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Ira Jones Willes

Question: What did Ira Jones Willes do to help the Saints during the Missouri expulsion?

Answer: Ira Jones Willes was born in Berne, Albany, New York, on January 21, 1812, to Eleazer Willes and Achsah Jones. He grew up as a New York farm boy. In April 1831, Ira and his brother Sidney, joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In August 1831 he and Sidney, arrived in Independence, Missouri with the first company of Mormons to initiate the establishment of Zion.

During the Independence, Missouri, expulsion, Ira saved a large herd of Mormon cattle by decoying the mobsters after him with a small group of cattle. He was finally captured by the mob, and although badly beaten, refused to reveal where the main herd had been taken. Mention of this heroic deed is made in the journal of the Prophet Joseph Smith (History of the Church, 2:46) .

After Missouri, Ira and Sidney made their way to Nauvoo, where they assisted in the building of the Nauvoo Temple and the City of Nauvoo. Persecution once again forced them to move, this time to Council Bluffs, Iowa. In July of 1846 Ira and Sidney Willes joined the Mormon Battalion in Iowa and participated in this 2,000-mile march. Ira was a private in Company B. Ira’s distinguished and capable brother, Sidney, became one of the few Mormons appointed as officers during the march.

After their release from the Battalion in California, the Willes brothers went to work for Sutter.

In March of 1848, Sidney Willes and Wilford Hudson discovered gold on the south fork of the American River near Sacramento. The Willes brothers, Ira and Sidney, and others soon established that the American River gold deposit was an especially rich find. It was this claim, that caused the California Gold Rush of 1849. (The American river is known for the discovery of gold at Coloma in 1848 that started the California Gold Rush and contributed to the initial large-scale settlement of California by European immigrants.)

In 1848 Ira and Sidney helped pioneer a road between Sacramento and Salt Lake Valley through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In 1849 the brothers arrived in Salt Lake Valley, where they each married daughters of Cornelius Peter Lott, and settled in Lehi, Utah. Ira married Melissa, and Sidney married Alzina.

During the 1850’s Ira and Sidney operated a wagon train that helped new converts immigrate to Utah. Ira and his nine-year-old handicapped son, Cornelius, were drowned on December 15, 1863. A load of wood tipped over while crossing a creek near Lehi, Utah, and they were pinned beneath it. Ira and Cornelius were buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

Ira should be remembered for his major contribution to the Church and United States history, through his pioneering in Missouri, Illinois, California and Utah, his saving of the Mormon cattle, and a major contribution to the California Gold Rush.

Melissa Lott Smith Willes (1824-1898), like her mother before her, was an outstanding personality herself. When Ira died, he left Melissa with five children, the youngest only four months old. Her oldest daughter had died at the age of four years in 1856. Ira Pratt Willes her eldest son died at age nineteen years in 1869.

Melissa outlived her husband by over thirty years, and died July 13, 1898 in Lehi. The Utah Historical Society lists Melissa’s burial as Lehi, Utah, Utah (Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Park, Lehi, Utah County, Utah, USA) and a memorial marker is found at the Salt Lake City Cemetery, C-1-7, where her husband, Ira Willes, is buried. Lehi’s first cemetery no longer exists, but a large marker has been erected in memory of the dead who lie there. It is located on Highway 91 at 8th North in Lehi.

Source: “Ira Jones Willes,’ by Ralph A. Willes, Jan. 1984,;


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