Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Happy 202nd Birthday, Asa Starkweather Calkin (1809-1873)!

Gayle Wells' great-great-grandfather

Asa is a personal favorite, mostly due to his well-written journal entries, and the mystery of the Deseret alphabet postscript from Brigham Young which has now been solved!

Asa was a New Yorker descended from Puritan stock, including Pilgrim Myles Standish.  He had a grandfather who had been an Indian captive as a teenager, as well as an uncle who was a blind Baptist preacher.  Asa was a child when his father became a captain in the militia during the War of 1812, and led his men to victory over the British in the invasion of Plattsburgh (Battle of Lake Champlain) in September 1814.  Captain Calkin was welcomed home as a conquering hero with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and Asa delighted in boasting to the other children of how brave his father was.  His father served as judge of Essex County for a decade.  
John & Lucy Kellogg Calkin
With his father’s encouragement, Asa studied law and became a prosperous, brilliant lawyer in Whitehall, New York.  At the age of twenty-six, Asa became certified to try cases before the Supreme Court for the state of New York.  With his wife and young children, Asa joined his father and moved his family west in 1838.  In Iowa City, Asa practiced law and served as attorney for Johnson County, recommending expenditures for the local paupers.  He also was an assessor, mapmaker, and shoemaker. 

In Iowa, the Calkins met some Mormon pioneers as they were moving west.  The family was thrilled with the new feeling they experienced in the gospel light and soon converted.  However, Asa’s law practice began to dwindle with local anti-Mormon sentiment.  The Calkin family came to Utah only a couple years after joining the Church, after a five month journey in which Asa drove a two-horse team and had the care of two large ox trains.  His invalid sister Angelina lived with Asa’s family for a time, and noted in her journal that Asa had a milk cow and put the cream in a jar to churn butter from the bouncing wagon.

Asa served as a clerk in the Salt Lake Tithing Office, settling tithing at the window.  He undertook it as a job, but when no salary was forthcoming, remarked wryly in his journal, “I consider myself on a mission.”  Asa was appointed by Brigham Young as a topographical engineer in 1855 and was commissioned as a lieutenant in that corps where he did a great deal of good.  He was just feeling settled when he was called on a mission to England. Asa’s patriarchal blessing, which he received in 1850 just after arriving in Utah, speaks to his future missionary work: “Thou art one of the horns of Ephraim appointed to push the people together from the ends of the earth.  Thou shalt visit the island of the seas, thou shalt baptize and lead them to Zion… Those that sail in ships shall obey thy voice.” Asa left without a cent in his pocket and only the clothes on his back. He visited his father and relatives in Iowa, who gave him enough money to pay for his boat passage to England. 

He noted that it is a “severe trial to leave a family one loves and go to foreign climes for years, but it is the will of the Lord and I acknowledge his hand in this as in all things.”  A little before sunset on his first night’s journey leaving Utah, Asa arrived at the top of the big mountain, and wrote, “The Spirit of the Lord rested on me and turning my face towards my beloved mountain home I knelt down, with none to see me but God and his Holy Angels, and committed my family and myself with the saints to the care of my Father in Heaven and invoked his blessing upon them and myself, asked that his Holy Spirit might rest upon and abide with us, that we might continue faithful and be preserved  to meet again and rejoice together in the Valley of the Mountains, our happy home.  Took a last look at the Peaceful Vale and continued on my way, down the mountain.”  Asa had a witty sense of humor evident in his journals; as they encountered Indian trouble in Wyoming, he penned, “Thousands of the Sioux are gathered in the vicinity of Laramie, expecting soon to attack the Fort.  It seems we have passed through the Devil’s Gate into Hell! all right.”

Asa’s mission was broadening in many dimensions.  Physically he gained twenty pounds (up to 159), and added a wife and a daughter to his family.  Culturally he delighted in seeing ruins, castles, museums, and plays.  Spiritually he grew in his faith and administrative abilities.  He worked as a clerk in the Liverpool mission office, where he took over Orson Pratt’s financial responsibilities, and became editor of the Millennial Star.  When other missionaries were called home for the Johnston’s Army invasion, Asa became president of the European Mission from 1858-1860.  During this time some of the financial policies, which he introduced for handling tithing money, were adopted by Brigham Young for the entire Church.  Asa made several transatlantic voyages on mission business, and suffered greatly from seasickness.  The climate in England was also hard on him; he mentioned several times in his journal the cough, headaches, and oppression of the lungs caused by the smoky damp atmosphere.  

