Sister Wives Series #8: Serena Torjusdatter Evensen (the 7th wife)

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Tarjer Serine “Serena” Torjusdatter Evensen Gardner (1822–1911)

Part 8 in a series; see the rest of the series here.

“Let us think with pride of our pioneer dead
And follow the exemplary lives they led.”
—Annie Gardner Francis (Serena’s youngest child)

Archibald’s 7th wife, Terjer Serine Torjusdatter Evensen, was born in Risør, Norway, an untamed land surrounded by lakes and hills, fjords and fens, wrapped round with a coastline that had already been an important fishing and shipping port for hundreds of years. Just 40 years prior to Serena’s birth, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote of  Risør in her Letters on Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, remembering, “The view of the town was now extremely fine. A huge rocky mountain stood up behind it, and a vast cliff stretched on each side, forming a semicircle. In a recess of the rocks was a clump of pines, amongst which a steeple rose picturesquely beautiful.” In this rocky coastal town by a brilliant blue sea, Serena bounced into the world as a stout but muscular young girl with striking blue eyes and thick, soft, golden hair. Her father died just before she was born, and her mother, a midwife working perpetually on call, wouldn’t remarry until Serena was five years old. The household was happy in spite of the financial difficulties, and their mother’s livelihood ensured that the children always had rye bread, fish, milk, and potatoes to eat.

Serena was a precocious and adventurous child. A bright student at the top of her class,[1] Serena’s favorite school subject was mathematics, taught by a traveling schoolteacher who  cycled through the families in the community by boarding with them for weeks at a time, giving lessons, and then moving to the next community in the rotation. Even when he wasn’t boarding with her family, Serena tended to follow the schoolteacher from place to place so long as he was within walking distance, thirsty for education and intellectual challenges. When she wasn’t devouring books or working out equations on her slate, Serena could be found at the very top of a tall pine tree near her home, watching ships depart for the North Sea from the harbor. “I wish I were in America,” she would brightly sing from her pine tree perch, until chastised by her mother, who found her vocal yearnings superstitious: “Hush child, your brothers are sailing the sea. . . . There is a witch in your words.”

At 16 years old, Serena ended her schooling to begin work as a maid; there she met Captain Henrik Evensen, a smart and successful sea captain, eight years older than Serena. The pair were well matched intellectually; at 26 and 18 years old, Serena and Henrik were happily married and moved into a pretty little home on the mountainside. They had five children in quick succession (three boys and two girls): Torjus Garr (who would pass away at age 6), Helen Regina, Even, Tomine Marie, and Erastus.

In 1852, Serena and Henrik were converted to Mormonism by Elder Johan A. Ahmanson. Serena was the first Norwegian woman to be baptized into the Church. She was heavily pregnant at the time and gave birth their son Erastus just five days later. Henrik was ordained a priest on the same day as his baptism, and Henrik and Serena were eventually sealed together for time and all eternity.

Unfortunately, in December 1852, after 12 years of marriage, a week before the family intended to leave Norway to join the Saints in America, Henrik was lost at sea.[2] All that was ever recovered of his body was a vest and his watch and chain—a chain made from Serena’s own braided silken blonde hair, fastened with gold bands. Serena kept this watch and chain until her death, treasuring it even after she was sealed to Archibald.

Newly widowed and accused by her family of insanity for joining an unpopular and strange religious sect, Serena began selling all of her possessions and preparing to leave for America with her remaining four children. In the dead of winter, 1854, Serena, Helen, Even, Tomine, and Erastus trudged through deep snow to board the boat that would take the family to Copenhagen, where they would take a steamship with other Scandinavian Saints to Kiel, Germany. The Saints would then travel by rail from Kiel to Gluckstadt, followed by a ship to Hull, England, then travel by rail again to cross England and arrive in Liverpool on December 28. In Liverpool, the Saints intended to embark on the “Benjamin Adams,” a fully rigged, three-decked ship that would take them across the Atlantic to America. The last image Serena had of her beloved Norway was the silhouette of her mother against a six foot wall of cold white snow, weeping, wringing her hands, and waving goodbye.

