This past year I found a treasure of nineteenth-century women’s voices associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This started as part of a professional job, so it took my breath away when my own ancestors made unexpected appearances. I wept when I read the feisty quotes of my fourth-great grandmother. This was the research gold I had spent countless hours chasing. I thought I might find what I needed at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, but ultimately discovered answers at the Church History Library. Oh! They’re not the same thing—different buildings. Different databases. The answer had been there all along and probably should have been obvious. But I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Why I’m thrilled to share about the Church History Library
One purpose of this article is to share this wonderful source of town and family histories that may help you with your research projects. The Church History Library contains meeting minutes from the women’s organization associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called the Relief Society. These are local chapter minutes that are generally not digitized and often contain candid notes and names of members. They also have records from local congregations (called wards), personal papers, and formal histories of towns, wards, and Relief Society chapters.
And can I just say bless the people who preserve records like these. Historian David McCullough expressed this beautifully when he spoke at the Church History Library opening:
“History doesn’t stay alive unless it’s looked after.”
– David McCullough
The project that led me here:
In the summer of 2018, my friend Shale Larsen,the principal architect at IO LandArch, asked if I’d be interested in doing the research and writing to nominate the Ephraim Relief Society Granary to the National Register of Historic Places. Granary Arts, the nonprofit that operates from the building, was looking for women to work on the job. They hoped the story would spark our imagination and perhaps invest a little extra effort to connect with the story. Wowza, did it ever.
This beautiful building made of oolitic stone had been part of the historic Relief Society Grain Program.
Two uncanny ancestral connections
In the very first phone call, Shalae told Amy Jorgensen about her own connection to Ephraim saying, “My third-great-grandfather was the painter C.C.A. Christensen.”
Jorgensen, the Executive Director for Granary Arts replied, “Yes, we’ve heard of him. C.C.A.’s cabin is located on our property, right behind the granary.”
That sealed it for Shalae and when she called me, I jumped at the chance too. I am enamored of the Sanpete Valley, feeling a special sense of place whenever I set foot there. My maternal grandmother’s family hails from that area and it always feels as though my ancestors want to be remembered. That said, I really had not researched their stories until this project. (That adage about the cobbler’s children comes to mind).
The plot thickened the first time I drove down to see the building. After parking, I made a beeline for a monument in the corner of the lot. When I read the plaque, the hairs on my arm prickled. That monument informed me that this was the spot of the original Ephraim Fort where the first two dozen families lived. Two of those families were mine: the Behunins and Allreds. My ancestors lived on this very land. The idea filled me with awe.
Now I really wanted to find the voices
If I hadn’t been all-in before, I was now. I felt compelled to find stories and voices that would bring the narrative to life.
One important breadcrumb came from the breathtakingly beautiful book by Professor Thomas Carter, Building Zion: The Material World of Mormon Settlement. I couldn’t believe my good fortune in finding a book of this depth using the unpretentious Sanpete Valley as a case study for the whole of Mormon settlement. This book was replete with architectural drawings, historical context, and quotes.
The moment Annie Larsen spoke:
As I devoured its pages, one moment above all others left me breathless. Carter explained that Relief Society women often had to fight for autonomous ownership of their halls and granaries. He pointed to a saga in Spring City as an example. The women wanted a space of their own, but the men kept proposing alternatives to combine it with other functions: a library, school, etc.
Then he quoted a conversation from the Relief Society minutes, and the name of my fourth great-grandmother jumped off the page. Annie Larsen (sometimes alternatively spelled “Ane” in the histories) was one of the town elders now. She had been an early pioneer settler, having buried a child in a cedar box in the frozen ground on the trek west. I tracked that story down on FamilySearch and it touched me so deeply that tears rolled down my cheeks.
Here in the minutes, however, was a whole different side of her. She spoke in the meeting with stubbornness and even a tinge of sarcasm. She was holding out for the women to get their own space. The Spring City Relief Society did get their hall, as they did in Ephraim. As a side note, it took until the 1950s for women to get a building at Temple Square. That saga broke the hearts of the Relief Society Presidency who called it a “humiliation,” but that’s a story for another day.
Back to Spring City, whoever kept the minutes cataloged proceedings in such a way that it captured flavor and personality. This was not the sort of formal testimony that one might write for posterity, this was a rare glimpse into the room. It showed what the ladies discussed and more importantly, what they were thinking. It had personality.
Tom Carter’s book Building Zion pointed out to me how important it was that the women made their own record.
“Zion was a man’s world. In reading over 50 years of ward minutes for each town in the valley, I encountered no female voice. They were there, but in public at least, perfectly silent. We can hear their voices in journals and diaries but mostly they speak of their daily routines.”
Carter, Thomas. Building Zion: The Material World of Mormon Settlement. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
But where are the minutes now?
From that moment I went on a quest to find the town’s Relief Society minutes. I made phone calls all over the valley. Were minutes located in the City’s archives? At Snow College? The local FamilySearch centers? With the Sons or Daughters of the Utah Pioneers? Nobody knew.
I paid a professional genealogist friend for some help. He returned many leads and pointed me to the Family History Library. I checked online but couldn’t see any indication that the minutes were there.
I visited the Fairview Museum of History and Art and found histories of other town Relief Societies and rich details about the historic grain program in general. But still no indication of where the local minutes were.
