Friday, May 25, 2012

James Madison Flake Life Story

by Lavona Flake Richardson

      James Madison Flake and his wife, Agnes Haley Love, great great grandparents of Lavona Flake Richardson, came to Nauvoo from Kemper County, Mississippi, where they heard the Gospel from a Mormon missionary. Elder Benjamin L. Clapp called at their home carrying a Bible and another volume of scripture, which he said had been translated from an angel. Although skeptical of his claims and wary because of evil rumors that had preceded him in the community, their interest was kindled when he explained that he preached the very same gospel taught by Christ and his apostles. Carefully and prayerfully, the Flakes investigated.
      Proselyting had been going forward in the eastern section of Mississippi since 1839, with several small branches of the Church in neighboring counties. As membership increased, so did opposition. Just the year before, a company of between eighty and ninety Latter-day Saints had emigrated to Nauvoo because of persecution. The mere fact that the Flakes had opened their door to a missionary brought threats from relatives and neighbors. But this did not dissuade James and Agnes from continuing their investigation of Mormonism.
     After several weeks they became convinced that they had found the true Church of Jesus Christ. They were baptized during that winter of 1843-44, along with a few others. All were ridiculed and defamed because of it. A branch was organized, having the picturesque name, Running Water Branch.
     Elder Clapp returned to Kemper County in the early spring, bringing with him another missionary, John Brown, of Tennessee. In a meeting of the Running Water Branch on April 7th, James Flake was ordained to the office of elder, the certificate stating that he had been ordained “according to the rules and regulations of said Church, and is duly authorized to preach the Gospel, agreeable to the authority of that office.” He therefore became the first of hundreds of “Elder Flakes” who have carried the gospel message to the world.
      James did not take his duty lightly. When the missionaries returned the following month to hold meetings and a baptismal service, Elder Flake had two converts ready for baptism, which ordinance he performed. He afterward accompanied the missionaries on some of their travels, representing his branch at a conference held in Cispy, Alabama. John Brown was clerk of the conference and recorded in the minutes that Elder Flake’s branch consisted of “fifteen members, one elder, all in good standing.”
     James’ constant activity in the Church brought condemnation and wrath from his associates in Kemper County until he at last sadly realized that he and his family could no longer live there in peace and happiness. They were relative newcomers to that frontier region, having emigrated from North Carolina three years earlier. James’ grandfather, Samuel Flake, believed to be of Scottish-Irish descent, arrived in America sometime before 1720. He and a brother Henry landed in New York, where Henry settled. Samuel went on south to the Carolina country, as that English territory was called before its division about 1729 into separate royal provinces of North and South Carolina.
     Samuel located in Anson County, North Carolina, in a town that carried the name of one of its inhabitants, Lilesville. County records show that Samuel Flake purchased several large tracts of land, with deeds dated in 1763 and 1769. These tracts he developed into productive plantations with an ample number of Negro slaves to work them. His brother, Henry, visited him there on one occasion.
     Samuel and his wife, Sallie Alcy (Harris), had a large family, the third child being Jordan, father of James Madison. When James was twenty-six, he decided he wanted to leave the old family plantation and make a place for himself on the frontier. Taking his wife, Agnes, their young son, William Jordan, and two slaves, he left North Carolina in a prairie schooner with a team of horses and two mules. They passed through the borders of Georgia and Tennessee, crossed Alabama and entered the beautiful pine covered state of Mississippi, where they traveled along the eastern border until they came to Kemper County. It was a land of undulating wooded hills and ridges that overlooked vast valleys of evergreen forests. The Flakes liked what they saw. Everywhere was thick grass, red soil and a profuse array of flowering shrubs—white-blossomed persimmon, delicate pink and white dogwood, and waxy leafed magnolia, fragrant and colorful.
     They followed the meandering Sauchaarnooche Creek westward until they came upon a smaller stream which the Indians had names Ptictfaw. There, amid towering pines and red oaks, James secured land for a plantation. Crops were planted, buildings constructed, a drove of wild hogs was put to run in the surrounding woods where acorn was plentiful. The forests abounded in deer and wild turkey, which James found pleasure in hunting with the aid of a pack of hounds. Life was sweet, peaceful and rich, and the Flake family was happy in Mississippi. Their joy and contentment was further enhanced when friends and kinfolk from North Carolina came to make their homes nearby.
