Text Box: The Early History of The Sylvester Wilson Family

And The History of Wilsonville, Utah

By Byron J. Wilson, a great-grandson

Our Wilson line has been traced back to James Wilson, born in 1776 in North Carolina. He had a son, Elijah, born in 1801 also in North Carolina. Elijah married and had three children before his wife and 4th child died. He then married Martha Kelly in 1830. They joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1835. They spent some time in Jackson Co., Missouri, then were driven out and went to Nauvoo, Illinois in 1839. Sylvester, the oldest son of the second marriage, was born 30 January 1840 in Nauvoo, Illinois.(1) Elijah Nicholas, the 2nd son who lived, was born two years later. Sylvester had 13 brothers and sisters.

The family spent about five years in Pottawattamie County in Iowa before crossing the plains. Census and family records indicate that while in Iowa at least four of the children of James and Ellender (Eleanor) Wilson were living there in the same county at the same time.

The family crossed the plains by ox wagon and were settled in Grantsville, Utah by 1852.(2) This is located at the south end of the Great Salt Lake in Tooele County. An advertisement appeared in the Deseret News on 17 April 1852: "Herding: This subscriber wishes to give notice that he is prepared to keep cattle on Stansbury IslĒ Terms 1 cent a head per day to be paid in wheat, flour, or young cattle. - Elijah Wilson." The Tooele County Court Records of 21 March 1853 shows: "A petition was presented before said court by Elijah Wilson; praying for the exclusive right of Antelope Island for a herd-ground. Said Wilson was referred to the trustees of the Perpetual Emigration Fund, the proprietors of said island."

In August of 1856, Nick (Elijah Nicholas) was enticed to live with the Shoshone Indians for two years. The family moved briefly to Spanish Fork, Utah when Johnson's army was coming to Utah. Nick reports that while they were in Spanish Fork his mother told him that his father was very sick, and she was afraid he was not going to live much longer.(3) Family folklore says he was injured while harassing Johnson's army in Echo Canyon. They returned to Grantsville and had a bounteous harvest. Elijah died 15 January 1860, at the age of 59 years, leaving 12 children, 8 of whom were too young to be on their own. Nick evidently respected Sylvester's ability for hard work, as he wrote "After the death of my father, my brother and I could not get along very well together. He was a very hard worker, and I had never done much work, and it went pretty hard with me. I would rather ride horses than work... ." (3) He soon joined the pony express.

Elijah's widow, Martha, and family moved to Wellsville, Utah in 1861. This is located just southwest of Logan. The first families called to settle Wellsville were called from the Tooele area(4), so she may have been joining friends there. She moved to Smithfield, Utah, just north of Logan, in 1868, and died there in 1897, leaving 150 descendants.

Sylvester married Mary Wood on 26 May 1861. He was 21 and she was 16. They lived in Wellsville about 5 years. Three children were born there: Mary Alice (Cheney), 28 April 1862; Sylvester Jr. 15 December 1863, (He died 3 months later); and Ervin, 19 January 1865.

They then moved to Oxford, Idaho, about 60 miles north. There Rebecca Ann was born 1 November 1866 and Martha was born 6 June 1868. The next 3 children were born at Swan Lake, Idaho, about 4 miles away. They are John Henry, 19 May 1870; George Abraham, 11 March 1873; and Charles, 1 July 1874.

A hint as to why the family went to Oxford and then left can be obtained from a 1879 article in the Idaho Enterprise, a newspaper started in Oxford and subsequently moved to Malad City, describing the situation in the area. In the article it mentions that during 1865 there was a great influx of families from Salt Lake and the settlements in northern Utah. For a number of years the area grew until all available land that had water was taken. Then followed a period of grasshopper and cricket infestation, such that raising any vegetation was virtually impossible. Many started leaving the area as a result.(5)

They left Swan Lake in 1874 and leased a place in Elsinore, Utah, from Joshua Sylvester, the first Mormon Bishop appointed in Elsinore. This writer can find no hint as to why they moved this far, except that this was very near where his aunt, Sarah Wilson Harris, lived.(6) Possibly other relatives were in the vicinity. There Elias was born 3 October 1877.

In November of 1877, with Elias about 1 month old, the family left with Sylvester's older half brother, Alfred, for the Moab region, on the old Spanish Trail, or Gunnison Trail, as that part was called.

