Before the coming of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, approximately 80,000 Saints traveled to the Salt Lake Valley within a 22 year period beginning in 1847. Nearly all made the trek in ox-driven wagons, on horseback, pulling handcarts, or on foot. These hardy souls are considered the Utah Pioneers. Most traveled in companies with other emigrants, normally consisting of around 150 men, women, and children. At the age of only six years, Hilda Erickson was among the last of these companies, arriving in 1866.
At her passing, more than 100 years later, Hilda was the last known surviving member of this honored group to make the journey to Zion before the advent of mechanized travel. Although her life story is in many ways similar to the experiences of most of these hardy pioneers, Hilda Erickson’s attributes of hard work, independence, fortitude, and community involvement brought honor to her many years and earned her the respect of all as exemplifying the character of the typical Utah Pioneer.
Presented here is a brief sketch of her fascinating life.
Early Life and Journey to America
Hilda Anderson was born November 11, 1859 in the village of Ledsjo, Sweden. She was the youngest of five children born to Maria Kathrina Larsson and her father Pehr Anderson. Her parents, members of the Lutheran church, first learned about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1855, before Hilda was born, and were baptized members a year later.
Her family had a great desire to gather with the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley to build up the new Zion society according to Church doctrine. They were also excited about the wonderful opportunities offered in America, and struggled for 10 years to save enough to pay for passage to the new land. Faced with limited funds, it was decided to send Hilda’s mother and the youngest three children to America first while the two oldest brothers and their father would remain in Sweden to work a few more years to earn their passage.
In the spring of 1866, Maria Anderson first sailed to Denmark with Hilda and her brothers Claus and Charles. After arriving, they traveled by steamship and train to Hamburg, Germany, where they boarded a Norwegian barque (bark), chartered by the Church named the Cavour. Over 200 passengers left Hamburg on June 1, 1866, sailing down the coasts of Germany and Holland and through the English Channel, after which they saw nothing but the rolling ocean for two months. Nine passengers died en route, most due to a cholera outbreak.
Landing in New York City on July 31, they were taken by steamer ship to the railroad yards where they continued their westward journey. Being routed through Canada and St. Louis, Missouri, Hilda and her family arrived in St. Joseph, Missouri, by train, having lost another 25 of their number to cholera. Here they embarked on a steamer and traveled up the Missouri River. Before they reach Wyoming, Nebraska, another nine of their company died of cholera.
Crossing the Plains
Traveling with ox teams pulling wagons, the company left Wyoming Landing, Nebraska, on August 13, 1866, traveling along the Nebraska City Cut-off Trail to Fort Kearny, Nebraska.During the eight day’s it took to get there, another twenty-five saints died of Cholera, until cooler weather arrived. Hilda was six years old. It is not known if young Hilda ever contracted the disease, but her brother Charles suffered from it during the Atlantic crossing and didn’t fully recover until the latter part of the journey across the plains.
While crossing the plains, Hilda, being so young, was allowed to ride in the wagon most of the time, but usually walked when the wagon was going up hills.
Following the Platte River, the train of some 60 wagons led by Captain Abner Lowry, one of the many “down-and-back” wagon trains, reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in the late fall. By this time the total number of dead had reached 90. After a brief rest, they continued on, arriving in the Salt Lake Valley on October 22, 1866, the last immigrant group to arrive that season. Sometimes known as the “Cholera Train,” the Abner Lowry company suffered approximately 100 deaths.
A New Life in Utah
When they arrived in Utah, the Andersons had no place to stay and no work was available in the Salt Lake area. The friendly family of Peter Peterson invited them to stay with them in Mt. Pleasant, Sanpete County where Maria supported the family with weaving and sewing clothes. Hilda attended school there for two years, where she learned English. The family gleaned fields and hauled hay for local farmers while in Mt. Pleasant.
When her father and older brothers arrived from Sweden, the family moved to Grantsville, Tooele County. Pehr soon bought a city lot and built a “dugout” where the family lived for several years until he built a home.
Hilda continued school in Grantsville until she was 14 years old. She left school briefly to take a course in dressmaking in Salt Lake City. She became very proficient in making dresses, suits, coats, and virtually any other item of apparel. When the Grantsville band was organized, Hilda helped make their uniforms. Her brother Charles performed in the band for several years.
Through her teenage years, Hilda enjoyed dancing, horseback riding, playing cards, sleigh riding, and performing in dramatic home plays. Her journal is full of accounts of the many evening dances she attended where she usually danced nearly every dance. It was during this time she met her future husband, John August Erickson, who was also an emigrant from Sweden.
When John first asked her to marry him, she deferred, asking him to leave her for a time to consider. At 21 years old she felt she was not ready to get married. John continued to ask her, but she continued to answer that she was not ready, which was quite frustrating for him.
