Mary Jacobsen Sorensen Life History—
Mary Jacobsen Sorensen was born in Vemmelev, Denmark May 18, 1850. She was the daughter of Jacob Christensen and Bertha Hansen. Her father was a well to do farmer and the family lived in luxury. They had many servants, a big farm and a lovely home. But the father died at the early age of 29 from injuries received when he was attacked and beaten by some bad men who were envious of his wealth and social position. He crawled home on his hands and knees where everything was done to save his life, but he died a few hours later. Her mother was left with two small children, Mary and her older brother Soren. She struggled on alone for two years and then married Christen Poulsen, who was a very honest, honorable man. He never in all his life made any difference in the treatment of these two children and those who were born later.
Mary’s childhood was very pleasant. They still had the big farm with all the servants and helpers. They entertained the elect of the town and were considered in the upper class. Although Mary was the smallest in her class at school, she was always among the best. She was a good reader and at the early age of nine had read the history of Denmark and many other countries as well. She was severely reprimanded by her father at one time for correcting a gentleman of note on a historical date. Very often the church minister, the schoolmaster and many other people of Vemmelev were at this home for luncheon or dinner. Mary often told of the hospitality of her parents. No one was ever turned away if he were hungry. Friends and relatives loved to call at the Poulsen home. Even the servants and the helpers in the fields were given an 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. lunch.
At school these children were popular. Their company was sought after by all who knew them. They were always treated with respect by the children. Then one day some humble Mormon elders visited their home and brought the gospel message to them. Mary’s parents were immediately convinced that the message was true. After they had investigated it thoroughly, they accepted the gospel and were baptized. Now everything changed for the whole family. The children were shunned and ridiculed by the school children and even the schoolmaster who had been such a friend to the parents. It finally got so bad that father Poulsen took them out of school and sent them to a private teacher.
The children were not happy here. They missed the companionship of the other school children. They were the only Mormons attending. However, it was here the children were taught to do things with their hands. Mary learned how to knit, sew, crochet and etc. Soren learned to use tools of all kinds. Had they stayed in Denmark, Mary would have been sent to Germany to study the language and learn dairying. But friends and relatives of the family, especially Grandma and Grandpa Hansen, became so bitter because they were Mormons and made it so disagreeable to live close to them, the Poulsen’s decided to join the Saints in Zion. It wasn’t easy to leave their home with all its comforts and the beautiful farm and all the servants. But nothing could stop them when they had made their decision. The estate was sold for $25,000. A large sum at that time. So they started out well provided for. Everyone in the family had eight suits of clothes made of the very best material. These clothes were brought to Utah in a large chest of drawers.
Grandfather Poulsen had enough money to buy his family everything they needed on the long journey. His brother James Poulsen and his family came at the same time. Mary’s father was so kind hearted and helped so many friends and relatives who promised to return the money when they were able to (but never did), that they had little more than the poorest family when they reached Zion.
Oh! What a journey they had. Eleven weeks on a sailing vessel. The food became scarce toward the end of the journey. The water was so bad that Cholera broke out and many people died. James Poulsen lost some of his family with this dreaded disease. Grandfather Poulsen bribed the cook with a good sum of money to boil water for his family and they were all saved from the scourge. Mary wasn’t sick a day. She really enjoyed the ocean trip and she spent most of her time upon the deck playing with the children who were not sick.
There was great excitement on board when a whale followed the shop for many days. The captain was rather alarmed, but it disappeared without doing any harm. Many sharks followed the ship also. They finally landed in New York. They were tired and hungry. Mary’s father bought plenty of good bread, butter, milk and fruit. Bread and butter had never tasted so good. They rested here for a few days and then traveled on a train to St. Louis. The train had been used to transport soldier, since this was the time of the Civil War. The coaches were alive with cooties and the Saints soon found themselves very uncomfortable.
