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.”

Sinking of the ‘Athenia’: Mythical Family Survival Story Proves to Be Reality

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott tells how old newspaper articles confirmed his uncle’s incredible WWII survival story—a tale that Scott, as a boy, used to question.

One of the first precepts of genealogy that my mentor (Ginger Simek, president of the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International) taught me, was to always work hard to find out if the family stories I had heard over the years were mythology or, in fact, reality. Mythology may be fun and exciting, but genealogy is all about reality and the truth as we can document it. Recently, I found myself employing this rule.

I have to say that I was basically blessed with a great childhood. However, I have always found myself harboring a serious regret—one that, as a genealogist and our family’s historian, continues to haunt me to this day. This regret is that I never listened closely enough to far too many family stories when they were proffered to me by my elder family members.

However, just a short time ago I found hope for abolishing, at least in part, this regrettable behavior of my youth. Here’s the story.

photo of the Edwin and Margaret Cottle family taken in Launceston, Cornwall

Only known photograph of the whole Edwin and Margaret Cottle family, taken in Launceston, Cornwall, on a date unknown. The author’s Uncle George Bellemy Cottle, the subject of this blog post, is the fourth from the left in back, sporting the black tie. Family photo from the author’s collection.

As a child, I found that by pleading with my Uncle George Cottle using my best smile, my saddest eyes, and/or my finest “please,” he could be coaxed into telling the story of when he and his wife were on a ship that was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in the Atlantic Ocean, and how they barely escaped with their lives. The trouble is I was always focusing on the submarine part (to this day I still love submarines) and not listening closely for the details of this amazing survival story, such as which ship they were on, when they sailed, where they were going, why, etc.

When I began researching the life and times of my Uncle George for our family tree, I decided I needed to find out if “the torpedo story,” as we all called it, was true or simply a family myth. Naturally, I found myself searching for help.

Using the search terms Cottle, torpedo, ship, and a few others I found that good old Uncle George was indeed telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth! I found the ship’s name was the Athenia. Upon adding this name to the search terms, BINGO, I found myself reading about the sinking of the Athenia in over 300 newspapers from the Heraldo de Brownsville published in Spanish in Brownsville, Texas, to the Oregonian published in Portland, Oregon, and from the San Diego Union published in San Diego, California, to the Greensboro Record, published in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was also learning that the 1,347 passengers and crew were bound from the United Kingdom to New York in September 1939.

I found myself being entranced by the newspaper articles about the sinking of the S.S. Athenia in WWII, such as one in the Richmond Times Dispatch that reported the attempts by Nazi propaganda minister, Paul Josef Goebbels, to smear British Prime Minister Winston Churchill over the event.

Goebbels Charges Churchill Sank Athenia, Challenges Britisher to Reveal the Truth, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper article 23 October 1939

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 23 October 1939, page 8

As I began honing in on Cleveland, Ohio, George’s home, I found a truly fantastic set of newspaper articles in the Plain Dealer from that city.

There I was looking at an old photo showing Uncle George and his wife Laura in a lifeboat on their rescue vessel, the Knute Nelson.

photo of George and Laura Cottle being rescued after the sinking of the Athenia, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 September 1939

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 September 1939, page 20

This old photo brought a flood of family memories, and suddenly I was hearing my Uncle’s voice again as he related how he and Aunt Laura, after donning their lifejackets several decks below, headed up to their assigned lifeboat—where they were shoved out of the way by others clambering to get into any lifeboat they could to survive the attack. My Aunt and Uncle moved on to luckily find another lifeboat, the last one to leave the Athenia. They then spent more than seven hours at sea in their leaking lifeboat before their ordeal ended. As they were being rescued, they were horrified to see their originally-assigned lifeboat pulled into the propellers of the Knute Nelson and destroyed with a significant loss of life.

Here is Uncle George’s obituary. Notice that it mentions the sinking of the Athenia.

obituary for George B. Cottle, Plain Dealer newspaper article 27 January 1966

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 27 January 1966, page 61

In my memory, I can still hear my Uncle George telling his survival story of the sinking of the Athenia, and it makes me smile. He would always end this story by remarking “it was the first time in 28 years I went on the ocean, and I am not going again”—although he actually used a bit more colorful language!

More Issues of the Kansas City Star Available in Our Online Archives!

We have rolled out more back issues of the Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri) newspaper.

You may now search old issues of this popular Missouri newspaper from 1880 to 1941.

front page of the Kansas City Star newspaper 8 December 1941

Front page of the 8 December 1941 issue of the Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri)

Here is the front page of the Kansas City Star on 8 December 1941, as war is declared by Congress and America enters World War II.

Each one of the more than 6,100 newspapers in GenealogyBank’s online historical newspaper archives has its own search page. It is easy to search one specific newspaper, a group of newspapers, or all of the newspapers in GenealogyBank to help with your genealogy research.

