Albert Smith

Albert Smith and the Lessons of Seagulls and Mormon Crickets

The other day I went to turn on an outside faucet and it seemed to me my lawn was moving beneath my feet. We have been infested, along with the rest of the American West, with Mormon Crickets.

Without fail my mind turned to Grandfather Albert Smith.

Albert Smith was grandfather to Mary Ann Smith Westover, wife to Arnold Westover. He lived nearly every experience of a 19th century Mormon. Albert joined the Church around 1835, was headed to Far West and ended up in Nauvoo. He served a mission. His family lived in the same ward as Joseph Smith and he helped build the Nauvoo temple.

The Smiths were in the 1847 company of Brigham Young and Albert served in the Mormon Battalion. After his service he caught up with his family in Salt Lake, arriving just weeks after their late July arrival. He immediately set to work on his new farm, as all the settlers that year rushed to get in crops before winter.

Albert’s Salt Lake City farm was one of the scenes of the miracle of the seagulls we all learned about as children. As the story goes, Mormon Crickets descended on crops of grain in the valley threatening the food supply of the pioneers. The crops were saved by flocks of seagulls that came and devoured all the grasshoppers.

There is even a statue on Temple Square commemorating the event

Seagull Monument

But, as Albert’s journal tells the tale, there is a lot more to the story.

Albert wrote on that event in as it happened. He did not hold back in describing what took place:

“President Brigham Young addressed the saints told the Brethren not to be discouraged, but put in all the grain they could for they would not be hurt by the crickets, but, we should have an abundant harvest….The circumstance I will never forget. I put in 10 acres which was all I had and all the brethren put in all they could altho the ground was covered with crickets.

When I thought it time for it to be coming up I went to see it. My farming land was 8 miles from the city. I had heard that the seagulls had been seen in the field. When I got in sign of my grain I saw that it was covered with seagulls. I stopped till they flew to another part of the field. What was my joy and surprise when I went to the place and found every cricket destroyed. There was not a single one alive to be found while dead ones laid in heaps where the gulls had thrown them up on the ground they would fill themselves again…”

While Albert’s record confirms the legend I have found the story of Mormon Crickets didn’t end there.

Albert’s journal is a meticulous record of his farm productivity. Each season he would record how many acres he planted, what was planted and how much he was able to harvest. This was Albert’s living. Everything about his family’s survival depended upon his ability to raise and harvest crops.

So his journal is filled each year not only with the statistics of his production but also the challenges he faced each season. Drought and Mormon Crickets were constant problems. In fact, hardly a year went by when Albert wasn’t cursing their existence.

Sometimes, conditions got the better of him and he had to find other means to support his family.

Albert and Sophia Smith

Albert with Sophie, “my Danish wife”, taken late 1880s

One year the harvest was so poor Albert feared they would starve come winter. But a letter from a friend in far away Davis county said they had a good harvest and Albert could come glean the fields. So, by wagon and in the company of some of his children at home, Albert set out for Davis County. He returned several weeks later with a wagon load of grain he was able to gather after others had left it in the field.

Another year there was another crop failure. Albert was able, in his mid-60s, to work on the railroad to earn the money needed to get through the winter.

But overall, Albert’s journal makes consistent notes about his production: despite the never ending challenges, his production grew year after year overall. The “hoppers”, as he liked to call them, never went away. But his diligence, resourcefulness and persistence helped him to overcome in time to where they were not the challenge they first presented.

Albert was also persistent in his faith. He always expressed gratitude and acknowledged the hand of God in his pioneering work.

Albert had good reason to curse Mormon Crickets. I don’t. They infest my lawn and nibble at my wife’s garden. They mostly gross me out.

But they remind me of why Pioneer Day has become a sacred observance of sorts for me. I have tremendous respect for the unknown journal-keeper known as Albert Smith.

He, of course, was not alone in dealing with the Mormon Crickets. All of the pioneer settlers had to fight them. But his chosen course in dealing with them and other adversities inspiring me as we deal with the many challenges of our time.

Electa Jane

Electa Jane Westover Emett

Last year when I traveled with Dad, LaRee and Will on our “cemetery crawl” in Southern Utah I insisted on trying to find the grave of Electa Jane Westover Emmet.

My interest in her was pretty simple. Years ago, I found this image of her taken from a group photo of St. George temple workers around the year 1910.

Electa Jane Westover Emett

The picture excited me because here was an individual who was a child of Edwin Ruthven Westover. In her face is reflected, I hoped, the countenance of her grandmother for whom she was named, Electa Beal Westover.

Before going I already knew a little about Electa Jane.

I knew she became a plural wife. I knew she never had children. And I knew the Temple was precious to her.

