Leonard Gurley Rice 1829-1886

Leonard Gurley Rice (1829-1886)

Source: Rice Pioneers: Family Groups and Stories, compiled by David Eldon Rice. Pocatello, Idaho. 1976. No copyright information listed. Editor’s note: This work contains a few minor changes to David Rice’s compilation.


Leonard Babbit Rice and Elizabeth Babbit RiceLeonard Gurley’s parents, Ira and Sarah Ann Harrington Rice, were living in Northville, Wayne County, Michigan, when he was born September 3, 1829. Missionaries came to their home in Michigan while Leonard was a young child, and the family became members of the newly restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and soon joined the body of the Church at Nauvoo, Illinois. He remembered well, watching his father and other men helping on the building of the Temple there. He remembered, too, those sorrowful days surrounding the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum Smith. He stood with the thousands of Saints in that hot summer sun when their bodies were returned to Nauvoo in an open wagon.

The Rice home was burned by mobs the year the Mormons crossed the Mississippi River in 1846. Leonard’s father and two of his older half-brothers had preceded him to Utah to prepare ahead for the rest of the family. By this time his mother, Sarah Ann, had given birth to twelve children, ten of whom were living. Leonard, who was then 19, and the oldest son of the remaining children, carried the responsibility of bringing part of the family, Oscar North, 15; Adelbert, 9; Hyrum Smith, 4; Adeline, 11; and Caroline, about 7; across the plains to Utah. It was a great disappointment to Ira that not all of his family came with Leonard. Sarah Ann, the wife and mother, had, no doubt, died, for no mention is made of her. The motherless children were often placed in the custody of someone in the family until they were old enough to sustain themselves.

A Family of His Own

Elisabeth Babbit 1830Leonard Gurley returned the next year to help other emigrant trains. He met and married Elizabeth Almira Babbitt at Kanesville, who was already planning to travel West with the next company. Their honeymoon was spent driving teams along the pioneer trail to Utah. Leonard was made Captain over ten wagons and his wife did much of the driving of their own wagon. They made their home in Farmington, Utah.

Leonard had proven himself to be an expert horseman and one who could drive an ox team with skill. He had learned the advantages of friendliness and patience with people and he had an empathy for them that made him humble, as well as noble, and he knew how to keep the wagon train moving. These attributes of leadership put him in high demand as a wagon master for many trips back and forth across the pioneer trail.

In 1851, Leonard returned again to Iowa, hoping to bring the rest of his father’s family. In a letter to his wife, Elizabeth, he wrote that he had seen his older sisters who had married and preferred not to join the Saints in Utah, and that his younger brother, Ephraim, who would have been 5 or 6 years of age, had drowned. This loss grieved Leonard much, for he had been most anxious that all of his mother’s family be reunited in Utah. Again, he made no mention of his mother in his letter, so we have to assume that she had died earlier.

On a later trip, he met his wife’s dear girlhood friend, Margaret Buckwalter, who had been widowed, but who had remained firm in her determination to get to Utah. Upon their arrival in Utah, a sweet experience saw Leonard and Margaret married as Elizabeth placed Margaret’s hand in Leonard’s in marriage on 2 January 1853. Leonard’s two families, Elizabeth’s 11 and Margaret’s 7 (though not all of these children grew to maturity) lived close for many years to enjoy a unity seldom found in single families.

Mission Call & a New Wife

Leonard’s life was one of sacrifice for others. Between the years of 1848 and 1867, there are repeated incidents of calls to assist not only the pioneers on their trek westward, but rescue missions to destitute areas in outlying colonies. Leonard had the faith and courage of his families in Farmington while he was away from them so much of the time. Because of his skillful handling of teams, wagons and people, he was in demand as a wagon master and Captain. He was a frequent companion of President Young on his many ‘preaching tours’ to new colonies as the Church spread to outlying areas. He was called upon to help in the rescue of the Martin Handcart Company. He, with other elders, took six wagonloads of supplies to the stranded company under the leadership of Edward Martin. He was one of a party of men called to assist in the Green River Expedition to Wyoming in 1853. In 1854, he again went with Brigham Young to settlement outposts in Southern Utah and into areas that later became Southern Nevada. There was also the time he was part of a rescue party sent to meet a company of pioneer Saints stranded in winter snows. They found and carried men too weak to walk, women almost frozen, and many children through the icy waters of the Sweetwater River. Never had men witnessed so much misery and suffering. That night, the bedraggled and freezing rescue party made camp for the destitute company five miles west of the Sweetwater River. It took almost a month to get back to Salt Lake City. Leonard took cold and became severely ill, from which he never fully recovered.

It is noted in Journal History of 1857 that Governor Young and a party of travelers left Salt Lake City to visit Idaho settlements along the way to the Salmon River Valley. The distance of this trip to Fort Lemhi was 380 miles. Their teams, carriages and wagons made the trip in 32 days. Leonard Gurley Rice was said to have driven Brigham Young’s carriage. Roads were non-existent. Fort Lemhi had only recently been established in 1855.

On 1 May 1865, soon after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Leonard was called on a European Mission by the Church. He left Elizabeth Almira, whose last child was due in September of that year, and Margaret, with her family of young children, in Farmington, with instructions for the older children to carry on and help their mothers all they could. It was 5 July 1865, when he and Elders Nathaniel H. Felt and Aureleus Miner began their journey by Overland Stage. They reached New York City August 19, and boarded the S.S. Virginia for bound England. Leonard performed an honorable mission. Through prayer, his knowledge of the Gospel increased and he was able to overcome the temptations of discouragement and the things of the world. In a letter to his family he wrote, “My heart and mind are upon my children more than all things else in this world … I am thankful to say of myself (God be praised) I stand firm … I hope to perform the balance of my mission as honorable as I have what is past … May God bless you all is the prayer of your husband and the children’s father.” He was released from his mission on 21 March 1867.

Leonard’s return home did not end his calls from the Church. He was assigned to be in charge of relief wagon trains sent to meet companies of Saints coming to Utah. On his last wagon train trip in 1867, he had command of foreign converts from many lands speaking different languages. In that last crossing was Lucy Jane Stevens, who became his third wife. Ruth May Fox was in this same company and some of her written words, expressing appreciation for Leonard Gurley as a Captain, were these:

“No one who has not had the actual experience of crossing the great plains … can realize what it meant to be a Captain of a large company of emigrants of different nationalities, various occupations and decidedly diverse habits of life, some of whom had never camped out at night in their lives, who had not so much as seen a yoke of cattle, and of course, did not understand the language which frontier oxen were accustomed to….There were weary ones to be encouraged, the over-zealous to be held back; order must be maintained, rations measured out, and men appointed to guard the cattle and the camp; many of these had never seen an Indian nor fired a gun … With Leonard as Captain, I remember him as a fine looking man, spoken of as an ideal leader who was not known to have lost his temper the whole of the journey, and of whom I heard few complaints….Oh, what could we have done without a Captain? God bless his memory.” (Source not given.)

Leonard and Lucy Jane Stevens were married in Salt Lake City on 11 January 1868. They became parents of seven children; the youngest was only two weeks old when Leonard passed away on 12 September 1886, having suffered from pneumonia he contracted in the penitentiary while awaiting trial as a polygamist.

He saw the Church grow from a small beginning to be well established in the Valleys of the Rocky Mountains. He left a large posterity and bore a strong testimony of the divinity of the restoration of Christ’s Church on earth. He was buried in Salt Lake City, Utah.


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