Oscar and Elizabeth Durrah Wilkins Story

Mormon Converts, Handcart and Ox Team Pioneers
compiled by their 2nd great grand daughter Lin Floyd
Roosevelt, Utah in 1998, published 2002


Early years and conversion to Mormonism

Oscar Wilkins was born Feb 14, 1851 at Tetbury, Gloucestershire, England, the son of George Wilkins and Hannah Stoneham (Gillet). Hannah was the second wife of George Wilkins whose first wife had died in 1835. Hannah had been married previously to Mr. Gillet and was 31 years old when she married George who was considerable older at age 54. His occupation was a tiler and plasterer. Hannah was the mother of 4 children with George. Oscar was their fourth child but the ninth and youngest of his father's children. When Oscar was 12 years old in 1860, his father died at age 75.(5)

Oscar's mother Hannah (shown in photo on the right) remarried Richard Russell a presiding elder of the Mormon church and father of a family of girls. She and Oscar were converted into the Mormon church in England and Oscar was baptized on April 1864 by Richard Russell (3). They all emigrated to Utah in October 1864 (2). They sailed on the ship "Hudson" from Liverpool on the June 3, 1864, arriving in New York July 19, 1864. They crossed the plains under the direction of Capt. Wm. Hyde's Company. There were 863 saints under the direction of John McKay in that company. In the Wm. Hyde ox train there were 62 ox drawn wagons and a large company of emigrating Saints, mostly funded by the Perpetual Emigration Fund which loaned money to the poorer saints to emigrate and then they were to pay the money back after they got established in order for more saints to be helped to emigrate.

The ox train left Wyoming, Nebraska on Aug 9, 1864. They traveled with another company led by Snow and were the last of this season's emigration. They had to pass through a region where the Indians had committed some depredations upon some non-emigrant trains. Also in Capt Hyde's company was Elder Parley P. Pratt returning from a European mission. During the journey 2 men, 6 women and 5 children died. One of those was Oscar's new stepfather Richard Russell who had baptized Oscar before they left England.He died at Wyoming, Nebraska on Aug 16, 1864. (For more details on their travels, read Journal History of Church Oct 26, 1864. p. 3-9, on microfilm at BYU FH Library and at Church Archives in SLC.) After arriving at SLC, Oscar and his mother were sent to Wanship to settle on Oct 17, 1864. From there they went to Peoa to make their home. His mother married again, James Garner of Peoa and lived there till she passed away at age 83 on June 5, 1892.

Starting over in a new country

Oscar had to take care of himself at the very early age of 13. From the time his mother married James Garner, Oscar had to pay a set sum of $25/month for board and room and clothes to his stepfather until he got out on his own. Oscar had received some common school education in England and attended school in Peoa for one winter after coming to Utah. He worked with his stepfather in general farming until 1868. The at age 17, Oscar went to the Black Hills of Dakota to work on the Union Pacific railroad grading following the railroad until it reached Ogden in the fall of 1868, Oscar was then able to buy a team and took a subcontract on the railroad grade.

Later he farmed on shares in Peoa and after a time was able to buy his own land and helped organize and promote the South Bench Canal Co. as President. He took a prominent part in all matters pertaining to irrigation. He filled the position of manager of the Coop store in Peoa several times for a period of 9 years and then engaged in the mercantile business himself starting in one room of his home for two years, after which he built a new home for his family. He owned 135 acres of good farming land all under cultivation and well irrigated. He kept 60 head of stock on his place and was prosperous in the community. In political life, he was in the Democratic party and active in Summit.Co.

At age 19, on Oct 17, 1870 Oscar married Elizabeth Durrah in the Endowment House in SLC. She was also a Mormon convert who came to Utah at a young age 8 years before Oscar had made the trip to America. (See map above to see where they had both lived in United Kingdom.)She was born to Henry Durrah and Jane Donely (also sometimes called Jean Donnelly) in Glasgow, Scotland on Jan 1, 1852. Elizabeth was just 6 weeks old (Ancestral file says Elizabeth was 3 years old) when her Mother died, living one son and a grieving husband. It is thought Henry Durrah left that area of Scotland in search of employment and the new baby was left with Jane's sister. The baby's aunt Elizabeth Donely Maxwell and her husband Ralph took care of her sister's baby Elizabeth Durrah. Evidently the Maxwells were converted to Mormonism about this time and they left Scotland in 1856 to migrate to Utah. After they arrived in Boston, Mass., they traveled on to a campground near Iowa City, Iowa and joined the Daniel McArthur Handcart Co which consisted of 487 saints, 100 handcarts, 5 wagons, 25 oxen, 4 mules and 25 tents. (9) The handcart company of Daniel D. McArthur consisted of 487 people, 100 handcarts, 5 wagons, 24 oxen, 4 mules and 25 tents. Elizabeth Durrah was only 4 years old at the time of this great journey.

