The Red Coat

by Viva May Gammell Wilcox

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    An incident from the life of the author’s great-grandmother

    “Why did I ever listen to those Mormon missionaries, anyway?” thought Johanna Anderson, as the boat pitched wildly beneath her feet. The voyage had been a difficult one, and today was especially rough. Just about everyone she knew on board was ill, and her faith began to waver as she thought, “Why must this journey be so long and hard?”

    She could, at this very moment, have been home in her beloved Sweden with her caring parents. They had been converted by LDS missionaries in the early 1800s, and it was their greatest desire to send their family to the Salt Lake Valley. When their eldest son, Neils, earned enough money for passage to America for himself and his wife, his parents decided it would be a wonderful opportunity to send 14-year-old Johanna with them.

    Johanna remembered the care her mother had taken in packing her trunk, and the surprise package she’d hidden in the bottom of it. “Johanna,” her mother told her, “when you are far from home, when your faith in God is low, or when you most need help, open the package in the bottom of your trunk. It will cheer your spirits and give you faith to go on to Utah.”

    Well, Johanna’s spirits were certainly low at this point. Not only had the storms relentlessly punished their small ship, but the water for the three-month journey had gone stale. Many passengers were terribly sick, and some had even died and been buried at sea. Everything looked so bleak. Perhaps now was the time to open the package her mother had sent.

    Quietly and unseen, she crept to the hull of the ship and found her trunk. She opened it and felt her precious package. Tears formed in her eyes when she saw what it contained. It was the most beautiful red coat she had ever seen. Her mother must have spent hours making it for her. She slipped into its warm softness and did a little dance on the heaving floor.

    She hadn’t been this happy in a long time. She wanted to show her beautiful coat to all the others on the ship, but she thought again. This was her secret. This red coat was for Utah. She would wear it again when she arrived in the new land. Tenderly she returned the coat to her trunk.

    The knowledge of her beautiful secret gave her courage for the rest of the journey. When no one else seemed able to eat, Johanna found herself hungry. She had become a special friend of the ship’s cook, and he would prepare her the Swedish pancakes she loved. He would place the big bowl in her lap while he added the ingredients, and would instruct her to “lean with the toss of the ship” so the batter would stay in the container.

    Finally, after three months, the ship reached America. It took another three months for the Andersons to travel to St. Louis. There they purchased a wagon, ox teams, and supplies for the long trek across the plains.

    While Neils and his wife drove the team, Johanna walked. She was young and strong and loved the wilderness, with its birds and animals. Every day she saw some new sight that stirred her. Occasionally she would see friendly Indians in the distance. And always, as she walked, she would think of the secret in her trunk—the soft, beautiful red coat—and how she would wear it when she reached her new home in Utah.

    But unknown to the company she traveled with, hostile Indians had been following them since they crossed Wyoming. Johanna sensed things were not right and felt apprehensive. Finally, when evening came, the captain of the company moved the wagons together, forming a tight circle. The cattle and oxen were driven into the center, and there was no campfire, music, or dancing as there had been on other nights. The Saints were told to go to bed and stay quiet.

    Johanna, exhausted from her long walk, fell into a deep sleep. But just at daybreak, she was awakened by voices and stamping horses’ hooves. Her sister-in-law motioned for her to lay quiet. Neils was not in his bed.

    The voices grew louder and nearer, and Johanna noted the language was different. Her people were talking to the Indians.

    She could hear rummaging in the wagon above her. Her trunk was at the end of the wagon, and she could tell it was being opened. She heard Neils’s voice dealing with the Indians.

    Suddenly the voices ceased, and the men jumped down from the wagon. Their dealings had ended, and she could hear the Indians riding away.

    Neils returned and took Johanna to the front of the wagon. In his firm Swedish, he said to his sister, “Johanna, stay here. Let nothing permit you to look back or go to the rear of our wagon. You have faith and the Lord will take care of all of us.”

    The temptation was too great for Johanna, and she turned to look at the Indians riding away, single file and bareback on their ponies. Heading the warriors was Chief Walker, yelling and screaming and riding at top speed. Around his shoulders he wore her beautiful red coat.

    Neils caught his sister in his arms. “Johanna, your coat saved your life—not only yours, but the lives of all in our company. The bright red color caught the chief’s eye. When he saw your coat, he was satisfied and then left us all unharmed.”

    The Andersons soon reached Salt Lake City, and Johanna eventually married James Hansen, a Danish convert. They had ten children, and her descendants still tell her story to their children today.

    Photography by Craig Dimond