John Peck Chidester Pioneer of 1850

He was such a little fellow to be already a part of a great movement that was to lead him across a great nation — an adventure that was to occupy him most of his lifetime. Being a member of Zion’s Camp in 1834 was a distinction for one so young, and a bit lonely, too–for there were no other children to play with, even if there had been time to play. Of course, there was the new baby sister, but that was no fun! It only meant that Mother was always busy with the baby. There wasn’t room enough on her lap any more. He would just have to grow up fast and be a strong, brave man like Father.

John Peck Chidester was a born pioneer, born to pioneer parents, John Madison Chidester and Mary Parker, in St. Petersburg, Sommerfield Twp., Monroe Co., Michigan, 31 Dec. 1831. Michigan, the crossroad to the west, saw the streams of migrant wagons crossing Lake Erie from New York, some to stay in this virgin land, others to push on to the west. There were also wagon trains from Canada pushing along the Raisin River to newer, more fertile plains. Already, when John was born, there were converts to the Mormon church, the fruit of the labors of such missionaries as Parley P. Pratt and otherw, who were following this route to join the Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith, in Kirtland, Ohio.

The Chidesters had only been in Michigan a year or two and were well situation on a fine farm. A comfortable home had been built by the time little John was born. A year later missionaries brought them the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the parents, John Madison and Mary Parker Chidester, were baptized. Then early in 1834 the Prophet’s brother Hyrum came to Michigan with a call for able-bodied men to join Zion’s Camp–and little John was embarked on a great adventure.

Growing up in those turbulent early years of Mormonism was not all bad. There were many wonderful times along the way as well as the times of hunger and suffering. There was the companionship of the sons and daughters of the great leader of Mormonism, the great excitement of military clashes, and the challenge of the unknown that has always been manna to youth. Such growing up built men of steel and strong will. There were also the times when children as well as adults sat at the feet of a Prophet of God and drank in the peace and sureness that Joseph was always able to instill in his followers. Faith was born and grew to fruition in the breast of this young man. John was baptized 19 June, 1840 in Nauvoo, Ill., by Freeman Nickerson.

By the time John was sixteen years of age he had learned to work beside his father as carpenter and turner. He had helped in the building of many of the houses in Nauvoo; and most importantly of all, he had helped to build the Nauvoo Temple. So it was, that when the need arose, in that fateful winter of 1846, for the Saints to cross the Mississippi river, John helped his father to build a ferry. More often than not, it was John who guided the craft until it reached the Iowa shore and disgorged its precious cargo of migrant Saints. This service he continued to perform until all Saints who were leaving the beseiged city were safely away.

At Winter Quarters John continued to work with his father as they built a horse-powered grist mill to grind grain into flour to proved bread for the migrating Saints. He helped, in the next years, to fashion the wagons and carts of the pioneers.

In the spring of 1850, not yet nineteen years of age, it was the turn of John and his family to cross the great plains to Zion. That same year the Foy family was making the same journey and it is entirely possible that the two families journeyed together as independent pioneers, arriving in the Great Salt Lake valley in the late summer.

Thomas Birk Foy, listing himself as of German descent, and his wife Catherine Rebecca Fink, who said she was of Welch descent, had joined the church in western Pennsylvania early in 1840 or late in 1839. Leaving Wheatfield, Indiana Co., Pennsylvania, almost immediately after baptism, they and their five children settled in Warsaw, Hancock Co., Ill., just a few miles from Nauvoo. Three more children were born to the family in Warsaw; another was born during the trek across Iowa; one was born the December after their arrival in Salt Lake City in 1850 and the last child of the family was born in 1853 after the family had moved to Farmington.

Their second child, a daughter Susan (Susahhah) was born 4 April, 1831 in Wheatfield Twp., Indiana Co., Pennsylvania. She was baptized in 1840 in Warsaw, Ill., by her father.

It was inevitable that Susan Foy and John Peck Chidester, with so much in common, should be attracted to each other. They were of the same age, crossed the plains and settled in Salt Lake City the same year, and each had a deep and abiding faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They were married 23 Oct. 1851 in Salt Lake City.

