April 21, 2023
I suppose every family has its storyteller. In mine it was my maternal grandmother Fannie Terry Dawson. Whenever we visited her, she told us stories about our ancestors.
The stories included a tale about her ancestor who’d been in the first government of Canada. Others ranged from a grandfather who’d crossed the plains to Utah with Brigham Young to one about how we had Maori blood. My favorite was the story about how Grandma’s parents met and married.
According to Grandma, her parents-to-be Jane Ann and Durbin lived in the same small farming community. They fell in love and wanted to be married. However, there was a problem. This happened in Utah, where polygamy was still practiced. An older polygamous man wanted to marry Jane Ann as his sixth or seventh wife.
Jane Ann, of course, was horrified. Not only did she love Durbin, but she had no interest in being a junior wife in a household where several of her husband’s children would be older than she was. Jane Ann’s father felt that her duty was to marry the polygamous suitor, whether she wanted to or not. Jane Ann still refused and made plans to run away with her young beau, Durbin.
To force the issue, Jane Ann’s father sent young Durbin out to the desert to herd sheep. Jane Ann’s father locked Jane Ann in the cellar to help her see the error of her ways. Instead, Jane Ann sneaked out a note to Durbin telling him to come home. He did; she escaped from the cellar. The young couple eloped to a neighboring county where they were married by a justice of the peace.
Such a romantic story! Or at least that’s what I thought when I first heard it at age twelve or thirteen. I didn’t doubt that the story was completely true back then. My cousins and I passed the family stories, especially Jane Ann and Durbin’s love story, along to our own families.
It wasn’t until I started to do genealogy seriously that I began to wonder about Grandma’s stories. I learned that family lore usually had a kernel of truth, but stories were often exaggerated. Sometimes the stories didn’t have any basis in fact.
I researched Grandma’s tales, and it turned out that they were a mixed bag. The story about the ancestor serving in Canada’s government was completely true. My fourth great grandfather served in the first parliament of Ontario in the early 1800s.
The story about the Utah pioneer was also mostly true. Grandma’s grandfather did cross the plains with the early Mormon pioneers. Records show him in Utah before 1850. The part about Brigham Young can’t be proved. No records show Grandma’s grandfather in a wagon train led by Brigham Young. However, not everyone was listed in the records.
The Maori story was false. Neither paper records nor DNA show any relationship between my family and the Maoris of New Zealand. My family did settle in New Zealand for a while, so maybe that’s where the story originated. I don’t know.
Then there’s Jane Ann and Durbin’s love story. I haven’t ever been able to prove it one way or the other. The couple did get married by a justice of the peace in a nearby county in 1887. Two of Durbin’s siblings were the witnesses rather than any of the couple’s parents. There wasn’t any notice of a party or dance honoring the young couple in the local newspaper, as was usual in those days. It’s possible that the young couple really did elope. Whether there was a polygamist involved is impossible to say.
I admit I still pass along Grandma’s stories. I remember my grandmother, but no one in the future will have known her. The stories she thought were important reveal a lot about her. I think her stories are worth preserving. Even the ones that aren’t true.