Spanish travelers between Santa Fe, New Mexico and the Spanish settlements in San Bernardino and Monterey, California traveled up through central Utah to bypass the Grand Canyon, the hot Arizona deserts and fierce Indian tribes. They traveled northwest up to Green River, arched north and west over the north end of the San Rafael Swell, then southwest across Huntington Creek, Cottonwood Creek, and Ferron Creek, then through the Salina Canyon and on to Las Vegas and California. This route was best suited to horse and foot travel.

Spanish traders would swap horses for Indian women and children who were taken to the Spanish settlements as slaves and trained to be domestic servants. Brigham Young tried to stop this practice, which led to several skirmishes with the Indians under Chief WaIker.

The San Rafael Swell is about 40 miles wide and 70 miles long. It was produced by an up thrust, followed by extensive erosion, leaving many castle-like formations of rock and some very deep canyons, rending the area almost impassable. Even today it is said there are no permanent settlers in the Swell.(7) This area was avoided by the Indians, as they noted their women tended to develop thick necks. They knew it as "The land of the thick-necked people." John Jorgensen, the present owner of the Wilsonville site, said his mother died of goiter. Jane McClenahan, of Castle Dale, told us her mother used to add iodine drops to the milk they drank.(8)

Very little wildlife inhabits parts of the area, as it is so dry and most natural seeps are heavily mineralized. As one writer put it: "A wolf couldn't make a decent living there!" Some areas do provide good winter cattle and sheep grazing, however. A dinosaur quarry recently was opened near the site of Wilsonville.

The Wilsonís started on this trail at Salina, Utah and traveled up, crossing Ferron, Cottonwood, and Huntington Creeks in Castle Valley, on over the top of The Swell and on to Green River. When they arrived there the river was at flood stage and Sylvester did not want to risk the crossing, so turned back and settled in what must have been the most promising part of this rather bleak land. One account says Alfred continued on to Moab, but Emery County land records indicate he later transferred to his son, Nicholas Wilson, 120 acres in Wilsonville, so he may have rejoined the group.

Sylvester and his group (9) settled on the Cottonwood Creek, also known as "Blow Valley" due to the winds, and just over a small rise on the lower Huntington Creek. This was just on the edge of the Swell. Mountains in the Wasatch Plateau just to the west fed the streams.

He ran a store and he and his brothers built a large one room log house that served as a tuition school, church and amusement hall. The school had 12-15 students of all ages from Wilsonville and nearby ranches. The desks were homemade benches and books were brought in from Sanpete County by horseback.(10) School was held there for only about 4 years, then was moved to Castle Dale, about 5 miles upstream on Cottonwood Creek, which was developing into a larger settlement as there was more open land. Wilsonville actually consisted only of a few houses and 7 to 8 families. Other families were located on ranches up and down stream.

Sylvester was a fiddler and furnished music for the first dances held in Castle Valley. His wife, Mary Wood, was a practical nurse and provided her services throughout the valley.

Although Sylvester and his group were the first settlers in Castle Valley others soon joined them. In what was probably his last colonization order, as he died 2 months later, Brigham Young in the June 1877 General Conference encouraged groups from the valleys to the West to colonize Castle Valley.

Many of the settlers came from Sanpete County, an area this author has heard referred to in the story: "One should marry a girl from Sanpete County, because no matter how bad things may get, she has seen worse!" The wife of Bishop Orange Seeley, who founded Orangeville on the Cottonwood Creek above Castle Dale, is quoted as saying, "The first time I ever swore was when we arrived in Emery County and I said, 'Damn the man who would bring a woman to such a God Forsaken country."(11)

When they settled Wilsonville, Sylvester was 38 years old. By then nine children had been born, one died. At Wilsonville three more were born: Sarah Ellen, 5 May 1879; Joseph, 20 May 1881 (these 2 died in 1891 at ages 10 and 12 from diphtheria) and Melvina, 3 June 1886.

