Twila Van Leer believes she has learned many lessons while diving into her family’s genealogy during the past year. One, however, stands out.
“I now see these people as real folks who lived on this Earth with all of their trials and tribulations and joys and triumphs,” she told a seminar at the Riverton FamilySearch Library March 18.
As a child, she had heard marvelous stories about her pioneer ancestors, but they were just stories that could easily be put aside. Now, she said, she realizes that she had only known her ancestors “cognitively but not internally. I hadn’t been spiritually acquainted with them yet."
Van Leer, a retired Deseret News reporter and editor, currently writes a weekly column for Mormon Times about her church service mission in the public relations office of Family Search, the family history giant of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
At Saturday’s seminar, she detailed some of the aspects of her calling and the heart-turning stories found in her ancestors’ lives.
Her church mission almost didn’t happen. When receiving the call to serve, “I just about said, ‘No,’ and hung up,” she said.
It’s not that she was unwilling to serve. Her family is steeped in missionary service with her brothers going on missions alone and later with their wives. She worried, however, about the technology that would be involved (“I’m a techno idiot”) and the fact that she’d never done genealogy.
“For years, I was so busy raising my progeny that I had no time for my ancestors,” she said, referring to caring for her 12 children and later her mother and elderly aunt.
Quoting the three-fold mission of the church — perfecting the Saints, proclaiming the gospel and redeeming the dead — Van Leer, 83, said she decided it was time to get busy redeeming her dead.
While climbing her family tree, Van Leer found different lessons emerged with each ancestor she studied.
Martin Horton Peck: His life taught courage, faithfulness and obedience, she said. Her great-grandfather Peck, a Vermont farmer and blacksmith, invited friends to help in a house raising and then to harass a group of Mormons holding a church service in the woods.
After listening to Joseph Smith preach, “Within about five minutes, my great-grandfather was converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” she reported.
He must have worked up a lot of courage to live in that community after he became one of the Saints, Van Leer said.
Peck followed the Saints’ migration westward. He was endowed by Brigham Young in Nauvoo on Christmas Eve 1845 and came West in 1848. Because he was a blacksmith, he was asked to stay behind the first pioneer company to ready the poor who would follow.
He proved his obedience again after settling in Utah when he was asked to uproot his family and settle in Hoytsville, Summit County, so he could help prepare the wagons for their steep descent into the Salt Lake Valley.
“Wherever he was asked to go, he would go. He was an obedient man. He was always faithful,” Van Leer said.
An additional lesson gleaned from Peck was “never assume you’re done” with family history, she said. Only a few months ago, her brother called, reporting a sixth wife had been added on FamilySearch to Peck’s already known five wives. “He didn’t want our great-grandfather sealed to a woman unless it was legitimate,” Van Leer said.
Upon investigation, Van Leer discovered he had been sealed to the woman after her death plus there were four more wives who had also been sealed to Peck after their deaths.
William and Elizabeth Taylor: Sacrifice, faithfulness and enduring to the end were the qualities exhibited by the Taylors, Van Leer said. Born in 1787 in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the adventurous Taylor sold his slaves and decided to resettle on the frontier, which was Missouri at the time.
He bought a farm between the branches of the Fishing River in Clay County, Missouri. Because of violence against the Saints, a group of 200 volunteers known as Zion’s Camp in 1834 was sent from Ohio to rescue the Missouri Saints. As a mob approached them, a severe storm developed, forcing them to retreat.
Taylor, who had “tender feelings in general for people,” Van Leer said, welcomed the Saints into his home to recuperate and later joined the church. He left a 600-acre farm to follow the Saints around Missouri and later joined 28 LDS members traveling to Quincy, Illinois, after Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued the 1838 extermination order against Mormons.
But, Van Leer said, he died between Lima and Warsaw, Missouri, and was buried by the side of the road. His wife Elizabeth continued the journey to Nauvoo with 12 of their 14 children.
Taylor could have had a prosperous life living between the branches of the Fishing River if he hadn’t joined the LDS Church. Instead, he chose sacrifice and faithfulness and endured to the end, Van Leer said.
“His last words to his children were to stay in the church, go with the church and don’t lose your testimonies,” Van Leer reported.
Charlotte Amelia Van Orden: Don’t judge your ancestors by today’s standards was the lesson learned from this great-grandmother, Van Leer said.
The journalist said she previously found Van Orden’s tale embarrassing. Van Orden’s first husband, Ira West, had been labeled a thief, and he was fined $100 by the high council.
On Dec. 2, 1851, Brigham Young canceled their temple sealing. The same day, she was sealed to Van Leer’s great-grandfather Martin Horton Peck as his fourth wife. “What would make her do that? On the very same day?” Van Leer asked.
After pondering the circumstances, Van Leer said she “thought I needed to consider what life was like in those days for women who were alone, and it was really a kindness for her to be sealed to him.”
Their marriage appears to have been happy, producing seven children, including Van Leer’s grandfather, she reported.
William Highland Gagon: His life shows the necessity for “putting God first, and your family and everything else comes second,” Van Leer said.
Gagon was born in New York to James and Mary Highland Gagon, who had fled Ireland’s potato famine in 1847. He traveled West to Montana to work on the railroad and then came to the Salt Lake Valley where he first married Lydia Ann Taylor, a daughter of Van’s Leer ancestors William and Elizabeth Taylor. She died of typhoid fever at 39 after having three children. His second wife was Mary Goodrich.
Gagon’s two sisters could not accept his LDS Church membership, Van Leer said. They were Catholic nuns and continually sent him cards throughout his life imploring him to renounce his faith and return to the religion of his birth, she said.
He remained a stalwart among the Saints and was active in community politics, Van Leer reported. He also helped settle Vernal.
When her mission ends in six months, Van Leer vowed to continue her family history work, perhaps with indexing.
“I hope I will be able to do something that will be of value to my wonderful ancestors who’ve gone before and will be able to influence my family. Because I was not interested (in family history), they don’t even know these great stories about their ancestors, so I’m trying to make up for that,” she said.
She said she tries to remember “I’m in the center of a line that goes backwards and forwards for centuries. When we consider that there have been 30 billion people who have lived on the Earth, it’s daunting to think they need to be taught the gospel and prepare for an eternal life with our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.”
Angelyn Nelson Hutchinson is currently serving as a church service missionary at FamilySearch. Now retired, she was a reporter, city editor and assistant managing editor at the Deseret News.