The excerpt on this page is borrowed with the permission of Craig Shelley, creator of, Shelley's part
Researched and written by Craig Shelley

New Orleans.

      After a two-month voyage, the Ellen Maria approached the mouth of the Mississippi River in early April. A tug would have approached and towed the ship to New Orleans. New Orleans is located 110 miles from the Gulf of Mexico (Sonne 91). Many Mormons recorded in their journals, diaries, and histories the various sights as they approach the city between 1851 and 1853. Woodhouse in 1851 said, “The mouth of the river is said to be 20 miles wide, and is mostly filled with dense growth of large bamboo canes, common to the tropics, leaving about six narrow clear channels. The one we entered (the best one) was not more than eight to ten rods wide. For many miles our course lay between the tall line of bamboo, with no signs of solid banks.” Farther north, he saw “The first dwellings … being built on piles, and only accessible with boats. The dwellers business was oyster fishing. The largest oysters I ever saw [were] being caught there. Some of them as long as eight inches and large in proportion.”

      Just before New Orleans, Woodhouse recalls “Below New Orleans were large orange groves… They [oranges] were laying thick on the ground, also a full crop of all sizes and developments yet on the trees. Some of the Negro children threw some on board the vessel.” Baker recalls in 1851, “The houses of the planters are built in the cottage style, but large with verandas on every side, and beautiful gardens. At a little distance are the negro huts. From 30 to 50 on each plantation. They are built of wood with a veranda along the front, painted white, and mostly have either jasmine or honeysuckle growing over them. Each cottage has a large piece of garden ground attached to it in general appearance they are certainly very far superior to the cottage inhabited by the poor in England.” Baker also recalls “Groves of orange trees are very numerous; the perfume from which is very delightful, as the breeze wafts it toward us. Thousands of peach and plum trees are here growing wild and are now in full bloom.” She also recalls seeing wild geese, foxes, raccoons, and storks.

  New Orleans 1853 (Piercy).

  New Orleans docks as they looked in early 1850s (Sonne 90).

      As the ship approached the dock on April 6th, the church leaders most likely warned the Saints about the dangers of “wharf thieves, and also the danger of getting into quarrels in a land where deadly weapons were carried (Woodhouse).” Most likely, many of the Saints slept on the ship until a steamer was ready to take them up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, as they did when the Ellen Maria landed two years later (Farmer). However, the Shelleys had enough money to take a short break in the City. George Shelley states, “Here [New Orleans] they saw many strange sights and products that were new to them. Mother [Charlotte Elsmore Shelley] mentioned in particular large, red tomatoes with which the markets were stocked.” However, they may have just looked at the tomatoes. According to Piercy, Mormon emigrants were cautioned against eating meat and vegetables after the long sea voyage in New Orleans (33).

      New Orleans, the “Paris of the Bayous”, was romantic, colorful, and exciting. It had an economy based on slavery, shipping, and cotton trade (Sonne 91). Many Mormons besides the Shelleys toured New Orleans. Some even lived there until they earned enough money to complete the trip. Many Saints recorded the sites they saw. Baker in 1851 said, “The levee is … completely covered with bales of cotton and other articles of merchandise…” The wharves stretched for miles along the bank of the river (Sonne 92). Baker went on to describe the City in much detail stating, “Some [houses are] as noble in appearance as any in Regent Street [in London]. …The Custom House, churches, and theaters are splendid buildings. …The roads themselves are not kept in order as they are in London. They are not paved. Just now the weather is hot and dry so in crossing them you sink in dust up to the ankles. … The sidewalks are from 16 to 20 feet wide, and very nicely paved with flagstones. They are raised 18" above the carriage road, so that they are always clean and dry. The streets are laid out in exact squares, crossing each other at right angles. The spaces between the streets are called blocks, thus on inquiring for St. Peter Street I was told it was 5 blocks further.” Baker in her journal also described the people, “The higher class of citizens … dress very handsomely in European style …I saw slave girls following their mistresses in the streets, clad in frocks of embroidered silk or satin, and elegantly worked muslin trousers, either blue or scarlet, morocco walking shoes and white silk stockings, with a French headdress, … composed of silk with all the colors of the rainbow … jewelry glitters on their dusky fingers (which are plainly seen through their lace gloves) and in their ears. Their only business in the street seems to be to follow the ladies, who own them, and carry their reticule.” Woodhouse contrasts the residents with the Mormons when he arrived in 1851, “Every person seemed dressed in their Sunday clothes… Quite a contrast to many of our passengers from the farming districts of England, who donned their best knee breeches, tight leggings, laced up heavy nailed boots, smock frocks… to go onshore.”

