Repaying a Debt 150 Years Later

Pioneer Wagon

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A Century and a Half After....

A century and a half after their British ancestors gathered to Zion, a group of handcart-pioneer descendants have found a novel way to honor the memory of their Latter-day Saint progenitors — by paying back the loan the pioneer family received in 1856 from the Church's Perpetual Emigration Fund.

Invited by their relative Matt Misbach, some 150 descendants of John Griffiths gathered July 8 in Provo, Utah, where they were encouraged to contribute to the Church's Perpetual Education Fund, which makes loans available for education purposes to eligible young Latter-day Saints in developing nations. In concept, the education fund is like the 1850s emigration fund which inspired it in that beneficiaries are expected to pay back their loans once they are in a position to do so, thus helping to ensure the perpetual nature of the fund.

Brother Misbach, a member of the Canyon View 10th Ward, Orem Utah Canyon View Stake, publicized the initiative by means of a Web site, on which he gave this summary of the Griffiths ancestral story, drawn from family records:

In 1856, John Griffiths (age 47) set out in the Martin Handcart Company along with his family: Margaret Ann (age 16), Jane Ellenor (age 8), John (age 11), Herbert (age 5). John Sr. had very little to his name. The trek west was made possible by a loan from the Perpetual Emigration Fund. Along the way, John Jr. froze to death 50 miles outside of Devils Gate. Margaret buried her brother Herbert, who had frozen to death, at Independence Rock. John Sr. died the day after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley. Jane Ellenor 'lost the first joint of her big toes.' Margaret 'was terribly frozen up' and 'was laid up nine weeks' with her feet. All that survived the trek were two young sisters, Margaret and Jane Ellenor. Margaret went to live with Mrs. Montague, and Jane went with Isabella Thorn.

Brother Misbach went on to note that it is not known for sure if Margaret or Jane were ever able to pay back their debt to the Perpetual Emigration Fund.

When the fund was disbanded in 1867, their names were still listed as debtors, he said in an interview, adding that he doubts that the loan was ever paid back due to the youth and destitute circumstances of the two Griffiths sisters.

He credits his aunt, Dawn Clegg of Midway, Utah, with conceiving the idea earlier this year of having today's Griffiths descendants make a token effort to pay back the loan by donating to the education fund. At Church one Sunday, she asked Elder W. Rolfe Kerr of the Seventy, who is a fellow ward member, if he could help her learn whether the Griffiths family were beneficiaries of the emigration fund.

Elder Kerr called the Church Family History Library, where a family history missionary, Elder Jerry Harris, happened to overhear someone taking the call. Recognizing John Griffiths as the name of his own ancestor, he took the call, then did the necessary research to find that the Griffiths family had, indeed, borrowed money from the fund, although the precise amount remains unknown.

Knowledgable people assume it would have been $100 or less, Brother Misbach said. Accounting for inflation — and not even taking into consideration the interest on the debt — the payback amount today would be about $8,400.

We didn't accomplish that, Brother Misbach acknowledged. Maybe we will. Some people not even related to the family showed up at the event and contributed out of simple generosity.

As it is, the gathering and associated publicity have raised more than $3,000 for the Perpetual Education Fund. Elder Richard E. Cook, formerly of the Seventy, who is now managing director of the fund, attended the July 8 gathering and accepted the donation.

Perhaps just as important is the effect the effort has had on the descendants themselves.

The two branches of the family had never before come together except for one other time, Brother Misbach said. There had been something of a split in the family, because the one sister, Jane, had moved to Idaho, and the other sister, Margaret, lived in Heber City, Utah. The only previous reunion of descendants was in 1976, when about 20 people collected money for a headstone to place on John Griffiths' burial plot in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

His grave site is one plot away from that of Mary Goble Pay, ancestor of President Gordon B. Hinckley's wife, Marjorie Pay Hinckley. We like to think that maybe they knew each other since they came across in the same company, Brother Misbach said.

I think the neatest thing about this was our sense of desire to pay back a debt that had benefitted us all so much, mused Cheri Christensen, also of the Canyon View 10th Ward, whose husband, Bryant, is a direct descendant of Jane Griffiths. It was also neat that we went to the reunion and found out that people we had known our entire lives were relatives — fourth and fifth cousins. We had no idea.

Brother Misbach said Griffiths descendants who did not hear about the reunion can still participate by sending donations to Perpetual Education Fund, 50 E. North Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150. If donors include a note designating it as part of the Griffiths donation, it will be accounted and acknowledged accordingly.

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