It is said that “Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.” Epic history, while often horrific to live through, is later romanticized. The real-life experiences of pioneers from all societies can leave us in awe at the courage and fortitude of the human spirit. People can look back in their family history to find stories of intrepid ancestors; perhaps you are a brave pioneer ancestor too! The more than 70,000 Utah pioneers from 1847 to 1869 are an example of a hearty generation of daring, yet humble, people seeking opportunity to live their faith and raise families in the desert valleys of the Rocky Mountains. They had to eke out a living in the arid American West, far from family and the green hills of the East. Their stories of survival are often heroic and have inspired generations of their descendants. Let’s look for stories in our own family trees that will inspire us.
While not everyone in pioneer Utah was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, most were. Some people may think they have no connection to these early Utah settlers. In fact, none of my direct ancestors were living in Utah until I moved here myself for employment nearly 40 years ago. My people were living in Sweden, England and Denmark at the time. But genealogy is a great thing—over time I discovered that cousins of my ancestors joined the “Mormons” in the early 1850s in Denmark and boarded emigrant ships of early converts that crossed the sea and pressed forward along the overland trails to Utah Territory. I had no idea of this until just a couple years ago. These were Niels Jensen Langelænder (1804-1888) and his brother Rasmus Jensen (1819-1884), who were from Stoense parish on Langeland (an island), Denmark. Some settled in Salina, Sevier County, Utah Territory, and branched out from there. There are likely hundreds of descendants of them in Utah today.
I also learned of a young woman, Ada Augusta Dawson Rendell (1842-1879), who came from a branch of my family of Devonshire, England, which had settled in Newfoundland. Her parents died when she was young, so she went to New York City where she lived as a governess during the American Civil War. She anxiously witnessed the violent draft riots there. After the war, her employers decided to move across the country to California. In the early 1870s, they took the transcontinental railroad west and during a short layover in Utah she became interested in the religion of the Latter-day Saints. She left her employers and joined the Church to became the third wife in a polygamous marriage, which horrified some of my more immediate relatives back in Devonshire. There are now hundreds of descendants from her.
Knowledge of these members of The Church of Jesus Christ living in frontier Utah was completely forgotten to subsequent generations of my family living in Denmark and England. I discovered them through genealogy, and it was enjoyable to meet some of their descendants in Utah. It is a great experience to get to know distant cousins who also love family history.
I have one other early connection to frontier Utah. My great-grandfather’s brother, William Augustus Harris (1846-1880), Oxford educated and an expert in American mining law and later a barrister—left his Devonshire family to travel extensively though the United States in 1869. In 1870, he published a book of his observations and experiences, including a visit to Salt Lake City, which he came through soon after the transcontinental railroad was completed in May 1869. Some of his comments were quite critical, which was not uncommon. Little did he know that the keeper of his family history would move to Utah 115 years later and try hard to preserve the memory of these people.
I have come to love Utah history, including the history of the many diverse people who have come to this state from all over the world. Utah’s Pioneer Day is a day for all of us to celebrate the journeys through life that led us or our ancestors to this remarkable and beautiful state!
While my “pioneer” story is different from others, we can all share in the wonderful genealogical resources that will help us learn about those who came here. In particular, much has been done to document the early Saints in the period before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869. The records, both archival and online, of Utah and of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are vast. Here we can only touch on a few. You will find a lot to interest you in the following online collections:
Church History Biographical Database
Click on “Pioneer Data”: https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/chd/article/about-the-pioneer-data. In the search field, enter the name of someone you are interested in. I learned that the above Rasmus Jensen arrived with his family on the ship John J. Boyd in 1855, but it is not known what wagon or handcart company he took across the plains to Utah. The above Niels Jensen sailed in 1854 on the ship Benjamin Adams, but the company he came to Utah with is also not known.
Many people are very interested to find ancestors who were part of the well-known, and ill-fated, Willie and Martin handcart companies. There is also a listing of everyone who was part of the James G. Willie Company in the Church History Biographical Database: https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/chd/list?filterOrganizationUri=%2Forganization%2Fpioneer-company%2Fjames-g-willie-company-1856&subtype=pioneer-activity&lang=eng
Also, the Edward Martin Company: https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/chd/list?filterOrganizationUri=%2Forganization%2Fpioneer-company%2Fedward-martin-company-1856&subtype=pioneer-activity&lang=eng
Saints By Sea
This website shows full passenger manifests, information on voyages, diaries, and original records. The members of the Willie Handcart company sailed on the Thornton from Liverpool to New York, arriving in June 1856. See: https://saintsbysea.lib.byu.edu/mii/voyage/343. Edward Martin led a group of converts on the Horizon from Liverpool to Boston, and accounts of this voyage and the passengers is viewable here: https://saintsbysea.lib.byu.edu/mii/voyage/168.
