Everyone takes a first step into family history at some point in their life. For me that happened in 1985.
I had returned home from my mission earlier that year and left California for Utah. I was working in downtown Salt Lake City, just a block away from the fairly new Church Family History Library.
One day I received a call from my Dad. He said, “Your Grandmother is coming to Utah to visit Aunt Elma and they want to go to the Family History Library. Your job is to get them there everyday. Once you have done that, call me back and tell me you did it.”
That was it — an assignment.
It was no small thing to me. Grandma and I were long time friends. As a small child we lived close by and had some frequent interaction. But when I was about seven years old we moved more than an hour away and visits with Grandma and Grandpa were less frequent. They would come out for birthdays and baptisms and sometimes we would go out there for family gatherings and sleep overs. I loved Grandma’s house because it was so very different from my own home. Grandma’s house was like a library with easy chairs — filled with books, which was something I loved.
When we would stay over Grandma kept me occupied by helping in the kitchen and the garden and by occasionally riding bikes together. As I got older these opportunities became less frequent. But we always enjoys a very cordial, loving friendship. As a school teacher she was always interested in my progress and would, in a teacher-like way, always check to see if I was understanding what I was reading. She had a knack for focusing on me by including me in what she needed to get done.
When Grandma and Grandpa went on a mission we conversed by letter. Later, when I went on a mission, Grandma was one of my most devoted and faithful letter writers.
She was there when I graduated from high school, when I went through the temple, and when I left for my mission. I had to wait a year between high school and mission and I spent it going to school, which was located in Pleasant Hill, California, not far from Grandma’s house. Frequently I would stop for lunch.
I had no idea then how much this investment in nearly daily visits with my grandparents would shape my views of them and the sense of sanctity they would develop within me for my family.
So having Grandma coming to visit in Salt Lake for a week was not anything I dreaded or was uncomfortable about. In fact, I quite looked forward to it and took the entire week off of work.
I didn’t know my Aunt Elma all that well at that time. In fact, I had never met her before Grandma came to town. Grandma wasted no time in making an introduction and we became fast friends.
When I took them to the library Grandma was a bit surprised that I planned to stay with them. She thought I would just drop them off and pick them up later. But when I insisted that I stay and that I would “help” them with whatever they were doing Grandma almost immediately assumed the teacher role once again with me and very quickly made a suggestion.
“Your mother probably hasn’t had much of a chance to do much with her line,” she said. “Why don’t you see what you can find for her while you’re here?”
It was a very wise bit of counsel. My mother was a convert to the Church. While she did have some genealogy done it wasn’t much. Grandma knew I would find a lot of information fast and would see quick results. After about 20 minutes of showing me around the library and figuring out how to look up, retrieve and view microfilm she left me to my own devices.
By the end of the day I had “found” several generations of my mother’s lines and was greatly enjoying the thrill of discovery that comes from doing family history.
For the rest of the week I practically pushed Grandma and Aunt Elma out the door in a rush to get to the library. At the end of the week she was quite surprised with what I was able to show her in my notes and she told me I must call my mother immediately and report what I had discovered. That led to several conversations between me and Mom — and several questions that we both had about her father and his side of the family.
That’s a long story — but let it suffice to say here that I made a decision as a result of those conversations with Mom and those visits to the library with Grandma to travel by car by myself from Utah to Northern Minnesota. There I stayed with my Uncle Pete and picked up more family history from him than I could ever get from the library in Salt Lake.
Well, I was hooked. But I was young. And while it is no excuse, life just happened and my family history efforts after that stalled — for a long, long time.
In 1987 Grandma passed. Then Grandpa followed her in 1988. I pursued a career, then got married and the kids started to come. My sense of family history never really diminished. I’ve kept copious records of the years of my children coming into the world and the activities of our family since we started. But I set my family past on all sides aside.
Fast forward to 2012. By this time I’m pushing 50 years old. My seven children are ages 10 to 26. And we as a family engineered a move from Sandy, Utah to Richmond, Utah — a distance of about 100 miles.
At a family funeral I bumped into my Uncle Darrell, my grandpa’s brother. Uncle Darrell was in many ways closer to me than Grandpa was, if only because we had so much other history between us and the fact that we lived right across the street from each other during those critical teenage years of my youth. Like my grandparents, Uncle Darrell and Aunt Evie have been right there for me every step of the way.
So it was a great reunion to see him. As always he was interested in where we were and what we were up to. When I told him we had moved to Richmond he was immediately interested.
“Do you ever get to Mendon?” he asked me. Mendon is about 15 minutes from Richmond. I told him I had shopped for a home there. He asked me if I would go there one day to a cemetery to get a good picture of the headstone of a dead relative.
Well of course I would, I told him. “Who is it?” I asked.
“It’s the grave of Ann Finley. Do you know who that is?” he said.
“No,” I admitted.
“Well,” he said. “Figure it out.” I knew my Uncle Darrell well enough to know that wasn’t a mere suggestion. It was a command. It would require a return and report.