As we traveled through St. George, Washington City, Pinto, Hamblin, and Hebron we ran into other last names besides Westover: there were Canfields, Platts, Emetts, Knells and many others common to nearly every cemetery we visited.

We found this weathered headstone I the St. George City Cemetery:

Electa Jane Westover Emett grave

This lonely grave was not within close distance to any other family member. It stood in contrast to many other graves we had visited.

In discovering her obituary I have been haunted by the statement about Electa Jane: “She was a very kindly woman, patient, and bore her troubles silently.”

My question: Why?

The life of Electa Jane Westover Emmett is not very detailed on FamilySearch.

She was born in 1853 to Edwin and Sarah Jane Burwell Westover while the family lived in Union, present-day Cottonwood Heights. Electa Jane was named after her grandmother and her mother.

She was the 2nd oldest of Edwin and Sarah’s family together, but she was technically the 3rd child because Edwin crossed the plains with Edwin Jr, who was 8 years old when little Electa Jane was born.

At the age of just 17 in the year 1870 she married Moses Simpson Emett, becoming his plural wife.

From that point in her life forward we get little detail.

Census records show she stayed with her husband and his first wife for their rest of their days. When they died she moved to St. George and served for years in the temple.

She kept no known diary and did not record her own history. As a childless woman, there were no children to record her memory either.

So, what, exactly is her story? What were her “troubles” to be borne silently?

~ Family Culture and Circumstance for Young Electa Jane ~

Electa Jane was born when Edwin and Sarah Jane lived in the fort at Union, Utah, in present-day Cottonwood Heights.

According to the collected information of the timeline we have put together from the 1850s, this was a time of great Church activity for her parents.

Edwin and Sarah Jane appear on the rolls of Big Cottonwood Ward and they were closely aligned with everything the Church was experiencing in the Salt Lake Valley.

Extended family was close by. Grandmother Electa, Uncle Charles and Aunt Eliza and Aunts Hannah and Laura were involved with the family.

In 1857 those dynamics shifted with the introduction of plural marriage.

Edwin married Ann Findley and Charles married Mary Shumway. Over the course of the next several years there would be upheaval caused by the Utah War, causing the Westover family to move south for a period of time before returning to Union.

Around 1860 there was a move to Grantsville, where Electa Beal Westover’s sister, Aunt Hannah, lived. Children were added to the family and it was while there that first Charles was called to the Cotton Mission in St. George and a little later Edwin would follow with his families.

Electa Jane was one of the eldest children. By the time she reached age ten there were 8 children and three parents in the home.

They were by that time living in Hebron, some thirty miles north west of St. George – an isolated, harsh place where Edwin was charged with keeping livestock for the Church.

~ How Events in Hebron Affected the Westover Family ~

It did me a world of good to see these obscure places of family history in Pinto, Hamblin and Hebron. Each place, though close to each other, was unique.

It turns out the history of each place is unique, too.

Hebron, originally called Shoal Creek, was scouted by two brothers bearing the Pulsipher name (a name with some early Church history behind it). John and William Pulsipher were charged by Erastus Snow to find suitable grazing land for the Church’s flocks.

In 1862, after locating Shoal Creek, their father, Zera Pulsipher, joined his sons and their families there. In 1863 other families were called to help build a settlement and the Edwin Westover family joined them.

Over the course of the next several years the Pulsiphers led nearly every aspect of the settlement. The had the first pick of the land, they led church proceedings and they organized how the fort would be set up.

Edwin Westover first crossed the Pulsiphers by bordering on their range land. It is not recorded if this was purposely done but it irritated the Pulsiphers enough that they moved their operations a little further away.

Not long after this time Thomas Fuller, an Australian native who had come looking for work, died on the Westover ranch during a cold winter blizzard.

The event, noted in this post and in Edwin’s video, would drive a permanent wedge between Edwin and the Pulsiphers and it no doubt had an effect on the entirety of the Westover family.

Church events in Hebron had some troubling aspects to it. Attendance was low. This stands a bit in contrast to other settlements in Southern Utah. Historians point to the heavy handed leadership of the Pulsiphers as the reason why.

There were other areas of conflict in Hebron too. Water rights, for example, was also an issue in the arid west desert. The establishment of a school, which would seem a rather simple issue to resolve, proved difficult in Hebron and resulted in Erastus Snow asking for the resignation of the Pulsipher men from their lead positions. Snow had grown tired of complaints from the inhabitants of Hebron about the Pulsiphers.

~ Drastic Changes for Electa Jane ~

For Electa Jane especially, at the age of 16 in 1869, epic changes occurred.

Fed up with life in Hebron, Edwin moved his families to the nearby settlement of Hamblin, where they would spend the next several years.

