William Bowker Preston (1830-1908) was one of the most broadly accomplished of the men who pioneered the settling of Utah Territory and he served at the highest levels of the Mormon leadership — equally respected for his abilities as a pioneering settler, an ox-team train master, a world-traveling missionary leader, a railroad, mining, and canal-building man of business, and a bishop who eventually held the highest-ranking ecclesiastical office in the LDS church for over twenty years.
He was so respected that he was known as "The Brigham Young of the Cache Valley."
He came to Utah from California when President Brigham Young, in the fall of 1857, called home all the Elders and Saints, in consequence of the invasion of Johnston's army, becoming a member of the famous "Minute Men" militia.
In 1858, he founded the town of Logan, in the virgin Cache Valley of Utah, and was soon named its first bishop, presiding over the 17 families that constituted the population of Logan.
He became a representative in the Utah Territorial legislature beginning in 1860, serving each year during the winter. In the warm months, he was the captain of the ox team trains that traveled from Utah to the Missouri River to pick up the large numbers of immigrants who were streaming in from the eastern United States and Europe, charged with escorting them back to Utah through some of the most dangerous territory in the West.
He was acknowledged as the best wagon train captain they had — and this remarkable photograph captures him as he is doing just that.
It was taken during the first week of July 1865 in Omaha, Nebraska. When the Civil War ended in April 1865, Brigham Young immediately took advantage of the cessation of hostilities to send forty-six men on a mission to Europe. Bishop Preston was given charge of the company, responsible for getting them safely from Salt Lake City to New York City.
By early July they were in Omaha preparing for the next leg of their journey.
His photograph can be dated with rather great precision to July 4-7, 1865 because the Prestons maintained a frequent correspondence by mail which is preserved today at the Utah State University Library.
One of the letters he wrote to her, on his trip to the Missouri in 1864, must have been accompanied by a photograph quite similar to this one, as he refers to it as showing "how rough and tough I am."
The Preston Papers collection includes letters written from Omaha by Preston to his wife on July 4 and 7, 1865. It is possible to rule out any other year for this photograph because the back of the carte de visite photograph shows that there was once a U.S. revenue tax stamp on it. These were required on all photographs sold between August 1, 1864 and July 31, 1866. Preston was in Utah in late 1864, and he did not return to Omaha until 1868.
That's right — at the time this photograph was taken, he was starting out on a mission to England and Europe from which he would not return for over three years.
And, his wife did not accompany him. She remained in Utah, raising their children and teaching school. She was Logan's first school teacher, and by all accounts was a highly intelligent and beloved woman. Her story as a faithful wife who was frequently separated from her husband by his enormous duties to the church is rather fascinating, and makes the portrait of her offered here, which is signed by her to her husband, profoundly poignant.
Kenneth W. Godfrey wrote an excellent, in-depth biography of the Prestons, William Bowker Preston: Pioneer, Colonizer, Civic Leader, Church Official, Husband, and Father. It includes a number of photographs of both of them. None of those photographs of him portrays him at a younger age than the photograph offered here (or shows him with a "split beard" or dressed in a duster) and none of the photographs of her are superior in quality to the elegant portrait offered here.
I will also suggest that it is possible that she was pregnant at the time this photograph was taken — certainly a possibility if it was taken after his return in 1868. I believe that the Savage and Ottinger photography studio backmark on her photograph dates to that time more or less. Their daughter, May, was born in 1869. That was before he took a second wife...but I digress...
A final observation. One wonders what Bishop Preston has in the pocket of his coat. It looks like it might be a book — you can make out what appears to be a labeled or paneled spine. Might be a Book of Mormon. That pocket is pretty much where you'd expect a bishop out on a mission to carry it, and perhaps to take pains to have it displayed as he is posed for his portrait. Perhaps...