Who are the storytellers?

Today was another inspiring day at Rootstech. The best featured keynote of today’s conference agenda was Daniel Isay of StoryCorps.

You might recall a posting we made on our Facebook page about them around Thanksgiving. At that time they were driving an initiative to get kids to record talking to their grandparents about their memories.

That was just part of an overall ongoing project by StoryCorps. For more than a decade they have recorded the stories of people from all over – just two people talking, in most cases, about their lives and experiences. They take these usually brief conversations and stories and send them to the National Archives, where they have stored 65,000 stories like this one:

It is pretty clear to see how such recorded memories are such a powerful family history tool. It is inspiring a lot of ideas within me.

But as I attended today’s events with the present on my mind as much as the past I had to wonder – who are the natural storytellers of our family?

Well, obviously, we’re all storytellers in our own right.

We each have memories of times, places and people we eagerly recount. The closer to any such situations or people that we are the easier it is for us to tell the story.

But some just seem to have a knack.

One of the best storytellers I know is my father-in-law, Gary Gillen. He’s a legend with my kids for being able to tell the funniest stories. Of course, what makes the stories so much fun is the fact he can’t get through them without laughing like crazy himself.

Another who comes to mind is Gerald Quilter. My experiences with him were quite limited compared to others but he could tell great stories. He had the twinkle in his eye that always kept you on the edge of your seat. Long before I met my wife he told me the story of his rock garden, a story I thought for a long time was exclusive for just me but that I later learned was legendary among many in the family.

These thoughts and memories were all over me today as I explored the topic of our present Westover Family History. While our first year last year produced a lot of our family past we didn’t do a good job recording our family present. We lost a few last year but also saw a good share of new babies, graduations, weddings, missions and travels – all that should be noted in family history for generations to come.

I thought today how we can address this. It’s a big job. Some of the classes I took today talked about that and especially how to reach out to the Millennials in our family who can help preserve our present happenings. More on this down the road.

One of the great diversions of the day came from previewing the first episode of a new reality game show produced by KBYU called Relative Race. What a kick in the head.

The premise is this: four couples compete in a race across the country by first taking Ancestry DNA tests that are used to identify relatives unknown to them across the USA. Each day they are given a destination and a challenge that will lead them to the doorstep of these unknown relatives – where they will then spend the night. They are racing from San Francisco to New York and the prize is $25,000.

The show is a hoot, if just for the married people dynamics alone. But when you toss in the mysterious element of family connections a lot of magic happens. KBYU is putting out some creative stuff and this one is a lot of fun and should do well. It debuts on Sunday evenings starting February 28th.

I spent plenty of time today again learning about Church history resources for family history research. The Joseph Smith Papers are included via a Family Search integration now, a tantalizing prospect for the future as they are now starting to work on the Brigham Young Papers project. I find that a tantalizing prospect for years to come as these resources come out that could help tell even deeper stories from our family members whose lives were so connected to early Church history.

In all, today was a day that left me bursting with ideas. It also left me painfully aware that I need help – and a lot of it.

Where the Name Edwin Ruthven Came From

scottishchiefsTradition within the Westover family for centuries has been the re-use of common first names. Perhaps the most common is “John”. There is also plenty use of the names Jonas or Jonah, William, and, of course, Gabriel. In researching an upcoming video on the life of Edwin Ruthven Westover we have been a bit hung up on his name. Where did it come from and why did Alexander and Electa choose that name for their first born son?

There has to be a reason for this, right?

In researching we have found that while we can find plenty of Edwin Westovers in both America and in England in the 18th and 19th centuries we cannot find a connection to our branch of the Westover family. There isn’t an uncle or a distant cousin that we can find who would influence the naming of a baby born in 1824. In fact, in looking at the names Alexander and Electa chose for all their children we cannot find a Westover family connection: Edwin Ruthven, Albert, Charles Beal and Oscar Fitzland have no connection within Westover history whatsoever.

Well, there’s no crime in that and we suppose the reasons are clear enough.

One of the lingering questions in our minds is how disconnected Alexander Westover himself may have felt from the Westover family. (We wonder as well about his faith). Unlike his father he was separated while quite young with most Westovers he may have known:

Alexander was one of the younger children of Amos and Ruth and he was born, it appears, during the transitory years of the Amos Westover family migration to Ohio.

