Sylvester Wilson was born on January 30, 1840 in Nauvoo, Illinois. He was one of thirteen siblings, and traveled with the family to settle in Grantsville, Utah in 1852. Sylvester’s father worked as a cattle herder and suffered an early death in 1861. Sylvester was now the head of the family, and after several disagreements with his younger brother, Elijah Nicholas (Nick), they had a falling out. Nick left the family to pursue a life of his own.
Mary Wood was born in England in 1844, nine weeks after her father drowned in the Delaware River in the United States. He had intended to move his family to the country and had worked as a cloth weaver. Mary’s mother continued to work in England to save up enough money to travel to the United States. In 1855 the family boarded the Samuel Curling in April of that year, and arrived a month later in May. The Wood family then made their way to Utah.
Sylvester and Mary would meet in Utah and later married in 1861. Sylvester had become well-known in the Mormon community and had emerged as a strong LDS church leader. His granddaughter would write of him: “He was a man of strong convictions and had the fortitude and ambition to carry them through.” In 1878, he was sent to establish a new community near Moab on Cottonwood Creek and it became known as Wilsonville. When Sylvester and Mary arrived, they had eight children and three more would join them while they were living at Wilsonville. By 1889, a severe drought had forced many of the early settlers of Wilsonville to seek opportunity elsewhere. Sylvester was no different; he sold his land and departed northward for St. Anthony, Idaho.
On May 31, 1889, the Wilson family left Wilsonville with 5 covered wagons and 80 head of cattle. Four hundred miles later, they reached St. Anthony, Idaho on July 23. The Wilson caravan was made up on Sylvester and Mary, their younger children, their married daughter Mary Alice and her husband Selar Cheney, and their married son Ervin and his wife Mary Jane. Mary Jane was five months pregnant and due in September. While the men set up camp and began to gather lumber to construct their new homes, a stranger arrived at their fire. The individual was welcomed for dinner, and it was discovered that it was Nick, Sylvester’s long-departed brother.
Nick told the family of a nearby mountain valley with ample hay and plenty of free, open land. He had worked in the valley for the summer, and was on his way back to his own family in Sugar City, Idaho. Within a few days, the Wilsons had arranged to travel over the mountains and into the valley, known as Jackson Hole to establish a new homestead. Sylvester, three sons, Nick, Sylvester’s daughter Rebecca and Nick’s daughter Kate were chosen to brave the first trip into Jackson Hole. The Wilson family was well-acquainted with the stories circulating about outlaws and bandits, but Nick calmed their fears and said the stories were just that. Nevertheless, Sylvester chose his oldest sons and left the rest to wait in Idaho for their successful return. Rebecca and Kate were meant to cook for the men.
After Sylvester and his sons had made an arrangement with the bachelor Billy Green to raise hay on his Slough Grass Ranch, they returned to collect the waiting family and cattle. Ervin and Mary’s son James arrived on September 26, and a month later on October 27, the entire family departed for Jackson Hole. They led six wagons over the mountain, which later became the route called Teton Pass. At this time there was no defined trail and the family had to clear trees to allow the wagons to pass through. It was slow going, as the route was steep and difficult. It took the group two weeks to cross the 88 miles from St. Anthony into Jackson Hole, arriving on November 11.
To most locals, this arrival date would be a surprise. This was very late in the year to arrive and attempt to establish a homestead. There was no time to look for a suitable location, or to gather logs to build a house. There was only enough time to prepare for deep snows, and the families found a warm welcome with the bachelors who had already established themselves in the southern portion of the valley. In the area today known as the Elk Refuge, John Holland and John Carnes (and wife Millie) were neighbors. Twenty-eight other individuals were living in the valley at the time, but the Wilson caravan was the first to include families. They were also the first to lead intact wagons over the Pass. They established the first viable route into and out of this isolated mountain country, and many more would follow the path they created.
Continue on to THE FIRST WINTER