“[I]f the sisters were willing”: the Women of Zion’s Camp, 1834

By May 22, 2014

ccaThe story of Zion?s Camp has usually been told absent its female participants. In fact, it might surprise most readers that women (and children) even participated in Zion?s Camp.

A quick google search of images, talks, and historical works referencing the Camp exclude any mention of the female participants. Both Launius?s and Bradley?s books mention the women and provide their best attempts at listing the names, but the women have not made it into very many devotional addresses or common tellings of the event. (1)  CES materials include only passing references here. I was introduced to the topic while sitting in on one of Ken Godfrey?s Mormon history courses during a Semester in Nauvoo. While teaching the history of Zion?s Camp, he mentioned– almost as an aside– ?You know, nothing has ever been written about the women of Zion?s Camp.?  With that prodding, I went to work, and the final product ended up here.  I reproduce some highlights here for our Juvenile Instructor readers. (2)  The list of names of both detachments of the camps, as they have been officially compiled, include the following:

Joseph Smith?s Detachment

  • Sarah Ripley, age 32, married to Alanson Ripley
  • Diana or Diantha Drake, age 18, unmarried
  • Jane Clark, unknown age, assumed unmarried
  • Ada or Aidah Winchell Clements, age 33, married to Albert Clements
  • Mary Chidester, age 25, married to John Madison Chidester
  • One son, age two, and a daughter, age one
  • Mary Snow Gates, age 21, married to Jacob Gates
  • Nancy Lambson Holbrook, age 30, married to Joseph Holbrook
  • Two daughters, two years and six months old
  • Eunice Holbrook, age 23, married to Chandler Holbrook
  • One daughter, seven months old
  • Betsy Parrish, unknown age, married to Warren Parrish, died of cholera on

Hyrum Smith?s and Lyman Wight?s Detachment

  • Aurelia Houghton, age 15, married to Osmon or Ornon Houghton
  • Sophronia Curtis, age 24, married to Mecham Curtis
  • Charlotte Alvord, age 18, unmarried

6014206_1007663080The only physical monument to Zion?s Camp, the marker in the Mound Grove Cemetery in Independence includes the name of Betsy Parrish as one of victims of the cholera outbreak.  Artwork portrayals of the Camp are almost always male-centric, and even C.C.A. Christensen, who usually came through in including female subjects in his depictions of LDS historical events, shows women only as roadside observers, but not as participants in the trek itself.  (See above)

Since there are no primary accounts from the Camp?s female members, recovering their story involved piecing together tidbits from the male participants? diaries, reminiscences, and reunion lists.  As sparse as they are, these accounts offered a few highlights of women?s activities in the camp:

that the Holbrook sisters-in-law both contracted the cholera along with Sister Parrish, but the Holbrooks survived; that one of the Holbrook sisters and Sarah Ripley corrected and made fun of Heber C. Kimball?s blundering attempt to boil his dirty laundry; that Charlotte Alvord met her future husband, Lyman Curtis, on the trek; that Mary Gates was childless and suffered from life-long depression that was later exacerbated by her husband?s plural marriages; that Aurelia and her husband were criticized for not carrying their weight on the voyage (she was only 15 years old, after all); that Ada Clements and her husband later divorced, then reconciled and remarried; and that three of the women brought their small children with them, all under the age of three. (there were other older children who traveled with other Camp members.) (3)

“They liked Brother Joseph better than before . . . “

Of all the events involving women Camp members, the following is my favorite, recounted by Joseph Holbrook, and buried in two brief sentences within his memoir.  This unsung moment offers a partial and complicated glimpse into Joseph Smith’s broadening understanding of the spheres and roles of women.  In fact, I think it’s remarkable.

