Thursday, Feb 02, 2023

George Dennis Arbon

George Dennis Arbon

George Arbon’s story epitomizes the stories of many of the original homesteaders in Arbon Valley, with trials and struggles that occurred in pioneering a new country, even before ever seeing the valley that now bears his name.

The details of the life of the man Arbon Valley was named for have always been elusive because George Arbon did not leave any journals or letters behind.  He arrived from England in 1862 with his brother Charles, adjusted to farming in the arid west, and after years of tribulation and hard work, died rich in land and family. 

George was christened 21 June 1840 in St. Neots Parish, in the village of Graveley, Huntingdonshire, England, the son of John and Rebecca “Arborn.” George appeared to be the eldest living child in the family; this was a time of high mortality for babies and children, so other children may have been born to this family. The years since George’s birth added several siblings: Charles, Esther, Thomas, and Elizabeth. His father was a farm laborer, which usually meant a family lived in a sub-standard cottage supplied by the land owner.  This time period was at the end of the “enclosure” system when lands were bought up by the rich, creating a class of landless poor and social havoc among agricultural workers.  It was not an easy time to be a farm worker with several children to feed.

By 1861, twenty-one-year old George Arbon was an unmarried farm laborer, still living at home in St. Neots parish with his parents.  It was a crowded household; also at home were his four siblings, and a lodger named Henry Arbon, probably a relative, who was twenty-two.

After countless generations, and centuries of the Arbon family residing in the same location, by the next census (1871) the Arbon family no longer resided in the village of their ancestors. It must have been akin to a seismic shift when the Arbon family joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, eliciting changes that effected all future generations of their family. In some areas of England, the populations of the villages were literally decimated as people emigrated to the United States for the sake of this strange new religion.

George and his brother Charles left their home county of Huntingdonshire in April 1862, after promising their parents and younger sisters that they would work hard and send for them as soon as they could. (It is unclear what happened to George’s brother Thomas, who may have died.) After arriving in the busy seaport of Liverpool, England, they left their homeland forever on the ship John Boyd on 23 April 1862. The ship carried 701 Saints, with a total of 867 people on board.  They arrived in New York harbor five weeks later, on 1 June 1862. 

George and Charles landed in the midst of the Civil War. Even though they themselves were far from the actual fighting, transportation and supplies were affected.  How the two brothers traveled from New York to Florence is not known, but it is presumed that they traveled by contemporary modes of the times, including trains, stages, and waterways.  Seven weeks later, by 22 July they would be leaving the outfitting post of Florence, Nebraska (otherwise known as Winter Quarters, now Omaha), and by September 1862, they would arrive in the Salt Lake Valley.  Trains would not be built all the way across the continent until 1869. George’s biographical sketch in the local history book Bannock Valley, written by his daughter-in-law Edna Arbon, stated: “After being on the seas for forty days, he arrived in New York. Continuing his journey westward, he arrived at Florence, Nebraska, in July where he waited six weeks for the teams to arrive from Utah to take the immigrants to their destination.”

The brothers travelled with the Homer Duncan church-funded wagon train.  This was one of the “down-and-back” trains that took products and produce back east to the markets and then assisted in getting emigrants to Utah. About five hundred individuals were in the company when it began its journey from the outfitting post at Florence, Nebraska.

On 24 September 1862, George and his brother arrived in the Salt Lake Valley.  An unpublished history told more of their story, which turned out to be tragic:

“During the first year in this county these two boys worked and saved enough money to send for their parents and two sisters who[m] they had left behind in England. This was the fulfillment of a promise made to them before the boys had left their native land.  Their hopes were crushed when they met the immigrant train at Echo Canyon only to find that both their father and mother had paid the supreme sacrifice on the journey.  Their mother, Rebecca Dennis Arbon, had died September 14, 1864 near the Platte River at Pole Creek and was buried there…Their father, John, traveled on and died twenty days after his wife on October 4, 1864…The sisters, Esther who was eighteen years of age, and Elizabeth Rebecca, age eight, made the trip to Salt Lake” (Arvilla M. Arbon and Delta Arbon Harmon, unpublished manuscript).

