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William Adam Empey

Question: What did Brigham Young ask nine men, in the vanguard pioneer company of 1847, including William Empey, to do instead of going on to the Valley?

Answer: William Adam Empey was born in Osnabruck, Stormont, Uper Canada, on July 4, 1808 to Adam and Margaret Steinberg Empey.

William wrote in his journal: “I was married to Mary Ann Morgan Sept 16, 1829. I had 11 children by my first wife 4 boys and 7 daughters. I was a Methodist for 7 years and the lord blest me with his spirit which caused me to rejoice so that I lived as a Saint. The first gospel sermon I heard preached was by John E. Page. I knew it was the truth for I felt the power of God rest upon me. After this it was 3 years before I heard it again. Bro Wm Snow and Christopher Mercley came to my house and also Arza Adams. I was baptized by Arza Adams, Jan. 8th 1839, and the Lord blest me with his spirit and I received the gift of toungues as I prayed for it, was ordained as a teacher by Arza Adams. I knew that God had raised up a prophet and I was happy, I bore testimony to my relations and all around. I thought all would receive the truth, but my friends turned to enemies, the Spirit comforted me.’ William’s first wife, Mary Ann Morgan Empey was also baptized around 1839.

      Nauvoo 1850

William, with his family, immediately planned to join the Saints where they were gathering in Nauvoo, Illinois. His life sketch continues:

“The Lord opened my way and I started for Nauvoo in July 1839 and was blest in my journey; I arrived in Walnut Grove where there was a branch of saints, and I got the ague, and got very low so that I could scarcely walk and my family lay there in that position some time…I prayed to the Lord for strength and sprang out on the floor. I knelt down and prayed and was made whole. I then laid my hands on Nelson, my son and he was healed and in 3 days I started for Nauvoo and arrived there the 5th day of Oct. 1839.’

For the Empeys, and many others living in Nauvoo, the next four years there was indeed a sanctuary, a place where they enjoyed the society of the Saints and where they grew firm in the gospel as taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith and members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. William helped build the Nauvoo Temple while living there. William and Mary received their endowments in the Nauvoo Temple in 1846. Mary was a faithful, devoted member of the church. She went through many difficulties, especially as her husband was repeatedly called away to church duties for years at a time.

In Nauvoo, William and others were actively involved in the protection of the Prophet Joseph from the mobs and law suits that plagued him. William’s account continues:

.…On the next day (after his arrival in Nauvoo) attended conference and saw the prophet Joseph and I knew him. I saw the power of God made manifest in the sick being healed. I was ordained a seventy by Orson Pratt and put into the 13th Quorum to act as one of the Presidents. I was one of the Minute Men in Nauvoo for 6 years. August 6, 1842 I was called with 100 of the brethren to go and rescue Joseph the prophet out at Dixon. The sheriff had taken him prisoner and was going to take him to Missouri. We traveled from Sunday night till Friday and we came into Nauvoo with Joseph and there was much rejoicing with the Saints.’

Throughout his life, William was actively involved in building temples of the Lord. He worked on the Nauvoo Temple, and later assisted with the construction of the Salt Lake City and St. George Temples.

William was called to be part of Brigham Young’s vanguard pioneer company to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. He never made it to the valley with the company, as he was one of the nine men detailed by Brigham Young from his Pioneer party to remain at the upper crossing of the North Platte and operate a ferry for the benefit of the Saints and the convenience of the Oregon and California immigration during the spring runoff of 1847. The Mormon ferry at the upper crossing of the Platte marked the beginning of commercial ferry operations in the Rocky Mountains, and for six years played a prominent role in the westward migration.

It also turned out to be providentially profitable, both for the company and himself, and allowed William to return to Winter Quarters in the fall and assist his family to migrate to Utah in 1848.

William and his family arrived in Salt Lake City in September 1848 as part of the second Brigham Young Company.

In February 1850, William was given by the legislature of the State of Deseret a franchise for a ferry across the Bear River during the spring and summer of 1850, and they were able to obtain money and cattle. It appears that William’s faithfulness in operating the ferry on the North Platte River, along with his close ties with Brigham Young, provided blessings from heaven. For the next years, the Bear River ferry helped to support the families of William Empey.

During the period of 1848 to 1862 his family primarily resided in Salt Lake City but because of William’s church callings he was gone for all or parts of 1850, 1851, 1852, 1853, 1854 and 1858. Again, his wife Mary Ann faithfully carried extraordinary burdens and challenges during his many absences from home.

William notes his next calling: “I was called to settle Little Salt Lake (Parowan) got there

in December 13, 1851.’ This didn’t last long, as he went north to Bear River in spring of 1852 and “established a ferry where he remained making friends among the Indians and assisting travelers.’ With the ferry rights renewed, William and his family seemed to be set economically and reunited, but another calling came later in 1852 and changed everything—a mission call to England from September 1852 to April 1854.

William, now 46 years old, returned home to Salt Lake City after his mission to England and found his wife and six living children well. William worked on the Salt Lake Temple. Both of his polygamous marriages took place in Salt Lake City. With Mary Porter, he had six children, and with Martha Fielding, he had nine children.

In his notes William states: “In 1862 I was called to go to St. George and arrived there on Nov 4th and was called as one of the city council. I served 2 years and then resigned. I was then called as one of the High Council and was ordained as High Priest by Pres. E. Snow. I served 2 years as Alderman in St. George.’ He took up a farming across the Virgin River south of St. George which he ran for many years. He owned a ranch between Central and Pine Valley. A number of times he made trips to Salt Lake City and brought back merchandise for people in St. George.

It appears that William Adam Empey enjoyed good health throughout his life. Even at the age of 82, he led a full and active life. He passed away on August 19, 1890 in St. George and is buried in the St. George City Cemetery.

Source:, Excerpts from William Adam Empey (1808-1890), A Pioneer in Every Sense by Mark Empey Linford;

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