I Went On an Epic Month-Long Family History Vacation. Here’s What I Did.

It was a typical humid Pennsylvania Summer mid-morning, and I had dragged my pregnant, exhausted body from my bed to the living room couch to feed my kids breakfast and turn on cartoons. As I sipped my caffeinated Crystal Light and scrolled aimlessly though Instagram, I showed my daughter a picture of one of her friends doing something cool that she had mentioned wanting to do. Right as I turned the image toward her, I realized the cruelty in what I was doing, but it was too late. She studied the photo, then looked at me, sadly. “I wish I could go on vacation,” she said. “I miss California.”

Suddenly, it hit me. What was I doing, sitting around here?? Sure, my husband can’t really take vacations during the busy Summer season, and I am pregnant, and taking a vacation without him would be a lot of work. But, what about my girls? My older one would be starting Kindergarten in the Fall, and this Summer is the last one of pure freedom before years of abiding by school calendars. This was my last Summer of true freedom. I needed to do something about it.

I informed my husband of my plans, and he was highly skeptical. He is a planner, and I, in case you haven’t noticed, am rather spontaneous. I began packing immediately, and despite a few last minute setbacks, we hit the road.

Our first stop was Columbus, Ohio. We used to live there a few years back, so it was great to stop and visit an old friend and see familiar places. There was a little problem: our air conditioning in the car had decided to go out, and the entire country was in the middle of an unbearable heat wave. Of all times it stopped working… really? We had to stop and get it looked at. The repair shop said it was the compressor. I was a little ambivalent about getting it fixed right then and there and decided to wait it out until I could get to a place where we could stay with family in case the repair took longer than expected. We then headed to Chicago to stay with one of my sister-in-laws, and we endured a very sweaty and miserable day of driving, ending with an apocalyptic thunder-and-lightning rainstorm that made driving very scary!

That morning, after much tossing and turning, I decided to just fork out the money to get the air fixed and then continue our journey as planned. I was able to get the car in first thing in the morning, and we were on the road by noon. Our next stop was Nauvoo, Illinois. We stopped and joined a tour, and got to see some of the awesome things there, including the sun stone from the original Temple. I wanted to cross the Mississippi River and drive through Keokuk, Iowa where my Welsh ancestors first arrived on a steamboat from a ship that had landed in New Orleans, departing from Liverpool, England in 1853, taking them as Welsh Mormon Converts to America.

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Brigham Young home

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Lucy Mack Smith home. My ancestor, William Howell Thomas, a Welsh convert from Wales, stopped here along his journey where Lucy Smith encouraged him to go West with the Saints.

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Restored Nauvoo Temple

I wanted to make a stop at Mt. Pisgah, one of the encampments of the early Saints during the trek West along the Mormon Trail. I had been there once before by accident when my husband and I were first married, and it was an amazing experience. It was a bit hard to get to, and we made it just in time for the sun to go down. When I got out of the car, a red pickup drove up and a man in overalls and a cowboy hat got out of the car. At first, I was a little nervous. “Howdy,” he said. “Are you here to see Mt. Pisgah?” He asked. I said I was. He asked if I would like to know about it. I said sure. He told me a brief bit about the years it was in use, and about Brigham Young and the Saints who stopped there. He said he lived on the property just up the street. As the mosquitos started to get to us, he said he would let us get back to our trip and he went on his way.

The next stop was Council Bluffs, Iowa, where we stayed in the hotel and visited the Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters. I have always wanted to stop here because I have an ancestor, Henry Taylor McGee, who was listed among those who were early converts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and who stayed here.

A sister missionary gave us a tour of the museum and showed us tons of awesome artifacts, including the actual stuffed (dead) oxen who appeared in the film 17 Miracles. I really enjoyed walking through the Winter Quarters pioneer cemetery, where many early Saints were buried after much hardship.

There was a Family History Center there, and one of the researchers found some great information on the Saints from Mississippi, which included Henry Taylor McGee. We were both practically in tears as she read an excerpt of the history to me. She gave me a hug, and I thanked her. Oh, those warm fuzzies from Family History! That’s why we do this. 🙂

After that, I drove to the exact block where he would have stayed, near the Missouri River. He was in the Seventh Ward, and his Bishop was James Flake, a well-known Mississippi Saint, owner of a slave named Green Flake whom he helped escape the South, and likely someone known well to him, as the Winter Quarters Wards were much smaller than the ones we have now.

We headed out and drove through Nebraska, and I would liked to have stopped along the Mormon Trail sites, but none of them were along the main route. Perhaps another vacation, when I had my husband with me and wasn’t pregnant. But we did make an unplanned stop at this funky-looking arch building that hung over the highway, and it turned out to be an unbelievably cool interactive pioneer museum. My girls loved it! It was called The Great Platte River Archway in Kearney, Nebraska. Very cool road trip stop. I highly recommend stopping here if you pass through!

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That night, we had planned on staying in Cheyenne, Wyoming, but me and my spontaneity had failed to really look into anything beforehand, and so I didn’t realize that the Rodeo Days were going on and every hotel in Cheyenne and Laramie were totally booked. We had no choice but to keep forging ahead to Rawlins, Wyoming, where we stayed the night. The next day was a pretty short driving day, and we arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24… Pioneer Day, and exactly 169 years to the day that Brigham Young had stopped in the Valley and said, “This is the place”. We even drove up Emigration Canyon and drove back down to This Is the Place Heritage Park, just for the authenticity of the experience. My heart was full, and I was exhausted. Probably similar to how they felt!

