Finding My Family in Church History—Something from Margaret

Sarah Cordon, intern
13 August 2019

In this post, the first in a new series, Church History Library intern Sarah Cordon describes how she found information about her ancestors in library collections.

I remember looking at my filled-out pedigree fan chart as a kid and thinking, “That’s it. All my family history is done. Guess I’m off the hook.”

In addition to my rather thoroughly completed chart, I have a grandmother who has always been very intent on making sure her grandkids know who their ancestors are. Nearly once a year we’d pile into Grandma’s living room and watch PowerPoints about our great-great-grandparents, complete with facts and old photographs.

Through recent events in my life, I’ve had a renewed interest in these direct ancestors of mine. While working at the Church History Library, I realized that the Church History Catalog is an amazing resource for stories about both men and women. As I looked through photographs of my own female relatives, one pair of eyes in particular caught my attention—those of Margaret Morgan. She was converted in Wales in the 1840s and later married the missionary who taught her and her siblings. “Surely,” I thought, “there must be something in this catalog from Margaret.”

I went to the Church History Catalog and typed her name in the search bar. Searching for “Margaret Morgan” and “Margaret Curtis” yielded nothing new, so I searched for her husband, Theodore Curtis.

I discovered a collection that contained correspondence from Theodore to Levi Richards, and, fortunately for me, the digital images were online. I started scrolling through the images, paying close attention to who had signed the letters: Parley P. Pratt, Lorenzo Snow, some names I didn’t recognize, and M. Morgan—M. Morgan?

I took a closer look at the letter. To an untrained eye, 19th-century handwriting is difficult to make out, but I saw the phrase “my brother Walter,” and, sure enough, through a little research on I learned that Margaret had a brother named Walter.

I showed the digital copy of the letter to my grandma, who had recently been researching the Morgan family on her own, and she confirmed that it was from Margaret. Together we deciphered the handwriting and found key information that we hadn’t known—for example, that Margaret had some sort of inheritance dispute with her brother. “In fact,” she writes, “were I to tell you the fuss I have had with lawyers and my relatives you would be weary hearing it; so I will not trouble you with it.”1

“Trouble us with it!” my grandma and I yelled at the screen.

In addition to hinting at family drama, Margaret’s letter indicated that she was well educated, and she proved that by becoming a brilliant mathematician. She created a way to generate dress patterns from a woman’s measurements alone and patented those for $5 apiece. Although she died in San Francisco while selling those patents (she wrote to Brigham Young to let him know how that was going a month before her death2), that money helped her daughter, Maggie, to later become one of the first female doctors in the Salt Lake Valley.

I decided to learn a little more about Maggie. I learned from (and my knowledgeable grandma) that she had become a plural wife against Brigham Young’s advice. Because of the support of her sister wives, she was able to travel to get her medical degree, but she also experienced a lot of personal tragedy, as eight of her nine children died before she did, most of them under the age of six. She later divorced her husband and married B. H. Roberts, a prominent Church leader, and from then on was known as Dr. Margaret C. Roberts.

With the help of the recent Woman’s Exponent digitization project at the Church History Library, I was able to use the online index to find articles that mentioned Maggie. From little advertisements for her obstetrics and nursing class to personal testimonies from women’s meetings, there are traces of her and my family throughout Church history. For example, the Woman’s Exponent often includes meeting minutes. An excerpt from the minutes of the Ladies Semi-Monthly Meeting held in the 14th ward assembly hall on Saturday, May 30, 1898, contained a quote from Maggie:

Dr. Margaret Roberts said she wanted to do all she could to help the young people, felt the Relief Society work was a great one and felt we were greatly blessed as a people. She said her son was one who had volunteered to go to war, it was only a mother who understood how she felt at this time. Said the remarks that had been made about the Lord protecting His people were very comforting to her.3

Like a stone cut without hands, family history work is picking up speed, with new technology and old documents just waiting to be discovered. Maybe a lot of the work is done on my tree, but I am strengthened by the real-life stories I learn about my ancestors. I have a feeling there’s even more from Margaret Morgan somewhere out there, and once she lets me know that everything has been found, there will be more to discover from hundreds of other ancestors.

Top Image: Margaret Morgan photograph posted on Family Search.