Grandma Sophie’s Pioneer Story

It is Pioneer Day weekend here in Utah. Each year around the 24th of July Utah pioneers are featured, celebrated and remembered.

We have many pioneer stories in our family history. To me one of the most compelling is the story of Grandma Sophie.

Grandma Sophie was not a Westover. Her granddaughter, Mary Ann Smith, married Arnold Westover, son of William and Ruth Westover.

Her story is part of many Westovers, however. And on this Pioneer Day we think it is important to share her pioneer experience.

Sophie was from Denmark. There she lived and married a man named Peter Pedersen. They had seven children together before a terrible disease took Peter’s life. This, of course, threw Sophie’s life into chaos. Death had already robbed her of two of her young children and now she found herself a widow.

In the days following his death Sophie grieved and dreamed a dream. In her dream she saw two men carrying suitcases and an angel in the dream told her the men were coming with a message for her from the Savior. Weeks later, as she hanging her laundry out on the line, she saw two men at a distance, both carrying suitcases. Instantly she recognized them from her dream. As they drew closer she rushed to them and asked, “What is it that Jesus wants me to know?”

This is where Sophie’s pioneer story begins.

These Mormon elders taught Sophie and baptized her and those children in her family who were old enough to join the Church. As she accepted her Church membership she was promised that if she stayed faithful she would have the privilege of shaking hands with a prophet of God.

She moved and sold her property, preparing her family as many other Mormons did to “come to Zion” in America. With her five remaining children, all of them very young, she boarded the ship Thornton on May 4th, 1856.

Immediately tragedy struck for Sophie. Her 8 year old son Thomas fell from an upper deck and broke his neck, killing him almost instantly. He was buried at sea.

After arriving in the United States the company she was traveling with became the Willie Handcart Company — and already you know much of the rest of her story.

Oddly enough, of all the tales told of members of that company Sophie’s story is relatively unknown. But her situation was just as desperate and the outcome, for her and for her remaining four children, was just as big a miracle. She experienced it all and with her children survived the trial.

Sophie survived by selling her precious things for items needed for survival. At one point, as food grew scarce, she traded her wedding bands for venison, hiding the meat inside her blouse. The family had their own handcart, powered mostly by Sophie and her ten year old son, Peter. Walking were daughters Emma, age 6 and Hannah, age 4. Three year old Otto was pulled along in the handcart with their belongings.

After arriving in Salt Lake in November of 1856, Sophie and family were taken in by Salt Lake City saints, like most of the other Willie Company pioneers. They were at this point completely destitute of means and spoke very little English.

She was assigned and traveled to Manti in the winter of 1857. On one of her first nights there in that valley she attended a meeting presided over by President Heber C. Kimball. Also attending that meeting was a man who joined the other Manti saints who had gathered for the occasion. His name was Albert Smith.

President Kimball very plainly told the story of those Danish pioneers who had been relocated to Manti. He explained that many of the women of those fall companies were left widowed and they needed volunteers to take them on.

Albert had already had one experience with plural marriage and it wasn’t a good one. He was hesitant to do it again. However, feeling compelled by the Spirit, he raised his hand to help. Albert was then introduced to Sophie. She didn’t speak English and he didn’t speak Danish.

Neither did President Kimball. However, as Heber C. Kimball walked down the aisle of the hall he passed Sophie and then stopped, returned to her and shook her hand. Speaking in English he said, “The Lord is well pleased with you.” Somehow both Heber and Sophie were able to understand each other during this brief but memorable conversation. In later years Sophie would testify that the promise of the elders who baptized her were fulfilled in that meeting when she shook hands with Heber C. Kimball, a member of the First Presidency, an Apostle and a prophet of God.

A short time later Sophie traveled again to Salt Lake, this time with Albert. There they went to the Endowment House and were sealed.

And there the pioneer story of Grandma Sophie really begins. She lived until 1898 and over the more than 40 years she lived in Manti as Sister Sophie Smith she completed a story of love and service that should never be forgotten. She became beloved to Albert, who had many children from earlier relationships and who carried a burden in the community as a farmer, a builder and whose home was a social center for the pioneer community.

Her story overlapped the impressive pioneer story of her husband Albert, who joined the Church and traveled to Nauvoo as a younger man. He later became a member of the Mormon Battalion. Both Sophie and Albert were united by their common testimony of Mormonism and the principles of love it taught was practiced by each in their relationship and their home.

Albert left a detailed journal of his pioneering experience. Sophie did not but she told her stories to her children, the children she bore to Albert Smith, and to their grandchildren. A simple Google search now results in access to different versions of her story passed down through various lines of her family. In fact, these stories have proliferated online over the past five years as more and more family history work has been compiled from different branches of the family. Each story brings a little more detail to the life and service of Grandma Sophie.