Two of the eight children became very ill on the train. Grandfather got off at the next station to get milk for them. The train pulled out as he was running with the milk. Imagine grandmother’s feelings when she was left with all those children and didn’t know how when would ever find her husband again. They arrived at St. Louis and were taken to a park to camp for the night. Grandmother knew how to handle the cooties. She stripped off all their clothes and put on fresh clean ones, being careful to wipe all the bodies well with a towel. She then rolled the soiled into a tight bundle until they could be washed and boiled. Grandfather arrived on another train that same night and soon located his family. You may be sure there was great rejoicing, and they all knelt and thanked God they were united again.
From St. Louis, they traveled to Florence. Here grandmother washed and boiled the clothes that had the cooties on them. They were never bothered again. Some of the company who were not so wise had a very bad time with them. While they were in Florence, two of the smaller boys died because of exposure when they had measles. The parents were forced to leave two little graves behind as they tearfully set their faces toward the West. It was in Florence that outfits were bought to continue the journey to Salt Lake City. Grandfather Poulsen still had money enough to buy two good wagons and oxen. Also plenty of provisions. His wagons were new, and his oxen the best that money could buy. Everything that was needed for the long journey was piled into these two wagons. They had a baby five months old to take care of so grandmother rode all the way. They bought cows so they could have milk and butter on the way. Soren, the oldest boy was given the job of driving the cows all the way across the plains. Other boys in the company had the same responsibility.
So the trek began. The long line of covered wagons bumped over the dusty trail about twenty miles a day. The circle of wagons formed the camp at night. Mary along with a group of boys and girls walked every step of the way except for one half day of illness. The young folks had jolly times along the way and often left the covered wagon train to explore interesting things they saw. They intruded on a swallow sanctuary in an open cave. The birds almost beat them to death before they found a way to climb up the steep banks of the caves and get away. They also went out of their way to climb up Chimney Rock. One time four of them got so far away from the company they didn’t get back when camp was made for the night. They found a ranch house and stopped to ask the way back to the road. The owner gave them each a pint of fresh milk and directed them to the road. They didn’t reach camp until it was very dark. Of course, the parents were worried and the Captain set out to find them. He met the group a short distance from camp and scolded them for causing such trouble. Mary’s father punished her by sending her to bed without food. When her parents were asleep she got up, found the little camp stove, some lard, flower, etc. got her companions and the four of them made hot cakes. The captain ate with them and promised not to tell their parents. However, Mary told her mother about it later. Her father wondered why she wasn’t very hungry that morning. The Captain told him one day his daughter could make good hot cakes.
They had one dry camp. Grandfather’s cow was a leader. She was turned loose. She led the company to a spring of water about three miles farther on. Finally they came to the Platt River. They journeyed along the river until they could cross. They crossed the Green River, passed through Fort Laramie, crossed the Sweetwater, then up through the Rocky Mountains. They went over the steep rough, rugged roads of Echo and Emigration Canyons and out into the Salt Lake Valley. They arrived in Providence, near Logan in 1862. By this time all grandfather’s money was spent. He had helped those who needed help. Now he was penniless as most of the company were. They lived in a Fort for sometime because the Indians were very hostile and very often went on the warpath. They also stole cattle and horses and even white children.
Mary soon made friends with the girls in the Fort. Although she couldn’t speak English, they liked her for her sunny disposition and helpfulness. She hadn’t been in Providence long until she began to study and learn the English language. With the aid of a translation book and a friendly boy named Frank Durfey, she was soon picking out words and sentences. Soon she was reading simple books he brought her. Then more difficult ones until in a surprisingly short time she was reading very well. She was never permitted to go to school in America, but she educated herself by reading everything she could lay her hands on. She was never taught in English and this was a handicap all her life. However, she wrote many beautiful letters to her children although it was difficult for he to do so.
Mary now had to leave the carefree life she had always known and accept responsibilities almost beyond her years. Her mother became afflicted with the Mountain Fever and was very ill for many weeks. Mary took over all the responsibilities of the home without a murmur although she was only eleven years old. In desperation she sold her cherished gold earrings she had brought from Denmark to buy things to make her mother well. She risked her life when she and a friend left the Fort and walked to Logan, to a little store to get them. On the way home, a huge Indian chased them and would have caught them had they not been saved by some men who were hauling hay in a field nearby. They were severely reprimanded for leaving the Fort, but Mary’s mother recovered when she got the medicine to help her.
