“Seduced Away”

Early Mormon Documents in Australia


One of the most dramatic events of the Mormon “gathering” was the wreck of the Julia Ann en route from Sydney to California. Among the passengers and crew of the Julia Ann were twenty-six Mormon converts and two returning American missionaries.1 Associated with the sailing of the Julia Ann from Australia is another story, buried in two documents held by Sydney’s Mitchell Library. These documents are unique in the history of the restored Church in Australia and link a prominent Australian family with Mormonism. More importantly, they vividly illustrate the widespread public misconceptions about the doctrines of plural marriage and the gathering to Zion. Fostered by scurrilous press reports, these misunderstandings frequently coalesced in a common assumption that the early Mormon missionaries were trying, by fair means or foul, to recruit gullible females for their exotic harems in Utah.2

The first document is a letter written in 1853 by Martha Maria Bucknell Humphreys, one of the women who subsequently drowned in the wreck of the Julia Ann. A small portion of this letter has been published, but the text is of sufficient interest to justify reproduction in full.3 The other document is a one-page memorandum from the premier of New South Wales to the governor, detailing a charge of abduction made by Mormon rebel William Wentworth Bucknell against three Mormon elders.4 This document has never been published.

Apart from a few examples of early Australian imprints, these are the only documents from the pioneer period of Mormon history so far found in any Australian repository. What makes the story particularly interesting is that William Wentworth Bucknell and Martha Maria Bucknell Humphreys were brother and sister, and their mother, Martha Wentworth Bucknell, was first cousin of William Charles Wentworth, a leading explorer and politician of the colonial era in Australia. The Wentworths are still one of the most prominent families in Sydney’s social register.5

Background to Letter from Martha Maria Humphreys

In 1826, Martha Wentworth Bucknell arrived in Sydney with her jeweler husband, William Bucknell, and their six children.6 Bucknell was allotted two land grants in the Hunter Valley, one hundred miles northwest of Sydney.7 Elms Hall, the Bucknell property between the Paterson and Allyn Rivers, is where William Wentworth Bucknell and his sister Martha Maria grew up. Young Martha Maria married William Humphreys on February 14, 1837. Her brother William married Susannah Barker in 1841.8

By October 1851, when the first American missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reached New South Wales, Martha Maria Humphreys was the mother of a large family. The Humphreys family as well as William Wentworth Bucknell, his wife, Susannah, and their sons, Thomas and Arthur, were living in the Hunter Valley. The senior Bucknells had apparently moved south to the Sydney suburb of Newtown.

Early in June 1852, John McCarthy, a young convert ordained only one month earlier, was sent on a short mission to the Hunter Valley.9 McCarthy spent much of the next year laboring in the area. Among those converted were Martha Maria Bucknell Humphreys, whom he baptized on December 17, 1852; her son John, baptized March 17, 1853; and her sister-in-law, Susannah Barker Bucknell, baptized a few months later on April 5, 1853.10

In April 1853, mission president Augustus Farnham despatched Mormon Battalion veteran William Hyde to the Hunter Valley, where McCarthy had opened the field. Three months later, Martha Maria Humphreys’s brother William Wentworth Bucknell was added to the growing membership list. Martha’s elder daughter, Eliza, was baptized by the mission president, Augustus Farnham, during a visit to the Hunter Valley in December 1853. Baptized the next year were William’s two sons, Thomas and Arthur (July), and Martha’s second son, Robert (September).11

Three branches of the Church were organized in the Hunter Valley area during 1853: the Williams River, the Clarence Town, and the Newcastle Branches. By Christmas, Farnham and Hyde were planning to send a company of Saints from the district to Utah in March or April 1854.

Less than a week after her ten-year-old daughter Eliza’s baptism, Martha Maria Bucknell Humphreys wrote a poignant letter to her mother in Sydney. Written in ink on now-yellowing, fragile paper, of which the last page is “crossed” (see next page) it is still quite legible. Martha had been a member of the restored Church for just a year and was fired with yearning to go to Utah. Her husband was away working and apparently did not yet know of Martha’s desire to emigrate, though she had written both to him and to her parents with news of her plans.

Martha’s letter illustrates the teachings of the Mormon missionaries and the beliefs and attitudes of their converts. It exhibits Mormon millennialism and the urgency felt by the converts to remove from “Babylon” before the judgments of the last days. Martha catalogues plagues and natural disasters around the world in support of her urgent plea to her mother to listen to the Mormon missionaries. She discusses plural marriage, decrying the popular view of that practice and claiming Biblical authority for the doctrine. The letter also shows Martha’s awareness of the history of the persecutions suffered by the Saints and her willingness to endure these if necessary. From beginning to end, the letter is a fervent testimony to her belief in the truth of Mormonism.

