Writing about the ancestors I share with Mitt Romney

Before I get into the post proper, let me make one last plug for submitting to the Mormon Lit Blitz. With three days to go before the deadline, we’ve already received over a hundred submissions. I recently went and randomly sampled eight: two I didn’t like enough to finish, one I didn’t like but finished anyway, two were pretty good, and three were spectacular. Of the three I loved, one caught me off guard with the taste of a strong spiritual experience you’ve had but can’t seem to bring back, one helped me feel the passing of an era in Intermountain West Mormon family culture, and one made me laugh out loud four or five times in the two or three minutes I spent reading it. After that sneak peak, I’m confident we’ll have six to twelve great finalists: the only question left is whether you’ll be one of them. If you haven’t entered yet, it’s not too late to put together a submission or more: check out our Facebook page, Twitter feed, the YouTube video I made, or my previous writing advice post for more information/motivation/inspiration.

OK. Now on to the main part of today’s post.

My mom is one of Mitt Romney’s many, many second cousins. I don’t know if they’ve ever met: between the Mexican revolution, Great Depression, and the postwar rise of globalization, the last century did a pretty good job of spreading our extended family out. But because of the Mormon emphasis on family memory, the stories of those old days are very much alive in my family and probably also in his. Since they’re pretty interesting, and since people are interested in Romney right now, it seems like a good time to write an essay about them for a national market magazine. I’m just still debating about how.

First, the short version of the genealogical facts:

The most recent ancestor Romney and I share is Helaman Pratt, who was born on the trail west to Utah in 1847 but spent the majority of his life in Mexico, first as a missionary and mission president and then as a colonist and Mexican citizen. Helaman was a son of Parley P. Pratt and descendant of early American troublemakers like Anne Hutchinson. There are a lot of stories, of course, about that line.

We also share other ancestors, though, because two of Helaman Pratt’s three wives were sisters. Romney’s grandma was the daughter of Helaman Pratt’s second wife, Dora Wilcken, and my great-grandpa was the son of his third wife, Bertha Wilcken. They both have interesting life stories. Dora came from Germany to Utah as a little girl in 1860 and taught briefly under Karl G. Maeser as a young adult. She ran a dairy on her own when her husband first went to Mexico and brought the family down to join him when his call to that country was extended “until death should release him.” Bertha was extremely intelligent and spent most of her life teaching, even serving as the only female faculty member at Brigham Young College in Logan. She kept teaching after her marriage and until she was 71 years old, in schools as far south as Mexico City. She died in 1947: in a life sketch she wrote late in life she talked about being proud of her German roots and upset by Hitler’s rise.

Dora and Bertha’s marriages to Helaman Pratt are also an interesting story as far as the polygamy element is concerned: Bertha came to Mexico and married Helaman in 1898 when she was 36 and plural marriage was over in the U.S. part of the church. She doesn’t give the whole story as to why. She does say that Helaman offered to build her a house, but she and her sister preferred to live together in the same house and raise their children together instead and that he “recognized, respected, loved, and esteemed as much as any wife could desire without infringing upon the rights of others.” I know Dora’s sons had all died young and that she loved having Bertha’s in the home: it’s hard to imagine with today’s sensibilities about sex and marriage, but I’ve wondered if she’s the one who suggested the marriage in the first place out a desire to have more children in the home.

Dora and Bertha’s father was Carl Heinrich Wilcken. He was born in 1830 in Schleswig-Holstein and grew up a staunch atheist. He joined a failed 1848 revolt against the area’s then-Danish rulers and, after being drafted into the Danish King’s guard, fled for Brazil [correction 21 Aug 2012--it was actually Argentina]. He didn’t make it to Brazil [Argentina], though, because he lost too much gambling at his first stop in London, so he had to settle for New York City instead. In New York, he lost a series of jobs because of his poor English and finally joined the army–to be specific, Johnston’s army. His disappointment with the caliber of the unit made him decided to desert, though, and after some surprising experiences he became one of the Mormons his army had been sent to subdue. It’s a very different pioneer story than Parley P. Pratt’s.

I’ve also gotten interested in our family histories after the lines diverge. Mitt Romney’s grandpa, Gaskell Romney, married Dora’s daughter Anna and later, after Anna’s death, married her sister Amy. As far as I know, Gaskell and his family never came back to Mexico after the 1912 exodus of the saints from the colonies. My own great-grandpa bounced back and forth: as a college student, he lived in Utah with Gaskell, as a young father he lived first in the colonies than in San Marcos-Tula near Mexico City before coming back up to west Texas and Arizona.

George Wilcken Romney, Mitt’s father, was part of the 1912 exodus and later called the north Mexico saints “the first displaced persons of the 2oth century.” His political career was marked by a strong commitment to civil rights–at about the same time my grandmother (his cousin) was marrying my grandfather over the objections of Arizona state law and raising seven half-Punjabi children in Utah with him, George W. Romney was standing up for the black community in Michigan and then, through HUD, making the federal government’s first attempts to desegregate the suburbs. Both George Romney and my grandmother also served faithfully in the church, Romney helping build the first stake center in the eastern United States since the driving of the Saints from Nauvoo, my grandparents playing an important role in the more recent strong growth of the church in India.

In any case, there are a lot of interesting stories. I just need to figure out how to pick a few and tell them in a way that can reach a broad national-audience interest.

