The Strange, But Surprisingly Familiar Lives of our Great-Great-Grandparents

Adam Washburn
9 min readFeb 23, 2021

4 reasons why connecting with the past matters.

Moses and Alma Spencer; Source:

My great-great-great-great grandparents Moses and Alma Spencer and their children had a different kind of life than you or I.

Alma (formerly Flagg) was the daughter of a American Revolutionary War soldier. Alma and Moses were both born and bred in Connecticut. Their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were also all born and raised in Connecticut (with a Massachusetts exception on one side of the family).

However, after a 200-year family tradition of living in Connecticut, they and their 9 children made a bold move. Like many other Americans of the mid-19th century, they packed up their life and headed West to take advantage of the rich farmland and hopeful prospects in Illinois.

They lived the remainder of their lives in Adams County, Illinois. Most of their children remained in the vicinity as well. Some of the sons continued as successful farmers. Daughters married into other local families. However, their oldest and youngest sons took a different path.

The oldest son, Seymour, and his wife, Ellen, felt called to take Christianity to the natives of New Zealand. So packing up their belongings and leaving behind their baby daughter (for fear she wouldn’t survive the journey), they left on a mission to New Zealand, never to return to America.

They ultimately had 8 other children, one born at sea, the remaining born in New Zealand. Sixteen years later, they requested Ellen join them in New Zealand. However, by this time Ellen was much more comfortable in Illinois with her adopted parents. She never joined her parents.

Seymour’s brother, George, the youngest child in the family, must have also had a similar adventurous spirit. When just 21, he and his 16-year-old wife Emily eloped to Iowa to get married after Emily’s parents refused to bless their union.

A few years later, George felt a call of his own — the call of gold in California. He and Emily migrated westward, and stopped for a while in Salt Lake City following a mishap with their oxen.

While in Salt Lake City, they stopped in — at Emily’s insistence — to listen to the services of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ultimately, Emily and George believed the message, united with the church, gave up their quest for gold, and settled in Utah.

Later — again at Emily’s insistence — George took up the practice of plural marriage, as was taught by the Latter-day Saints at the time in imitation of the Biblical patriarchs. As a result, he married my great-great-great-grandmother Sarah Marinda Thompson as a third wife. The rest, you might say, is history.

Definitely a different way of life than you or I in the 21st century!

Why are we so fascinated?

So why are we so fascinated with the stories of those who have gone before us? Perhaps there’s an element of amazement and surprise. It’s a bit mind-boggling to consider someone having 200-year roots in Connecticut and then packing up and moving to Illinois. Or to think of someone leaving behind family and friends forever to go live in New Zealand. Or to leave West, join a new religion, and start a new way of family life.

As humans, we are wired to stop and stare at the strange and different.

However, the more I read about life from years ago, the more I am convinced that while technology, politics, geography, social norms, and economics can change, human nature remains fairly consistent.

Individuals have hopes and dreams. Families struggle with money, health, and relationships. Raising kids is never easy. Pride, arrogance, and spite are constant thorns. Love, humility, and kindness never go out of style.

Looking to the past is like the learning a foreign language. Looking at words and concepts in a new setting helps you understand your own language better. Who knew that gerunds could be so useful?

Similarly, looking at the struggles of every day life in a new context can help you understand yourself in new ways. Your great-great-grandma might have killed a chicken instead of buying processed lunch meat at the grocery store, but she still had a heck of a time getting her teenagers out of bed in the morning.

So what can you learn from the past? Individual lessons will vary — we all have a different past to explore — but there are some key themes that will remain constant. Here are 4 lessons that you will consistently find as you explore you family’s past history.

1. Find Out Who You Are

What does the life of my great-great-great-grandpa have to do with me?

The further back you go, it’s easy to feel that the connection to an individual ancestor becomes more tenuous and less intimate. Each preceding generation contributes less and less to your DNA, your family culture, and the stories told at family gatherings.

Nevertheless, each person in your past is still a contributor. Like a single fiber in a rope, no individual strand gives it the current shape and form, but it is the aggregate pattern of all the strands that give the rope its strength and structure.

From one perspective, you might only see yourself as one of a numerous host of distant progeny from a given ancestor. An unremarkable continuity.

From another perspective, you are the product of the convergence of individuals and circumstances, maybe even from all around the world — just to make you.

When I look at a map of where my ancestors come from, I’m amazed that individuals from Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, France, England, and Sweden (yes, I’m of very heavy European origin) would meet up, marry, have children, and ultimately migrate to the United States over several centuries. Their confluence and conjugation ultimately resulted in my grandparents meeting, my parents being born, and then me.

One ancestor came to America in the 1600s in the spirit of adventure to establish a new life. Another came out of religious duty. Another came to escape war and pestilence in his homeland. Another apparently came as a mercenary Hessian to fight against the Americans in the Revolutionary War. He ultimately defected to General Washington’s troops and remained in America, marrying a nice girl from Connecticut.

While I may not be able to tell what traits or genes I inherited from my great-great-great-grandpa George, I do know that the confluence of life choices, marriage choices, and living arrangements of people like George, Sarah, William, Lydia, Marie, Terril, Logan, Hans, Thora, Jens, Thomas, and Hansine ultimately led to my parents being in the position where they could meet, marry, and have me.