GenealogyBank search form for the Kansas City Star newspaper (Kansas City, Missouri)

GenealogyBank search form for the Kansas City Star newspaper (Kansas City, Missouri)

Search the Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri).

How to Find Your Grandfather’s Birth Records Online

Every day we receive questions from our members regarding their family history searches. We are here to help!

Here’s a genealogy question we just received.

GenealogyBank Member Question:

My grandfather Hugh Cornwell was born in Prairie Grove, AR, 4/6/1883. I have been searching for a birth record for the past 20 years with no luck. Any suggestions?

“Ask the Genealogist” Response:

Arkansas vital records do not begin until 1914.

So, while you can possibly obtain a church baptismal certificate, you won’t be able to find a government birth certificate for your grandfather.

I found your grandfather’s California death certificate, which does give his date of birth along with the family surnames of his father and mother. His death certificate is available online on the FamilySearch website at

There is another record for your grandfather in the 1900 census, which also states that he was born in April 1883. His census record is available on at

Here is a third document with genealogical information about your grandfather: his World War II draft registration card, also showing that he was born on April 6, 1883. You can view your grandfather’s military record at

So, while you cannot get a formal birth certificate—here are three U.S. government documents, created over the past 112 years, that give his date of birth. That should be the evidence you are looking for.

Let’s see how we can help you make progress in your own family history research.

All the best in your genealogy research.

Researching Genealogy with Military Records and Lists in Newspapers

Researching Genealogy with Military Records and Lists in Newspapers
From the Revolutionary War to Pearl Harbor to Iraq, newspapers are a valuable resource for researching your military ancestry and learning about the history of war in the United States. Newspapers have been a dependable source of information that Americans have relied upon throughout this nation’s history.

U.S. War History in Newspapers
This was vividly demonstrated after Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor launched the U.S. into World War II. The next day Congress declared war on Japan—and Americans were riveted by the bold headlines and news stories splashed across the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.

Omaha World Journal (Omaha, Nebraska), 8 December 1941, page 1.
Newspapers tell us what happened every day of our ancestors’ lives.
From the Revolutionary War to the wars in the Middle East, newspapers let us read about our ancestors’ participation in the nation’s conflicts—and what the country as a whole went through. We volunteered, we were enlisted in the U.S. military through the draft—and when we didn’t register for the draft, the government issued “slacker lists” to encourage full participation in the war.

U.S. Military Draft Lists
Military draft lists were published in newspapers, like this one printed in the 26 July 1917 issue of the Perry Republican (Perry, Oklahoma), page 1. It is a census of the men living in Noble County, Oklahoma, in 1917—a valuable genealogical resource to help with your family history research.
Similar lists were the “slacker lists” or “draft dodger lists”: listings of those persons that tried to evade the draft. After World War I the United States War Department issued lists of those men that did not register with the military draft. These lists were widely published in newspapers across the country, like this example from the Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 25 May 1921, page 1.
From the declaration of war through obituaries published decades after the conflict ended, newspapers have been a dependable source of information about our ancestors and their participation in the United States Armed Forces. Newspapers reported on the battles and covered the stories of the war every step along the way. Family historians can gather facts for their family trees and put them in the context of the war as it happened.
U.S. Military Casualty Lists
Another valuable resource for family historians are the war casualty lists many newspapers published. In this example, published in the Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 6 August 1918, page 1, the newspaper published the full casualty list and spiked out the Georgia men that died in a prominent boxed note that appeared on page one.
Most U.S. citizens do not remain in the military as a lifelong career. However, their military service was almost always mentioned in their obituary notice—as in this example, published in the Barre Gazette (Barre, Massachusetts), 31 July 1840, page 2, of the late Isaac Van Wart (1751-1840) of Tarrytown (Westchester County) and Pittstown (Rensselaer County), New York. Obituaries, birth announcements and marriage notices are some of the excellent resources newspapers provide family historians. During times of war, draft, slacker, and casualty lists are another helpful genealogical resource. In addition to information about your individual ancestors, newspapers provide the stories about what the entire United States was going through, to help you put your ancestors’ experiences in context and thereby come to understand them a little more. Digital newspaper archives online have become the core tool for modern genealogy, helping genealogists and family history researchers discover more about their family’s military past than ever before possible. Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 7 April 1917, page 1.

Julia Child (1912-2004)

This week the nation is remembering Julia Child – how much she contributed to our lives and how much fun she was to be with – via her books, newspaper columns, TV Show – The French Chef and interviews.

Julia Child was born Julia Carolyn McWilliams – this week – August 15, 1912 in Pasadena, California and died this week – August 13, 2004 in Montecido, California. She married Paul Cushing Child over a long Labor Day weekend – 1 September 1946. She had met Paul Child while stationed in Sri Lanka with the OSS during World War II. The OSS is now known as the CIA. For her life’s work she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2003. She was 92 years old.

