Cora Birdsall was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1869. Her father Isaac Birdsall came from a colonial Long Island Quaker family. Isaac migrated very gradually across the continent from his New York City birthplace to his grave on the California coast. Cora’s mother Mary Margaret Troutman, known familiarly as “Mette,” was the daughter of a Civil War veteran and the fifth generation of a German-American family. Mary Margaret was just 15 years old when she married 30-year-old Isaac; Cora was their first child. Cora was too young to be aware of the family’s move from Iowa to Nebraska, but at age ten in 1879 she was old enough to appreciate Isaac’s triumph in successfully proving up his land claim under the Homestead Act. Cora had a sister just younger than herself, Elsie May, who became my great-grandmother. Two younger brothers survived to adulthood; five Birdsall children died in early childhood.
The Nebraska school census shows Cora to have been a regular school attender through her childhood. In addition to whatever social life Cora got at school, she was also exposed to a variety of people living under her own roof: a photograph in my possession shows quite a number of people on the porch of the family home, which Mette operated as a boarding house supplementing Isaac’s farming.
In 1881, when Cora was 12, her family undertook the greatest adventure of their lives. Friends from the east passed through Nebraska and invited the Birdsalls to join them on a cross-country sightseeing tour. This was 12 years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, but the group was traveling by covered wagon, intending to go to California, travel down the coast, and then return to their eastern homes. The Birdsalls joined them. I deduce that they evidently planned to return to Nebraska because they did not sell their land before leaving. When the sightseers neared Salt Lake, the Birdsalls wanted to visit cousins, early converts to the Church. The cousins were not to be found in Salt Lake, however, and by the time the Birdsalls had tracked them to Sevier County, it was too late in the year to go on to California. They stayed in Monroe for the winter, and then decided to stay permanently.
Cora and Elsie resumed their education in Utah, spending several years at the Sevier Stake Academy, although that meant they had to board with a Richfield family during the school year because the family’s home in Monroe was too far from the school to travel back and forth every day. Cora attended that Academy until a few weeks before her 20th birthday. One of her classmates was Orestes Utah Bean, future author of Corianton. Another classmate, G.W. Coons later recalled Cora this way: “She was of a quiet disposition, I don’t know that while in school I had any conversation with her to amount to anything.”
I’ve wondered what it was like for the non-Mormon Birdsall family to settle in a rural Mormon county. There is a family tradition that it was not easy. The family were all baptized in 1884, when Cora was 15, so at least that much of their outsider status was removed. There are documents identifying members of the community as friends of the Birdsalls, but there is also evidence that the family was not entirely accepted. Cora’s younger brother, a hired hand working at the farm of a neighbor, was visited one night by four masked and very drunken young Mormons, who threw a noose around his neck and dragged him by horse across fields and through a canal, and cut him loose with the warning to “stay away from our women.” The ruffians, although identified, were never punished.
There is no doubt that the Birdsalls were sincere in their conversion to Mormonism. The entire family received patriarchal blessings early in 1886, and 16-year-old Cora served as the patriarch’s scribe to record all those blessings, even her own. When Cora’s sister Elsie May was married in the Manti Temple in 1890, Isaac and Mary Margaret went with her and were sealed on the same day. I know from her later history that Elsie May was absolutely committed both to the gospel and to the Church.
Later court testimony identifies Cora herself as a devout member of the Church. Her name appears very frequently on temple rolls listing the ordinances she completed for relatives – it was Cora, not Mette, who stood in as proxy in temple ordinances for Isaac’s deceased first wife. “She has been a member of the Mormon Church since she was fifteen years old,” her mother reported, “and was devoted to her duties from the time she joined. She didn’t care much about going to parties but she was always doing something for the sick, the aged and the afflicted.” She had a vocation as a nurse, which she considered a spiritual as well as a temporal calling; there is testimony that she anointed patients with oil and blessed them as a religious rite: after her mind broke, Cora “utterly refused to have it [oil] used … but had always used it herself in administering to the sick.” When Cora was called as a counselor in the Monroe Ward Relief Society, she felt she was not adequately available to her sisters while she was living on her farm; therefore, she moved into Monroe and rented a room for two years. “She considered it a mission,” her mother said, “and she wanted to be there and attend to her duties.”
There are slender clues that I have not yet been able to confirm to my satisfaction, that Cora may have been married, very briefly – as in a matter of a few days – just as the Manifesto was issued. Having been married so briefly, and if, as I suspect, the marriage was polygamous, the couple may have decided to part rather than sustain a marriage under those new conditions. In any case, Cora was a single woman, living on her own and making plans to support herself the rest of her life when, in 1893, she filed on 160 acres of land in Monroe, under the Homestead Act.
And thus began a chain of events that would leave Cora broken, silent, and a ghostly presence in the home of my great-grandmother.