      New Orleans, being in the south, was entrenched in slavery. This was a new experience for the Mormons passing through. Many of them commented about it. In 1851, Woodhouse recalls, “A row of Negro women with arms around each other, proceeded by a dealer, who was offering them for sale in the street, seemed strange to us. They seemed careless and cheerful.” In the same year, Baker recalls, “I also visited the female slave market … It is a large hall, well lighted with seats all around on which were girls of every shade of color from 10 to 30 … they were singing as merrily as larks.” Baker also stated that she couldn’t enter the male slave market because only men were allowed in.

      There were many unsanitary conditions in New Orleans. Mosquitoes spread disease. Epidemics of Cholera and yellow fever took their toll. “In brief, New Orleans was a city of many facets – a cultural oasis, a thriving business capital, and a pesthole” (Sonne 92).

Taking Steamboat Up Mississippi.

      Within a couple days of anchoring at New Orleans, the US Customs officers would have come on board the Ellen Maria to examine the people and the luggage (Grimshaw; Farmer). A Church leader in the meantime arranged passage for most of the Saints up the Mississippi on a steamboat called the Alexander Scott, one of the largest steamboats on the river. The Alexander Scott was a popular Mississippi steamboat in the 1840s (Sonne 96). It was built in 1842. Its dimensions were 230’x28’x7.8’ (Sonne 171). According to Sonne, “This fine side-wheeler [Alexander Scott] had only one deck, a transom stern, a cabin above a plain head, and plied the Mississippi for about twelve years before being dismantled – as indicated in her registrations. In 1851 Mormons paid $2.50 for each adult, including all baggage, and half fare for children (Sonne 96-97).” Cummings booked the Scott the same season for another group. He said: “ I would recommend the “Alex Scott” as a good, commodious, and safe boat, commanded by a good captain of the name of Swan. I am persuaded there is no better nor safer boat on the river.”

      Baker describes her steamboat, the Concordia, in detail. The Scott was probably somewhat similar. She said, “It is flat bottomed …The engines and boilers are on the deck, the stokehole quite open on each side and the firemen have an interrupted view of the country. The head of the vessel is pointed the stern circular. There is a clear passage of 8 feet in width all around the boat, except where it is stopped by the paddle boxes, and those have good steps both up and down. From this which is called the lower deck you ascend by a handsome flight of steps to what is called the hurricane deck, which is an open gallery 5 feet wide, entirely round the vessel with a low railing next [to] the water and roofed overhead. There are chairs here for the accommodation of the passengers. On the inner side of this gallery is a row of cabins with two doors each, one opening onto the gallery the other into the saloon, which is 105' in length by 30' in width. Here the cabin passengers dine. The ladies cabin …is splendidly furnished with sofas, rocking chairs, work tables and a piano. The floor, as well as the saloon is covered with Brussels carpeting. There is also a smoke room for the gentlemen, opening out of the saloon forward, into which are card tables, etc., and in front of this there is a large open space. The whole width of the ship roofed over like the gallery and furnished with seats. From this is another staircase, ascending to the upper deck, on which are built several neat cabins for the officers. The one forward encloses the steering wheel. Here stands the pilot completely secured from wind and weather; to the wheel two ropes are attached which are conveyed downward to the lower deck. Each rope is then fixed to a lever which works the rudder. The whole arrangement is very simple and the elevated position of the pilot (40 feet above the lower deck) enables him to see and avoid any collision with snags, which are pretty plentiful still, though the government has done much toward clearing them away, by sending out what they call snag-boats with men in them, to either drag away the snags by force, or let them float off; or by sending down divers to cut them off close to the mud. I do not know whether you know what I mean by snags and sawyers. A snag is a large tree which has either been uprooted by a hurricane or loosened by an inundation and at last been blown into the river. The heaviest part, of course, sinks to the bottom and it becomes fixed in the mud, generally in a nearly upright position and as the foliage decays, the naked trunk remains above the surface of the water. A sawyer is the same thing, with the exception that the top of the tree is below the surface, and of course more dangerous, and steamboats coming in contact with them are likely to have a hole knocked in the bottom in a moment. They then generally sink at once. Scores of steamboats have been lost in this manner. However I have run away from the upper deck, which is not a very pleasant place except in cloudy weather, and you are seated at an elevation of 40 feet from the river, although, on a moonlight night the view is delightful, at least to such an admirer of wild scenery as I am. The tops of the two funnels are 10 feet higher. They are placed forward and when there is a headwind, the upper deck is covered with hot cinders. They burn wood, not coal, and when the steam gets low, or they want to pass a steamer in advance of them, the firemen throw on rosin by shovelfuls.”

