Find a Hero in Your Past
by James W. Petty, AG, CGRS

There is an old saying, ‘what is good for the goose, is good for the gander.’  This really came home to me this last  Sunday evening.  Mary and I, along with our son Will, attended a Stake Fireside. TRUE TO THE FAITH, promoting this Summer’s Stake Youth Trek.  We learned that  this is a youth conference held in many LDS stakes to encourage faith, devotion, as well as social and physical activity among the teenagers in their wards and branches. Here Church members gather in Pioneer dress at a ranch or designated area and re-enact the Mormon Trek across the Plains.  Our Young Women and Young Men will  participate in this handcart trek in the eastern foothills of the Wasatch Mountains in northern Utah.  There they will be organized into ‘families’ led by parent-chaperones called the  ‘Ma’s and Pa’s.’  Each group will be assigned a full-sized handcart, in which food, clothing, and camping supplies are packed.  Then for three to five days, the ‘families’ will push and pull their handcarts along a wilderness trail; camping in-between their daily hikes; wearing pioneer style clothing; and participating in dances and songfests, in addition to other ‘faith-promoting’ activities. For those few days, Zion’s youth have the opportunity to experience the life and trials of the Pioneers who endured the trek west a century and a half ago.  

What caught my attention, and spurred my imagination, was the concept that each 21st Century Pioneer was to ‘find a hero in your past’ because they would be ‘trekking for an ancestor.’ By doing genealogy, everyone was to identify a forebear, discover stories and histories about the  family member, and “be” that person as they re-enacted the Way West.  During the Trek, each would then have the opportunity to share the story of their chosen hero with their handcart family. We learned at the fireside how past treks had helped build faith and testimonies, and forged links for the young people with their family history. By experiencing the challenges, and difficulties of the Trek, many gained an appreciation for the sacrifice and faith of their own ancestors.  Their respect for the heros in their family’s heritage grew into love; with the consequence that their testimonies of the Gospel blossomed with hope and faith.   A Stake Youth Trek is an invitation to grow and turn the children’s hearts to their fathers.  Our Willie is anxious to participate as he prepares to serve a mission next year.

This ‘finding a hero in your past’ really intrigued me.  I thought about the hundreds of heroes in my past; the people I love because I have spent so many hours studying and learning about them and their families.  I have been doing genealogy for nearly forty years, and each name on my pedigree chart represents the story of someone who sacrificed and persevered in their day, ultimately, for me and my children.  I have ancestors who fought against the Church, and then became converted.  They made their trek to Zion and eventually died while serving on a mission. Others gave up all they had for the Gospel’s sake and crossed oceans and plains to be with the Saints.  When I think of these special people in my life, I am often moved to tears, because I love them so much, and appreciate what they did for me.  They are part of the Gospel foundation that sustains my faith and testimony.

As I thought about my experiences, I also realized that many members, adults, youth  and children in the Church, don’t have heroes like I have.  They don’t have someone in their ancestry that they know well enough to admire and emulate.  Most members of the Church depend on men and women of the scriptures, in the distant past, as their heroes.  These heroes are important in our lives because it is through them that many of our spiritual values are exemplified.  We recognize the leadership of Adam and Moses, the faith of Job, the courage of Ammon and Esther, and the strength of repentance found in Alma.

Many of the people found in Church History, in the recent past, are also heroes for members of the Church.  Joseph Smith, Eliza R. Snow, Dan Jones, Brigham Young, Aurelia S. Rogers, Spencer W. Kimball, and many others.  These are people of history; we see their pictures, we can hear or read their words, and we can shake the hand of someone who shook their hand. They are the subjects of books, speeches, and films.  Their portraits adorn the walls of our homes; we see them every day, and they have become a part of us. 

For a few members of the Church, these people of history are more than figures to admire from afar.  They are family.  Vilate Kimball, Porter Rockwell, George Q. Cannon, and many other men and women named in Church history, have descendants for whom these great figures weren’t just examples of nobility; instead, ‘he was the person who tucked great grandma in bed when she was a little girl, and told her he loved her.’  What a difference there is in such a hero, when he or she was a member of your family. 