Then Ann and her children suddenly left for Mendon. One history suggests that Ann could not handle the rough conditions in Southern Utah any longer. There is no record left to prove this assertion and plenty of evidence that suggests life would be no picnic for her in Mendon.

With her brother’s sudden passing, leaving a farm with five small children to care for, Ann’s sister-in-law needed help.

The record does show that Ann got to Mendon and immediately set to find work even though she was very pregnant.

But what would her absence mean for young Electa Jane? Ann was just 30 years old.

Another who left with Edwin’s oldest child, Edwin Lycurgus. He was 23.

For Electa Jane, it was time of witnessing all of her parents in crisis.

Her father had just endured a Church trial, based on the Fuller incident. He was humiliated, angry and now separated from local Church leadership.

For Sarah Jane, it was a heartbreaking period with the loss of a baby and the loss of help from Ann and her children.

Also gone at this time, even though she was living with Uncle Charles Westover and his family in nearby Pinto, was grandmother Electa Beal Westover.

She caught the new transcontinental railroad for a ride to California, where she would be found in the census of 1870 living with her son, Oscar and family.

Electa Jane was essentially on her own – and about to enter a whole new world with the Emett family.

The 1870 census shows Edwin and families living in Hamblin and Electa Jane is numbered among them. The Westovers moved right next door to the Moses Simpson Emett family and the James Holt family.

1870 Census in Hamblin

Both families would be associated with the Westovers from that point forward.

~ The Life of Moses Simpson Emmett ~

Moses Simpson Emett was a 2nd generation Mormon, believe it or not. He was commonly called Simpson and the spelling of the family name was somewhat fluid – Emett, Emmett, Emmet, etc.

He was the son of James Emett, an early convert of the LDS faith and one whose own history within the early church is both celebrated and criticized.

James Emett converted to the faith in 1831, some seven years after his son, Moses Simpson, was born.

He received a blessing, which is in the Church historian’s office, by the hands of Joseph Smith Sr. During the 1830s and into the mid-1840s the record shows James Emett as a friend to the Prophet Joseph and his family as residents of LDS communities in Missouri, Iowa and Illinois (Nauvoo).

James Emett was frequently mentioned in affairs at the highest level of the Church.

But his activity was also frequently associated with a stubborn independence.

He was disfellowshipped in 1837 for “unwise conduct”. He was for, a period of time, a bodyguard of the Prophet and was one of the individuals charged with retrieving the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum from Carthage.

James Emett would go on to be very heavily involved in the post-Joseph era of the Church, at one time allegedly leading an off-shoot branch of the church in Northern Iowa.

Some of his descendants are vehemently denying the rougher portions of James Emett’s history on Family Search, on Ancestry and in the archives of the Church. But, as uncomfortable as it must be for them, there is just no denying the sheer volume of evidence about the man.

James Emett wanted out of Nauvoo as quickly as possible following the death of the Prophet. Claiming to be commissioned by Joseph Smith, Emett led a group of saints west. This he did contrary to the counsel and wishes of Brigham Young.

In this leadership role he was accused of iron-fisted tactics, declaring ownership over guns and other property held by members of the group and claiming wives from members.

Brigham Young was famously patient with Emett, respecting his skills as an explorer and a mountain man.

B.H. Roberts, in speaking of James Emett’s restless desire to get away from Nauvoo, said “He was always a restless, impatient man, and ambitious of leadership which led him into great trouble.”

Regardless of James Emett’s reputation and actions in Nauvoo, his son Moses was 20 years old in 1844 and an adult in his own right. With Mormonism thoroughly a part of his family culture and upbringing, Moses appeared to be faithful.

On August 1, 1844, a little more than a month after the death of the Prophet, Moses married Catherine Dorcas Overton.

The first of their 8 children was born as they made their way west. Simpson, like his father before him, was a capable explorer, mountain man and pioneer. He made his living as a blacksmith.

A history written by one of his children states “I never knew anyone that did not think the best of him. He was a very reserved man.”

~ The Story of Catherine Dorcas Overton ~

Catherine Dorcas Overton was born to Dandridge Overton and Dorcas Wyman. She was the fifth of 13 children. Her father, Dandridge was a schoolteacher.

Catherine, along with her mother and sister Parthenia, joined the church in 1839. Their conversion divided the family. Catherine, Parthenia and Dorcas moved west to Nauvoo, while Dandridge and the rest of the family stayed in Indiana.

Catherine’s sister, Parthenia, married a man named James Holt, whose wife and two children died while traveling in the James Emett Company, heading west in 1852.

