The Deaths of the DeLongs: Searching for Blue Berries

In October 1845, during the height of the Mormon persecutions in Illinois, four of the nine members of the DeLong family died. The DeLongs were impoverished converts who arrived in Nauvoo in time to join the lines to view the dead bodies of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. After the parents and two children died, the rest were scattered. Of these, only one ended up traveling west as far as Utah. That four-year-old in a red flannel diaper and a straw hat would go on to be one of the first settlers of Panguitch, Utah.

I had heard as a youngling about how a neighbor had provided blueberries, from which Mother DeLong prepared a pie. But most of the children refused to eat the pie. Those who did, both parents and one son, all died of ague, violent illness. Mother DeLong gave birth the day her son and husband died, and both she and the new infant died soon thereafter.

The problem with the story was that blueberries have a very short season: in Illinois they are only available in July and August. Other members of the extended family criticized the oral history from the surviving family members because it didn’t agree with written records from this terrible time and the fact that Mother DeLong didn’t die the same day as her husband and son.

My personal experience as a pregnant mother taking lethal levels of drugs (in my case to treat the heart condition of my unborn son) helped me understand why a poison migh induce labor but not immediately kill.

That left only the identification of poisonous blue berries that could be mistaken for blueberries in early October in Illinois. I have been searching for a possible candidate berry for over a decade.

Then last night as I was getting out of the car for Back to School Night, I saw a collection of berries on the fence next to the parking lot. They were the size of blueberries and had the same dusty coating peculiar to blueberries. They are the berries of Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), and they are highly toxic.

I don’t know who might have gathered the legendary berries and brought them to the DeLong household, and whether or not these hypothetical individuals knew the berries were deadly. If the berries are what killed the DeLongs, I can imagine the scene with too-vivid an imagination. Initial delight at finding such a delightful treat, the disgust and spitting of the other children when the taste wasn’t quite right, leaving the responsible parents and one child to consume what had been so lovingly prepared.

In the wake of the deaths, the two oldest sons, living as farm hands to non-Mormon families, disappear from the record. I have researched enough to see how children with names as distinctly Mormon as “Moroni” would lie about their birthplace and otherwise try to hide their connection with the Mormons.

The three younger children were farmed out to other Mormon families, to prevent them from dying of starvation. Surviving corrrespondence regarding the fate of the children paints a stark picture of a painfully oppressed people who expected God to wreak vengeance on the oppressors.

I will not know until some post-mortal future what actually happened. But at least now I know that there is a berry that fits the story told by traumatized children, of how their parents came to die during the Illinois Wolf Hunts.

As for me, as I pull the Virginia Creeper from the brick walls of my home as the years pass, I will have one more thing to contemplate as I perform this constant labor.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

10 thoughts on “The Deaths of the DeLongs: Searching for Blue Berries

  1. Interesting post. I am an herbalist, and the berries of the Virginia Creeper are known to be “purgative and emetic”. In other words, the symptoms should have been vomiting and diarrhea. The Virginia Creeper is also known, and was then, as a specific herbal remedy for “ague” or malaria, because the constituents are similar to quinine. It is unlikely that the Virginia Creeper was the cause of the family’s death unless they ate large quantities (a difficult task because the berries are very bitter). My suspicion would be rather that they died of other causes. Often we associate illness with what we ate most recently, but it is rarely the case that there is such an immediate and strong connection. Those who remember may just be remembering that there was an out-of-the-ordinary pie, particularly to a destitute family. It may have been the Virginia Creeper, or it may also have been Concord grapes that grow near Nauvoo (the ones I purchased in early October there a couple of years ago were dark and small, and with the same dusty matte look as blueberries). Only Mother DeLong would know the truth. It is very likely that all members of the family were compromised in health and were already ill or became ill with maleria. Childbirth was often deadly in that time. There are so many possibilities, but the story is sad and very thought provoking.

  2. Hi Winona,

    My speculation about the berries actually contributing to death was based on the USDA link (the one you get if you click on “highly toxic.”

    The fall of 1845 was very difficult, and so it needn’t be the case that the remembered pie was the primary cause of death. But I remain thrilled to discover something that could have been mistaken for blueberries that could have been in season in that location and contributed to illness ending in death.

  3. Hi Meg,
    I was curious as a kid and actually ate Virginia Creeper berries once. No ill effects, but they have a horrible bitter taste, so I spat them out with a vengeance. I have gathered wild blueberries and wild grapes. The scent of the blueberries and grapes entices you. There are features of both the blueberries and the grapes that make it very difficult for me to believe that your ancestors were poisoned by Virginia Creeper. Were the De Long parents native to the Eastern U.S.? If they had ever had blueberries or grapes before, they would never have confused the two.

  4. The oral history indicates a berry pie was eaten in early October, a pie that in fact several of the children refused to eat. I appreciate the additional information, and I agree that it would be somewhat hard to mistake these for blueberries if one were completely familiar with blueberries. But so far these berries fit, if less than perfectly, the oral history. I am not aware of any other berry that even comes close to satisfying the oral history.

    If anyone does know of a “better” berry, please do tell…!

  5. This year I was just introduced to a very poisonous berry on a weed in the nightshade family that ripens in the fall. I think it’s more black than blue, but is shaped similar to a blueberry.

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