Remembering Jane Manning James
By Becky Cardon Smith

In the twilight years of her life, Jane Elizabeth Manning James, a crippled and nearly blind black woman, dictated her life history. In the last paragraph of her recorded memories she gave this summary:

“I am a widow; my husband Isaac James died in November 1891. I have seen my husband and all my children but two laid away in the silent tomb. But the Lord protects me and takes good care of me in my helpless condition. And I want to say right here that my faith in the gospel 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 arise early. I try in my feeble way to set a good example to all.”

Jane Manning James

Jane was born in Wilton, Connecticut in 1822. Though never a slave, at about age six she left home to work as a servant for a wealthy white family. As a teenager, she joined the Presbyterian Church – yet she felt something was missing. In 1841, nineteen-year-old Jane went to a Sunday meeting to hear the message of two Mormon missionaries. She was baptized the following Sunday; other members of her family also joined the Church.

A year after her baptism, Jane and eight members of her family (including her mother, two brothers, and two sisters and spouses) prepared to join the Saints in Nauvoo. They traveled by canal from their home in Connecticut to Buffalo, New York. Here they were refused passage on a steamboat because of their color, despite the fact that they had already paid the fare and their luggage had been loaded onto the boat. Not only would the captain not allow them to board, but he also refused to return their possessions.

Walked 800 Miles to Nauvoo

In her life history, Jane told of the 800 miles she and her family walked in order to reach Nauvoo. “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. Our prayers were answered and our feet were healed forthwith.”

When Jane and her family arrived at Peoria, Illinois, they were threatened with jail because they could not show any “free papers.” After finally convincing the authorities that they had been born “free” and did not require such documentation, Jane and the others were allowed to continue on. Their journey to Nauvoo included fording a river with cold water up to their necks, and sleeping at times out in the open air despite the snowy conditions.

In late 1843, Jane and her family finally arrived in Nauvoo.  Upon their arrival, they were not as warmly received as they had expected. Some of the residents may have judged them by their worn-out clothing and their color. As recorded by Jane, they faced “hardship, trial, and rebuff.” However, when they arrived at Brother Orson Spencer’s home, he directed them to the Prophet’s home. Here Joseph and Emma welcomed them warmly into the Mansion House. In Jane’s life-sketch she recalled, “Brother Joseph took a chair and sat down by me and said, “You have been the head of this little band, haven’t you!” I answered, “Yes sir!” He then said, “God bless you! Now I would like you to relate your experience in your travels.”

Under the Roofs of Two Prophets

Jane and her extended family were invited to stay in the Mansion House until they could find work. After a week, all had found employment and lodging, except Jane. When the Prophet found her weeping, Jane exclaimed that she had no personal clothing, home, or a job. To this Joseph replied, “Yes you have. You have a home right here, if you want it.” Jane subsequently remained with the Smith family for several months, helping with the household chores. While in the Mansion House, she became better acquainted with the Prophet and his family, including his mother Lucy. Emma Smith even asked one day if Jane would like to be adopted to her and Joseph as their child. Not understanding what it meant, Jane declined.

At the time the Prophet and his brother Hyrum were martyred in June 1844, Jane had been staying in Burlington with her sister. Of Joseph’s death she recalled, “I shall never forget that time of agony and sorrow.” Following the martyrdom, Jane lived with Brigham Young’s family until their exodus to the West. While staying at the Young home, Jane met and married a member of the Church, another “free” black person – Isaac James.

Isaac, Jane and son Sylvester were part of the westward exodus from Nauvoo. During their stop over in Winter Quarters, Jane gave birth to a second son they named Silas. The James family arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on September 22, 1847. In May of 1848, Jane gave birth to a daughter, Mary Ann. She was the first black child born in Utah.

Life in the Salt Lake Valley

Concerning those early years in the Salt Lake Valley, Jane told in her life history of their struggles: “Oh how I suffered of cold and hunger, and the keenest of all was to hear my little ones crying for bread, and I had none to give them.” But despite the meager supplies Jane had, she was willing to share with a friend. Eliza Partridge Lyman recorded in her journal that when her husband, Amasa, departed on a mission to California, she was left “without anything from which to make bread . Jane James, the colored woman, let me have two pounds of flour, it being half of what she had.”

Elder Alexander B. Morrison, First Quorum of the Seventy, Emeritus, said of this charitable act. “It is easy to give when you have plenty, but the real test of charity is the willingness to give when you have little, and your own children cry for food.”

President James E. Faust, Second Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also addressed Jane’s act of kindness. In a recent letter, President Faust noted that he was a descendant of Caroline Partridge Lyman. A sister of Eliza, Caroline was living in the Lyman home when Jane brought her gift of flour. President Faust wrote that his family would be forever grateful for the kindness of Jane Manning James.

By 1865, Jane and Issac through their hard work had acquired property, a home, and livestock. Isaac not only farmed his land but was also employed for several years as a coachman for Brigham Young. Jane also worked for Brigham Young and among her many chores at home, she spun and wove the cloth to clothe her growing family. Sadly, though Jane gave birth to eight children, she outlived all but two of them. Of the seven children who reached adulthood, five passed away before they were forty, including two of her daughters who died in childbirth. In addition, six of her fourteen grandchildren died before the age of four.

Jane faced another hardship with the departure of her husband Isaac in 1869. Before leaving, he sold his property to Jane. She was able to provide for her children by taking in sewing, making soap, working as a laundress, and growing food in her garden. About twenty-one years after he left Salt Lake City, Isaac returned. He died about a year later in 1891 and his funeral was held in Jane’s home.

Always Stalwart

Jane never left Salt Lake nor abandoned her faith. She was a member of the Relief Society and contributed to the building fund of the St. George, Manti, and Logan temples.  Though Jane’s request to the First Presidency for her family to be sealed to her was denied, she recorded in her history, “I have had the privilege of going into the temple and being baptized for some of my dead.”

Jane Elizabeth Manning James died on April 16, 1908, at the age of eighty-six. President Joseph F. Smith spoke at her funeral.  On April 1, 2005, members of the Genesis Group, along with members of the Missouri Mormon Frontier Foundation (MMFF) and others, joined together in the Salt Lake Cemetery to honor this faithful pioneer sister and to dedicate the Jane Manning James monument.

Dignitaries unveil a monument to Jane Manning James.  On the right is the monument that commemorates her gift of flour to Eliza Lyman.

The newly dedicated monument now marks Jane’s final resting place. The headstone also honors Isaac, their children and grandchildren – many of whom are buried near the monument in unmarked graves. Beside this monument is another bronze marker. It depicts the charitable gift of flour that Jane gave to her friend, Eliza Partridge Lyman. On either side of this marker are the original small white headstones of Jane and Isaac.

In behalf of his family and their ancestor, Jane Manning James, Lewis Duffy expressed appreciation to those who honored the life of Jane. Lewis said that while growing up, he was always interested in the stories of his ancestry. He knew he was a James. “My job was to preserve, record, and pass along the family history.”

In the dedicatory prayer, Elder Morrison said, “Jane wore out her life in patient humble service to others . May this be a sacred place – a place of peace and contentment, a place where generations may come to contemplate the goodness of a humble, faithful, compassionate soul .”