Mary worked and adjusted herself to her environment very well. As she grew older, she became an excellent spinner. She could knit well too and made many dollars working for various people. She went to Mendon to spin for Peter Sorensen. She stayed for sometime. While she was there, she met Isaac Sorensen, Peter’s brother, whom she later married. Grandmother Poulsen adjusted herself to this new life. Although she had never known hard work in Denmark, she shouldered her tasks without complaint and established a home for her family that was cozy and full of love. She always managed to have something good to eat. Although they were never rich again, they were comfortable and had enough to share with friends and relatives. Grandmother taught the women of the village to sew. She did most of the cutting out of clothes for men, women and children.
The Sorensen’s and Poulsen’s were good friends. Isaac went back to help some of the unfortunate Saints get to Salt Lake. He came back in the same company the Poulsen’s were in. He didn’t pay any attention to Mary at this time, as she was just a child. However, he changed his mind when Mary grew up. Isaac was ten years older than Mary. They were married in November 1869. They settled down in their little log house. It soon took on a homey atmosphere when Mary hung pretty curtains and made rugs for it. It was always very clean. As time went on and the family increased, the house was enlarged. An organ, a sewing machine and a larger stove found their way into her house. As a cook, she was a masterpiece. As a hostess, she could not be surpassed. Everyone felt at ease in her company. Everyone was made welcome.
Eleven children came to this wonderful home. They were all wanted. They were well fed and clothed and given such luxuries as the income would permit. Mary went on serving wherever she could. She rolled up her sleeves and nursed her eleven through all the children’s diseases such as Measles, mumps, Whooping Cough and also Scarlet Fever, Typhoid and Diphtheria without help most of the time. She was a natural born, usually knew just what to do. She helped her relations, neighbors and friends when they had sickness or trouble. Everyone sent for aunt Mary. How often she filled her big market basket with food and took it to someone in need. Her house was open to everyone. Her children stayed home and brought their friends there for entertainment. Chorus practice, band practice, quartette and string instrument rehearsals were all held in the big front room.
She fed all the dignitaries that came to visit the Ward. She also fed and took care of the emigrants from Denmark who were relatives of her husband. Her home was a refuge for anyone who needed care and attention. She worked diligently in the Relief Society. She laid out the dead and gave sympathy and love to the living. She studied the gospel and helped teach it to others. In 1879, her husband went on a mission to Denmark. She was left with five small children, the oldest a boy eleven years of age, the youngest a boy seven months old. Money was scarce and interest high, yet he borrowed enough money at 18% interest to keep him in the mission field two years. Mary struggled on at home making forty pounds of butter a week to sell to keep herself and the children in food and clothing. She milked the cows and did everything else necessary on a farm. These were difficult years but she managed to keep out of debt and keep things going on the farm until her husband returned. It took years to pay back the money but they both had faith enough to do it.
Calm and serene, through joy and sorrow, she never burdened anyone with her troubles. Her words were always gentle. No one ever heard her speak harsh or crude words to anyone. All her life she was busy. Her hands were never idle. She always had something handy to pick up in her spare time. Her education went on throughout her life for she studied and read until her life was finished. Her sons and daughters call her blessed for she set them a good example in thrift and faith in God.
Although many of the last days of her life were shadowed with illness, she had those about her who gave her tender care until the end came. As she had cared for others, so she was cared for. She passed away April 25th, 1935 at the age of 85 at her home in Mendon, Utah.(1)
— Our Mother —
Her life is closed
And we who stay behind
Are looking backward
Seeing only goodness — sweetness
A life complete.
May her words of comfort
And of love
Be with us always.
- Eulalia Sorensen Welch, Life History of Mary Jacobsen Sorensen, 1935, Unpublished typed manuscript.