Most researchers feel he was born in Canada, though no official birth records exist that confirm 1798 as the actual year of his birth or the place of birth. Records just say he was born “about 1798” and Canada is where most assume the family was based upon the census records found from the early 1790s for Amos and Ruth.

Alexander was clearly with Amos and Ruth in Ohio when they got there around 1815. In 1821 both Amos and Ruth died within weeks of each other, leaving Alexander seemingly alone in the wilderness without much connection to the old family home in Sheffield, Massachusetts or the growing homestead of his uncles in Eastern Canada. (And, obviously he didn’t have text, email or Skype).

Alexander married the sister of his sister Olive’s husband, Electa Beal — and I’m guessing if he had much of a sense of family at all it came from this association and that of the Beal family.

So family is likely not the influence in naming the first child of Alexander and Electa. So where then did the name come from?

In trying to answer that question we have found that the name “Edwin Ruthven” was quite popular in the 19th century.

A quick search of Google or Family Search reveals thousands of uses of the name, mostly from this time period. What caused that?

The answer? Pop culture.

In 1809 a historical novel by the title of The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter was published and it became wildly successful. I’ve never read it but the book very much was an influence to youthful readers in the early 19th century in the ways that movies are an influence today. The book is based in 14th century Scotland and details in a romantic and suspenseful fashion the heroic adventures of Sir William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and — Edwin Ruthven.

How popular was it? Think Harry Potter. That’s how popular it was.

Of course, now I HAVE to read the book. The question in my mind is who was caught by its charms — was it Alexander or Electa? (Or both?)

I’m betting on Electa, at this point, given the romantic nature of the book and the fact that it appears to have been so popular with teenage girls. Electa was born in 1802 — so she would have been a teen right at the height of popularity for the book in the US (it was a sensation in Europe before coming to America).

Can we be sure this is the true origin of Edwin’s name?

No, of course not. And in the grand scheme of things in relation to family history it may in fact not be all that important.

In a more clinical search for the meaning and origin of the names “Edwin” and “Ruthven” we find them to come directly from Scotland.

Edwin was the name of a 7th century King, the first Christian conqueror in Scotland who was famous and beloved — and for whom the city of Edinburgh gets its name.

Ruthven has a dual meaning in Scotland as both the name of a clan but also the name of a place meaning “red river”. There is, as with many words of Gaelic origin, vast confusion over how the name “Ruthven” is pronounced. It is in Scotland pronounced “Riven”. (I’ve never heard anyone here say it that way, though).

This little side note in family history has been helpful to me in a few ways.

First of all, the spelling of “Ruthven” has always been a question in my mind. I’ve seen many instances on official family group sheets of various age that some have spelled it “Ruthvin”. There is enough of that that I have never known which is correct. I’m fairly certain now it is supposed to be “Ruthven”.

But even more important to me is the little glimpse it gives us into the personality of Electa (it HAS to be her) — a bookworm! A romantic! (Would she love The Book of Mormon? No doubt. But what about The Princess Bride? NOT inconceivable).

That makes her one of us, right?

All of this, you know, won’t make the video.

I can’t confirm my theory and, frankly, the story of Edwin is already running long at better than 1500 words.

But, once again, this is just one of the fun little diversions of doing family history — a 30-minute exploration brought on by questions that opens the door just a little more to an endearing part of our family past.

Five Truths of Family History that Will Save Your Life

In the month since launching this site I have had made some gratifying contacts and been able to share just a small fraction of the great family history we have. It is a beginning.

But it is really just part of a larger journey that I began in earnest about three years ago that I believe has changed my life. I will tell you about that journey later. If you are here and reading this now I would rather share the five truths about family history I have come to embrace as part of that journey — truths that have saved my life.

I am hoping that if you read this and see in part just what an awesome thing our family history is that you will begin to take the steps in your own life that will bring about the same kind of change I have experienced.

Lest you think this is all for the old folks let me add this disclaimer: I am a man of constant sorrow when it comes to family history. I have had grandparents work with me, uncles and aunts who have prodded me, parents who have invested in me — and I put it all off.

I was too busy.

I would get to it later.

Besides, much of my family history was “done”.

