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.”

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Written by Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega holds a Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and a Master’s degree in Religion. Presenting on various subjects involving genealogy, women’s studies and social history, Gena has spoken to groups throughout the United States and virtually to audiences worldwide.

Gena is the author of hundreds of articles published in genealogy newsletters and magazines including Internet Genealogy, Family Chronicle, GenWeekly, FGS Forum, APG Quarterly and the WorldVitalRecords newsletter. She is the author of the books, Putting the Pieces Together, Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra (Arcadia Publishing, 2007) and From the Family Kitchen (F + W Media, 2012).

Gena is the editor of the Utah Genealogical Association’s journal Crossroads. An instructor for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies, Gena has written courses about social media and Google. She serves as Vice-President for the So. California Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists, board member of the Utah Genealogical Association and is a Director for the California State Genealogical Alliance.

Her current research interests include social history, community, social history, community cookbooks, signature quilts and researching women’s lives.

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