The Just Homestead stands as a physical representation of a life’s work. Several lives, in fact, as Emma, Nels, and their children painstakingly built not just a house but a home over decades of tireless toil. “We have experienced prosperity and adversity, sickness and health, hope and despair,” Emma reflects in letters to her father detailing the trials and tribulations, successes and failures, and, most importantly, the feelings of a passionate, intelligent woman and her growing family as they survive and eventually thrive on the edge of civilization.
With the periods of pandemic-related quarantine many of us have had to endure, I believe we are equipped now more than ever to understand the profound isolation of those trying to scrape together a meaningful existence on the American frontier. This glimmer of insight informed by current events makes their feat that much more impressive, inspiring, and easier to identify with. The Just Homestead still stands as a testament to their heroic triumph in the face of mental, emotional, and physical struggle that is emblematic of so many similar stories that have since been lost in time. Thankfully, the descendants of Emma and Nels have preserved their family history so painstakingly, not just for them, but for the rest of us whose histories remain unknown.
In the early 1850s, Emma Thompson and her parents emigrated to the United States from England following their conversion to the Mormon Church. After arriving in Philadelphia, they made their way to Nebraska where they joined a wagon train destined for Ogden, Utah. Once they settled in Ogden, the Thompson family fell in with a dissident sect of the Mormon Church led by fellow Englishman Joseph Morris. Morris believed he had received apocalyptic visions from the Seventh Angel of the Book of Revelation, and the group believed the Second Coming of Christ was imminent. In preparation, they needed to seize control of first Utah and then the United States. Morris would often schedule days for the Second Coming, eschewing planting crops and even encouraging adherents trampling their fields as a show of faith. Inevitably, these uneventful Second Comings and lack of food led to many followers leaving the sect. Finally, the unceremonious end of the movement came when a Mormon militia besieged and eventually overpowered the Morrisites, killing Joseph and capturing the rest.
The Thompsons relocated to the Soda Springs area, where the remnants of the movement founded Morristown in honor of their fallen prophet. In 1865, Emma met and married a handsome young soldier at the tender age of 15, and the pair moved all across the western territories over the next two years. During this time, Emma’s parents decided to return to England. Emma’s mother fell ill during the journey. After reaching England, she was too sick to continue to her hometown and passed away in a poorhouse. At the same time, Emma’s husband developed a penchant for drinking and gambling, eventually winding up in jail for robbing his employer and stealing a horse.
Fed up with her husband’s descent into drunken lawlessness, Emma was taken in by a kindly Catholic couple in Deer Lodge. With their help, Emma gave birth to her son Fred and secured a divorce. Emma briefly considered pursuing an acting career, but ultimately decided that such a tumultuous lifestyle would be detrimental to her child. After rebuffing a reconciliation attempt from her estranged husband, Emma and her newborn moved in with her aunt and uncle for a brief period. Here she rekindled a friendship with Nels Just who she knew from their time in Soda Springs. They would marry in 1870 and made the conscious decision to break from the Mormon Church. This distrust of organized religion, born from the brutality they witnessed on both sides of the Morrisite conflict, persists in the Just family to this day.
They settled along the Blackfoot River, which Emma described as “a bleak looking place to think of spending one’s life in, but we have pure water, fresh air, fish and game in abundance, and room, room, any amount of it.” And it is here that our tale truly begins. 19-year-old Emma, her 23-year-old husband Nels, and baby Fred surrounded by nothing but untamed wilderness with the closest stage station more than 20 miles away. In 1870, the Justs found themselves utterly along, pitted against the world at its most primal. Nothing but a small windowless cabin dug into a low hillside, a flickering cookstove, and buffalo pelts hanging across their door stood between them and the elements during their first winter.
In the early days, Emma and Nels had to be everything for each other. They were as much coworkers and cohabitators as lovers and friends, forced to balance these roles as best they could in near-total isolation. In years past, I would have taken this particular challenge for granted, focusing more on the practical barriers to life on the frontier like securing food and shelter. However, if you have endured periods of pandemic related isolation like so many of us have, perhaps you will identify with what seems to me like an even more daunting task: maintaining one’s sanity in near-total seclusion.
The close quarters and lack of outside interaction took its toll on the usually optimistic and persistent Emma. During their first year, Emma found consistent work cooking and doing the laundry for the workers and soldiers at the nearby Fort Hall. This work quickly dried up, however, taking with it the surplus income that allowed them to plan for and dream of a better life. It also took away a key source of social interaction and connection to the world around them that grounded Emma. She found the thread of a lifeline in her more or less yearly letters to her father. Not only do these provide details of their trials and tribulations, but they also provide keen insights into the mental struggles of life at the edge of civilization. Her longing for a friend and confidante is palpable, even someone another world away.
Emma’s humor, hopefulness, and forward-thinking nature are truly remarkable. That’s not to say she didn’t endure times of great hardship and self-doubt. This is most prominent from when her second son was born in 1871 to 1873, where Emma’s growing resentment of her husband and her station in life threatened to overwhelm her. Emma confides to her father that she married Nels out of convenience and for his temperate, even demeanor, and his aversion to gambling and alcohol. Coming off her whirlwind romance with her ne’er-do-well first husband, she felt “it was the sensible thing to do.” She began to fantasize about taking George and fleeing East, perhaps to Montana or even back to England. As her demeanor darkened, thoughts of drowning herself and her children began to creep in.