She is celebrated in Meryl Streep’s new movie – Julie & Julia

and she is in GenealogyBank too – from her numerous recipes; articles about her books & TV series; numerous obituries published in newspapers across the country and her death record in the SSDI.

Cook like Julia Child


GenealogyBank adds newspapers from 4 States announced today it has added more newspapers for Louisiana, Minnesota, North Carolina and Tennessee.

Beauregard Daily News (De Ridder, LA)
Obituaries: 07/01/2008 – Current

Leesville Daily Leader (Leesville, LA)
Obituaries: 07/02/2008 – Current

Crookston Daily Times (Crookston, MN)
Obituaries: 10/20/2008 – Current

News-Topic (Lenoir, NC)
Obituaries: 01/01/2009 – Current

News-Herald (Lenoir City, TN)
Obituaries: 09/27/1999 – Current

Rogersville Review (Rogersville, TN)
Obituaries: 12/16/1998 – Current

Whether you are researching your ancestor’s in World War II or the Revolutionary War you will depend on GenealogyBank to get the job done.

Over 3,800 newspapers, all 50 States, 1690-Today
Join with us today!

Your support makes it possible for us to add more newspapers every month!

"I sank the Bismarck"

The London Daily Telegraph (9 June 2009) is reporting that it was John Moffat, an RAF pilot, who dropped the torpedo that led to the sinking of the Bismarck on May 28, 1941.

(Click here to read the entire article Dallas Morning News 31 May 1941).

The sinking of the Bismarck is a powerful story. The US was not in the war yet – but the headlines of the war in Europe and Asia had gripped the country for years. Pearl Harbor would not be attacked for another 7 months.

(Dallas Morning News 8 Dec 1961).

Songs were sung about that day.

Whether you are researching your ancestor’s in World War II or the Revolutionary War you will depend on GenealogyBank to get the job done.

Over 3,800 newspapers, all 50 States, 1690-Today
Join with us today!

Thank you to History News Network for alerting me to this story.

Genealogist, Mary Sue Green Smith (1933-2009)

Prominent Nashville, TN genealogist, Mary Sue Green Smith (1933-2009) has passed away.

She was President of the Middle Tennessee Genealogical Society. She published eight books between 1994 and 2006; mostly reference works to be used in tracing one’s roots in Nashville. She indexed tens of thousands of pre-Civil War civil court records, which added to standard genealogical resources, many families whose names don’t otherwise appear in records.

Tennessean, The (Nashville, TN) – April 25, 2009
SMITH, Mary Sue Green Age 76 of Nashville, TN, died Friday, April 24, 2009. She was a genealogist, whose contributions helped African-American families with Nashville roots to trace their families back before the Civil War.

She was preceded in death by her husband, Burrell G. Smith and one of her sons, Robert Shelton Smith, who died in 1972. She is survived by three sons, John Kennedy Smith and wife Barbie of Indianapolis, Stephen Thomas Smith and wife Barbara Ann Mech of Nashville, and Richard Douglas Smith and wife Julie of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Her surviving grandchildren are John R. Smith of Big Bear, CA, Michael B. Smith, midshipman at the Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD, Thomas Shelton Smith and wife, Anne Kindt Smith of Knoxville, Katherine Holly Smith of Nashville, Andrew Kennedy Smith of Nashville, Jennifer Sue Smith of Fairbanks and Robert Elias Smith of Sault Ste. Marie, MI.

Her surviving sisters are Dorothy Strange of Loudon, TN, Barbara Butler of Nashville and Pam White of Nashville. Mary Sue Smith was a native of Nashville.

She graduated from David Lipscomb High School and attended David Lipscomb College, where she met Burrell G. Smith, who had served in the Army paratroopers in World War II. They were married in April, 1950. Hers was the first wedding in the newly built Otter Creek Church of Christ, at the corner of Otter Creek Road and Granny White Pike. Her father, the late Sam Kennedy Green, was an elder there.

The couple raised a family in Bellaire, MI. Burrell was an educator and a social worker. Sue served as clerk of the Antrim County Selective Service Board during the Vietnam War. She served on the mental health board of the county. After Burrell’s death, Sue returned to Nashville in 1986.

Sue was a genealogist and had served as President of the Middle Tennessee Genealogical Society. She published eight books between 1994 and 2006, mostly reference works to be used in tracing one’s roots in Nashville. She indexed tens of thousands of pre-Civil War civil court records, which added to standard genealogical resources, many families whose names don’t otherwise appear in records.

Her work made it possible for many African-American families to trace their parentage back into the years when persons held in slavery were listed, as property, in wills.

Memorial services will be conducted Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 3 p.m., at Woodbine Funeral Home, Hickory Chapel, 5852 Nolensville Road, by Tommy Daniel. Memorial contributions may be made to the charity of your choice. Visitation will be Sunday from 1 – 3 p.m., at WOODBINE FUNERAL HOME, HICKORY CHAPEL Directors, 615-331-1952; Still Family Owned.

Copyright (c) The Tennessean. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, inc.