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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.]

43 What to Do?

Responsibility weighed heavily on Theodore Turley’s shoulders as he awoke on October 24, 1840, a Saturday. The day before, he and part of the company of emigrants he was leading had reached Buffalo, New York, after a ride through the Erie Canal. Now he had to figure out how to get everyone through the next leg of the journey, a boat trip through the Great Lakes to Chicago, Illinois.

The ship Wisconsin had recently arrived in Buffalo, and Theodore assumed it could take him and his passengers through to Chicago. With that expectation, he had his company’s luggage weighed and stowed on the ship. One part of his company had still not completed its Erie Canal voyage, and Theodore and his counselors waited until 2:00 a.m. for it to arrive in Buffalo. But still it did not come.

During much of Saturday, Theodore worried about how to get everyone to Nauvoo. He was responsible for the party’s travel, but the trip was costing far more than he expected. He had understood it would cost only five dollars a person to travel from Buffalo to Chicago. But it turned out the fare was twice that much. There simply was not enough money to take everyone through this season. Those who could afford the extra cost could go. The rest would have to wait through the winter until they had earned enough to pay their way.

“On this day Elder Turleys mind was much cast down in consequence of being obliged to leave some of the poor in our company at Buffalo,” wrote Theodore’s counselor William Clayton. “While he was reflecting upon the best manner of accomplishing this and when almost heartbroke the President Elder of the stake at Kirtland Kellog came by and Turley knew him.”

The two men “saluted each other,” Clayton wrote, and Theodore “made his case known to Elder Kellog who immediately advised to take the company to Kirtland as they would winter more comfortable there than in Commerce.” Commerce was the original name for what became Nauvoo, and the name by which the place was known when Theodore left it for his mission to England. Meeting President Kellog and hearing his suggestion lifted a heavy weight, Clayton observed. “This was total deliverance to Elder Turleys mind and a relief of his burden.”1

Kirtland, which had been a headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the 1830s, was much closer than the church’s current headquarters in Nauvoo. “After some time consulting between Elders Turley and Kellog,” Clayton recorded, “it was concluded that all who wanted and could raise means should go to Commerce and the remainder to Kirtland,” a solution that “proved highly satisfactory to the majority of the company.” Theodore must have felt great relief at finally solving this problem.

But other problems occupied his attention. One was the ship Wisconsin, which he assumed would be able to transport the Nauvoo-bound Saints. Already, several members of the company had boarded the ship with their luggage. But ship travel on the Great Lakes was seasonal. Snowstorms could sink ships, and winter ice could tie up harbors. The Wisconsin, Clayton wrote, “had lately come in and was not to go any more” that season, except on “short voyages.” The captain had good reasons to call it quits for the winter. “The weather was at this time very cold,” Clayton noted, “as a large quantity of snow had fallen and whitened the streets.”

“Elder Turley went to the captain and endeavoured to charter the boat,” Clayton wrote, “but to no purpose.” Theodore needed to get his people to Nauvoo, and he was willing to risk a possible storm along the way. But the Wisconsin’s captain was not.2

The members of Theodore’s company already on board the ship remained there for the night while the remainder who had reached Buffalo spent the night in a nearby counting house. One boat load of company members, however, had still not arrived from their journey on the Erie Canal. Sunday morning, October 25, Theodore Turley and William Clayton went in search of the missing boat, the Silver Arrow. They had walked back along the canal route about three miles, when they finally spotted it. “When we went on board,” Clayton wrote, “the saints rejoiced greatly. They had had some very ill treatment from the captain and crew since we left them and we found them with scarce room to stand.”3

The Silver Arrow reached Buffalo around noon, and the rest of the day was spent preparing for the journey west. With several children in the company and water nearby in the form of the lake and canal, problems were bound to occur. “Sister Elizabeth Pool’s son Edward fell into the canal and was near drowned when got out,” Clayton wrote in his journal. Elizabeth “fainted and was very ill some time.”4

On Monday, October 26, those on board the Wisconsin transferred to another ship, the Illinois, whose intrepid captain, Chelsea Blake, agreed to take the Latter-day Saints on board to Chicago.5 The swashbuckling Blake, a veteran of the War of 1812, was famous in those parts as the “Commodore of the Lakes.”