A few months later we learned my teenage girls would have the opportunity to go on Trek. My eldest had done it years before when we lived in Sandy and we thought it would be really cool if we could get the chance some day to go with some of our other girls. My wife kind of let it out that it would be a cool calling to get and within a few weeks we found ourselves called to serve as an “aunt and uncle”.
When you go on trek the kids are all put into “families”. They have a Ma and a Pa and “siblings” that hopefully they don’t already know. The Ma and Pa lead the group, while the Aunt and the Uncle provide support and tell stories based on actual historical events on the very trails we were hiking. If ever there was a perfect job for me, this was it: I had no responsibility for anything and got to tell stories.
Everyone going on trek was required to do several things that would keep the experience authentic. We had to dress in pioneer clothes. We could only bring certain stuff with us and it could not weigh more than 17 pounds. That meant no cell phones or creature comforts. But most importantly we were instructed to walk for someone whose names are recorded on the trek and learn their story. If possible, we were told, try to find a family member who actually walked the same trail.
Well, here’s the truth: I never worried much about my Westover family history because Grandma and her sisters had “already done it”.
Between the day I was baptized until well after my mission Grandma would give me family group sheets. I looked at them but never did much of anything else with them.
Uncle Darrell had told me a couple of times that we had relatives that were part of the Mormon Battalion and that we had some others who were pioneers but I never knew their names or their stories.
I had to go find them — and I had to find them for my two teenage daughters and my wife, too. I began a search online. I bought books. And I captured within myself once again that same feeling I had thirty years before that week at the library with Grandma — that same thrill of discovery.
So, when we made the trip to Mendon one evening on a family night to look for Ann Findley Westover I was anxious to get there. I found out everything I could about her — I actually found some stuff written online by my grandmother — and I could NOT wait to send Uncle Darrell the picture he wanted.
For weeks on end I studied in preparation for trek — learning first the stories of the pioneers my family would walk for. They would, in the end, be all the stories I needed.
In fact, I had studied so much it moved me to tears and in gratitude one night, long before we went on trek, I poured my heart out in prayer over what I was learning. It came to mean that much for me.
As we met that early morning in our pioneer clothes to head out to Wyoming our stake president spoke to us and told that while our feet would get sore that wasn’t what the trip was all about. He promised that if we prayerfully approached the trek we would have a spiritual experience that would rival or better any other we had ever had in our life.
There were many moments of trek worthy of that label. But for me, it really happened when we went to Rocky Ridge, scene of the critical night before the rescue of the Willie and Martin handcart company. In that company was my Grandma Sophie, as I had come to call her.
Grandma Sophie was an eventual wife of Albert Smith — a grandparent to Mary Ann Smith, who would marry Arnold Westover. We will in time tell her whole story here but for the purposes of this discussion all you need to know was that by the time the handcart company got to Rocky Ridge Grandma Sophie was a single mother with four very young children on the verge of death — she was in a desperate fight for her life and the future of her children.
My experience on Rocky Ridge was powerful. I received a witness — a sacred witness. I know Grandma Sophie was there. I know what she experienced in that place was akin to the sacrifice asked of Abraham. I knew then and there that her faith was genuine and that her hope was not only with her children but also future generations — of which I am a part — that she would live to tell the tale and share the witness.
Trek not only profoundly touched me in this way it provided for me connections to other family members, many of whom had lived and settled where I was now living in Richmond. They helped settle the area and they lied buried all over Cache Valley. No wonder Uncle Darrell had asked me to go to Mendon.
After Trek I wrote an email to our stake president, detailing my experience. He thanked me briefly for sharing and then added a little post script — he, too, is a Westover.
His mother’s maiden name is Westover, she being a descendant of Charles Westover, Edwin’s brother. His children and grandchildren had help to establish the nearby community of Lewiston, which is in our stake, right where our stake president had grown up.
I sent all of this in an email to Uncle Darrell and a few months later, when I saw him at yet another family funeral, he smiled at me and said, “Well, I see you figured it out, lad.”
We had a delightful conversation about our common ancestors and he queried me about what else I knew. I was shocked to see his reaction when I shared a story with him I had found about Ann Findley Westover — his eyes got real big and he said, “WHERE do you get that?”.
If there is a bigger thrill than finding your family history it comes in finding new stuff the older, more experienced folks don’t know!
It was no secret that Uncle Darrell’s life was ebbing and I am grateful to have had a few moments with him in relishing our family history together. It pleases me to know that he no doubt has already reported to Grandma that I have once again picked up the work she started me on.
It has been about three years now and I have not had a more revelatory period in all my life. I still have as hectic a schedule as ever. I work two jobs and there are a great many demands on my time. But I fill dark hours of my nights and whatever time I can find on my weekends engaged in finding all I can from every side of my family.
These people are real. These are folks who were not famous or rich or important in the eyes of the world. But they have become everything to me because I am made up of them.
This website is nothing more than the joy I’m finding in this work. I want all my family to experience it.
(By the way, that picture at the top is of me and my Great Grandpa Riggs, taken in December of 1963)