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Theodore Turley: A Biography
Richard E. Turley, Jr.

[This is another in a continuing series of newsletter articles that together will make up the first rough draft of a biography of Theodore Turley. The draft will undergo considerable revision before being published in book form. I invite all family members to read it critically, make suggestions, and offer additional information for possible inclusion. Feel free to e-mail me.]

11 The First House Built by a Saint in Nauvoo, 11 June to 18 July 1839

Although a small number of homes already existed in the vicinity when the Turleys arrived, Theodore wrote that he “Built the First house that was built by a Mormon in Nauvoo.”1 One of the homes that was already standing at the time the Saints arrived in the area was a stone house built in the 1820s by Captain James White and his family and later occupied by Isaac Galland and Church leader Sidney Rigdon.2 In 1935, the Deseret News published a photograph, a copy of which is reprinted below, that mistakenly identified the White house as the home built by Theodore Turley3:

The mistake was an easy one to make. Photographs of White’s house were being circulated with a note inscribed on them to the effect that they were of the first house built in Nauvoo.4 Meanwhile, the idea that Theodore built the first house “by a Mormon in Nauvoo,” as he himself put it, became inadvertently changed into the mistaken idea that he built the first house in Nauvoo. If the White house is not the one Theodore Turley built, what did the Turley home look like?

A photograph that appeared in the Keokuk, Iowa, Daily Gate City in 1961 suggests another candidate:

The photograph shows a two-story home with a pillared porch, a chimney on the left side of the house, and a lean-to on the back. According to the caption published along with the photograph, the home was originally Theodore Turley’s and was later owned by Christian Walters, who appears in the picture.5 The house was reportedly razed in 1934.6

A photograph taken from across the Mississippi River by G. F. Gouty around 1900 gives some credence to the Walters house’s claim to being Theodore’s.7 The photograph shows a two-story home with a pillared porch, a chimney on the left side, and a lean-to on the back. The home is situated northeast of the Nauvoo House on the southeast corner of the block on which Joseph Smith’s Mansion House was located. Thus, it is situated on property that land records prove Theodore Turley once owned. The portion of the Gouty photograph that includes the home is shown below with an arrow pointing toward the house in question.

This home, however, had apparently undergone substantial remodeling from the time that Theodore Turley lived in Nauvoo. Proof of the change comes from a pen-and-ink drawing of Water Street made around 1845 by Robert Campbel8:

As this drawing shows, the home on the corner was originally a single level log home with a loft. The nature of the home becomes more apparent when the image is magnified:

At first, this 1845 drawing—made at the time Theodore and his family were living in Nauvoo—would seem to put to rest all speculation about the nature and appearance of the first Latter-day Saint home built in Nauvoo, the one built by Theodore Turley. But there is a major problem: the structure in the picture apparently is not the house Theodore built when he first reached the Nauvoo area. Rather, it seems to be a structure he built later.

Advertisements in the local newspaper, the Nauvoo Neighbor, suggest that this building on the corner of Hyde and Water Streets was actually constructed by Theodore as a business building about four years after he and his family moved into the area.9 As to the first home Theodore built in Nauvoo, the published History of the Church under date of 11 May 1839 includes the following language: “About this time Elder Theodore Turley raised the first house built by the Saints in this place [Commerce]; it was built of logs, about twenty-five or thirty rods north north-east of my dwelling, on the north-east corner of lot 4, block 147, of the White purchase.”10

This description suggests that the first home was built not on the southeast corner of the lot, like the business building, but rather on the northeast corner of it. This conclusion seems to be supported by an archaeological study conducted on the property by archaeologists from the University of Missouri at Columbia in 1973.11

To date, no photographs of the original cabin have been located, and it seems likely that it was converted into an outbuilding or taken down not many years after it was originally built. An 1859 map of Hancock County, Illinois, clearly shows the business building on the corner of the block but has no indication of the earlier cabin further north.12

The best description of the nature of the original home comes from Theodore’s own pen, which described the materials he gathered for its construction: “Logs [and] Stone.”13 We also know how long it took him to build it. He left Far West on 18 April and from that day, according to his account, “for The Space of Thirteen wekes” his family “neavour ha[d] the Privelidge of Sleeping under a ruff.”14 Thirteen weeks from 18 April would put the date they moved into the house at 18 July. Coincidentally, his missionary convert and good friend James Mulholland recorded in his own journal that on Thursday, 18 July 1839, he “moved to Brother [Theodore] Turleys.”15

With his house now built, Theodore could finally focus his attention on the mission to which he had been called, a subject that would occupy his mind for more than two years.

[Next issue: “Preparing for a Mission: Life in Commerce to 20 September 1839”]

Draft of 14 September 1999
© 1999 by Richard E. Turley, Jr. (Reprinted with permission.)
Originally published in the October 1999 Theodore Turley Family Organization Newsletter

  1. Theodore Turley, Autobiography (ca. 1840), MS 13176, fd. 1, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.
  2. For a photograph of the James White house and a description of it and other homes built prior to the Latter-day Saint settlement of the region, see Janath R. Cannon, Nauvoo Panorama (n.p.: Nauvoo Restoration Inc., 1991), 4-8. As the author of this volume duly notes, the stone White house was not the first built in the area. That honor goes to a log home that White purchased and that Joseph Smith occupied when he first arrived in the area. I wish to express my appreciation to Bud Breillatt, who provided me this reference in 1997.
  3. “Church Chronology in Pictures,” Deseret News, Church Department, 7 Dec. 1935.
  4. Copies of such photographs can be found in the Historical Department.
  5. Daily City Gate [Keokuk, Iowa], 17 July 1961. I wish to express my gratitude to the late Lawrence E. Turley, who brought this article to my attention in 1978 and provided me the original newspaper clipping.
  6. Ida Blum, “History of Nauvoo’s 1st. House Recalled,” Daily Gate City, 15 July 1961. I have not seen an original of this article but have in my possession a typed copy made on 30 July 1961 by Hazel McClellan Brinkerhoff from a copy lent to her by Lawrence Turley. Hazel gave me this copy when I was visiting with her many years ago.
  7. PH 2304, Historical Department.
  8. This drawing, the original of which is in the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City, has been reproduced in Richard G. Oman and Robert O. Davis, Images of Faith: Art of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995), 8.
  9. See, e.g., Nauvoo Neighbor, 27 Dec. 1843. On the construction of the business, see History of the Church, 5:300.
  10. History of the Church, 3:375. This language does not appear in the manuscript drafts of the history, nor does it appear in the 1850 serial publications of it. When volume three of the multi-volume published version of the history first appeared in 1905 under the editorship of B. H. Roberts, the language was included, but I have not yet determined whether it was added by Roberts or borrowed from another source.
  11. Robert T. Bray, “The Turley Site (Block 147 Lot 4): An Account of the 1973 Archaeological Work at Nauvoo, Illinois” (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1974). I would like to thank the late F. Mark McKiernan for bringing this study to my attention in 1978 and to Bud Breillatt for providing me a convenient copy of it in 1997.
  12. J. W. Holmes and C. R. Arnold, Map of Hancock County, Illinois (Chicago: Charles Shober, 1859).
  13. “Theodore Turley, Mission Journal,” 19-20.
  14. “Theodore Turley, Mission Journal,” 19.
  15. See the journal kept by Mulholland in Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith, vol. 2 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 312.