Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Happy 174th Birthday, Maren Borglum Hegsted (1837-1902)!

Gawain Wells' great-grandmother

Maren (Mary in America) Hegsted was a Danish dressmaker who left family and home for the gospel.  She enjoyed living in polygamy, which makes her quite an enigma to me.  And she is our connection to Mount Rushmore.
If anyone has a better copy of this picture, I want it!

Mary was third of seven Lutheran children raised in Denmark, and her father was a carpenter.  At age eighteen, she went to Copenhagen to learn dressmaking, tailoring, and glove making.  There on the way to a dance, she heard a Mormon missionary preach.  She was surprised at the power of his words since her father and priest had warned her about this evil faith, and when the meeting was over, she handed one of the girls the bag, which contained her dancing slippers, telling her that she would never dance again.  “Why Mary, surely you haven’t turned Mormon already?”  “Yes,” she replied, “I believe every word those men said and I will never dance again.”  (Fortunately that was not true, five years later her husband noted in his journal that they danced after a meeting was over.)  Mary sat up all night reading the scriptures, where she found that every page was illuminated with a bright light and a spirit of understanding was with her to interpret every page she read. 

Baptized a few days later, she came home to share her new faith with her horrified parents.  Her father thought his sensible daughter wouldn’t stay LDS, and sent the Lutheran priest to reason with her when his arguments were in vain.  She countered every scripture and her father cried bitterly, “O Mary, if I only could have buried you on yonder hill before you brought such disgrace on our family.”  She refused to deny her new faith and left her childhood home forever.  Her mother ran after her and called, “Mary, if you know you have the truth, never deny it.” 

Maren's nephew, sculptor Gutzon Borglum
Mary moved in with her cousin in Copenhagen to help care for an invalid daughter, and the cousin confined her for six months in order to make her forget her new religion.  Mary was allowed to speak with her brother through a half-open window, and converted him (he became the father of Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of Mount Rushmore, but later apostatized in Utah).  Mary completed her dressmaking course and planned to open her own shop, but married fellow convert Hans Hegsted instead after a two-year engagement.   Hans and Mary were involved in missionary activities together in Denmark, and a Utah missionary taught her enough English that she could read and speak before going to America.  Her later life history indicates how comfortable she eventually felt in her new language: it was written in English, but some spellings show her Danish heritage and pronunciation: “trea times” for three times, and “a girl of that atge was able to Vork all the time whidout being eni burden to her parents.”

Leaving for Zion also meant leaving loved ones behind.  The Hegsteds had taken in a foster daughter Cathrine Vilhemine, known as Mine, born illegitimately to a Church member they knew in 1853.  Police took her away from them, and the Hegsteds were petitioning the king for her return shortly before immigrating to Zion.  Their toddler son Victor August was killed in an accident (one account says by a runaway horse wagon, another that he fell from a second story window) just a month before immigrating to Zion.  Mary gave birth to another boy five days after his death, since the shock sent her into early labor, and they named the new son Victor Charles. The ship experience included much sickness and poor sanitation: all children of the company on board ship died of measles except Victor and one other. Two dressmaker friends of Mary’s came with them, and one later became Hans’ plural wife.
Hegsteds with some of their children--we all love the expression on the boy on the right!
Mary sold clothes and her gold watch for part of the wagon fare west.  In Nebraska, Mary parted with some fine clothes and her silk umbrella to buy flour. On the journey whenever the women were near a stream of water, they would dip their hems to make them heavy so they wouldn’t blow and show their ankles.  Mary nursed her baby (two weeks old when they left and seven months old when they arrived), walking nearly all the way to Utah barefoot and carrying her shoes so she could be “respectable” when they arrived in the valley.  The wagon train had Indian trouble: several brethren were injured and two women kidnapped and never recovered.  Due to lice in camp they had to change their clothes twice daily, and their group had to be rescued on the plains of Wyoming by provisions from Utah.

The first winter in Utah, the Hegsteds rented a room from a widow, and the only fruit they had was what clung to the peach pits she gave them (they returned the pits for fuel). Hans brought a sack of potatoes home for Mary’s birthday present, which were the first they’d tasted for months.  Hans and Mary were rebaptized in City Creek in January, and then sealed in the Endowment House.  In the spring, they moved north to Huntsville, and while crossing the river, the wagon was upset and all nearly drowned.  The family lived the summer in a dugout, and every minute that could be spared was spent making adobe bricks for the house.

Mary traded her cashmere shawl to keep them through the winter, and one man bought her brown woolen dress with white polka dots (which became his wife’s best dress for many years) for ten acres of land.  Mary sewed dresses from sheets she’d dyed brown, and earned many sacks of flour through her sewing.  She served as Relief Society president for over a decade, was in charge of the wheat granary and also raised enough silk from silkworms to make a large silk handkerchief.  Eight more children were born in America (her son Jacob’s deafness was an especial burden), and Mary also helped raise the five children left motherless when her sister-wife died young.  Despite her husband’s stint in jail, Mary said about polygamy: “It’s the only way I would want to live, especially if father could get the same wives.”

The Hegsteds settled in Idaho, where Mary nursed her ailing husband for many years.  She took a trip to Oregon in 1898 to visit her daughter there.  Hans gave Mary a lovely tribute: when she was a new bride in 1862, he wrote in his journal, “All was well with my wife—she is a very good housekeeper, a true servant of the Lord, and a great joy to me.”

For her birthday, I would give her a fancy new sewing machine!


  1. Wow, Anita! Great work with all of these entries!

  2. I would give her all the unused fabric I have stored in my basement and I would knit her a brand new cashmere shawl.

  3. That was INCREDIBLE I can't believe the luxuries that we enjoy. I should never complain again...EVER. I would get her a red velvet cake from Costco and a new pair of dancing slippers.

  4. She definitely needs a good photo shoot with her family...that one is painful.