The Polygamist’s Wife: The Story of My Favorite Ancestor Mary Ann

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about her favorite ancestor Mary Ann, a Mormon who married a polygamist when she was 15 years old, in 1868.

Do you have a favorite ancestor? Maybe it’s that one ancestor you love to research because of all the great documents you find about his or her life. Or perhaps it’s a more recent ancestor that was alive when you were a child.

old photographs from the author's collection

Old photographs from the author’s collection

When someone asks me about my favorite ancestor it’s hard for me to choose just one. But there is one ancestor that is responsible for me loving family history as a child and my eventual career as a genealogist.

My maternal grandmother’s paternal grandmother, Mary Ann Smith McNeil, has always been important to me. My grandmother told me stories of her grandmother’s life, a life story that rivals any Hollywood movie. Maybe that’s why my grandmother spent time telling me about Mary Ann. Perhaps my grandmother knew that it would ultimately plant a seed that would continue to grow within me and lead me on a genealogical journey.

Let me tell you a little about Mary Ann’s life. She was born on 2 July 1853 in Newton Heath, England, to William Smith and Mary Hibbert Smith. At the age of two years she sailed to America along with her family and other English Mormon converts. When Mary Ann was nine years old they migrated across the United States to Utah. She was married at age 15 years to a polygamist who was 45 years old. At the age of 16 she became a mother.

Polygamy is a controversial subject. My grandmother would tell me about Mary Ann’s life as a polygamist’s wife and suffice it to say it was difficult. The stories of this life (please remember that the Mormon Church ceased practicing polygamy in 1890) captivated me as I thought about what it must have been like to have been so young and married.

But this isn’t a story about polygamy. That’s an article for another time. This is the story of a woman who was just an everyday ancestor. Just like most of your female ancestors, Mary Ann was an everyday person; some would label her “just a housewife.” But she left a great paper trail.

That paper trail starts with the obvious records: marriage records, a death certificate, and birth certificates for children. Like many women, Mary Ann’s work for her church was important, and so her name is found in church histories and records of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ female auxiliary, the Relief Society.

But here’s the great thing about living in the modern age of Genealogy 2.0. Digitized genealogy records are always being added online. This means continued, reasonably exhaustive Internet searching is crucial in order to find the latest information available about your ancestor.

One of the family stories I had heard was that during World War II, Mary Ann appeared in newspaper articles touting the large number of descendants she had serving in the war. A biography compiled by her great-grandson Herbert A. Hancock describes newspaper articles that appeared nationwide reporting on her 5 grandsons and 17 great-grandsons serving in the war (later the number of her descendants serving in the military would grow to a total of 25). These newspaper articles about her family’s patriotism started appearing around the celebration of her 90th birthday and were picked up by a number of newspapers nationwide proclaiming her family’s “great contribution to the cause of freedom.”(Legacy of Faith, compiled by Herbert A. Hancock, pg. 364.)

I was always curious about these old newspaper articles. Prior to digitized newspapers being made available online, it was very difficult to find them. However, a search today on GenealogyBank shows some of these articles, one of which appeared in a newspaper not too far from where I, her great-great granddaughter, live.

Nonagenarian 'Ancestor," San Diego Union newspaper article 4 June 1944

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 4 June 1944, page 31

Sometimes it’s the human interest stories that get our seemingly everyday ancestor written up in the newspaper. GenealogyBank’s search engine allows us to search for ancestors whether they are mentioned in a hometown newspaper or in several papers around the country. These articles are something I would miss if I limited my search to where Mary Ann lived in Arizona. Her life is a great reminder that ordinary people, including housewives, had stories written about them and that these stories can provide us wonderfully rich information about our families.

Not too bad for a woman who was “just a housewife.”

Planning a Trip to Salt Lake City for Your Family History Research?

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena provides practical advice for genealogists planning a trip to Salt Lake City for doing family history research.

Want to go to Salt Lake City in Utah? If you are like most genealogists that question is answered with an emphatic “yes!” because Salt Lake City is one of the world’s centers for family history research.

photograph of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah

Temple Square as seen from the Joseph Smith Building, Salt Lake City, Utah. © 2012 Gena Philibert-Ortega

Like any research trip it’s a good idea to do your homework prior to leaving home. There’s so much you can do in Salt Lake City including researching at the world famous Family History Library (open to the public free of charge) or even attending a conference like RootsTech. But before you pack your bags consider these tips.

Travel is easier when you have a guide. The Chart Chick’s Quick Insider’s Guide to Salt Lake City by Janet Hovorka, president of the Utah Genealogical Association and a Salt Lake City native, provides family history researchers with what they need to know for a trip to this genealogical mecca. Covered in this guide is everything from how to get around Salt Lake City to archives and libraries (aside from the Family History Library), places to visit, shop, and most importantly—where to eat. To purchase this Salt Lake City, UT, travel guide book or download it as a free PDF, visit Janet’s blog The Chart Chick. If you do request the PDF you have the added advantage of being able to download it to a mobile device for easy reference.

Do your genealogy homework. Before you take a genealogy research trip make sure you are prepared. Conduct a thorough search of the Family History Library Catalog and make note of all the microforms, books and resources you want to see. Pay special attention to the location of the item. If an item is in the “Vault” you will need to order it beforehand. Since the Family History Library Catalog is available on the Internet, do this preliminary research first so you don’t waste time while at the library.

photograph of microfilm drawers inside the Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah

Microfilm Drawers inside the Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. © 2012 Gena Philibert-Ortega

Ask other genealogists. It’s always a good idea to talk to other genealogists who’ve traveled to your destination. Frequent travelers to the Family History Library may have helpful tips about making photocopies, what to bring, how they go about researching at the facility, and where the best places to stay in Salt Lake City are. Not sure you know anyone who has been to Salt Lake City? Ask around at your local genealogy society or post a question on a social media website like Facebook, Twitter or GenealogyWise.

photograph of the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah

Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints located in downtown Salt Lake City. © 2010 Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy of FamilySearch.org

Have fun! Yes, there is so much you can research at the Family History Library, as well as the other archives and libraries, but don’t forget to take some breaks during your trip as well. It’s important to schedule some time to eat, walk around or even take the night off to check out the sights and tourist attractions. If you arrive on Sunday, the Family History Library is closed but that gives you time to prepare for your research and do some sightseeing in Utah.

photograph of Salt Lake Temple, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah

Salt Lake Temple, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. © 2012 Gena Philibert-Ortega

However you plan your family research trip, remember this: no matter how much time you spend researching, there will always be more you wished you had seen. So when you get home, organize what you found, update your database and start planning your next trip!