John Anderson West was born on December 19, 1830 in Benton County, Tennessee. He was the second child of Samuel Walker West and Margaret Cooper. When John was four days old, his mother became violently ill. It looked like she would die. While she was sick, John’s mother had a dream. She dreamed that she was looking for a precious jewel.
Three years later, the Wests were visited by Mormon missionaries. Samuel and Margaret accepted the missionaries’ message and were baptized shortly thereafter. Margaret seemed to understand that this was the jewel she had been searching for in her dream.
The West’s home soon became a place of refuge for the missionaries, who stopped there frequently. One day, when the elders were visiting, John was outside chasing a squirrel. He looked down the road and saw a man coming toward the house. He ran inside and said, “The Methodist minister is coming.” The man walked into the house and started shouting and shaking his fist. John was so unaccustomed to such rude behavior that he retreated to a corner of the house.
After the minister left, John asked his mother what the trouble was. “He wants to hurt our missionaries,” she told him. “And he wants to hurt us all. We must pray.”
It was around this time that Samuel’s father died. His mother lived in Kentucky and had asked Samuel to bring his family there. Samuel and Margaret felt that it was no longer safe for them in Tennessee. They also knew that most of their church friends were moving away, so they packed up their belongings and their five children and went to Kentucky.
John was very happy in Kentucky and, in later life, often spoke of how beautiful it was there. He spent his time horseback riding, looking after his five sisters and fishing. He grew to be an expert fisherman.
John secretly wished that they could always stay in Kentucky, but the Wests soon desired to join their fellow saints in Nauvoo. In 1842, they loaded their wagons and left Kentucky.
When they arrived in Nauvoo, the Wests were shocked and saddened by the extreme poverty they found among the people there. They had brought with them a number of cured hams, which they soon began distributing to those most in need. Samuel had enough money to purchase a lot and the building materials for a house, but he loaned the rest of his money to someone else. That man was never able to repay the loan, so the Wests were unable to finish their house before winter came. They lived through their first winter in Nauvoo in an unplastered building. They were very cold.
John later wrote in his journal about an experience he had during that winter: “One of those cold winter nights, I was reading from the Book of Mormon. I closed my eyes and asked the Lord if it was true, and the answer came plainly to me, in a very clear voice, ‘It is true, true, verily true.'”
A few years later, John saw Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum arrested and taken to Carthage. He was also a witness to the sight of their dead bodies being returned to Nauvoo. John was a young bystander during the confusion that surrounded the question of a new Church leader following the death of Joseph Smith. According to John, “Several of us boys were near the bowery, listening to different ones speak. We couldn’t see very well, but one of the boys said, ‘Listen, that’s the Prophet talking.’ We got up on the hubs of the wagon wheels, and we saw that it was Brother Brigham Young, but he sounded just like the Prophet, and he looked like him; so much so, that we all felt, even though we were only boys, that Brother Brigham Young was to take the Prophet’s place.”
Over the next few years, the Wests made their way to the Salt Lake Valley, arriving in September 1851. They camped for a few days on the banks of the Jordan River, then headed for Parowan, where they had been asked to settle.
Through much hard work, the Wests made a life for themselves in Parowan. They also enjoyed socializing with their neighbors and friends. There were plays, picnics and dances. John was a graceful dancer and always took his sisters to the dances.
In the winter of 1853, John met and fell in love with Betsey Jane Fish. The next spring, John received a call to serve as a missionary in Hawaii. John and Betsey decided to get married before he left. They were married on May 19, 1854. Two days later, John left for Hawaii.