Oldfield, Laura Church


Laura Church Oldfield

Laura Church’s life began in slavery in antebellum Tennessee and ended almost one hundred years later in freedom in California.[1] In between her birth and death, Laura’s life journey took a variety of surprising turns, not the least of which was joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a teenager and moving to Utah Territory with her family. Even as she drifted from the faith of her teenage years, she built a new life for herself in the American West where she passed as white and became a successful businesswoman and property owner.

Laura’s young biracial mother, Harriet, was enslaved to Laura’s white Mormon father, Thomas Holiday Church. Such circumstances were not unique in the antebellum South, but her family’s later history was quite remarkable. After the death of Thomas Church’s legal wife, he and Harriet would make a life together, eventually having ten or eleven more children.[2] Harriet and all of her children joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In time, Thomas and Harriet, together with Laura and her seven siblings left the South to join with other members of their faith in Utah Territory. There, Laura’s father, her former enslaver, and her mother, his former slave, would be sealed in the Salt Lake Temple.

Laura’s father, Thomas Holiday Church lived among members of his extended family spread along the Duck River in Maury and Hickman Counties in an area known as Shady Grove. Thomas’s brother, Hayden, was the first in the family to join the Church, followed by Thomas in 1847. Most or all of their siblings were sympathetic to the Mormon message and were baptized in Tennessee, making Shady Grove a haven for missionaries who enjoyed the Church family’s hospitality and material support.[3]

A year before his baptism, Thomas married Nancy Maria Bryan.[4] The couple farmed in Shady Grove and had six children together. The children were born between 1847 and 1857, but tragically, only one of them lived to adulthood. In 1847, Nancy’s father died and Nancy inherited an enslaved child named Harriet from her father‘s estate.[5] Harriet became part of Thomas and Nancy’s household as a young child of four or five years of age.[6] It is impossible to say when Thomas began a sexual relationship with Harriet, but it was at least several years before his wife died. On March 7, 1859, twelve years after she became enslaved to the Church family, Harriet gave birth to Thomas’s daughter, Laura.[7] Harriet would have been around sixteen years old when Laura was born, while Thomas was in his mid-thirties.

For the first six years of her life, Laura was enslaved to Thomas Church, her biological father. Harriet and Laura were not the only enslaved people that Thomas and Nancy Church claimed as property. Under the name of T.H. Church as “slave owner,” the 1860 census lists a “Mulatto” sixteen-year-old female, and an eleven-month-old female, also described as “Mulatto.” These two enslaved females are likely Harriet and Laura. In addition, the Churches held a fourteen-year-old “Mulatto” female, and a thirteen-year-old Black male.[8]

The first half of the decade of the 1860s brought life-altering changes to everyone in the Church household. Thomas left home in 1861 to fight for the Confederacy as the Civil War began. His wife Nancy died that same year, leaving three young children, undoubtedly in the care of Harriet and the other enslaved girl in the household.[9] One of Thomas and Nancy’s children died in 1863 and another died in 1865. Thomas resigned from the military in 1862, returned home and the following year, Harriet gave birth to another daughter.[10] For Laura, the most significant event came at the conclusion of the Civil War when the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted her and all enslaved people their freedom.

Even still, it is possible that Laura’s day-to-day life changed very little with her emancipation. The census of 1870 shows Harriet and her children, listed only by first initial and the surname of “Church,” living near Thomas Church’s home, but in a separate dwelling. Thomas shared his home with his surviving son from his first marriage but no one else. The census that year designates twenty-seven year-old Harriet and ten year-old Laura as “domestic servants.” It is likely they still worked for Thomas, but now, as free employees. Harriet had given birth to two more children by 1870, both sons, one in 1866 and one in 1869.

The 1870 census describes Harriet and her children as “Black.” The census taker had the option of using “Mulatto” to describe them but chose instead to define them as “Black” even though the children, at least, were of mixed racial heritage and were predominately white. There was another woman living with Harriet and her children. She was a fifty-five year old Black farm laborer with the surname of “Boen.” It is worth noting that while the older woman was listed as unable to read or write, Harriet and her children were not. This could indicate that someone had taught Harriet basic literacy skills, which she passed on to her children.[11]

Over the next eight years, Laura, her mother, her siblings, and her father continued to live in Maury County, Tennessee. Family tradition holds that Thomas married Harriet at some point, but no marriage record has been found. Married or not, Harriet and Thomas continued having children together. Harriet gave birth to two more daughters and two more sons while living in Tennessee.