Asa kept an extensive mission journal with beautiful penmanship, articulate opinions, and detailed descriptions.  He enjoyed the circus, Madame Tussaud’s wax gallery, shows, and pantomimes. In 1856 he had all his teeth pulled preparatory to having a new set put in, and wrote, “I feel very uncomfortable and cannot talk.” He grew a beard all over his face except his under lip, enjoying the reprieve from shaving.  He also tried to learn to sing, with dismal results due to the climate and his difficulty breathing.  He noted that he slept his usual hours, from midnight till four or five in the morning.  In England, Asa visited with his second wife Lizzie’s mother and family, who were curious but prejudiced against Mormons. 

Asa had a great fascination with history and was intrigued by the old ruins and castles and cathedrals, King Arthur, and Mary, Queen of Scots: “One can feel the presence of the restless and unhappy spirits that lived in that age.” Perhaps this is due to his ancestry, as he was descended from long-ago British royalty (Plantagenet line from King Henry II and William the Conqueror).  On another occasion, “I could not help imagining to myself the astonishment and consternation with which the ancient restless and warlike lords of the country who once owned and occupied the castles would look upon the present scene if they could be permitted to stand where I stood.  Wonder if their restless spirits hover around and take any interest in what is going on now?” He also wrote home to his son about the different English accents and dialects, with a number of humorous example sentences.

P.S. written in Deseret alphabet in Asa's journal 
Asa boarded with the Perkes family on his mission and married their teenage daughter Agnes as a plural wife, after receiving permission from Brigham Young.  This question and answer was curiously in the postscripts of two letters Asa copied into his journal, and these postscripts were written in the Deseret alphabet.  I had my friend, a schoolteacher at This is the Place, help me translate them (for perhaps the first time since the original was penned).  The newlywed couple had both recently recovered from smallpox before the wedding.

Asa helped with the emigration efforts and booked hundreds of passengers for several sailings.  Asa had a dream of being president of the mission a year before actually assuming that position, in fulfillment of his setting apart blessing from Orson Pratt that sealed upon him the blessing of “the Holy Spirit that he may show thee by dreams of the night that which shall be for thee to do.”  This was comforting since taking an apostle’s place seemed initially overwhelming to him.  Some of his preaching took place during such violent anti-Mormon sentiment that the mob howling and throwing stones outside and pounding on the door drowned out his voice.  As editor of the Millennial Star, he penned several editorials on topics such as tithing records and emigration. He also traveled for six weeks to Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, and Hamburg on mission business accompanied by his new wife.  They had a baby in England, little Amy.

Once back in Utah, Asa’s three wives lived together at his home in Salt Lake.  Agnes and Mariette became close friends, but childless Lizzie was stormy and often moved out and had to be cajoled into coming back home. Only five of his fifteen children grew to maturity.  Asa was especially close with his son Theodore, and must have grieved when Theodore died as a young man. 

The Calkin family had just gotten settled into a new routine with Asa’s return, and he was employed at the tithing office again, when they attended General Conference in October 1861.  During the meeting they were shocked to be among the families called to pioneer the Dixie Mission.  A later newspaper notice of Asa’s death opined, “He did more for the church than any other man that ever held that office [European Mission President].  It is known that in two years he replenished the church coffers to the amount of $20,000 for which services he received a mission south, from which he will never return.” Asa had a month in which he sold his property, purchased three wagons and provisions, and moved his three wives south to St. George.  The first school in St. George was held in an exceptionally large tent, which Asa provided; the school was discontinued temporarily when a flood came and the tent was needed for shelter.  
Asa's tent
While hauling lumber in nearby Pine Valley, Asa fell in love with that beautiful place and vowed he would not be happy until he owned some land up there, which he eventually did.  He kept his cows and sheep in Pine Valley in the summer and owned a grist mill there, and years later Agnes and Amy laughed about one time when he did not come back from Pine Valley for Christmas dinner.  Asa was on an import committee, which helped the Dixie settlement’s growth, and he labored a great deal on the St. George Tabernacle even in poor health.  Asa suffered from rheumatic fever and found work as a custodian while ill.  He was remembered as one of God’s choice sons who lived a life of service and industry to both God and his fellow men, and as a man who saw the whole world as his schoolroom.

I would give him some Dramamine for those nauseating ocean voyages!


  1. A wonderful summary, Anita. Thank you. I look forward to meeting him.


  3. The first one says: "Thou may get a wife. B. Yong [Young]"
    and the second: "Thanks for your kind permission to take a wife."

  4. That's cool!
    I'd give him some kind of medicine to help with his problems with the English climate.

  5. Thank You for this, I have been looking for information on Angelina Calkins Farley his sister. She is my 4th Great Grandmother. While I haven't found much it was nice to read about her siblings