En route to England, the ship sprung a leak, filling the floors of the passengers’ quarters with seawater. Serena calmly pulled her children onto her bed to keep them dry and soothed them by singing hymns of Zion. Terrified passengers called her crazy and foolish for singing cheerfully in the middle of the panicked roar around them. In reply Serena purportedly answered, “If there is anything to my religion, there is everything. I am not afraid; and anyway, what good do you people do running around getting in the way of each other?” Such was the stalwart Serena—fearless and plucky and indestructible.

In Liverpool, Elder Hans Peter Olsen gathered the Scandinavian Saints boarding the Benjamin Adams. Persecution met the Saints there, and Serena had difficulty finding lodgings for herself and her young children, in spite of the winter blizzards. Sickness had broken out among the Mormons in Liverpool, killing 22 children and two adults; doctors examining the Saints heading west declared an additional 15 unfit for the voyage. Serena and her children, however, made it on board.[3] The journey across the ocean took 53 days, in which time the passengers saw nine marriages, two births, and eight deaths, including Serena’s little three-year-old daughter, Tomine Marie. They wrapped little Marie’s body in a sheet tied down with weights and dropped the precious package overboard in the middle of the ocean. (I am struck numb with the thought of leaving the body of a three-year-old daughter—her baby chubbiness having only just begun to melt into the leanness of young childhood—in the middle of restless, merciless, endless dark water. My breath catches and I can’t fathom it.)

10 weeks after leaving Liverpool, the Benjamin Adams sailed into the mouth of the Mississippi River, where it pushed along for another week of navigation through thick fog, then docked at New Orleans in late March. Serena’s first experience in America was keeping a careful watch over her remaining possessions as thieves attempted to board the ship to pilfer the Europeans’ belongings. Once on shore, the Saints were shocked to witness black slaves being sold at a market for as cheap as $25 (Denmark and Norway had declared the slave trade illegal as early as 1803). Many of the Saints, Serena included, could not speak English. Then, as the Scandinavian Saints took steamboats toward the open plains leading to the Salt Lake Valley, a cholera outbreak took the lives of an additional overwhelming number of faithful immigrants. Of the 700 Scandinavian Saints that had come to America that year, only 500 would actually reach the Salt Lake valley, and most of the hundreds of those who died would be buried without coffins along the trail.

Joseph Evans, a Welsh convert who, like Serena, traveled from New Orleans to Missouri, recorded memories of small crowded steamboats “puffing and snorting and pushing hard against the stream.” Evans complains of the dirty water the Saints subsisted on, and the “rackety noyes” made up from the shouts of the steamboat captain, the water splashing, the bands playing, the passengers singing, the sisters washing, the sailors talking and smoking, and the babies crying—“all of us trying to do something and the boat a tuging and snorting when traveling up the Missouri river also the Mississippi.” Leaving the life on the water was a welcome change of pace for the Saints, wrote Evans:

“Indeed it was a great site to us to see such forest of timber and land. What a wonderfull stream this is—going in such a force, takeing down some very larg logs. They some times strike the boat with tremendous blows, but we got through all right. We got to St Louis about the 10th of April 1854. And we was glad to get there. But what a dirty looking place this is to be shure.”

In St Louis, the Scandinavian Saints from both the Benjamin Adams and the Jesse Munn ships reunited and, still under the leadership of Hans Peter Olsen, a company of 69 wagons (each wagon equipped with four oxen and two cows) were organized to make the journey west. Serena realized that she had more goods than she could carry in her wagon and promptly parted with feather beds, down quilts, and other valuables and comforts she had brought with her from Norway.

Serena walked most of the way; her youngest child, Erastus, was only six months old, and Serena carried him nearly the entire journey. On an especially hot and tiring day, Serena placed baby Erastus into the wagon while he napped. Before the baby had woken, Serena’s wagon slipped into a deep mud hole, tipping the wagon over and onto the baby who had landed in the mud. With aching, terrible, heart-bursting patience, Serena clutched her hands and waited for the wagon to be moved by several men in the company. I can’t imagine this part. I can’t understand what thoughts must have sprung to Serena’s faithful soul when the wagon was removed and she saw her lifeless six-month-old baby buried in black mud. His open mouth was filled with mud. Mud sealed shut his eyes and clogged his ears. He was unconscious, not breathing, and his little body was blue beneath the dark mud.

