Precinda Celestia Kimball (1849-1850)

              Portrait by William Warner Major, 1850

Jill C Major, Author

Precinda portrait when discovered.
Portrait of Precinda Kimball discovered in a closet at the  
Pioneer Memorial Museum,
International Society-Daughters of the Utah Pioneers (ISDUP).
Restored portrait of Precina Kimball 
Used by permission of the
International Society-Daughters of the Utah Pioneers 

Finding Precinda   (Born: January 9, 1849; Died May 9, 1850) 

In the 1990’s I was busy researching the life and art of my children’s Great, Great, Great Grandfather, William Warner Major. There are several pieces of art work hung in the Pioneer Memorial Museum of the International Society of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers (ISDUP) that Major painted. One afternoon I was digging through their card catalogue (this was before computerized data). I discovered there was a portrait of Precinda Kimball, a small child who died in Salt Lake in 1850. There were very few artists in the new pioneer town at that time and my research showed that William Warner Major created several portraits of the Kimball family and was a close friend who lived a few blocks from the family in 1850.

My investigations often brought me face to face with the stunning, antique portraits that hung in the Pioneer Memorial Museum and I was certain I had never met this little girl in my museum wanderings. Inquiries led me to a hall closet of the museum, where the museum curator, Edith Menna, stood on an old chair to reach the rolled up canvas from a high shelf. The gray, dirty canvas was unevenly cut, perhaps taken right off an old covered wagon. It was cracked and the colors were dull with age, yet I knew immediately it was a W. W. Major portrait. Major had a difficult time painting realistic hands and drew narrow, small feet that no person could possible stand on. The 1840 London Census explained this skill deficit: Major was trained as a miniaturist, an artist who sketched small portraits to carry around in the same way people carry photgraphs of people today on their smart phones or in their wallets. Delicate likenesses of hands and feet were not needed in his profession.  Edith Menna stated that the portrait was painted after the girl's death. It was donated early in the DUPM's history and had been stored in the closet as long as she could remember. Because funds are scarce, the painting had not been restored, framed and hung. 
Precinda Kimball was the daughter of Heber C. and Precinda Huntington Kimball. She drowned in City Creek, which currently flows on North Temple, in front of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint Conference Center. It was spring, May 8, 1850 and Precinda was a toddler, just 16 months old.

History of Elder John R. Young, "After Prests. Young and Kimball moved onto their lots, this path connected their two homes. One day Aunt Prescinda Kimball's little daughter [Prescinda] Celestia, unknown to her mother, started to go to Aunt Zina's. It was in the spring of the year, and City Creek was swollen by the melting snows. The child evidently slipped off the slab and was drowned. As soon as the family missed her, a cry of alarm was given. I was confined to the house with a painful flesh wound in my left leg. Hearing the tumult, and seeing the excited people running along the creek, I surmised what had happened. Running to the slab, I dropped into the water and was carried by the swift current to Bro. Well's lot where the fence had caught flood wood and formed a dam and eddy. I dove under the drift and finding the body, brought it to the surface and gave it to Dr. Williams, but the precious life was gone." (Journal History, 11 May 1850.)

Even though I was certain the artist of Precinda's portrait was W.W. Major, proving it was a challenge. I had vast experience with Major's style.  Since the 1980's I tenaciously gathered the known history and artwork of William Warner Major. Major didn't sign Precinda's portrait, so there wasn't any primary evidience, but the secondary evidence was strong.

I felt a connection to Kimball family’s grief and I knew the portrait was priceless.  There are few surviving art pieces by W.W.Major who was the first professional artist to arrive in Utah in 1848.  I wrote a letter to the Pioneer Memorial Museum officers explaining my discovery, but the research and the letter was forgotten; not long after my find, my husband died and I started a new journey as a single mother and widow in 1999.  

In 2012,  I was contacted by a member of Pioneer Memorial Museum staff.  They restored the Princinda Kimball painting and hung it in the Kimball room on the main floor.  My daughter Melanie Major Rogers, and grandchildren, Hannah, Abbi and Kody Rogers  accompanied me to see this beautiful portrait.  My feeling of satisfaction was immense knowing that Precinda Kimball and William Warner Major would always be remembered.