John’s first big adventure as a head of a family was to take his bride to pioneer the area at the southern tip of Utah Lake, living in Palmyra and belonging to the Spanish Fork Ward. The ward was organized 21 Dec. 1851 and listed the Chidesters as members.

Their children, born in Spanish Fork were:

John Foy            born 2 Feb. 1853
Mary Catherine  born 15 Feb 1855, died 13 Apr 1857
Susan Emma    born 2 Dec 1857

Their home was a dug-out, constructed by digging a hole in the ground of five feet deep, with steps leading down into the room from one end. A roof of willows and mud protected the inhabitants and a fireplace in the end opposite the stairway provided heat, light and a place to cook.

The young couple entered into the life of the new community with vigor. Not only did they work with might and main to establish a home in this new frontier, but they were concerned for the welfare of their neighbors, a trait by which they would be known throughout their lifetime. Many times they invited less fortunate families to share with them the little they had.

Probably the only public building the Chidesters eery really knew in Spanish Fork was an adobe shcool house which was the first building to be erected there. Church was held in a bowery, a shelter that had been constructed of tree branches spread on a framework of poles. Such open air meeting places were the usual thing in new communities. Even conferences in Salt Lake were conducted for a number of years in sucha  bowery. During the winter months when the weather was too inclement for meeting in the bowery, the ward members met in small neighborhood meetings. If the meeting in their neighborhood was not held at his father’s (John Madison Chidester’s) home, it was usually held at the home of John P. and Susan.

Hannah Cornaby, pioneer authoress, tells of one snowy Sunday when she and her children were alone, lonesome and worried: “Brother John P. Chidester called to tell me of the meeting, offering to carry the children if I wished to go, adding that his wife, Susan, expected us to dinner after the service.”

In those early struggling years the young family experienced a grasshopper plague and the resulting famine. With others of the community they milked the sweet, sticky substance from the leaves of trees in Provo river bottom to add to their sparse diet.

With the eruption of the Walker Indian War of 1853 John was commissioned a Captain in the Nauvoo Legion. His wife and child, with other families, sought refuge and protection from Indian attack by living in the adobe school house. They dug roots for food and lived the best they could. Most of the men were away in camp and harvest had to be neglected.

Discipline as strict in the military encampment. Tempers flared easily and accusations were sometimes made without justification. Yet, these were men who had grown up in rough times and needed a stern hand. An incident of the Spanish Fork camp is recorded in Treasures of Pioneer Heritage, Carter, V 3, page 296:

A military trial of Private Pratt found guilty of stealing horse shoes. Punishment–guarded three days and to have a quart of cold water poured down his uplifted arms once a day. This was performed twice then remanded on plea of the prisoner.

There was another malicious charge preferred against Captain John P. Chidester of Palmyra but nothing proved against him. 24 July 1853

At home John and Susan were actively engaged in civic affairs as well as in the ward. John helped to build irrigation ditches, build fences, make roads, build a bridge across the river, and anything else required for the betterment of the community. He spoke at length at civic and church meetings to bolster flagging spirits and urge loyalty to church authorities.

The grasshopper plague of 1855, followed by drought, wrought such havoc that it is a wonder that the little community survived at all. Spring of 1856 saw potatoes selling for $3.00 per pushel and flour at $10.00 per hundred weight. The settlers sent to Fillmore to buy shorts and bran to sustain themselves until times could change. They barted their clothing and anything they could possibly spare in trade for food. It was during this trying time that the family was called on to bury their second child.

In spite of famine and hard times, the Mormons sustained themselves with celebrations. Especially for the Twenty-fourth of July. They gave thanks for the land they had come to inherit, for their religion and all that was good. What a great day that was, and oh how those pioneers could celebrate!

Following is an account of the Spanish Fork celebration of 24th of July, 1856 (the famine year) as published in the Deseret News:

At sunrise, a single volley, hoisiting flags and United States flag unfurled under the direction of the Committee of Arrangements.

