The first Latter-day Saint missionaries to the British Isles arrived in Liverpool in 1837. The following year, Heber C. Kimball, an apostle, baptized George and Ellen Briggs Douglas in Lancashire. As the number of church members in England rose in the early 1840s—a result of a more concerted missionary effort led by several apostles—leaders encouraged converts to emigrate to Nauvoo.1 Along with their three sons and four daughters, George and Ellen Douglas emigrated, arriving in Nauvoo in early 1842. Living conditions were difficult for the Douglases and many other English immigrants, as Ellen explained in a letter to her parents: “We rented a house at 5 shilings a month. … Our house is not such a fine one, but there are many that are much worse, and I prayed that we might have one to ourselves for there is 3 or 4 families in one room, and many have to pitch their tents in the woods, or any where where they can.”2
Ellen Douglas soon became involved with the Female Relief Society in Nauvoo. “There is now in this city a female Charity Society, of which I am a member,” Douglas wrote to her parents in June 1842. “We are in number 8 or 9 hundred. Jo Smith’s wife is the head of our society and we meet on a Thursday at 1 o’clock, where we receive instructions both temporary [temporally] and spiritually.”3 In July 1842 George Douglas died, leaving Ellen a widow with eight children. Several months after George’s death, Ellen expressed the view that “we can get our living without troubling anyone if we have our health and we have enjoyed good health as ever we did in England.”4
By 1844, however, Ellen Douglas’s circumstances had changed in Nauvoo’s unhealthy environment. A daughter later stated that following George’s death, her mother suffered both from poverty and “the fever and ague.”5 Unable to work during an extended illness, Douglas applied to the Relief Society for assistance and received a generous supply of clothing for herself and her children. In the following April 14, 1844, letter to family members in England, Douglas recounted her illness, described her joy at living among the Saints, and shared news about her children and many other English immigrants in Nauvoo from the same region of Downham, Lancashire, England. As originals of the letter are not known to be extant, the following transcript is reproduced from a typescript made circa 1939 by James H. Douglas, a grandson of Ellen Briggs Douglas.6
April, 14, 1844.
Dear Fathers and Mothers and Sisters and Brothers:—7
I know [now] take up my pen to write a few lines to you to let you know that we received your kind letter dated No. 19th, on the 9th day of March. How it came here we know not. We are all in good state of health and spirits at present, for which I feel thankful. We have had some sickness in our family since we wrote last, Ralph8 and his uncle9 went up the River about 10 miles to work on a brick yard. They hired each for one month. They came home every week and Ralph when he had done his time came home in good health, but the next day was taken very ill. This was about the middle of August. He was very ill the first 9 days, not able to git up while I made the bed. After that he began to have the ague and fever, which is 〈a〉 very common complaint in this land. He was about 10 weeks before he could work much, and before he got well I was taken very ill with the same complaint, but a great deal worse. I was four or five weeks very ill; indeed not able to do any thing. Ralph got me some medicine to throw it off and I begun to get a little better, so I thought I would try to wash a few clothese, and it just brought me down again. I was just 13 weeks and never washed but that one time. Sometimes I thought I should die and then I thought of my poor children. I prayed for their sakes that I might live. I didn’t pray alone, but a many of the brothers and sisters prayed likewise and our prayers were answered, and I now am living in good state of health at present, for which I feel to praise my Heavenly Father.
Richard has been very healthy ever since we came to this land and he looks as well as ever you saw him.10 Ann and all the rest of the children but Isabelle have had very good health.11 Isabelle has been ill two or three times two or three weeks at a time. She looks about the same she did when we left you. After I begun [p. ] to get well I went down into the city on a visit to where Ann lived, and I stayed two nights and I had a horse to ride home on. The woman where Ann lived would have me make application to the female Relief Society for some clothing which I needed for myself and family. I refused to do so, but she said I needed something and that I had been so long sick and if I would not do it myself she would do it for me. I agreed and we went to one of the sisters and she asked me what I needed most. I told her that I needed a many things. While I was sick my children were out their clothes because I could not men[d] them, so she said she would do the best she could for me. Ann came over in a few days and they brought the wagon and fetched me such a present as I never received before from no place in the world. I suppose the things they sent were worth as much as 30 shillings.
