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Great Women

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Posted 06-01-2013 at 10:53 PM by Jeff Westover

As spoken of in the most recent podcast these past two months have been a time of great discovery for me concerning my family history.

It has come about due to a summer activity for my teenage daughters called "trek". Trek is the reenactment of the pioneer trail.

Every July 24th there is a state holiday in Utah called Pioneer Day. It celebrates the pioneers of 1847 who first came to settle these valleys. Many of my ancestors on my father's side were amongst them.

I had no idea, honestly, of how many of them there were.

Family History is a big deal to those of the Mormon faith and though I never really thought or heard much of my father's family while growing up it wasn't because they weren't important. It was that their "work" -- or historical information -- was pretty much done generations before I was born. I spent much of my youth and my young adult years discovering my mother's side of the family (none of whom were Mormon).

But this trek adventure coming up in June has forced me to delve deeply into my Westover roots. I'm so very glad it has. They have asked us to select a name of a pioneer who made the trek and to learn their story. If we can find a member of our own family who did it, all the better.

I am going on this trek in honor of my great-great-great-great grandfather, Edwin Westover. My wife is going for his mother, Electa, who was born in 1802. And my daughters are going to for two other grand mothers. This has required that we learn their stories.

What I have discovered is pure gold, some of which I shared in the podcast (the Christmas of my pioneer family in 1852).

As I have attempted to pull it altogether as I try to think of how I can make this important to my children I am inspired most by the strength of the women in my family past.

Frankly, I'm blown away.

Take, for example, the story of one Sophie Petersen.

She is my great-great-great-great grandmother and my daughter Maggie will be walking trek her, knowing now this story:

Sophie was born in Denmark. She came from a fine family, grew up, got married to man she fell in love with and they had seven children together.

Sophie lost two of her babies when they were quite young, an event that was not unusual at that time. Their passing devastated her. But when her husband Peter passed away suddenly, leaving her with five children, she was shattered.

In mourning his passing Sophie had a dream. It was an ordinary dream, as dreams go, but unlike a normal dream it came with an unmistakable message from a voice she said she was familiar with. She dreamed that she was putting her laundry out on the line and saw off in the distance two men walking towards her carrying suitcases. The voice in the dream told her to listen to the men because they had a message for her from Jesus Christ.

Weeks later, as she was hanging her laundry, she saw the men with the suitcases. She threw down her laundry and ran to them. "What is your message for me from the Savior?" she asked. These men were Mormon missionaries and they were stunned, of course.

She joined the Church and within a year prepared to answer the call by Church leadership to "gather" in the valleys of the Great Salt Lake in Utah -- half a world away.

Many are familiar with the Oregon trail and the expansion of the west but I've learned outside of Utah there are not many who understand the great Mormon migration of the mid-19th century.

A couple of years ago I was in Washington DC and visiting a statue of Brigham Young. A lady there with her child saw the statue and said, "That's Brigham Young. He was a monster. I don't know why there is a statue of him here."

Sadly that's a common perception of Brigham Young. Too many people focus on the cruel and inaccurate media portrayal of the Mormons and it was more true in that day than in this day.

Sophie's story is a good example of Brigham's vision and greatness.

While Sophie herself had means most emigrants of the time did not enjoy the vast majority of those coming over from Europe to Utah were very poor.

The Mormon missionary effort in Europe, especially in Great Britain, was very successful and in fact during these years the Church was bigger there than it was here. The Church wanted everyone together and worked to devise a way to move them.

Brigham's vision was in the form of Perpetual Emigration Fund, a consecrated effort that was designed to keep the flow of converts streaming into Utah by paying their way over for them. As emigrants would arrive they would work to refund the program for their passage so that others could follow. Brigham instituted this financial program alongside a practical system of agents who would purchase ship and rail tickets for large groups who would gather at select spots where the rail ended in the American midwest and then travel the rest of the way by wagon or handcart. It was an effective system that brought hundreds of thousands of pioneers to the American west over the course of several decades.

Sophie left Denmark with her five remaining children, all under the age of 12, and made her way to Liverpool. There she joined a company of European Church members who would travel the rest of the way to Utah.

Tragedy struck almost immediately. Her middle child, an 8 year old son named Thomas, was playing on deck and fell through a cargo hatch, falling more than 30 feet two decks below. The fall killed him and Sophie was forced to bury him at sea, suffering once again the sting of death.

Her new faith taught her that "families can be together forever" and she felt more impressed than ever to "press on to Zion" with her four remaining children.

Her luck did not improve. She joined the Willie and Martin Handcart Company, one of ten companies of pioneers who literally pushed and pulled their way to Utah. They were allowed 17 pounds of personal luggage to be put into a handcart that was roughly 3 feet wide by five feet long. A total of about 500 people started out together, each family pulling their own handcart. The travel from Florence, Nebraska to Salt Lake would require 1400 miles on foot pulling these handcarts.

