, their employer announced that he did not intend to go to Zion but wanted them to help him farm nearby. When William refused, he and Elizabeth were ordered out of the wagon and left without food or water.
Fortunately for the stranded couple, Elders Lyman and Charles C. Rich rode in from the west and found them that evening. They arranged for Elizabeth to ride to Utah with a family named Wardell for 40 dollars. Elder Lyman, however, asked William to return to Florence to help with the D. F. Kimball freight train. The fiancé agreed to this separation reluctantly:
“I think this was the greatest trial I ever underwent—to leave my betrothed and go back. However, I submitted and kissed my girl good-bye and gave her a half sovereign, all the money I had in the world, and jumped in the buckboard and we went, I with a sorrowful heart and a mind full of reflections as to the outcome of it all. Brother Rich found I was in tears and told me to cheer up and have faith and all would be well.”
His first night in camp provided the other men with a good laugh then and for years after. William, preparing for bed, reached in his bag for what he thought were closely woven cotton sailor overalls and instead he held up “some sort of ladies’ underwear trimmed and adorned with lace.” His comrades laughed loudly. He had taken his sweetheart’s bag by mistake instead of his own! But perhaps the seaman was more fortunate than the others: while the freight company members slept on hard ground for three months, William rested comfortably in his sea hammock slung between two wagon wheels. On rainy nights he simply covered himself and hammock with canvas.
Day by day the scenery and travel grew increasingly tiresome. Near Chimney Rock (in what is now Wyoming) some of the cattle became diseased and died, forcing the company to make shorter drives each day. William began to think he would never get to Utah and rejoin Elizabeth.
Finally one October Saturday, William’s company descended the hills above Salt Lake City, awed by a beautiful sunset across the Great Salt Lake and by the splendid square-blocked city stretched out below them. As they approached the city, an occupant of a nearby cabin called and waved to William. It was Sister Wardell, the woman with whom Elizabeth had traveled to Utah! William hurried to her, but his anticipation was instantly crushed. She informed him that Elizabeth no longer loved him and planned to marry a local polygamist!
“This was like a bolt of thunder to me,” he recalled. Heartsick, the young man continued with the company to the valley floor, then returned that night to the Wardells. The woman tried to persuade William to marry her daughter, but he was not interested. “I formed a resolution that I was going to have the ‘love of my youth’”, he said.
Friends from Maldon lived in Centerville so early the next week William hiked 19 kilometers to locate them. He arrived at night, and “to my great joy the girl of my heart was found lying asleep on an old home-made lounge and looking free although almost in rags. She awoke, and her joy was unbounded.” Elizabeth then explained that the Wardell woman had tried to marry her to her own son. That failing, the mother sent the girl away and kept all the clothes and bedding until Elizabeth’s 40-dollar fare was paid in full. The woman then had made up the story about Elizabeth’s loss of affection for William, hoping the navy veteran would marry into the Wardell family.
William returned to Salt Lake City and drove his freight team to Springville where he received his three months’ wages. Then he walked back to Salt Lake, paid off the 40-dollar debt, obtained his and Elizabeth’s belongings, and then got a ride back to Centerville. Two weeks later the engaged couple were married.
Hard work brought the young couple a fine brick home and prospering meat business in Salt Lake, enabling them to pay for the immigration of Elizabeth’s family in 1867. But the next year the Woods gave up home and career to fill a difficult colonizing mission to Arizona. They returned destitute four years later and took up residence in a poor smelter dug in the side of a hill within sight of their former home.
William again left his prospering business and a growing family in 1880 to a mission to his home country. Near the end of that otherwise successful mission he reported:
“I preached the Gospel to my dear ones, my father, mother, brother, and sister, and although none of my own kindred have obeyed, they had to acknowledge they could not confute the doctrine, and they feel today that I am not what they judged me to be twenty-seven years ago. When a boy … All my dear relations have treated me with marked kindness, as they have any of the Elders that called upon them at the time. I know God will bless them for that.”
Six years after he returned from his mission, his beloved Elizabeth gave birth in her 42nd year to their 13th baby, but within days both mother and baby died. William later remarried, and he and his families went on to gain prominence in Canada where the Wood name became linked with extensive ranching and meat-packing interests. William’s son Edward J. served for many years as a stake president and temple president in Alberta.
The year before William died, he wrote his impressive life story, hoping his example as convert, sailor, pioneer, and missionary might teach young people in the Church that “should they have to leave the place where they have been taught the gospel … never to yield to any invitation that leads to intemperance or immorality. Always pray to the Lord, whether you are called by the servant of God to preach the Gospel or surrounded by the horrors of war—never forget to offer a silent prayer to your Eternal Father. He will not forget you.”