Together – the families of Moses and Catherine Emmett and James and Parthenia Holt – settled into pioneer life in Ogden, Utah. They were there for ten years, raising crops and having children.

By the end of 1862 both families were called to the Cotton Mission and moved to Hamblin. They would stay there for a number of years before moving to various places in Southern Utah, generally following the pioneering path of Jacob Hamblin.

For a while they were in Kanab before finally settling just south of the Utah border in Fredonia, Arizona, where they would spend the rest of their days.

~ The Culture of the Emett Family ~

How the decision was made for Electa Jane to become the plural wife of Moses Simpson Emett is not known. Who made the decision is just as big a mystery.

But marrying at 17 was not unheard of in those days.

In fact, Ann married Edwin as his plural wife when she was just 17, fresh off the handcart trail.

But both Simpson and his wife Catherine were the same age as Electa Jane’s parents.

Was it really a marriage or merely a transfer of one house to another?

Electa Jane was joining the family as a wife – to be known as Aunt Electa – yet three of the children there were all older than she.

Emily was 23, Eleanor was 21, and James – named after his headstrong grandfather – was 20.

All of these eldest children of Moses and Catherine distinguished themselves in later life.

Emily married the husband of her sister, Lavena, who died suddenly in 1875. She died after giving birth to her first child.

Two years later, Emily married Lavena’s husband, Joseph Eldridge, and became mother to her sister’s child.

Joseph Eldridge was a teacher in Pinto and a figure of cultural dominance in Southern Utah during his day, directing choirs and teaching art. His name consistently appears in Pinto Ward records. He was active and influential.

Eleanor married Henry William Bigler, a prolific journal writer during the Mormon Battalion and, along with Azariah Smith, a discoverer of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1849. Eleanor married Bigler after the death of his first wife and would give him six children.

James would mirror the path of his parents, at least in terms of geography.

He moved from Hamblin to Kanab to Northern Arizona where he worked in the ferry business and dabbled in the cattle trade.

Like his father and grandfather before him James would be an outdoorsman. He was later made famous in an article by Zane Grey titled “The Man Who Influenced Me Most”.

Also included in the home were other children of Moses and Catherine who were younger. In 1870, Thomas was 15, Caroline was 13, Olive was 11 and Moses Mosiah was 8.

The name Thomas Carlos Emmett is one we have talked about before. Thomas was linked to the Canfields – another local family, one that Electa’s older sister Sarah Evaline married into (her husband was Moroni Canfield).

Thomas married Lucy Canfield, sister to the band of cowboys Canfield brothers.

Depending which history you choose to believe among the Emmett and Canfield descendants of the 20th century, Thomas Emmett was either a really busy man or a deadbeat husband and member of the Ben Tasker outlaw band.

Either way, like his grandfather James, Thomas was a tough character who walked in rough circles. He could handle himself in any kind of wilderness setting, he was an excellent horseman, and he was fiercely independent.

He married Lucy in 1874 but was listed in 1880 with his brother James in Kanab. By 1883 he was dead. The nature of his passing continues to be hotly debated to this day.

Sisters Caroline and Olive both married local men and went on to pioneering experiences of their own not far from the Emett family in Arizona.

Youngest child Moses Mosiah’s history reads like that of his older brothers: he stayed near his parents, moving from Hamblin to Kanab and then Northern Arizona.

Like his brothers he also had legendary skills as a horseman. He could do nearly anything with rope. He married and had a large family but was hesitant to leave his aging parents to seek his fortune.

His father, Simpson, in discussing the possibilities for him in the West, challenged his namesake son by saying “You haven’t the courage to leave.”

But leave he did for the wilds of Wyoming, moving several times as he tried to pioneer yet another western frontier in the very early 20th century. Farming was tough, so he augmented his income as a law man. Like his brothers Moses Mosiah was not a man to be trifled with.

Church activity for the Emett family is not well recorded. We find that in the Pinto Ward, which kept excellent records, for a brief time we can find the Emmets with the Westovers:

Pinto Ward Records

Life in Pinto, as in Hebron and Hamblin and surrounding areas, was rugged. Weather and grasshoppers seemed to dominate the news, as in this report from 1869:

Pinto Farms

News reports from the day are kind of sparse, but occasionally they would give a glimpse of daily life that never appear in recorded family histories:

Stabbing - 1876

The above gives us much to consider. It seems the extremes in behavior were as much an issue then as now. It seemed the more pious had influence and judgment over behaviors, such as in the Fuller case against Edwin. And yet it seemed as well the agency of individuals could influence things as well.

Found among the records of the church (1891) is a report from James G. Bleak to the St. George Stake president accounting for tobacco use in the settlements:

Tobacco Use

Based on these gleaned details, what can we assume about the world young Electa Jane Westover encountered as a member of the Emett family?

