My first experience with family history was as a freshman at Brigham Young University, where I took an introductory class. We began with Ancestral File, a database containing thousands of names submitted by members of the Church and others. Out of curiosity, I typed in my grandmother’s name. With the push of a few buttons, an entire pedigree appeared, stretching back hundreds of years. I was stunned and overwhelmed. As I looked at that chart, I wondered what I could possibly contribute. It seemed that all the temple work must already be done. Almost immediately, a clear thought came to me: “Focus on Sarah Ann Bean.”
From Ancestral File, I could see that my third great-grandmother, Sarah Ann Bean, had joined the Church in 1841 along with her entire family. Her temple work was completed. A little more investigation showed that the temple ordinances were also done for her immediate family and even for her ancestors, going back many generations. Perhaps, I thought, something has been missed or traced incorrectly. I asked my mother, grandmother, and other family members if they knew anything about Sarah Ann. Nobody did.
Over the course of the next year, I devoted a lot of time to learning about Sarah Ann. What I discovered made a lasting impact on my life in a way I had not imagined.
Sarah Ann was born October 31, 1828, in Quincy, Illinois, to James and Elizabeth Bean. Several years later when the community was flooded with destitute Latter-day Saints who had been exiled from Missouri, the Beans, like many other Quincy families, took them in. On July 12, 1841, the entire Bean family were baptized.
Soon after joining the Church, the Bean family moved to Nauvoo. Here, two months before turning 16, Sarah Ann married William Casper. About a year later, on October 7, 1845, a daughter was born to them. During this time, tensions between the Saints and their neighbors continued to escalate. Finally, with few other options remaining, in the frigid February winter of 1846, the first Saints set off across the Mississippi River, leaving Nauvoo behind forever. A few weeks later, William, Sarah Ann, and their daughter joined the exodus.
The first stop the group made was in Council Bluffs, Iowa. That summer William was recruited to serve in the Mormon Battalion. He wrote in his journal, “There were many heartaches and tears as we made ready to leave our loved ones and friends.”1 Before departing, William told his wife: “Sarah Ann, you are in the hands of the same God as I am. May He bring us together again.”2 Sarah Ann stood on the dirt road crying, holding her baby, and watching her husband disappear, wondering if she would ever see him again.
While they stayed in Council Bluffs, the situation for the Casper family became desperate. Sarah Ann and her baby stayed with her mother, older sister, and two younger siblings. Sarah Ann’s father was away seeking provisions for the trek west. Sickness was all around. Before long the entire family became ill. Sarah Ann’s youngest sister died. When her brother arrived home from temporary employment, he found that the family had “nothing but corn, pounded in a mortar, for food, and no one strong enough to pound it.”3
On June 13, 1847, Sarah Ann, her one-year-old daughter, and her 16-year-old brother set off across the plains in Jedediah M. Grant’s company. (The rest of the family would come later.) After a long and difficult journey, they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on October 4, 1847. Two weeks later, William joined them, home from his service in the Mormon Battalion. When the rest of the family arrived, Sarah Ann’s mother searched desperately for her daughter in the crowd that had gathered to greet them. Her brother wrote of their reunion, “Oh, the tears of joy that were shed in that loved embrace.”4
Challenges continued for William, Sarah Ann, and their family. The first year, crickets ate most of the 11 acres of corn they had planted. Sometimes they resorted to boiling rawhide until it was soft enough to eat in order to save themselves from starvation.5 Despite the sacrifices she was required to make, Sarah Ann’s faith remained strong. She taught her children the principles of the gospel and the importance of trusting in the Lord.
In the years since I began collecting information about Sarah Ann Bean Casper, I have been able to do the temple ordinances for many deceased family members. However, none of them have been on Sarah Ann’s line. I have never found any missing or incomplete information on this family. Instead, I have realized that I was prompted to focus on Sarah Ann not because of anything I could do for her but because of what her story could do for me and my family.
Over the years, as I have researched family history, I have found many stories of faith and courage. Sometimes the histories of these people have been buried in time and forgotten. As I have rediscovered them, I have found an added source of strength in learning of the sacrifices they made for the gospel. When doubt or discouragement has crept into my life, I have often seen in my mind the image of a young woman, her cheeks streaked with tears, standing in the dusty road, clutching her baby as her husband walked off into the distance. Her commitment to the gospel is an enduring example to me.
There are five generations of women between Sarah Ann and me. As I have watched my two daughters grow, I have often thought of Sarah Ann. Her story may have been lost for a time, but the effects of her teachings have endured. Generations of faithful women have continued to pass on the gospel principles that Sarah Ann embraced and taught to her children. Now I will teach my daughters these same principles. I will also teach them the story of Sarah Ann. When challenges arise in my daughters’ lives, they can remember they are descended from a lineage of strong, believing women who have overcome seemingly insurmountable trials. I hope my daughters will someday find strength in the life of Sarah Ann as I have.
“Each of us has a heritage—whether from pioneer forebears, later converts, or others who helped to shape our lives. This heritage provides a foundation built of sacrifice and faith. Ours is the privilege and responsibility to build on such firm and stable footings. … It is necessary to prepare and to plan. … Without a goal, there can be no real success. … Daydreaming of the past and longing for the future may provide comfort but … this is the day of our opportunity, and we must grasp it.”
President Thomas S. Monson, First Counselor in the First Presidency, “In Search of Treasure, Ensign, May 2003, 19, 20.