She talks in speeches about how she knew their names, dates and places. But that alone was dull. As she researched their times, stories and struggles, they became vibrant and intriguing. She wants Americans to do the same with their family trees: find and tell ancestors' stories, and learn who they really were.
"I think when children think of history as dull, they do so because it's been taught to them as nothing more than names and dates. When you flesh out the stories and tell about the people and what they went through, it becomes fascinating," she told the Deseret Morning News.
Many Utahns likely do not realize Cheney's ancestral ties to Utah or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, especially because she was born and reared in Wyoming as a Presbyterian. She became a Methodist when she married.
But her father was born in Salt Lake City, and members of five generations of her ancestors migrated to Utah or lived in the state, including some distant ancestors who came as Mormon pioneers from Wales, England, Australia and Massachusetts.
"I started this project (of researching ancestors) as a way of giving gifts to my family," Cheney said.
She wanted to give her daughters a hand-prepared Christmas gift a few years ago, but she doesn't knit well and is a self-described abysmal cook. But she is a writer and historian, who headed the National Endowment for the Arts from 1986 to 1993.
So she decided to research the life of her great-great-grandmother, Katurah Vaughan, and write it as a gift for her daughters. The research was a challenge because Cheney assumes Katurah was illiterate and probably never wrote a word about herself. But Cheney found she could learn much about Katurah from the writings of others.
In a speech at a White House Forum on American History, Cheney said she began a journey where, "I learned about 19th century Wales, and about what the Napoleonic Wars meant to tenant farmers such as her father. I Iearned about the early days of the 'Mormon Church,' when missionaries were being sent to places like Wales, even as persecution in this country threatened the very existence of the Latter-day Saints. And I learned about bravery and endurance."
Instead of just listing the date and place of Katurah's birth in Carmarthanshire, Wales, Cheney told the Morning News that she researched books to help describe what life was like there for tenant farmers "and why it was hard to support a family." That difficulty led Katurah's father to work in the copper mills, and Cheney researched how hard that was.
Cheney said she found Katurah's life changed in 1848, when she was 21. "She went to a meeting . . . where missionaries from the church spoke to her and a group, and talked about Joseph Smith and the gathering in America. She was subsequently baptized, and married another convert," despite strong family objections.
In 1849, the couple traveled to Liverpool and crossed the ocean on a ship named the Buena Vista. In New Orleans, Katurah, then pregnant, boarded a steamer to St. Louis. There they boarded a second ship, the Highland Mary, for Council Bluffs, Iowa, a staging area for Mormon pioneers crossing the Plains.
"Cholera struck and killed many people, including her husband," Cheney said. "The captain of the steamship didn't want these sick people. He was trying to get rid of all the Mormons on the ship. The people in St. Joseph wouldn't receive them.
"When they first got to Council Bluffs, even the Mormon community wouldn't help them until one of the apostles came and said that what the Lord wanted was to extend help to those suffering, so they were helped. Katurah had a baby at Council Bluffs, but he died. So, she lost her husband and a son in a short period," Cheney said.
Katurah eventually made her way to the Salt Lake Valley in 1852, where she met and married another Welsh farmer, Charles Vincent. They reared six children.
Cheney says she might not have learned about the drama of people refusing to help Katurah except that others in the same company kept notes and diaries. She said Ronald Dennis, a scholar at Brigham Young University, translated many of them from Welsh and wrote about them, which helped her flesh out her own ancestor's story.
"Diaries that were kept of the westward migration, I think, are second only to the diaries that were kept during the Civil War in terms of number and how provocative they are. The people who were going West knew they were part of something bigger than themselves . . . so they recorded their experiences, and there is just a wealth of information to be mined," Cheney said.
Cheney also likes to talk about another great-great grandmother and Mormon pioneer, Fannie Peck, who also crossed the Plains in 1852 as a 7-year-old.
"There is this wonderful passage in one of her letters of biography about her having only one pair of shoes, and she wanted to save them for the Sabbath when the Mormons stopped and worshipped. So, she would walk barefoot during the week.
"But then, of course, what would happen is, when she would try to put on her shoes on the weekend, she couldn't get them on because her feet were so swollen," Cheney said.
Cheney liked the story so much that she included it in her best-selling history book for children, "A is for Abigail, An Almanac of Amazing American Women."
"It seems to me always important to tell children that children were a part of history. And the story of Fannie Peck trying to save her shoes, I thought, would be very appealing to small readers," Cheney said.
Cheney says she has pushed nationally for at least the past 20 years, since she led the National Endowment for the Humanities, for Americans to take more interest in history and to make it more interesting. She has continued the initiative in the White House, including creating a new $10,000 annual prize for the writing of history. She personally funds the award from sales of her children's books.