     But with the coming of the Mormon elders to the community, congeniality ended. In spite of their comfortable situation of ease and affluence, the Flakes determined to do what other Latter-day Saints before them had done—to gather with the main body of the Church in Nauvoo. They felt drawn in spirit to another people and to another place—Zion.
     James had been much impressed with something Elder Class talked about in the Alabama conference. Elder Brown recorded in the minutes that Benjamin Clapp spoke “on the subject of the gathering, and building the Temple and Nauvoo House, showing the Southern brethren the pains and labors of the brethren in Nauvoo to build those houses when many of them had been robbed two or three times. He urged the necessity of the whole body being equally engaged in keeping the commandments of the Lord in fulfillment of the prophets who have spoken of the great work of God in the last days.”
     James felt a sincere obligation to join his efforts to the task of construction and to strengthening Zion. Before moving his family, however, he felt it wisdom to ascertain just what conditions were in that place. It was a journey of almost 700 miles to Nauvoo, but he set out alone, on mule back, the latter part of May 1844, riding north through Tennessee to the Mississippi River. He followed the river to St. Louis, then on 200 miles to Nauvoo.
     He found the young city an impressive and inspiriting sight, neatly laid out within the broad curve of the Mississippi. Rolling green farmland surrounded the handsome brick dwellings and business establishments, all of it embroidered with the leafy, flowering foliage of springtime. Rising majestically above it all, on a hilltop that sloped gently to the river, were the gleaming white limestone walls of the uncompleted temple. James knew his help was needed here. Mingling with the inhabitants of the city, he felt the warm spirit of unity and strength, for the Saints were a friendly, industrious people.
     Among those he met was the brother of the Prophet, Hyrum Smith, counselor in the First Presidency and Patriarch to the Church. From him he sought a blessing. With head bowed beneath the Patriarch’s hands, James listened in reverence: “Brother James, I lay my hands on your head in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, to place and seal a blessing on you in the order of my calling, Patriarchal and Prophetic, to come to pass according to your faith which is in Jesus Christ . . . . ”
     A copy of the blessing was given to James. It bore the superscription, “Patriarchal Blessing on the head of James Madison Flake, son of Jordan and Faithy Elizabeth Flake, born in Anson County, North Carolina, June 22, 1815. Blessing given June 12, 1844, in the City of Joseph, by Hyrum Smith, Patriarch.”
     Just fifteen days from that date, Patriarch Hyrum Smith and his brother, the Prophet, lay dead in the little village of Carthage, twenty-six miles away. James, who had left Illinois by then, was overcome with sadness when advised of the shocking news. He recalled Hyrum Smith, tall and vibrant with life, his hands pressed warmly upon his head as he uttered solemn words of counsel and promise: “You have been wrought upon by the Spirit of inspiration, and have come up hither, For this cause you are blessed.”
     James made immediate preparations for the removal of his family to Nauvoo. One of the first acts after returning home was to comply with the published admonition of the martyred Prophet: “Break the shackles from the poor black man, and hire him to labor like other human beings, for an hour of virtuous liberty on earth is worth a whole eternity of human bondage.”
     All of his slaves he freed. Two of them had accepted the Gospel and been baptized into the Church by Elder Clapp—Allen and Green. Green Flake was a large, husky Negro who had been born on the old Carolina plantation. He refused to leave the family, as did Liz, who had been given when a child as a wedding present to Agnes by James’ mother. Also wishing to go north with them was Edie, a young Negro mother of four.
     Three other convert families, hearing James’ enthusiastic report, wished to accompany the Flakes. With their ox team and pair of white mules, the Flakes led the little caravan northward. The family consisted of four little sons, William Jordan (grandfather of Lavona Flake Richardson), Charles Love, Thomas and Richmond. Thomas passed away sometime during the year of 1844, whether before or after their journey, is not known.
     In Nauvoo, James constructed a large brick home for his family with the usual bricked-up well and cistern in the rear. The Flakes very soon became a part of the bustling, busy community. The Saints, although bereft of their Prophet, were determined to carry on, under the leadership of the Quorum of the Twelve, not only the completion of the temple, but the development of new industry for the rapidly growing city. Converts from the States and immigrants from abroad continued to arrive in increasing numbers.
