The China/Dishes Tradedy at Fort Harmony

 

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Elizabeth Davies Williams “Aunt Betsy”
By William R. Palmer
Published in “The Instructor” May, 1945

Among the very first converts to the Church in South Wales was the family of William R. Davies of Ferry side. The men were of the Welsh colliers who worked hard in the coal pits but they were a happy family in their home life. True to the Welsh traditions they were a singing family who participated in the great “National Eisteddfods,” and from one of these sort Jim came home winner of the highest award as a tenor solist.

The only daughter of We. R. Davies was named Elizabeth but most Elisabeth in that day were called Betsy. Betsy Davies grew to womanhood and became the wife of Rees Jones Williams and he, too, was a convert to the Church.

The Davies and Williams families came to Utah in the 1850s and William R. Was advised to move South to the Iron County Mission and assist in building the settlement of Fort Harmony. Rees J. Williams had mechanical skill and, finding employment at a steam sawmill in Cottonwood Canyon, remained in Salt Lake City.

May 31, 1860 a terrible tragedy befell the Williams family. Rees was accidentally thrown into the saw and was almost cut asunder before he could be pulled out.

Betsy Williams was one of those cheerful, kindly, helpful souls whom neighbor and acquaintances instinctively called “Aunt.” She was one of those whom everyone in trouble went to for consolation and assistance. Now she needed these blessings which she had scattered so lavishly on others and on all sides friends rose up to give her aid. The calamity which had befallen her husband left her a widow in poverty with four children, three boys and a girl, to rear. The eldest of her little brood was a son nine years old and named Rees Jones for his father. When that son was an old man eighty years of age he went with me to visit the ruins of Old Fort Harmony and on the way down told me a story of their family life in that place when he was a small boy.

The most cherished possessions of an old country gentlewoman transplanted by her religion from Wales to a rude, rough-hewn home in an unconquered desert was a bit of fine china. It might be a few thin plates or a dainty cup and saucer. These supplied a touch of refinement in a land where of necessity things were rough and coarse.

About all the dishes there were in Old Fort Harmony were the brown thick, clumsy products of our own pioneer potters, or they were plates of tin and cups that were tin cans on which handles had been soldered by the local handy man.

When Aunt Betsy Williams left the old country she brought as a parting gift from loved relatives she would never see again, a set of fine purple-flower decorated English china. They were her most prized possessions and whatever else had to be sacrificed to the exigencies of the long journey to Zion, she would never consent for her dishes to be sold or left by the wayside. If the load had to be lightened, they might dispose of anything else, but her dishes must come if she came. They crossed the ocean in steerage, they crossed the Plains carefully packed in an ox train, reaching “The Valley” at length in safety, they graced her first log home near Little Cottonwood Canyon where her husband found work.

After his shocking and tragic death Aunt Betsy gathered up her few possessions, chief of which was her cherished china, and with her children went to live with her father in Old Fort Harmony. Here her gleaming dishes gave her humble cottage an air of aristocratic distinction for they were the only nice tableware in the entire settlement.

One day word came to the Fort that “Brother Brigham” and his party were coming and would spend a day with them. On such rare occasions the Presiding Elder’s tinware and crockery were exchanged for Aunt Betsy’s fine china in order that the visiting authorities might be served with befitting dignity. Today the Elder’s wife had come for the dishes and the two women washed and polished them and they were stacked in a basket on the table ready to be carried away. The table was of the old drop leaf style with a fifth leg that propped the extension leaf up. Rees, the widow’s son was playing marbles on the floor and Aunt Betsy, Fearful that he might bump against that fifth leg and knock it out, kept driving the heedless boy with his marbles to the corner of the room.

While the two women worked they talked,. Sister Lee said, “It is so good of you, Aunt Betsy, to let us use your lovely dishes. I am thankful when Brother Brigham comes to visit us that we do not have to serve him with our horrible looking crockery. It would be as embarrassing to give the President one of our old yellow crock plates and a salmon can to drink out of. You don’t know how much I appreciate your kindness.”

