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John Catley DAVIS

By Susan Woodland Howard

The West Midlands

 By the mid-nineteenth century the city of Birmingham in the English West Midlands had become the second largest population center in England.  The area had a tradition of individual craftsmen who worked independently in their own yards or in rented workshops alongside larger factories.  The recorded history of the city dates back a thousand years to Anglo-Saxon times when it was a small village.  Handsworth and Aston are nearby.

 Birmingham had areas known as the Gun Quarter and the Jewelry Quarter.  Gun making and jewelry making—important industries in the city—relied upon skilled metal workers. The mechanism by which a gun was fired is referred to as the lock.  (“Lock, stock and barrel” was a favorite Davis expression.)  By mid-19th century gunlock makers from this area had developed a reputation for quality work.  The flintlock was the most common type of gun.  Learning the trade required a long period of apprenticeship and fathers frequently taught their sons the same vocation.  With the development of the steam engine, gun-making procedures became more mechanized.  

 In February of 1854 the 39-year old John Catley Davis, together with his wife and five children boarded the 1108-ton ship Windermere in Liverpool.   They were part of a group of members of the Mormon Church who were emigrating to the United States as part of the gathering to Zion.   The passenger list states that John’s occupation was that of  “Gun Lock Maker.”  Reportedly while in England he worked as a foreman and had as many as forty men working under his supervision.[1]


The Davis Family

John Catley Davis was born 21 April 1814 in Handsworth, Staffordshire, England to John and Elizabeth Davis.  His wife, Phoebe Oxenbould was born 8 June 1818 in Lindridge/Edeston, England to William Oxenbould and Elizabeth Farmer.  The couple married 24 Aug 1840 in Handsworth; the Reverend James Hargraves performed the ceremony.  (In some records Phoebe’s surname is spelled Oxenbold, but in the older records it is always Oxenbould.)  

Phoebe lived in Lindridge at the time.  After marrying they moved to Alston, a small town near Birmingham where the couple’s first child, Elijah Walter, was born on 26 May 1841.  They then moved to St. George, East London, where sons Fredrick William, 30 December 1842 and John Edward, 4 July 1844 were born.  They then moved back to Handsworth where two more children came into the family:  daughter Sylvia Jane on 24 January 1846 and son Alfred Oxenbould on 20 August 1847. 

In 1849 John and Phoebe heard the Mormon missionaries and along with their son Elijah Walter were baptized 30 March 1849 by Elder Jeter Clinton.   Of the different

mission divisions or conferences as they were called then, the Birmingham Conference of the English Mission was the most successful in attracting new members until the mid-1850’s.  The family lived in Birmingham the next four years, and here two more daughters were born, Elizabeth on 20 November 1851 and Phoebe, 25 December 1853. 

            The Davis family responded to the call to gather in Utah with the rest of the Saints.         The Mormon Immigration Index lists eight members of the John Davies family that correspond to John Catley and Phoebe Oxenbould Davis.  As noted, John’s occupation is listed as Gun Lock Maker.[2] 

            The oldest son, Elijah Walter, had emigrated sometime in 1852 at age eleven.  He traveled with the J. McGregor family.  


The Voyage 

            The family departed from Liverpool 22 February 1854 on the 1108-ton Windermere with 482 persons on board, bound for New Orleans, under Shipmaster J. Fairfield.  Elder Daniel Garn was in charge of the company.  The passage took 61 days, and the ship arrived in New Orleans 23 April 1854. The Mormon Immigration Index lists eight members of the John Davies family that correspond to John Catley and Phoebe Oxenbould Davis and their six younger children.  Phoebe, the baby, was only eight weeks old.  The passage cost 24 pounds sterling-12 shilling and six pence.[3] 

            The first few weeks the ship encountered strong winds, rough seas, and occasional heavy gales. At one point the seas became so rough that the waves were washing over the decks and the hatches had to be closed.  The Captain was so alarmed for the safety of the ship and its passengers that he went to Elder Garn and told him he’d better pray to his God to save his people, because if God didn’t, they were all going to end up on the bottom. 

Two weeks out of Liverpool smallpox broke out and spread rapidly affecting 37 passengers and two crewmembers.  Passengers who kept diaries reported from ten to thirteen persons died from the disease.  Those who died were buried at sea.  Fortunately, the spread of the smallpox was suddenly checked, which the passengers attributed to their prayers.  

Eventually as the ship traveled south, it reached calmer, warmer waters.

             Once while far south there was a dead calm and the ship rolled in the moving waves.  Drinking water growing short for so large a number, food also, two smallpox corpses lying on deck ready for deposit in the deep, deep sea, ships bell tolling, then some brief, mournful singing, a short prayer and the corpses slid off a plank overboard, a weight at their feet so that they would sink below the fish zone in the water.  Still the Saints as a rule were not despondent.  It was remarked by the ship’s officers that during rough weather that we encountered, the passengers were cheerfully singing and praying, while other classes of passengers under similar conditions would have been crying and screaming.[4]  

By the end of March supplies of food and water ran low.  The passengers were limited to one sea biscuit per day.  Under these stressful conditions a new and dangerous malady attacked the weary passengers:  cholera.  The weather became hotter.  After passing Cuba and following several deaths a passenger noted in a diary “There is a dreadful smell in the ship.” 