Hilda developed a good reputation of strong character during her youth. She was always honest and straight forward, and often times quite frank. She expected much from herself and would often promise far more than most people would. She was particular about the company she kept and wanted the best in life. She developed habits of working hard and was frugal, but not stingy. She was fiercely loyal and would defend anyone in trouble. She was known to be very intelligent and could learn quickly. She never complained, though she oftentimes would work into the early morning hours sewing coats and other apparel she had promised for people in the community. She was respected by all and many men were interested in courting her, but she remained independent.
John Erickson often came to her home for dinner and they would sometimes ride to dances together on his horse. In February 1882, Lucy Clark, a good friend of Hilda’s, told her she was getting married in Salt Lake City in a just a few days — Hilda and John decided it was time to get married also. They had to hurry so much that Hilda didn’t even have time to make a dress. They left Grantsville for Stockton where they took a train to Salt Lake City and were married February 23, 1882, in the Endowment House. They set up housekeeping in Grantsville where they lived for the first year of their marriage.
Mission to Ibapah
In 1883, John Erickson, along with Owen H. Barrus and Benjamin L. Bowen, was called by the Church to be missionaries to the Indians of the Deep Creek Valley, later known as Ibapah, in the far western border of Tooele County. The three families gathered all their furniture and provisions and made the 160 mile journey taking six days. John drove the cattle while Hilda drove the wagon.
The Ibapah area on the Utah-Nevada border features majestic mountains with bighorn sheep, mule deer, and a few cougars. The Goshute Indian Reservation is on the west side of the mountain range. A Pony Express station was located there in the 1860s and later a telegraph station was established and first run by Howard Egan, of Pony Express fame.
As soon as the mission was organized, a Sunday School was established with Hilda as secretary. It was difficult to teach the Indians the English language and the ways of the white man, as well as the principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Ericksons held meetings in their home where the men taught the gospel and the women taught the Indian women to sew, mend, weave and make gloves and many other useful things. Hilda was also able to teach some of them to read and write. The Indians soon learned that the missionaries and their families were their real friends and benefactors, and especially Hilda; they would often bring their troubles to her.
The area was sparsely settled with ranches miles apart. Hilda became the chief nurse when an expectant mother needed aid. As she developed her skills in caring for and healing the sick she became known as the local “doctor” and was credited with treating and healing almost every kind of illness, and for delivering hundreds of babies. Eventually she was sent to Salt Lake City for medical training where she received her license to practice.
While in Ibapah, Hilda gave birth to her two children, Amy (1884) and Perry (1890). With these additions to their family came new responsibilities, but they were met with zest and determination.
They remained on this mission for 15 years. In addition to teaching the Indians, Hilda sewed articles nearly every day for members of the community. She also made great amounts of butter from their many cows and sold it to the miners and sheepmen for 25¢ a pound.
In 1885 Hilda was invited to take a course in obstetrics at the Deseret Hospital in Salt Lake City. This was the first hospital sponsored by the Church’s Relief Society women’s organization and chiefly focused on women’s health. The women in Utah were among the first in the country to study and practice modern medicine. Leaving the care of her 18 month old daughter to her mother in Grantsville, Hilda completed the course and received her license within the year. She returned to Ibapah where she continued to serve the health needs of Indian women and white settlers.
Once, she receiving word that she was urgently needed in a remote location. Without any hesitancy she mounted her horse and rode 25 miles side-saddle wearing a buckskin mask to protect her face from the blowing sand over a mountain trail — to the suffering woman’s relief. Another time she answered a call at midnight and drove a team and buggy many miles alone over a mountain road to assist a mother in childbirth. These incidents were typical of the uncounted times she subjected herself to hardships and danger to serve others.
She kept a ledger of all the births she attended to and, on several occasions in her later years, she was able to help produce or restore birth certificates for those she delivered years before using these records.
In addition to delivering babies, Hilda would tend to wounds whether on humans or animals. She would use a buckskin needle and stitch up ugly wounds received by men riding wild horses. One time a horse ran into a barbwire fence and cut up its shoulder. The men wanted to put it down, but Hilda told them not to and sewed up the wound. The horse was around for many years after that.
Hilda was also known as the local “dentist.” She extracted many teeth over the years, and had a special sympathy for little children suffering from tooth aches. She sometimes used quinine or chloroform while pulling teeth. Her dental tools were donated to the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers for display in their museum in Salt Lake City, along with a box of the rattlers from the great many rattlesnakes she killed.
Last Chance Ranch
In 1893, John and Hilda decided to make a new start on some property John found about 30 miles away down the Deep Creek Valley. The place was so isolated that when John mentioned it to one of his neighbors in Ibapah they said it was the “last chance on earth in which to make a ranch,” so that is what they named it: “Last Chance Ranch.”