Although ideas and culture morph and change over the generations, it’s hard to deny that these beliefs and values did not make their way into my own upbringing whether directly or indirectly.

The truth is, the more you learn about your ancestors, the more you understand who you are.

2. Find Out How You Connect to Others

I always enjoy making a family connection with other people. I was delighted a while back when I got into a discussion with a co-worker about our family histories. I had found his last name connected with some individuals in my genealogical past. We traced our ancestry back using some online software and ultimately figured out we were distant cousins.

It created a connection that we’ve never had before.

Granted, we didn’t start inviting each other over for family parties, but there was a recognition of a shared past and a connection beyond what we normally recognized day to day.

Now, you might say, doesn’t this technically exist for all your co-workers? No matter how distant, isn’t everyone connected anyway? What’s the big deal?

But to me, I think that’s the most amazing part. We’re ALL connected.

History class teaches us about people in terms of nations, leaders, boundaries, culture, and politics. Genealogy and family history teach you that the history of the human race is about families. We are all connected, and we are all related, whether we recognize it or not.

As human beings, it is our nature to put people into an in group or an out group. It’s a life-changing perspective when you start considering everyone around you as a distant relative, and as humanity as part of your biggest and best in group.

3. Practice Empathy

We love the stories about our noble ancestors and their heroic accomplishments. We recite the highlights of a well-lived life and the struggles that ultimately overcame opposition.

However, as we explore the past, we will undoubtedly find things that we are not proud of. We’re almost certain to encounter a dysfunctional family along the way. Divorce, separation, infidelity, and family discontent are not new to the 21st century.

If you have a long family history in America, it’s difficult not to run into the specter of slavery and racism at some point in your family’s past.

If you don’t have a long history in America, you’ll probably find something similar in your own cultural background. Every country, nation, and tribe has its own unique history of anger, hate, war and atrocity.

While we can feel good about positive connections through humanity’s fraternal bonds of love, the flip side of the coin is that we’re also connected with all the dysfunctional parts as well.

As we encounter the negative, it can be tempting to ignore, bury, rationalize, or forget those aspects of our family past. However, if we’d like to gain the most from the negative aspects of our past, there is a better way.

We can learn to practice empathy.

We don’t need to accept or justify the actions of our ancestors. We don’t have to like everything they did, said, or thought.

However, we can take time to try and understand them.

Imagine the circumstances they lived in. Picture the pressures they felt. Understand the forces that led them to make certain decisions — whether good or bad.

My great-great-great-great grandparents Samuel and Mary Thompson split up over religious differences while living in Nauvoo, Illinois, in the 1840s. Samuel wanted to go West with Brigham Young. Mary did not.

I suspect they had other marriage troubles as well, but regardless, they made a fateful decision that would determine my family’s history.

Samuel took the two oldest children and went to live in Utah with his extended family. Mary stayed in the Midwest with their two younger children and her extended family.

Their daughter Sarah Marinda was in the older age group and went with Samuel. She was the girl that later married George Spencer in Utah and became my great-great-great-grandmother.

Do I have reasons to find fault with both Samuel and Mary and their choices? I could certainly find them.

Would any such criticisms help or change the past? Most certainly not.

However, I can try to understand where they were coming from. I can picture what circumstances would lead to the breakup of a family. I can ask myself how I would handle situations that challenged my faith, family, and well-being.

I may not ever have all the facts or understanding to know why they made the exact decisions that they did. But I can still have compassion for them.

Studying the past provides a great chance to practice empathy, understanding, and kindness for those who have gone before us. It will help us have those same feelings of empathy and understanding for those living in the world today — including our own selves.

4. Put Life in Perspective

I love the 2021 Superbowl commercial from Huggies. It starts out reminding us that everyone begins life as a baby — even the crotchety old man who seems like he was never young.

For me, reading through the life stories, connections, and dates of my ancestors reminds me about the time frame of human life. We all start as babies, grow up, and eventually die. We all have a fixed time on earth.

None of us likes to dwell on our inevitable demise. We prefer to feel young and invincible. Or we might feel that the pain and struggle of life will just never end. Or we might be so caught up in day-to-day life that its end seems too abstract and far off.

However, understanding that we each have a time limit on earth gives us a frame of reference for what we choose to do each day.

As I read stories about those who have gone before me in the past, I get a chance to think about what stories I will leave behind. Will my choices allow me to inspire and embolden others of future generations? Would I be proud of my own legacy? Do I even leave a record of my life to tell my own story?

What do you want your obituary to look like? You get to start writing it today with the choices you make.

What’s Next?

Connecting with the past can tremendously enhance our spiritual and emotional well-being.

While learning why you should connect with the past is important, as discussed in this article, learning how to do it every day is something else. Would you like to learn how you can connect to the past with just 2 minutes each day?

My next article will discuss simple ways you can connect with the past each day.

Sign up here to get updated on my next article, which will include a 2-minute, 2-week challenge to connect with the past each day. I’ll also keep you posted on additional challenges that will stretch you in Body, Mind, Heart, and Spirit.



Adam Washburn

PhD Chemist, father of six kids, and local bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.