Shortly after Joseph’s detachment joined with Hyrum?s group at the Salt River Branch in Missouri with the purpose of continuing to Jackson County, Joseph Smith anticipated possible violent altercations with the Missouri mobs.  Of course, he initially hoped to protect the women and children, and asked the men who had brought families to acquire cabins for them. They were to leave them there at Salt River until any military actions were concluded. Joseph Holbrook began to obey this counsel: ?I provided a house for my family as directed and was about to leave my family as was the rest of the brethren who had wives with them.? (4)

And then something extraordinary happened. Suddenly, the Prophet Joseph changed his mind, and declared that ?if the sisters were willing to under go a siege with the camp they could go along with it.? Observers might expect these women, especially in the 1830s, to resist being invited or allowed into a traditionally male– and military– sphere. But instead, the women said they ?would like to go? and that ?they liked Brother Joseph better than before for the privilege he gave them of continuing in the camp.? (5)  Who knows what caused Joseph?s change of heart? We have no record of what passed among the Zion?s Camp members and leaders.  Did the women appeal to their husbands to ask the Prophet? Or did they petition Joseph directly? Or did the Prophet make the decision independent of outside influence? We just don?t know.  And how many women wanted to accompany the men into battle?  All of them?  Just the unmarried ones?  Was there an age variable?  Again, Holbrook left no useful specifics.  And because no formal military action ever took place, we are also left to wonder how Mormon women’s experiences in war might have played out.

Coming as they did from a 19th-century context of separate spheres, as I have described here, in which women’s roles involved home and family, while men’s roles allowed for leading governments and religions, serving on the bench, arguing legal cases, receiving formal education, forming businesses, choosing professions, and fighting in wars, this request was no less than revolutionary. These women might as well have asked Joseph to fly to the moon. It was unthinkable.  Here we have a concrete example of 19th-century women, choosing equality over the pedestal, and who felt empowered, not by being set aside and protected, but by being brought in, on relatively equal terms, to a traditionally male sphere.  Perhaps Joseph was doing this to honor the sacrifice these women had already displayed in Zion’s Camp.  But I like to think that he was grappling with his own assumptions about the spectrum of separate spheres vs. shared spheres.

Sure, women had participated in wars before, but usually following the armies in support roles like cooks and laundresses, or as spies, or perhaps dressed as men to fight alongside male soldiers in battle.  In fact, women’s military participation became an important point of contention and discussion in the 19th-century woman suffrage movement, with detractors arguing that women should not vote, because they “could not shoulder a musket in time of war.” (6) But, as suffrage leaders like Alice Stone Blackwell countered, some men who had never served in the military were allowed to vote, and furthermore, women pay taxes, offer support to patriotic causes, and offer even greater service to the state, “since it is the women who bring all the soldiers into the world.” (7)  Even more compelling to the suffrage movement, though, were the numerous historical examples from both antiquity and modern wars, where women had stepped up and fought for their homes, their nations, and their families:

“All history has shown that women are as patriotic and self-sacrificing as men, and while they abhor fighting as a business, or a profession, they yet can fight, when their lives, their honor, and their country demand it, with the same daring and patriotic fervor that men have shown. . . . According to this record, women are as patriotic as men, and show quite as good fighting qualities as men, and hence the objection to woman suffrage, based on her inability to fight, vanishes.” (8)

Certainly, Mormon women were not asking to fight in a siege because of larger intentions to justify their rights to suffrage.  Their arguments for voting rights would come later, and for different reasons.  But for these women, in 1834, to ask to participate in a direct military action, without concealment or shame, invites us to consider how Joseph himself was exploring new avenues for female empowerment, how he was open to expanding women’s spheres in very unconventional ways, and how he was willing to listen to and heed these unique requests from his women followers.  But most importantly, Mormon women’s actions in Zion’s Camp allow us to think about women’s own willingness to expand the expectations and boundaries of their sex.

(1)  Roger Launius, Zion?s Camp, Expedition to Missouri, 1834 (1984 ) and James L. Bradley, Zion?s Camp 1834: Prelude to the Civil War (1990). Bradley attempted to put together a comprehensive list from the seven known lists, by B.H. Roberts (1902 and 1947), Andrew Jenson (1889), Thomas Bullock (1864), the Deseret News (1864), Joseph Holbrook (1864), Solon Foster (copied by Thomas Foster in 1879), and James Bradley (1988).