Don’t be like me, kids. If you invest in this now it WILL save your life.

Here are five earth shattering truths about family history that you need to know:

1. Family History isn’t about THEM

Growing up in the Church we are told we can be “saviors on Mount Zion” by doing our family history. And that is true. But that lends to the concept that family history is merely a service we render to THEM. But I tell you it is so, so much more than that. Family history is like missionary work. When you lose your life you find it.

Family history is about YOU.

When you invest in it you learn the details of what makes up you. It enlightens you. It inspires you. It causes you to value yourself in a whole new light. You recognize that you are part of something greater than you ever knew existed.

2. Nobody else can do your family history

No doubt there are others out there who have worked on your lines or shared with you like we do here about your family history. That might be great information and it might help you in some ways but that is not “doing” your family history.

Your family history is a lot like scripture. You can buy those scriptures in the bookstore but owning them does not give you a witness of what is in those pages.

Family history, like scripture, needs to be turned page by page. It needs to reach you as you read it and get to know it. You cannot simply just read the charts put together by others. You have to build them yourself and go down the road that only questioning and discovery can bring to your mind and spirit.

Doing so will change you.

3. You DO have the time to do your family history

Recognize that every time you say this you are merely making a choice.

You have the same 24 hours in a day as everyone else. What you are really saying is that you will not remove something else in your life. What you are really saying is that it is not important compared to anything else you’re doing.

This is my single biggest regret. I did this. And I lost a lot more than time.

I lost inspiration. I lost revelation. I lost connection. I lost vital energy that contributes to the anchoring of eternal perspective in my life. I lost balance. I lost love.

Stop being a loser.

4. Grandma is the quarterback

When you you think of your grandmother what is your immediate reaction?

When I contemplate my journey and see where my own family history is heading one thing becomes abundantly clear: Grandma is the quarterback.

If you have not yet even started your family history, go to Grandma.

She does not even need to be alive. Go to her grave, look at her pictures, read her stories, or just remember a good time with her. If she died before you were born, then make it a point to learn everything you can about her by engaging with those who DID know her. Whether here or passed on, Grandma will lead you.

Why? Think of how she makes you feel.

Then process this: there are dozens — no, hundreds — no, thousands — of other Grandmas out there waiting for you.

Family history is not about the mechanics of names, dates and places. It is an emotional and intensely personal journey.

Begin with Grandma. If you’re lucky you might even get the bonus of some cookies.

5. The better you know the memories you have the better the memories you will make

Stop thinking of family history as a task or a chore. And by all means, lose the thoughts of it being an obligation.

Think instead of family history has medicine — a remedy for what ails you. (We will be spending some time on the studies of psychology and the affects of family history on children. It’s fascinating stuff, especially if you suffer from anxiety or depression. It even expands into medical issues of cancer and diseases. Fascinating stuff).

Like it or not your daily actions are writing family history for someone a hundred years from now. I’m sure our ancestors never imagined their images being shared on the Internet or their stories being told in video. I am positive they never saw their history as being life changing or inspiring. I’m certain they never considered their choices were affecting US.

Someday someone is going to find you much easier than you can find your ancestors. Your school records, medical histories, drivers license data, credit information, Internet surfing habits, and even video captures of you at the grocery store will ALL become sources for family history research in the future.

Family history has caused me to realize that future generations are going to see me far better than I can ever see those from the past. What am I sharing with them?

Lessons are taught, ideas are formed, and influence is felt from every life. Every family has heroes and scoundrels. We learn from them all. They are ALL inspiring. How will you inspire others?

Our efforts here on will center around the greatness within the ordinary lives of those who came before us. But it will also focus on us and our lives. It is our mission to reach out to our children and our cousins so we can see and share today the greatness of their lives. We want to make a record — a more complete accounting that is not just a chronology of our past.

So I will be asking you to share. I will be asking family of all ages to engage — how and where they are able — to the story of us. It will inspire you.

PS — That picture up at the top is me with my Grandma around 1970 or so, I’m guessing. Not only was my Grandma stylin’ the shades she got me started in family history. I miss her.

The Epic Life of Jonas Westover

In studying ancestors of our family past I have made it a practice to also take in as much history of their environment as I can. Knowing local histories not only provides clues on where to find additional family members but they go far to explain why folks moved around like they did and even why they made some decisions.

