My Pioneer Ancestor Sarah, and Me

What I discovered from a challenge to research an ancestor’s life

Pioneer Women

Megan Hillyer, a professional genealogist, and friend extended a challenge on Facebook to spend four weeks diving into the life of a pioneer ancestor. The first challenge, after accepting, was the fact that I believed I did not have a pioneer ancestor. I followed the instructions and found on FamilySearch the place where pioneer ancestors are listed. What a surprise to find several cousins listed. This pattern does not apply to everyone as no pioneer ancestors were listed for my mother.

The purpose of the Book of Mormon states that it “is to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever” (Book of Mormon, Title Page).

Book of Mormon

Just like in the Book of Mormon, there are stories in our own lives that show “what great things the Lord has done” for our ancestors and for us. We can be stronger and more resilient as we identify and share these stories.


I chose Sarah Brower Beitler, my first cousin five times removed. She has become a source of inspiration for me as I came to know that we share similar experiences. The direct information about her life has been limited, but I have learned of her through the journals and records left by others and by studying the time period.

Sarah Brower Beitler
Sarah Brower Beitler

I can imagine sitting with Sarah in rockers on a verandah as we share our stories and feelings. Despite the separation of almost 200 years there are many experiences we have in common and there are many things I could learn from her wisdom gained through great courage in the face of mighty trials.

Her early life is an example of the importance of timing and location. There were decreases in the value of farmland, so her father sold their farm about the time of her birth. He became a hotel keeper and her father’s occupation led the family to Philadelphia. This choice was pivotal to Sarah’s introduction to the gospel.

Handcart and oxen

Sarah was raised in a family of faithful Mennonites. Her parents remained faithful to the Mennonite faith, but her siblings made varying choices, some becoming Methodist or Baptist. In 1840, at age 17, Sarah was the only person in her family baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I can only surmise that like me she was searching for the truth and recognized it when she heard it. She had opportunities to be taught by the early leaders of the Church and she treasured the recollection of the time she heard Joseph Smith speak in Nauvoo.

Despite the many struggles that living in Philadelphia presented, she remained a faithful member of the Church. She lived in the midst of the great succession upheaval in Philadelphia that came after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith.

Jacob Gibson
Jacob Gibson

Sarah and Jacob

Jacob, Sarah’s husband-to-be, was seeking a wife. His first two wives had died, and in a dream, Sarah was pointed out to him (Family journals). Did Jacob tell Sarah of the dream when he approached her? He must have convinced her because they married in Philadelphia, and she became an instant mother to his daughter born to his second wife. Jacob and Sarah eventually had seven children together. One daughter died the day of her birth and a son died at the age of nine. Sarah knew sorrow and heartache.

Sarah made the trek west to the Salt Lake Valley. She and Jacob faced difficult circumstances in their preparation to move west. It was Sarah’s Mennonite father who provided the necessary funds. Her survival required courage, effort, and miracles.

Sarah had a testimony of family history. At the first opportunity she went with her husband to do sealing ordinances at the Endowment House.

Sarah and her family were doing their best to create a life in Salt Lake City when her husband, Jacob, was called to serve a mission in Great Britain. The family was surprised by the call, but they chose to accept. Sarah stayed in Salt Lake while Jacob left to fulfill his call to serve.

Sarah and Jacob were married 20 years when he took a second wife. The two families lived together until Jacob was able to build another home next door. I would love to hear about Sarah’s experiences during this time. Was it difficult? Did they get along? I believe she had great faith in the Lord’s plan. Jacob died just as the government was arresting men for participating in polygamy. Sarah did not have to endure the fear of arrest and the imprisonment of her husband. She did, however, live for many years as a widow.

Sarah served for 33 years as the Relief Society president in the Sugar House Ward in Salt Lake City. She was instrumental in establishing a Primary program and programs for the youth in her ward. I am confident she faced many challenges during this time of service.

Deb Martin
Deborah Martin

Sarah and Deborah

Sarah and I have had some common experiences. Like Sarah, my opportunity to meet the missionaries was the result of the location of my father’s occupation in Halifax, Nova Scotia. My attendance at BYU in Provo was made possible through courage, effort, and miracles. Similarly, I was surprised by an unexpected mission call, and chose to serve. I faced challenges as I served to increase family history participation while serving in various callings and locations.

Eliza R. Snow
Eliza R. Snow

Sarah has become a source of inspiration and courage. The knowledge that I have an ancestor who heard the voice of Joseph Smith, who had Eliza R Snow visit her home and address the Relief Society sisters has made my connection to the early history of the Church feel alive and real. I am grateful to know even the smallest portion of her story. Those small pieces that I can find reveal her good heart, great courage, and determination.

The faith of Sarah as the only member of her family to enter into the covenant of baptism and then the temple covenants encourage me to carry on! It is as if I can feel her cheering me on and desiring me to remain faithful as I face the struggles of my day. I look forward to the day when I can sit and chat with her. My time researching her life makes me feel that we are more than cousins - we are friends.