Missionary William Hyde sailed on the Julia Ann with some twenty-eight converts from the Hunter Valley in March 1854, but the Humphreys were not among the number. However, the voyage was so successful that Farnham engaged the vessel to take a second company the following year, and Martha was determined to sail this time.

Martha Humphreys’s husband apparently never joined the LDS Church; despite this, she sailed with her daughters, twelve-year-old Eliza and ten-year-old Mary, and her youngest son, seven-year-old Francis, on the second voyage of the Julia Ann, departing Sydney on September 7, 1855. Whether she was leaving William Humphreys and her older sons or whether they planned to follow later will never now be known. One month later, the Julia Ann was wrecked, and Martha Maria Humphreys and her daughter Mary were drowned. With the other survivors, Eliza and Frank Humphreys eventually reached Tahiti after spending six weeks marooned on a coral island.

Letter from Martha Maria Humphreys to Her Mother12

     Allyn River
Dec. 8th 185[3]13

My dear Mother,

The letter that I received from you by William Hill,14 I Should have answered long before this, had I received a letter from my Husband, not having done So, I now Sit down to answer it without and now my dear Mother, I will answer that question you put me, of when, are we going. I answer you, if the God of all mercies, in whom I trust, will give my Husband the means, we leave Australia, with all its woes, and bitterness, for the Land of Zion next April. I am not afraid but what when my Husband comes Home, that he will be as anxious to go as I am myself. perhaps you will Say, I am building on worldly hopes, that never will be realized. not so Mother, I mean not to boast, but knowing what I know, I tell you, if I knew for a positive certainty, that when we get there, persecutions, Such as have been the portion of the Saints before, awaited us I would Still insist upon going. what are a few Short years in this present State, compared with Life Eternal, bliss Mother, that is never to know an end. and Oh what bliss. Would Mother that a daughter’s prayers could persuade you to take the Same Step as I have done Obey the Saviours command and be baptized, hands will then be laid on you, for the remission of the Spirit and it will instruct you in all things. to morrow week will be a 12 month Since I obeyed the Saviours command, and truly, most truly, can I Say my life is entirely changed. I may compare my past life, to a wilderness of weeds, with hardly a flower Strewed among them. now how different, the weeds have vanished, and flowers Spring up in their place. Mother why cannot you take the Same Step. I tell you, Mormonism is truth, and the only truth, and So you will find it, these are the last days, this is the last Message, that the Almighty will ever deign to Send on earth again, and woe, unutterable woe, will be the portion of those who reject it. Dear Mother let me entreat of you, not to be of that number, why will you not open your eyes, and judge for your Self. why not read all the Mormon works. Alas Mother, the hour is not far distant, when famine, pestilence, and War, will rage from one end of this country to the other. why the very Signs of the times ought to convince you, that all, that is foretold in the Scriptures, is literally coming to pass, what greater Sign can any one want, than that of the Jews gathering to their own land, why you know that was not to take place untill the last days just before the Saviours Second coming, to reign on the earth a thousand years. And now my dear Mother as this is a Subject of life, or death, in which ever way you regard it, let me for once Speak plainly to you, Study the Scriptures with an honest heart, praying in all humbleness to the Father in the name of his Son, even, Mother, in his name, who has died to Save us, that he will have mercy on you that he may open your eyes and understanding, that you may know for yourself. if you will do this, believe me, it will not be in vain. You know the Saviour Says those who come to him, he will in no wise cast out. but if we will not ask, how can we expect to receive. does he not Say, Knock and it Shall be opened to you ask and ye Shall receive. oh my dear Mother wo[uld] that I could persuade you to make the experiment.