I am grateful to all of the indexers and transcribers who contributed to these databases, as it made it relatively easy to find my Danish relatives Niels Jensen and Rasmus Jensen, along with some actual images of the passenger list. While my people apparently did not leave an account of their voyage, the Saints By Sea website displays original source descriptions of the journey by other passengers.
Utah Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel Database, 1847-1868
Mormon Migration Database, 1840-1932
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company Financial Accounts (Worldwide), 1849-1886
Utah, Pioneers and Prominent Men of Utah, 1847-1868
Utah, FamilySearch, Early Church Information File, 1830-1900
Scandinavia, Mission Emigration Records, 1852-1920
I found the above Rasmus Jensen in this collection.
Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869
FamilySearch’s Family History Activities
Look under “Famous Relatives” (scroll down to “Church Pioneers”) and “My Pioneer Ancestors.” These are only as correct as the underlying FamilySearch Family Tree database. I have found several errors where I can show that I’m not related to the people suggested. But I am definitely related to other pioneers, like the Jensens.
Pioneer Companies that Crossed the Plains 1847-1868
This shows the wagon and handcarts companies that came to Utah before the arrival of the Transcontinental Railroad in May 1869. It is arranged chronologically. Also, see Bert Nelson’s Tracing Mormon Pioneers at https://user.xmission.com/~nelsonb/resources.htm. See the section titled “Daughters of the Utah Pioneers various publications.” Additionally, Bert’s “The Journey is the Reward: Tracing Scandinavian Latter-day Saints” at https://user.xmission.com/~nelsonb/scand.htm is very helpful.
Heritage Gateways: Official Sesquicentennial K-12 Education Project
http://heritage.uen.org/ The section on “Companies” looks interesting, including the one titled “1848-1868, Black Pioneers”: http://heritage.uen.org/companies/Wc2ec6228e4fd0.shtml.
Daughters of Utah Pioneers
Pioneer Index – Search Results > http://www.isdup.org/subpage_PioneerIndex_search.php
They have a historical department where you can conduct research in person in the manuscripts, books, and other artifacts. You may qualify to join the Society. The Rasmus Jensen mentioned above is listed, so I need to order his history.
- “Utah, United States Genealogy” https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/Utah,_United_States_Genealogy
- “Utah Online Genealogy Records” https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/Utah_Online_Genealogy_Records This is particularly useful. There are many additional references including to the Sons of Utah Pioneers (their membership applications) and people from different ethnic groups. I see links to indigenous peoples and African American genealogy.
- “Latter-day Saint Online Genealogy Records” https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/Latter-day_Saint_Online_Genealogy_Records
- “Tracing Latter-day Saint Ancestors” https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/Tracing_Latter-day_Saint_Ancestors
- “Membership Records of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/Membership_Records_of_The_Church_of_Jesus_Christ_of_Latter-day_Saints
- “Latter-day Saint Emigration and Immigration” https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/Latter-day_Saint_Emigration_and_Immigration#Crossing_the_Plains This is an excellent website with many valuable links.
- “Utah Biography” https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/Utah_Biography
The above sources scratch the surface. The Church History Library (which is distinct from the Family History Library) is a great place to research your Utah heritage. There are a couple books that I’ve read that I can recommend, but they are now a bit dated in terms of current online databases. These are:
Waller, Ian. My Ancestors Was a Mormon (London: Society of Genealogists, 2011)
Sperry, Kip. A Guide to Mormon Family History Sources (Provo, Utah: The Generations Network, Inc., Ancestry Publishing, 2007)
As you immerse yourself in Utah’s history and the history of its pioneers and settlers from the 1840s to the present, you will find joy in the discovery. I’ve followed many of the pioneer trails across the West (Mormon Trail, Oregon Train, California Train, Santa Fe Trail, Lewis & Clark Trail, etc.) and those experiences are so memorable. My son and daughter have married people with direct lines back to early Utah pioneer ancestors, and it has been interesting to review the histories of these people. There is so much available.
In my local community’s cemetery are many graves marked with the “Faith in Every Footstep / Pioneers / 1847-1997” plaques. I’ve read some of the histories of these people (unrelated to me) from books by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. I’m in awe at what they went through! My town’s local pioneer museum is full of framed pictures of early local settlers, as well as a small archive for research, and some beautiful published histories. The Daughters of the Utah Pioneers’ Museum in downtown Salt Lake City is a fantastic place to visit!
The experienced genealogists at Lineages can help you gather your pioneer histories, or research the origins of your ancestors.