Nauvoo Teenager: Henry Sanderson


This story is taken from “The History or Henry Sanderson Weeks,” which he wrote in the 1880s, filed at the LDS Church Historical Department, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Thirteen-year-old Henry Sanderson, on his way from Connecticut to Nauvoo, was not sure if he was riding a railroad train or a boat on wheels.

This was September of 1842, and Pennsylvania’s forests were becoming dotted with the reds and golds of autumn. To cross the Allegheny Mountains, Henry boarded a train with his parents and two younger sisters. It had a steam engine like a normal train, but the passenger cars were boats on train wheels. Near the mountain summit, trainmen unhooked the engine and snapped a cable to the cars. A motor at the top wound the cable and pulled the train cars up. At the summit men released the cars and let them coast down the other side of the mountains for miles without any engine at all. Then, for Henry’s final train-boat adventure, trainmen removed the wheels and put the boat-cars into a canal. Horses on a tow path beside the canal pulled Henry’s boat-car to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Henry knew his stay in Pittsburgh would be short, only for one winter. His parents, James and Mary Jane Sanderson, had converted to Mormonism a few months before the train trip and had decided to move to Nauvoo. Henry felt glad to move because boys in his neighborhood in Norwalk, Connecticut, had made fun of him after his parents became Mormons. At Pittsburgh, Henry helped his father do shoemaker’s work, a skill Henry had learned from him.

Late the next spring, the Sandersons boarded a steamboat and churned down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi River. They reached Nauvoo in the summer of 1843 when Henry was 14 and Nauvoo was barely four years old. Henry found young Nauvoo filled with new buildings, most of them small and of wood, with taller brick houses here and there. Encircling the city on the west was the broad, crescent-shaped Mississippi River.

He hiked up the bluffs to visit the temple construction project. He walked around the two-foot high walls which workmen were building skyward. He inspected the red brick store, whose upper floor was the headquarters for the Church. On Main Street he found a brick post office and the Merryweather store.

The Sandersons became neighbors of Joseph Smith on Main Street, two blocks from the river. Henry’s parents moved into a story-and-a-half log cabin next to Sidney Rigdon’s home, which stood between them and the Smiths’ new residence, the Mansion House. Henry saw workmen put the final touches on the Mansion House, which the Smiths opened that September as a hotel.

Henry played with the Prophet’s boys. The oldest was Joseph Smith, III, three years younger than Henry. Henry became best friends with Sidney Rigdon’s boys, Algernon and John W., who were near his age.

In Nauvoo, men and boys donated labor tithing by working every tenth day on building projects. “My father and myself went regularly every tenth day to labor on the temple,” Henry said, “sometimes at the quarry and other times on the Temple grounds.”

Henry, who knew and liked the Prophet, “had been in his house frequently and played with his boys and he would occasionally join us. I had been in games of ball where the Prophet was one of the players.”

Henry, 15, was outside his house when Joseph Smith left for Carthage “the last time alive.” Henry saw Joseph shake hands and exchange canes with a stranger. Then Joseph rode away. Henry first heard the tragic news from Carthage Jail “when a runner went past our house shouting that the prophet was killed.”

A day or two later Henry and crowds of others visited the Mansion House, where “I saw their murdered bodies after they were brought from Carthage.” The murders were “a sad blow to my father,” Henry said, “and for a time he was at a loss to know what the results would be, but he finally settled to the conviction that the church would continue its progress and that the Twelve Apostles were the proper leaders.”

Needing income, Henry’s father took Henry downriver to St. Louis to find jobs. James joined George Betts’s shoe shop which employed 25 men. Henry took a job at a small shop belonging to three Mormon shoemakers. His mother and sisters joined them in the spring.

Henry’s good friends from Nauvoo, Algernon and John Rigdon, visited him in St. Louis. Their father, who had been Joseph Smith’s counselor, had decided to leave the Church and was moving back to Pittsburgh. “In the last conversation that I had with them as they were saying goodbye,” Henry said, “the boys declared that they would return to the church. Knowing they were sincere I expected for some years to hear from them, but was disappointed.” (John rejoined in 1904 just before he died.)

Mr. Betts sent Henry’s father to work on a farm which the Mississippi River had covered the year before. The Sandersons moved there and lived in a “very good log house.” They plowed and planted, and the farm prospered. But with summer heat, river sickness (probably malaria) struck the family. Henry’s father suffered the most and died on September 16, 1845, at age 41.

Henry, now 16, returned with his mother and younger sister, Mary Jane, 4, to Nauvoo. An older sister, Maria, stayed behind to work for the Bettses.

Henry, weak himself from the summer sickness, returned to St. Louis for his sister. He earned his passage downriver and back on riverboats. On the trip down he was an assistant fireman, carrying firewood and loading and unloading freight.

On the boat trip back to Nauvoo, Henry was third cook and “had the cabin dishes to wash, they being brought down to me by the cabin boys.” He liked the job because he could eat the leftover food, which was better than he usually ate. Some plates of food came to him “untouched,” so instead of dumping the food overboard as ordered, he let other cabin boys eat it.

Henry, big for his age, joined the Nauvoo Legion. He “enrolled in a Captain Black’s Company” when unfriendly neighbors began harrassing the Mormons in and around Nauvoo. Officers gave this teenager “something of a gun” and he “sometimes was scouting all night and took delight therein, even at times when the mob was expected every hour.”

Early in 1846, when Henry was 17, the Saints had to leave Nauvoo. For the wagon trek across Iowa, Jonathan C. Wright hired Henry to be a chore boy and drive an ox team. Henry liked this job, except for Brother Wright’s restriction that Henry walk his horses but never run or race them.

While Henry was camped with the Wrights at Council Bluffs, Iowa, a United States army recruiter arrived. “I had told my comrades that he would not get a man,” Henry said. But President Brigham Young called a meeting in a brush-covered bowery and asked that 500 men enlist for the Mexican War. Henry felt impressed to answer the call, so he joined the army. Mr. Wright, upset at losing his hired hand, “was wrathy and said that I could not go.” But Henry went. He was not yet 18 as required by the government, “but as I had nearly got my growth in height I passed without difficulty.” Besides, nobody asked him his age.

The next summer, when he was 18, he entered the Great Salt Lake Valley just behind the 1847 pioneers. Wanting to rejoin his family, he returned east with Brigham Young’s company late that same year to the Winter Quarters area.

Henry and his family came west three years later, in 1850, and became Utah pioneers. He married and lived at Union Fort, Fillmore, and Fairview, Utah. During his adult years he was a farmer, teacher, and shoemaker.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robert Barrett

[illustrations] There was no T.V. or fast food in Nauvoo in the 1840s, but life for a teenager could be interesting and fun. Henry Sanderson managed to help build a temple and became close to the Prophet Joseph Smith and his sons.

[photos] Henry learned the trade of shoemaking, which helped him support his family. He also supported his country by heeding Brigham Young’s call to join the Mormon Battalion.