Serena watched as members of the company surrounded her baby, trying desperately to extract the mud, pound breath back into the child, restore his life. Nothing worked. Serena gathered up baby Erastus and nursed over him for hours (one account even says for 24 hours)—stroking him, cleaning him, holding him in different positions, massaging him, praying over him. Then, to the great wonder of the entire company, the baby in Serena’s arms finally—miraculously—astoundingly—took in a deep rattling breath and awoke to life once more. Erastus Evenson returned to health; he lived to be 71 years old.[4]

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Serena’s son, Erastus

When Serena arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in October 1854, she was penniless and beautiful. Her yellow braids reached her knees (when on the trail a Native American chieftain offered her ten dollars worth of gold for one of her braids, she refused). Various families offered Serena and her family places to stay temporarily, and Serena worked hard at spinning yarn and weaving it into cloth in order to pay back for these kindnesses. Brother Thomas Wimmer, one of the men to provide Serena’s family with lodging, was so touched by her industriousness and kindness that he proposed marriage to her, but she declined.

Serena preferred to struggle out a mean livelihood on her own. In spite of her determination and vigor, however, she could not make ends meet. One winter morning, just after she had run out of food, she opened the front door to find a large sack of flour on her doorstep with large, deep boot prints leading away from her house in the snow. On other occasions, she would see her wood supply mysteriously replenished with a fresh pile of logs in her yard. Serena asked her neighbors who her charitable elf was that kept coming to her rescue, and they disclosed to her that the boot prints belonged to the Scottish gristmiller, Archibald Gardner, a “friend of the needy.” Serena went to Archie directly to give him her thanks, and their friendship quickly grew into affection and love.

43-year-old Archie married Serena on November 10, 1856, three-and-a-half years after marrying his sixth wife, Jane Park. These were the ages of Archibald’s wives on the day he married Serena:

  • 1st wife, Margaret—38 years old
  • 2nd wife, Abigail—43 years old
  • 3rd wife, Mary Ann—25 years old
  • 4th wife, Big Liz—24 years old
  • 5th wife, Laura Althea—22 years old
  • 6th wife, Jane—22 years old
  • 7th wife, Serena—34 years old

Serena lived in Mill Creek near Archibald’s much younger 5th wife, the schoolteacher, Laura Althea. Althea welcomed Serena into her schoolhouse of children and gave her sister-wife English language lessons. Though Serena’s English was never perfect, Althea taught her to read English effectively, a talent for which the studious Serena was forever grateful.

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Archie and Serena’s twins, Serenus and Serena

In addition to the children she had with her first husband, Henrik, Serena and Archibald had four more children: Henry, Serenus and Serena (twins),[5] and Annie. Serena’s eldest daughter, Regina, would marry Archibald’s eldest son, Margaret’s Neil. Serena followed the newlywed couple to Spanish Fork in order to be closer to Regina, and the mother and daughter would create a well trodden path between their two homes.

Until she was 75 years old, Serena made butter and raised chickens, then walked 2.5 miles into town with her basket of eggs and butter. Her home was always open to families in need, immigrants, orphans—anyone in need of a safe, peaceful place of refuge. Archibald used to claim that Serena invented the Primary program for the Church, because she used to gather small children together in the early days of Spanish Fork, settling them around a

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Serena and Henrik’s daughter, Regina, who married Archibald and Margaret’s son, Neil

sagebrush fire and telling them Bible stories and Church history stories, singing the hymns of Zion with the same strong voice she had used to lull her children to peace when their ship was going was under on the passage out of Norway. When she got old and her eyesight weakened, she asked visitors to read her books of scripture to her. She passed away at 88 years old, after a huge and adventurous life. She knew as a little girl from the top of that pine tree that her life would be grand and challenging. She never regretted following her faith from the Norwegian fjords to the Utah desert canyons. As far as I can tell, she is still sealed to both Archibald and Henrik.

Sources consulted:

[1] The priest at Reisor who distributed final examinations to the local pupils remarked, “The city girls have their knowledge in their feet, but Serena has it in her head.” Serena scored higher than the rest of her age group on the examination prior to her confirmation.

[2] One account records that Henrik drowned “within sight of his home.”