For a select few, the events surrounding them lead to what I call “epic” lives.

A family member with an epic life is not better or worse than anyone else. What make their lives epic were the choices they faced and the consequences of those choices on the history of future generations. Often these histories could be thought of as making great movies because their stories are so compelling.

Three such individuals with epic lives in my family past come immediately to mind – my Grandpa Carl (my mother’s father) who died at age 26 in World War II; Mother Electa Beal Westover, the first Westover to join the Church; and Jonas Westover, the 11-year old son of Gabriel who crossed the Atlantic and established the Westover family in America.

In researching Jonas’ history it is clear confusion reigns surrounding names and dates – and it has for decades, if you read much of what history others have compiled over time.

The Westovers were known (and still are, to some degree) for naming their sons “John”. A series of eight successive generations of Westovers in England are all named John Westover. So too does Jonah or Jonas appear to be a popular family name.

Given that written records from the time are rare, and that histories compiled over the course of 400 years have varied based upon available records at the time, it is easy to see how things can become confused and stories ultimately lost or distorted.

But sometimes the sorting out of old and new records, coupled with a little known history of local circumstances, causes a story to come together in a breathtaking way and that appears to be the case with our Jonas Westover.

Jonas came to America because his family was facing incredible uncertainty in England. Jonas would come to be part of what is known as the “Great Migration”, the outflow of pilgrims and puritans from England prior to the English Civil War.

His father, Gabriel, was born just before Charles I, who would come to power just as Gabriel married and started a family.

King Charles I was born a sickly child and was not expected to live. Charles’ popular older brother Henry, whom he adored, died in 1612 leaving Charles as heir, and in 1625 he became king.

By 1625 Gabriel Westover was 33 years old and had been married about seven years and already had several children. He was a husbandman – an old English term for married farmer – so he wasn’t rich or highly influential. But he was no slouch either. As a husbandman he would be a proven producer with fields, herds and plenty of means to support his family. Gabriel was exactly the type of man who would be most affected by the nefarious activities of a tyrant king such as King Charles I.

Kings were free to rule however they wanted but if they desired money for their activities they needed Parliament to impose taxes and raise revenue for the Crown.

Charles believed he ruled by divine right and he openly clashed with Parliament over money and policies. One such policy was the imposition of what was called “shippe money”, a tax on ports that was levied in places that were located inland, such as Bridgewater, Wedmore and Taunton, where the Westover family resided.

Over time Charles separated himself from Parliament, imposing unpopular and illegal taxes to fund foreign wars (which many considered illegal as well).

The King could dismiss Parliament at any time and this Charles did for a period of about 11 years – a period of time where his exploits became legendary. Charles had married a Roman Catholic and he favored High Anglican forms of worship, which ran contrary to his subjects who by this time had their own Bibles in English to read. He was particularly egregious in his treatment of Puritans and was known for cutting off their ears and noses for opposing him.

The Westovers were Puritans living in the middle of most of the action against the Crown, led by Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell understood that successful revolutions were always fought by farmers so he gathered a thousand hand-picked Puritans – farmers and herdsmen – who were used to the open fields.

It is not known if any of the Westovers actually went to battle but it was clear that Gabriel was numbered among the many who wanted out.

Over a period of nearly two decades Puritans and Pilgrims alike were organizing for the colonization of the New World by staging groups who had temporarily found refuge in Holland, where they could practice their form of worship thanks to lenient Dutch laws. The Gabriel Westover family evidently spent some time there and sent daughter Jane first to the New World while residing there.

A book titled “A Catalogue of the Names of the Early Puritan Settlers of the Colony of Connecticut” by Royal Ralph Hinman published in 1852 provides some biographical information about a man named William Burrall. It contains the following information about the Westovers:

“…Jonah Westover, who at the age of eleven years, was brought from Taunton Dean, in Somersetshire, in England, at the time the army of Charles I gained ground of the Parliament’s army under General Fairfax. At this time the Westover family were on the Parliament side, and would all have come to New England when Jonah was sent over, but could not procure a passage; and before a passage could be procured, the fortune of war turned in favor of the parliament army, and the family finally remained in England…”

This telling biography adds some context to the confusion of some dates associated with Jonas’ age and the time of his travel to America.

