About William Warner Major, Sr.
Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel 1847–1868 Brigham Young Company (1848)
Approximate age at departure: 44
In England William Warner Major was a miniaturist, an artist who painted photograph-sized portraits. While growing up in London, he idolized great artists, such as Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788 ) and Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and tried to imitate their styles. Then he and his sister and brother met the Mormon missionaries and all three families were baptized within a week of each other. Thus started a journey from London to Nauvoo to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, to the Great Salt Lake Valley and back to London where Major died serving his 3rd mission.
Nine days after his death, William Warner Major’s missionary companions, William Henry Kimball and James Marsden, wrote a one-page history of their friend. This valuable resource has been reworded, reworked, and published numerous times.
There has been little new information about Utah’s first professional artist in over 150 years! Research has produced a 3-page journal and five letters written by Major. There are also notes of a speech about manners delivered by this cultured London emigrant to his unrefined Western friends while camping out in the wilds of Nebraska. Because Major was a leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in England and America, his activities were recorded in the London Conference Records and the Journal History. Furthermore, since Major associated, labored, nurtured, served, and sketched portraits of numerous pioneers, his endeavors were noted in their personal journals and diaries. From these mineable sources emerge the story of a colorful, devoted, talented leader and his faithful, adventurous wife, Sarah Coles Major.
William Warner Major and Sarah Coles Major joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1842. Until his death, Major occupied leadership positions. He sat in the "Presidency of Elders of London Branch" with William Lewzy, the man who baptized him. Major served three missions: two in the London area and one in St. Louis, Missouri, United States. In Winter Quarter's Nebraska he was called to the Municipal High Council. Later, he was a member of the Great Salt Lake High Council.
After he arrived in Nauvoo in 1845, he functioned as an official artist for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Major’s paintings are prolific and diverse. From 1845 to 1846 Major was commissioned and paid through temple funds to paint portraits of Church leaders to be hung in the Nauvoo Temple. Working with other artists in Nauvoo, Major helped complete two large historic panoramas. Indian Chiefs living in Nebraska and the Utah Territory stood silently in front of his scrutinizing gaze and talented hand. Crying babies, squirming children, proud mothers and fathers, elderly matriarchs and patriarchs posed for portraits by the British professional. He also sketched the scenery while crossing the plains, and later, he was assigned the duty of artist on an 1852 exploration trip to Southern Utah with Brigham Young.
William Warner Major and Sarah Coles Major were close friends of Brigham Young and his family. They dearly loved the President of the Mormon Church and Governor of the Utah Territory. Shortly before Major died, he composed a letter to Brigham Young. "I never forget you from morn till even," he declared.Two other letters Major penned to Brigham Young were signed, "Yours Affectionately." Brigham Young was included in at least five paintings by Major.
The Major family traveled to the Utah Territory in Brigham Young's 1848 company of 1,229 people. "Isaac Morley was sustained as President of the company, with Reynolds Cahoon and William W. Major as his counselors." When William Warner Major drove his wagon down the steep slopes of Emigration Canyon in September 1848, he was the first professional artist to enter the Great Salt Lake Valley.
There are no known pictures of William Warner Major Sr. The closest imagine we have of what he may have looked like are the pictures of his sons, Joseph Smith Major (1845-1872) and William Warner Major, Jr. (1836-1894).
There is no doubt Kimball and Marsden knew, loved, and respected William Warner Major. At the age of nineteen, William Henry Kimball, the son of Heber C. Kimball and Vilate Murray, met the middle-aged William Major for the first time in Nauvoo.
Heber C. and Vilate Kimball hired Major to paint a portrait of their family in 1845 which included William [Kimball] with his wife and little daughter (Whitney, "Scenes in Nauvoo, and Incidents from H. C. Kimball's Journal," Women's Exponent, 12 (15 October 1883).
In 1848 the Major family crossed the plains in the same great pioneer group as the Kimball family. In Salt Lake, the Kimball's and the Major's lived only a few blocks apart. Because Heber C. Kimball and William Warner Major were both prominent leaders, they repeatedly fulfilled Church assignments together. The Kimball home is a conspicuous feature in a sketch of Salt Lake City (Church collection) drawn by Major in 1852. William H. Kimball and William Warner Major performed their labors together in London, England in 1854. Kimball was constantly at Major's side during his long illness. When his long-time friend died, a grieving Kimball wrote his father, "Through this bereavement I feel as lonely as though there was not a person within a thousand miles of me..." (Letter to Heber C. Kimball, Church collection).
James Marsden was a British convert who joined the Church after William Major immigrated to American; thus he probably didn’t meet the portrait painter until 1853. Marsden was frequently associated with Major throughout his mission. In 1854 William H. Kimball and James Marsden shared an apartment with William Warner Major at 35 Jewin Street in London.
Nine days after William Major’s death, on October 11, 1854, William H. Kimball wrote in his missionary journal, "Went to Elder Marston's and got the history of Elder Major as near as possible and sent it to Liverpool (emphasis added)" (Journal of William H. Kimball, Church collection). In this statement Kimball appears to question the accuracy of his work.
Indeed, the Kimball/Marsden history contains some imprecise statements which have tenaciously endured for over a 145 years. Copied below is the Kimball/Marsden history with corrections and explanations:
Death of Elder William Warner Major
35, Jewin-street, City, London, Oct. ll, 1854.
Dear President F. D. Richards--In compliance with your request, and our own feelings, we proceed to make a statement of a few leading incidents in the life of our late brother, Elder William Warner Major, who departed this life on the 2nd instant, at seven p.m.