But she isn't just encouraging professional historians. She is also urging families to research, write and pass along their histories. As she said at a White House forum on American history, "We have an obligation as parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles to pass along our nation's history."
Of local interest, she notes that the genealogical collections of the LDS Church have been a significant help to her and could be to others. "The resources of the LDS Church are just amazing, and I am very grateful for the help they have given me in learning more about Katurah Vaughan and Fannie Peck" and other ancestors.
Following is information about some other of Cheney's ancestors with Utah ties, with some information coming from her and much coming from biographies in the history department of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum:
Father, Wayne Edward Vincent. He was born in Salt Lake City in 1915. But his father, Leon Edwin Vincent (born in Provo in 1892), was a clerk for American Express and was transferred with his family to Cheyenne, Wyo. Cheney says her father was LDS when young but later left that church. His daughter, Lynne Vincent Cheney, would be born and reared in Casper, Wyo. Vincent was an engineer.
Of note, Wayne Vincent's mother (and Cheney's grandmother), Anna Albertina Madsen, was born in Manti in 1893. Her parents, Niels Peter Madsen and Sarah Albertine Bolander, both immigrated to Utah from Denmark.
Great-grandfather David John Vincent. He was born in Provo in 1868. The 1900 Census lists him as a saloon keeper in Provo. His wife, Mary Eleanor Elliott, also was born in Provo in 1870.
Great-great-grandfather Edwin Elliott. He was the husband of Fannie Peck. Born in England, he went to France at age 7 with his father, George Elliott, who was working for the English government. When he was 10, the family was transferred to Australia, where his father handled gold shipments for the British mint.
Biographies say George was guarded by six English soldiers anytime he took gold to the docks. But maybe he didn't need that much help. They say George was a champion heavyweight boxer in Sydney.
One day in Australia, the Elliotts heard an LDS missionary playing a violin on a nearby hill. The mother, Eliza Vinton, said, "There is a young man who is homesick. Go tell him to come for dinner." The missionary helped convert the family to his faith and brought the Elliott family with him to Utah in 1862.
Edwin worked in Utah as a freighter and met Fannie Peck, who was a cook for freighters. Biographies say Edwin did not attend church much for a time. Fannie, however, wanted them eventually to be worthy to be married in an LDS temple. Church members believe that temple marriages are valid beyond death.
A biography says Edwin "loved his pipe, and this was hard for him to give up." LDS members cannot enter temples if they use tobacco. Biographies say Fannie fasted and prayed one day a week for 40 years hoping Edwin would someday go to the temple with her.
"He so loved his dear Fannie that he prepared himself and on the 18th of April 1902, they were united in marriage in the Salt Lake Temple," a biography says. "(Fannie) later said this was the happiest day of her life."
Edwin was the chief engineer at the Utah State Mental Hospital in Provo and also worked for a time as a miner in the Tintic area. He also fought in Utah's Black Hawk War.
Fannie had many tough times besides walking across the Plains. She wrote that at one point as a young girl, she was given only one slice of bread a day. She tried to wait until bedtime to eat it so she would not go to bed hungry, but hunger would always force her to eat it early. She said she remembered asking her mother if she would ever be full again, and her mother could merely say that she hoped so.
Edwin and Fannie reared nine daughters. Fannie later took in male Brigham Young University students as boarders, and at least one daughter met her husband that way.
Fannie wrote in a letter in 1892, saying, "I have always had to work hard and had a great deal to do. I have tried to raise my children to be good women and to believe in The Church of Jesus Christ, which they all do now. I hope you will all get good Mormon men for husbands and go to the temple."
Great-great-great-grandfather Daniel Vincent. He was born in England in 1798. He married Elizabeth Mills in Cardiff, Wales, in 1822. They immigrated to Utah in 1851. They settled in Provo, where he was a farmer and an LDS high priest.
Great-great-great-grandfather Harrison G.O. Peck. He was born in Massachusetts in 1811 and married Margaret Reed Angier there in 1836.
In Massachusetts, he was a successful carpenter and cabinetmaker, and his family was considered well-to-do. However, biographies say they gave up or lost almost everything when they joined the LDS Church and immigrated to Utah in 1852. In hard times, their children gleaned harvested fields for left-behind wheat kernels to have enough to eat.
Biographies say that when the family was becoming comfortable again, Harrison and his family were called by Brigham Young to St. George in 1861 to help settle that area. Because of trouble from flooding during their trip, they again lost all their seed grain, chickens, cows, pigs and most of their furniture. "Father and Mother Peck never complained but went to work all over again," a biography says.
Peck became a farmer. He fought in Utah's Black Hawk War. He was also an LDS high priest.
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