Monday, March 3, 2014

Was John W. Wilson Memphis Tennessee's first convert?

For some reason, we tend to like stories about firsts. Who was the first to do this? or the first to do that? I am certain there were other firsts for Memphis; The first LDS Missionary to preach there? Wilford Woodruff. The first LDS child of record? Moroni Woodruff Alexander (born in 1837). Perhaps there were converts in Memphis in 1840 and 1841 when Elders Head and Paden baptized "several" in Shelby County and formed a branch, though I have yet to identify any of their names. In fact, despite several visits from missionaries both before and after the Civil War, there was precious little preaching done in the city. That was, until November 1899. Elders Madsen and Fisher were assigned as the first to preach in Memphis in perhaps 60 years. It was August 1900 before the first baptism was recorded. Elder Perkins performed the baptism and Elder Fisher the confirmation. The convert was a 34 year old man named John Wilson.

As I read the name in one of the photocopied log books I have collected, I sighed a little in frustration. John Wilson?!! How am I going to sort that name out of the hundreds with names just like him. Yes, I have a birth date. And I have some other key data points but based on my other stories of the Church in Memphis, his name is never mentioned again. Would he be like so many other converts, baptized one day and gone the next?

I was lucky on one count. His baptism date was very close to the census date. Chances were that he would have been in Memphis for the Census a couple months earlier. And indeed he was. John Wilson, born in 1865 in Kentucky. No one else even came close. But he wasn't in the 1910 census. Not in Memphis, not anywhere. And the record gave a clue as to why. He was a railroad postal clerk living in a house full of single men all with the same job. I'm no expert of turn of the century labor market, but I felt like this was fleeting at best. I'd be lucky to track him anywhere.

Usually at this point I give the user submitted pedigrees a look. If his descendants remained in the Church they might have submitted something. But a note in his baptismal log book said "Lost Reptd Topt 09. Texas" Although I wasn't sure what that meant, I felt that he probably didn't stay in the Church. So instead of Family Search, I thought I would check Find a grave.

Surprisingly, there he was. In El Paso Texas, right birthdate and place, right next to his wife. But the best of all, their marriage date 17 May 1905 in Salt Lake City. Maybe I was too quick to discount the user submitted pedigrees.

A few steps later I had not just several more details from his life I had an explanation for why I couldn't find him in 1910. Shortly after his baptism, for some unknown reason, he made his way Colonia Juarez, one of the Mormon Colonies in Mexico. There he met 26 year old Charlotte Butler. It was Charlotte's biographer who picked up the story from there. Charlotte's parents had both died earlier that year, and as the oldest she felt it was her responsibility to care for her orphaned siblings. She moved from Richfield, Utah where she had been teaching school, and took a job at the Juarez Stake Academy. "A few months after arriving in Mexico, she met John W. Wilson, a convert to the church from Memphis, Tennessee." Which explained a little bit about how they met, but not quite enough.

Eventually (17 Mar 1905) they married in the Salt Lake.Temple and returned to Mexico to start their family. They suffered bandits and kidnapping before finally resettling in El Paso, Texas in 1915. John died from a heart attack on 21 September 1952.  Charlotte, already having broken her hip, had a series of strokes leaving her unable to care for herself. She spent the next 10 years under her daughter's care in Arizona. After she passed away on 31 March 1962, she was buried next to John in El Paso.


Ardis said...

I love these combination detective/faith stories!

BruceAllen said...

Thanks Ardis.

Unknown said...

The daughter that took care of Charlotte Elizabeth was my Grandma, Ruth Dana. I loved reading what info you have, and that he may have been the first! I was wondering where you got Charlotte's Biography? I would love to get a copy. I also thought you'd be interested in the fact that I have John's conversion story. I just uploaded it to Family Search :) I also have many of their family letters.

BruceAllen said...

That is really cool. Having someone related to one of the people I write about provide more information is very exciting.

Send me an email [] and I'll send you a link to Charlotte's bio. I'd also love to put his conversion story here on blog, if you are OK with that.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much! I would love that :)