Finding strength in my ancestors: John Toone
“When individuals and families search out their ancestors’ inspiring actions and words, they will receive strength and direction for their own lives.”
Like Elder Oaks, I have found that to be true in my life as well.
I’d like to share the life story of one ancestor whose life continues to inspire and strengthen me.
His name is John Toone. He was born April 10, 1813, in Birmingham, Warwickshire, England, the oldest of 14 children. His father was a prominent architect and contractor/builder, which afforded John the opportunity to receive a good education. According to various family histories, he was educated in the fields of law, medicine and music. He must have had a special talent for music because he played the violin and cello. Family histories compiled by his descendants say he was a royal musician for Queen Victoria.
John married Emma Prosser in 1836 and immediately started their family. Over the next 10 years Emma would give birth to five children, although sadly two died under the age of two.
This next part is one that means a great deal to me. At some point in the mid 1840s, John met the Mormon missionaries and learned about the restoration of the gospel. Spiritually, he was “fully convinced of the truth of their doctrines.” But the thought of leaving the Methodist church and perhaps other loyalties for this new faith troubled him. He wrestled with the decision to get baptized for about five years. Finally, he decided to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) and was baptized in Leamington by Elder Alfred Cordon on April 3, 1849.
While being confirmed a member of the church, Elder Cordon told John “in the name of the Lord that he would be called to do a mighty work in this the last dispensation … that his family would embrace the Gospel and be blest upon the land of Zion.” A short time later, John was ordained an elder, appointed clerk of the Warwickshire Conference and called as president of the Leamington Branch.
Elder Cordon also taught and baptized members of the Prosser family, including Emma, on July 9, 1949.
When Elder Cordon was released from his mission in Sept. 1850, John and the other saints were sad to see him go. This is part of a tribute written and spoken to Elder Cordon by John Toone:
“You are a blessed man in being a messenger of truth and righteousness, as thousands yet will testify in your behalf, for in due time and course all things transpire aright. When we reflect upon the lonely situation in which you found us, and the wonderful things that have transpired, in this, so short time of our acquaintance, we with reluctance say, go home dear Alfred, to the bosom of thy family, but this event will cause the breaking forth of many a tear. … Dear Alfred, the Saints in Warwickshire will feel your loss at present, but we despair not, for we know in whom we have believed, that he is able to defend his own whatever power opposes, and we testify to all around, that we have found the church and kingdom of the living God. And without doubt, we certify, for our eyes have seen, our ears have heard, and our hands have handled the word of life.”
John, Emma and their children sailed from Liverpool to America on the ship, Ellen Maria. Two weeks out, tragedy struck when their baby girl, less than three months old, became sick and died. She was buried at sea.
The Toones arrived in New Orleans on April 6, 1851, and eventually traveled to western Iowa. They embarked on their pioneer adventure with the Thomas Howell Company in June 1852.
There wasn’t a lot of space in the ox-drawn covered wagon, but John saved room for his cello. It turned out to be a blessing, according to Thomas Condie, another member of the company. Condie recorded that “on one occasion in Wyoming, the Sioux Indians, painted-up, came into camp. Brother John Toone had a fiddle (cell0) and [led the Saints in singing] ‘Oh Stop and Tell Me Red Man …’ This so charmed the Indians that they departed in peace.”
The Toones arrived in Salt Lake City in September and acquired property in the 20th Ward at 2nd Ave. and D Street, where John built a comfortable adobe home. John also assisted in constructing the Social Hall, one of the first musical venues in the city, and later performed there.
Less than two years after the Toones started their new life in the Salt Lake Valley, John was called on his first mission to England. He kept a journal of this mission and often records that struggled with poor health, but managed to carry on with his missionary duties. He served in many capacities, including president of the Land’s End Conference. John also attempted to share the gospel with his family, but they were not interested in his new faith. According to one family history, they loved him and wished him well. They even allowed him to stay in their home when he was in the area. I can’t help but wonder what his parents, John Toone and Elizabeth Masters Reading, thought of their oldest son joining the church and taking his family to America, then returning as a missionary? I hope they admired his devotion to this faith. I want to think they were curious as to why he was so dedicated and willing to sacrifice for the gospel’s sake. Did they want to know more or did they even give the church a second thought? I want to ask them about this when I get to heaven.
As I read John’s journal, two parts stood out. The first involved a series of entries where John talks about Elizabeth (aka Betsy), Emma’s little sister. In an entry dated July 31, 1855, John gave her a Priesthood blessing shortly before she died. Before he left, John testified boldly of the gospel to her family, which angered his father-in-law.
Liz Thomas, a distant cousin, has studied Elizabeth Prosser’s life and even visited her grave in the Peterchurch, Herefordshire, churchyard. There are still several unanswered questions about Betsy, Thomas recently told me.
“Whatever her story, she died too young and it’s a sad chapter of the family history. John’s experience visiting the Prossers on his mission shows how unpopular his and Emma’s decision was to join the church,” Thomas said. “Emma was practically disowned because she didn’t show up on family trees in England when I made contact with Prosser descendants during my visit to Peterchurch in the fall of 2012. They are wonderful people though, and were very gracious and open to learning more about the missing/Mormon family member (Emma).”