Still, I didn't have primary proof that  Precinda Kimball painting was created by W.W. Major until I received an email from Edward Kimball in April 2015 with an attachment.  There was another witness to what happened the day Princina Kimball died:

Henrietta [E.C. Williams] wrote: "One night in 1851 I dreamed a little girl was drowned. Later the next morning (after my dream) I was on the crossing of City Creek dipping up water in a tin pail. Some one stepped over me on the plank. I looked up and saw Oliver Buel with his hat in hand hurrying to his mother. A thought struck me that Precinda is drowned. His mother rushed ahead of me. I heard her calling out to Dr. Williams, 'Hold her face downward, Ezra!' I looked in that direction and saw my husband running from that bank of the creek crossing the President's lot to our house with the drowned child in his arms. Soon Brother Kimball arrived. Also Zina Young, the aunt of the little girl, Harriet Cook Young and others at our house, and did all they could to soothe the mother in her grief. *William Kimball, a major painter, painted the portrait of the little Precinda Kimball which proved a great comfort to her mother" Nancy Clement Williams, After One Hundred Years (Independence: Zion's Printing, [1951]), 160. 
The printed book, After One Hundred Years, mistakenly added Kimball after William in this typescript.  Many thanks to Edward Kimball, who read the hand-written holograph of the typed manuscript and made the correction.  Likely “William, a major painter” was a miss aligned memory, and instead was "William Major, a painter…”  Precindia died in May 1850, so the date of 1851 is also off, an indication that the writer was thinking back to the event.   Either way, W.W. Major was the only William who was a major painter in 1850 in Salt Lake City. In addition, he was the Kimball family artist and lived only blocks from the Kimballs.  This proof is very exciting because it is rare when you do this type of research to find a primary source that proves your theory.


Henrietta E.C. Williams, A Sketch of Henrietta Elizabeth Crombie Williams, holograph, 12.



Location of Princinda Kimball Portrait

Pioneer Memorial Museum, main floor, Kimball room. 


A small child is holding a basket of roses in one hand, and a single rose in the other hand. There is a suggestion of a rose bush painted on a dark background.

ISDUP Notes on painting

Precinda [also spelled Presendia and Prescinda] Kimball, daughter of Heber C. and Precinda Huntington Kimball drowned in City Creek 8 May 1850, age 16 months.

Painting donated by Ethel Kimball Sargent.

Edith Menna, past Pioneer Memorial Museum curator stated that the portrait was painted after the girl's death. It was donated early in the Pioneer Memorial Museum history and has been in storage there as long as she can remember. Because funds are scarce, the painting was not restored.

Ancestral File Information

Presendia Celestia Kimball

Born: 9 Jan 1849, Salt Lake City, Utah

Died: 9 May 1850 (Drowned)

Heber Chase Kimball and Presendia Lathrop Huntington bore two children: Presendia Celestia Kimball (see above dates) and Joseph Smith Kimball (22 December 1851). Joseph lived to father thirteen children from 1871 to 1897. It was his eighth child, Ethel Beatrice Kimball (married to Alexander H. Sargent) who donated the painting to the Pioneer Memorial Museum. She died in 1976. Since there is no other female child born in this family during the early pioneer era, and because the story of such a tragic accident would likely be passed down from generation to generation, it is safe to conclude that the painting is of Presendia Celestia Kimball, as family tradition states.

Historical information on Presendia Celestia Kimball

Journal History: "Saturday, May 11. About 9 oclock a.m. a little girl, daughter of Heber C. and Prescinda Kimball, was drowned in City Creek. The little one slipped off the foot board while attempting to cross the creek by herself. The child was washed down stream two or three rods and found by a girl where the water was two or three feet deep."


Historical Evidence

W. W. Major entered Salt Lake September, 1848. He painted portraits and landscapes until he left on a mission on June 22, 1853.

Major had extensive experience painting portraits of children. In addition to the Scovil family (private collection), Kimball family (picture never completed, location unknown), and Young family (MCHA). Willard Richards mentions in his journal on 26 January 1846: "Bro Major in the office painting my children" (Willard Richards Journal, Church Archives). Rhoda Ann Richards, born 15 September 1843, was two years old and Heber John several years older.

Major was well acquainted with the Kimball family and they patronized his services frequently. It is likely they would have asked Major to paint a portrait of their child. Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, the daughter of Heber C. and Vilate Kimball, described Major in a personal way: "I had nearly forgotten our artist, Brother Major, from England, who commenced in the summer of 1845 to paint our family group. It was upon a large canvas, tastefully arranged, my father and mother sitting with baby in the center, myself at her side and by brother William with his wife and little daughter on the left, and four younger brothers made up the family group" (Women's Exponent, 15 Oct. 1883, 74). Heber C. Kimball mentions Major several times in his diary: "Returned back to the Temple, put up the Looking glasses, and Maps and potrats [portraits]. As William W. Majors brought som up from his chop [shop] to Adorn our room" (December 6, 1845). Major painted portraits of Vilate and Heber C. Kimball (DUPM). Heber C. Kimball is also among the leaders portrayed in a group picture with Joseph and Hyrum (MCHA). In Salt Lake, Kimball and Major lived only a few blocks apart. Major's house was on South Temple and 3rd East. The Kimball home was between First North and North Temple and is a prominent feature in the 1852 sketch of Salt Lake (Church collection) by Major.