            Once the Windermere reached the waters near Cuba and Santo Domingo the crew was able to obtain a few food supplies from nearby boats, but some of the ships were as low on supplies or worse off. 

            The ship reached New Orleans April 23, but was quarantined for three days because of the smallpox on board.  Several of the passengers were then hospitalized and five others assigned to stay and care for them until they recovered.

            On April 27th the company, minus those who stayed behind, boarded a steamboat, probably the Grand Turk, a 688-ton side-wheeler that carried at least two companies of Saints from New Orleans to St. Louis before fire destroyed it in 1854.  A few passengers identified the steamboat as the Grand Tour or Grand Iowa, but most likely it was the Grand Turk.  The Saints traveled to St. Louis, then changed to another boat for the rest of the trip to Kansas City.[5]  

            Cholera followed this unfortunate company.  State laws forbid burying the dead in the river, so graves had to be quickly dug and bodies buried ashore.  At times the disease carried off an entire family. 

Cholera is an acute bacterial infection that in some individuals can lead to death within hours due to shock and dehydration unless treated.  The disease struck the Davis family.  First six-month old Phoebe died on 1 July 1854.  Two days later, on 3 July 1854, the third oldest child, John Edward, also died.  Both children were buried on July 4, which would have been John Edward’s 10th birthday.  That same day, their mother Phoebe died.  She was only 36 years old.   She was buried the following day next to her children in St. Louis. 

This must have been a terrible blow for John and the surviving children.  They did not immediately travel to Utah.  How tragic for Phoebe to have endured the seas, the threat of disease, the worry for the survival of her children, lack of food and water, and then to die so suddenly in a strange country far from her home.  Perhaps her grief after losing her baby and her son were too much for her to withstand the illness when it struck her.  We regret knowing so little about her as a person.  

Walter rejoined the family here because he traveled to Utah with his surviving family.  Four years after the death of his mother, the second oldest child, Frederick William Davis, died of consumption on 17 July 1858. 


On The Overland Trail 

Five years after arriving in Kansas John and his four children joined the James S. Brown Company on 13 June 1859.  When the company left the outfitting post at Florence, Nebraska (now Omaha) it was made up of 353 individuals and 59 wagons.  They arrived in the Salt Lake Valley 29 Aug 1859.  John was 45 years old.  His children were: 

Elijah Walker, age 18

Sylvia Jane, 13

Alfred Oxenbould, 12

Elizabeth, age 7 

(The Company roster lists John’s age as 38.  It also includes Phoebe Oxenbold Davis, age 41.)[6] 

John kept a diary on the trip west.  His entries show a positive outlook and a generally cheery disposition.  There were a few minor mishaps, but the weather was good and the company normally traveled 15-20 miles a day.  In the evenings Captain Brown, (whom John admired both for his energy and leadership) conducted meetings to remind the Saints that they must remember to be cooperative and unselfish, and that they shouldn’t “shoot the buffalo for sport and to leave their carcasses to stink on the plains.”  He also cautioned that when buffalo meat did become available, it should be eaten sparingly, “and if we indulge too freely in the use of it in the unprepared state of our systems it would in all probability produce sickness and death.”  Brown also exhorted the members to keep their wagons in good repair so that breakdowns wouldn’t cause delays.  Furthermore, in order to reduce the burden on the animals, everyone should walk as much as possible.[7] 

Sundays the company usually rested.  The Captain conducted meeting and the members listened to preaching and singing.   In the early 1850’s Brigham Young encouraged the Latter-day Saints to renew their commitment to the Church by being baptized anew—an era that became known as the Reformation.  Along the trail the Saints who had not already done so were urged to be rebaptized if they felt the need, and many of them did. 

Three weeks into the journey travel became more difficult.  There were a few cases of sickness, and one person died.  Even Captain Brown became sick—seriously so according to John—because he had exhausted himself carrying out his duties leading the camp.  The cattle were starting to get worn down. 

July 12 John reported that one of his cattle was footsore.  This is the first of many of such reports.  As the train approached Fort Laramie, they were cautioned to be even more careful in keeping guard over wagons and cattle, for mountaineers and Indian traders were known to slip into camp and plunder the saints’ possessions. 

Sunday, July 24, 1859:  “Rested all day.  The campground was a most delightful place and the camp presented a beautiful appearance, nearly all the wagons having flags hoisted in commemoration of the 24th of July.  The appearance presented was novel and picturesque.  Meeting was held twice during the day, nearly all the saints expressing their gratitude to God for his mercies toward us, and their good feelings toward Captain Brown.” 

An important part of the captain’s job was to keep the travelers motivated and encouraged, as well as to warn about particular dangers in whatever part of the country they traveled through. 