If you know anything about western history you know that handcart pioneers were largely successful -- except for the Willie and Martin Handcart Company of 1856. It was a disaster.

They left too late in the season was the problem.

And because of the communication technology of the time, people in Salt Lake did not know they were coming.

You see, the handcart system was dependent upon planned stops along the way where traveling companies could replenish. In Florence, those who outfitted the pioneers told them that people from Salt Lake would be there to provide help and replenishment along the way. That was the plan.

In Salt Lake, they too followed a plan. After two other handcart companies arrived in late September, Salt Lake thought that was it. They didn't know anyone else was coming and being so late in the year they assumed they were done.

So, in effect, you had 1000 people out on the plains with hundreds of miles to go with no food and nothing to survive with after they were more than half way there.

A fast traveling party of missionaries returning from the UK passed the Willie and Martin companies in late August 1856. They rushed to Salt Lake and told Brigham about them.

Immediately, with tears in his eyes during the Sunday service after hearing the news, Brigham explained to the people the problem and told them to "go get the Saints out on the plains". And the rescue was mounted right then and there, with women in the congregation literally stripping the boots off their feet to load into the rushing wagons.

Sophie and her children were in this group. What they suffered is hard now to describe. These people were a record keeping people and thankfully many records survive to this day of what transpired.

Wyoming along the North Platte is the high plains and to get to Utah the pioneers all had to cross the continental divide. That meant running into early winter storms in the last two weeks of October.

Brigham got word and mounted the rescue the first week of October. It took nearly three weeks for the first rescuers to reach Sophie's company. By the time they got there, about 60 of the company had already died from starvation and exposure. Their food gave out about a four days before the rescuers got there.

Somehow Sophie and her children survived all this. They arrived in Salt Lake in early November, homeless and in possession of the ragged clothes on their backs.

I have to wonder what Sophie thought. Here she was, finally in Zion, unable to speak the language, without a home or a husband or a means to somehow move forward.

This is where the brilliance and inspiration of Brigham Young is under appreciated. He recognized that what women like Sophie needed was a husband. This is why he adopted the idea of plural marriage -- for survival.

Two things happened to Sophie, she records from her journals, in a Church meeting in late November shortly after she arrived.

The man conducting the meeting, Heber C. Kimball, who did not speak Dutch, came up to her and told her while looking deep into her eyes that the Lord was pleased with her efforts and sacrifice. She understood him and he understood her. Both considered the exchange a miracle.

In this meeting Kimball advised the men who were present that he needed volunteers to step forward to take on additional wives for women like Sophie who were homeless and in need of husbands.

Present was a man by the name of Albert Smith. He had already lived the plural marriage life for a while and it didn't go too well. In fact, he ended up divorcing his extra wife because she was bitter. He didn't want to go through that again.

But he felt compelled to raise his hand and did so.

He was directed to a room where he and Sophie were introduced to each other. They committed to get married to each other.

What kind of faith is that?

Albert was considerably older. His oldest son from his first marriage lived with him. When this son, Azariah, was younger he got kicked in the head by a horse and it did some brain damage. It caused him to lose control of his emotions and most people were afraid of him. There is some speculation, thought Albert never mentions this in his journal, that this contributed to the bitterness of his first plural wife.

So Sophie found herself the wife of this poor dirt farmer who was assigned to help build a temple and settle a barren part of the desert called Manti, Utah. It was a tough, tough life because year after year Albert had to fight off crickets from eating his crops. It was a true fight for survival and she had to do it not knowing the language and adapting her children to a completely different culture.

Albert said they never had the chance to fall in love. They were too busy trying to make it. Instead, he describes, they grew in love over the next forty years.

Sophie overcame her fear of Azariah and became his nurse. It took time but eventually he was able to overcome his physical challenges to leave home and start a family of his own. Albert gave Sophie all the credit for her patience and love.

Over time Albert and Sophie had several more children together. They lived a full life and overcame the challenges of the farm, subduing the land and spending hours in the Temple they were charged with building in Manti.

It was in that temple that Sophie was able to do "temple work" for her beloved dead family members, including a sealing to her first husband, Peter.

This story, and others like it from our pioneer heritage, has humbled me greatly. What they faced, the trials they accepted and the faith they had inspire me.

And there are literally dozens of such stories that I am discovering.

As I go through them it is the women who are really inspiring me, however. Their fortitude in the face of outlandish circumstances...and the results!...of their lives are awe inspiring.

The nurturing of generations of children who would become my grand parents and great grandparents deserves no small amount of recognition.

That "greatest generation" of whom we lovingly speak -- those grandparents of ours who in the flower of their youth fought the battles of the great depression and World War II -- were raised by these of the pioneer generation.

Generation after generation of great women are, for me, a stirling example for my six daughters and the women they can become.

I only hope to live worthy of them all.
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