Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Guest Post: Family History Detective

Guest Post: Family History Detective

By: Clark Ricks - October 26, 2010

I, like several other regular readers, come from a family where it seems nearly all the temple and genealogy work has been done. I’ve chosen to focus my efforts on recording the stories that previously existed only orally, and verifying them as much as possible. I’m not a professional researcher or historian, but it’s proved to be a fun and fruitful adventure.

Here’s one such story from my great-grandfather, Joseph Andrew Ritchie. According to the life history read at his funeral in 1975, at the age of 25 he was called to leave behind his wife and two young children to serve in the Central States. It reads:

One of Grandpa’s missionary companions was Spencer W. Kimball, who is now our prophet and President of the Church. They continued their friendship through the years, and Grandpa used to enjoy going to conferences in the area where President Kimball was assigned to talk, so they could renew their friendship and talk about mission experiences.

Hmm … There’s a few things here that raised an eyebrow of skepticism. The additional unwritten stories about their supposed service together seemed even more dubious.

The first source I checked was Pres. Kimball’s biography, written by his son. It listed or described several companions Kimball served with in the Central States Mission in 1915-16, but none was my great-grandfather.

My mother said that there used to be a picture of the two of them serving together, but it had been lent to a shirttail relative years ago and never returned. He didn’t keep a diary or journal. The trail seemed to be growing rather cold.

One evening, for something unrelated, I was watching the Church-produced video biography about President Kimball. It’s only about five minutes long. And in the middle of the film, for a few brief moments, I caught a glimpse of my great-grandfather.

Miraculously, I had found the photograph. Well, maybe not the long-lost photograph, but certainly a photograph of Elders Kimball and Ritchie together.

Not knowing what to do next, I wrote a letter to the Church Archives, referenced the video and the time when he briefly appeared, and asked if they could help me track down the picture.

Within just a few days, I received an email back with a high-quality scan of the photo and the catalogue reference number. I consider it a priceless addition to my family history.


But did the two elders really stay in touch for more than half-century? With the heavy workload an apostle carries, even a man as compassionate as President Kimball couldn’t possibly stay in touch with old companions. Right?

That question was solved when I found a letter in my grandmother’s papers, dated just a few days after Great-Grandpa Ritchie’s death. Printed on official church stationery, it reads:

I was sorry to learn of the passing of your father, and wish to express my condolences to you and your family… I recall with fondness the time your father and I spent in the missionary service together. He was a fine man, and I enjoyed greatly my association with him. I pray the Lord will bless you and the others of your family in this trying time and be with you and comfort you.




  1. This really is awesome, Clark. It has a perfect mix of diligent work and serendipity, and you show us all that it doesn’t take special training or even special access to work on family history. Thank you for not saying “it’s all been done” and letting it go at that.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 26, 2010 @ 9:27 am

  2. Wow! This was a lot of fun to read. And seeing the photo and the letter were great, too. Thanks for sharing, Clark.

    The folks that do the Mormon Channel programs should seriously consider doing a “Family History Detective” program modeled after the PBS series. Even if in an audio-only format, it could be interesting.

    Comment by David Y. — October 26, 2010 @ 9:45 am

  3. I read the letter President Kimball wrote when your great grandfather died.

    As I mentioned in a post a few years ago my grandfather Martin Mortensen grew up with President Kimball in the Gila Valley in Arizona.

    When he passed away a few years after your great grandfather President Kimball made a personal phone call to my family.

    There are a million stories out there about President Kimball doing acts of personal kindness and service like this— and they are all true.

    Comment by john willis — October 26, 2010 @ 10:05 am

  4. Thanks for the encouragement! There’s so much more I probably could do… (For instance, did President Kimball keep a missionary journal; if so, is it available, and if so, what did he say about their time together?)

    Comment by Clark — October 26, 2010 @ 10:33 am

  5. Looks like Great-Grandpa Ritchie served in the same area with Spencer W. Kimball — St. Louis — in the spring and summer of 1915:

    extracts from Liahona: The Elders’ Journal

    13 January 1914, 493:

    Arrivals: – December 12th, the following named missionaries registered at the office and were assigned to their different fields of labor as follows: … Joseph A. Ritchie, Idaho Falls, Idaho, to the Missouri Conference.

    18 August 1914, 126:

    Elders N.W. Davis and Jos. A. Ritchie of the Missouri Conference, write as follows: “We have held fifteen meetings and at five open air meetings we had fine crowds and they seemed glad to hear us. One man who has been opposing us ever since we have been here in Puxico, and had said that there was nothing to the Book of Mormon, came up to us the other night after we had explained it to the people and said that he wanted the book for he had decided that there was something to it.”

    13 October 1914, 251:

    Elders J.A. Ritchie and E.R. Stoddard, who are laboring in Hannibal, report that a Sunday School will be organized next Sunday. All of the Saints and friends are very much interested and a good attendance is assured.