This doesn’t mean that only the families of ‘great people of history’ can have special heroes.  Everyone of us have great people among our ancestors.  We need to search our genealogy, identify a special someone, and learn about them.  Out of that effort come our heroes. 

My thoughts go back to Great-great Grandfather Niels Larsen.  Niels came to America from Denmark, with his parents and family in 1866, at the age of fourteen.  His family had joined the Church a couple of years earlier, and wanted to come to Zion to worship and practice their new faith in peace.  Crossing the ocean, cholera struck their company, and his mother and baby brother died and were buried at sea. 

Upon arrival in New York Harbor (Ward Island), Niels, and others in his family became ill.  His little sister Karen died of Typhoid fever within days of their arrival.  After a month in the Immigration Hospital, it became evident that father Lars Larsen would not survive.  He called his two sons Niels and Hans to his bedside, and bore his testimony of the Gospel to them, asking that they be faithful to the Church, and “go to Utah.”  He died shortly after that.  Niels, and eight year old Hans, were left as orphans in the biggest city in America, with no money or property, unable to speak English and no family to care for them. 

For two years Niels and Hans Larsen stayed with members of the Church until passage could be found to take them west.  They took the railroad all the way to Wyoming before joining an immigrant wagon train, and began the walk to Salt Lake in the last company of pioneers (before the railway was completed to Utah).  They followed the wagons, and slept on the open ground with a blanket, their only possession.  Midway on the trek Niels joined a railroad crew so  he could raise money to support himself and his brother in Utah. At ten years of age,  Hans walked on alone. 

They met again in Salt Lake City at the end of their journey.  Each married and raised happy families, and remained faithful to the Church and Gospel of Jesus Christ. Whenever I think of Niels Larsen, I am awed by the courage he demonstrated at such a young age, and the devotion he showed for his father and family.  He raised a large family in the Salt Lake Valley and remained true to his testimony throughout his long life.  Grandpa Larsen isn’t named in Church History, but for me he was a great man.  His picture is in our home.  He is one of my heroes. 

To find a hero in your past, select someone from one of your pedigree charts or family group sheets. Contact family members to learn about stories of your ancestor.  Visit the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, or one of its 3700 Branch Libraries located in stake centers around the world to find records about your forbears.  Search newspapers in the areas where your family lived, for an obituary or other historical articles about this person.  Check published county histories for information.  If they were an early member of the Church, there are a variety of publications containing biographies and histories about settlers in 19th century Utah and neighboring states. You can also go on the Internet to www.familysearch.org, the Church’s library on the internet, and find catalogs, databases, and links to many collections that will open a world of information to you about your family.    

The Journal History of the Church, available at the Church Historian’s Office in Salt Lake City, or on microfilm through Branch Libraries, may give details found in newspapers and other church publications.  Journals and diaries of people with whom the pioneers associated in their trek west may provide details about your ancestor. Many of these records are available at the Historian’s Office, at BYU, and at a variety of other libraries and museums.  A new Internet source for histories and journals is Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters 1846 to 1869, (www.overlandtrails.byu.edu), provides an excellent resource for pioneers coming to Utah.

Contact family and relatives about finding a picture or portrait of your ancestor.  When one is found, put it in a place of prominence in your home where you can see it on a regular basis.  Seeing a face on a regular basis, helps you become closer to a person, and they become part of your daily life.  Visit the home where they lived, or the area if no home remains, because seeing the places where they walked and lived their lives adds a sense of reality that you can relate to.  Lastly, find out where your ancestor was buried; and if possible, visit their grave.  Being there helps to create a ‘connection’ as though you are almost close enough to them to touch.  

Whether you re-enact the experience of an ancestor on a trek, or ponder the comparison of that person in relation to your daily life, having a hero from your past helps you to understand who you are.  Like our heroes, we have trials and tribulations in life.  They overcame their obstacles, and so can we.  And having seen their faith endure through their experience, our own testimonies will grow and become stronger.  We, too, will be true to the faith. 


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