Experiences coming across the plains

Capt. McArthur's second Handcart company had come across the sea together (Elizabeth Durrah was with this group) then they were divided into two handcart companies led by Edmon Ellsworth and Daniel McArthur. According to Daniel McArthur..."they had to travel 300 miles to get to Florence, Nebraska through hot sweltering weather and rain storms not a few. Their hand carts were new and in an awful fix. They moaned and growled, screeched and squealed so that a person could hear them for miles. They had to be patched mornings, noons and nights. The train had 12 yoke of oxen, 4 wagons and 48 cars, 5 beef and 12 cows, flour 55 lbs per head, 1000 lbs of rice, 550 lbs of sugar, 400 lbs dried apples, 125 lbs tea and 200 lbs salt for the company. They traveled continuously except for 5 Sundays and 3 week days. Singing and prayers were attended to every morning and night. From the Bermingham dairy (7) we have a day by day account of their journey:

July 24-we left Florence and traveled 7 miles,

July 25th-traveled 20 miles to Elkhorn River where we found a camp of friendly Indians. The chief was very helpful and took one of the carts and pulled it to camp about 1/4 miles. This was quite an exertion on his part and although he was a tall strong looking man, it made the perspiration run down his face.

July 26th-crossed the Elkhorn River by roughly constructed ferry. The company had to pay $6 for all to pass. Traveled 15 miles without any water until we came to the Platte River where the water was a joyful sight.

July 27th- camped all day on the north bend of the Platte River. Most days we traveled 20 miles pulling and pushing our handcarts and walking along beside them. Food was a bit of bread and a pint of milk morning and evening this was supposed to feed 5 people.

Aug 3rd-Sunday, started at 5 o'clock without any breakfast and had to pull the carts through 6 miles of heavy sand. Some places the wheels were up to the boxes and it was difficult to pull because many were weak from thirst and hunger and the pain of boils that afflicted many in the camp. About noon a thunderstorm came and the rain fell in torrents. In our tents we were standing up to our knees in water and every stitch of clothes they had on was wet as if we were dragged through the river. The rain continued unto 8 pm the following morning.

Aug 16th- This morning an old woman belonging to our company was bitten by a rattlesnake in the leg and before half an hour her leg swelled to four times its thickness. She was administered to by the Elders and we started again, but unfortunately as we were starting another old woman was run over by one of the wagons. The front wheel went over her thighs and the back wheels over her shins and singular to say although the wagon was laden with 32 cwt of flour, not one of her bones was broken. This day we had the most severe day's journey we had since we started and traveled over 20 miles of heavy sand hills or bluffs. Besides having to ford many streams. All seemed to be fully worn out when we got into camp.

Aug 17th-Sunday. In camp all day. Spent the day washing and mending my boots.

Aug 24th
-Sunday. Camped all day at Chimney Rock. Spent the day mending clothes, washing, baking and cooking. On the 22nd while on the road traveling we were overtaken by a very heavy thunderstorm which wet us all to the skin, but as soon as it was over we went at it again and made a journey of 7-8 miles before we camped and then we had to lie on the wet grass all night and go to bed supperless there being no firewood to cook, the buffalo chips being wet. We had to ford 20 steams this week.

Aug 28th
- After traveling 12 miles through sand, came to Fort Laramie where after crossing the river getting some wet trousers and petticoats we remained all night, Passed many camps of Indians, all peaceable.

Sept 4th Crossed Muddy Creek and traveled 20 miles late in the evening forded the Platte again for the last time. We are always up at daybreak preparing to start at 5 . We meet the wagons at Deer Creek with supplies from the valley. There were 5 wagons, one for each company with 1000 lbs of flour in them.

Sept 5th
Very wet today. Could not start it rained so much. Snow four feet deep on the mountains all around us.

