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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.]

42 The Erie Canal

Friday, October 16, 1840, found Theodore Turley laboring under the heavy responsibility of providing food for his fellow Latter-day Saint passengers, who were getting ready to leave the Congress, the steamship that had carried them up the Hudson River to West Troy, New York. “This A M Elder Turley bought a sheep ready dressed for 1½ dollars,” wrote his counselor William Clayton. “This was divided amongst some of the company.”1

The next leg of these Saints’ westward journey was to be on the Erie Canal, the manmade waterway completed in 1825 that wound from Albany to Buffalo. The canal ran through the village of Palmyra north of the Sacred Grove where Joseph Smith’s first vision took place in 1820, leading to the formal organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a decade later.2

By 10:00 a.m., the Mormon passengers had collected all their baggage from the Congress and loaded it onto canal boats. To this point in their journey, they traveled more or less as a unit, with the affluent passengers and the poor having similar experiences. Now financial differences led to jealousy. “We were obliged to hire another boat into which some of us got with much difficulty,” wrote William Clayton, one of Theodore’s assistants. “It is evident Mrs. Benbow wants one boat for their company and they have made choice of one with a best cabin. This has caused a little feeling.”3

John and Jane Benbow had owned a substantial home and farm in Herefordshire that they opened to missionaries and for church meetings and baptisms. Extraordinarily generous, they had made financial contributions to missionary work and the publication of the Book of Mormon in England. Furthermore, they personally paid the passage of forty emigrating Saints—the very company Clayton mentioned. Their kindness led Wilford Woodruff to ask “the blessings of Almighty God” to rest upon them forever.4

Before the emigrants left West Troy on the Erie Canal, Theodore “had again considerable trouble with the proprietor and had to pay more than he ought at last.” Money was tight, and every such expense made matters worse. The canal voyage did not begin until about 4:15 p.m. when the boats finally started their slow but methodical movement through the waterway.5

On Saturday, October 17, the boats floated steadily along the canal, offering a chance for the passengers to enjoy the surrounding scenery. “We are now passing through a very pleasant country,” William Clayton penned in his journal. They saw trees heavily laden with ripened fruit. Clayton commented on the “great quantity of pigs kept in this region.” Passing an aqueduct that Clayton described as “a stupendous work, the Saints reached “the beautiful town of Schenectady,” where the boats paused for the Sabbath. “We buy our milk at the grocery shops for 4 cents a quart,” Clayton noted.

The next day, he observed, “We are now standing still as the owner of the boat is religious and will not allow it to run on Sundays.” Normally, that would have been seen as a good thing by Theodore and the other leaders. But each day the trip was extended meant greater costs. Some of the emigrating Saints used the time in Schenectady to do their laundry “as we had not the privilege of washing since we left England.” Others hiked up “a very large hill.” Once on top, Clayton and another man climbed a tree to enjoy the “pleasant view.” “As we returned,” he wrote, “we met Elder Turley and some of the sisters going up the hill to pray. We returned and united our hearts together.”

Monday, the boats began moving again, passing through the village of Little Halls. Early the next morning, they moved through Utica in a heavy rainstorm. One of the horses pulling a boat with Mormon passengers slipped into the canal and was nearly drowned before being rescued. Before the day was over, the boats passed Rome, New York. And before the sun rose on Wednesday, the travelers had passed Syracuse. That night, they “passed a very pretty town called Montezuma.”6

On Thursday, October 22, they passed through Palmyra, New York, well north of the farm where Joseph Smith Sr. and his family once lived. The month before Theodore and his company reached Palmyra, Joseph Smith Sr. died in Nauvoo, Illinois—their destination.7

At 11:00 a.m., not long after the boats passed Palmyra, Theodore Turley and William Clayton left their canal boat, the Silver Arrow, and hurried ahead on a packet boat—a horse-drawn passenger vessel that provided a slower but smoother alternative to stage coach travel. Packets were faster than line boats—the kind of freighting vessels that emigrants often rode when trying to cut costs, as most of the Saints were. Theodore and William’s destination was Tonawanda, a town near Buffalo where Tonawanda Creek and the Niagara River met. At 7:30 p.m., they reached Rochester, where they switched to another packet and were on their way again within fifteen minutes.8

