Mormon Missionary Diaries
About the Collection
Willis Eugene Robison
by Jeffrey S. Hardy
Willis Eugene Robison was born on 1 March 1854 in Crete, Hill County, Illinois, the first child of Benjamin Hancock Robison and Lillis Alvira Andree. Shortly after his birth, the young family joined the 1854 Peregrine Sessions Company of the overland Mormon migration and traveled to Utah, arriving in Salt Lake City on 4 August 1854. Shortly thereafter they relocated to Fillmore, Millard County, Utah. There Willis worked on his father’s farm, received his primary education in the local schools, and on 30 March 1862 was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a teenager he labored as a clerk in the Fillmore co-operative establishment. On 8 July 1874 he married Sarah Ann Ellett in Fillmore, and the next year the first of their twelve children was born. Around 1880 Willis moved his family to Scipio, Millard County, Utah, where he engaged in farming
In 6 October 1882, however, Willis was called to serve in the Southern States Mission of the Church, and just nine days later he bid his family good-bye and began his journey. After arriving in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the mission headquarters, the mission president assigned Willis to labor in and around Cedar Creek, Tennessee. From the very start Willis found much opposition to the work of the missionaries: meetings were frequently disrupted by hecklers, halls and schoolhouses that they used for meetings were inexplicably locked, and occasionally mobs formed to harass them. During a missionary conference, for example, Willis noted, “we found a spirit of mobocracy on all sides…The Haine Spring school house where we usually held meetings was burned down last night and a notice posted on a tree near by the ruins notifying us to leave or accept the consequences.”1 Also at this conference Willis was reassigned to labor in Western Tennessee
Despite the opposition, Willis and his companions did succeed in baptizing a few souls into the Church. On 12 August 1884, however, Willis received word that two of his companions and two local members had been killed in the infamous Tennessee Massacre, as it later became known in the Church. Upon hearing this news Willis wrote, “I cannot attempt to describe how I felt under the circumstances, language is insufficient.”2 That night Willis disguised himself as a common laborer and managed to reach the scene of the crime to find out exactly what had transpired. Then, after B. H. Roberts, also through a covert operation, obtained the bodies of the dead missionaries, Willis was appointed to escort them home to Utah. This fateful journey also marked the end of his mission to the Southern States
After four years at home in Scipio, Willis moved his family to Fremont, Piute County, Utah, in order to obtain a larger plot of land, but after only a year relocated to nearby Loa. In Loa he served in the Church organization as bishop of the Loa Ward from 1889 to 1893 and then as the first president of the Wayne Stake from 1893 to 1896. In addition to farming, he also served as County Superintendent of Schools for three terms, and as representative to both the lower house of the territorial legislature, and the Constitutional Convention of Utah. Tragedy struck in 1896, however, when four of Willis’ children died, three from diphtheria. By 1905 two more children died, and in 1907, shortly after moving to Hinckley, Millard County, Utah, Willis’ wife Sarah passed away. It is hard to imagine the heartbreak and sorrow he must have felt during these trying years.
In Hinckley Willis became acquainted with a widow, Emma Elizabeth Reeve, whom he married on 12 February 1908. In addition to one daughter from her previous marriage, the couple had two children before Emma’s untimely death in 1914. Four years later, on 21 February 1918, Willis married another widow, Mary Louise Ellett (no relation to his first wife), who helped raise his remaining children. In Hinckley, Willis’ ecclesiastical duties included the position of patriarch of the Deseret Stake. Willis Eugene Robison passed away on 28 June 1937 at home in Hinckley, preceded in death by two wives and nine out of his fourteen children.
1 ReubenSilasWillis E. Robison, “Journal, 1882-1883,” 25 May 1883. MSS 1591, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
2 Robison, “An Unpublished Letter on the Tennessee Massacre,” Improvement Era 2, no. 1 (November 1898): 2.
Ancestry World Tree Project. Provo, Utah: MyFamily.com Inc., 2003. 8 March 2004 available from http://www.ancestry.com/trees/awt/main.htm
Bitton, Davis. Guide to Mormon Diaries & Autobiographies. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1977.
Carter, Kate B., ed. Our Pioneer Heritage. Vol. 14. Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1958
Jenson, Andrew. Encyclopedic History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City: Deseret News Publishing Co., 1941.
________. 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. 1. Salt Lake City: Andrew Jenson Historical Co., 1901-1934.
Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel, 1847-1868. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003. 1 March 2004. Available from http://www.lds.org/churchhistory/library/pioneercompanysearch
Reeve, Mary Lyman. “Pioneer Interview, Wiilis Eugene Robison, 1937.” MSS Film 920 no.94, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
Robsion, Willis E. “Journals, 1882-1884.” MSS 1591, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
________. “An Unpublished Letter on the Tennessee Massacre.” Improvement Era 2, no. 1 (November 1898): 1-14.
Whittaker, David J., Duane H. Zobrist II, and Todd Kim, eds. Register of the Willis E. Robison Collection. Provo, Utah: Dept. of Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, 1991.