Wednesday, April 8, 2009

There's Nothing Like Family

First, my apologies to the wonderful women who faithfully blog on this site for missing my last turn. I didn’t know how to turn my thoughts into something others would want to read. However, this time, I'm ready and will just hope that this is something someone will want to read. Be warned, I love learning about my ancestors and thinking about their lives, which means—genealogy. It can be frustrating and difficult but I find it fascinating to look into history and into others’ lives that have a connection to mine.

Three years ago a job change led me to sell my house and move 50 miles south to Nephi, a town with one traffic light and a population of 5500. I knew the town and had even done some genealogical research in the area but had certainly never planned to live there. It took me months to realize that it was an opportunity to learn more about an ancestor’s stepfather who had settled in Moroni, a town just 20 miles east of Nephi.

When Peter Anderson had first surfaced in my research for my great-great grandmother, he was something of a mystery figure. No one in my family who researched Mary knew anything about him. There was only one record giving the names of Mary’s parents, and Peter was not her father’s name. Since so little was known of Mary’s parents, it was assumed they had died when she was very young. At first I thought Peter and his wife had adopted Mary.

But I learned that Peter’s wife’s name was Catherine Thomas, Mary’s mother’s name. My research uncovered that Mary’s father had died when she was small, and her mother had married Peter when Mary was four. Nine years later, in 1854, Peter and Catherine joined the LDS church and emigrated from Denmark to America with Mary, her young brother, Christian, and their other children. Catherine and four of the six children had died of yellow fever or cholera after the ship passed through New Orleans. Mary and a younger stepbrother named Peter were the only children to survive. Peter Sr. had remarried while traveling westward, possibly so his children would have a mother. (A note for mothers: I love thinking that Catherine would have felt the sacrifice of her life was worth the opportunity for her children to go to Zion.)

After a few years in Utah, my ancestor married and moved to the northern part of the state, to Wellsville, while her stepfather settled in Moroni, which is in the central part of the state with his new wife and son Peter in the county next to my new home. Since no one seemed to know about Mary’s stepfather, I started to wonder if she’d ever talked about him, or if they had perhaps been estranged.

However, I learned from another person’s research that Mary had not only stayed in contact with her stepfather, she had even made the 200-mile trip to visit him and his family. I was so busy packing and moving that this information was slow to register, but it did seem to indicate that Mary had been close to her stepfather and stepbrother.

At first I made the 40-mile commute to my job in Provo, I hardly thought of Mary or her stepfather, but over time the thought occurred that I might easily be taking the same route Mary took to visit her stepfather. If I kept driving north another 160 miles, I would pass through Logan and Wellsville, two neighboring towns where Mary lived for over 60 years. I wasn’t certain but thought it likely that my drive to and from work passed through much of the same territory as Mary’s journey would have. To the west of the valley lay the Ochre Mountains, to the east the Rocky Mountains. Much of the land I drove past outside of Nephi was undeveloped, open and desolate, the land covered with clumps of sagebrush with a few stubby trees. Except for the fences and power lines, it might have been the same view Mary saw on her own trip.

Each day I drove to work I found myself grateful to be driving rather than riding in a wagon or even on a train. I had a heater and stereo and could stop at a convenience store for a cold drink or snack. For me a 200-mile trip would only be a matter of hours; for Mary Ann, traveling in the West between 1860 and 1900, it would have been a hot and dusty, even grueling, trip to make.

Over time it occurred to me that my genealogical research had only confirmed that this particular Peter Anderson was Mary’s father. My visit to the town cemetery had confirmed that the birth dates and places on his children’s gravestones had matched the dates and places in Mary’s life. I hadn’t found any obituaries in the two largest newspapers in the state and my search ended there. Now I began to wonder if any local newspapers might offer more information.

I learned that three small newspapers had covered the county since the late 1800s; the Mount Pleasant Pyramid was the paper I wanted. Their office had hard copies of their newspapers from about 1940, too late for what I wanted, but a small college in the county had microfilm of earlier copies of the Pyramid so I shot off an email to verify this and made my plans to visit the college, an hour’s drive away.

At the college, my first reaction was one of disappointment. Somehow I hadn’t realized that the earliest microfilmed newspapers in 1915 was still too late; Mary Ann’s stepfather had died in 1900 and by 1915 she would have been nearly 60, too old to make such a long, difficult journey. Still, I had come this far so I began by looking for her stepbrother’s obituary in 1917.

When I found it, I was momentarily elated until I remembered that this Peter Anderson was her stepbrother, not her stepfather. But I read the print with hopes of some discovery of value. Mary had been seven when her half-brother Peter was born, thirteen when their mother had died, and 16 when she had married. Was it possible that for those nine years she had mothered him, as big sisters often do, building a bond that would last their entire lives despite the years and the distance?

“Respected Man Dies at Moroni,” said the front-page article. One of the county’s most successful farmers, Peter was praised for his service, teaching the other farmers to raise sugar beets successfully.

The final paragraph was the gem I sought. Peter had left a wife, four sons, and one daughter as well as two brothers and one sister, Mary, who was living in Logan, in northern Utah. It was a small thing but important to me that Mary was not identified as a stepsister or half-sister. She was his sister, he was her brother; they considered each other family. That single word gave me a new understanding of Mary and her family.

This may seem such a very small and insignificant thing, but it made me feel a lot better, knowing that Mary had a loving family in her new life in a new land. Yes, she had children and a husband, but she also had family members who had shared her life in Denmark, their voyage to American, their native language, and their shared loss that would nevertheless be restored to them one day.

There's just nothing like family, is there?

P.S. For genealogists who want to know the rather amazing story of how I was able to learn Mary's story--when she had changed her name and left very few clues about her life--you can find the article I wrote with another genealogist who (1) I met by chance at a work luncheon and (2) had done Mary's research using Danish records, allowing me to confirm my own research. The article is at


Nancy Campbell Allen said...

This is amazing, Val. There's something so satisfying about finding answers from research. I'm glad you found what you were looking for. :-)

Jennie said...

Interesting story. Genealogy can be fascinating and I enjoy hearing the snippets of stories like this that people bring to the temple when they come to do the temple work for those they worked so hard to find.
PS: It's Oquirrh not Ochre.

Valerie said...

Sheesh, I know that but in my mind I see the word "ochre," probably because I come across that word more often. OK, I probably need to write Oquirrh 100 times. Thanks, Jennie.

Michele Ashman Bell said...

Val - this story is amazing. You've inspired me to get involved in my family history. Of course, I already knew this, I just needed a kick in the pants. Thank you!

Cheri J. Crane said...

Family history is one of the great mysteries of life. Maybe that's why I've always enjoyed delving into it.

Great post, Val.