The record going forward from 1870 for Electa Jane is sparse. This is the census from 1880, still in Hamblin:

1880 Census

Here she is again, this time in Fredonia, Arizona in 1900:

1900 Census Fredonia

Note that at this point she is no longer listed as a wife, but rather as a housekeeper. This could have been due to the anti-polygamy laws at the time.

Why didn’t Electa Jane have children? Was there a medical problem? Was it a preference? And did the fact she was childless contribute to the statement that she “bore her troubles silently”?

We may never know the complete history of Electa Jane.

Clearly, Electa was a woman of deep faith.

One history claims “she had a blessing that told her than mansions would be prepared for her and they would be decorated with the workmanship of her own hands” and that children were “not meant for this life” and despite an offer to live with the Emmet family after the passing of Simpson and Catherine said she “wanted to live and die in the shadows of the temple”. (This is believed to be shared by Caroline Cornelia Emmett, a daughter of Simpson Emett who passed in 1936).

Electa Jane stayed true to those stated desires. She moved back to St. George where, in the 1910 census, she lived in the home of another widow by the name of Mary Elizabeth Goddard Whitehead.

Mary G. Whitehead

Like Electa Jane, this faithful pioneer woman worked in the temple in St. George. Electa stayed there until Sister Whitehead died of liver cancer May of 1910.

Electa Jane’s remaining years are only mentioned in a temple context. She became a fixure there, much as her grandmother, Electa Beal, did in the final years of her life. One history claims she worked in the temple until she was “feeble”.

Electa Jane died in 1925.

Electa Jane Obituary

Mormon Battalion

Celebrating the 175th Anniversary of the Mormon Battalion

This year we mark the 175th anniversary of the Mormon Battalion.

What was the Mormon Battalion and why is it important in our family history?

The Mormon Battalion was the only unit in American military history bearing a religious title and being comprised almost entirely of recruits from a single religion. It was formed on the frontier to serve in the war with Mexico in 1846.

The unit was unique in two ways:

1. It was not a state or territorial militia recruited by a governor, but a federal volunteer infantry battalion recruited by order of President James K. Polk.
2. It had no parent regiment but was an independent battalion assigned directly to the Army of the West. Official U.S. Army records simply referred to it as the “Mormon Battalion.”

As Brigham Young was organizing the move west he saw the service of the Battalion as both an aid to financing the church’s move to Utah and as a means of re-building relations with the US government, which had suffered at the hands of the extermination order of Church members in Missouri.

Brigham Young later said: “The Mormon Battalion will be held in honorable remembrance to the latest generation; and I will prophesy that the children of those who have been in the army, in defence [sic] of their country, will grow up and bless their fathers for what they did at that time. And men and nations will yet rise up and bless the men who went in that Battalion…As the Lord lives,…you will never be forgotten, worlds without end, but you will be had in honorable remembrance, for ever and ever.”

The course of our family history was affected by the service of three individuals:

Albert Smith Sr, who was a sargeant in Company B of the Battalion and his son, Azariah, who was just 17 and whose teenage journal is used by historians to this day to study the activities of the unit. Albert is grandfather to Mary Ann Smith Westover, wife of Arnold Westover.

Albert Smith Sr

In the Battalion as well was William Rowe, who was Ruth Rowe Westover’s father and father-in-law to William Westover, founder of the Westover Ranch.

William Rowe

Over the course of the next year we will share important dates, histories and connections that we have relative to the Mormon Battalion.

What happened to these men in the years before the formation of the Battalion is important and needs to be told.

What transpired over the course of their year of service and during the trek of the Battalion to San Diego, California would have an impact on the Westovers, Smiths and Rowes for generations. It almost plays out like a movie – a most telling and unusual tale.

How these men all got back to their families – all of which ended up in Utah – is yet another story that would impact the course of the family. We need to explore what happened during these formative year in Utah for both the family and the church.

These events will be shared in detail in the months ahead.


A Family History of Thanksgiving

A family history of Thanksgiving is bound to be a bit different than the traditional accounts of Thanksgiving we read in the media and in general history books.

These days there is an effort to “correct” the historical teachings of Thanksgiving as it was once known.

Family history has a way of re-centering it because we know what we know from our own traditions.

~ Thanksgiving is a Multi-Cultural Experience ~

The media debates whether or not turkey was part of the first Thanksgiving 400 years ago in 1621. It is a silly argument because turkey is hardly the point and the Thanksgiving of 1621 was hardly the first time Thanksgiving was celebrated.

It was not even the first Thanksgiving in North America. The settlers at Jamestown was first reported some 11 years before in 1610.