Sept 21th traveled at the rate of about 25 miles per day. Two days we traveled 32 miles each. Camped last night at Fort Bridger where we remained until 10 o'clock today. We are now 113 miles from Salt Lake City (7)

They had traveled some 1,400 miles in nine weeks and were warmly greeted when they arrived in Salt Lake Valley on Sept 26, 1856. Wilford Woodruff described his feelings on greeting these two hand cart companies:

"I must say my feelings were inexpressible to behold a company of men, women and children, many of them aged and infirm, enter the city of the Great Salt Lake, drawing 100 handcarts with which they had traveled some 1,400 miles in nine weeks and to see them dance with joy as they traveled through the streets. This sight filled our hearts with joy and thanksgiving to God. We can now say to the poor and honest in heart, come home to Zion, for the way is prepared."(7)


Bands and carriages formed a line facing the line of handcarts to welcome them and President Brigham Young spoke a few remarks and gave them a blessing. Then the companies pitched their tents to rest in Zion thoroughly fatigued but thrilled to have arrived.

While the Maxwell family was encamped coming across the plains in 1856 with young Elizabeth Durrah, a company of immigrants enroute to Oregon met the Maxwells and wanted to adopt Elizabeth. They felt they were better able to care for the young child on such a journey with their covered wagon and it was decided to let them take the little girl. In the Maxwell family were several young girls who had helped to raise Elizabeth and they took her and hid her among some willows on a river bank until the immigrant wagon train moved on. Thus Elizabeth stayed with the Maxwell family. (5) (Photo from DUP Museum on left of Elizabeth Durrah as a young lady.)

As they entered Utah in Echo Canyon, her aunt Elizabeth Maxwell died and was buried in the canyon near Cache Cave. Elizabeth Maxwell's oldest son Arthur then took care of Elizabeth Durrah. After reaching Salt Lake, Arthur married and with his wife raised Elizabeth Durrah but she was not legally adopted by them. Elizabeth Durrah was baptized 5 Sep 1861 at age 9 after she had arrived in Utah. Elizabeth settled with the Maxwells in Peoa, Summit, Ut. Little is known of her childhood. Later she would met Oscar Wilkins.

Elizabeth and Oscar meet in Peoa

Settling down in Peoa, Oscar farmed on shares and after a time was able to buy his own land. He was a successful farmer and rancher. He was one of the organizers and promoters of the South Bench Canal Company of which he was president. He took a prominent part in all matters pertaining to irrigation. He filled the position of manager of the Co -Op Store in Peoa several times covering a period of 9 years. He also engaged in the mercantile business for himself starting a store in one room of his home for 2 years after which he built a new home for his family. He owned 135 acres of good farming land all under cultivation and well irrigated. He kept 60 head of stock on his place and was prosperous in the community.
Oscar and his wife Elizabeth would have a family of 12 children:
Front Row (l-r)- Emma Jane, mother Elizabeth Durrah Wilkins, Edith, father Oscar Wilkins;
Middle Row-Reuben Ralph, Lillian Pearl, Albert; Back Row-Sarah Janette, Clara Ellen, Oscar William, George Edgar, Hannah Elizabeth, Mary Alice. Not shown Herbert who died at age 3.


Moving to the Uintah Basin

From an Interview with my grandmother Mildred Stevens Vernon about her grand parents, the Wilkins, I found out the following information.

Mildred: Grandpa (Oscar) Wilkins owned the store in Peoa and its still standing there and he left that to go out homesteading in the reservation ( in the Uintah Basin, now Duchesne County).
Bonnie: They left a prosperous business and his home and went out there and started all over again and they were getting on a lot of years then.
Mildred: And both that store and home are still standing there in Peoa, so that's pretty old.(4)

Oscar Wilkins resided in Summit County 44 years before he moved to the Indian reservation in Duchesne County. On July 9, 1908, the US government opened up certain parts of the Ute Indian reservation for homesteading. Even though 57 years of age, Oscar was ready to leave behind his established life in Peoa where he and his family had resided so many years and venture out into the unknown areas of the Uintah Basin. (See photo on left of his store next to his house on the right. It still stands today on the Main Street of Peoa.)

