by Buckley Jensen
Kuman Jones wrote: “As for the physical or practical part of the establishing of the San Juan Colony, Bishop Jense Nielson stands first. I have met many men in whose hands I would be willing to place my life and would easily place as the first among these Jense Nielson. This confidence and love I hold above price.”
Jense Nielson was born in Denmark in 1820. The event that changed his life forever was seeing two Mormon missionaries on the street in 1852. “As soon as I saw those men’s faces, I knew they were not the evil men they were represented to be, and I told my friends so before I heard them speak,” Jense recalled.
The result of his subsequent baptism was that “all my former friends turned against me and spoke all kinds of evil against me, and that falsely.”
Jense desired to go to Zion. However, before he could dispose of his possessions he was called on a mission in his native land and later said: “I was very successful in my mission, after which I received an honorable release to go to Zion.” One of his converts, Kisten Jensen, followed him to Utah, became his second wife and “became the honorable mother of most of his children.”
Albert R. Lyman wrote in 1935 about the difficulties Jense and his first wife Elsie and two small children had in getting to America: “Four thousands miles from home, a stranger in a strange land, strange and complicated customs all around him. And among this throng of strangers, those who took any notice of him at all, regarded him with scorn and contempt for having joined the most hated of all churches on earth. All this was hardly a beginning to the hardships he was soon to meet.”
Jense and his little family started for Salt Lake City late because the handcarts that had been ordered were not ready. He found himself in the Willy Handcart Company. A.R. Lyman continues: “As we begin following this handcart trail which was to be stained with blood from weary feet and marked with rude graves… let us remember that Jense Nielson was in that company only because he would listen to counsel, and not because he had no means to make the journey in a more comfortable way. ‘I had money enough to come to Utah,’ Jense wrote, ‘but we were counseled to let all the money go we could spare and cross the plains with handcarts.’”
The thousand-mile trip to Salt Lake was one disaster after another. The handcarts they had purchased were poorly made of green wood and began to fall apart within days.
A posse of men followed them and harassed them with one threat of violence and then another. They came upon the wagon train of Almon W. Babbit which had all been massacred by the Indians. It took precious time to bury the bodies.
On September 4, their oxen stampeded and they lost half of them. This required leaving much of their belongings behind because there was no way to pull the heavy wagons. It also increased the loads on the handcarts.
October found them still far from Zion. On the 12th, the rations dropped from a pound of flour a day per man to ten ounces. Jens wrote, “When we were still 500 miles from Salt Lake City, people began to die very fast. We traveled about 200 miles further, pulling the handcarts through snow sometimes two feet deep.
“A supply train brought flour to camp and there was great rejoicing. But we got very little of the flour because they had to pass on to another hand cart company three weeks behind us.
“So we had to start our journey again, but before we did we had to bury 14 bodies of our number, my only son was among them, and a small girl I had brought along for Brother Mortensen in Parowan. It looked like we would all die.”
Albert R. Lyman wrote: “Speaking of hardships of the hand-cart company, no person can describe it, nor could it be comprehended nor understood by any human living in this life, but only those who were called to pass through it. We are left to imagine the torture and anguish which cannot be told.”
Jense’s feet froze. He could not walk. His beloved wife Elsie could not bear to leave him with her son on the frozen prairie and ordered him into the handcart. “Should he let her pull as an ox so that he might ride? She who had already suffered everything but death? There was no other way. Mile after mile, over the wintery road, she pulled the old cart towards Zion.”
Jense went to Parowan shortly after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in 1856. Here he built a home and married his second wife, Kisten Jensen, whom he had baptized in Denmark. He built another home in Paragonah. He was called to help settle Circleville, where he started over.
In 1864, he was called with 75 other families to settle Panguitch, where he became the Presiding Elder. Two years later, Indian trouble became so intense Panguitch was abandoned and he moved back to Cedar City. In 1876 he married his third wife, Catherine Johnson.
In 1879 the leaders of the Church in Salt Lake decided it was important to settle the wild, remote southeastern corner of Utah. The Hole-in-the-Rock expedition was organized and Jense Nielson was asked to pull up stakes and accompany this pioneering effort. He was 59 years of age.
How nice it would have been to stay in his comfortable surroundings in Cedar City. He had built five homes and helped settle five towns. He had spent a lifetime of service to his Church and his God.