At 7 guns announced the hour for assembling the people at the Bowery; at 8 procession was formed under the direction of James Wilkins, Marshal of the Day, assisted by Albert R. Thurber.

Order of mar;

1. Corp of police, front guard
2. Martial band
3. Bishop and suite with chaplain
4. Members of Zion’s Camp of 1834
5. Pioneers of 1847 and Mormon Battalion
6. Mayor of City Council with banner
7. Officers of the Nauvoo Legion
8. Committee of Arrangements
9. Father and Mothers in Israel
10. 12 young men dressed in black with banners
11. 12 young woment dressed in white with banners
12. Visitors
13. Citizens
14. Capt. John P. Chidester’s company of infantry, rear guard.

At 9, at the signal of the volley, the procession moved to the residence of the Bishop, formed in open order, received the Bishop and suite, with Chaplain of the day; music by the band.

The procession passed through the principal streets to the Bowery, where the Bishop and suite were seated; salute from the cannon.

Prayer by Elder John M. Chidester, Chaplain, Mr. Amos Stiles, orator of the day, delivered a spirited and able oration, subject THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES, followed by interesting speeches by Messrs Zebedee Coltrin Lewis Barley, Levi M. Hancock and Mathew Caldwell.

An ode composed for the occasion was read by Samuel J. Raymond. Songs, toasts &c concluded the services of the forenoon.

Benediction by John M. Chidester

The famine years were so severe that the fall of 1858 saw the Chidester families and many others leaving Spanish Fork. The winder of 1858-59 John and his family lived on the Pratt farm in Parley’s Canyon, a sort of relocation center. In the spring of 1859 the little family moved back to Salt Lake City and settled in the old 16th Ward. There John earned a living by building spinning wheels.

In Salt Lake City two more children were born:

Lodema Elizabeth          born 9 Sep 1859
Myron Alfonzo                 born 6 Mar 1862

In November if 1859 John and Susan went to the Endowment House where they were endowed and sealed for time and eternity. Myron Alfonzo was their first child to be born in the covenant. There was no sealing of children performed until a temple was built. Accordingly, it was not until 24 Jan 1878 in Washington, Utah, that John could record in his book that “today we had our first four children adopted, they not being born under the covenant, John F., Mary Catherine, Susan Emma and Lodema Elizabeth, Susan Emma standing for Mary Catherine.”

A visit of President Brigham Young and other church authorities to the struggling community of Washington in southern Utah in the spring of 1861 resulted in the decision of the brethren to call more settlers to what had become “The Cotton Mission.” As early as 1855 the missionaries to the Indians at Santa Clara had demonstrated that cotton could be raised in the mild climate of Washington County. In 1857 the first group of settlers entered and established the town of Washington. They were mainly converts from the southern states with cotton raising experience. However, the battle with the problems of irrigation and the debilitating effects of malaria to which they were so subject, were so forbidding that most of these people soon moved elsewhere, leaving only a few to fight to make real the Prophet’s dream of an independent people. Accordingly, a committee was appointed to prepare new colonizers. The selection was made with an eye to providing the community with complete facilities for living. There was to be a gunsmith, a tailor, baker, carpenters, stone masons, shoemakers–all the skills essential to complete and independent living. At the October conference of 1861 a list of the families “called to the Cotton Mission” was made public. Among them was John P. Chidester, carpenter.

When called, John and Susan prepared to leave the comforts of Salt Lake City and embark on another pioneering venture. They had very little besides their devotion to each other, their faith in the Prophet, and four small children. Their resources were meager and there was a baby coming, so it took some time to prepare for the journey. It was fall of 1862 before the family was ready to leave.

The journey south was a pleasant one most of the way. It was a lark to sleep in the open under the star-lit sky. The Indians were at peace again and the young couple had high hopes for the future.

Beyond Cedar City, however, the road became more torturous. The Black Ridge with its deep, winding canyons and rocky hills defied the travellers. Many times llads had to be lightened so the oxen could pull the heavy wagons up a steep inclin, then the goods portered up. Brakes had to be applied on downgrades, and sometimes a decar or cypress tree attached to the wagon was used to slow the descent. At least once the wagon had to be lowered down a precipitous hill by the use of ropes.

