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, 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. 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. 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.
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.
In addition to the children she had with her first husband, Henrik, Serena and Archibald had four more children: Henry, Serenus and Serena (twins), 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
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.
- Crandell, Jill N. “Serena Evensen Gardner: Photo.” The Archibald Gardner Family, 25 Sept 2011, http://archibaldgardnerfamily.blogspot.com/2011/09/serena-evensen-gardner-photo.html
- Gardner, Milo. “Serena’s Trek West.” 22 Mar 2007, http://serenatrekwest.blogspot.com
- Hughes, Delila Gardner. The Life of Archibald Gardner. 2nd ed. Draper, UT: Review and Preview Publishers, 1970.
- Mueller, Max Perry. “Hemings and Jefferson Together Forever? Troubling Cases of Mormon ‘Proxy Sealing.’” Slate, 29 Mar 2012, 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
- “Risør.” Wikipedia, 11 July 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risør
- “Serena Torjusdatter Evensen Gardner.” Maintained by Bronson Gardner, 2005. FindaGrave, http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=11924117
- “Ship Benjamin Adams, 1852–1866, Liverpool to New York, 1853.” We Relate, 1 Dec 2013, http://www.werelate.org/wiki/Ship_Benjamin_Adams,_1852-1866,_Liverpool_to_New_York,_1853
 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.
 One account records that Henrik drowned “within sight of his home.”
 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.
 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.
 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