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This Is The Place Heritage Park, Salt Lake City, Utah

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Unmarked graves of my ancestors, Henry Taylor McGee and Mary Ann Tame. Salt Lake City, Utah.
Z.C.M.I., Salt Lake City, now vs. 1900, around the time Henry McGee Jr., my great grandfather, worked here.

I visited with family and friends in Utah the next day, which added to the wonderfulness of the trip. I got to enjoy food that I haven’t had since moving away from the West. I also took a drive up to Malad, Idaho, which is my ancestral town where all of my Welsh ancestors settled upon arrival to America. I was able to tour the little museum they had that was filled with lots of awesome old things from Malad. On the way out, my daughter grabbed a free little publication about the recent Malad Valley Welsh Festival, which is their annual ode to their Welsh heritage along the lines of an eistenfodd, and it had all kinds of little articles and blurbs about some of the early settlers, most of which are in my family tree.

R.T. Owens Building, Malad, Idaho. Then and Now.

Around the corner was the old R.T. Owens building, home to Thomas Electric. R.T. Owens was my great great grandfather, a prominent son of a Welsh pioneer and well-known businessman, teacher, and Idaho State Senator. I went in, and sitting at the front desk was a distant cousin of mine! Within minutes, we both had our Familysearch phone apps out and were comparing family trees, he also being descended from both Owens and Thomases. It was really great to connect, and I have a ton of family history stuff to send him once I get it all uploaded and organized.

Later that day, on the way home, I stopped for dinner with a 2nd Cousin once removed from my mother’s side, whom I was matched to through Ancestry DNA. He was adopted into a LDS family, and coincidentally, we had gotten into contact and become friends over the past year! It was great to finally meet them in person, and there was such a warm familiarity there that I knew we were family. I am so glad to be reunited with family I never knew I had!

Our final arrival in California to stay at my dad’s house was, of course, wonderful and filled with fun memories. My husband surprised us at the last minute and booked a flight out to join us on vacation for the weekend, and we had so much fun visiting with family. My girls got to visit with their cousins, jump on the trampoline, play with dolls, have a living room dance party, and inherit a giant bag of clothes passed down from girl cousins just in time for back to school. (That will cut down on back to school shopping for sure!)They all surprised me with a birthday cake, since my birthday was in just a few days, and they sang to me before I blew out candles. Although, I am pretty sure all of my wishes have already come true! They also pulled out a giant box of their old family photos for me to take and organize. Jackpot!

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We hiked the Mormon Rocks Trail at the Cajon Pass, not far from the town where I grew up. It was named after Amasa Mason Lyman and Charles C. Rich, who passed through from Salt Lake City to the Los Angeles Basin. Interestingly, when I was in community college I had a history professor named Dr. Lyman, who was descended from Amasa Lyman and who had taught us about the history of the area. That was before I was a member of the Church, and well before I discovered my own pioneer heritage. It was such a beautiful desert hike and the views were breathtaking! It was even fairly easy for a pregnant lady and two little kids to do (with the help of a husband, of course).

Before I headed back, my dad pulled out some old boxes. Oh, he has been holding out! He basically had the Holy of Holies of our family history sitting around in old drawers at his house, and hasn’t had the time to go through everything. So, naturally, I did! I literally spend days scanning, uploading, reading and looking at old photos and letters that tell the extensive histories of my family members and ancestors. These are details that I have been pining for as long as I can remember. I can even say how emotional it was for me to learn all the things I learned. It was incredible. I have years’ worth of material to go through, organize, and make into a beautiful, very full family history. It made me love my family so much! I have never been so grateful to the wonderful men and women who brought me into existence. I can’t wait to meet them all someday. We have a lot to talk about.

The icing on the cake of the trip was driving back and spending my birthday in Salt Lake City with dear friends who spoiled me and even helped watch my girls for a little while so I could go do some research at the Family History Library. Since I brought my Temple recommend, I was able to access the Special Collections, which is kind of like the secret vault for members of the Church to look at because it has Church ordinance information that is only accessible if you have a recommend. It had a microfilm with a record of my ancestor Henry Taylor McGee’s birthplace and parents’ names, which had not been documented and which I have been searching for since forever. I immediately indexed the location and will add it to my family tree as soon as possible. Now I know where to look for his parents! Since he himself was the person who recorded his birthplace and parents’ names, I know it is accurate.

A long few more days on the road finally brought us home to Pennsylvania, and my head is still spinning over the fact that not two weeks ago, my car was at California beaches and mountains, and now it is here, back on the East Coast. I can’t believe I did this, by myself, with little kids, pregnant! Right now, I feel like I can do anything. Do you know how many times I had to buckle and unbuckle whiny kids in car seats, and hold little hands in gas station parking lots? Or how many soggy snacks I have vacuumed out of my SUV? Or how many times I have almost swerved off the road while trying to quell tantrums? Or how many heavy bags I have had to lug in and out of the car while carrying sleeping children in and out of hotels in the middle of nowhere? Let me tell you, this trip was not for the faint of heart. I might not have done it in a covered wagon, but I think I have at least gotten a glimpse of the endurance that my ancestors had. And I think at least a little bit of it has been passed down to me.

 

 

 

 

 

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