Although other groups had passed this way before then and had tried to build a roadway, each rain that came carried away the loose, sandy soil exposing boulders that would have to be moved or covered up before the next vehicle could pass. Traveling to “Dixie” was a constant challenge.

The Chidesters reached Grapevine Spring on Christmas Day, and camped there to water and rest their weary animals and to gather their own strength for the remainder of the journey. Then on through Grapevine Pass they travelled to reach Washington 1 Jan, 1863. There they made camp on the banks of Hill Creek. They were home!

Even though they were met by yellowed, fever-ridden, discouraged inhabitants, the Chidesters knew they were in Washington to stay. Neither drought, famine nor malaria would conspire to make them desert the valley they had been called to settle. Every skill they possessed would be used to the utmost to meet the challenge of the country.

The first winter, their home was hte wagon box in which they had made the journey south. John worked hard to add a brush and sod shanty to ward off the icy winds and add room for his family to flex its muscles. He learned to work with adobe bricks and with rock to build more substantially and eventually, as the years passed, he was able to build a fine home for his family. It still stands in the heart of Washington to attest to his skills as a builder. The walls are thick and sturdy, protected those inside from the wintry blasts and from merciless summer sun alike. The woodwork of the interior shows skill and imagination. The timbers in the attic are sturdy and have withstood the ravages of time.

Four more children were born to John and Susan in this new homeland. The first, a son, Robert Edgar, was born 24 Sep 1864, in the trying and poverty stricken years of resettlement and famine. He died 3 Oct. 1865. The twins, Evaline and Emaline, were born 18 Feb. 1868; and Lucinda Jane joined the family 29 Aug. 1870.

John was quick to clear his land and begin planting, an activity so essential to his family’s survival. He planted cotton, of course, along with vegetables for the family and grain and hay for the cattle and for bread. He planted fruit trees which one day would permit him to go out on the highways as they were developed and improved, to peddle his produce to those who lived in areas where fruit would not grow so well. Grapes and peaches came to be the main cash crop. It was well enough to raise that which the family could use, but there also had to be commodities which could be converted into cash. Grapes and peaches were not only sold as fruit, but were used to make wine.

As early as 1866 the county court granted to William Theobald the right to distill grapes and peaches with the proviso that the license should be revoked if the distilling should prove subversive to the public morals.  Nearby Silver Reef, a minig town of indeterminate character, provided a ready market for the spirits, and many of the Saints, including John, entered into the wine making business. Much of it found its way into the northern districts where it was sold to migrant wagon trains for sorely needed cash. Wine of their own make was also used quite widely in the church sacrament services. The practice was banned in 1876. But for this reason, John could say that he made wine “for the church”. With the demise of Silver Reef and the replacement of the wagon train by railroad, wine making became less lucrative and eventually fruit was fruit again. Moreover, the usage of wine as a beverage had become so prevalent that the authorities counselled against its use in sacrament services and forbid its manufacture and use by the people.

In order to have farms it was necessary to provide water to irrigate the land. While Washington was blessed with ample water from springs for culinary and town garden purposes, water for the farms in the bottom lands, known as Washington Fields, must come from temperamental and unpredictable Virgin River. Since the founding of the settlement in 1857 there had been a constant and often failing battle to control the river. Brush and rock dams would be build only to be washed out in a spring flood, or by a cloud burst somewhere along the upper river that would send a devastating wall of water down the stream. Canals would be choked by silt and debris. So expensive was the process of keeping water in the fields that it is estimated that by 1869 the townspeople of Washington had expended more than $70,000.00 in water projects alone.

Each year John worked with his neighbors to build canals, clear them, build and repair dams. He usually was allowed $2.00 per day “ditch credit” for his work to be applied towards his water assessments.

In 1864 there was a drought. Even though the men worked hard on the ditches there was still no water. It was known as “the Starving Time.” The price of foodstuffs sky-rocketed. Corn meal sold for $15.00 per hundred weight; flour was $20.00 to $25.00 per hundred weight; molasses was $4.00 per gallon, etc. And there was no money to buy with! Somehow the family survived, except for the baby, Robert Edgar.