Harriet joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1876 and all of her children who arrived at the age of eight while living in Tennessee, were also baptized into the faith. Laura was no exception. Elder Joseph Argyle, a missionary proselytizing in the Shady Grove area baptized and confirmed her on October 13, 1877, when she was eighteen years old. He recorded the ordinances, as well as Laura’s birthdate, in his mission journal.[12]

According to a notice published in a local newspaper in the autumn of 1875, Thomas Church intended to move west in the spring of 1876 and join the Saints in Utah Territory, but a few more years passed before he and Harriet completed the long journey with their eight children.[13] It seems it was closer to 1878 before the Church family made the trek west and settled in the small farming community of Deseret in Millard County. Once in the West, Laura’s racial designation changed from Black or mulatto in official records to white. From that point forward, all documents consistently list her race as “white.”

Not long after their arrival in Deseret, Laura married a miner named Joseph William Oldfield who was likely not a Latter-day Saint.[14] Joseph was originally from St. Louis, Missouri and was considerably older than Laura. At the time of their marriage, she was about nineteen and he was thirty. Laura gave birth to the couple’s first child, Frederick (Fred) Demix Oldfield on March 22, 1879 in Deseret. “Fredy” received a blessing in the Deseret Ward on June 5, 1879. Laura’s younger brother, John Taylor Church, was also blessed in the ward on that same day.[15]

It seems Joseph and Laura lived apart for the first few years of their marriage. Joseph mined in Osceola, a remote mining district in White Pine County, Nevada, while Laura stayed in Deseret near her family.[16] Laura’s second son, Joseph (Joe) William Oldfield, his father’s namesake, was born in Deseret in December 1882 but unlike his older brother, there is no record of this son receiving an LDS baby blessing.[17]

Around 1883, Laura left Utah and joined her husband in Osceola. A gold mining boom had hit the town in 1872, so while Joseph continued placer mining, Laura operated a boarding house. Four more children were born to the couple while there.[18] After the Oldfield family moved to Nevada, it seems Laura no longer affiliated with the LDS Church. Her name does not appear in the Record of Members for Ely and none of Laura’s children were baptized into the church.[19] When they left the Deseret Ward in 1883, a notation in the Record of Members documents their removal, but the clerk was unaware of where they went, writing “Unknown” in the column used for keeping track of members as they moved to new wards.[20] Laura may not have continued to be a practicing member of the faith, but she seems to have retained close ties to her family evidenced by her children’s names. She named a son after her father and a daughter after her mother.

By 1900, Joseph and the Oldfields’ two oldest sons were still mining in Osceola, but the mining industry was already in decline. In 1902, their son, Fred, took a job on a ranch, but broke his foot. The foot did not heal well. Later in life, he remembered that his mother, Laura, suggested he enter politics. He became the county clerk-elect for Ely, Nevada in 1904.[21] His move to the bigger town seems to have prompted a general relocation for the entire Oldfield family.

In 1903, Laura and Joseph’s nineteen year-old son, Thomas, died and was buried in Ely.[22] Just three years later Joseph died, in September 1906.[23] Laura’s younger children were still in her care and Ely was growing due to the newly developing copper mining industry. Laura thus carried on with the same type of business she had operated in Osceola; she opened a boarding house, which she named the Oldfield Hotel. Laura and all five of her living children were residents of the hotel, but the older ones held jobs and must have contributed to the family income.[24] The building also housed at least two commercial businesses, the Ely Jewelry Company and an optician’s office. Hattie Oldfield and another girl set up an ice cream parlor on the premises in 1910.[25]

Living adjacent to a jewelry store brought with it certain risks, however. In 1907, would-be burglars broke into the hotel while attempting to enter the Ely Jewelry store. In the process, they tried to break down the door to one of the hotel’s bedrooms. Hearing the intruders, the children who were sleeping began to scream and scared away the two men before they could get into the store.[26]