You have made mention of plurality of wives in your letter, well that that is as plain as any thing else in the Scriptures, without it was the case, how could the Prophecys be fullfilled regarding the last days, why I learned this for myself, from the bible, before I heard any thing about it either by word or book, but when it mentions about wives, it does not Say that females are to have more than one Husband The Gospel of Christ, that is the Mormon Gospel, is a Gospel full of purity, and love, not loathsome vileness. but Mother when you put that question to me, which as your own child and the Mother of Six children I might have been Spared your own better Sense told me you, you was asking me what you knew was not true. I should like Mother before we leave this Colony, to See you, better than words can express. at the Latter end of March we Shall be in Sydney; have I your leave to go and See you before I go my little girls often tell me they ought to See their Grandmother before they go away. you would like them if they were to be seen by you. my eldest girl Eliza was baptized the other day when Elder Farnham was up, and you would be surprised to hear what She finds in the Scriptures for herself, and the questions She puts to me. her Father will be quite delighted with her when he comes home. they have got a firstrate Schoolmaster and Mistress. they are being taught to Sew and hem, mark, and do cross [key] work, Eliza is making a collar the girls are So delighted with their School that it is quite a punishment for them if the Rain happens to keep them at home. they that is my girls have reckoned how long it is to April, they want to go to Zion nearly as much as I do. I do not know how we Shall get ready in the time, nor whether we will be able to get enough clothing, but So as we get enough to pay our passage that is all I care for. for clothes we must do the best we can, and when we get there my Husband and big boys can work, you know Mother in Gods eyes it is no disgrace to be poor and besides in obeying the Lords command to gather to Zion we go to a land where the windows of Heaven will be open to us, So that we cannot be poor long after we get there however be it as it will, poverty will not fright[en] me. consider the thousand years of the Saviour on the Earth. I was Sorry for you to tell me, that you was glad of the Elder M’carthy going away. I Sent the Messenger of Peace to your house one who would have been as a Shield to you, in the day of trouble. I suppose you have seen in the papers that the cholera is Raging in [Ed]inburgh and expected every hour in England, you may depend up on it when once it reaches there it will Soon be here, look to how the yellow fever is Raging in South America this is 53 I tell you Mother 1854 will tell fearful tales before it is out. the Mormon Gospel Gospel is Spreading throughout this colony. and Soon the judgements will fall on those who Reject it. dear Mother, do examine and See for yourself when the hour of the Lords coming is, of what avail will it be for you to Say, oh I thought they were nothing but a Set of ignorant fanatics, or else I would have believed them, will that plea avail you then, Alas you will Say. your poor frail child told you the truth, it is the truth, and So pray receive it as Such. I know Father whatever he may Say to the contrary, believes it So. I would give Mrs Hill a word of advice, let not the gaities and the fantasies of the world Step between her and her God. You pity Mr Wandell’s Delusion15—, alas, alas, has he not occasion to pity you. would Mother that you were all as he is, my heart would dance with joy. I wish when Father comes up that you would lend me the three Sermons you Spoke of. I must entreat you to receive this letter in the light I have written it, my hearts fondest wishes are, that you would all throw prejudice aside, and examine for yourselves, trusting that my Father, Yourself Mrs Hill and Mrs Eager16 are in the Same good health, that it leaves me and all my children, believe me my dear Mother

Your affectionate Daughter

Martha Maria Humphreys

I hope you will Send me an answer to this

Background to Charge of Abduction

When news of the Julia Ann tragedy reached New South Wales in March 1856, another company of Saints was about to leave on the Jenny Ford. Among those committed to sail with them were Martha Humphreys’s brother, William Wentworth Bucknell; his wife, Susannah; and sons, Thomas (19) and Arthur (14).

At some time during the previous year, William Wentworth Bucknell had formed an attachment for a young servant girl. His behavior was now causing great problems for his wife and the missionaries. Perhaps influenced by Brigham Young’s public acknowledgment of polygamy, news of which had reached Australia with Farnham and his party,17 Bucknell announced that he was “taking the Girl to the Valley if he had to spend everything he was wirth and shed every drop of blood he would conqueir and have his say.”18 Finally, his wife gave him an ultimatum: if he paid her passage to America, he could do as wished. Bucknell agreed but still planned to go to Utah himself.19

A few weeks, later Farnham’s counselor Absalom Dowdle reported that Bucknell had ordered him out of his house, “saying he did not care for any one not Brigham Young he would not be governed by any one but would do as he had a mind to do again saying he had liberty to take seven wives to the Valley with him.” What was more disturbing, Dowdle reported, was that Bucknell was using his influence with the “Gentiles” in the Paterson district to prevent the emigrating Saints from selling their properties.20 A little later, when Susannah Bucknell arrived at a meeting with a black eye, President Farnham, with the sustaining vote of the Williams River Branch, promptly excommunicated him.

Bucknell immediately wrote to the priesthood council in Sydney, protesting his excommunication. A group of the leading local converts (including Joseph Ridges, who was later to build the Salt Lake Tabernacle organ) signed a letter informing him that “we are one with President Farnham and highly aprove of the corse that he took in relation to your case.”21 Thwarted in this effort, Bucknell retaliated by doing his best to persuade some of the company to give up their intentions of emigrating, being successful in at least one case.22

When the Jenny Ford sailed on May 28, 1856, Susannah Barker Bucknell and her sons were on board. Whether deterred by his excommunication, by Farnham’s refusal to allow him to take the girl with him, or by the news of the loss of his sister and niece in the wreck of the Julia Ann, Bucknell did not accompany the party. A month later he visited Sydney and filed a complaint, which was passed to the premier of New South Wales, Stuart Alexander Donaldson (1812–1867), the first premier of the colony,23 the “AD” of the first minute written on the charge.

