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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.]

17 The Voyage to England, 19 December 1839 to 1 January 1840

On Thursday morning, 19 December 1839, Elders Theodore Turley, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff woke aboard the packet ship Oxford of the Black Ball Line, ready to be on their way to fulfil their callings as missionaries to England. It is unfortunate that the more detailed journals kept by John Taylor concerning this journey have subsequently disappeared. In a bibliographical essay at the end of his book Brigham Young: American Moses (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 503, historian Leonard J. Arrington observed, “I wish to acknowledge also my failure to locate the diaries of John Taylor, Brigham Young’s successor, which are known to have existed in the Church Archives in the 1920s but which are not there now.”

We do know that on that first day the ship left the dock but did not get very far before anchoring.1 The chaos on board the ship heightened the anxiety the missionaries must already have been feeling. Elder Woodruff wrote, “The Packet Ship Oxford moved out into the Stream with us on board & the day was spent amid the greatest confusion & bustle that I ever witnessed for they had taken many more passengers than b[e]rths to lodge in & the cabin was stuffed full of chests boxes barrels beds &c & many quarrelling for what they called their rights.”2

In a letter home to his wife, John Taylor explained the cause of all the confusion: “There is a great deal of imposition practised by those who are proffessed Agents for those Vessels but who in reality have no commission. They will advertize certain Vessels the time of their departure together with their names & place of residence, & passengers are frequently deceived by going to these offices as everything is plausible about them. They have bills for shipping passengers with the owners signatures printed. They will receive & give receipts for passengers money on those bills & then if the legalized Agents should not have sufficient number of passengers to fill the Steerage there may be a chance for those obtaining a berth—but if the Legal Agents have filled the Berths then the passengers shipped by the other have to wait till another boat sails, go with a transient vessel or lose their passage money which is not unfrequently the case.”

“There is another imposition practised by those Agents or Owners or Captain or All together,” Elder Taylor continued. “When you go to examine the Vessel to choose a berth you are sh[ow]n a number of berths standing which you are told by the Agents are all that there will be & if you have your berth regular there will the number of your berth marked on your ticket or receipt. But it was the case on our vessel that there were 5 marked for 1 Berth instead of two & there were numbers shipped that had no berths at all so that instead of 40 passengers, which we were told there would be, there was 63 passengers in the Steerage, which altered the conditions of the passengers very much as there had to be a number of extra berths put up & [illegible word] to contain 4 men. 4 were stuck into the place where the chains are. A woman & a man had no berth at all but were obliged to lay on the Boxes [on] the floor or where they could.”

As one whose upbringing had given him a keen sense of Anglo-American justice, Elder Taylor seemed especially concerned that the affected passengers had no real recourse for their wrongs. “When you arrive on board,” he declared to his wife, “as soon as you leave the pier you can obtain no redress. You are told by the Captain or Mate that they know nothing of the affairs of the Merchants or Brokers, that you are under their control & must be subject to their government.” For the benefit of others who might be traveling in the same direction, he added some counsel: “Therefore it is best for every one fully to understand their own business before they go on board if possible—get their tickets at the boat & their numbers marked on their tickets &c.”3 According to a posting regarding the Oxford on one genealogical website, ” She sailed the Liverpool-New York run, under the flag of the Black Ball Line, starting about 1836. . . . Between 1836 and 1850, she made about 29 round-trips between NY and Liverpool carrying both cargo and passengers (many Irish emigrants). The number of passengers varied between approximately 70 and 290 per trip.” Given how crowded conditions were when they traveled in late 1839 and early 1840, Theodore and his companions would have had a hard time imagining having 290 passengers aboard. See http://www.cimorelli.com/ShipsList/digest/july_2000/jul_09_2000_V00%23610.txt. (TTFO Admin Note 9/14/19: The given link is no longer active, but the cited text can be found here: http://www.oulton.org/cwa/newsships.nsf/pages/BE0C582F10357AB4852569170041D019.)

“Bustle and confusion is not over,” Elder Woodruff wrote the next morning. “[T]he ship is still at anchor.” Finally around noon, the crew spread the canvas sails to catch the wind and get the Oxford on its trans-Atlantic journey. For the first few miles, they were assisted by a steamboat. When the vessel finally broke into the open waters on its own, the winds proved favorable. “She sailed well through the day,” Elder Woodruff reported.