 By the end of July John reported heat and sick cattle.  Some of the oxen died.  Some in the train were getting low on provisions, so it was necessary to keep moving, yet not drive the animals too hard.  Some of John’s cattle grew lame and nearly useless to him.  Several times he fell behind, but Brown sent men back to help him catch up.  He reported seeing other camps traveling in the same area, but the members of the company were told “not to do further begging” from them.  He told the group:  “We’ll take care of our own.”  Serious hunger problems developed, but John didn’t complain.  He said that the captain would kill an ox for meat if necessary, but everyone must look out for others.   Apparently a few hadn’t paid attention to instructions at “Genos” and weren’t carrying enough provisions.  

The wagon train arrived in Salt Lake 16 September 1859.  John’s wagon had broken down and the family was delayed for three days before it was fixed.  The Davis family arrived 19 September 1859. 


John and Caroline 

            One week before John and his family left Nebraska another train also departed.  On 6 June 1859, Caroline Young Harris and her five living children traveled with the Horton D. Haight/Frederick Kesler train consisting of 154 individuals and 71 wagons.[8]  This train was carrying much-needed heavy equipment and machines, so there were fewer families.  They arrived in Salt Lake on 1 September 1859.  Several trains were traveling in close proximity and frequently caught up with one another.   Because the two companies arrived in Salt Lake within two days of each other, possibly Caroline met on the trail, if not earlier. 

            The records list the Harris family as follows: 

     Harris, Caroline (43)

            Harris, Ida May (3)

            Harris, John Wheeler (13)

            Harris, Julia Lacothia (17)

            Harris, Martin (21)

            Harris, Solomon Webster (4)           

Caroline Young Harris was the daughter of Brigham Young’s brother, John Young, and Theodora Kimball.  She was born 17 May 1816 in Hector, Schyler, NY.  She married Martin Harris in November of 1836, a few months after the death of his first wife Lucy, from whom he had been separated.  Martin had financed the publication of the Book of Mormon, was a close associate of Joseph Smith, and eventually became one of the three witnesses the Book.   

Caroline and Martin had seven children together.  She was only twenty when she married him; he was fifty-three.  Despite his high position in the church, Martin joined a group of dissenters who hoped to bring about some reforms.  He continued to live in Kirtland instead of joining the Saints in Nauvoo.  After the death of Joseph Smith Caroline remained in Kirtland with him until 1856 when she left him to travel to Nebraska, taking her children with her.  Her last child with Martin was born 1 Dec 1854.  Martin joined the Strangites, then the Reorganized church, but eventually reconciled with the Saints in Utah.[9]  The Harris family history is important because John met Caroline Young Harris and married her at the home of her father in Salt Lake City on 16 Jan 1860.[10] Their only child, Joseph Harris Davis, was born in Payson, Utah 19 November 1860 and died two days later, on 21 November.   

In Utah John had resumed his occupation as gunsmith and locksmith.[11]  John’s grandson, F. L. Davis after looking over the family records kept in John’s own handwriting concluded that he was a precise and methodical man concerned with the minutest details.  In fact, at church or any gathering he directed his children to sit in the order of their birth.  “They were exceptional and prompt in this as well as any other thing they undertook to do.”[12] 

After the death of their baby the marriage didn’t work out well, so the couple went their separate ways—Caroline to live in Smithfield, Utah, and John to live with his children.  (His son Walter was apparently living in Brigham City.)  He had a room in Walter’s home that had windows with green glass to soften the sun’s rays.  His grandson assumed that this was because John suffered from some eye trouble. 

He died 18 Feb 1879 in Brigham City, Utah, where he was buried.  He was sixty-five years old. Caroline died 19 Jan 1888 in Lewisville, Jefferson, Idaho.

Susan W. Howard
June 14, 2006


[1] Daughters of Utah Pioneers history by grandson F. L. Davis, p 3.  (Hereafter cited as DUP History.)

[2] Mormon Immigration List: RootsWeb World Connect Project, Angie Sullivan’s Family Tree, August 2005.  Thanks to Angie for making this information available. 

[3] DUP history.

[4]Autobiography of Job Taylor Smith.

[5] On 31 May 1854 the Grand Turk took some of the Mormons from the ship Marshfield.  The steamboat was destroyed by fire a few months later. 

[7] Excerpts from John Catley Davis Diary are found at,16272,4019-1-73,00.html


[9] I have not yet found an official divorce date for Caroline and Martin Harris.  In Utah under the governorship of Caroline’s uncle, Brigham Young, women had no difficulty in obtaining a divorce.

[10] The marriage was performed by Mr. C. O. (Lyman) Littlefield, DUP history p 3.  The couple was sealed by Brigham Young 1 March 1860 at which time Phoebe was also sealed to John.

[11] Utah Pioneers and Prominent Men available at  John is listed as John Catlin Davis.

[12] DUP history p 3-4.



Jump to Chapters

The Davis Family

On The Overland Trail

John and Caroline


Their Vital Records

Their Descendents