“Oh, well, Sister Lee,” Aunt Betsy replied, “you know Brother Brigham and the brethren belong to all of us and we much all see that their visit is pleasant. I am thankful to have something that I can contribute on such happy occasions. You do have plenty of good foods to serve them,. But it would be terrible if they had to come and eat the victuals I could give them. It would be pretty much greens and Welsh gruel.”

“Your foods would be good, Aunt Betsy, and the brethren would relish them. You make things so tasty no matter what they are. But anything would taste good off such lovely dishes.”

“You are welcome, Sister Lee, to use my dishes,” replied Aunt Betsy, “but I do want you to be very careful with them. Don’t let the children wash them or handle them. Put them in the basket right off the table and bring them back dirty for I would rather wash them myself. You know, I brought them from Wales and they mean so much to me. I think it would break my heart if anything should happen to them.” And here for about the tenth time she drove Rees back into his corner.

“No, Aunt Betsy,” replied Sister Lee, “ I won’t bring them home dirty but I promise to wash them myself and I will be very careful about it, too.”

“It is not only that they are lovely dishes,” Aunt Betsy continued, “but they are all the dishes we have. What could I do if they were broken? However could we live without dishes of some sort?”

Just them the tragedy happened. Rees, with his eyes on his mother rather than where he was going, chasing a marble bumped into the table and tipped it over. The stack of precious dishes came crashing down in a broken heap on the floor. The two women screamed and grabbed frantically at the falling china but their efforts were in vain.

Poor Aunt Betsy was almost beside herself. She seized Rees and spanked with all her might. “My son! My son!” she screamed, “see what you have done.” Then when she saw his tears and his frightened look her mother instinct welled up and gathering the boy in her arms she hugged and kissed him as stoutly as she had spanked. But when she looked down at the broken dishes, in half hysteria she spanked Rees again and again then hugged and kissed him. “My boy! My boy! She moaned, “what can we do? Whatever can we do? There is not a dish or a cup left to drink out of. There is not a dish to be bought this side of Salt Lake City and we haven’t a cent of money if there were. I told you to stay away from the table. I was afraid something would happen.” She threw herself on the bed and wept bitterly.

Sister Lee came and put her arms around the sobbing woman and said, “Dear Aunt Betsy, I am to blame for this terrible thing. Don’t cry too hard about it. We will share our dishes with you. This is a calamity to everybody in Harmony. How can we entertain the authorities now when they come?”

Rees J. Williams, with much feeling, told me this story as we rode together to the ruins of Old Fort Harmony. Arriving at our destination, we walked around the inside of the heap of earth that was the decomposed walls of Fort Harmony. He pointed out the places where homes had been , saying, “This was the Lee home; Woolseys lived in this place; Grandfather Davies” home was here; Uncle Jim Davies lived in this corner and your father was next to him, “etc. When we came to the northeast corner he said, “This was where we lived.” We lingered there for a little while and the story he had told was in my mind. Looking down I saw a tiny speck of white shining in the dirt. I kicked at it and a piece of broken china came up as large as my hand. Wiping it off I saw the dainty purple flower he had described. I held it up. Brother Williams turned very pale and put out a trembling hand to get it. Choking with emotion he said, “Yes, this is a piece of my sainted mother’s dishes.” He drew out his handkerchief, wiped the fragment of china clean, wrapped it carefully and put it away in his inside coat pocket. I walked away in my car leaving him alone for a time on the old home site with his memories.

Aunt Betsy was tall and slender and she had long, slender, skillful fingers. He voice was soft and musical and she had only words of kindness for everyone who came to her home. The gospel was everything to this good woman, and she instilled a love for it in the hearts of her children. She was born November 21, 1829 at Ferry side, South Wales and died in Kanarraville, Utah, September 27, 1890.