They built a home there with logs they hauled out of the mountains more than 25 miles away. On this ranch they grew fields of alfalfa, beautiful shade trees, a large healthy garden, and an orchard which produced cherries, peaches, pears, plums, and apples which had to be watered by hand with buckets. They shipped some of this fruit to California and New York.
Hilda made her isolated ranch house a true home with most of the luxuries available during that era. Many would come for a visit and stay over for days enjoying the comforts and Hilda’s excellent cooking. It is said she never used a written recipe and could improvise well. Her Swedish biscuits were legendary.
When John was called on a mission for the Church in 1903, Hilda had to assume the full responsibility for the ranch. She was known to keep scrupulous records of all financial dealings and managed the operations efficiently.
With Salt Lake City, the nearest trading hub, over 100 miles away, the Ericksons saw a need for a general merchandising store. Although it was a 200 mile trip, taking up to two weeks to get supplies, the store proved to be a successful business venture. Hilda was the manager, buyer, and clerk, providing supplies for ranchers, prospectors and miners throughout the surrounding mountains. The store became the headquarters for the local sheep and cattlemen. Because of the long distances for travel, many would remain with John and Hilda for days. John would care for their horses and Hilda would cook and look after the needs of their guests.
Years later, in 1925, Hilda established a general merchandising store in Grantsville which she managed for more than 20 years. She also had a Texaco gas station and lumber yard in connection with her store.
When times were hard for some of her customers, she let them have what they needed from her store and put it down in her records, but never collected thousands of dollars in unpaid bills when she closed the store in 1945.
When the government established the Federal Farm Loan Act during the Great Depression, Hilda was one of its first supporters and became secretary of the Berkeley Farm Loan. This position entailed a great amount of clerical work which she did with unfailing fidelity. There were times when she would make long trips to outlying communities in order to keep the records of the association accurate. Many times she crossed the desert in her Model T Ford to visit farmers in the western part of Tooele County.
Hilda was never one who waited for others to take her where she needed to go. She was an expert with horses and no one had to “hitch up” the horses for her when she drove her buggy. She bought her first automobile in 1908 and eventually purchased 10 more as she wore them all out over the years.
Having traveled by ox team, mule team, horseback, horse and buggy, wagon, bicycle, car and airplane, she could handle anything that came her way on the road or off. On several occasions she would have to get out of her car and pull brush to put under the wheels to get through sand dunes or shovel her car out of mud holes. She could expertly change a flat tire even into her 80s. She drove her own car until she was 94 years old.
Hilda raced the train from Grantsville to Wendover many times in her car and it could be depended on that she never came in second.
While she was president of the Church’s Tooele Stake Primary (an organization for teaching children) from 1910 to 1922, she traveled hundreds of miles visiting with Primary programs throughout the county. Winter and summer, through snowdrifts and sand storms, she always came through.
In later years, Hilda would drive her grandchildren and their many friends to Black Rock on the Great Salt Lake for a day of swimming. In winter she would hitch up the horse to her beautiful sleigh and take them all for rides through the snow.
In 1909, Hilda and her son Perry went on a three month trip back to Sweden where they visited relatives and were guests of her brother Charles who was fulfilling a mission for the Church there. They also toured Denmark and the British Isles.
In early 1947, Hilda was chosen as one of six surviving Utah pioneers to travel by airplane back to Nauvoo, Illinois, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first pioneers to leave there for the Salt Lake Valley. After visiting monuments and historical sites, they returned over the same trail they had taken by wagon or on foot in less than six hours by airplane.
For many years she attended the national conventions of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers (though being an actual pioneer herself, not technically a “daughter”) where she inspired hundreds of women with her wisdom and foresight.
As Hilda entered her 90s she still cared for her flock of chickens, several pigs, and a cow, making butter and chopping her own kindling. She also read two daily newspapers. She always had an avid interest in current affairs and politics. She attributed her long life to “Right living, plenty of exercise, work, proper food and rest, and early to bed and early to rise.”
At the age of 99 she issued a statement: “Hard work and an interest in one’s neighbors and the community will keep one young and active.” She counseled those about her to stay active in the Church, civil and social affairs, and to love one another.
At 103, Hilda still visited the beauty parlor and liked her hair done in a modern style. She was always concerned that the color schemes she wore were correct and that her clothing was properly fitted. She always had a purse and gloves to match her outfit.
Hilda Anderson Erickson passed away the evening of January 1, 1968, at the Hill Haven Convalescent Home in Salt Lake City where she had lived for the last three years. She had celebrated her 108th birthday a little over a month before.
With her passing the last vestige of the pioneer era of Utah and the Mountain West finally came to an end 120 years after the first pioneer set foot in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Her legacy of courage and faithfulness, through incredible struggles ensured the continuation of the pioneer spirit for all generations to follow.