To celebrate Pioneer Day this week I compiled a history about a special midwife. A special thanks to Shani Allen Dutton, one of our readers and a descendant of Jane Johnston Black, for introducing me to the story of this courageous woman.
Jane Johnston Black lived a full and eventful life. It was clear early on that she did not let challenges hold her back. She was born in Lisbon, Ireland, in 1801 to a preacher of the Weslayan Methodist Church. Her mother died when she was very young and when she was just sixteen years old, her father died. Her father was so beloved by his congregation that they insisted Jane carry on his work. For four years she served in her father’s place as a preacher on his circuit. Before his death, he had arranged for Jane to live with the William Black family. When their son, William returned from war, he fell in love with Jane and they were married in 1821 and had four children together. They lived with William’s father until his death in 1834. At that time, they moved to Manchester, England, where they heard the message of the restored gospel from William Clayton who baptized them in 1839.
Jane’s husband was immediately called to serve a mission in Ireland. This was the first of many missions and assignments William would be given. Jane travelled to America in 1840 while William was still serving in Ireland. The journey across the ocean was difficult. At one point it seemed their boat would sink. Jane gathered her children about her in prayer. Her son William spoke in tongues. Jane interpreted the message that they would be safe on the remainder of their voyage.
Upon arriving to Nauvoo, Sarah worked to support her family and took part in the all of the joys and trials of the saints of that time. In her journal she shared that she “heard the Prophet Joseph Smith preach and [could] testify that he was a prophet of God.” He called and set her apart as a midwife and doctor. She was promised success in her labors. This became her life’s work. It was not a calling she took lightly. She was beloved by the church leaders of that time. It is recorded that it was her that John Taylor summoned her to care for him following the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum. When she asked him why he called for her he replied, “Because I knew there was none better at such a job, and wanted you to stand at the morning of the resurrection and testify to the Lord against the assassins who murdered the Prophet and his brother Hyrum.” Her husband returned to her from Ireland, only to soon be called to a mission in Canada.
Her grandson, Edward L. Black, wrote, “Jane witnessed the battle between the mobs and saints. She was the only woman on the battlefield and carried water all day between opposing lines.” While her husband was serving another mission in Canada, the saints were forced to leave Nauvoo. This happened in two stages. The first was a well-planned settlement in Sugar Creek with plenty of provisions. But not everyone left in this first exodus in February of 1846. The one thousand who remained in Nauvoo were considered to be among the most poor, sick, feeble or farthest along in pregnancy. Jane stayed to care for them. By September of 1846, the mobs had grown tired of waiting for these stragglers to leave and forced them to go. Jane wrote, “Before we crossed the river a party of the mob rode up and surrounded our wagon and made a demand that I should give up what arms we had. I then had a pistol in my bosom, which I drew out and told them it was there, and that I would use it before I gave it up. They did not take it from me, but threatened to throw me in the river that night.”
When she got to Montrose, Iowa, on the other side of the Mississippi River, she buried her gun under her wagon wheel. She was given a tent as shelter for the women that were in labor. The trauma of this final exodus had hastened their births. She recorded, “I was the mid-wife, and delivered nine babies that night.” Their provisions were sparse, “until the Lord sent quails among us. We had nothing to sweeten anything until the Lord sent honeydew, which we gathered in bushes until we got all the sweets we wanted. I also boiled maple juice and got cakes of maple sugar.” If you ever visit Nauvoo Illinois, you can see two plaques bearing her words along Parley Street’s “Trail of Tears.”
When they were preparing to leave Montrose, she was digging up her firearms that she had buried under her wagon, when the mob came and asked her what she was doing. She replied, “the Saints were to have power to resurrect and that was what I was doing. ‘Oh,’ said one, ‘she is crazy,’ so I saved our arms.” She survived Winter Quarters and finally settle in the Salt Lake Valley in 1850. They were soon assigned to settle in different communities in southern Utah including Manti, Spring City, St. George and finally Rockville. Jane’s grandson, Edward Black, related this story of his grandmother’s bravery:
One day a burly giant Indian, face plastered with war paint and long braids decorated with feathers, walked into their little cabin. The two women [Jane and her daughter-in-law] were the only ones at home. This was about three days before I was born. Grandmother was preparing a meal over the coals in the fireplace, as stoves were not fashionable in those days. Mother was so frightened that she had a hard time to keep from fainting. The Indian asked Grandmother for something she did not have and so informed him and, to manifest his contempt, he walked to the fireplace and spat in a frying pan of meat. She had a rather heavy oak stick standing by the fireplace sharpened at one end, which she used in lifting the bake oven and other vessels from the coals. She immediately broke that stick in two across his head and chased him out to the road, punching him every step with the sharp end, and him screaming for help. Mother said the last words she heard her say to him were, ‘if you ever come to my home again you will get something worse than that.’ A few days after this, his head bandaged, he met Grandfather and congratulated him on having such a brave squaw.
President Brigham Young warned her concerning her obligation to her sisters and told her “if she would be faithful she would never lose a mother or baby.” On one occasion President Young sent a team and buggy to Manti and had her care for one of his wives in Salt Lake City. Jane had recorded that she delivered more than 3,000 babies. She did not charge for her services but was usually given some type of payment whether it was a sack of flour, a ham or both. Although she was a midwife, she often was called in place of a doctor even assisting in an amputation. She knew the different plants and herbs well and utilized them for the benefit and blessing of the sick and afflicted.
I have to admit that I do not really know if Jane felt fear or not in the more traumatic moments of her life, but what I do know is that she stood up to fear and didn’t back down. Jane Johnston Black died when she was 89 years old and is buried in Rockville, Utah.
EXPERIENCES OF A PIONEER MOTHER By Edward L. Black (accessed on Family Search)
Pearson, C. “Nine Children Were Born: A Historical Problem from the Sugar Creek Episode.” BYU Studies 21:4.