That never gets talked about, mostly because Charlie Brown wasn’t there (okay, I’m kidding).

The idea here is that Thanksgiving was actually a very British and very Christian thing to do. In fact, it was a somewhat common practice that was held at any time of the year whenever a governing authority cared to call for it.

Thanksgiving Declaration

“Thanksgiving” was a general term to denote when a community would together celebrate some sort of good news.

It might be a victory in battle, the birth of a new prince, or simply a great harvest that would ensure survival through the winter months. When things like this happened, a public call to prayer and the recognition of God was made through a declaration of Thanksgiving.

It was hardly confined to British Christians. French explorers famously celebrated Thanksgiving in 16th century Canada.

Native American cultures also celebrated a form of Thanksgiving, often recognizing Deity and nature for their survival. Thanksgiving was, for them, a way to recognize they were stewards of the Good Earth who needed to care for it.

~ Mayflower and Puritan Ancestors ~

There is an image of Mayflower passengers as being a religiously persecuted bunch who came here to worship as they wanted.

That is partly true.

But it is also true it was the riches and freedom of the New World that enticed them.

But the greater story behind that “first” Thanksgiving in 1621 was a recognition they barely survived at all. And yes, the Native Americans not only participated in that three-day feast of Thanksgiving they were likewise instrumental in survival of that colony.

Our Westover ancestors certainly fit the mold of English Puritans. Gabriel Westover and family lived in Somerset, England, which was literally ground zero for the Puritan clashes against the Crown. Gabriel moved his family to the Netherlands, as many Puritans of that time and place did, just to protect them.

It was because of these conditions that Gabriel sent his teenage daughter, Jane, first to the New World and then a little later, he sent his son Jonah Westover, who would become the North American patriarch of the Westover family.

Jonah was very young when he arrived and the colony in Windsor was only a few years old. By then the traditions of Christmas and Thanksgiving were well established in Connecticut.

How do we know this?

The young media of the New World speaks of both celebrations. Much is made today of a proclamation in Boston banning Christmas but this did not actually occur until 1659. That happened nearly 40 years after the Mayflower.

So, what did they do during that time? They celebrated Christmas – albeit in a more devotional way than their English family was used to.

Christmas in England had become a raucous community event at the end of each year. It bled even into the Church of England where priests were guilty of role reversals, looking the other way at grievous sin, and participating in less-than-religious activities common to pagan celebrations of the solstice.

Christmas, in fact, was one of the reasons why the Puritans wanted out. They saw no Biblical justification for the celebration that Christmas was known as then.
But the Christmas they envisioned – one of worship, prayer and devotion – only became established due to one thing.

And that thing was Thanksgiving.

~ New England Traditions of Thanksgiving ~

Over the course of time after the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621 there are recorded many events called Thanksgiving that happened up until about 1650.

It seems that around that time the end of November – harvest season – Thanksgiving found annual declaration by colony leaders.

This well-timed tradition for Puritan settlers gave them the more festive event they longed for. It was, in their own way, more like what Christmas was viewed as in Old England.
In other words, once the church meetings were over and the prayers were said, Thanksgiving was a time to party.

Well, as much as Puritans could party.

That meant gathering as family and feasting, playing games, enjoying music and other secular pursuits not commonly associated with the Church.

Hunting games were common and, yes, since turkeys were native and abundant, that is what they hunted.

But the Thanksgiving feast was never limited to turkey alone. Venison, chicken and even pork were prepared during periods of Thanksgiving.

Food then, as now, was central to festive times together as family. From 1630 comes this neat little poem, singing the praises of pumpkin, which has been linked to the Thanksgiving celebrations of New England from the earliest time:

For pottage and puddings and custards and pies,
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies:
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins, we would be undoon.

It must be remembered that families were necessarily huge. A lot of children were born because survival was tough and required a lot of hands on the farm.

So an end-of-harvest event was a grand celebration in which family got together – perhaps for the only time during the year – and the duties of bringing and preparing food were shared.

These family gatherings were festive and could take several days.

It is important to note that Thanksgiving was considered a family event. Yes, a community might share a common date declared for Thanksgiving by a governor but rarely did one colony celebrate Thanksgiving at the same time as another.

But families got together when it best suited them – when all was safely gathered in and families were preparing for winter.

So the seasonal, end-of-harvest Thanksgiving was built on family tradition – not any kind of national calendar.

~ Thanksgiving during the 18th Century ~

While still a British territory in the 1700s the American colonies celebrated annual Thanksgiving “seasons” that were well noted in the local media.

A newspaper report from Philadelphia in 1754 estimated that the average family prepared at ate 10 pumpkin pies at Christmas. The same article said more than 2 million turkeys were consumed in a single day on the American Continent.