Granary Arts did a title search at the County Recorder’s office and I found many old newspaper articles. By now I had invested at least triple the number of hours I should have spent on the job. I felt no choice but to call it good and I wrote the first draft of the nomination.
The problem I couldn’t solve
A niggling program remained, however. There was a gap in the building’s chain of ownership that obscured the building’s earliest years. The State Historic Preservation Office zeroed right in on it. Based on the facts I had presented, we would have no choice but to paint a picture that I knew wasn’t right. That incomplete narrative would shortchange the women.
Hence, if we wanted the nomination to reflect the true female contribution, I’d have to invest more time and hope for an answer to emerge. I dragged my feet planning a trip to the Family History Library because although I looked forward to it, this meant investing yet another day without pay.
When I called the Family History Library, I discovered the Church History Library
Before heading to Salt Lake City, however, I called to see if the hoped-for records were, indeed, at the Family History Library. After getting bounced from voicemail to voicemail and back to the original operator, someone finally delivered a revelation—the minutes are located at the Church History Library. This is a completely different building at Temple Square and they have a separate database. No wonder I couldn’t find anything. I felt like an idiot for not knowing this.
The reward that came next made up for embarrassment. A few minutes later I was neck-deep in the right database and by day’s end I had amassed 31 pages of call numbers and summaries I hoped to view. Now I was giddy with anticipation.
What I found at the Church History Library – 5 luminous discoveries
- Full histories already complied: I poured over complete books beautifully compiled by the Ephraim Relief Society women telling their own history. I’d been nibbling on breadcrumbs, and here was a feast already prepared. These books contained the dates, anecdotes, and details I craved and needed. I found the deeds that set the National Register nomination straight. Now we could finish it.
- Candid papers: The Church History Library archives also contained journals, letters, photos, and town histories. Both the quantity and quality of primary sources about Ephraim blew me away.
- Finally, a source for Relief Society minutes: Buried deep in the basement was microfilm containing the ward and Relief Society minutes from the inception of the town. The minutes were there!
- Connecting with other researchers: The desk librarian put me in touch with a wonderful researcher who wrote her dissertation on the very subject I was researching. Through email later, this researcher shared her work with me and I shared mine with her. She got me in touch with another Church historian with deep expertise on the matter. We’re all hoping for more collaboration in the future.
- Another uncanny Behunin/Christensen Connection: While seated at one of the microfilm computers, I found an architectural drawing of my ancestor’s home: the Isaac Behunin house. As I had this file on the screen, the man at the computer next to me asked what I was working on. I shared, and he replied, “Oh yes, I know the Ephraim Granary well. I’m researching C.C.A. Christensen.” Are you kidding me? Of all the days, times, and computers, we two were side-by-side looking at files related to contemporaries. I was staring at drawings related to my ancestor and he was working on Shalae Larsen’s. Uncanny indeed.
7 tips to maximize your time at the Church History Library:
You might get lucky and find what you need already digitized online, but you have to go in person for most records. If you make a trip, plan on running out of time. With that in mind, here are some tips:
- Research the online database in advance.
- Watch the training video at home before you go. You can’t enter the reading room until you have.
- Request restricted items and microfilm first because they will take time to pull.
- Bring a method to digitize like mad, such as your smartphone and possibly a lightbox/Shotbox. That’s the combo I use. Wait to read and sort out your treasures at home.
- Bring a helper, if you can.
- Respect copyright, cite your sources and give credit.
- Watch the clock. Time passes faster than you think.
If you are planning to attend RootsTech take some time while in Salt Lake City to jump over to the Church History Library. And if you want to keep this list handy, here it is as a compact graphic.
A call for future research:
In addition to sharing this story and practical tips, I also hope this article may plant seeds for a larger project of digitization, transcription, and cataloging of local Relief Society minutes. Their minutes show that the women lived and that they mattered. They kept their farms and families together while husbands served missions overseas. They were the primary fundraisers for the Church, gathering means to build churches and temples through donated eggs, cheese, and other goods. They operated cooperative mercantiles and performed many of the economic activities today done by businesses. Their minutes show that the women lived and that they mattered.
There are also rich stories related to Relief Society halls and granaries in every town that are begging to be told. These buildings were usually owned by women with legal title, and this gave them a physical presence on the main street. The women amassed thousands of tons of wheat from virtually nothing. Within the walls of their buildings, they gathered to chat, quilt, and comfort each other through the rough parts of their lives.
Could there be grants or collaborative efforts, perhaps even crowdfunding to finally unearth the voices of women long relegated to obscurity? I believe they want to be known to us today. The stories of Relief Society halls and granaries throughout Utah and Mormon pioneer settlements are begging to be told. My personal database now contains thousands of pages, and I’ve only scratched the surface. Who’s in? What’s the next step?
Rhonda Lauritzen is the founder and an author at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. Rhonda lives to hear and write about people’s lives. She believes that when you tell your story, it changes the ending., She and her husband Milan restored an 1890 Victorian in Ogden. She especially enjoys unplugging in nature. Check out her books: How to Storyboard, and Every Essential Element. Most recently she was the writing coach of bestselling author, Rob A. Gentile, who wrote Quarks of Light, A Near-Death Experience: What I Saw That Opened My Heart
[I] The Church’s official style guide states that the name of the church should be used formally as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or abbreviated as The Church of Jesus Christ. The terms “Mormon” and LDS are frowned upon unless used in historic context. In that spirit, I will use the term Mormon in this article to refer to earlier periods as appropriate.