A mail route was established between Ouray, Colorado and Salina, Utah over the Old Spanish Trail. The route covered 250 miles and took six weeks round trip by horseback. Sylvester contracted to handle mail over this route with a post office established at Wilsonville, the first such stop on the route. He established a rest station with extra horses at Thompson Springs, north of Moab and hired others to carry the mail, one of whom was Selar Cheney, who later became his son-in-law. Postal records in Washington D.C. show that the Wilsonville Post Office, with Sylvester as postmaster, was established 26 September 1879 and was discontinued 18 July 1882.(8) The railroad had reached Price, Utah and the horse-carried route was abolished. This really signaled the end of Wilsonville. It is somewhat ironic that while it was the railroad that lessened Wilsonville's importance, the settlers didn't seem to know of the immense coal deposits just 20 miles to the west which could have been to their great advantage due to the very closeness of the railroad.

The mailbag for Wilsonville was left in the crotch of a cottonwood tree at the Wilson homestead until Sylvester built a split-log post office. The building still stands even though it has been moved over a rise to Rock Creek Canyon on the south. It has been used as a granary and for miscellaneous storage.(8)

Sylvester served as the presiding Elder of the small branch at Wilsonville, and performed the wedding ceremonies for several of his children.

A quick perusal of land records in Emery County showed the following as having owned land in Wilsonville:
Sylvester Wilson			160 acres
Nicholas E. Wilson			10 acres
Ervin Wilson				36 acres
Phoneta Jane Wilson			196 acres
Hiram S. Wilson			6 ľ acres
Nicholas E. Wilson			120 acres transferred from Alfred G. Wilson

Sylvester's family grew by three while at Wilsonville and the older children were starting to marry, so he saw the need to leave for several reasons: there was no more land available for homesteading that could be brought under irrigation; he no longer had the mail route; several
severe droughts had occurred; and the creek overflowed regularly filling the irrigation ditches with silt. For whatever reasons, he sold his property to Thaddious Hambrick, a neighbor who had settled below him on Cottonwood Creek, 13 April 1889 for $1500.00, as indicated on the
Warranty Deed.(12) Family biographies indicate he actually received $500.00 cash and 20 race horses. Mr. Hambrick and several owners thereafter raised fast horses for the U.S. Cavalry. These were wild mustangs which had interbred with stray Spanish horses and were reputed to be very fast. A horse trained to the bridle was sold for $25. The mesa ridge just south of Wilsonville was called Race Track Hill. It is rather flat and has few rocks.

The leaving group included Sylvester and Mary, 9 unmarried children (the youngest being three), and two married children and their families. Mary Alice had married Selar Cheney 10 August 1879 and they had four children, but one died before they left. Ervin had married Mary Jane Davis 26 June 1888 and she was expecting their first child as they left. The Davis family had moved to Castle Valley in 1881.

Not all contacts were severed when the family left. Martha married Harmon Curtis, who had been a school teacher at Wilsonville, 4 April 1886. They stayed in Castle Valley. Rebecca Ann later married James Robertson from Wilsonville 24 October 1889, about the time Sylvester entered Jackson, Wyo. Charles Wilson later married Naomi Davis, sister to Mary Jane Davis, in 1899. They had attended school together in Wilsonville when he was thirteen and she was seven. Some of the Davis family followed the Wilsonís to Jackson a year and a half later.

They left Wilsonville with at least 20 race horses, 5 sturdy wagons and about 80 head of cattle. The trip to St. Anthony, Idaho was over 400 miles. They left Wilsonville 31 May 1889 and reached St. Anthony, Idaho on 23 July that same year, so they must have averaged about 10 miles per day, trailing their livestock. Two months later James was born to Mary Jane and Ervin Wilson.

Mary Jane recorded in her diary that as they passed through Salt Lake City they saw a sign offering ice cream for sale. They thought they should find out what that was, but Sylvester said cash was scarce and had better be used for essentials.

Sylvester was 50 years of age when they left Wilsonville. He was to live just six more years, dying in 1895 in Jackson, two years before his mother died. Mary died in 1913, 18 years after her husband. Ervin died in 1897, just eight years after entering the valley. The settling of Jackson, Wyo. and the pioneers' lives there have been well documented by others (13) and will not be covered here.

The only remains of the early settlers in Wilsonville is a small cemetery on Race Track Hill where five babies of other homesteaders were buried, but were later moved.

The 1890 census shows 5076 in Emery County with Castle Dale having 409 and Orangeville, located a few miles further upstream, having 353.(14) Wilsonville was not listed separately, as only a few families remained. By 1890 travel over the Gunnison Trail had ceased due to the railroad and better roads built in more level places through Castle Valley.