The chaos of the previous two days had largely dissipated, and Elder Woodruff was able to record some statistics on his fellow travelers. A total of 109 persons sailed aboard the ship: seventy-nine passengers and a crew of thirty. The crew included Captain John Rathbone, his first mate, whose name was Yates, his second mate Jones, and a carpenter, along with twenty-six sailors. The passengers included the three missionaries and sixty-one others who had booked steerage passage, as well as fifteen passengers who had paid the more expensive cabin fare. The steerage passengers paid fifteen dollars apiece for their passage. The cabin passengers paid $140 each for passage that included wine with their meals—twenty dollars less if they chose not to imbibe.4 As Elder Taylor noted, “There was no second cabin in the vessel.”5

Saturday, 21 December, the steady winds proved both a blessing and a curse. “A stiff fair breeze,” Elder Woodruff wrote, “but most all on board are sea sick.” As the ship clipped through the waves, the missionaries could see the sail of another ship south of them headed in the same direction. “She left N[ew] York the Time we did,” Elder Woodruff noted, “She is bound for London.”6

Elder Taylor described the following day, a Sunday, as “unfavourable.”7 “[M]ost are still sick,” Elder Woodruff elaborated. “[A] high wind through the day & a high gale at night—sea very rough & boat pitched badly.”8 Writing tersely, Elder Taylor called the next day, Monday, also “Unfavourable.”9 Elder Woodruff added details in his account: “Sea vary rough & winds high many still are sick our cabin is crouded & unholesone.”10

The crowded, unwholesome nature of mid-nineteenth century steerage passage may be difficult for many modern travelers to comprehend. During storms, the steerage passengers would often be crammed together below deck in tight quarters without adequate ventilation or sanitary facilities. The seasick passengers would vomit into buckets—if their aim was good and if they were not too sick to care. The rocking and shuddering of the wooden vessel as it fought the waves would upset the buckets or cause their contents to slosh onto the floor and onto the bunks shared by multiple passengers. The stench and the moaning of the suffering passengers would compete with the creaking of the timbers and the dripping of sea water through hatches that were not quite air tight. The more air tight they were, the less fresh air entered to replace the foul air below.

For Tuesday, Christmas Eve, Elder Taylor merely wrote, “Stormy unfavourable.”11 Elder Woodruff’s account gave particulars: “The sea Runs mountains High & looks like the hills & valleys of Kirtland. We shiped some heavy seas I got wet yet I sat upon deck untill late in the evening through it was winter it was not vary cold.”12 With conditions below deck so putrid, it was no wonder a passenger would prefer sitting soaked on the deck as opposed to trying to rest in the noxious atmosphere below it.

Wednesday was Christmas Day, a fact that found no mention in any of the accounts. “Half calm Half of the day stormy,” wrote Elder Taylor, signaling some improvement in their situation.13 “A calm in the morning,” Elder Woodruff explained, “yet the ship rocked bad upon the dead swells. [T]he wind soon rose & we sailed fast through the day & night.”14

“Fair wind rough,” Elder Taylor penned the next day.15 Elder Woodruff’s record added little more: “A Rough sea & strong breeze we sail fast.”16

Typically on transoceanic voyages, the passengers would spend their first few days struggling with seasickness, then gradually get their sea legs and begin to enjoy the voyage more. This pattern began to reflect itself in the missionaries’ accounts. On Friday, 27 December—one week out from New York—Elder Taylor noted there was a “Fair wind.”17 Elder Woodruff recorded the same words, then added, “[S]ail fast [b]ut do not know how many [k]nots had a number of short squalls we have got over our sea sickness & have good Appeti[te].”18

Having overcome their seasickness, the missionaries began to focus on other matters. Elder Taylor observed that they were “2 points of[f] course 1200 m[iles] from N[ew] Y[ork].”19 “A vary rough sea, most of the day,” Elder Woodruff wrote, consistent with his pattern of the previous week. But then he added, “[W]e saw a large school of porposes & Blackfish all around the ship. [W]e had a calm in the evening.”20

For Sunday, 29 December, Elder Taylor again focused on their course, noting again that they were “2 points off,” then adding that the weather was “Stormy.”21 For Elder Woodruff, Sunday was “A Plesant day” with “a high breeze.”22

Even if they had gotten over most of their seasickness, the missionaries and their fellow passengers could still be disturbed by powerful storms. Elder Taylor, who had called Sunday “Stormy,” described Monday, 30 December, as “Very Stormy.” 23 Elder Woodruff gave more chilling details: “A rough sea, A severe gale at night the ship rocked & pitched to such a degree it was with much difficulty that we kept our b[e]rths, trunks Boxes & barrels were tumbling about the Cabin.”24 The gale abated somewhat the next day, and in Elder Taylor’s terse account merited a single word: “Rough.” He also noted that the ship was finally “near the course.”25

Elder Woodruff, who had a penchant for history and the significance of passing days, wrote a comparatively lengthy entry for this day, New Year’s Eve. “The last day of AD 1839,” he began. “[S]ea still vary rough.” Using terminology that may be foreign to many modern readers, he wrote, “[U]nder clos[e] reef top sails.” In nautical terminology, a reef is “a part of a sail that is rolled and tied down to reduce the area exposed to the wind.”26 The adjective close may sometimes mean “shut” or “tight,” and if this is the meaning Elder Woodruff intended, then perhaps the top sails had been tied down somewhat to reduce how much the wind tossed the ship. On the other hand, close up, in nautical terminology, means “fully raised; at the top of the halyard.” If this latter meaning were intended, then perhaps the sails had been fully opened to allow the ship to travel faster.27

“[C]loudy weather,” Elder Woodruff continued. “[T]heir is not much to interest the mind on a sea voyage while one is many days out of sight of land except the rolling billows which are majestic,” he added, as though wishing he had something more significant to report on the last day of the year. “A person is freequently not ownly out of sight of land,” he observed, warming to his subject, “but do not even see a sail or the sun, but have to be crouded together in a steerage like hogs or stay upon deck in the midst of spray wind & storm.”