I personally learned of Grandma Sophie just four years ago as I was researching her as part of our involvement in an LDS trek re-enactment. As I immersed myself in the study of the Willie Handcart Company and especially when I visited the site of Rocky Ridge, Wyoming — a site of one of the critical nights of the Willie Handcart Company experience — I had one of those spiritual experiences that can only come from doing family history.

I felt her presence there — with me, one of her many grandsons. It was a soft, reassuring confirmation that she was there and made that sacrifice not only for her family but for her conviction. It was as real an experience as I have ever had and I consider it a very sacred moment.

It taught me that even though many of my pioneer ancestors lived their lives with devotion and had no need for my efforts in doing temple work on their behalf that they had testimonies to share with me that would prove of value to me in my day.

That experience changed my life. Now as I work to learn the pioneering stories of every generation on every side of our family history it is with grateful appreciation that I seek them out. I know that in a coming day I will be able to look them in the eye, hear their voices and feel their embrace. I want to know them before I get there.

Scouring the History of Others to Tell the Story of William and Ruth

We’re soon to release a new video telling the story of William and Ruth Westover.

In truth, all of our other efforts have led us to this point.

William and Ruth are kind of a focal point for the many modern generations of Westovers due to the Westover Ranch in Rexburg, Idaho. The ranch was the homestead for William and Ruth and became central to the lives of their children.

Researching William and Ruth has been frustrating.

Although their history is relatively recent as compared to others we have profiled in the videos we produce there is actually very little left or recorded to share of their story.

In many ways they led tragic lives. William as the eldest son of Edwin and Ann was called upon to perform a long family service from around the age of 8.

He stayed in Mendon until he was well beyond the age of being an adult and I am certain it was to support the Findley family property and that of his mother in Mendon.

He delayed his marriage to Ruth by seven long years. Ruth was a local girl, herself a child of pioneer parents. Ruth and William were close to the same age.

While they did forge a life together and grew a large family they didn’t live long enough to see most of their children mature.

William died at the age of 42 of cancer and Ruth died 10 years later – far younger than most of their parents and grandparents.

All this has been known about William and Ruth. I’ve wanted to know more.

I’ve searched everything I can think of. The Church has no record of patriarchal blessings for them. The Rexburg ward records and those in Mendon don’t even mention them. Court and probate records are silent. Other than the few written histories about them that have existed for years and the few pictures we have of them I can find nothing more.

But where I have found some information that I didn’t know before came from indirect sources – through the histories of others who knew them and who associated with them.

I will save it for the video to showcase. But there is one bit of information I want to get out there now about William in particular.

He felt very, very strongly about the land that the Westover Ranch sits on.

How he came to acquire it, what he had to do to work it, and how long it took to happen is a real story that we’re yet to fully uncover.

But what we do know is that he desperately worked to complete his claim and put the property in the name of his family before he died. He filed the last of the paperwork just 8 days before he passed.

Perhaps this is why I heard my grandfather speak with such passion about the ranch.

I never understood it as a kid.

After all, I grew up in California. The ranch was a place from the imagination of my grandfather – a place where his memories had huge significance to him. He mentioned to us many, many times how much he wanted us to go to the ranch and make it a part of our lives.

My Uncle Darrell was no less passionate about it.

I can understand why for them it was important.

The children of William and Ruth – the parents and uncles and aunts to my grandfather and my great uncle – had to stay and fight for that place after their father died.

The family all invested many years and lots of sacrifice for that piece of property – and in the process they became beloved to each other.

I don’t know the history of that land completely since the days of that generation of the children of William and Ruth. I know the property that we call the ranch is now just a part of what it once was to William.

But I know that a later generation of Westovers came together in the 1970s to preserve it as a family gathering place where the legacy of the family could be celebrated and remembered.

I find it inspiring that the great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren of William and Ruth on many sides work to continue to keep the ranch in the family.

I often wonder what William thinks of all this.

Many of his grandchildren and great grandchildren have now passed over and they can no doubt converse. He knows what they did. He is likely aware of what we are doing now in relation to the ranch.

To me, these generations of William and Ruth’s posterity have been wise. Their efforts to keep that piece of dirt in a remote place as a means of remembering who we are and where we come from resonates loudly with me. In many ways, what they have done there is what we’ve tried to do here on this little website.

The ranch helps us to remember who they were. It bears testimony of their goodness, their service and their sacrifice. It is a witness to all that they believed.

Rexburg is an area rich with history of families who staked a place of love and devotion. Many families have their stories rooted there. The Westovers are just one of many.