“Captain Blake was rough, indeed, and rude of speech,” wrote one man who knew him. “Unlike most of the lake captains of those days, who were perfect gentlemen in manners and dress, he affected none of these, no courtly phrases, no ruffled shirt, no blue coat with brass buttons, when in port and off duty, but was ever the hard-headed, rough seaman.”6

“Of almost giant size and commanding presence,” wrote another of him, “no son of Neptune ever united in his composition a rarer combination of the qualities which make a true seaman, a safe commander, a genuine hero.” Blake was as “rough as the billows whose impotent assaults on his vessel he ever laughed to scorn” and had a “voice as hoarse as the tempest which he delighted to rule.”7

Three years after Theodore’s party passed through Buffalo, the Milwaukee Commercial Herald published a ditty to Blake that began with the stanza,

Ho, all ye travelers to the west / If you are bound across the lake,
And wish to take the boat that’s best, / Go on the Illinois with Blake.8

And that’s just what Theodore and his companions did. When they boarded the Illinois on Monday, they spent the night expecting to sail up Lake Erie on the steamer the next morning. But a storm prevented the Illinois from leaving port Tuesday as expected. The storm continued through Wednesday night, and finally on Thursday morning, Captain Blake gave orders, and the Illinois was soon under steam. Those Saints left behind to make their way to Kirtland on their own were given a recommend so they could be recognized as church members in good standing when they reached their destination. Only one man’s name was left off the list—because his conduct had “been very bad.” The gospel net gathered all kinds.9

“We proceeded on our way pretty well,” wrote Theodore’s counselor William Clayton, “until we arrived at Fairport,” a city on the southern shore of Lake Erie near Kirtland about 160 miles from Buffalo. There the ship stopped to take on wood for the boilers and to wait out a strong wind that had come up. “Here some of us went on shore and had we time Elder Turley and myself would have gone to Kirtland as we were then only 11 miles from that place,” Clayton noted. But the boat would leave as soon as the wind died down, and they didn’t want to get caught on shore when it left. “Sometime in the night,” Clayton wrote, “we started forwards again.”10

The next day, the Illinois managed to complete its navigation of Lake Erie, anchoring that night at the mouth of the Detroit River, “the river between lakes Erie and Huron.” Saturday, October 31, at 7:00 a.m., the ship reached Detroit. “This is a very pleasant looking place of about 20000 inhabitants,” jotted Clayton. “Here we took in some more passengers which crowded us very much. We left Detroit after taking on wood and proceeded up lake St Clair where we saw many hundreds of wild ducks. Some amused themselves by shooting at them with their Rifles.”11

On Sunday, November 1, the ship steamed northward on Lake Huron, stopping at Presque Isle in the afternoon “to take in wood.” In the evening, the vessel reached Mackinaw where, Clayton dutifully recorded, “we again took in wood.” The steamer had burnt a lot of wood but had made good time. It was now at its northernmost stop, the top of the horseshoe bend where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan connected.

“We are on Lake Michigan,” wrote Clayton on Monday, November 2. They were so far out on the lake, in fact, that “for some time” they “could not see land.” But a steamship needs wood, and the vessel paused at the Manitou Islands to take on more. While there, “some of the company shot a few rabbits and small birds.” A strong head wind kept the ship at the islands for “some hours” before it continued south southwest across and down Lake Michigan. Finally, about 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday, November 4, the Illinois and its Latter-day Saint passengers reached Chicago.12

From the time Theodore and his company left England, they had spent much of their time traveling by water. Now it was time to travel over land—at least for a time.

[Next issue: “Overland Journey”]

© 2014 by Richard E. Turley, Jr. (Reprinted with permission.)
Originally published in the February 2014 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), 191-92.
  2. Allen and Alexander, Manchester Mormons, 192.
  3. Allen and Alexander, Manchester Mormons, 192-93.
  4. Allen and Alexander, Manchester Mormons, 193.
  5. Allen and Alexander, Manchester Mormons, 193.
  6. Friend Palmer, Early Days in Detroit (Detroit, MI: Hunt & June, 1906), 51-53.
  7. Palmer, Early Days in Detroit, 52, quoting R. E. Roberts.
  8. Palmer, Early Days in Detroit, 54, citing Milwaukee Commercial Herald, 1843.
  9. Allen and Alexander, Manchester Mormons, 193-94; Matthew 13:47.
  10. Allen and Alexander, Manchester Mormons, 194.
  11. Allen and Alexander, Manchester Mormons, 194-95
  12. Allen and Alexander, Manchester Mormons, 195-96.