On July 9, 1908, Oscar, his wife, daughter Pearl and Edith and son Ruben moved out to Mt. Home to a one room log house which was finished except for shingles, doors and windows which they brought with them. It was here they started their life in Mt. Home. The house was finished and tents pitched for bedrooms. In a few days, the wagon started back to Peoa, Elizabeth and her daughters were ready to go back with it to Peoa but Oscar was excited with the new project. (5) Oscar homesteaded some land in Mountain Home which is just directly over the mountains from Kamas through the Wolf Creek Pass going East. I'm not sure his family shared his enthusiasm but they supported him nonetheless and became pioneers again in a new and undeveloped area of Utah. There were only three children left at home when they pulled up their roots and started over in Mountain Home. Most of the children in the Wilkins family followed their parents and homesteaded in the Uintah Basin also.

They drove to Boneta for church and it wasn't long until Oscar was sustained as presiding elder until he was put in as Bishop of the Mt. "Home ward on September 10, 1911. By this time, the people had built a chapel at Mt. Home. (See photo on right.) Their oldest son George Edgar had preceded them to the Basin when he came to Vernal in 1909 to farm. He had been a missionary to the Southwestern States in 1898-1900, Then he married Zina Miles in 1901 and served another mission this time to Great Britain in 1903-1905. He was called to be Bishop of the Vernal second ward. Another son Reuben Ralph Wilkins was a Bishop of the Mountain Home ward in 1929-1930 following in his father's footsteps.

Tragedy strikes the family

The winter weather in the Basin can be severe and dangerous. Oscar Wilkins, the second oldest son of the family married Ella Moyle and was superintendent of the Wasatch County schools. They had a homestead in Mr. Home at the present site of Doll Lyans' farm. During the Christmas holidays, he had been in Mt. Home with his family. His wife and children were living in Mt. Home in order to keep up the assessment on the homestead. He had decided to return to Peoa in spite of the bad weather because of his job with the school district in Summit County.

A few days after he had left, his father Oscar sent a letter to find out if he had made the journey safely. At that time, there were few phones and when it became evident that he had never reached Peoa, a search party was organized. One group started at Peoa and another at Mt. Home and traveled the same trail Oscar had used. Seven miles east of the Stewart's Ranch the groups met. In between them was a great mountain of snow covering the trail. It was concluded that he must be trapped in the snow slide. The group began excavation of the slide to locate the body or sight of the team and sled. Tunnels were dug in all directions, straight down and from the edges, but the snow was so deep they had no success. Finally, the men had decided that it was useless to tunnel any further and the next morning they were going to abandon the search and wait until spring.

During the following night George, a brother of the victim arose several times to pray that they would be shown a way to locate his trapped brother. Eventually, George was shown a dream in which he saw his brother come to a snow slide. He saw him decide to hook the horses on the back of the sled in an effort to pull out of the drifts. He was shown the exact time when the huge slide came down and covered Oscar and his team. The next morning George told the men what he had seen and directed them to the spot where they began to dig. Soon they reached the body and found the team hooked on the back of the sled. Oscar's watch crystal had been shattered and the watch was stopped at the exact time that George had said in describing his dream. His wife Ella was grief stricken and in shock. She was unable to cry throughout the entire ordeal and she died soon after her husband.(8)

Years of service in the LDS church and the community

Oscar was a faithful and consistent member of the LDS church from the time of his baptism at age 13 in England until his death at age 79 in the Uintah Basin in Utah. He was ordained an Elder Oct 17, 1870 at the time of his marriage in the Endowment house to Elizabeth Durrah. On Aug 5, 1901 he was set apart as second counselor in the High Priest's quorum of the Summit Stake to Ward Pack and ordained a High Priest by Joseph F. Smith in 1901. He also served as a Sunday school teacher, Superintendent of the Peoa Sunday School, President of the Ward YMMIA, counselor in the presidency of an Elders Quorum, Ward teacher, home missionary, etc.(3)

In Peoa Oscar had served his fellow-citizens as a justice of the peace, school trustee and road supervisor. His occupation was a farmer, stock raiser and merchant. He also served in the Territorial cavalry during the Indian troubles in the early days.(3) After he moved to the Uintah Basin, he was ordained a Bishop of the Third ward in Roosevelt Stake. He was sustained as Bishop of the newly created Boneta Ward in Dec 1910 until 1913. The ward was created from a division of the Roosevelt and Theodore (Duchesne) wards. He was ordained a Bishop for Mt. Home Ward on Sept 10, 1911 by Francis M. Lyman. In Sept 1913, the north side of Boneta Ward was separated to form the Mountain Home Ward and Oscar Wilkins served as Bishop of that ward from 1913 to 1920.(1 ) So he served 10 years as a Bishop then when the Duchesne Stake was organized, Oscar was chosen a high counselor. He was made a Patriarch of that stake in 1921(2) and held this position until his death in 1930.