      Baker was a wealthy Mormon. Wilson describes a similar but somewhat different steamboat for the lower class passengers, “The steamboats on the river are huge monsters resembling old castles, having good saloon or dining rooms and are very commodious - that is providing you have plenty of money, but [steerage] passengers who are not overly stocked with this commodity must be satisfied with a pallet or a straw mattress laid upon a rack… Yuma prison beds [where he was later in prison for polygamy] are at least a class higher than what I had on the St. Paul.” He also describes vividly how slaves were used to provide the firewood for the boilers, “In those days wood was used for fuel for the steamboats and it was niggers who entirely done the loading of the wood and they worked constant and earnestly, often singing as they marched in single file over the plank to deliver their heavy loads of wood from their shoulders -- being the first men I ever beheld in slavery, who had no liberty, but just to do as they were told or have a raw hide applied to their almost bare backs …”

Drowning of Elizabeth.

      The Shelley family departed New Orleans for St. Louis on April 9th. Wilson describes the Mississippi in 1852 during the same season as: “It is very circuitous, turbid and deep, its current generally is sluggish and some places a mile wide and it has many whirlpools and in some of them it seems as if a small boat would be sucked in.” It was in this murky water near Memphis Tennessee that Elizabeth [Bray] Shelley accidentally fell and drowned. According to Watt, Elizabeth [Bray] Shelley fell into the river on the 14th (Thomas Shelley states the 13th in his “diary” but it probably wasn’t written at the time and is most likely wrong). Watt states, “… in attempting to draw a bucket of water from the stream, while the boat was running ten miles an hour, was suddenly plucked into the water by the force of that mighty current. She floated for a moment, and then sank to rise no more. The engines were stopped immediately, and a boat manned and sent in search of her, but it was unsuccessful in obtaining the body.” Earl states that, “Afterward the body was found and Grandfather Shelley sent the money back for her burial.” Although this could be correct, the location of her grave is not known. It also states in many other biographical sketches the body was never found (although these all seem to copy the same source). It is possible that the boat stopped.

  Memphis 1853 (Piercy).

      Baker describes a similar experience where a passenger falls into the river the same year. However, the man Baker describes was an experienced riverman. She states, “The boat was stopped instantly, and every effort made to save him, but to no purpose. As he sunk he threw out his pocketbook, which was picked up by one of the men, and given into the hands of the clerk, in order to be restored to the relatives of the deceased. It contained his address and $275.00.” According to George Shelley, Elizabeth was also carrying a great amount of money. He states, “Grandfather Shelley had a considerable sum of money when he left England. The purse containing the money was intrusted to the care of Grandmother who secreted it on her person where it remained until the morning of the tragic accident when she turned it over to Grandfather with the request that he take care of it.”

      To the naïve person, it would appear to be easy to get out of the slow moving Mississippi River. According to Piercy, who wrote his book on pioneer emigration just two years later in 1853, “Women should be careful not to attempt to draw water from the river in buckets. The current is so rapid, that when added to the speed of the steamer through it, it requires the strength of a man to procure the water with safety. Many lives have been lost in this way, which should be a sufficient warning to those who still purpose to ascend these rivers. In most of the boats there are pumps fixed, so that there is seldom any real necessity for drawing water by hand.” Sonne stated that drownings were not unusual (96-97). Kimball (BYU Studies 12) suggests that Elizabeth’s heavy water-soaked skirts drew her under the water.