Nothing remains at the homestead. The present owner states that as a young boy he plowed over the original homestead area and turned up bottles, spoons and pot shards, so he knows where the site was, but nothing remains today indicating anyone lived there.(8) Elsewhere in the valley are located chimney and foundation rocks from the Call home site, the third owners of the property.(15)

A local historian at Castle Dale, Owen McClenahan, said the following, "One thing that comes out about Sylvester Wilson is that he had a lot of leadership ability, was a man of strong convictions, and had the ambition to follow through. His wife, Mary, had everything it took to have raised all those children, and to have led the pioneer life her husband demanded of her."(16)

The present owner of the Wilsonville property is John Jorgensen, 170 North I East, Castle Dale, Utah 84513. Phone: 801-381-2441. The property is posted and permission must be obtained to enter. He was very friendly to us in several visits to the site and seemed pleased that someone from the family was interested in the old place.

Written by Byron J. Wilson
545 E. 3050 N.
Provo, UT 84604
Written 21 Oct 1989, revised 21 Aug 2000


(1) Two dates are reported for Sylvester's birth: 30 June 1839 and 30 January 1840. Information from the 1850 census suggests the latter date.

(2) Accounts differ as to when they crossed the plains. A child was born 19 September 1850, and the 1850 Iowa census was enumerated 3 October 1850, so they probably did not cross the plains that year. By April 1852 the family was in Grantsville, Utah.

(3) Elijah Nicholas Wilson, Among the Shoshones, Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1969. pp. 146-≠147.

(4) Milton R. Hunter, Brigham Young The Colonizer, Deseret News Press, Salt Lake City, 1940, p. 277.

(5) cited by James H. Hawley, editor, History of Idaho, S.J. Clark Publishing Co. Chicago, 1920. p.673.

(6) Elijah's youngest sister, Sarah, married Dennison L. Harris; nephew of Martin Harris, on 7 March 1847 in Council Bluffs. The family eventually settled in Monroe, Utah in 1872. She died there in 1875. Her grandson was Franklin S. Harris, President of BYU from 1921 to 1945, and President of Utah State University from 1945 to 1950.

(7) Owen McClenahan, Utah's Scenic San Rafael, Castle Dale, Utah, 1986, p. 13.

(8) Personal interviews with Owen and Jane McClenahan and John Jorgensen, 6 June 1989, Castle Dale, Utah.

(9) Sylvester and his brothers George, Nick, Chris, Davis, and Silas are listed in several histories of Castle Valley, as settling in Wilsonville, e.g. Dee Ann Finken, A History of the San Rafael Swell, 1977, p. 13, (recently reprinted in: Hiking Utah's San Rafael Swell by Michael R. Kelsey, Kelsey Publishing Co., Springville, Utah, 1986). However, these names do not agree with family records. Nick is not Sylvester's brother, but probably is the son of Sylvester's half-brother, Alfred. This writer has not  identified the others.

(10) Stella McElprang, Castle Valley, A History of Emery County, Emery County Company of the D. U. P., 1949, pp.lOl-1O5.

(11) Ward J. Roylance, Utah - A Guide to the State, Part 2, Special Tour Edition. 1982, p. 700.

(12) Warranty Deed dated 3 May 1889, Emery County records, p. 54.

(13) Judy R. Andersen, editor, In Loving Memory of Isaac George and Melvina Edna (Wilson) Robertson. Numerous Wilson biographies are included. Published privately at Pinedale, Wyoming.

(14) W.A. Lever, History of Sanpete and Emery Counties, Odgen, Utah. 1898, p. 602.

(15) John Jorgensen, "Wilsonville" in Emery County 1880-1980. Emery County Historical Society, 1981. p. 59.

(16) Personal correspondence from Owen McClenahan, Castle Dale, Utah. 17 June 1989.

Other References

Stephan L. Carr, The Historical Guide to Utah Ghost Towns, Western Epics, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1972. p. 86.

Kate B. Carter, Our Pioneer Heritage, Vol. III, Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, Salt Lake City, Utah. 1960, pp. 409-414. Vol. IX, p. 638.

John L. Jorgensen, A History of Castle Valley to 1890. Masters Thesis, University of Utah, 1955. p.54.

George A. Thompson, Utah's Ghost Towns and Lost Treasures, Dream Garden Press, Great Salt Lake City, Utah, 1982. p. 113.