On Friday, October 23, at around 11:00 a.m., they passed Lockport in the northwest corner of New York. Lockport’s name and fame derived from its being the place on the Erie Canal where there were the most locks to raise and lower boats. William Clayton recorded: “At this place there are 5 locks which raise the canal 60 feet. These locks as well as above from 1 to 2 miles of the canal westward is cut out of solid rock and present a stupendous appearance.” No wonder people called the canal the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”9

A packet boat like the one that Theodore Turley rode in 184010

When Theodore and William Clayton finally reached Tonawanda, they were in for one last challenge of nature. The man-made portion of the canal emptied into the Niagara River on the east side of Grand Island. Downstream from there, the river dropped over the thundering Niagara Falls. “The wind arose very high and in our place opposite the river from the lake dr[o]ve us against the shore,” William wrote. The crash jolted the passengers. “Several were thrown down and somewhat frightened.”

As the boat moved upstream along the shore of the river toward Lake Erie, Theodore and William saw “large drifts of sand like mountainous drifts of snow.” About 6:00 p.m., they finally arrived at Buffalo, New York, on the eastern shore of Lake Erie where the river originated. At that point, they had completed the canal segment of their journey and were ready to greet the other members of their emigrant company.

They soon met some of those who rode on the first boat, the J. D. Hawks, which had arrived at 9:00 a.m.—hours before Theodore and William arrived. “We went to her,” William wrote, “and found that 3 children had died since we left them.” The J. D. Hawks was the vessel taken by the Benbows and their party, and understandably, Jane Benbow was distraught by what had happened and expressed herself to Theodore. “Sister Benbow manifested a bad spirit as she has often done,” William noted, “and has given Elder Turley many slight cants.”

To make matters worse, when the J. D. Hawks arrived in Buffalo, its captain ordered the Mormons “to get their luggage out of the boat.” They stored it in a nearby warehouse at an additional unanticipated cost.

Next, Theodore and William went to meet the Saints who rode aboard the Chatauqua. It had been delayed “at the second bridge on account of the canal being high.” Even though this vessel was not as fine as the one on which the Benbows rode, its passengers fared better, though they were hungry. “In this boat all were pretty well but had been short of provisions,” William recorded.

In Buffalo, Theodore was only about a hundred miles from Churchville, Canada, where he had joined the Church just three and a half years before. He had guided his company of Latter-day Saint emigrants over the Atlantic and four hundred miles westward across the United States. But eight hundred miles still separated them from Nauvoo, their final destination, and Theodore felt heavily the weight of his responsibility to provide for the emigrating Saints. He had scrimped, but still there was not enough money to get them all to Nauvoo before winter set in. What was he to do?11

[Next issue: “What to Do?”]

© 2012 by Richard E. Turley, Jr. (Reprinted with permission.)
Originally published in the October 2012 Theodore Turley Family Organization Newsletter

  1. James B. Allen and Thomas G. Alexander, eds., Manchester Mormons: The Journal of William Clayton, 1840 to 1842 (Santa Barbara, CA: Peregrine Smith, 1974), 188.
  2. Allen and Alexander, Manchester Mormons, 188; Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 31
  3. Allen and Alexander, Manchester Mormons, 188.
  4. 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 Isles (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1992), 124, 129, 151, 181, 248n46, 250.
  5. Allen and Alexander, Manchester Mormons, 188.
  6. Allen and Alexander, Manchester Mormons, 188-90
  7. Allen and Alexander, Manchester Mormons, 190; Bushman, Joseph Smith, 405.
  8. Allen and Alexander, Manchester Mormons, 190; http://www.eriecanal.org/boats.html.
  9. Allen and Alexander, Manchester Mormons, 190; http://www.eriecanal.org.
  10. http://www.eriecanal.org/boats/PacketBoat-1840.jpg
  11. Allen and Alexander, Manchester Mormons, 190-92.