One night, as she was planning to leave for good, she burst and admitted to Nels her feelings. They fought, but she ultimately chose to stay and took solace in being a mother and caretaker. Shortly after her third son was born, Emma mentions that Nels was being more considerate and thoughtful, and Emma’s characteristic hopefulness returns in her letters. Even during the difficult times, though, Emma brightens when she mentions the few opportunities they had for social interaction. Trappers would stop by from time to time, and “We listen to them eagerly, beg them to remain longer, and sigh when they pass on.” A distinguished group of scholars came to the homestead on their way to survey a national park, which Emma described as “one of the happiest experiences of my life.”
For the better part of their first decade, the Justs would have to rely on these fleeting visitors for comfort. Emma found herself ostracized from their few neighbors due to her being seen as the breadwinner for the family, as she found work sewing, washing, and cooking for some of the wealthier families in Eagle Rock, while Nels found paying work hard to come by. Nels also had a rocky relationship with their closest neighbor, which meant Emma was unable to socialize with their nearest acquaintance, furthering her isolation.
In addition to the occasional visitor, Emma took great pride in being a mother. Her fourth son was born in 1876, and she threw herself into their daily routine. “Each day brings so many cares that I cannot look far into the future,” she recalls. Even so, the Justs found their footing over the next few years. They were able to expand their cabin to accommodate their growing family, employment came easier, and they hosted visitors with more regularity. In 1879, it seems that Emma truly felt at home. Upon returning from a trip to Zion, Utah, she remarked, “I have never smelled something so sweet as the sagebrush that crushed under the wheels the night they brought me home.”
In this same year, the railroad reached Blackfoot, bringing with it a further influx of people and new opportunities arose. This wasn’t quite the panacea that Emma had hoped, however. “I expected better schools for our children, better care for our sicknesses… but like everything when viewed from a distance, it is not at all what I expected.” Perhaps in part due to these unmet expectations, Nels and Emma continued to quarrel from time to time, but this was offset by their newfound ability to take some leisure time. The family would travel to Stevens Ranch once a year and would take a route to Sand Creek on Sundays to camp, events that would have been unheard of in the early years. They took the children to a circus in Eagle Rock and planted a vegetable garden and fruit trees near their cabin. Like their little grove of apple trees, the family continued to grow.
That growth would not be without heartache, though. Emma lost three daughters shortly after childbirth, and a third was stillborn. Had such tragedy befallen the family earlier, who is to say what may have happened. Emma muses, “I guess that one can even become accustomed to death.” While sorrow drips from her words, the hopelessness that crept into Emma’s earlier letters is absent. Visits from Nels’ brother, making friends with a nearby family, routine visits from an affable Irish peddler, and quick horseback rides in the wilderness helped her cope in ways she was unable to before. Soon, Emma’s last child, Agnes was born, and the family was able to build the house we see today shortly thereafter.
With its construction, Emma appeared to have found peace. The permanence of the brick, handcrafted from materials on the banks of the Blackfoot River, made their life seem less tenuous, less likely to be wiped away by a wave of misfortune beyond their control. In her final letter, she tells her father, “We have not lived an ideal life, but looking around me I am forced to admit that Nels is a better father and husband than any I can name.”
Not long after the construction of the big house, the Justs brought a pair of cedar trees down from the hills and planted them on either side of the gate. They referred to them as the Emma Tree and the Nels Tree. In a cruel twist of fate, Nels’ tree withered and died, just as Nels passed away a decade before Emma, leaving her to persist without him, but she was no longer alone. Emma’s tree still stands surrounded by several smaller trees that represent her children and their legacy, providing a potent symbol of Emma’s perseverance in leading her family and the surrounding community to a better, more fulfilling life.
Emma and Nels’ descendants still maintain the garden and grove outside the big house, protected from roaming cattle by a low iron fence. Along with written records, the house contains many mementos from the Justs’ excursions, photographs, and gifts from friends. When inside, you can almost expect the door to bang open, the children filling the space with laughter and teasing, followed by a tired yet content Emma and Nels.
We are here because of the Emmas and the Nels who have gone before us. In keeping their story alive, we honor not only the Justs, but all our ancestors that overcame tremendous hardship and struggle to forge a better future for their children and their children’s children. Their experience provides us context for who we are and inspiration for who we can become. The Justs were not superheroes or mythical figures, they were flawed people like you and I who did the absolute best with what they had. And for that, they deserve to be remembered all the more.
Many thanks to Debbie Reid-Olesen, Emma and Nels’ great-granddaughter, for her time and insight in preparing this article. Further information on the Justs and visiting the homestead can be found at https://www.prestopreservation.com/, and you can read Emma’s letters as dictated to her daughter Agnes in Letters of Long Ago.
Idaho Heritage Trust has been a proud supporter of the Just Homestead, awarding them five grants as of 2020.
This article was written by Max Kirchner on behalf of the Idaho Heritage Trust.
Photos provided on behalf of the Just family by Rick Just.