[3] Family records disagree a bit on this. The death of Serena’s daughter is recorded on the passenger manifests of the Benjamin Adams, but Serena’s daughters recall the name of the ship as the “Jesse Munn.” It’s possible that Serena was one of the fifteen Saints deemed too sick for the voyage, so she traveled across the ocean on the next vessel once her health returned. The most credible sources conclude that Serena and her family did indeed travel on the Benjamin Adams, however.

[4] Not only did Erastus live to be 71 years old, but he spent nearly his entire life living with his mother. He did not marry until six years after Serena passed away, at the age of 65, though the marriage would end in divorce a short time later. Serena never lived alone because she always had the companionship of Erastus.

[5] An interesting aside: Serena’s twins were delivered by Aunt Venus, a blake slave midwife owned by John Hardison Redd, a Mormon convert from the South who brought his slaves with him to Utah. In the 1850 census, Venus is listed as “black” and her children as “yellow.” After Redd died in 1858, Venus stayed with his family and considered herself Mormon. Venus sang in the church choir and attended every Sunday service. When she found that she could not attend the temple because she was black, she responded by scratching her arm until it bled, declaring, “See! My blood is as white as anyone’s.” Family Search records that on October 6, 1992, she was sealed by proxy to John Redd as his wife in the Provo Temple. In August 2006, Venus was also sealed to another female slave, Chaney, in the Spokane Washington Temple. You can read more about Venus’s story and other proxy marriages for black Mormon pioneers in this interesting Slate article: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/faithbased/2012/03/sally_hemings_mormon_and_married_to_jefferson_proxy_sealings_raise_difficult_questions_for_lds_church_.html

Comments

  1. What a fantastic story.

    It seems to me that boat travel around St. Orleans was significantly more dangerous than even traveling by handcart; I have pioneers ancestors who traveled on boats where more than a quarter of people on board died of cholera.

  2. Wonderfully done. She sounds like an absolutely amazing woman.

  3. I’m in tears reading of this woman’s spirit. Thanks Emily.

  4. Wow, what a life! Thanks for telling her story.

  5. Thanks. Both the writing and the life.

  6. Shannon Francis Clegg says:

    Serena was my great great grandmother. Annie Gardner Francis was my great grandmother. I had always been told that Brigham Young asked Archie to marry and care for her. I always felt bad that she lost the love of her life in Norway. It was refreshing to read this perspective of her “courtship” and more affectionate relationship with Archie. She was an amazing stalwart woman!

  7. Wonderful!

    I’ve been wondering how the Gardner family tied in to the story of the Utah African American slaves. I knew it did somewhere, but never went and looked at my files, so this answered my question. The memory of Venus delivering the Gardner twins is one of the few personal memories remaining about her. It was good of Serena’s family to remember her and confirm that she was a midwife. A footnote to footnote 5: the temple story is unfortunately highly unreliable. In other words, I wish it were true, but there is little chance that it is. Venus and her sister Chaney were baptized by John D. Lee in Tennessee (1843) and re-baptized in Spanish Fork, Utah (1852), so yes, they were members of the Church, along with Chaney’s daughters Amy and Marinda and Marinda’s husband Alex Bankhead.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    I found it interesting that she was sealed to two men in life, something that is not allowed these days.

  9. Kevin, I have been a bit unsuccessful in getting precise details on Serena’s sealings. It’s recorded in multiple places that she was sealed to Henrik, but I’m guessing the sealing took place after she arrived in Salt Lake (after Henrik’s death), since there wouldn’t have been any other church-sanctioned locations for a sealing to take place. I have not seen any mention that she needed to cancel her sealing with Henrik in order to get sealed to Archibald, but that might have happened. I’m wondering if I can check her temple records at an LDS family history center.

    Amy T, thank you for the edit! I’m so excited to hear more about Venus. Also, could you clarify which part of the footnote is inaccurate, so I can fix it in the post? Are you referring to the story about when Venus scratched her arm to show her blood or the part about Venus being sealed to John Redd after they had both died? I’m so glad you commented, and thanks for reading.

