Written by Caren Winters of Saratoga Springs, Utah. Mom of 3. BA in Family History/Genealogy from Brigham Young University.
“Your flight leaves at 7am tomorrow morning.”
I looked at my phone to check the time. It was 11 am. I was outside watering my flowers.
“So in less than 24 hours I will be on the plane?” I felt panicked! There was so much to do! I have 3 boys who needed places to stay while their dad was working. My oldest needed a ride to golf on Thursday. I needed to get clothes washed and packed, medicines, oils. I still had a few hours of work to get completed before the end of the month! Awww!!! I finished with the flowers, grabbed my one year old and headed inside the house to make plans.
I would be going out to Minnesota to be with my older sister as she worked through her last round of chemo for breast cancer. Since being diagnosed 6 months earlier she had completed 7 rounds of chemo and given birth to the cutest 3.75lb little boy. Little Wilson was only about 8 weeks old. Due to unforeseen circumstances my mom could not go to help my sister as was planned. I was the lucky one who got to go! But, yes, it was a very last minute trip.
A thought crossed my mind as I packed by bags. My sister lived in Minnesota, a state I had spent much time, perhaps even years, researching our family who had settled there in the 1800s. The same week Wilson was born I had discovered my sister lived in Scott County- the EXACT county where our ancestors had lived! I had studied Family History/Genealogy in college and now loosely practice my career a few hours a week from home in between making pb&j’s and driving kids to school, golf, swim, or football practice. As I packed by bag I thought I should grab some of my family pedigree charts to take with me. But as quickly as the thought came, it left. I was busy!
It was wonderful to see my sister again! It had been so long. My sweet little nephew was still teeny tiny and I loved holding him in my arms. I was amazed that such perfect life could come despite the ugly disease of cancer. I watched my sister as she sang, rocked, and dressed her first baby. She had lost all of hair and her skin was beginning to redden from the previous day’s chemo treatment and blood boosters. I was reminded that life is precious and such moments are, oh, so beautiful.
That first day in her home I casually mentioned Belle Plaine, a town I remembered from my family history research. A visiting friend replied, “That’s only about 20 miles away.” I couldn’t believe it! You see, my great, great, great grandmother, Nancy Ives, left her family in New York to come to Minnesota with her sister around 1850. She came knowing she would likely never see her parents or other siblings again. Nancy met and married Peter Jackson, an immigrant from Scotland, and the two of them bought land near Belle Plaine, Minnesota. They gave birth to 4 daughters and together the family experienced life on the edge of Indian Territory. One of my most cherished possessions is transcripts of letters Nancy had written to her family back in New York. They speak of the Civil War, of heartaches that come from separation, sickness, and death, and even describe her husband to her family who would never meet him. Nancy’s oldest daughter moved to South Dakota. Her youngest three daughters traveled to various areas in the United States but spent large amounts of time in Belle Plaine.
Throughout my research I have grown to love this little family. I am fascinated by their life experiences. And now here I was, just 20 miles from where they once lived!! And… I had forgotten the information I would need to easily find where they had lived. Go figure.
I asked my sister if she would be interested in going to “visit” our personal family history sites. How could she say no to my excitement?!? I am not sure she really wanted to go but she agreed. She’s always been good to support me and the weird things I like to do. I found enough information online at FamilySearch to get us where we needed to go. We spent an afternoon walking through the long grass of a cemetery where we found the headstones for Nancy, Peter, and their daughters. We later drove through endless corn fields knowing in that same area our ancestors had once worked that land with their own hands. We stopped so my sister could feed her baby on the porch of an old community hall surrounded by these green fields and beautiful grey skies. We spent another morning at a museum that housed records for the Scott County Historical Society. My sister walked with her baby while I poured over old newspapers on microfilm. I discovered more about their lives as I read their obituaries. On our adventures I told my sister story after story I had learned about Nancy and her daughters through my years of research.
So what does all have to do with anything? Strength. Hope. Joy. Peace. FUN! That’s what we found that weekend together while visiting our
family history sites. I had watched my sisters hands shake as she tried to take a picture with my phone. I saw her skin turn completely red. I saw her choose between wigs or doo-rags each morning to cover her bald head. I watched her move in pain. I saw her tire easily and heat up quickly on our adventures. All were side effects of her cancer treatments. But I also heard her laugh, see her find distraction from her pain, and watched her just be happy as we discovered more about our family. I think we both discovered a better sense of who we are because of where we came from. My sister later described our experiences as “comforting,” and a chance to “get outside [herself].” There was peace in those quiet places that helped to still the struggles of her current reality.
We all come from a great history. We each have family who struggled, laughed, worked and lived as we
do. There is an indescribable strength and comfort that comes naturally as a result of taking time to learn of them and preserve who they once were.
To learn more about your family history, try visiting any of these free websites, find the search area, and plug in your information.