Major was on the Municipal High Council at Winter Quarters and the Great Salt Lake High Council. He often met with Brigham Young and the apostles and frequently spoke at conferences and church meetings with them. For example, general conference was held one week after Brigham Young's 1848 company arrived in Salt Lake. (Major was a counselor in the company presidency.) On October 29, 1848 the Journal History recorded, "The afternoon meeting was addressed by Pres. Brigham Young, Charles C. Rich, Heber C. Kimball, Wm. W. Major and Willard Snow." It is highly probable because of Major's frequent association with this family that he would have attended the funeral of Presendia Kimball and mourned with this family.

Later records show that Major was not only the artist for this family, but a close friend. The oldest son of Heber C. Kimball, William H. Kimball, was a missionary companion to Major in England from June 7 to August 13, 1854. In a letter to Brigham Young, Major wrote, "I am happy to shake hands with William Kimball today. Just arrived" (Brigham Young collection, Church Archives). William H. Kimball visited Major and gave him priesthood blessings during his long illness (which began August 13) and was devastated by Major's death on October 2, 1854. William Kimball's letter to his father on October 3 hints of a strong bond spanning 10 years: "Through this bereavement I feel as lonely as though there was not a person within a thousand miles of me...Bro. Major's faith was stronger than that of all others in London" (Heber C. Kimball collection, Church Archives). Rather than bury Major in England, William H. Kimball ordered Major's body placed in a metal casket. The casket was shipped home with a group of emigrating Saints on the Clara Wheeler in December 1855. William H. Kimball wrote the often quoted history of William W. Major, which was published in the Millennial Star a few days after Major's death. (On the back of the photograph  of the Precinda Kimball painting, someone wrote that William H. Kimball painted the picture. This was probably due to the That the book, After One Hundred Years, mistakenly added Kimball after William in the typescript.

Physical Evidence

I compared the known W.W. Major works to the Presendia Kimball painting. The hands in the Presendia Kimball painting are almost identical to the hands in the Sarah Pea Rich and Jennetta Richards Richards paintings (Pioneer Memorial Museum). Major had a difficult time drawing hands: most look too smooth, long, and pointed. He didn't draw realistic or prominent muscles, wrinkles, fingernails or knuckles. The face of Presendia is quite round, like the faces of the children found in the Scovil Family painting (private collection, colored slide in MCHA library) and the baby in the Brigham Young family painting (MCHA). It is interesting to note that the rose is used as a symbol of death (or perhaps the beauty of eternity or our strong, living connection to the people beyond the veil, or the purity of the deceased) by Major in the Brigham Young family painting. Brigham Young, Jr. is offering a rose to is his twin sister, Mary Ann Young, who had died two years before the painting was created. Roses are also a prominent focus in the Presendia Kimball painting.

The canvas is old, sewn together and mended. My theory is that the child died and Major was called immediately to paint her portrait as a memory and keepsake for her distraught family. Requesting a picture of a deceased loved one was not uncommon. Some of the old daguerreotypes were taken after the subject died. They just propped up the corpse, opened his/her eyes, and snapped the picture. (The photographer certainly didn't have the problem of the subject moving around and throwing the picture out of focus!) Major didn't have time to make stretcher bars and apparently didn't even have a decent canvas. Supplies were difficult to purchase in Salt Lake in 1850. Possibly the canvas was quickly cut out from an old wagon cover. This was sometimes resorted to in other paintings which date even later than the Presendia Kimball painting (i.e. Lorenzo Dow Young portrait by Dan Weggeland, Pioneer Memorial Museum).

It is likely that is was a portrait made at death and not painted from memory later on. Evidently, Major didn't paint well from memory. Jennetta Richards died when her portrait was only half finished. Ann Fox, Willard Richard's plural wife, modeled for the painting on two occasions so that Major could complete the portrait (Willard Richards's Journal, July 21, August 13, August 16, 1845, Church Archives). The background of the Presendia Kimball picture adds to the theory that this painting was done at death and in a hurry. It doesn't have Major's usual blend of colors or invented scenery. The background is too dark. The roses look quickly applied. The fact that it represents an outdoor picture is added evidence that it is a Major painting, since it is known that he painted scenery before Winter Quarters (Robert Lang Campbell wrote that he visited Major's home where he "saw some beautiful landscapes, also several profiles"), crossing the plains (Hosea Stout Journals), and later in Utah (Scenes of Parowan and Fillmore, 1852 and Brigham Young in the Utah Legion Uniform).

There was only one feature that did not compare well with other Major art works: the feet. Major painted feet that no human could walk on. They are too small in proportion to the body and are so narrow that they would cripple any toes stuffed in shoes that pointed (see Brigham Young Family, Brigham Young in Utah Legion Uniform, Scovil Family). The feet in this picture appear too large for the body. This is an unusual feature for Major.