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Orrilla Northway Rose Higley: “If You Should Have a Chance to Hear a Mormon Elder Preach”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 16, 2010

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,

O. Higley

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.

O. Higley

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.



11 Comments »

  1. Those are lovely letters, Ardis.

    Coincidentally, I was looking for someone in the Overland Trail database this morning. Kate Carter wrote:

    Mrs. Elizabeth Hayward … tells of the flower garden of Pioneer Bevadlint (1853) located on 5th North and 2nd West. They brought many seeds from England. They raised wall flowers, daisies, buttercups, and lilac bushes. Mrs. Hayward said, “They gave me a lilac start when I was very young, and I saw that bush bloom for over forty years…” (Our Pioneer Heritage, Vol. 19, p 531-32.)

    I like to identify names like this “Pioneer Bevadlint,” but cannot find him in the Overland Trail, the 1860 census, the Deseret News, or in New Family Search under any possible spelling or misspelling of the name. I finally decided that it’s not worth spending any more time, especially since another name listed in the article was misspelled. (Haslan Redfield instead of Harlow Redfield.)

    Best wishes on tracing Harriet.

    Comment by Researcher — September 16, 2010 @ 8:08 am

  2. Great detective work. I especially appreciate the winnowing of fact from fiction in the 1896 account. My family history has some similar problems.

    An entire 1906 history of the extended family has recently been discounted when it was discovered that the geneologist hired in England evidently fabricated the entire thing, including an ancestral home that didn’t exist complete with an (imaginary) coat of arms mosaic on the entryway floor of the (imaginary) medival castle. Arggh! Family history is tough enough without deception. “State what you know, and then stop!”

    Comment by Clark — September 16, 2010 @ 9:42 am

  3. This is the kind of family history I get excited about. Too many people in my genealogy are just names, and I am trying to fill in the gaps, and make them real people. Thanks for the continuing inspiration.

    Comment by kevinf — September 16, 2010 @ 10:04 am

  4. I haven’t had any success so far in finding Harriet’s travel date (she was still in Wisconsin in 1850, so there’s another detail from the published family history that is incorrect).

    I have, however, determined that Orrilla is my 5th cousin 4 times removed.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 16, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

  5. Nice story, Ardis. I’m dying to know if the Higleys became Strangites, since they went to Wisconsin…

    Comment by Martin — September 16, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

  6. I looked for that, Martin, but don’t see anything to suggest it, and several points that suggest Lyman, at least, had nothing more to do with Mormonism of any brand.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 16, 2010 @ 7:21 pm

  7. Really interesting, Ardis–and a cousin to boot! It’s a small world.

    Comment by Polly Aird — September 16, 2010 @ 11:20 pm

  8. You say that Harriet married in Ogden, Utah in 1855. Do you know the name of her husband?

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — September 16, 2010 @ 11:36 pm

  9. John Hodge, Jeff. She later married Lafayette Williams. (The marriage in Ogden may not be correct; she did die there in 1881, as far as I can see — no obit found yet to confirm this — and since so many reported “facts” on this family have been proven to be off, I won’t swear to the Ogden marriage to Hodge without verification.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 17, 2010 @ 12:20 am

  10. Thanks to all of you have commented so far. Family history — any kind of history — is a road filled with dead ends and blind alleys, but when you follow a clue that does finally pay off, it’s a whole lotta fun, too.

    Clark mentioned forged family history. There was a lot of that in the past. There was one notorious man (I forget his name, but it would be familiar if someone mentioned it) who made a fortune with carefully “documented” pedigrees that were fabricated in whole or in part. People are still identifying them generations later, but they’ve become so woven into the databases that they will never be weeded out entirely. You might think we’re immune to that now when so many primary sources are available for verification but we’re not, mostly because people don’t know how to check, or think that if something is in print it must be so. Sorry, Clark, that this happened in the past to your family, but at least you know and aren’t being tricked anew.

    Researcher, and kevinf, and Polly, and anyone else whose comment I haven’t responded to directly, thanks for reading. You’ve all done enough family and/or historical research to really appreciate how unusual and how exciting it is to find the records that flesh out the bare outline of genealogical facts.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 17, 2010 @ 12:29 am

  11. Well, at least after much searching I’ve finally located Harriett somewhere: In 1870, she is Harriet Hodge, enumerated in Wisconsin with her parents (whose name was recorded as Higbee rather than Higley); she is Harriet Williams in 1880, also enumerated with her parents in Wisconsin (all their names were badly misread by ancestry.com’s Chinese indexers) — but she is also listed on the Utah census as the wife of Lafayette Williams in Ogden, “on a visit to the East.”

    Still hunting.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 17, 2010 @ 10:42 am

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