In addition to her business associations, Laura and her children took part in Ely’s social life as well. Notices in the local newspaper mention outings and events that included the Oldfield children as well as trips that the family made and jokes that the young people of the town played on each other.[27]

Laura and her husband had met with enough monetary success in Nevada that she had the means to be able to send her daughters away to school. Hattie studied in Southern California and Millie went to school in Salt Lake.[28] Hattie married in 1913 and Millie married in 1914. Fred married in 1919, so that by 1920, Laura, who had retired by then, only had two unmarried sons, Joe and Clark living with her.[29]

In 1928, Laura lost another member of her family with the death of her forty-five-year-old-single-son, Joe. He died after stabbing himself with a pocketknife. The death certificate does not indicate whether it was an accident or suicide.[30]

Laura’s youngest son, Clark, married in 1923. He and his wife, Thelma, made their home with his mother in 1930.[31] By 1935, they moved into a home of their own. The 1940 census found Laura living in San Diego at the home of her granddaughter, Evelyn Snyder, but she told the enumerator that Nevada was her home.[32] Laura spent the last decade of her life rotating between Evelyn’s home and the homes of two other granddaughters, one who lived in San Diego and the other in Reno, Nevada.[33]

Laura died at the age of ninety-four on September 4, 1953 in San Diego. Her funeral was conducted at a mortuary in Ely after which she was buried in the Ely City Cemetery.[34] Her obituary names Laura’s birthplace as Nashville, Tennessee.[35] If that is any indication of what her children knew about her early life, it is possible that she did not tell them she had been born into slavery in the rural South.

Someone performed a proxy temple endowment on Laura’s behalf in 1956, followed by a proxy marriage sealing in 1957.[36] That same year, she was sealed to her parents in a vicarious ceremony, all of this despite Latter-day Saint policies against such rituals for those of African ancestry, even those performed by proxy after death.[37] These ordinances took place over thirty years before the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints again allowed members of African descent to enjoy temple access during their lifetimes, an indication of the challenges such policies created in practice.

By Tonya S. Reiter

With research assistance from Sarah Day

[1] Laura's name may include a middle initial “J.” It appears as part of her name on the 1940 US Census, and on her grave marker, but on no other documents during her life.

[2] There is an eight-year-old girl by the name of R. Church listed in Harriet’s household on the 1870 US Census. If she was Harriet’s daughter, Harriet had twelve children in total. All other family and documentary evidence points to eleven children.

[3] United States, 1850 Census, Slavery Schedules, Tennessee, Hickman County; United States, 1860 Census, Slave Schedules, Tennessee, Maury County, District 17; United States, 1870 Census, Tennessee, Maury County, 17th District; Joseph Argyle, Reminiscences and journal, 1870 May-1894 October, MS 340, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[4] Tennessee, County Marriages, 1790-1950, Thomas H. Church and Nancy M. Bryan, 12 May 1846.

[5] Tennessee, Wills and Probate Records, 1779-2008, Samuel Bryan, Will, 30 March 1847, Maury, Tennessee.

[6] United States, 1850 Census, Slavery Schedules, Tennessee, Hickman County, entry for Thomas H. Church.

[7] Joseph Argyle, Reminiscences and journal, 1870 May-1894 October, MS 340, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[8] United States, 1860 Census, Slave Schedules, Tennessee, Maury County, District 17, entry for T. H. Church.

[9] Nancy Maria Bryan Church, FindaGrave.com.

[10] U.S., Confederate Soldiers Compiled Service Records, 1861-1865, entry for Thomas H. Church, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

[11] United States, 1870 Census, Tennessee, Maury County, 17th District. The boxes on the census form for “Cannot read” and “Cannot write” are not checked for Harriet or any of her children

[12] Joseph Argyle, “Reminiscences and journal, 1870 May-1894 October, p. 107, MS 340, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[13] “Williamsport Items,” The Herald and Mail (Columbia, Tennessee), 19 Nov 1875, 3.

