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An Unforgettable Ancestor

Portrait of Agnes Taylor-Schwartz- just look at that pleased

If you are a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, it is possible that you already know who Agnes Taylor Schwartz is. If, like us, you are not a Mormon, this is probably not a name you have heard before, but we were so taken by her story that we couldn’t help but share.

We came across this notable woman while doing genealogy research for a client. At first, we didn’t know that we had hit a gold mine of information. As you likely know, the majority of the information a genealogist finds on an ancestor lies in census records, birth and death certificates, and vital statistics. We can usually track where someone lived, perhaps what their job was, and whether they fought in a major war, but that’s the sum total. After that, we put on our historian hats and work to fill in the gaps.

Not so with Agnes.

Agnes Taylor was born into an upper-middle class family in England in 1821, but she and her family moved to the United States when she was barely 6 years old. She was married for the first time in 1838, when she was only 17, to a man named John Rich, with whom she had four children. She seemed like the average 19th century woman right up until around 1846 when she did the unthinkable.

She divorced her husband.

Now, maybe that doesn’t sound like such a huge deal in the context of 2017, when divorce seems commonplace. But, while it did happen more often than most people think, divorce was considerably rarer. It was especially rare for a woman to instigate the divorce, and Agnes didn’t just do it once. In fact, she divorced her first two husbands and was married a total of three times.

She married her last husband when she was 41 — he was only 24.

That wasn’t the only interesting thing about her, however. Agnes was also remembered well for her “tough-minded” nature, specifically in the face of multiple police raids. At the time, Agnes had gone to live with her brother, who was a prominent figure in the early LDS church, in order to help him manage his house. The state of Utah had been an asylum for church members escaping persecution for their religious beliefs and for defending polygamy, but then the Edmunds Act was passed in 1882, making polygamy, or plural marriage, illegal. While Utah was not yet a state, it was a territory of the US, and federal law was still in effect, especially on a topic that many felt strongly about.

(Disclaimer: the modern-day Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints no longer advocates plural marriage.)

Whatever your thoughts on polygamy, Agnes and her brother felt strongly that their religious rights were being infringed upon. Agnes was said to have guarded her family’s home against police raids with a shotgun, refusing to let anyone in the house without a warrant by a judge.

Agnes outlived her brother by over twenty years, dying in 1911.

Now how is that for filling in the gaps between vital statistics?

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