Given what we know of Fairfax and his victorious battles in and around Taunton against royalist forces and that Jonas was confirmed to be residing in Windsor, Connecticut in 1648 we can be fairly certain his birthday around the year 1628 is accurate.

If it is, Jonas came over around the year 1639 – well within the range of the battles and atrocities surrounding Taunton as associated with Fairfax.

(Some histories written in the late 20th century state that Jonas was 14 or even 19 when he came to Windsor – not the 11 years of age we’re sticking with. The 1628 birthdate mixes well with an 1839-ish date of immigration and meshes against the future events in Jonas’ life).

In another published family history (Coombs Family History, 2013) related to Jane Westover, Jonas’ older sister, it supposes that Jane and Jonas came to America together because it states Gabriel died in 1637. However, other histories indicate that Gabriel lived until 1870 and died and was buried in Somerset.

While Gabriel’s location likely has everything to do with the story of when his children came over it really does not matter, in the end, when and where he died. It does not change the stark realities of colonial settler life that faced both of his children.

Jane married William Williams around the year 1647 in Windsor and lived a long life, bearing nine children. Jonas was indentured in 1648 – effectively alone and in apprentice – just as he entered his adult years.

It is important to note the conditions Jonas faced as he set about to build his adult life. Records show that Jonas became a freeman in 1654. A “freeman” was a title earned only after a certain amount of time as an indentured servant.

To become a freeman one had to pass through a period of observation under Puritan laws to see if they could live with the ideals of the colony. They were not forced to work but their movements were watched and if they did not measure up they were asked to leave the colony. Upon passing whatever the test period of time and if they were free of debt they would take an oath to defend the colony and be declared “freeman”.

While we cannot say for sure who sponsored young Jonas or to whom he was indentured it sure seems coincidental that his future father-in-law, Edward Griswold, came to Windsor around the same time that Jonas arrived in 1839. For the next 30 years, at least, their life paths seemed to intersect at key points in the history of Simsbury, and later, Killingworth, Connecticut.

Edward Griswold, who we will profile separately later because he is our ancestor, was a powerfully influential individual in early Massachusetts Colony history. He always played a prominent part in local politics and church life.

Jonas no doubt derived great benefit from the association besides just marrying Edward’s daughter.

She (Hannah Griswold) was born in 1642, and thus was considerably younger than Jonas. By the time they married in 1663 Jonas had already become a property owner in Windsor. When Edward Griswold was put on the committee to secure lands from the Indians for the settlement of Killingworth Jonas was given a parcel and is listed with Edward and a brother-in-law as original settlers (they all lived next to each other).

Jonas and family moved Simsbury in 1675, likely due to the rebuilding of that community following a brief skirmish with local native tribes that saw the original town of Simsbury burned to the ground. There Jonas would settle for the rest of his life, building a prosperous homestead that provided for his children and grandchildren for decades and helping to lend the Westover name to local area landmarks and institutions that are still part of the Simsbury community today.

Jonas was active in his church life. Records from Simsbury, Windsor and Killingworth show his activity steadily throughout his life. Religion dominated colonial life as much if not more so than it did in England and, like his in-law family, Jonas appears to have had to choose more than once which direction he would take with Church reforms as time advanced.

Jonas lived to be nearly 80 years old by the time he died – extraordinary for the times and in sharp contrast to his father and grandfather.

What he accomplished in his life was the building of a family unit that would call New England home for more than a century and whose names and religious nature would be passed down for generations.

Jonas was sent to America to escape tyranny and religious prosecution and the life of Jonas Westover was a testament to Gabriel’s foresight in that.

While the Westover family continued on in England with some tradition and acclaim it blossomed in the New World and from Jonas expanded north into Canada, south into Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Missouri and later it followed the development of the American frontier as it pushed west in the 19th century.

Jonas is the patriarch to all these families – and lived an epic life that continues to bear fruit.

Additional Links to Jonas Westover

Family Witnesses of the Transfiguration of Brigham Young

When the Prophet Joseph Smith was martyred in 1844 many people later claimed to have witnessed what some called the “transfiguration” of Brigham Young into Joseph Smith. Among those making the claims are some rather high profile early members of the Church and members of the Westover family.