The “WD” of the second minute was the governor, Sir William Thomas Denison. The Donaldson Ministry lasted less than three months—from June 6, 1856, to August 25, 1856, but it was in this period that the Bucknell memo reached the government. It is clear from Donaldson’s minute and Denison’s reply that the government of New South Wales saw no way of doing anything productive to help Bucknell, even if they had so desired.

Unsuccessful in obtaining official action, Bucknell did not mourn his wife long. He married Susan Hopkins in Sydney on July 16, 1857, declaring on the marriage certificate that he was a bachelor. The marriage was performed by the Reverend James Fullerton, a leading Presbyterian minister who was an old adversary of the Mormon missionaries in Sydney.24 Whether Susan Hopkins was the girl whose relationship with Bucknell led to his excommunication is not certain, but it seems likely. According to her age on the birth certificates of her children, she was eighteen years younger than Bucknell and may well have been employed on his property or in his parents’ Sydney home in domestic service.

While it would seem like poetic justice to report that the apostate Bucknell did not prosper, the ironic truth is that he did—at least temporally. The first of ten children (eight sons and two daughters) was born to the couple in 1858, the tenth in 1874,25 and the family increased in wealth, lands, and social status. Meanwhile, Susannah Bucknell and her sons returned to Australia from California, only to find William Bucknell firmly entrenched in his new relationship and apparently unwilling to recognize his legal wife or his elder sons. He did, however, give them financial support.26 No member of either the Humphreys or Bucknell families had any further contact with the LDS Church in Australia, as far as available records show.

While William and Susan and their growing family lived comfortably, dividing their time between his country properties and their newly acquired residence, Avondale, in the Sydney suburb of Arncliffe, Susannah Bucknell lived in obscurity at Wallarobba in the Hunter Valley. Her elder son Thomas, who was forty-two and unmarried at the time, was killed in a lumber-camp accident in 1874.27 His death was certified by his cousin Robert Humphreys (the second son of Martha Maria Humphreys); apparently there was contact between Susannah and her two sons and their Humphreys relations. Her other son, Arthur Bucknell, became a respected farmer in the Big Creek–Hilldale area of the Hunter Valley and is remembered today for donating half an acre of land for the erection of a union church.28 Susannah Bucknell died on May 18, 1898, at the age of eighty-five. She was buried in the churchyard of Saint Paul’s Church of England, Paterson.29 Arthur Bucknell died in 1924.

On Saturday, October 17, 1891, the weekly Sydney Mail contained the following news item: “On Sunday afternoon [October 11, 1891] the dead body of William Wentworth Bucknell, a grazier, was found in the Wolli Creek, near his residence, at Arncliffe. At an inquest held on Monday the jury returned a verdict of accidental death by drowning.” Neither Bucknell’s first marriage nor his sons from that union were recorded on his death certificate.

It is an ironic twist of history that the sibling originators of the only known early Mormon manuscripts in Australia should both have met death by drowning. Martha Maria Humphreys died as she tried to follow the teachings of the restored gospel and gather with the Saints to the new Zion in the Rocky Mountains; her brother William Wentworth Bucknell, who refused to place his life on the altar, drowned by an accidental fall into a creek near his suburban mansion. But the two lone documents catalogued under their names continue to breathe the spirit, life, and vitality of the 1850s Mormon mission to Australia.

Charge of Abduction by Mormon Missionaries
Filed by William W. Wentworth, Esq.30

Mr. William Wentworth Bucknell, states that during his absence on private affairs his wife, Susanna, and his two boys Arthur, and Thomas, were seduced away from his house on the Paterson by some American Morman elders, Messrs. Farnham, Fleming, and Cook.31 these three have gone away in the vessel “Jenny Ford,” American vessel, Captain Sarjeant, on the 28th. May 1856—taking away the above named persons without the Sanction or consent of W. W. Bucknell.


Communication from this Govt. to the Socy. Is. Govt. to Stop the parties—

Address     Mr. Bucknell,
New. Town.32


[First minute written diagonally across text:]

His Excellency will perhaps suggest a course to be pursued but I cannot imagine how the Government can “Stop the parties”—they might as well be asked to stop the [Tuolumne]33 River

28 June


[Second minute in different handwriting:]

I am afraid that I cannot afford any assistance now—had the vessel been here I could have interfered now I cannot do anything. WD 29 June 56.


