Monday, December 5, 2011

Happy 203rd Birthday, Ellis Mendenhall Sanders (1808-1873)!

Gawain's great-great-grandfather

A prosperous and contradictorily irascible Quaker, Ellis Sanders gave up a comfortable life to become a pioneer in St. George. I stayed in his Nauvoo home last year!  

Ellis was born into a Quaker family in Delaware whose ancestors had sailed and settled with William Penn. He had one sister, Anne, who was disinherited for marrying a Methodist, and thus Ellis became the sole heir. He was opposed to slavery, but employed free blacks to work for the family. His daughter Hannah remembers he brought oysters home by the bushel from the Chesapeake Bay.  Ellis married Rachel and they had seven children, including daughter Rachel.

The Sanders family joined the Church, and Ellis left for Nauvoo to meet the prophet Joseph Smith and loan him a thousand dollars to help with the Nauvoo Temple.  Ellis returned to Wilmington (with Heber C. Kimball and Lyman Wight) to serve as the branch president in Delaware, but they had only been home for a few hours when word came that the prophet was killed. Brother Kimball read the letter in the presence of the Sanders family, and said, “God has damned them, and he will damn them, they have murdered Brother Joseph. Brother Lyman, we have got to get to Nauvoo as fast as steam will carry us, and Brother Sanders, we haven’t a cent.”  Ellis wrote them each a check and Lyman gave him a note of repayment, but he later apostatized and did not return the money.

The family sold their Delaware property at a great sacrifice, and hurried to Nauvoo, where Ellis bought a brick home at the northwest corner of Page and Sidney Street for $2500 (which only sold for $525 when leaving); the restored home in Nauvoo has been a bed and breakfast hotel. It features an original banister, six fireplaces with bun-warmer cupboards, and a Nauvoo temple stone for the back step. Family lore says that Heber C. Kimball and Brigham Young preached in the parlor and that Joseph Smith was hidden from the mobs in the home’s cellar during construction; one dubious account even indicates that Ellis came out of the house with guns in both hands and threatened to shoot the ruffians.

Ellis and Rachel saw the cornerstone of the Nauvoo Temple laid, and were sealed in the Nauvoo Temple on December 18, 1845. They spent many hours in the temple during January and February before the exodus. Ellis baptized three of his daughters in the Mississippi River in January of 1846.  Ellis was also an early polygamist in this era, marrying widowed Esther Gheen (most likely in name only; she came west separately and died not long after in Ogden). She was Heber C. Kimball’s mother-in-law (thus Spencer W. Kimball’s great-grandmother), and Ellis was adopted and sealed to Heber C. Kimball as a son and afterwards signed his name as “Ellis Mendenhall Sanders Kimball.” Heber wrote Ellis a letter that concluded, “I remain your father and kind fellow.”

After building a home in Winter Quarters, Ellis helped build cabins for other Saints. While crossing the plains, Ellis had three outfits of wagons, but his hired teamster left for the Mormon Battalion, and so daughter Ann drove one of the wagons.  Indians stole some of their cattle, and then Ellis skirmished with the Indians.

In Utah the Sanders settled in Centerville, and attended the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple grounds in 1849.  Ellis was called as a doorkeeper at the Tabernacle in that same year.  In 1853 Ellis noted in his journal the appearance of a nightly comet (now identified as Comet Klinkerfuss). The Sanders came south to Springville for three months of the “duration” of Johnston’s Army, and lived with daughter Hannah’s family.  She was married to Oliver Huntington, Zina D.H. Young’s brother.  He wrote of that episode: “Eighteen people lived together for three months in a one-room house and never had a quarrel.” This is especially remarkable given that Ellis’ journal indicates a somewhat volatile man prone to altercations with the neighbors. Oliver once chastised Ellis for not being a more faithful correspondent, but eulogized his father-in-law as follows: “Ellis was an honorable man who had in former times contributed freely of his thousands for the upbuilding of Zion.”

The Sanders moved back to Centerville, but were called in the 1861 General Conference to settle the Dixie mission. They lived in a tent until Ellis could make adobe bricks to build a home, and the lot they were assigned had such poor soil that a harvest was nearly impossible.  Getting on in years, Ellis worked as a St. George city assessor, tax collector, road supervisor, and city water master.  He plowed the first furrow on the grounds of the St. George Temple.

Once one of his children complained about the family’s loss of property, and how much was given to the Church and how they missed the prosperity of their Delaware past. Ellis said that did not matter at all, “The gospel was worth it all.”  He died of paralysis, and Brigham Young spoke at his funeral in the St. George Tabernacle. The last known location of the Sanders family Bible was in the possession of great-granddaughter Ellen Cutler. Descendant June Everett has Ellis’ trunk with his wallet and many original documents.  His journal can be read online here.

I would give him a better telescope to better enjoy watching comets!


  1. I'd give him an air conditioner and a freezer for living in St. George!

  2. Hey ~ we're related!! I come thru that line also . . . ;-)