Mary Fielding Smith was the wife of Hyrum Smith. Hyrum was the brother of Joseph Smith, the first prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are sometimes nicknamed Mormons. The brothers were murdered at a young age, leaving behind young wives and children.
Mary Fielding Smith did not let the trials she had already faced, or those she would face in the future as a widowed mother in a church under constant threat of persecution and death slow her down or destroy her faith. She accepted that other people would be able to cause troubles for her she couldn’t control, and she might be among a hated group, but she could could still take control of much of her life. Like so many pioneer women, she showed extraordinary courage and faith through even the most challenging times.
Mary was left not only to take care of her own children, but also to care for several ill or disabled people her husband had been caring for prior to his death. The Mormons were forced out of their city in Illinois. Mary took her family to Winter Quarters and then the move to the Salt Lake Valley was underway. Some of her household had already gone ahead in 1847, but in the spring of 1848, Mary was determined to set out and join them. She had two young sons, but no other real support.
While preparing for the journey, she and her brother, Joseph Fielding, took a fifty mile journey into St. Joseph, Missouri to get supplies for the winter and for the upcoming journey to the Salt Lake Valley in Utah. They took two wagons and two yokes of oxen for each wagon. Her nine-year-old son, Joseph F. Smith, who would later become the president of the Mormons, went with them. It was a very difficult journey, filled with bad roads and worse weather. On the trip home, they stopped to camp beside a spring, where they could oversee the entire prairie. They noted a herd of beef cattle camped nearby, so they decided not to turn their own cattle loose, for fear they’d be rounded up with the beef cattle when that group departed. They kept the animals yokes on, but let them go out to feed. However, in the morning, several of their best oxen were missing. The two Josephs headed out immediately to search for them in the wet prairie. Hours later they returned, nearly exhausted, to find Mary kneeling in prayer. Her young son approached her quietly and heard her pleading with God to return the oxen to them so they could make it safely home. As she stood up, he noted a peaceful smile come on to her face, filling him with hope.
His uncle was not as hopeful. He informed Mary the oxen were gone, probably rounded up with the beef cattle despite their attempts to make them stand out. Mary smiled and simply told them to go get the breakfast she had made them and she’d just take a little walk and see if she could find them. Her brother was astonished. After all, they’d spent hours searching already. How could she find them on a little walk? However, Mary set out. The person in charge of the beef cattle saw her and road over to tell her he’d seen the cattle. He pointed her in the right direction, but to his surprise, she continued on her original path, the opposite direction from which he sent her.
Young John, worried about his mother’s safety, had been monitoring her progress as he ate. Soon he saw her motion for him to join her. He and his uncle hurried to her, John running and arriving first. She pointed out the oxen, who had gotten trapped in a clump of willows at the bottom of a washed out gulch, completely hidden from sight. Mary’s son always remembered this story as one of his first experiences with the power of prayer.
She didn’t have enough teams to pull the wagons she should have taken with her and she hadn’t enough money to buy them, but she persisted in her plan. Without enough oxen, she fastened together two wagons and then hooked them up to cows and even calves. They really weren’t strong enough to pull the load, it would seem, but this is how they set up. There were trials of all sorts, including getting stuck in the mud and coping with broken equipment. Her cows needed breaking and struggled with the hills. All of this came before she even reached Elk Horn, where the Saints, as the Mormons called themselves, were gathering to organize into companies for the trip. She reported herself as ready to go.
Captain Smith, learning she had seven wagons, but only four yokes of oxen, some cows and some calves, told her it was foolish to even attempt the trip under these conditions. He said she would wind up being a burden on the men, who would have to help her and take care of her. However, she firmly told the captain, “I will beat you to the Valley, and ask no help from you either!”
Her first step was to arrange to buy, on credit, more oxen from families who were not going to be able to make the trip that year. She was now much better prepared, but the captain, not having a sense of humor, had not appreciated Mary’s defiance of his advice or her boast that she would beat him to the valley. He seemed determined to make sure her boast didn’t come true by making the journey as unpleasant for her as possible. She responded by praying and ignoring him, refusing to let him get her down.
One extremely hot day, one of her oxen suddenly fell to the ground in spasms. The men who came to see what was wrong decided the ox had been poisoned. The captain promptly pronounced him dead and said in either resignation or triumph that they were going to have to figure out some way to take Mary and her family along. He reminded her he had said all along she’d end up being a burden.
Mary wasn’t giving up so easily though. Mormons teach that members of the priesthood, which is held by all worthy men, can perform healing through the power of Jesus Christ. They do this by having two or more men stand in a circle around the person in need, placing a drop of oil that has been prayed over on the person’s head, and then praying for his recovery or for God’s will to be done, depending on what the person saying the prayer feels inspired by God to say. Mary remembered this and thought that in such desperate circumstances, when she needed the ox to keep God’s commandment to gather to the Valley, that God would also heal her ox. She quickly found the consecrated (prayed over) oil and asked some of the men to give the ox the priesthood blessing or prayer normally given to sick humans. They agreed. The moment the prayer began, the ox stood up and continued on his way, as healthy as ever.
As they crossed over the Big Mountain, they saw the Salt Lake Valley for the first time. They were anxious to arrive quickly so the company traveled until quite late. The oxen were turned loose to graze. However, when they arose in the morning, some of Mary’s oxen were missing. Mary’s son John set out to search for them, since they were essential for the trip. However, the captain, even knowing Mary’s oxen were missing, ordered the company to leave earlier than usual. Perhaps he saw a chance to make sure she wouldn’t be able to keep her promise to beat him to the valley. He and the others left to continue the journey and Mary was left alone with her family to hunt. Eventually, John found the oxen and they set out with little hope of catching up.
However, the captain was not having an easy time of things. A terrible storm arose where he and the others were and frightened the teams, who refused to continue the trip. They were forced to unhitch the cattle and take shelter. The now freed cattle took off in every direction, so when the storm ended, the company was forced to go on their own cattle search. As they were searching, Mary and her family drove up—and kept right on going, not waiting for them. She arrived in the valley a full twenty hours before the obnoxious captain and the rest of the company.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.