Elizabeth Durrah Wilkins was also active in the church and in the community in Peoa and in the Uintah Basin. She was set apart to be a midwife by Stake President Smart in the Uintah Basin and she delivered many babies throughout the Basin while also giving birth to 12 children of her own. She listed the number as 265. During this time, the midwife moved in with the family after the birth of the baby for at least 10 days which was the length of confinement for the new mother. The pay in those days was always minor as people had so little material wealth in those days. She delivered her last baby March 9, 1933 at age 84.(2) She was also a nurse for all illnesses in the community. With no hospitals or doctors closer than Vernal or Heber City which was 50 to 100 miles away, she even made medicine from natural herbs such as hops, golden seal, sulphur, peppermint, raspberry leaves, cayenne pepper, ginger root and more. Some homemade remedies that helped with influenza and canker among many other things. She had two strengths, one stronger than the other for adults. (5) She was truly an angel of mercy to hundreds of people who praised her name. Many times she would grab her little black bag and go on a minute's notice, often sitting in the bottom of the wagon. She would say to the driver, "I dare to ride as fast as you dare to drive." She took food and clothing from her own home when it was not found in the home of the patient. She was truly a great lady and a friend to all who knew her. (9) She delivered babies for all of her own girls.

Oscar died June 11, 1930 at Mt. Home and Elizabeth died Jun 9. 1937. He was 79 years old. She lived 7 more years after his death until she was 85 years old when she died. They both lived long active and very productive lives. Firm in their testimonies of the restored gospel till the end of their lives. Both are buried at the Boneta Cemetery near Mt. Home. Let us not forget the example of their lives of service to their family, church and communities they lived in.

Bibliography and Footnotes

(1) History of Duchesne County by John Barton, Utah Sesquicentennial Project, 1997-8, p. 193
(2) A news article of unknown source dated Feb 24 found in card catalog of DUP under Oscar Wilkins also a photo of Elizabeth Durrah Wilkins in DUP Museum in SLC
(3) Latter-Day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia by Andrew Jenson, vol 2 p. 738 "Oscar Wilkins" (has a photo of him also)
(4) Notes from taped interview with Mildred Stevens Vernon (grand daughter of Oscar Wilkins, daughter of Clara Ellen Wilkins Stevens) and her daughter Bonnie Vernon Williams in 1974 in Milford, Utah transcribed by Lin Floyd.
(5) History of Oscar Wilkins and Elizabeth Durrah (Maxwell) by Ella Durfee with help of George Wilkins, her father and Elizabeth Durrah Wilkins, her grandmother and Oscar Wilkins Family by Ella Wilkins Durphy and Bernice Miles Atwood.. (Used extensively throughout this history)
(6) Church Emigration 1864 Captain Wm. Hyde's Company (see also Journal History of Church Oct 26, 1864, p. 3-9 and Deseret News Weekly of Oct 19, 1864 for a roster of company-Deseret News Weekly Vol 14, p. 18 and see also Journal History Sept 2, 14, Oct 19, 25, 26 & Nov. 2, see also John Lyman Smith in Company f98-diary into end of Aug 64 msd 2072fd5 start Sept 64 all located at LDS Church Archives in SLC.
(7) Handcarts to Zion by LeRoy Hafen, p. 71-79, 250-215 taken from Kate B. Carter (compiler) Heart Throbs of the West, SLC: DUP, 1944, VI, p. 359 also used the Bermingham diary.
(8) "Snowslide" told by Edgar and Rue Miles, story of death of Oscar Wilkins Jr.
(9) Pioneer, Women of Faith and Fortitude by DUP, vol. 4, p. 3372 "Elizabeth Durrah Maxwell Wilkins"
(10) Copy of "Patriarchal Blessing-Oscar Wilkins" from Church Archives, SLC, Ut. No. 22 Peoa Summit Co, Oct 23 1887

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