    9 February 1915, 530:

    Elders Wilford R. Jensen and Jos. A. Ritchie, of the Missouri Conference, writing from Hannibal, report having visited a party whose relatives went West with the Church in early days. At that time she was very much opposed to their doctrine, but since then she has become interested in the Gospel and is desirous of knowing more about it. She is also anxious to learn concerning her relatives who went West. She purchased a Book of Mormon, a Durant and a Voice of Warning, and before the elders left, invited them to come back and hold cottage meetings with her husband and family.

    2 March 1915, 575:

    Elders Wilford R. Jensen and Jos. A. Ritchie writing from Hannibal, report that they are having continued success in their labors. They have held eight meetings during the week and distributed many books and tracts, and the people are interested in our Gospel message and desire to know more about the Gospel. We have many friends and ivnestigators who have given us a standing invitation to hold cottage meetings with them.

    9 March 1915, 595:

    Elder Jos. A. Ritchie writing from St. Louis, reports as follows: “We met a young man to whom we had previously sold a book, and was explaining some of the principles of the Gospel to him when his mother came out and thanked us for the way in which we had talked to her son, impressing upon his mind the necessity of making a study of the Gospel.”

    20 April 1915, 689:

    St. Louis Conference, Central States Mission. Back Row. – J.J. Ryser, M.E. Phippen, J.A. Ritchie, H.E. Peterson, C.M. Jensen, J.C. Henderson. Middle Row. – (Branch Pres. T.J. Martin), Elizabeth A. Ritchie, Mrs. Amy Merrill, M.C. Merrill, Bertha E. Beardshall, O.E. Papworth, Inez Christensen, Pearl Butterfield. Front Row. – S.W. Kimball, T.T. Murdock, (Conf. Pres. O.H. Guymon, Mission Pres. S.O. Bennion; Liahona Editor, Joseph E. Cardon), S.A. Hill, C. Call.

    10 August 1915, 106:

    Missionaries of the Missouri Conference, Central States Mission. top Row: – I.B. Lloyd, Elizabeth Ritchie, Bertha Perry, Charlotte Baker, Inez Christensen, M.F. Lyman, Bertha Beardschall, Minnie Shaw, Pearl Butterfield, T.T. Murdock. 2nd Row: – L.M. Hawkes, Christian Call, M.E. Phippen, E.H. Asay, J.B. Allen, H.E. Peterson, J.A. Ritchie, W.R. Jensen, J.C. Henderson, W.L. Lindsay, S.A. Hill. 3rd Row: – M.K. Hurd, (Con. Pres. O.H. Guymon, Branch Pres. T.J. Martin, Sr. Lottie T. Bennion, Mission Pres. S.O. Bennion), M.C. Merrill, Amy L. Merrill, S.W. Kimball, Vernetta Lindsay. Bottom Row: – Howard Walker, Geo. F. Yalker, E.O. Roberts, C.W. Hubbard.

    28 September 1915, 223:

    Releases. – The following missionaries have been honorably released to return to their homes: … Jos. A. Ritchie, Idaho Falls, Idaho.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 26, 2010 @ 11:25 am

  6. Ardis rocks!

    Comment by Clark — October 26, 2010 @ 11:28 am

  7. Clark, great story, and Ardis, who never fails to amaze, you provided the “icing on the cake”. This keeps me inspired as I search for more information about several ancestors, in particular my great-grandfather Frederick Augustus King, who attended medical school in NYC in 1863, but didn’t get his MD license from the state of Utah until about 1895. I have hopes of filling in some of the blanks, but since he kept no personal journal, it’s tough. This will keep me going.

    Comment by kevinf — October 26, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

  8. What a wonderful piece of detective work. This is what keeps us going as family history buffs, finding new stories and facts on our ancestors. Keep it up.

    Comment by Maurine — October 26, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

  9. For instance, did President Kimball keep a missionary journal; if so, is it available, and if so, what did he say about their time together?

    He did keep a missionary journal.

    I enjoyed your post.

    Comment by Justin — October 26, 2010 @ 6:42 pm

  10. Justin, thanks for the great find.

    I was a little concerned for the reputation of E. Ritchie, when Pres. Kimball’s biography mentioned a junior companion that “tried my soul because I wanted to work… and was unable to stimulate him, he being the senior companion.”

    I still don’t know who this refers to, but it isn’t my guy, according to the BYU Studies article you unearthed, “I was feeling very blue over the idea of leaving the elders
    ritchie phippen hill etc whom I had so learned to love.”

    Between Justin’s find and Ardis’ work, I’m learning so much from this post.

    As of this morning, all I knew of his mission was that he went and came back. Not 12 hours later, I have a feel for how he spent his days and the kind of missionary he was.

    This blog has the best commenters!

    Comment by Clark — October 26, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

  11. This blog has the best commenters!

    Amen and amen!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 27, 2010 @ 6:11 am

  12. Here is the website for the LDS Church Archives. I hope you can find more by using the “ask a librarian” link. You will probably have to have someone in SLC go there to look over the material because it is only available there.
    You should be able to find histories of that mission. I found more info on one of my husband’s ancestors Joseph Humphreys who joined the church in South Africa and served as a missionary there before he emigrated.
    Good Luck,

    Comment by Pat Lowe — October 27, 2010 @ 9:10 pm

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.
TrackBack URI