Elder Major was baptized in London in the year 1842. He was soon ordained an Elder, and sent on a mission to preach the Gospel in Reading, and throughout Berkshire,and was successful in bringing many persons into the Church.
The writers probably mentioned Reading because it is a large city in Berkshire and may be more familiar to the readers than the small parishes in which William actually worked. The greatest portion of his missionary service was discharged in the area of Newbury, a Berkshire town about 12 to 15 miles southwest of Reading. William labored in Newbury and surrounding parishes from February to December 1843, baptizing 33 members.
He continued to labor in the Ministry, with considerable success, until the winter of 1844, when he immigrated to Nauvoo, where he arrived about the month of August in that year.
The Kimball/Marsden qualifying word "about" in this sentence may be an indication that the authors were unsure of the exact month. It appears that William Warner Major landed in Nauvoo on April 18, 1844. The Major family sailed with 81 Saints on the ship Swanton (Black, Early Members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 3:31), which arrived in New Orleans April 5, 1844. (See Sonne, Ships, Saints, and Mariners: A Maritime Encyclopedia of Mormon Migration 1830-1890, 185.) Eighty-one Saints then boarded the steamer, Hugh Patrick, which docked at Nauvoo on April 18, 1844 (Willard Richards Journal, 19 April 1844, LDS Church Archives.)
He soon became acquainted with the authorities of the Church. A 3-page journal of the history of the Marylebone Branch believed to be written by William Warner Major reveals that William apparently became acquainted with some Church leaders before he moved from England. From July 1842 to February 1844 he was called first to be a Branch President, next a missionary, and then the President of the West London Branches. During this time he met Orson Hyde and worked closely with Lorenzo Snow, who was President of the London Conference (Marylebone Branch Records, Family History Library.) and was extensively employed by them in his profession, that of an artist. He continued with the Church through all her difficulties in Nauvoo until forced to move in 1846.
He traveled to "Winter Quarters" through rain, hail, snow and wind, and endured many and great hardships, with thousands of other Saints, who were driven from their homes for the Gospel’s sake. References to William obtaining goods from the Temple Committee in Nauvoo were recorded from March 12 through July 23, 1846 (Nauvoo Temple Committee, Daybook K, LDS Church Archives); thus, he departed from Nauvoo sometime in late summer or early fall and arrived at Winter Quarters on October 22, 1846 (Willard Richards’s Journal, LDS Church Archives).
In Winter Quarters he was appointed a member of the High Council of the Chief Stake of Zion, of which he continued an honorable member, until the 6th April, 1853, when he was appointed on a mission to England. William Warner Major’s High Council experience was interrupted. He was called to the Winter Quarters High Council, as indicated, however, he was not asked to participate on the High Council which was organized in Salt Lake City October 8, 1848, shortly after the Major family arrived in the Utah Territory. See History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1932). He was again set apart to the High Council in Salt Lake City on February 19, 1849, ( Manuscript History of Brigham Young, William S. Harwell, ed. Collier's Publishing Co., 1997.)
In 1848, he left Winter Quarters, with President Young, for Great Salt Lake Valley. He lived in Great Salt Lake City five years. He traveled through the principal settlements of Utah, and made many interesting sketches of imposing scenery in those Western wilds; also of many of the chiefs and braves of the tribes of the wilderness.
He was diligent in attending to all his duties as a counselor, and in providing the necessaries and comforts of life for his family; and was ever ready to go or come at the bidding of those whose right it was to command him.
It has been said, "Brother Major was perfectly master of his temper." In all his trials no person ever saw him betray what could be called, a bad temper. In this respect he was truly exemplary. His kindly disposition won for him many friends. Indeed he had few or no enemies.
William Warner Major arrived in England on October 16, 1853 (Millennial Star 15 [29 October 1853], no. 44:720; British Mission Historical Records and Minutes, LDS Church Archives) and was appointed to labor under the pastor of the London, Kent, Reading, and Essex conferences. When he arrived he was suffering from a severe cold and a cough, from which he was never entirely free until he died.
On the 13th August, about three p.m., while crossing the river Thames by the Hungerford suspension Bridge, he was suddenly seized with chills and vomiting. Brother and Sister Scott were with him, and they took him to their own house. They sent for brother [William H.] Kimball, who was with him all night, and administered to him several times. During the night, he suffered much from cramp in his legs, and was much distressed with chills and fever. In a few days he became better, but soon relapsed into the same state, and so continued to be better and worse, so far as pain and distressing symptoms were concerned, but continually became weaker, until Sunday, the 1st instant, when he suddenly became worse, and continued to linger until the 2nd, about seven p.m. when he quietly died.
Elder Major evinced a strong determination to live, and to fulfill his mission. He struggled hard against death; and although he never uttered a murmur, but frequently expressed his gratitude and thankfulness, yet he evidently had no idea of dying, so long as he could speak, or consciousness remained.
Every thing that could be done, was done for him. The kind attention of brother and sister Scott, brother and sister Williams and brother and sister Smith, deserves especial notice.
Such is a brief outline of the career of this faithful messenger of truth. It seems hard that he should die so far from home and friends, but this will serve to enhance his fame and brighten his crown. He fell while fighting the battle of truth. He fell honorably, nobly. He fell to rise again, for his title is divine, and he maintained it inviolate to the last.
Copyright Jill C. Major
William Warner Major, Sr.'s Timeline
January 27, 1804
May 29, 1836
April 2, 1844
April 24, 1844
October 2, 1854
Spring City, Sanpete County, Utah