Sunday, March 1, 2015

Stories Old as Time, or My Search Begins.

As a person born and raised in Utah, as a descendant of Mormon pioneers, genealogy is very nearly a part of my DNA. By the time I was 12 years old, I could diagram 4 generations of my ancestry off the top of my head. From my earliest childhood, I knew of the people who came by wagon, handcart, and train to live in the Land of Deseret--as the piece of Mexico they settled was once known.

Genealogy is more than a hobby in the LDS (Mormon) religion. It is a responsibility-part of The literal gathering of Israel. While missionaries are sent to invite the living inhabitants of Earth to join with us, the membership are expected to research their ancestors, and by proxy, give them the same invitation the earthly missionaries share. Data necessary to establish existence, identity, and familial connection are required in this work.

Of course, there is more to genealogy than dry data. In the process of looking for the people that precede you, their stories will unfold, tied by circumstance to the events of history. World War II might only be something you read about, until you learn your grandfather was at Iwo Jima. Horrors like the Holocaust or chattel slavery are only chapters in textbooks or scenes in movies, until you find your ancestor listed as an inventory item, just another line in a ledger ?

I was 10 or younger when my step-mother took me to the big Family History Library in Salt Lake City. She was searching through microfilms of the Federal census. She gave me a surname to look for, made sure to tell me that it might be spelled several different ways, and I was a researcher.

Within Mormonism, the gathering of one's ancestors has been a tenet from the beginning. One of the great tragedies told in my paternal family lore was that of handcart pioneers forced to leave behind the papers with their genealogy. Somewhere in Iowa, my 3x Great grandfather Thomas Evans left the records he spent years gathering in Wales, and they were never recovered.

Not ALL Mormons are caught up in genealogy, but my family certainly was.

Because of this, and my youth, I felt no sense of urgency to research my ancestry. So many generations ahead of me had been keeping those records, what could I do but copy what they had written before? When I moved to New Jersey and was married for the first time, my husband's family tree was ripe for harvest. His heritage was drastically different from mine, and heralded from a completely different geographic area of the United States than my predecessors. In preparation for future children, I set about researching his side of our family.  We had no children, and eventually divorced, but a part of me is forever tied to the stories I heard from his parents, cousins, and historical records. A result of part of that adventure is included here.

Shortly before returning to Utah, I made a last minute visit to the Goshen, NY Cemetery. Some of my ancestors are buried there. I lived within 100 miles of this cemetery for nearly 20 years, and never once thought to look for my people. Finally, with only days before my departure, I zigzagged all over that cemetery in a rainstorm, trying to find a headstone with any one of several names tied to my tree. I found nothing that day.

Back in Utah, I decided to tackle my maternal line. I would just make sure the documentation was in place for the history I knew already--4 or 5 generations of Shepherds in Utah--and then work on the "dead end" from New York over to England.

By this time in my life, my maternal grandmother Norma had already died, but my mother was still alive. I began to verify details like birth dates, baptisms, marriages, and deaths. I searched records and gathered documents, checking off boxes like a champ. One day, I was looking for my grandmother's baptism record. (A note here may be in order--in Mormonism, baptism is an ordinance performed when the child is 8 years old, not as a rite of birth). As an interconnected, but international religion, the LDS church keeps fastidious records-as fastidious as the clerk assigned to the job, anyway. Each congregation notes when a family moves in or out of their boundaries and enters data for ordinances performed.

Norma's birth certificate said she was born in 1931 in Spanish Fork, Utah; to Mose and Lillie Shepherd. Spanish Fork was an early Utah settlement, but still a small town in the 1930s. I found Mose Shepherd and his family pretty quickly. There was one problem, though. Mose and Lillie's oldest and youngest daughters-that would be Blanche and Norma, respectively-were not listed in the ledger with the family when they moved from Salt Lake City. Going further into the congregational records, I found Norma added to the membership rolls as a toddler, and at a different time than Mose and Lillie. How could that happen ?  

It doesn't take a broad stretch of the imagination to form the theory that came to my mind. With the oldest daughter, Blanche, missing, I surmised that Norma was really her daughter, and somehow came to be raised by Mose and Lillie. With only a few perfunctory searches into Utah civil records, I knew my theory was valid. My plans of searching English immigrants and New York settlers were instantly derailed.

The first of several holes in my family tree had been blown open.

On the left, Lillie C. Shepherd and on the right, Norma Shepherd.

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