Riverboat Experiences.

      Theft was quite a concern for the Saints. Farmer relates the following from his trip in 1853, “This evening Elder Kendall desired me to appoint the watch for the night as there was a very unruly crew and things had been taken the night before so it was thought prudent to have a strong watch. We appointed 8 of us …” Later in his journal he states “…before we came to Memphis when they tried to make some more confusion. One of them began to cry and shout so as to alarm all the passengers. I desired all the brethren to keep to their posts for I could see it was a plan made to get us together while the rest stole something. But this they could not do. Brother Wilson informed the mate of their proceedings and when we arrived at Memphis this man was put on shore.” But the attempted theft continued. Farmer recalls, “This evening it was thought wise to have a stronger watch so I appointed 18 men to watch over all the luggage inside and those that were on deck as there were some very suspicious men on board. One man was noticed to try to get under the berths and at other times his mates would try to get all they could.”

      The steamboat would occasionally stop for wood to fuel the boiler. It also stopped at towns or villages where the Saints would buy bread or other food (Farmer).

St. Louis.

  St. Louis 1853 (Piercy).

      On April 16th the Scott arrived at St. Louis. Baker described the food markets available in St. Louis in 1851 as “…extremely good. They open at 4 o'clock every morning except Sunday. All kinds of meat, poultry and fish are very cheap. The fresh meat is good, but not so large and fat as in the English markets. Vegetables and fruits are abundant, and of great variety. Groceries, wines, and spirits are very cheap.” She went on to describe where the Saints met too, “The Mormons have six meeting rooms. They have also the use of the Concert Hall in Market Street on Sunday, which holds three thousand persons, and I could but feel amazed to see that spacious room filled to overflowing and the staircase and lobby crowded with those who could not get inside. They have an orchestral band, and a good choir, ten of whom are trebles.”

      According to Kimball (490), the residents of Saint Louis were generally tolerant of Mormons except for many excommunicated Mormons who lived in the city. Near the time the Shelley family arrived, a local newspaper, the Missouri Republican, published on May 8th, “…Mormon emigrants from England …whose funds generally become exhausted by the time they reach [St. Louis], generally stop here for several months, and not infrequently remain among us for a year or two pending the resumption of their journey to Salt Lake … There are at this time in St. Louis about three thousand English Mormons … they attend divine services twice each Sunday at Concert Hall…We hear frequently of Mormon balls and parties, and Concert Hall was on several occasions filled with persons gathered to witness Mormon theatrical performances (Kimball 509).”

      A disadvantage of being near the Mississippi were the rampant insects and spiders the pioneers experienced. According to Stegner, mayflies stunk up the summer backwaters and chiggers left ankles red, swollen, and itching (101, 229). While on a family trip in the summer of 2002, my three younger children experienced abundant mayflies, that made a tour of a steamboat in Keokuk less pleasant and we heard about chiggers biting the ankle of a girl in our nearby campground.

Robert Campbell, a Side-wheeler, to Kanesville.

      According to George Shelley, “Upon reaching St. Louis, the Shelley family with the exception of William and his wife and four children, purchased mules and wagons together with the necessary supplies and started across the plains …” This is probably wrong. St. Louis was not a starting point for Mormon emigration. Although it would have been possible, according to Sonne the Mormons from the Ellen Maria arrived at Kanesville aboard the side-wheeler Robert Campbell on May 21st (103). Clark states that the water was high enough to proceed up the Missouri on the 13th, just three days before the Shelley family arrived at St. Louis. Crook recalls his group leaving about this time, “…started for Kanesville … Fare five dollars per person. Twenty days on the road, on sandbar three days, very cold, river very low. Had to back down many times. Great amount of snags to be seen. Landed all safe May 2nd.” Dunn recalls his group leaving on the 12th with 225 passengers.


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