The brothers were heartbroken.  Their hopes of being reunited as a family were demolished, never to be realized in this life. In addition to dealing with their grief, it had to be hard for two young men to get toe-holds in a new land, with nothing but their own strength and character to recommend them.    

George went to Willard in 1862 where he resided for seven years.…During his residence in Willard that locality was visited by grasshoppers that destroyed his crops for seven years in succession.  He recalled while there, working for five months for twenty-five bushels of wheat which was commanding five dollars per bushel to provide food for his family. Becoming discouraged he left Willard and came to Malad and rented a piece of ground (Bannock Valley, p. 41).

George’s residence in Willard, Utah was not all hard work. “He there met and married Sarah Nicholas in July 1865, by whom he had seven children, six girls and one boy, all but one girl of whom are living.”

Giving up on Willard, Utah, he decided to try his luck in the Malad Valley.  “He went to Malad, Idaho and rented a piece of ground…Here he again planted crops only to have them destroyed by a great army of crickets which swarmed down from the surrounding hills. The wheat crop amounted to only fourteen bushels that year” (Arbon and Harmon). Note that the fourteen bushels was his total crop, not his bushels per acre.

By 1870, George and Sarah Arbon were living in Malad, Oneida, Idaho Territory.  It was notable that Sarah was only twenty years old, and already had a four-year-old daughter, attesting to her early age when she married.  George was one of the few residents in the Malad Valley not of Welsh ancestry.  (Even today this location in Idaho has the largest concentration of Welsh blood outside of Wales itself, and Welsh surnames like Jones, Wards, Williams, Davis, and Thomas are common.) 

Ten years later, in 1880, George was living and farming in the Curlew Valley, Box Elder, Utah Territory.  George was forty and Sarah was thirty. Living with them were their five daughters and only son: Emily (fourteen), Nancy (eleven), Margaret Ellen (nine), Joseph G. (five), Esther R. (seven), and Mary Anne (two).  Living next door was his brother Charles Arbon with his wife Martha, their five daughters: Martha R. (fourteen), Elizabeth (thirteen), Ellen M. (twelve), Esther Jane (nine), Rose (seven), and three sons: John Arnold (five), Charles G. (three), and Jesse (one). The cousins were probably good companions to each other, running back and forth and in and out of each other’s homes.

A few years in the Malad Valley made George restless to try farming in another place yet again. The family moved to Almo, Cassia, Idaho. There in November 1883 his seventh child was born, Sarah Eveline (“Evie” would grow up to marry Ezra Taft Andersen, another Arbon Valley homesteader).  When little Sarah was almost three years old, in the fall of 1886 her mother Sarah died of pneumonia. The mother’s body was transferred to her hometown of Willard, Box Elder, Utah, for burial. George’s children were left motherless at a young age and the oldest daughter, Emily, took over the role of caring for the family. George never remarried, which was very unusual for a man with seven children at home.

In 1891, George and Charles started applying for homestead lands in the Curlew Valley, around Snowville, Box Elder, Utah, on the border with Idaho.  Homesteaders had to farm their land for five years, in addition to making improvements such as building a small home and putting in fences.  In the western states, because of adverse winters, many were exempt from the rule of living on their land for twelve months of every year, and instead had to reside on their land for four months to “prove up.”  Even though homesteading was seen as getting “free” land, it was still very costly as the homesteaders had to have money to live on while trying to eek out their living on the land.  Over sixty percent of all homesteaders failed.  In the western states, homesteaders soon found that with only about fourteen inches of average annual rainfall, a person could starve to death. The government started granting “desert land” claims, giving homesteaders more land.  In many cases this meant that farmers worked harder, on more land, and still starved!

