All of us in the United States are descendants of those people who left their ancestral homeland for a fresh start to a new land. It never could have been an easy decision to uproot your family and travel thousand of miles across unknown waters and landscapes for an even more uncertain life. Each person and family that made that journey has a unique story that should be remembered and shared with their descendants to demonstrate the strength of character and determination to make a fresh start.
An example of just such a family to leave their homeland and face the unknown was the George and Hannah May family of Berkshire County, England. With a long family lineage dating back to at least the mid-1600s in the Berkshire region, west of London, the May family had very deep roots working the land as farmers and shepherds. George May, the son of James and Martha May, was born June 20, 1807 in Chieveley, Berkshire County. He married Hannah Hobson on April 4, 1831, whose family line also dated back for decades in Berkshire.
Over the next few years the George May family grew with the birth of five sons; Thomas, Richard, William, Joseph (died as an infant) and James and three daughters; Elizabeth, Harriet and Emily. It was a hard and difficult life as George worked as a shepherd and a farm laborer to support his family. When the sons were capable, they too labored to bring extra money into the family.
Finding strength in their faith, George May was a Methodist. However, that changed in 1848 when he was introduced to Mormonism. What the father supported, so did his wife and children. The Mormon religion was finding a growing group of followers, especially those that wanted to set up their own religious community in territories of the United States. The May family were told in late 1851 of a large group of Mormons from England who were moving permanently to the far western territory in America and they could join the group if they promised to labor for the community for 3 ½ years. Their passage and supplies were funded by the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company.
With such an offer of a better life, the George May family of nine individuals immigrated on January 10, 1852 sailing on the ship Kennebec from the Bramley-Moore dock at Liverpool, England. On this 1,070 ton sailing ship were 333 Mormons all seeking a new life. It was a rough voyage across the Atlantic Ocean for people who had never been to sea. The journey took a little better than two months, arriving south the port of New Orleans, Louisiana. Besides dealing with the rough seas the travelers ran out of food and clean water.
The determination of the May family was demonstrated by oldest son, James May, who was born June 1, 1832, doing without food just so his younger siblings had some morsels of food. Before they could get to the next travel route of the Mississippi River, their ship, Kennebec got stuck in the delta mud. For ten days they were stranded on the ship until three large steam tugboats were finally able to pull the sailing ship free of the mud and were transported to New Orleans on the tugs.
The immigrates were then able to change to the steamboat Pride of the West to travel the Mississippi River. They made their way up to St. Louis, Missouri and then transferred to the side-wheeler steamer S. S. Saluda to travel the Missouri River. New supplies were taken on by the families to make the rest of the trip to Iowa as they traveled on the Missouri River. They covered about two hundred miles when George May, his son, James and several others at the stop of Brunswick, Missouri disembarked from the side-wheeler to take the overland route to Council Bluffs, Iowa so they could purchase and then drive cattle to the settlement. The rest of George’s family, including wife, Hannah, three daughters and three sons remained on the steamer S. S. Saluda to travel to Winter Quarters at Council Bluffs.
Tragedy struck the immigrants at Lexington, Missouri on April 9, 1852 when the steamer experienced a sudden explosion. There was ice in the river and the S. S. Saluda had waited three days at Lexington in hopes of clearer travel. The captain of the Saluda grew impatient and ordered the boiler to be started at full speed. It pulled away from the dock at 7:30 a.m. and within minutes, the boiler overheated and exploded which resulted in a hundred people's death out of about 175 total passengers. The May family survived with only minor injuries and loss of their personal goods. Harriet May's left foot was injured and it was Elizabeth May who managed to save as much as possible of the few family possessions. Another riverboat came by later and offered to take any surviving passengers onto Council Bluffs. The whole May family met up in mid-June 1852 at Council Bluffs, Iowa which was across the Missouri River from Winter Quarters, Nebraska.
As was the case in several encampments, diseases were a constant problem due to poor sanitation. At Council Bluffs, across from the Winter Quarters, a huge Cholera epidemic struck the area as the May family arrived, causing the death of its victims within hours. The patriarch, George May was the first to succumb to the disease when he died on June 23rd. The two daughters, Emily and Elizabeth, both died on June 27th. With the first of July the remaining May family members and others transferred to the ferry on the Big River. This was where the youngest son, William died on July 2nd. The matriarch, Hannah May tried her best to hang on her for children, but she died on July 4 as they crossed the river. They could only wrap her in a cloth and bury her along the shoreline, no coffin was available.
Only remaining May family members were James, Thomas, Richard and Harriet. They were now orphans and had to set out over 1,000 miles being led by Elder Eli B. Kelsey to Utah. Also, traveling with the May family was Henry Ballard from England along with about a hundred surviving Mormons. James May was age 20 and walked most of the distance while driving teams of oxen and cows. The travelers reached their goal of the valley of the Great Salt Lake after 3 ½ months arriving on October 14, 1852.
What had started out as a family of nine individuals' quest for a new life for all, had just four remaining members to try to achieve what George and Hannah May had envisioned. That is exactly what they did in the years that followed; built a new life, community and remained true to the Mormon religion.
Researched and written by Alice Luckhardt. Read more about genealogist Alice Luckhardt.