Pioneer Martial Band

The Pioneer Martial Band, from left, Aaron Denzil Nelson (Thomas’ grandson), A.H. Packer, Thomas Billington Nelson and Peter Jacobson

PIMA — The information for his life story, in his own words, was penned in an old “day book.”

Thomas Billington Nelson was born May 9, 1835, in Jefferson County, Ill., a son of Edmond and Jane Taylor Nelson, both of whom were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and who lived and died faithful to the Gospel.

Joseph Smith, the prophet and founder of the church, baptized Thomas in the mighty Mississippi River at the age of 8. Thirteen months later, Joseph and his brother, Hyrum, were killed by an angry mob when they were held in Carthage Jail on trumped-up charges. In remembering those trying times, Thomas recalled seeing the prophet meet officers who were hunting him; but they did not know him, nor did they recognize him.

The Nelsons and thousands of other church members crossed the river to Iowa as they started for Salt Lake, described thus by Thomas: “Away we go through mud, water, rain, sleet, grass, brush and everything else, barefooted, partly clad with not much to eat. When night came, the men would build up log fires. After supper, we sang and danced when the camp was on dry, solid ground. There was plenty of music and good singers.”

In this manner, they slowly made their way to Mount Pisgah, where his father put in a good crop of corn.

“In all this travel and labor, I took an active part; though small, I was stout, active and willing,” Thomas wrote.

They left Mount Pisgah in the spring of 1850 and headed for Salt Lake. Thomas was then in his 14th year; and he and his brother, William, took their father’s turn standing guard twice a week, their father being sick much of the time. Thomas Johnson was the captain.

Thomas remembers that journey across the plains with fondness: “We had plenty of good men and good women, and lots of young folks and plenty of good singers, plenty of good music, lots of singing, and lots of preaching and praying. We entered Salt Lake a happy band of Saints.”

They reached Salt Lake on Sept. 9, 1850, where they camped on the public square for two days. Being the stout lad he was, he hired out, doing as much hard work and riding as any man. During the 1850s and ‘60s, Thomas had many good Indian scrapes.

On March 27, 1853, just prior to his 19th birthday, he married Mary Catherine Welker, age 21, who was well qualified as a housekeeper and mother and who, in time, presented him with six sons and five daughters. In 1862, Thomas organized the first martial band of Cache Valley and was commissioned band major in the Utah Militia. Two years later, they moved to Bloomington, Bear Lake, Idaho, and he also organized the first band there.

On June 2, 1867, he married a second wife, Dortha Christina Sorenson, who honored him with two boys and seven girls, making a total of 20 children. Dortha also was a good mother.

During these years, Thomas earned a livelihood working in the timber business and doing odd jobs. In 1878, Thomas worked at the Logan, Utah, Temple Mill as a common hand. In the spring of the next year, he went to the mill again and had charge of the timber business for five months.

In 1890, forsaking the cold winters of Utah, the family came to the Gila Valley, settling in Bryce. In 1892, he was ordained first counselor to Alma N., Bryce, of the Bryce Ward, serving until 1905. He then was first counselor to Bishop David H. Claridge.

He and four other stalwart pioneers made up the Fife and Drum Corps, playing for all the important festivities of early Safford and the Gila Valley. Those four were Alonzo Packer, James Freestone, Peter J. Jacobson and William Ballard.

Thomas left this life at age 82 on Feb. 19, 1918, in Thatcher and rests in the Thatcher Cemetery.

Special thanks to Julie Carpenter, a third great-granddaughter, for this information. This and other individual and family histories may be found at the Eastern Arizona Museum in Pima. It is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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