I wrote before and told you that I expected that I should have a house of my own before now by the assistance of the Church, but I have not got one yet. We was sick so long. Ralph and James12 got a cow up the River and we have kept her all winter without giving any milk, but we expect her to have a calf every day. She has had one calf and is but three years old. She cost 9 dollars in work. She is a very pretty cow. We live where we did when we first came here and expect to do till we get a place of our own. We raised about 35 chickens. We keep them for our own use. How long do you think we might have stayed in England before we could have had a cow?
Ralph and James is detching [ditching] on the prarie and Richard is sawing in a saw pit close by where we live. I have told you before that money was scarce. We can buy good strong cotton here now at 5 pence and 6 pence per yard, a yard wide, good print at 6 pence, thread and pots are the dearest of anything here. [p. 2]
You also want us to give you some account of Margaret Wilkinson. I expect you have heard of her death before now.13 She lived at a place called Happanooce.14 She had a very good place. She was sick about 10 days and died. James was with her when she died. It was at the time that Ralph and James was working up the River, and he came down to let us know that she was dead, and James Spencer and me went and brought her down to Nauvoo and had her buried close by my husband. They was very nice to her and thought a great deal of her. They said she was a good girl. She came to Nauvoo on the 4th day of July on a visit and stopped one week. She was one night at my house and we went the next day to Old John Parker’s15 and Nancy Smithe’s16 and Jane Hall was there also. We had a very happy day all together and did not think it was the last time we should meet on earth, but you see that in the midst of life we are in death.17 She died firm in the faith that she professed. There is a letter at James Smitheses that she wrote herself and wished them to send a long with one of their own, but they have never had the opportunity, but they will send it and then her friends will know how she enjoyed herself.
You also wanted to know something about James Spencer. He is well and he is got married about two months since, and I was very glad of it because he is old and needed a home so that he could be comfortable in his old age, and I think he has acted wisely in choosing a companion, I mean near his age. She had a house and a cow and 2 horses and 2 mules, and she was a widow.18 Her husband died about the time that Isabelle died. She is a American, no children.
Dear parents, there are many things which I could like to mention which would do you good, but I have not room. Ralph wants William19 to come to Nauvoo and I say that he would do better here than in England. We should be glad to see any of you. I never in my life [p. 3] enjoyed myself better than I do now. We had a Conference here which begun on the 6th day of April and lasted four or 5 days. I attended it 4 days and it is supposed that there was from 15 to 20 thousand present, and the teaching which we heard made our hearts rejoice.20 I for one feel to rejoice and to praise my God that he ever sent the Elders of Israel to England and that he ever gave me a heart to believe them. I want to know whether you believe my testimony or not concerning the Prophet of the Most High God, because the day will come when you will know that I have told you the truth.21
I want you to send us some berry trees and a few choice plum stones. You may put them in a firkin and send them the first opportunity. I will pay anyone for the trouble of them. I should also be glad of a ball of twist. You may send them with Cottoms at Wadinton22 if they come. I hope you will forgive all my mistakes.
I remain, Your affectionate daughter,
James Hawworth landed here on the 5th d day of April and is at Cottoms.23 He brought Jo Boothman24 a letter and I read it and I found that William’s child was dead. My very best respects to you all, fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts and cousins and to Ann Wiglesworth, and tell her I still mean to fulfill my promise if ever it lies in my power, and my very best respects to all the Saints and to all enquiring friends.
Ellen Douglas [p. 4]
Dear Mother, my girls wishes you to send them a lock of your hair and they want some of you to send them every one of them a doll. There is no dolls to sell here. There is almost anything here now. There is 1 or 2 hundred shops in this city now and when we came here there was not more than 2 or 3. William Tomson said he would buy Vilate Ellen25 another when she had done her other, so now is the time. George26 wants his grandfather to come. While I have been writing he has asked me more than a half dozen times if I had sent for him. My children will join in sending their kind love to you all. V. Ellen wants uncle Robert.27
I remain, yours affectionately,
Ellen Douglas. [p. 5]