The other tender entry in John’s journal came near the end of his mission when he made a visit to the graves of his two children, Emma and Hezekiah, in the Milverton Churchyard in Leamington. He wrote:
“I had some few thoughts, how far their mother was from them. Shall I see them again? Shall I know them? Something says, ‘Yes, you will.'”
Due to his poor health, John was released from his mission in May 1856. He sailed to America on the ship Horizon with a group of Saints that would later be known as the Martin Handcart Company. He served as clerk aboard the ship, sub-captain on the trail, and attended meetings with Captain Edward Martin and other leaders.
The story of the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies is well known. John was at the well-documented meeting when the company voted to go on despite the lateness of the season. A combination of early winter snowstorms and starvation hammered the pioneers as they crossed the high plains of Wyoming, resulting in the loss of many lives. A rescue party from Salt Lake City eventually found the company and helped them reach Salt Lake City by late November. Considering how sick John was on his mission, along with the starvation and dreadful conditions the pioneers endured on their journey, it’s amazing to me that he survived to reach Salt Lake Valley.
Thomas believes John kept a journal of his handcart experiences but such a record has yet to be found.
From the trials of the Martin Company emerged new beginnings in plural marriage. While on his mission, John met an English schoolteacher named Hannah Wardle of Hockley Heath, Warwickshire, England. He helped her cross the plains and married her on Feb. 1, 1857.
Another British convert, Jemima Cook, of Devonport, Devonshire, England, had joined the church against her family’s wishes and traveled with the Martin Company. When the company reached Devil’s Gate, Wyo., the story goes that John carried Jemima across the frigid river full of floating ice chunks. He also helped push her handcart. He married Jemima, his third wife, less than a month after Hannah on Feb. 22. Jemima had a talent for making suits and is said to have made suits for several church leaders.
How did Emma take the news of John’s two new wives? I imagine she wasn’t thrilled, especially after his long absence while she cared for the children. However, she probably made the sacrifice to support him because he was a good man and did what church leaders had asked them to do. That is another interview topic I hope to address in heaven.
The Toone family moved south to Payson, Utah, amid the threat of federal troops during the Utah War of 1857-58. It was there in 1858 that Hannah died while giving birth to premature twins. Sadly, both babies died as well.
John and Emma had a total of eight children; Jemima had a total of seven children.
The Toones returned to Salt Lake City later in 1858. John helped with the interior finish work and decoration of the Salt Lake Theater. He later played the cello and viola there in Salt Lake City’s first orchestra. John was also a member of the Mineer Band, a popular group that played dances, weddings and other events along the Wasatch Front. He built the first 20th Ward schoolhouse on property near his home. Today, a large monument at the corner of D Street and 2nd North stands as a tribute to John’s efforts.
In April 1869, John was called on a second mission to England where he served as President of the Warwickshire Conference. This time he traveled across the the country on the newly completed transcontinental railroad. In contrast to previous trips that lasted months, he wrote that his 20-day journey to Liverpool that year was “one of the most pleasurable of his life.”
“Compare our present journey with our former traveling by oxen and handcarts and we can’t thank God and shout Hallelujah!”
John returned to Utah in late October 1869.
In the early 1870s, John moved with his third wife, Jemima, and their seven children, to Croydon, Morgan County, Utah. Emma and her children remained in Salt Lake City. John traveled back and forth regularly to visit.
In 1873, his knowledge of vaccines enabled him to help save upwards of 60 lives during a local smallpox epidemic. Town doctor was one of many roles that John filled in Croydon. He also served as schoolmaster, music teacher, lawyer, justice of the peace, clerk and correspondent for the Deseret News. That last one has extra special significance for me.
One of his granddaughters, Dora Toone Brough, fondly remembered John in his later years as “tall with an abundance of curly, snowy white hair and a long white beard.”
“He used a walking stick and his little white dog, Tiny, always accompanied him when he visited at our house. He talked about interesting things, places and people, and sang songs while we smaller children sat and listened intently,” she wrote in a family history. “He was a grand old man.”
John Toone passed away on August 3, 1893, at the age of 80, and was buried in the Croydon Cemetery.
He had a large posterity, was “much respected” and died “a firm believer in the gospel.” His testimony, from a letter written in 1850 after his baptism, continues to inspire: “We know in whom we have believed, that he is able to defend his own whatever powers oppose, and we testify to all around, that we have found the Church and Kingdom of the Living God.”
One more cool story. After John died, his cello remained in Croydon, stored in a descendant’s barn. It appears to have remained there for almost a century. A crack on the cello’s face is said to have been delivered by the kick of a horse. Few in the family were aware it still existed.
John Toone descendant Kayson Brown didn’t know of his ancestor’s musical gift when he started playing the cello in fifth grade. Later on as a college student, he learned about John and his cello. He looked up Toones in the phone book and called around until he found it. It was repaired and restored. Since then, Brown has performed at several events and gatherings, with the pioneer theme “Come, Come, Ye Saints” being a favorite. Here is a YouTube video of Brown playing the cello.
“For the first time, I’ve felt connected to an ancestor,” Brown said in a 2006 newspaper article.
Since writing this article for the Deseret News, I have been able to connect with many John Toone descendants. The most recent was a woman who saw the article in England. I hope to continue learning and connecting with ancestors like John Toone in order to find additional strength and inspiration along the road of life.
Editor’s note: Liz Thomas contributed greatly to this report.