    Shannon, that’s wonderful that you come from Annie! And I agree—I like hearing these details of their courtship/friendship. I am still uncomfortable with the polygamous aspect of their relationship (though Serena does not seem to have ever been troubled by this), but I admit that I am softened by the picture of Archibald’s big boot prints in the snow outside Serena’s house. There is something touching about it.

  10. Heart-warming.
    Also, enlightening.
    Gardner served Serena and then married her.
    She didn’t design to marry him.
    But it was the beginning.

    My modern bias will show here.
    But this explains why people in church are troubled when a married man helps a single woman. Why I avoided asking for help from a married man at all costs. The legacy of polygamy– an undercurrent of fear on the part of the wife that the husband would help me, feel sorry for me, and secretly want to protect me by making me another wife. So sick and insulting to all involved but once that was communicated to me in words, I stayed far away from it. Serena’s relationship with Gardner sounds almost romantic and sweet…if you leave out the fact that he had six other wives and numerous children.

    I try to wrap my head around it, since it seems the purpose of posts like these is to celebrate the goodness, not dwell on the bad. But it’s hard. I feel a traitor to the other wives by romanticized the Serena-Gardner union in my mind.

  11. Dear glasscluster, I am right there with you, feeling a lot of those feels.

    The purpose of these posts is to celebrate these women, but I think acknowledging the heartbreak and difficulty and scariness of these stories should be part of the storytelling and the attempt to step into these women’s shoes, as futile as that attempt may be considering the lack of their voices and the dominance of our own 2016 perspectives. I’m still wrapping my own mind around how to consider each of these women equally—how to remember that all of these separate narratives were happening at the same time, with their husband as just one man. I can’t imagine what anxiety Archibald must have felt in giving each woman an equally full share of his love. (I hope he felt that anxiety, anyway.)

    Your observation about the church’s cultural fear of married men associating with single women is a connection I haven’t made before, and it makes sense. It’s another evidence of the ghost of polygamy that continues to haunt.

  12. Ronald G Francis says:

    Serena is my great grandmother through daughter, Annie. The story was well-written and researched and I enjoyed reading it and hope to share it with my children. My sister JoAnn Francis Phillips has visited Serena’s homeland in Norway and has located some of her relatives there.

  13. The story about her blood being the same color. That story and many others like it came from the mythologizing and reinvention of the history of slavery in Utah Territory by the slave owners’ descendants. The reinvention began as early as the 1910s but happened mostly around the mid-20th century. Since the story about Venus and the temple is part of that reinvented history, it’s impossible to confirm it, and there are many reasons to disbelieve it.

    Is there anything similar in the family histories about plural marriage? I think, more than anything, the descendants writing in that era may have wanted to pretend it didn’t happen. See, for example, Richardson’s Life and Ministry of John Morgan (1965). If you didn’t read the book very carefully, you might not realize John Morgan had three wives.

    Oh, and, yes, JHRedd’s slaves have been sealed to him, many times. The article you include is a good summary of the difficulties associated with that practice.

  14. Melanie Taylor says:

    I loved reading this story of my strong, faithful and beautiful great great Grandmother. Annie was my great grandmother and I am so proud of my posterity. Thank you so much for this story

  15. I haven’t been commenting on each part, but am reading and loving each one. How is it possible that they keep getting better and better??

  16. Thank you so much for this. I’m a great, great, great grandson of Serena (through Serenus). I’d heard some of these stories before but not all.

  17. Nauvoo Legionnaire says:

    This was a very touching post. It appears that Serena was aboard the same ship that carried my grandfather and his family to the United States. Out of seven members of the family, all but two died of the cholera after passing through from New Orleans and up the Mississippi. Reading his journals I can feel his grief as he buries his father, mother, and his siblings one by one along the banks of the Mississippi River; he has to weigh down the bodies of his loved-ones with stones as their graves tend to fill up with water being so close to the river.

    Reading about little Marie’s death filled me with sorrow.

    These Saints from Scandinavia are often neglected in our study of early Mormon Pioneers. Thank you for sharing their legacy.

  18. Nauvoo Legionnaire, I am so humbled hearing about your grandfather’s losses. I had never heard of the cholera epidemic among the early Scandinavian Saints until researching for this blog post—I cannot comprehend the devastation or the enduring faith of these brave truth-seekers.