“This day,” he concluded, “leaves me in the centre of the Atlantic from N[ew] Y[ork] to Liverpool whole distan[c]e 3800 miles half the distan[c]e sailed in Dec 1839.” Then in the lower right hand corner of the page he added “1,900 mil[e]s,” half of the 3800 traveled by that point.28 When 1839 melted into 1840, Theodore Turley and his companions were halfway across the ocean to England.

For New Year’s Day, 1 January 1840, Elder Taylor wrote that the weather was “Stormy” and that they were again “2 Points of[f] course.”29 Starting a new volume of his journal at the beginning of the new year, Elder Woodruff gave his readers a summary of his present circumstances: “I find myself in company with Elders John Taylor and Theodore Turl[e]y on board of the packet ship Oxford of the Black Ball line on our way from New York to Liverpool to fulfill a commandment of God in preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Nations of Europe. We are in Long[itude] 42, 40. We have a vary rough sea, High winds blustering, & cloudy. I am about 1,900 mil[e]s from both Liverpool & New York being in the centre of the Atlantic as it us called 3800 mil[e]s from New York to Liverpool. We Left New York dock on the 19th day of Dec 1839 & sailed on the 20th So time rolls along & waiteth for no man.”30

[Next issue: “Early Missionaries Continue their Mission to England, 2 January-11 January 1840”]

Draft of 1 October 2001
© 2001 by Richard E. Turley, Jr. (Reprinted with permission.)
Originally published in the October 2001 Theodore Turley Family Organization Newsletter

  1. Wilford Woodruff, Journal, 19 December 1839, Church Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah; John Taylor to Leonora Taylor, 30 January 1840, John Taylor Collection, Church Archives, published in James B. Allen, Ronald K. Esplin, and David J. Whittaker, Men with a Mission, 1837-1841: The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the British Mission (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 360-71.

    Prefacing his account of the voyage, Elder Taylor writes, “I now commence to give you some account of my proceedings & the de[a]lings of the Lord with me since I last wrote to you from New York. I extract from my journals.” As the editors point out on page 360, “This lengthy letter from John Taylor to his wife is especially significant because his diaries are not available.”

  2. Woodruff, Journal, 19 December 1839.
  3. John Taylor to Leonora Taylor, 30 January 1840, in Men with a Mission, 361-62. Elder Taylor’s count of sixty-three steerage passengers is one less than Elder Woodruff’s count. Perhaps Elder Taylor was not counting himself.
  4. Woodruff, Journal, 20 December 1839. Elder Taylor’s figure of sixty-three steerage passengers perhaps omits himself, which would make a total of sixty-four, the figure Elder Woodruff gives.
  5. John Taylor to Leonora Taylor, 30 January 1840, in Men with a Mission, 361.
  6. Woodruff, Journal, 21 December 1839.
  7. John Taylor to Leonora Taylor, 30 January 1840, in Men with a Mission, 362.
  8. Woodruff, Journal, 22 December 1839.
  9. John Taylor to Leonora Taylor, 30 January 1840, in Men with a Mission, 362.
  10. Woodruff, Journal, 23 December 1839.
  11. John Taylor to Leonora Taylor, 30 January 1840, in Men with a Mission, 362.
  12. Woodruff, Journal, 24 December 1839.
  13. John Taylor to Leonora Taylor, 30 January 1840, in Men with a Mission, 362.
  14. Woodruff, Journal, 25 December 1839.
  15. John Taylor to Leonora Taylor, 30 January 1840, in Men with a Mission, 362.
  16. Woodruff, Journal, 26 December 1839.
  17. John Taylor to Leonora Taylor, 30 January 1840, in Men with a Mission, 362.
  18. Woodruff, Journal, 27 December 1839.
  19. John Taylor to Leonora Taylor, 30 January 1840, in Men with a Mission, 362.
  20. Woodruff, Journal, 28 December 1839.
  21. John Taylor to Leonora Taylor, 30 January 1840, in Men with a Mission, 362.
  22. Woodruff, Journal, 29 December 1839.
  23. John Taylor to Leonora Taylor, 30 January 1840, in Men with a Mission, 362.
  24. Woodruff, Journal, 30 December 1839.
  25. John Taylor to Leonora Taylor, 30 January 1840, in Men with a Mission, 362.
  26. Woodruff, Journal, 31 December 1839.
  27. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 2d ed. unabridged (1987), s. v. “close,” “reef.”
  28. Woodruff, Journal, 31 December 1839.
  29. John Taylor to Leonora Taylor, 30 January 1840, in Men with a Mission, 362.
  30. Woodruff, Journal, 1 January 1840.