William Robert Johns Life Story
Contributor: Anne Ryan Created: 2 years ago Updated: 2 years ago
William Robert Johns was born August 27, 1855, in St. Brides, South Wales, to William and Elizabeth Williams Johns. When he was a small boy, his father died. He and his mother went to live with her parents. His mother worked as a maid. She died early in her life, so William was left to be reared by his grandfather and step-grandmother. William Robert attended school in St. Brides. After the school day was over, he tended sheep. The Mormon missionaries visited them and told them of a wonderful new religion. Immediately they knew that it was the faith they had been searching for. William Robert was baptized in the sea near Ogmore, Wales. William Robert was only ten years old when he left Wales. In 1866 William Williams, his wife, and grandson, William Johns, decided to leave their native land for America in order to be with the Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. On May 18, 1866, a group of 600 Saints left their cozy cottages and most of their belongings to climb aboard a train in the picturesque town of Bridgend to journey on to Liverpool, England, where they stayed for a day. The following day they boarded the sailing ship named the “Argonaut,” and at last after weeks of preparation they were on their way. Their food consisted of salt bacon and salt beef, which was soaked in sea water before cooking on a large community galley or stove. They also had sea biscuits which were as hard as saucers. Part of the time the people were put on rations.
No sooner had they landed at Castle Gardens, Ellis Island, they again boarded a river steamer and were off to Buffalo, from here by train they went to Canada, this being due to the effects of the Civil War ending at that time. They crossed the St. Lawrence River by Niagara Falls to Michigan. They traveled by train across Michigan to Chicago. From here they traveled very slowly, as the rebels were burning bridges. They transferred to a boat on the Missouri River for two days until they reached a small town in Nebraska, near Nebraska City. Here they camped on the banks of the Little Blue river awaiting the arrival of the wagon train from Utah. Some Welsh people at this place tried to persuade the Mormons to stay where they were and not try to cross the long dreary plains, but William Williams said, "No, I am going on to Zion if I die on the way." They soon left with the Daniel Thompson Company leaving on July 24, 1866. There were 560 people in the company. After traveling a short distance, the oxen were stampeded, causing one of the teamsters to break one of his legs. During their travels the company had to be put on rations, each person being allowed one pound of flour and a little bacon each day. Often water was not fit to drink, and many people died or became seriously ill. After much suffering William Williams died in August, 1866, on the Nebraska plains. His last words were, "I am at peace with all men and on the road to Zion." A shadow of sympathetic gloom rested upon the whole company. Jane Williams was permitted to keep her husband's body in the wagon until the company camped for the noon meal. His body was wrapped in a piece of bedding and placed in a shallow grave covered with sod and a few rocks. Grass growing near by was put on top. Following the North Platte and the South Platte Rivers, they came to Laramie and Ft. Bridger, then on down through Echo Canyon to Parley’s Canyon and finally the long-awaited arrival at Salt Lake City on September 28, 1866.
It was raining when they arrived. Jane Williams and the boy, William Johns, sat down on a box in the old tithing office, where Hotel Utah, now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building stands. They were waiting for a friend or Saints to tell them what to do or where to go. She said, "Well, well, if this is Zion, I wish I were back in the land of my birth, dear old Wales."
They stayed a few weeks in Salt Lake City until just before Christmas when they came to Spanish Fork with Edward and Llewellyn Thomas. After a winter with them, William Robert Johns worked four years for William Banks for his board and clothes. His first team was a yoke of oxen for which he paid $50 each and $100 for a wagon. He then began logging and hauling poles from the canyon. He and his aged grandmother lived in a small house on the north-east part of town known as "Little Denmark." For 20 years he sang tenor in the Spanish Fork Choir, going to Salt Lake to compete with other singers, where they took the prize, although they were called the "Hay Seeds." The song they sang was called "The Voice of Armany," by Evan Stevens. Professor Henry Gills came to town once a week to train them.
William Robert married Ann Llewellyn on November 27, 1879, in the Endowment House at Salt Lake City. Daniel H. Wells performed the ceremony. They drove to Salt Lake in a covered wagon and team. They went from home to the Point of the Mountain the first day, camping there that night. He paid 50 cents for his bride a bed at the Dunions, and he slept in the covered wagon, watching the team during the night. Returning to Spanish Fork, they lived with his grandmother until the following spring, and then they moved to Eighth North and Third West in a two-room adobe house. Two daughters blessed their home, Annie and Sarah Jane. They then moved on a farm down north of the airport. Three more babies were born, a daughter, Lilly Latitia, and two sons, Llewellyn and William Grover. This little home consisted of two rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom. A few years later three sons and two daughters were born, David, Arthur, Francis, Irene, and Ruby, in their home in town at 257 West 600 North.
In 1917-1918 during WWI there was a flu epidemic. Hundreds of people died from its effects. Most of the people were frightened of it, but not William Robert. When anyone needed help or death knocked at their door, he was right there to get the body prepared for burial. He was set apart by the Church as one to care for the bodies of the dead. He did this until professional undertakers made his services unnecessary. For several years he hauled freight to Pioche, Nevada, also working at railroad construction in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona. In connection with this work he was honored at the Golden Spike Jubilee in Ogden in June 1919.
It is thought that sometime during the construction of the Manti Temple (1877-1888), William Robert volunteered and worked at the temple site. Since documentation of construction laborers is not available we do not know the details of his involvement. Later in his life he took up farming, about 1884 and continued until 1933 when he retired from active labor. His grandson, Kenneth Johns, tells stories of walking hand in hand with his grandfather, Billo, as they took the cattle out to the pasture. They would often sit under the shade of the trees before walking back to the house together. He was one of the larger stock holders in the First National Bank of Spanish Fork and also of Farmers Mercantile Association. In 1929 he and his wife, Ann, celebrated their Golden Wedding with a family reunion, which their five living children attended. During his life he felt the principles of Mormonism were right and tried to live up to its teachings. His posterity includes ten children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. He died January 20, 1937, in Spanish Fork, Utah.