Jane Manning James Walks 800 Miles Barefoot To Nauvoo
Jane tells Joseph Smith about prejudice, trials and miracles as she took her family from Connecticut to Illinois.
Jane Elizabeth Manning James, the daughter of Isaac and Eliza Manning, was born a free black woman in Wilton, Connecticut, sometime between 1810 and 1825. She and her family worked as servants, but not slaves, for a wealthy Connecticut farmer. Having previously attended a Presbyterian Church, she accepted the restored gospel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was baptized a member after being taught by LDS Church missionary, Charles Wandell and his companion. Other members of her family joined as well.
Jane decided to join with a larger group of recent converts who were departing from Connecticut to join with the main body of the church in Nauvoo, Illinois. She was joined by eight other members of her family: her son, Sylvester; her mother, Eliza; her brothers, Isaac and Peter; her sisters, Angeline and Sarah; Sarah’s husband, Anthony Stebbings; and her sister-in-law, Lucinda Manning.
The caravan of new LDS Church members traveled from Wilton, Connecticut, to Buffalo, New York to catch a boat to Nauvoo. However, Jane and her family found themselves separated from the larger group of Mormons they were traveling with when boat authorities refused to let them board the vessel because they were black. Undaunted and undeterred, Jane led her family and began walking the eight hundred miles to Nauvoo, Illinois.
Jane said, “We walked until our shoes were worn out, and our feet became sore and cracked open and bled until you could see the whole print of our feet with blood on the ground. We stopped and united in prayer to the Lord, we asked God the Eternal Father to heal our feet and our prayers were answered and our feet were healed forthwith.”
When Jane and her group reached Peoria, Illinois, about 125 miles away from Nauvoo, Jane and her family were detained by local police, who demanded to see the Jane and her family’s “free papers”, proving that they were not runaway slaves otherwise they would be thrown in jail. At length, Jane was finally able to convince the authorities that she and her family had never been slaves and therefore didn’t require papers. Frightened but determined, they were then allowed to continue on their way.
Later down the road their trip was deterred again by a deep, cold river. They looked down both sides but didn’t see a bridge or crossing. Jane and her family forded the river by walking through it. The cold streaming water came up to their necks. They wet, cold, frightened and hungry, the family continued battling the elements on their walk to Nauvoo. Sometimes they were able to take shelter in a cabin, otherwise they slept outside in the snow. Jane recounted later how faith was what sustained them on their arduous journey. She said, “We went on our way rejoicing, singing hymns, and thanking God for his infinite goodness and mercy to us, in blessing us … protecting us … and healing our feet.”
As they approached La Harpe, Illinois, their faith was exercised and rewarded as they prayed for a sick baby and it was healed. It was a thrilling experience and gave them the energy and drive to finish the last leg of the journey to Nauvoo.
Considering the reception Jane Manning and her group received in Buffalo and Peoria, they were likely unsure and uneasy about how they would be received in Nauvoo. After arriving to the city, they met Orson Spencer who was kind to them and directed them straight to the home of the prophet, Joseph Smith.
As Jane and her followers neared Joseph’s home, they saw a tall, dark-haired woman standing in the doorway. The woman, Emma Smith, welcomed them with a smiling, “Come in, come in” and took the travel-worn group into her home and to the room where Joseph, John Bernhisel and others were talking. Joseph greeted them warmly and placed extra chairs around the room for his new guests, and for Emma, John Bernhisel, and other members of the household. After a round of introductions, Joseph Smith took the chair next to Jane.
Joseph said to Jane, “You have been the head of this little band, haven’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” answered Jane.
“God bless you! Now I would like you to relate your experience in your travels.” The Prophet sat back to listen.
Joseph Smith and the others listened attentively as Jane finished her story of walking barefoot 800 miles and all the trials and blessings they experienced. Joseph then turned to John Bernhisel and remarked “What do you think of that, Doctor?” he said, slapping John’s knee. “Isn’t that faith?”
“Well, I rather think it is,” John replied. “If it had … been me I fear I should have backed out and returned to my home.”
Joseph Smith turned again to Jane and her family, a group that had been rejected, harassed detained and harangued and said, “God bless you. You are among friends; now you will be protected.”
Within two weeks of arriving in Nauvoo, every member of her family had secured employment and a home. Jane was given a job in Joseph Smith’s household and lived with him and Emma until Joseph’s martyrdom the following year. Of Joseph Smith, she said he was “the finest man I ever saw on earth. … He was a fine, big, noble, beautiful man! … When he was killed, I liked to a died myself.”
After the Prophet was martyred in the Carthage Jail in Carthage, Illinois, she went to live in the home of Brigham Young. It was there that she met and married Isaac James, a native of New Jersey, who had converted to Mormonism in 1839 at the age of 19. After they were married, the couple left for the Utah territory. In 1846, Jane gave birth to her second son while at Winter Quarters, Nebraska. Isaac and Jane Manning James and their sons Sylvester and Silas were the first free blacks to settle in Utah. They immigrated with the Ira Eldredge Company, and arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on 19 September 19 1847. In the spring of 1848, Isaac and Jane became the parents of Mary Ann.
Throughout her life, Jane retained her sense of personal worth and dignity. The difficulties of life never changed her open commitments to the gospel. Toward the end of her life, though almost blind and crippled by a fall, she said:
“I want to say right here, that my faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, as taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is as strong today, nay, it is if possible stronger than it was the day I was first baptized. I pay my tithes and offerings, keep the word of wisdom, I go to bed early and rise early, I try in my feeble way to set a good example to all.”
When Jane Elizabeth Manning James died in 1908, President Joseph F. Smith was one of the Church authorities who spoke at her funeral.
“Biography of Jane Elizabeth Manning James.” Dictated by Jane later in her life, it contains a few errors, e.g., the year Jane gave for her arrival in Nauvoo is 1840. Other historical evidence indicates it was late fall of 1843. Others included in her group were: her brothers, Isaac and Peter; her sisters, Angeline and Sarah; Sarah’s husband, Anthony Stebbings; and a sister-in-law, Lucinda Manning. Also with them were Jane’s small son, Sylvester, and her mother, Eliza.