We have had to delve a little into the histories of others to find more of the story of William and Ruth. They didn’t have the time and they died too young to write much of their story themselves.

But their story has survived, just as the ranch has somehow survived.

We’re finishing that video soon. If you have anything we can add to it – pictures, old letters, journals, any kind of memory of record – I plead with you to contact me so that we can include it.

I think William and Ruth’s story is important to know and to share.

Memories of Mom — Evie’s Fits of Giggles with Her Mother

Evie Westover

Evie Westover

Pictured to the right is Evelyn Riggs Westover — Aunt Evie to many of us. She took to the phone this past week to share with us some thoughts of her mother, Muriel Snow Riggs.

As part of her storytelling she relates a tale of getting into fits of giggles with her mother. I didn’t know this is where Evie gets this wonderful talent.

It delights me to hear her tell this story because it takes me back to a time when Evie would take us to early morning seminary when I was in high school. I couldn’t figure out how she could always be so positive and full of energy so early in the morning and can remember many, many times doing or saying the smallest thing that would, literally, give her fits of giggles.

I can recall one time being at the grocery store with Aunt Evie. She spied a tabloid at the checkout counter with a headline that screamed, “Man Marries Head of Lettuce”. She got to giggling about that headline so bad she could hardly write out her check.

So listen closely to this story as this wonderful talent was one she has had her whole life, and one she apparently shared with her Mom:

Memories of Mom — Remembering Grandma Snow

From the history of my grandmother, Maurine R. Westover, comes these videos sharing a little of what life was like as her mother got ill and had to rely on some direction from Grandma Snow. The 2nd video in particular gives a glimpse into the life and personality of her Grandma Snow (Mary Nielsen Snow).

Even though this video was put together more than 30 years ago I think it appropriate to post it as part of our Memories of Mom series. In reality, these give us a little information about the lives of three women — Mary Nielsen Snow, Muriel Snow Riggs and Maurine Riggs Westover — grandmother, mother and daughter. This first video discusses the situation and what happened:

In this extended video we hear about Grandma Snow in particular. There are some tragic details as well as a humorous twist at the end that showcases some of the best of what I remember my Grandma’s personality being. Hearing her laugh again is a warm memory for me. Seeing this now is like having another visit with her…

The faint voice you hear in this video asking questions is my father, Kyle J. Westover. This video was recorded around 1985-86.

Tomorrow, continuing our series, we hear much more about Grandma Riggs, Muriel Snow Riggs, from my Aunt Evie, who recorded these memories just the other day. It too is a delight to hear.

Memories of Mom — Nobody Outguns Grandma

Mary Ann Smith

Mary Ann Smith

Here’s a great story of Grandma Westover, wife of Arnold and grandma to bunches, including Barta Westover, who shares this story originally told to her, I believe, by her dad, Darrell.

Mary Ann Smith Westover was one of our first truly great family historians. The photos that make up the Sam Westover Collection in the photo area of this site are mostly from Grandma Westover, who kept outstanding records and who faithfully completed a lot of family temple work.

Grandma Westover penned her own history. It begins, “I was born at Victor, Idaho, July 12 1896. Here I spent my childhood on my father’s ranch, three miles from town. Here I went through the grade schools. I played on the basketball team and we played against the neighboring schools. I also played baseball. In 1910 I went to Rexburg to a county fair where I had met Arnold Westover the year before. I was living in Victor when the train first came there about 1913. We used to go sleigh riding and coasting. We would go on horses up into the mountains to pick huckleberries. I was married to Arnold Westover, September 19th 1914 at Rexburg, by Bishop Henry Flamm. Here we made our home, living in the old homestead of Arnold’s father. In 1915, June 9, we went to the Salt Lake Temple and were sealed for time and all eternity. Here at Rexburg, our nine children were born….”

The photo above this post is a picture of Mary Ann around 1914, with a cousin who sits on the horse.

I’ve heard a lot of stories about Grandma Westover, though she passed in 1959, well before my time. Without exception, she has been described to me as a very strong personality. She raised 9 children, 7 of them boys! And all of them exceptional people. I love this story of Grandma not only excelling in the manly art of firearms — but humbling those who questioned her abilities:

Grandma Westover with 2 of her grandchildren, Kirk on the left and Barta on the  right.

Grandma Westover with 2 of her grandchildren, Kirk on the left and Barta on the right.

We have not yet worked up our own profile yet of Grandma Westover but you can access more information about her at FamilySearch. She is, of course, our link to a prolific Smith line that provides its own pioneer stories of faith. Her story and the stories of her ancestors are ones we are anxious to learn and share.