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Catharine Jane Cottam

Catherine E Poelman

Catharine Jane Cottam - by Catherine E Poelman

At eighteen Catharine was a five-foot-ten-inch-tall beauty with thick, black curly hair that reached to the floor when she sat on a chair, “the prettiest girl in St. George” bragged her brother, when she fell in love.  Her parents discouraged the match but Catharine wanted to become a plural wife of a charismatic, dynamic leader in the church and community, Miles Park Romney.  She sensed her destiny.   

Her parents had joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in England, having heard the gospel from Heber C. Kimball.  Each was married before emigrating but had lost their spouses.  Catharine’s father, Thomas Cottam, lost his wife to malaria in Nauvoo leaving him with a young son.  Catharine’s mother, Caroline Smith, lost her baby and husband to illness in St. Louis where Thomas had gone to find work, but not before he had asked Thomas to take care of Caroline if he died.  Thomas and Caroline soon married and earned the means for the trek west by 1852, then were sent to settle in Dixie ten years later.  Thomas was a turner by trade making elegant furniture.  He taught Catharine and her friends arithmetic and spelling as well as a love of reading and literature in his shop.  There she learned to braid straw hats and weave chair bottoms from willows and strips of cow hides.  

Catharine was a peace maker.  She was by nature reserved and sought no positions, but was content to create a comfortable home and be a mother.  That made Miles’ first wife, Hannah, profoundly grateful. “When I came to live with Sister Catherine she was considerate of my feelings and good to the children.  She helped in the house and did not expect all my husband’s attentions.”  Her accepting attitude kept home life on an even keel when Miles married a fourth wife, Annie, some four years later in the newly completed St. George Temple.  Annie was a gifted young school teacher liked by everyone.

In contrast to a flourishing St. George community, the Mormons settling in St. Johns, Arizona needed reinforcements and a call was issued to Miles and his family.  Catharine was the wife selected to travel with Miles as he transported a first group of his family over the rough terrain.  Travel was challenging. They carried seven children with them, Catharine’s four children and three children of the other wives.  They carried water in barrels attached to the sides of the wagons and cooked over the campfire.   At night, they rolled out their bedding and slept under the stars, while wild animals howled in the distance.
 
Catharine described the atmosphere in the wild frontier town. “I believe there are some as wicked people here as can be found anywhere on the footstool of God, and without the Lord on our side we would stand a poor show.” However she felt perfectly safe among the faithful Saints and was soon leading the Relief Society of forty sisters, making warm woolen quilts for an old blind Mexican member.  Within three years arrests were being made of men with plural wives and Catharine and Annie were forced to hide to avoid being subpoenaed to appear as witnesses against Miles.  Hiding under a bed one night, Catharine got the giggles while the others cried. “There is no rest for the wicked so perhaps we are of that class.  At any rate we haven’t had much lately,” wrote Catherine to her parents.  She and Annie were moved like fugitives from place to place finally being concealed in Snowflake, Arizona.

Miles left for Mexico in disguise to avoid arrest, entrusting Catharine and the children to her parents.  After two years they were able to join him but soon after their arrival little Claude, seven-years-old, died of scarlet fever after being administered to by his father and other brethren many times.  Catharine was grief stricken.  “We sorely miss him…He had faith and asked for blessings many times,  sometimes making the same request of me when I was lying by him in the night.  He suffered intensely, had a great many spasms but still our faith was strong until it seemed cruel to do so any longer.”  Her consolation was to gather wild roses and buttercups along the banks of the river and weave them into her rush baskets.

The early years in Mexico were often discouraging.  One May the garden froze out, seven horses were stolen, hay and fodder were nearly gone, the grass was dry but Catharine felt, “We are here living by faith as it were…seeing but a short distance ahead at a time and still I have no doubt but there will be a brighter day in the future.”

Miles soon moved Catharine and the children up to a mountain ranch, thirty-five miles southwest of Colonia Juarez, next to the Pratt family.  The land was excellent for grazing.  The mountains were covered with giant pines and oaks, with an undergrowth of wild flowers of which Catharine found 135 varieties during their stay.  She would wander with her children over the meadows collecting flowers, eating wild grapes, gathering shells while the boys fished. However, the growing season was short and though there was an abundance of wild game, food was often scarce because her young boys, the oldest being just twelve, had not yet learned how to hunt.

When they moved back near  town Miles’ large family could gather more often.  He built his wives homes on a farm near Colonia Dublan.  The children attended the Juarez Academy.  The church was strong.  Holidays were especially joyous.  For Christmas the wives divided the preparations.  Catharine separated the milk and made hats and slippers.  Other wives sewed, took care of the chickens, and supervised the making of molasses and butter.  Early Christmas morning they marched into the big room just as the sun rose and walked around and around the beautiful tree with the sun lighting up its homemade trimmings. “Then Miles delivered the gifts with many a joke and chuckle.  Old Santa himself could not have made things more merry.”

At age forty-one Catharine gave birth to Vernon, the last of her ten children.  When he was two, Vernon came down with a fever and continued sick for weeks.  He kept wanting to lie down and finally could not walk or use his arms.   Miles administered to him. Catharine rubbed him with consecrated oil, also with salt and whisky twice a day.  Finally a doctor who had studied in Boston told them it was infantile paralysis. “I wish you could send his name to the temple,” she wrote her brother.  At a fast meeting, Catharine bore her testimony and was unable to control her emotions, crying a bit.  On the way home she said, “I hope I didn’t embarrass you?”  “Oh, it was all right,” Miles said, “but I think you had better leave public speaking to me.”

Catharine traveled with Miles to Sonora on his last trip after which he died suddenly.  She was a widow at age forty-nine.  She continued living with Hannah and Annie for several years.  When the Mexican revolution began in nearby Casas Grandes and Mormon deputies went into hiding, one of them slept at Catharine’s house for six weeks.  Afraid of a gun, Catharine slept with a large knife tucked under the head of her mattress.  Catharine was frail when the women and children were ordered to leave the country, warned just earlier that morning.  She left cake and chicken in the oven.  Packed in the train like cattle with not a drop to drink, a few girls started to sing, “Are you ever burdened with a load of care….”  Catharine smiled at her daughter, tears streaming down her tired face.

Staying once again in St George, the stake president invited her to speak.  “Take all the time you like,” he said.  She was so frightened she could barely stand.  She bore her testimony and then asked her brother Thomas to take her place. Catharine knew she had as many faith promoting experiences to tell and was as smart as her brother in school.  Then she realized that while her husband thought he was doing her a kindness when he suggested leaving the public speaking to him, he had not.  She told her daughter, “Never let anyone rob you of your God given right to develop your talents.”

REFERENCES
______________________________________________________________________
Hansen, Jennifer Moulton, Letters of Catharine Cottam Romney, Plural Wife, University of Illinois Press, 1992
Miner, Caroline Eyring, As a Great Tree: The Life Story of Caroline Cottam Romney Eyring, 1962
Romney, Thomas C., Life Story of Miles Park Romney, 1948

Owner/SourceJohn Hendrik Poelman
Linked toCatharine Jane Cottam; Miles Park Romney; Miles Park Romney; Vernon Romney

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