[14] Their marriage record has not been found.

[15] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Deseret Ward, microfilm 25,885, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[16] United States, 1880 Census, Nevada, White Pine County, Osceola; United States, 1880 Census, Utah Territory, Millard County, Deseret.

[17] Nevada, State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Certificate of Death, Joseph William Oldfield, index no. 58, registered no. 216, Nevada State Archives, Carson City, Nevada.

[18] Thomas (Tom) H. was born in December 1883, Thomas H. Oldfield, FindAGrave.com. His birthdate is extrapolated from his headstone; Harriet (Hattie) Evelyn, the Oldfield’s first daughter was born on November 15, 1887; “Hattie Zadow,” Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), 28 April 1976, 21; The birth of a second daughter, Mildred (Millie) Nevada, followed on May 29, 1891; “Mrs. H. W. Edwards, 78, Lifetime Nevadan Dies,” Reno Gazette (Reno, Nevada), 9 January 1969, 32; Finally, Joseph and Laura’s youngest son, John Clark Elmer, called Clark, joined the family on October 7, 1893; Oregon State Board of Heath, Public Health Service, Certificate of Death, Clark Elmer Oldfield, file no. 8262, registered no. 1067, Oregon State Archives, Portland, Oregon.

[19] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Ely Ward (Nevada) 1926-1919, 1926-1941, microfilm 14,899, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. In fact, her eldest son became a Roman Catholic and daughter, Hattie, affiliated with the Episcopal Church.

[20] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Deseret Ward, microfilm no. 25,885, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. Even before her move to Nevada, another possible indication that Laura did not remain committed to the church as a young adult is that in 1879, her sixteen-year-old younger sister, rather than twenty-year-old Laura, traveled to the St. George Temple with their father, was endowed and acted as proxy for his first wife in a marriage sealing.

[21] “Veteran White Pine County Clerk Fred Oldfield Opens His Fiftieth Year in Post,” Reno Gazette-Journal (Reno, Nevada), 20 Jan 1955, 24.

[22] Thomas H. Oldfield, Findagrave.com.

[23] Joseph Oldfield, Findagrave.com.

[24] United States, 1910 Census, Nevada, White Pine, Ely Ward 1.

[25] “Open Ice Cream Parlor,” The White Pine News (Ely, Nevada), 21 May 1910, 4.

[26] “Burglars Frightened by Children’s Cries,” The White Pine News (Ely, Nevada), 29 Oct 1907, 1.

[27] “Happy Valentine Party,” The White Pine News (Ely, Nevada), 31 October 1907, 4; “Local Society Notes of the Past Week,” The White Pine News (Ely, Nevada), 28 June 1908, 4; “Waters Get a Brief Respite—Juror Up,” The White Pine News (Ely, Nevada), 28 May 1909, 3; “Prepared for an Enjoyable Occasion,” The White Pine News (Ely, Nevada), 24 December 1909, 8; “Caught 2,000 Trout,” The White Pine News (Ely, Nevada), 21 August 1908, 4.

[28] “Personal Mention,” The White Pine News (Ely, Nevada), 7 February 1907, 1; “To Attend School,” The White Pine News (Ely, Nevada), 4 September 1908, 4.

[29] United States, 1920 Census, Nevada, White Pine, Ely.

[30] Nevada State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Certificate of Death, Joseph William Oldfield, index no. 58, registered no. 216, Nevada State Archives, Carson City, Nevada.

[31] United States, 1930 Census, Nevada, White Pine County, Ely.

[32] United States, 1940 Census, California, San Diego County, San Diego.

[33] “Early White Pine Settler Succumbs,” Reno Gazette-Journal (Reno, Nevada), 10 September 1953, 22.

[34] Laura Church Oldfield, Findagrave.com.

[35] “Former Resident of Ely Succumbs,” Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), 9 September 1953, 10.

[36] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake Temple, microfilm 1,262,788, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake Temple, Sealings for the dead, couples and children 1943-1970, microfilm 457,208, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[37] Devery S. Anderson, ed. The Development of LDS Temple Worship, 1846-2000: A Documentary History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2011), 82, 101-2, 361.


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