This much debated chapter of LDS history comes under fire from even some LDS scholars if only because written accounts of the event happened years after it occurred. They take issue with the fact that someone didn’t write it down when it happened.

In my mind there are questions for the doubters. For example: we don’t question the spiritual manifestations that occurred at Kirtland — and yet, no journal entries survive describing those very public events from the very time that they transpired.

Likewise we don’t question the statement of the Eight Witnesses or even the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon even though no independent record of the spiritual manifestations of those events exist either.

I have no trouble accepting the word of those who recorded the event even decades after it occurred. With the rare exception of Albert Smith, I can think of no one in our family history that recorded a daily journal that has survived all these years. Like people now, keeping journals was not something most did then. That they made a record of it later is no different that what we mostly do today and we have cell phones, iPads and all manner of technology surrounding us that makes instant record keeping possible.

Historians say that more than 80 people later claimed to have witnessed the event when Brigham Young addressed the gathered Saints for the first time after the Martyrdom when he took on both the likeness and the voice of Joseph Smith.

The last member of the family to make record of that event was Eliza Ann Haven Westover in 1918, in a letter to her son. Eliza was the wife of Charles Westover, brother to Edwin Ruthven Westover and son of Electa Beal Westover. Eliza was just 15 years old when the “mantle experience” occurred. This is what she said:

The question was a general one what shall we do without our prophet? I was then 15 years of age and we all felt so sad. I was at the meeting when Sidney Rigdon arose and declared himself our true prophet and leader. Very few responded to his declaration. I am happy to say that not one of my father’s family felt he was the right one.

Soon after Pres Brigham Young came home from the east where he had been on a mission. I was at the meeting when the mantle of Bro Joseph’s encircled him. When he spoke it was in Bro Joseph’s voice. I arose to my feet and said to my mother our prophet has come to life, Mother. We have Bro Joseph back for there he stood as plain as I ever saw him in life and his voice and features were truly those of our beloved prophet. Shortly a mist seemed to pass from Bro Brigham’s face and there stood Brother Young talking in his natural voice but we knew he was to be our leader. Hundreds witnessed the same thing but not all that were there had that privilege.

Talitha Cumi Garlick Cheney (1824-1902), my fourth great grandmother, was 19 years of age when she too saw Brigham Young change when he addressed the body of the gathered Saints. Here is her report:

I was in Nauvoo when Sidney Rigdon came from the east after brother Joseph and Hyrum were killed to take lead of the church. There were none of the twelve apostles at home but Brother Taylor and Brother Richards.

Brother Taylor had been badly wounded so Sidney Rigdon thought he would have things his own way but he was mistaken he called a meeting and said the church was old enough to choose a guardian for itself it had been fourteen years since it was organized but Brother Brigham and the rest of the apostles got there in time to be at the meeting.

After Rigdon sat down Brother Brigham got up and said all who want Brother Rigdon to lead them can have him but I tell you the keys of the kingdom are in the hands of the Twelve Apostles they are the ones to lead this people.

As soon as Brother Brigham got up to speak I said to myself that is the man to take the lead of this people. He looked just like Brother Joseph and spoke like him I said surely the mantle of the Prophet Joseph has fallen on Brother Brigham.

I never had a doubt. I knew Brother Brigham was the man to fill the place of our beloved prophet I knew Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God and was the mouthpiece of God to the people and that brother Brigham was his lawful successor and a man of God.

James Chauncey Snow, my third great grandfather, often testified of this event. From Valiant in the Faith, we are told:

He [James C. Snow] was present at the meeting August 8, when Brigham Young spoke with great power, reminding the people that the Church was the Church of Jesus Christ. . . . All the powers of the Priesthood were vested in the Twelve until a new Presidency should be nominated by them through the spirit of revelation and sustained by the vote of the people. Both James and Warren [brothers] saw the mantle of Joseph fall upon Brigham Young as he spoke, an event of which they both often testified afterwards, and they were convinced that Brigham Young was to be their leader.

Critics of the Church and historians will debate this all for eternity. For me, our family connection to this event gives us serious reason to ponder. Of all the records left behind by these individuals we must take into account that steps were taken to make sure that we in our day know what they said they saw.

That should mean something to us.

Reference: Mantle of Joseph