Such was the popularity and commonality of Thanksgiving during the pre-revolutionary years.

Ben Franklin had a lot to say about Thanksgiving. In fact, he is famous for once trying to electrocute a turkey for Thanksgiving.

For some reason, he believed a turkey killed with electricity would be tastier than one dispatched by conventional means: decapitation. As fellow scientist William Watson wrote in 1751, Franklin claimed that “birds kill’d in this manner eat uncommonly tender.”

Franklin set out to develop a standard procedure for preparing turkeys with static electricity collected in Leyden jars. One day, while performing a demonstration of the proper way to electrocute a turkey, he mistakenly touched the electrified wire intended for the turkey while his other hand was grounded, thereby diverting the full brunt of the turkey-killing charge into his own body.

Maybe this is why we roast turkeys in Franklin’s oven, instead of by electrocution.

Thanksgiving was declared a national observance by presidential proclamation from George Washington, John Adams, and even Thomas Jefferson.

It is important to note that Jefferson was uncomfortable with the whole idea of Thanksgiving. Not that he disagreed with the virtue of gratitude. His concerns stemmed from the idea of calling citizens to prayer and recognizing God.

As governor of Virginia and later as president he proclaimed Thanksgiving anyway, saying he was merely “recommending it”, not mandating it.

By Jefferson’s time Thanksgiving was a defacto national holiday. It was so engrained as an automatic thing there was no turning back from it.

That didn’t stop several from advocating for a national holiday known as Thanksgiving.

~ Thanksgiving in the 19th Century ~

The acknowledgement of Thanksgiving which would come later on a national scale was driven by people in the mid-19th century who grew up with those gathering traditions.

Such was the case of the creation of “Over the River and Through the Wood”, a popular Thanksgiving poem written in 1844.

Over the River

It was written by an extraordinary woman named Lydia Maria Child – decades before Christmas and Thanksgiving became recognized as official holidays. It is through her efforts and others that we know that Christmas and Thanksgiving were long traditions in North America.

Lydia Maria Child was a woman ahead of her time. Born in 1802 she made her voice heard through the power of her pen. (Yes, we are related – she is a distant cousin, through the Snow line).

She was an accomplished writer, editor and civil rights activist – in the early 19th century. During her day she would be controversial and even daring in the eyes of some. In the 19th century man’s world she was a force that tackled the prickly topics of slavery, male dominance and white supremacy.

But while her individual story is fascinating, her simple poem teaches us much about what Thanksgiving was like in the early 19th century. It was, simply, the biggest family celebration of the year.

She is not the only American writer with an ancestral connection to Thanksgiving. Read this about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – and the common Alden ancestors we share through the Snow line.

Our pioneer ancestors in Utah adopted the same Thanksgiving celebrations they brought with them from generations before. The first “Thanksgiving” was held in August of 1848, though our Westover ancestors missed it by more than a month.

But Albert Smith was there and he had great reason to observe it. Albert famously recorded his efforts to farm on the east side of the Salt Lake Valley and he recorded the miracle of the seagulls that summer. His gratitude was well noted within the pages of his journal.

Utah didn’t recognize Thanksgiving until 1851, when Brigham Young, then-governor of the Utah Territory, declared Jan. 1, 1852, a “day of praise and Thanksgiving.”

We do not have any kind of family records (that we know about) that talk of celebrating Thanksgiving in those days.

But we know from tradition that spilled forward into the 20th century that the family had a long established tradition of gathering and feasting that continues to this day.

Family in the Cemetery

Family in the Cemetery

The passing of Maureen Westover this month came as a sudden shock, as sometimes can happen.

This past week her funeral was held as family from all over the country gathered together physically and virtually to celebrate her life. There an incredible story was told.

Her story is not over. And another story is emerging that I believe is of great significance and huge value to anyone calling themselves family – especially for Maureen’s children and grandchildren.

As I write this there are seven vehicles carrying a large number of those so important to Maureen from California to Idaho for her burial.

Maureen is a native Californian with roots in the Bay Area. There she and Gale raised their children. For them, California has been the scene of so much life and family history.

But Rexburg is where Maureen, and I assume that someday, Gale, will rest.

I’m sure that was not the original plan. I’m certain the strange politics and expense of California has something to do with it.

Those details aside, I see the coming of a new story to the cemetery in Rexburg as a continuation of an old story. I pray the real significance of this is not lost of those of Maureen’s children and grandchildren left behind.

I hope they all come to understand that this is actually a blessing and, I believe, an answer to prayers given by one of our grandfathers many, many years ago.

The Rexburg cemetery resides on land that once belonged to family members. I believe we have shared this story before but I will recount it here again briefly.

