Orrilla Northway was born 13 June 1795 at Granby, Connecticut, the daughter of James Northway and Achsah North. She married Josephus Rose of Granville, Massachusetts, on 19 September 1813 and had at least one child, Samuel. After Josephus’s early death, she married Lyman Higley of Simsbury, Connecticut, on 7 January 1825. Their five children were Harriet, Oliver, Virgil, Ezra Marvin, and Addison. The couple moved to Columbia County, Wisconsin at some point, where Orrilla died on 30 June 1884.
That’s a sterile little biography, isn’t it? Most of us know no more about our ancestors than this, and the boringness of it all is usually why we hide from Great Aunt Edna at family reunions, because we know she’ll want to tell us in excruciating detail about her latest discovery of a date in the life of someone whose name we barely know.
The biography gets a little more interesting upon discovery of a Higley family history (Mary Coffin Johnson, The Higleys and Their Ancestry: An Old Colonial Family. 1896):
LYMAN HIGLEY, the fifth child of Seth Filer and Naomi Holcombe Higley, was born at Simsbury, October 28, 1798. He married first Orrilla Northway, January 7, 1825. She was born June 13, 1795. His second wife was Mrs. Rose, the widow of Josephus Rose of Granville, Mass. The year following his first marriage they left Simsbury and settled at Attica, N.Y., where they resided till 1844. They then removed to the city of Nauvoo, Ill., where his wife and daughter embraced the religious faith of the Mormons. Lyman Higley, however, was not satisfied with the beliefs and practices of that sect, and when the Mormon Church emigrated to the Great Salt Lake Valley, Utah, in 1846, he with his wife, who still clung to that religious faith, left Nauvoo, and after stopping a few months in Iowa, where he purchased and owned the entire site of Council Bluffs, they finally settled in Wisconsin. Their daughter, Harriet, then a young woman of twenty-one, chose to accompany the Latter Day Saints to Salt Lake.
There are some obvious problems with the family history – the splitting of Orrilla Northway into two persons, and the ludicrous assertion that Lyman Higley owned the entire site of Council Bluffs – and although the family historian apparently preferred not to admit that a Higley had ever been a Mormon it’s easy to read between the lines of the family migration to suspect that Lyman had been a member at some point. He might have been persuaded by a convert wife to visit Nauvoo to check out Mormon claims, but it doesn’t seem likely that a non-member would have been willing to trek through the Iowa mud all the way to Council Bluffs during the Exodus.
But the story really gets interesting and Orrilla begins to seem like a three-dimensional woman, a sister in the gospel, in the early 1940s, almost a century after the Higleys went to Nauvoo. Two elders – Gilbert H. Nelson of Cleveland, Idaho, and J. Robert Anderson of Salt Lake City – were tracting in Warren, Pennsylvania. When they introduced themselves as Mormon missionaries at one door, the young woman in the house smiled and invited them in. She wasn’t interested in their religious message, particularly, but she wanted to tell them that her great-grandmother, Orrilla Higley, had been a Mormon, and that Orrilla had written several letters to her son Samuel Rose, the young woman’s grandfather. Those letters were still in the possession of the family, and the young woman wanted to show them to the missionaries.
The elders – bless their hearts – were interested enough that the owner allowed them to borrow the letters and transcribe them. They even photographed one of the letters, but apparently, unfortunately, not all three of them. This photograph shows part of the letter written from La Harpe, Illinois, on 1 September 1844.
Relevant parts of the three letters are these (spelling and punctuation obviously standardized by the elders in their transcription):
Attica, N.Y., April 3, 1841
… Samuel, I cannot close my letter without telling you that I have united with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or what the world is pleased to call Mormons. I don’t know how this will affect your mind but I hope you will consider that although we are despised, so were the former-day saints, for St. Paul says that we are called the offscourings of all things, and if the saints of old were persecuted why not the latter-day saints? Expect it, for St. Paul says if any man will live godly in Christ Jesus he shall be persecuted. There is a small branch raised up in this town consisting of fifteen members. Mr. Higley and Harriet have united with the church. … My request to you is that if you have not a Bible that you purchase one and read it carefully as the word of God and pray to God that you may be directed in wisdom. If you should have a chance to hear a Mormon elder preach, go and hear him without prejudice and do not despise your mother for believing them until you have heard them yourself but prove all things and hold fast that which is good. I must close by subscribing, Your affectionate mother,
Attica, N.Y., Feb. 25, 1844
… Samuel, it would gladden my heart to see your face again, and I do cherish a hope that I shall know what your feelings are with respect to our being Mormons. I have thought whether that did affect you, but I think I could convince you if I could have a chance to talk with you that we are not deluded but that we are the true believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ, for it is in believing and obeying the gospel of Jesus Christ that will gain us an inheritance in the celestial kingdom of God. You need not be afraid of offending me but tell me your feelings on the subject plainly. …
La Harpe, Ill., Sept. 1, 1844
Dear Son: I now embrace an opportunity of writing to let you know how we get along. We arrived here the second day of July being five weeks on the roads … you probably have heard of the death of the Prophet. We arrived just in time to attend his funeral. We were obliged to take the boat at Ottawa and we landed at Nauvoo. I cannot describe to you the heart-rending scene nor do I believe there has been such a day of mourning since the day our Savior was crucified. It was truly heart-rending, not a dry eye to be seen, sorrow and mourning was depicted on every countenance. Yes, we have met with the greatest loss in the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith that can be felt by us. The two most righteous men on the earth are taken from us by a ruthless mob, and they are not contented with that, they threaten more to exterminate the rest from the state. How it will be we know not but must leave the event to God who orders all things for the best. …
This from your affectionate mother.
Orrilla’s daughter Harriet went west in 1847 or 1848, if the family history’s statement that she was 21 is accurate; she certainly was in Utah by 1855 when she married in Ogden. Harriet does not appear on the Overland Travel Database, though. That’s my self-imposed task for the day: to find the date of Harriet’s travel and have her entered in the database, both for her own sake and for the sake of her mother who was never able to gather with the Saints in Utah.
But now we know a little of the story that is missing from the sterile facts of a family group sheet.