My current thought is to frame the discussion in terms of our families’ complicated relationship with America, the way a long tradition of patriotism has been juxtaposed with American failures to provide justice for all. Parley Pratt was killed by a man who’d pulled a gun on him a few days before in a crowded courthouse and not been charged. Even after the murder, courts refused to press charges on the man who bragged about what he’d done. Carl Wilcken heard American soldiers enthuse about their hopes of wiping out Mormon men and raping Mormon women, but still had to use an assumed name to sneak back through the eastern United States on his way back to Europe to retrieve his own wife and children because of his status as an army deserter. George Romney saw positive economic opportunity stained by prejudice and race riots between white and black group who immigrated in the same period to Michigan. My grandmother’s childhood world straddled the U.S. Mexico border, one which she’s since seen grow increasingly closed and politicized. I might also mention the early mix of more rural, traditional values and lifestyles with surprisingly international, cosmopolitan experience and transnational identity that has been not uncommon among Mormons (esp in our families) since the first missions to Canada in the early, early days of the church.

But that’s not the only way to frame the stories. I could focus instead on the Mormon legacy and what it’s meant in each of the generations Romney’s family has been in the church. I could try to trace a geographical family trajectory from Boston out across the continent and then, in George’s and Mitt’s lifetime, back. Or I could talk about how I probably won’t vote for Romney because, although our shared ancestry has left us with many common values, our subsequent family trajectories have left us on different sides of some political and cultural divides that happen to be prominent now. Or I could focus on the Mexico connections: we also have two more uncles who were mission presidents, multiple connections to two martyred Saints in San Marcos, the whole drama of Pancho Villa’s reversal on attitudes about Americans, etc.

Advice, anyone? If you made it to the end of this blog post, I’m assuming you’re interested in stories like these–but how would you present them to a mainstream sort of market?

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11 Responses to Writing about the ancestors I share with Mitt Romney

  1. Shelah says:

    I’d read it! But of course, my husband’s grandma was a child when her family escaped from Mexico. And my husband has been known to claim cousinship to Mitt too. It looks like you could do a series of essays or historical fiction or a reflective sort of history (a la Simon Winchester).

  2. Wm Morris says:

    I find these stories fascinating, James. What I don’t see yet is a hook for the tie-in to Romney. If the idea is to get something out there somewhat quickly, I would use the notion of displacement and immigration to play off your thoughts on how those two things are intertwined and such strong part of your history (as well as Romney’s) with the LDS Church’s stance on illegal immigration, with the Republican party’s debates over illegal immigration, with Romney’s position on the issue. I would do that in essay form and shop it to the major mags. If you can get it published then that means you have something to point to should you decide to pitch and/or write a book of essays.

  3. James Goldberg says:

    I haven’t read Mitt Romney’s No Apology: the Case for American Greatness but I wondered whether it would be an interesting starting off point. How does his faith in American exceptionalism compare to his ancestors’ mixed experiences with American institutions?

  4. Wm Morris says:

    I haven’t read it either, but I think that question is right on.

  5. Lee Allred says:

    James, I have to chuckle a bit at your relating Carl Heinrich Wilcken’s tale.

    When I wrote my Utah War novella “For the Strength of the Hills,” I very briefly considered having my POV character (an officer in Johnston’s Army not exactly sympathetic with the Mormons, but disgusted with his fellow soldier’s attitudes towards them) convert and join the Mormon side at storey’s end. I quickly rejected that plot twist as being too implausible.

    Truth is stranger than fiction … and doesn’t have to be plausible to be true.

  6. Very interesting genealogy. My wife and I spent the past 20 minutes figuring out if you and she are related. You’re not related… kind of. Jamie’s common ancestor is Miles Park Romney (Gaskell’s Father). However, Jamie’s line comes from Catherine Romney. Gaskell comes from Hannah Hill Romney. My head hurts from all this thinking…

  7. James Goldberg says:


    That is funny. I’ll try to remember to send you a copy of the life sketch he wrote.

  8. James Goldberg says:


    Yeah, I’m from the Pratt side, not the Romney side. Since Helaman Pratt had three wives and Miles Park Romney had like five, there are probably a few hundred second cousins to Mitt Romney. I know there are some still in the colonies even.

  9. Th. says:


    I like your “current idea” best, but it would depend a lot on who you’ll be selling the idea to. Time to start querying and see who bites. You might be able to place more than one version.

  10. Jonathan Langford says:

    I like the notion of finding a way to introduce people to what Romney’s Mormon heritage means in a more historically based, nuanced way than the way it’s played out in the national scene so far. And I can’t help but think that if done right, the time might be ripe for something of that sort.

    In fact, I think that’s the way I would pitch it (and probably the tag I’d use to introduce the essay, too). Something indicating that the Mormon connection, and more specifically the Mormon Romney connection, is about more than just the things everyone talks about, like gay marriage and polygamy and abortion, but that it involves a complex history that plays out in a variety of ways (some of them ironic) that most people are likely to completely miss, but that Mormons — including Romney himself — are doubtless highly aware of. Then go into the whole Mexican colonies thing, American justice, interracial things, displaced persons, etc. In short, rather than take a single one of your points of connection, I think that (for the kind of article it sounds like you’d like to market), I’d try to include each of them — suggesting that each one is a different lens through which Romney’s Mormon heritage might be viewed. In the end, you might be able to wind up giving a more 3-dimensional view of what being Mormon in America means.

    (I’m reminded of my daughter’s experience in her high school history class. They were covering the Reconstruction, including its end in political compromise and re-oppression of Blacks. I suggested that she might way to bring up in class that at the same time, a parallel action was taking place in which the Federal government was going to extremes to persecute a religious minority in ways that today would certainly be considered unconstitutional. The teacher’s response, as best I can recall: “This class isn’t about that.”)

  11. Scott Hales says:

    Great post, James!

    I just did my own random sampling of the Mormon Lit Blitz entries myself, and my experience was also very positive. I can already tell that it’s going to be great contest.

    Right now we have 134 entries from four different countries (not counting Utah), and we’re still a little more than a day away from the deadline. Keep the entries coming! The Kindle wants to have your name on it.

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