A man by the name of Walter Paul came to Utah with his father, who was a rather well-known furniture maker. Walter and his brothers all learned that trade and when Walter married and started raising a family with his first wife he moved to Logan, Utah where he opened a furniture store.

Years later, after many children were born to him and his wife and after his furniture business had prospered, Walter’s wife suddenly passed away. Given that they had many children and several of them were quite young, Walter needed to remarry and he chose a young bride by the name of Emma Westover, of Mendon, Utah.

Emma was actually close in age to one of Walter’s oldest daughters and they were, in fact, good friends. But Emma was not a plural wife.

It was their intent to have children of their own – and to build a new life. Before long, Walter was asked to join a group of local men in Cache Valley who were assigned to settle the Rexburg area.

Walter opened a new store in the frontier town of Rexburg and, in fact, took on many roles within the community. He was a constable, very active in church leadership, a frequent host and producer of local plays in the theater and a justice of the peace. He was, conveniently, also the town undertaker and the primary source of caskets.

Walter and Emma, like everyone else in Rexburg in the 1880s staked a claim under the Homestead Act. This famous legislation provided them with at least 40 acres for free if they developed it and made it productive within five years.

This was a daunting task for Walter because building a house and managing a farm was a lot of work on top of all his other duties.

In fact, he decided he couldn’t do it and would “quarter” his claim. That meant dividing his property into four equal parts and having others develop the land for him. This was evidently a common practice, especially for men in Walter’s kind of situation.

One quarter of the land went to a local that Walter wanted to help. Another quarter went to his brother in law, our great grandfather William Westover, father to Arnold who was the father of Darrell – Grandpa to Gale and Maureen’s children.

William’s story is one we should all get to know.

The opportunity for him and his young bride, Ruth, in the 1880s to get some land that could be their own to raise a family on was significant to William. He wanted something lasting that he could give to his children. That was something his father could not do for him and something his father had never had himself.

So, William and Ruth went to work and it was brutally hard. Harsh winters, dry summers and the swampland that became the Westover Ranch was not an easy project to develop. Their poverty was severe.

As their children were born and they fought the challenges and disease of the time, they also had to contend with a struggling local economy that was devasted by a lingering depression during the 1890s.

That same depression devastated the finances of Walter and Emma Paul.

They went into bankruptcy and it was complicated.

Sadly, the finances of Walter Paul directly affected the hopes of William and Ruth and they stood to lose all they had invested and could do nothing about it.

But Walter was an influential man who could see no good in everyone losing everything in Rexburg and having to walk away.

With others, he worked with federal regulators to not only save the land but the entire community that was on the brink of becoming a ghost town.

In the end one of Walter’s quarters would be “donated” to become the community cemetery.

William and Ruth could claim the land they had already been working for years and could press forward by starting over – and agreeing to a payment arrangement.

When this arrangement was made there was no way William Westover could know that he was sick with a cancer that would prematurely take his life.

But when he found out, he re-doubled his efforts to make the farm produce and to pay it off before he passed.

He barely made it.

Within weeks of his death he cleared the debt and secured the land for his family – all that he could leave for his children and grandchildren. He was only 42.

Those children of William and Ruth, as well as the generation of their grandchildren, never had an easy life in Rexburg.

But it was home to them. It was precious. It reflected the dying wish of a father and grandfather who wanted permanence of his family for generations.

The Westover Ranch has a difficult and interesting story. Very few of us of my generation and beyond have the connection that our grandparents have to the place.

But it has survived thanks to their vision.

Now the cemetery will begin to see new generations laid to rest there.

I do not see Maureen’s burial there as a thing of necessity. I see it as a miracle of connection. I believe it begins a new tradition of coming home that perhaps is something our grandparents never considered.

I cannot help but think that William and Ruth are pleased.

This land is not what is important. The family with this land is what is important.

The Westover and Paul roots in Rexburg should be honored for their sacrifices during their years there. I can think of no better way than coming home to rest when times like this come.

As I have traveled the cemeteries where we find our grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins it has given me great pause for where I will someday be buried.

I think in most cases folks are buried wherever it is they made their home, and that’s okay.

But to come home where home was originally built is a thing of honor and, oddly for me, something of security. It adds to the permanence Grandpa William was seeking.

I hope when Maureen is buried there that some time is taken to consider all the Westovers and Pauls already buried in that rural resting place. In the years to come when Maureen’s children and grandchildren come to visit and tell her story I pray they will look around. There are stories aplenty there to learn. Adding Maureen’s story there only enriches the heritage of the family going forward.

I hope other members of the family consider that sacred place for themselves.

They will add to an already great story, too.