     Active hostility was held in abeyance for a time as the people of Illinois reflected upon the enormity of the crime at Carthage. There was even some favorable sentiment expressed occasionally regarding the Mormons. Such millennial conditions were of short duration, however, when it became apparent that even without their leader the Mormons continued to grow and prosper.
     The winter of 1844 was long and cold. The Flake family found frost and snow and biting winds a new experience. On December 23rd, James was ordained a member in the Eighth Quorum of Seventy. Benjamin L. Clapp, the man who had baptized him, signed the certificate of ordination.
     Young William Jordan, age five, retained life-long memories of their sojourn in Nauvoo. A second little brother, Richmond, died there, and another brother, Samuel, was born. Two other experiences remained vividly alive in his mind, one pleasant, the other terrifying.
     Shortly after their arrival in the city, Green Flake carried William up the stairway of the uncompleted temple, to the very top, and there held the little boy up so he could gaze out in every direction upon the hundreds of houses and buildings and streets and trees that stretched out to the surrounding farmland and the curving river bank. It was an awesome picture he never forgot.
     Permanently etched in his memory was another scene, portrayed the following year. It, too, was awesome, but in a frightening way, for it was the sight of mobs of angry, shouting men thronging the street outside their home, robbing, looting. Seeing them, young William would dash from the window and hide, shaking with terror until the noise ceased and the men had gone.
     William’s father was away most of the time, occupied with other brethren in building wagons and gathering supplies for their expedition West. His mother was in frail health, mourning the death of her two sons, Thomas and Richmond, and expecting the birth of their fifth child. For the second time, the family faced the necessity of leaving their home and lands because of the persecutions of those who hated them.
     The Flakes did not leave Nauvoo with the first group in February; it was probably mid-April. James stayed back to assist, with both his means and energy, those less fortunate families as they endeavored to prepare for the journey. An official receipt issued by William Clayton, recorder, City of Joseph, was dated April 7th, 1846. “This may certify that James M. Flake is entitled to the privilege of the Baptismal Font, having paid his property tithing to April 12, 1846, and one hundred forty dollars consecration to assist the poor to go to the West.”
     At last the time came for James to load up their wagons with what belongings they could take, and with his wife and three sons, drive out of Nauvoo with the same teams that had brought them up from Mississippi two years earlier. Then it had been warm summer time. Now it was spring, a late spring and very cold. Young William, going on seven, tramped along in the rear with little brother Charlie and Liz, driving their loose stock, mostly cows. Agnes rode in the wagon with the new baby, Samuel, in her arms, knowing that soon after his first birthday there would be another child, her sixth in seven years.
     The Flakes journeyed from one encampment to another until finally, near the end of summer; they reached the site that was to become Winter Quarters. Their home there was a rude dugout; uncomfortable, cramped and smoke-filled, like nothing they had ever lived in before. It was there on November 3, that little Frederick Flake was born—and died, the same day. They sorrowed, but endured.
     During most of the winter Lavona’s great grandfather, William, who then was age seven, herded cattle on the river bottoms.  When Brigham Young commenced fitting out a train to take the first of the pioneers across the great plains, he needed the very best teams and outfits to be had.  James M. Flake, who had put his all upon the altar, sent his freed slave, Green, with the mules and mountain carriage to help the company to their destination.  He told Green to send the outfit back by some of the brethren, who would be returning, and for him to stay and build them as house.  Green Flake faithfully carried out his instructions.  We have always believed that Brigham Young used this outfit for his own conveyance and it was from that carriage, that he got his first view of the Valley.
     The following spring when they were ready to leave to make the trip into the Salt Lake Valley they were divided into three companies.  Amasa Lyman and Willard Richards led the company James ZM. Traveled with.  Some started on June 29th, the others July 2nd, 1848.  They soon joined together, elected James M. Flake Captain of one hundred wagons.  The company consisted of 502 white people, 24 negroes, 169 wagons, 50 horse, 20 mules, 515 oxen, 426 loose cattle, 369 sheep, 63 pigs, 5 cats, 44 dogs, 170 chickens, 4 turkeys, 7 ducks, 5 doves and 3 goats.  Grandfather William Jordan walked and drove the cattle all the way to Utah.  William Jordan became eight years old on the trail and was baptized in the Elk Horn River, by his father.