John’s skill as a carpenter was recognized early. He worked on most of the public buildings both in Washington and St. George. He built the old Tithing Barn and Granary which stood for many years on the southeast corner lot opposite the John D. Lee mansion. He helped to build the Stake Tabernacle in St. George, the school and chapel in Washington. From 1865-68 he was the chief carpenter and superintended the construction of the cotton factory, cutting the timbers and doing the mortise work all with hand tools.

By the time the cotton factory became operational the Chidester children were old enough that they began working there. The mother no longer had to spend most of her time spinning and weaving at home–the factory did it better and faster–and Susan found time to help out there, too. From then until its closing, the family took an active part in its operation. After it ceased to operate continuously it was the Chidester girls who hastened to man the looms when visitors came to see the mill.

They participated in another adventure at this time also–the culture of silk worms. Susan and her daughters converted the attic to the production of silk fiber, where they kept the worms and their cocoons. John planted mulberry trees close about the house so that in tending their charges the girls would only have to open the attic windows to reach out and pluck the mulberry leaves for the worms to feed on. Several of these trees still shade the lovely old house.

The family was close-knit and full of fun. They took their hardships stoically, made the best of them and enjoyed life. It was said in the cotton factory that Myron (the second son) kept the work from being hum-drum with his jokes. Both the boys, John Foy and Myron, played the fiddle and and combined with other musicians to provide music for the dances and celebrations. The people danced in their homes, in the old cotton gin mill at Enterprise and in other public buildings. They even danced on the hard Shinarump sand ledge which is now the spillway for the Washington Field Dam. In the early years this ledge had been worn smooth by the tramping, flailing and winnowing of grain and made a most acceptable dance floor for a summer’s evening of fun. They danced and sang their cares away. They enjoyed life and living.

In 1871 a new interest came to Dixie. Because of the troubles encountered in temple building in Salt Lake, it was decided that a temple should be rushed through to completion in St. George. Work missions were organized from all of southern Utah to spend time in St. George. They came from Sanpete, Fillmore, Beaver, Kanab, Rockville, Virgin City, Minersville, Panguitch, Cedar Springs, Washington, St. George and Santa Clara. John P. Chidester went daily to add his bit to the building of a House of the Lord. He superintended every bit of scaffolding from the beginning of construction till the finish.

During this period of time President Brigham Young instructed the people of Washington County to enter into the United Order way of living.  The towns were organized into individual orders on a voluntary basis. The complete order lasted for only a year, but it would seem that some functions carried over for a longer period of time. From the Journal History of the Church, dated Aug. 13, 1877, p. 2, the notes of clerk-historian James Bleak records:

Monday 13th At board meeting of the United Order held in St. George among other business it was decided Elder Eli Whipple be honourably released from the duties of Supt. of Mt. Trumbull Lumber making dept. and that he be Supt. of the Pine Valley department of the United Order.

On motion the appointment by the Presidency of the St. Geo. Stake appointing Elder John P. Chidester Supt. of Trumbull department was duly ratified.

This activity went hand in hand with John’s assignment at the temple.

As soon as the temple was completed and dedicated, John added a new activity to his calendar. He began assiduously to search out and do the work for his kindred dead. He and Susan went frequently to the temple. They encouraged their children to go, too, not waiting till they were married, but taking out their endowments as son as they were old enough so that they could go with him to the temple–a family united in all its activities. What a glorious day it must have been for him when he could write in his journal, “Today we had our four oldest children adopted to us”–cementing anew the family bond! He kept a faithful record of all work done–when, who the proxy was and his or her relationship to the dead, who performed the ordinance, who the witnesses were.

In 1878 John P. Chidester was elected to be councilor in the city government and served most ably.