There is no record of his feelings about the move to San Juan, but no one ever heard a word of complaint as he started the challenge. Today, the Hole-in-the-Rock journey is recognized as the longest and the most difficult single pioneering effort of all the hundreds of communities settled by the LDS Church in the last half of the 19th century.
Space will not allow a retelling of the Hole-in-the-Rock story. Suffice it to say that Jense was a pivotal figure in the journey and was called to be the first Bishop of Bluff on September 2, 1880, a position he would hold until his death in 1906.
In those days, Jense was considered an old man when he arrived in Bluff. He was also crippled from the effects of his feet freezing on the plains. His right foot was at right angles with his left and he limped heavily wherever he went. Yet he was a hard worker and always provided well for his large family.
“The story of Bluff is the story of Jense Nielson. The first ditch and all the sickening disasters attending it, the floods, the building of the fort, stolen horses and cattle butchered by the Indians, and the mischief of skulking desperadoes, are but a part of the biography. Through it all Jense Nielson’s policy was to promote industry and become self sustaining.” wrote Albert R. Lyman.
In 1884 a terrible flood wiped out the little town of Montezuma east of Bluff. It did terrible damage all along the river, including Bluff. The people became discouraged and wanted to leave.
“Apostles Joseph F. Smith and Erastus Snow came to evaluate the situation. They told the people they could leave if they wanted. Elder Smith turned to Jense and told him if he would stay he would be blessed.
“At the time Jense was in debt and a poor man. He took the future president of the Church at his word. He stayed. His fortunes changed and he became a wealthy man, who owned a large rock home and another beautiful brick home in Bluff.
“I have built six homes in six towns in Utah, and the next time I move, I want it to be to the Hill” (cemetery) Jense remarked when others tried to get him to leave.
When the community gathered for a meeting after the apostles went back to Salt Lake to decide whether to go back to southwestern Utah or stay, Jense’s son Rye wanted to leave and said so in the meeting.
Jense turned to Rye and said with his booming Danish accent, “Ve can do it if ve have “sticka da toody.” When Rye persisted, Jense said, “I vill vipe (whip) you. And den I vill vipe you again for vate you are thinking. Ve vill have stica da toody and dat is dat.” The term “sticka da toody” has become part of the lexicon of the Nielson family and many of Jense’s admirers throughout the world.
In 1888 a cattle outfit from Texas brought a large herd into San Juan County. In 1891 Bishop Nielson encouraged the people of Bluff to buy all the cattle. They did so. They also invested heavily in sheep. They worked hard. They prospered.
Bluff was at one time the richest community per capita west of the Mississippi. Beautiful stone and brick homes filled the tree-lined streets of town. Outsiders and travelers were amazed. The promise made by Joseph F. Smith came to pass to a greater extent than anyone could have ever imagined in the depths of their 1884 despair.
When the end drew near, he gathered his posterity around him and bore the same powerful testimony that had governed his life to those assembled.
“And then he was gone---the long hard journey ended. It lacked two days of being 86 years since that journey began on the distant shores of that Island in the Baltic Sea. Around him stood a group of his children who by his determined effort and sacrifice had been born and established in Zion, and were free to carry on the work that he had come so far and suffered so much to begin.” (Albert R. Lyman)
Epilogue: In 2003 Jense Nielson’s posterity was estimated to be more than 10,000 souls, now into the sixth and seventh generations. Through this remarkable family, Jense’s influence is spread across the world. The vast majority of his descendents inherited some of that Danish “sticka da toody” and have held fast to the iron rod which so influenced his stellar life. Some of his posterity still live in San Juan County and have been instrumental in the building up of this harsh, beautiful land.
The descendents who do not live here cherish their heritage, and find great strength in the example of their remarkable Grandfather. Today, visitors come from across the globe to visit San Juan County in the comfort of their automobiles and tour buses.
Little do they realize the degree of commitment and faith it took for those who came first, who fought the elements, the deprivation, the dry land, the canyons and rivers, renegade cowboys and Indians, the crop failures and floods.
Jense Nielson, as much as anyone else made it happen by sheer grit and faith and by his enormous example. He stands today as one of the tallest of the Giants of San Juan.