Mormon Missionary Diaries
About the Collection
John Van Cot
by Jeffrey S. Hardy
John Van Cott was born on 7 September 1814 in Canaan, Columbia County, New York, to Losee Van Cott and Lovinia Pratt. John was raised primarily by his mother, as his father passed away when he was only ten years old, but the Van Cotts prospered financially, cultivating a large farm and raising much livestock. On 15 September 1835 he married Lucy Lavinia Sachett, from nearby Stephentown, New York. After becoming converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) through the influence of his cousin, Parley P. Pratt, John moved his wife, mother, and two children to Nauvoo in February 1846. There he assisted in the construction of the temple by donating 460 dollars and several acres of land.
Only months after arriving in Nauvoo, however, he relocated to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, to prepare for the westward migration to Utah. After wintering with the saints in Nebraska, John and his family joined the Daniel Spencer/Peregrine Sessions Company and crossed the plains, departing from Winter Quarters on 18 June 1847 and arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in late September. During the trek John served as company marshal and as a captain of ten. The Van Cotts settled in what later became known as Salt Lake City and began raising wheat, corn, oats, and other crops; on 3 October 1847 John became the first city marshal and two years later was elected to the city council. John married his first polygamous wife, Jemima Morris, on 2 May 1849, but she died two years later after a difficult childbirth.
John’s civic and family affairs were interrupted on 28 August 1852 by a call to serve a Church mission to England. A month later he left Salt Lake City and arrived in Liverpool, England, on 20 December 1852, where he was made president over the Birmingham, Worcestershire, Cheltonham, and Herfordshire Conferences. On 29 August 1853, however, the president of the Scandinavian Mission unexpectedly died and John was chosen to preside in his place. After arriving in Copenhagen, Denmark, John found the inability to speak the native language quite frustrating: “I feel strange to be in a meeting of two or three hundred and cannot speak to be understood.”1 He soon overcame this awkwardness by becoming a master of the Danish language. Although the missionary work progressed rapidly in Denmark, government opposition in Sweden and Norway limited the effectiveness of the missionaries. As John reported, “In Sweden the administration by baptism by the Elders was punishable by fine and imprisonment.”2
One of John’s primary responsibilities as mission president was to obtain funds and arrange passage for the thousands of saints who desired to emigrate to Utah. In a letter to the president of the British Mission he exclaimed, “As regards the emigration, we do not have to urge that in the least, for there is no lack of the spirit; only give them the means.”3 He also published the Scandinavian Star, a Church periodical, in Danish, and many religious tracts in all of the native languages of the Scandinavian Mission. After two and a half years in Denmark, John left Copenhagen on 15 January 1856 and guided a group of immigrants to Iowa City, Iowa, where they organized into handcart companies and journeyed to Utah. After arriving in Utah, John immediately left for Wyoming to assist in rescuing the last two of these, the Martin and Willie Handcart Companies, which were suffering greatly from hunger and exposure.
In February 1857 John married two more polygamous wives, Caroline Amelia Pratt, and Laura Christina Petra Lund. During the invasion of Johnson’s Army in 1858 John remained in Salt Lake City, ready to burn it if hostilities arose. The next year, on 19 September 1859, he once again left his family to serve a second term as president of the Scandinavian Mission. As in his first mission he engaged in publishing, preaching, arranging for emigration, and opening new areas for proselytizing. The efforts of John and his missionaries found great success: in 1861 alone 1,954 people were baptized into the Church in the Scandinavian Mission and 1,177 emigrated to America.4 On his own trip home in 1862 John presided over a large group of these saints emigrating to Utah, first sailing to New York and then traveling to Florence, Nebraska. On the subsequent journey across the plains John divided the immigrants into two groups headed by Christian A. Madsen and Ola N. Liljenquist. They departed from Florence on 12 July 1862 and arrived at Salt Lake City on September 23.
After returning from his second mission John was called as one of the First Seven Presidents of the Seventies, and was aided in this calling by his “eloquence as a preacher.”5 He later served on the board of directors for the United Order of the Church under the direction of Brigham Young. Besides these ecclesiastical positions, he also served for many years as a member of the Salt Lake City council and of the territorial legislature, and participated in helping Danish immigrants find homes and jobs in Utah. He also expanded his family by marrying Caroline Caisa Erickson; in total from his five wives he fathered twenty-eight children. John Van Cott at home died in Salt Lake City on 18 February 1883. After his passing the Deseret News declared, “It would be difficult to find a more exemplary or conscientious man than Brother Van Cott….At home and abroad…he was regarded with esteem.”6
1 Annie A. Van Cott, “Van Cott History,” revised edition, p. 66. MSS 1743, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
2 Ibid., 73.
3 Ibid., 70.
4 Andrew Jenson, History of the Scandinavian Mission (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1927), 160, 533.
5 R. R. L., “John Van Cott,” Voice of the Pioneers 2 (June 1947): 3.
6 Deseret News, Obituary of John Van Cott, 30 February 1883.
Ancestry World Tree Project. Provo, Utah: MyFamily.com, 2003. 15 March 2004, available from http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Search/frameset_search.asp
Bitton, Davis. Guide to Mormon Diaries & Autobiographies. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1977.
Flake, Lawrence R. Mighty Men of Zion: General Authorities of the Last Dispensation. Salt Lake City: Karl D. Butler, 1974.
Jenson, Andrew. History of the Scandinavian Mission. Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1927.
________. Latter-Day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia: A Compilation of Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Vol. 2. Salt Lake City: The Andrew Jenson History Co., 1901-1936.
L., R. R. “John Van Cott.” Voice of the Pioneers 2 (June 1947): 2-3.
Lund, Anthon Henrick. Scandinavian Jubilee Album. Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1900.
Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel, 1847-1868. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003. 15 March 2004 available from http://www.lds.org/churchhistory/library/pioneercompanysearch.
Van Cott, John. “Diaries, 1852-1862.” MSS 1035, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
________. “Papers, 1838-1913.” MSS 1743, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
Whitney, Orson F. History of Utah. Salt Lake City: G. Q. Cannon & Sons, 1892-1904.