John had been ordained an elder by his father, John Madison Chidester, in 1851 in Salt Lake City. On the 19th of Aug. 1869, in Washington, Utah, he was ordained a Seventy under the hand of John Young Sr.; and 19 Mar 1881 he was ordained a High Priest by Pres. Wilford Woodruff. The following day, Mar 20, 1881, he was set apart to be a counselor to Bishop Marcus Funk. This position he held until Dec. 8, 1888.

As spiritual leaders of the flock, the bishopric was more than ever involved in the temporal problems of the people. Bishop Funk was not only the spiritual head, he was also the Mayor and President of the Washington Field Canal Company. He knew the capabilities of his counselors and used them accordingly wherever he saw fit.

On 29 Aug. 1885, John P. Chidester, Anthony W. Ivins and Richard A. Morris were appointed to draft plans for the building of a pile dam on the Virgin River. They completed their assignment and presented the plans to the stockholders. The stockholders accepted the plans and authorized the board to proceed with construction.

John P. Chidester was appointed to explore the Pine Valley mountains to find suitable timbers for the project. This he did with dispatch and was then appointed superintendent of construction. He was to be paind $4.00 per day, part in labor (that is, in ditch credit) and part in “available means” (hay, grain, flour, orders on the Factory, or other commodities.)

Superintendent Chidester pushed the work forward as rapidly as he could, but many factors caused delays. There was indecision as to how to build the spillway, the inroads of malaria that sapped the strength of the workers, the lack of funds for so big an undertaking. It was an arduous undertaking. Most of the work had to be performed by the men standing waist-deep in the water of the river. In the spring especially, the water was ice cold. John worked by the side of his men, encouraging them by his presence as well as his words. By Jan 7, 1889 the stockholders received the report that the dam was completed. The canal had been finished earlier and some water had been turned out into the fields in 1887 and 1888. Now that the project was completed it was hoped that many more acres of land could be brought under cultivation.

Hopes were doomed to disappointment, however, for on 7 Dec. 1889, the largest flood ever known on the Virgin River ripped out the dam and twisted the piles as if they were straw. More than $10,000.00 and the sweat of many men were washed away as if rubble.

Again John P. Chidester was selected as a member of the committee to find a new site for a dam. The committee made its investigation and reached the decision that a dam could be built at a point where an outcropping of rock bordered the river on the north bank some three miles above the site of the Pile Dam. The plan called for making a rock and earth fill across the six hundred foot fiver bed to force the waters to find a new channel over the rock stratum on the right bank. Here it could be controlled and water secured for the canal. A spillway was to be cut in the rock stratum on the north side and an iron gate in the cut was to regulate the flow of water into the canal. The three men who formulated the plan were John P. Chidester, Charles W. Seegmiller and Isaac C. Macfarlane. A later revision of the plans placed the level of the canal six feet higher than originally planned. The executive committee of 1890, which included John P. Chidester, estimated the cost of the dam and canal to be $29,291.00. It was to cost considerably more than that before it was finished in 1891.

And at last the river was conquered. This diversion dam still functions. John had been in the field, working in the water with the men; he had helped to build the tunnels through which the canal would have to carry the life-giving water; and he had been there in executive sessions, making the decisions and bringing them to fruition. His brother David was to maintain later that it was this activity, especially in the tunnels of the canal, that brought on the heart condition which ended his life a few short years later.

After the completion of the dam and as his own health deteriorated, John contented himself to care for his farm and orchard, to make the yearly trips to peddle his fruit and molasses, and to work on his genealogy. At his death 10 Jan. 1897, he had compiled 1500 names and had done the temple work for most of them. He had sent names to the Manti temple for his brother, Joshua Parker, to do and had kept the entire family busy. This record he turned over to his eldest son, John Foy Chidester, with the admonition that he was to complete it as soon as possible.

In 1882 Susan Foy Chidester was sustained and set apart as Relieve Society president of the Washington Ward. She held that position until her husband’s death in 1897. She survived him ifve years, passing away in Panguitch, Utah, 14 July, 1902, at the home of her son, John F. Chidester. She was buried in Washington beside her husband. Susan and John had completed their call to the “Cotton Mission.”

Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

This story researched and written by Thelma Chidester Anderson, May 1972. 

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