[Written on left-hand side:]

Bound to Tahiti—San. Pedro—San Francisco—

About the author(s)

Marjorie Newton is a mature-age Ph.D. student at the University of Sydney. The author of Southern Cross Saints: The Mormons in Australia, she is currently researching Mormonism in New Zealand.


2. For a discussion of these themes, especially as they applied to early Mormonism in Australia, see Marjorie Newton, Southern Cross Saints: The Mormons in Australia (Laie, Hawaii: The Institute for Polynesian Studies, 1991), chapters 5 and 6.

3. Martha Maria Humphreys to her Mother [Martha Wentworth Bucknell], December 8, 1857 [1853], Reference Ah 161/1, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney; Newton, Southern Cross Saints, 157–58.

4. Reference A 731, p. 460: CY reel 1014, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

5. In 1813, William Charles Wentworth with two companions was the first to find a way across the rugged Blue Mountains west of Sydney, opening up the vast hinterland to the farmers and graziers who were to build Australia’s fortunes with wheat and wool. He later became a prominent politician.

6. Malcolm R. Sainty and Keith Johnson, Census of New South Wales: November 1828 (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1985), 69. Another three children were born in the colony.

7. Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol. 11, 433; Sainty and Johnson, Census of New South Wales: November 1828.

8. Microfilmed Records of Pre-1856 Baptisms and Marriages in New South Wales, Archives Office of New South Wales.

9. Australasian Mission Minutes, Archives Division, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City (hereafter cited as LDS Church Archives).

10. Record of Members, 1852–1870, New South Wales District, Australia, microfilm, LDS Family History Department.

11. Record of Members, 1852–1870.

12. Reference Ah 161/1, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

13. The document is incorrectly dated and catalogued in the Mitchell Library under the date December 8, 1857. Another dating error occurs in the membership record of the Hunter River District, where Martha’s baptismal date is given as December 17, 1853. However, the members are listed in order of baptism, and the baptismal dates immediately before and after the entry for Martha Humphreys make it clear that she was baptized in December 1852. The text of the letter confirms that Martha was writing to her mother in December 1853, less than a week after the baptism of her daughter Eliza and one year after her own baptism.

14. Martha Maria Humphreys’s brother-in-law, William Henry Hill.

15. Charles W. Wandell was one of the first LDS missionaries to arrive in Australia. He preceded Augustus Farnham as mission president.

16. Mrs. Hill was Martha Maria Humphreys’s sister Kate, who married William H. Hill in 1853; Mrs. Eager is another sister, Mary Ann Arabella Bucknell, who had married Geoffrey Eagar in 1843. Geoffrey Eagar was a leading banker and politician, serving two terms as treasurer of New South Wales. He was also well-known in literary and academic circles.

17. See Newton, Southern Cross Saints, 29–30.

18. Augustus Alwin Farnham Journal, February 20, 1856, LDS Church Archives.

19. Farnham, Journal, February 21, 1856.

20. Farnham, Journal, March 16, 1856.

21. Farnham, Journal, March 20, 1856.

22. Farnham, Journal, May 10, 1856.

23. From the granting of responsible government in 1856 until the Australian colonies federated in 1901, the leader of the majority party in each colonial parliament was actually known as the prime minister.

24. See Newton, Southern Cross Saints, 72, 73, 85.

25. Birth, Death, and Marriage Records, New South Wales. Two of the sons died in infancy.

26. K. P. Kay Ingle, Big Creek the Allyn to Hilldale (n.p., 1988), 57.

27. Thomas W. Bucknell died intestate. Legally, his property should have passed to his father but was granted to his younger brother, Arthur, “the father having renounced his right to administration.” N.S.W. Supreme Court, Wills, Series 2, #948.

28. Ingle, Big Creek the Allyn to Hilldale, 37. A union church was one shared by several denominations.

29. Death certificate, Registrar-General’s Department, New South Wales.

30. Letters, Donaldson Ministry, Reference A 731, p. 460: CY reel 1014, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

31. These three were mission president Augustus A. Farnham, his counselor Josiah W. Fleming, and William Cook, an American baptized and ordained in Australia.

32. As well as Elms Hall on the Allyn River, the senior Bucknells had a city house in the Sydney suburb of Newtown, where they were living by the 1850s. Family members visiting Sydney from the Hunter Valley stayed at the Newtown residence as a matter of course.

33. The spelling on the document appears to be “Tolumne”; Glade Nelson of the Family History Department, Salt Lake City, suggests that the reference is to the swift-flowing Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park.

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