     They reached the Salt Lake Valley in October 1848.  When they reached the valley, there was a log house awaiting them that Green had built in Cottonwood.  James M. Flake was a counselor to the first bishop in the Salt Lake Valley.  James M. was a colonizer, a friend of the poor and needy.  He was no doubt, planting the seed in the breast of his son William, that later bore fruit in the colonizing of Arizona.
     In 1850 James M. Flake was called to go with a company led by George Q. Cannon and C. C. Rich to look up a place in California to settle poor Saints who would come by water to the West Coast.  On this trip they got into the country now known as Death Valley.  When they had gone without water until neither man nor beast could go further, they unsaddled and lay down on the hot sand facing death.
     C. C. Rich went out behind a sand knoll and like George Washington at Valley Forge, knelt down and told the Lord of their condition and of their dependence on Him.  His pleadings were not unheeded.  He returned, roused the men and told them help was in sight.  They looked up at a bright clear sky.  He told them to spread their canvas out prepared to catch water.  They looked at him, and he pointed to the West.  There, they saw a small cloud, so small it could hardly be seen.  It grew rapidly, and they had no more than made their preparation than the rain fell, and they caught all the water they needed for themselves and horses.
     They prepared a meal and went on their way rejoicing in the great blessing the lord had showered down upon them.  The cloud had quickly disappeared, and the sun beat down on them as before.  Only a few rods from their camp, there was no evidence of the life giving rain.
     While passing through the San Joaquin Valley, James Madison Flake  was thrown from his mule.  His only words were “Brethren lay hands on me.”  He passed away from a broken neck.  His whole life since joining the Church had been given to help his fellow men.  He spent a fortune helping them to cross the great American desert to get away from the mobs.  Wrapped in a blanket he was buried by the side of the trail.  He truly gave his life for his brother.  At camp that morning, a man was to ride a fractious horse and had no cinch.  He took the cinch from his saddle and gave to the man who, he thought needed it worse.  As he was riding on the trail the mule got scared, jumped to one side and the saddle and all, fell to the ground.  When my great great grandmother, Agnes Love Flake hear the sad new she took to her bed and did not recover for a long time.
     Agnes had been raised in the lap of luxury, never knowing a care. Then to start out in the life of the frontier, with a persecuted people, who were reduced to poverty, not because of their indolence, but because of their desire to worship God in the way, they knew to be right.  Three of their six children died and were buried at Winter Quarters.
     Grandmother Flake moved with her three small children from the Salt Lake Valley to San Bernardino to be with other Latter-day Saints. The finding of gold had caused so much excitement in the East, that thousands of men had moved to the West Coast. Among them was one of her brothers. At Los Angeles, he learned of his sister being in San Bernardino and came out to see her. He knew nothing of her since she had left Mississippi.  When he found that she was a widow and living in poverty, that the trip had cost all they had, he begged her to return with him to the old home. He told his sister that they all had plantations of their own, and she could have the land, the home and all the negroes she needed to work it with. They would all be glad to welcome her back. She could live as a lady, raise her children as gentlemen and lady, give them all good educations, and never again know want or hunger or trouble. All they would as of her, was to give up Mormonism, and have nothing more to do with that.
     She looked him in the eye and asked, “You don’t think you are asking much, do you?’ No, he said, ‘very little.’ She replied ‘It is more than my life’s blood.  I would rather wear my nails off over the wash tub to support my children, that to take them away from the Church for I know it is true,” He asked, “Agnes, is that your answer?” “Yes”, she replied and he turned and walked away a few steps, then turned and said, “Agnes, if you ever change your mind, write me and I will come for you at once." She answered, “Brother, you will never get that letter." She never saw or heard from any of her people again and died soon after.


  1. Thanks so much! What an inspiring account to read. Do you think Agnes knows that she is our heroine? And James our revered hero? I'm excited to meet them someday in heaven.
    What a great blog! Thanks so much.

  2. This blog is a great family home evening resource!