(2) See Andrea G. Radke, “We Also Marched:  The Women and Children of Zion’s Camp, 1834,” BYU Studies 39 (2000):  147-165.

(3)  Some useful sources include Elijah Fordham, “Journal of the Branch of the church of Christ in Pontiac Michigan Territory,” holograph, microfilm, [May 5, 1834], Church History Library; Joseph Holbrook, “History of Joseph Holbrook,” typescript, microfilm, Church History Library; Jacob Gates, “Items of History of the Life and Labors of Jacob Gates,” holograph, microfilm, Jacob Gates Collection, Church History Library; and other sources take from later reunion accounts; see Radke, “We Also Marched,” pp. 161-165.

(4)  Radke-Moss, “We Also Marched,” pp. 147-165.

(5) Holbrook, “History of Joseph Holbrook,” p. 16.

(6) Alice Stone Blackwell, ” ,” in Carrie Chapman Catt, comp., The Ballot and the Bullet (New York:  National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1897), p. 55.

(7)  Blackwell, “the Military Argument,” p. 57.

(8)  D.R. Livermore, “Women Warriors,” in Catt, comp., The Ballot and the Bullet, pp. 17 and 25.


Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I did not know women participated. Thank you for enlightening me!

    Comment by Saskia — May 22, 2014 @ 10:41 am

  2. The upcoming volume 4 in the Documents series of the Joseph Smith Papers (out likely in 2016) has several documents pertaining to the Camp of Israel, or Zion’s Camp. Unfortunately, women are scarcely mentioned in these documents, although we have tried to cite your article several times, Andrea, to point out the number of women on the expedition. One intriguing document, however, is an account of moneys consecrated to the camp by its members. This is the only contemporary listing of camp members, although I don’t believe it’s inclusive. (I’ll be talking more about this account at MHA in June.) Jane Clark is on this list, showing that she consecrated $50 to the camp–a sizable sum that exceeded the majority of contributions by male members of the camp. (http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/account-with-the-church-of-christ-circa-11-29-august-1834#!/paperSummary/account-with-the-church-of-christ-circa-11-29-august-1834&p=1)

    Comment by Matt Godfrey — May 22, 2014 @ 10:58 am

  3. This is a great summary. Despite my interest in church history, I also never realized there were women in Zion’s Camp. I figured it out quickly when I began writing biographies of the women in the Chidester family for the Eminent Women project, notably Mary Parker Chidester, and found the list of participants at Wikipedia and then your article. (Just added it to the sources; that Wikipedia article needs a lot of work.)

    After going on the trek with their two babies (!), the Chidesters remained in contact with other members of the Camp and were able to be of service to one of them in a great need. Later she and John traveled the 300 miles from their home in Washington County to attend the 1864 Zion’s Camp reunion.

    It’s unfortunate that she and the other women didn’t leave more (or any) records, but thank you for finding the records that do exist about their role in our history.

    Comment by Amy T — May 22, 2014 @ 11:08 am

  4. I’m descended from Aidah Winchell Clements.

    Comment by Amanda HK — May 22, 2014 @ 12:37 pm

  5. Fantastic. Thanks, A-RM!

    Comment by J Stuart — May 22, 2014 @ 6:06 pm

  6. Matt– Thank you for that snippet on Jane Clark. That is far more than we ever discovered about her, even with the incomparable assistance of Larry Porter, who helped us dig up details on these individuals.

    And I’m sure you are already aware of Ruth Vose’s sizeable donation to Zion’s Camp, without which the expedition never could have happened, IMO.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — May 22, 2014 @ 10:55 pm

  7. Amy T– Thanks for the interest and added information on Mary Chidester. And for the mention of the 30-year reunion. I find that some of the reunion-gathering records are so rich with information missing from other sources. Good luck on your project– it is such important work.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — May 22, 2014 @ 10:59 pm

  8. […] conclusions like the following, from a piece about the way Joseph Smith changed his mind about the sisters in Zion’s Camp, that give me […]

    Pingback by Shopping for Religion: Finding a Religion that Fits You — May 24, 2014 @ 8:48 pm


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