Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Happy 161st Birthday, Mary Sorensen (1850-1935)!

John Welch's grandmother

Mary is our Wiking, with fabulous pioneer stories about clandestine pancakes, selling earrings to save her mother's life, escaping Indians, and a dance--read on!

Mary grew up with one older brother and several younger half-siblings in prosperous circumstances, with fond memories of the Danish island farm of her early years.  She would not have remembered her biological father, who died when she was a baby, but was raised by a kind stepfather, Christian Poulsen.  Mary was a good student and a great reader, enjoying the History of Denmark at an early age.  She learned to do fancy embroidery attending a Dames School and brought an alphabet sampler she had started in Denmark with her on the pioneer journey.   This is in the possession of Ann Pearson.

After local persecution following the Poulsen family’s LDS conversion, they made preparations to go to Utah.  A whale followed their ship for many days, but illness and storms troubled the travelers.  Once the ship tipped all the way onto its side and the heavy cloth sails were soaked.  Mary’s childhood adventures on the trail included a Chimney Rock climb, where they saw the wagon train pass below them and were then scolded for missing dinner, but clandestinely made pancakes on the banks of the river.  Mary’s parents had equipped each family member well before emigrating, and she wore out all of her five pairs of shoes as she walked every step of the Mormon trail.To alleviate her mother’s illness in Utah, Mary sold some cherished earrings to a neighbor for four dollars, and then walked with a friend many miles to buy coffee beans and sugar.  Two Indians followed them threateningly out of the store, and a man rescued the girls in his wagon.  Mary would later feel a twinge of regret seeing the neighbor in her earrings, but recalled that it did not matter if it saved her mother’s life. 

Isaac & Mary
Mary loved to read, and learned English from borrowed books, but had no further formal educational opportunities in Utah as she was needed to run the household and help support the family.  Mary earned money traveling around the community to spin wool and flax.  She met her husband Isaacwhile spinning at his brother Peter’s house, and they must have been excited to discover that they had traveled in the same pioneer company seven years earlier!   After her marriage, she became Mary I. Sorensen: to differentiate between the many Mary Sorensens in Mendon, the wife took the husband’s first name as her middle initial.

Mary could not agree with the idea of polygamy, and Isaac had been urged by the Brethren to take another wife.  One evening he went to a Church dance, leaving Mary at home with three small children.  She got ready herself, went to the dance, and left the babies on a bench at the edge of the dance floor.  She was asked to dance again and again, and paid no attention to the babies wailing on the side.  Finally, Isaac could stand it no longer and said, “Mary, will you go home with me?”  They gathered up their children, went home, and that was the end of that. 

Isaac served a two-year mission to Denmark when they had five young children (six more born afterwards), and in his absence Mary ran the farm and made and sold forty pounds of butter a week to survive.  Mary served as Relief Society president for twelve years, and helped nurse sick neighbors and lay out the dead.   Many called her “Aunt Mary.”  The Sorensens lived in the same house all their married life, a community gathering place, haven for visiting Brethren, refuge for immigrants, and place for musical rehearsals.  Their golden anniversary in 1920 was celebrated with a community program and Isaac (age eighty) and Mary (age seventy) danced the entire evening and enjoyed themselves very much.  Online biographies of her and the Sorensen family can be found here

Mary was calm, gentle, never idle, and always faithful.  She constantly had a book and handwork nearby.  Her daughter Eulalia said that Mary thrived on crowds and noise.  Her big soft white sugar cookies were a family favorite.  She often stayed up late sewing costumes for children, and loved to read about the ancient Norsemen.  The Danish thread on her childhood sampler stayed bright while the American-bought thread used at the end faded—symbolic of how Mary’s Danish heritage stayed bright all through her life in America.  She thought there was nothing finer than to be a Dane.  Straight as an arrow, though only five feet tall, Mary would square her shoulders, her blue eyes shining, and say to her grandchildren, “Always remember, ve is wikings, and ve don’t cry!”

I would get her a Viking hat!  Enjoy a sugar cookie for her today.


  1. I'd give her an opportunity for formal education.

  2. I really see my aunt Edith in her face!

  3. what a lady! "never idle" ... sounds like some of her descendants! i'd give her lots and lots of pairs of earrings :)