The Curlew Valley (by Stone, Idaho and Snowville, Utah) was considered not amenable to farming, and the cattlemen wanted it for grazing. Like in the western movies, they could get quite territorial about their rights as cattlemen. In 1893, George came into Bannock Valley, Idaho (later called “Arbon Valley”). At that time, the area was named after the Bannock Indian tribe whose reservation’s southern boundary was about ten miles north of George’s homestead cabin. (The creek running up the valley was, and still is, called Bannock Creek, and the part where the Shoshone-Bannock Reservation starts, at the north end of Arbon, just past the post office, is still called Bannock Valley.)

That fall, George plowed the new ground and sowed ten acres with rye, which was cut for hay the next year. (Today, in 2018, Arbon farmers curse the rye, as it grows prolifically and has to be pulled out of the wheat by hand each year).

In 1894, George brought his motherless children back with him into the valley. The other early families “moved back to Malad when winter approached, and George and his son Joseph were the only persons who remained in Bannock Valley during the winter of 1894-1895…Since that year, the valley was never completely vacated” in winter (Bannock Valley. p. 19).

In 1895, George had officially applied for homestead land, about fifty miles north of the Curlew. George was helped along in his farming by his son Joseph, as he wasn’t a young man anymore even when he homesteaded, and he’d worked hard and seen a lot of hardship in his life. 

Being from green, verdant England, George understood the importance of water in the arid west. He was a charter member of the Bannock Valley Irrigation company that organized in March 1895, based out of Samaria, Idaho. Later, the Arbon Valley Irrigation Company was organized. At the meetings, settlers took detailed minutes and sold shares, and everyone worked together on ditch digging for the good of all. That year, George and his son Joe helped dig a ditch about one and a half miles long to get water from Knox Canyon to the land they staked off and secured by squatters’ rights – this ditch in later years grew to be several miles long. (These original minutes books are at the Power County Historical Society in American Falls, Idaho). Some of the hand-dug culverts and ditches can still be seen today, if you know where to look.

In the fall of 1897, “a post office was established in Bannock Valley, named Arbon, in honor of George, he being the oldest in years of all the first settlers in the valley.” (He was around fifty-seven years old at that time.) The mail came about weekly in good weather, up over Rocky Ridge (east of Lynn Andersen’s home) from Malad, and the settlers took turns carrying it until a contract was made years later to supply an actual mailman.

By 1912, when George was seventy-two, he moved to Malad, Idaho, about forty-five miles south-east, so his granddaughter could attend school. His productive garden was renowned throughout the area. Even though George was locally known for having been the first settler to spend a winter in the valley now named after him, in these early years most people continued to live in the valley only in the summer months to farm; few people stayed through the winter unless they had livestock to feed.

On 17 March 1921, George Arbon had a paralytic stroke. His grand-daughter-in-law Edna Bailey Arbon told the story of his death: “George was very sick, and everyone thought he would go at any time, but it seemed he just couldn’t give up. Finally he made it known that he wanted to be ordained a high priest. This was done and it was but a short time that he passed away, March 22, 1921.”  He had been a widower for thirty-five years, ever since his wife Sarah Nicholas Arbon had died in 1886.  He was buried alongside her in the Willard Cemetery in Willard, Utah.

Today, the Arbon homestead that George built still exists on what was later named Church Road, consisting of a small home, a large horse barn, and several outbuildings.  The foundation where the original log cabin had been lies crumbling between the house and the LDS Church next door.  But ironically none of the Arbon family now reside in the the valley that was named for their ancestor; not one headstone in the Arbon cemetery bears his surname.

Arbon, Arvilla M. and Harmon, Delta Arbon, “History of George Dennis Arbon,” unpublished manuscript; ( : accessed 26 October 2018).

Oneida County, Idaho, loose papers, organization of Bannock Valley Irrigation Company, 1895, in possession of Melinda Campbell, 4798 Bailey Road, Arbon, Idaho, 83212. This ledger records dates, locations, minutes, and attendees of meetings.  It also records work done by different neighbors and their payments.

Ward, Laurie Jean; Bannock Valley (Providence, Utah: Keith W. Watkins and Sons, Inc., 1982); biography of George Arbon written by his grand- daughter-in-law, Edna Kerr Bailey  Arbon, p. 41, 42.

The links provided here will lead to information on other family members.