So your ancestors ended up Out West? How did they get there?
Chances are good they came via the Great Platte River Road—the name for the pioneer trail that followed the Platte River. It was actually known by many different names, depending on where an emigrant “jumped on” or “jumped off.”
The Great Platte River Road, by Merrill J. Mattes (Lincoln, Nebr. : University of Nebraska Press, 1987)covers the section of the trail from Fort Kearny (near present-day Kearney, Nebraska) to Fort Laramie (near present-day Laramie, Wyoming).
According to the preface, “It is distilled from the firsthand impressions of several hundred covered wagon emigrants, representing both sexes and all degrees of human latitude, who somehow contrived to leave something for the historical record. It is the story of their unique collective Platte River experience as it emerges from their own unvarnished journals.”
The book is worth it for the detailed maps alone, but the narrative is very informative, as well. The Great Platte River Road—it was just about everybody’s Granny’s Trail!
I ran across a 1900 U.S. Census record for my husband’s ancestor, Fergus Coalter, living in Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Utah at the time, and several entries caught my eye because I knew they would lead me to other sources. That’s the great thing about a census record – one thing leads to another:
Year of immigration (1874), years in the U.S. (26), citizenship (“Na” or naturalized), occupation (Music Dealer), education (can read, write, and speak English), and home ownership (“O” owns a home, “F” free of mortgage).
These are all things worth following up on, and I accessed a number of sources you may not know exist. Of course the easiest thing to try first is a Google search, and this got me started on the thing I was most curious about initially – no, not the immigration/citizenship columns – but “Music Dealer.” That is something you don’t often see on a census record.
A search for “Fergus Coalter music” led me to the website for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir historical roster. If you access the MTC website, there does not appear to be a link for the roster page, so I would have never found this entry for “Fergus Coulter” without Google:
So Fergus Coulter/Coalter sang Bass with the MTC for 17 years!
Now that I knew about the Fergus Coalter Music Company, I wanted to check city directories for Salt Lake City, which list addresses for businesses and individuals much like a phone book would in later years, plus sometimes some extra helpful facts. UTGenweb has a list of SLC directories with links to online images and/or Family History Library microfilm call numbers. Additionally, www.uscitydirectories.com lists directories by year, and some libraries where they can be found.
The 1897 Polk directory showed “Daynes and Coalter” under Fergus Coalter’s name and a residential address of 749 2nd East:
State Genweb projects, hosted by Rootsweb, are excellent sources for free online images and databases posted by volunteers.
Other online city directories revealed Fergus Coalter had also been in business as Coalter and Snelgrove, Daynes and Coalter, and Fergus Coalter Music Co. His death record showed him working as a clerk at Beesley Music Co. at age 71. I can do a more thorough search of directories at the Utah Research Center and Family History Library when I am there.
Newspapers can be an excellent source when the subject was a business owner, because of all the ads they placed. Here are a few unusual publications:
This is from the Young Woman’s Journal, Feb 1902, v 13, p 344. Here is an excerpt from something titled, “Mormon Magazine Miscellany” with the heading, “The Leading Industries of the West,” p 66, also on Google Books. It is a fascinating peek inside the music store, and we also learn that Fergus’ partner was the Tabernacle organist:
Finally, another unique source is a file from the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination form for the Capitol Hill Historic District of Salt Lake City, submitted by the Utah State Historical Society, has been digitized and is available online. It provides photos and descriptions of buildings in that district, including the Fergus Coalter home at 314 Center St., constructed abt 1880:
What is remarkable about this source is the personal info it provides and additional documentation that leads to additional sources, including plat maps Sanborn insurance maps, directories, newspapers, and biographical sources:
There is one last resource I want to mention here, because I know the “immigration” and “citizenship” columns on the census must have made you curious, too. Did you know about the Mormon Migration website at BYU? They are abstracting records for 19th and 20th century LDS immigrants, including first-person accounts of voyages. This is different than the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database which documents pioneer wagon companies. For starters, the Pioneer Overland Travel database ends at 1868—the official end of the “pioneer” era—and only covers the immigrants’ journey after they arrived in the United States. The Mormon Migration site is a ships passenger list database that extends beyond 1868 and documents the journey from an immigrant’s homeland. The first-person accounts can describe the entire journey by ship and wagon.
Here is the entry for Fergus Coulter:
A click on his name will bring up a link to first-person accounts by other passengers and also a list of other passengers.
Of course, these records are just the beginning – there are so many more record groups that come to mind: church, vital records, probate, cemetery, county history, naturalization, etc., but hopefully you now know about a few unique records for the Salt Lake City area and can start down your own trail. So Happy Trails!
Here are three books I have found helpful and interesting in researching the Western States:
1. Ray Allen Billington, The Far Western Frontier, 1830-1860, (Harper and Row, 1956)
I like the illustrations and maps in this book. There are some really good migration maps, such as “Routes to the Gold Fields, 1849,” and “The Overland Trails.” It includes a valuable bibliography at the end of the book with many entries for each chapter. There are 12 chapters that discuss various aspects of western U.S. expansion in a scholarly but understandable way, and I was impressed by the extensive footnotes. I often use footnotes to lead me to other sources.
2. Alan Wexler, Atlas of Westward Expansion, (Facts On File, Inc., 1995)
As an atlas, this book obviously is loaded with maps, and there is also good narrative for each one. The maps are pen and ink drawings which are easy to understand, yet detailed enough to be useful. It also has a good chronology of U.S. Territorial expansion (1750-1917) and a good bibliography.
3. Derek Hayes, Historical Atlas of the American West, with Original Maps, (University of California, 2009).
I think the description on Amazon.com says it best: “Spectacular in scope and visually brilliant, this atlas presents a sweeping history of the American West through more than 600 original, full-color maps and extended captions.” It is a beautiful book and very interesting, too. The maps are thoroughly source-cited, and there is also a valuable bibliography. I highly recommend it.
These three books complement each other and combine to provide a good foundation for Western States research.