Saturday, June 6, 2020 -
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Imagining the past

Miriam Harris, ca. 1870s

I bet there’s crossover between people who like both mysteries and genealogy. Tracing one’s past contains an element of suspense: Whom did he marry? Where did she live? Why did they move? Facts like addresses or wedding dates allow us to create an image in our minds, but unlike mystery novels, our own family stories often remain elusive.

I thought of this when I recently visited Trinidad, where my great-great grandfather, John Harris, lived. Harris’ wife died in 1879, leaving behind many children, the youngest of whom were sent to live in the Cleveland Orphan’s Home. One by one, as they came of majority, they were sent to Trinidad to join their father (well, except for the one who was sent down to live with a married sister).

John and his wife Miriam (pictured) came to the US from England in the 1850s or ‘60s, making their way from New York to Ohio and to Missouri, where Miriam passed away in childbirth. I have constructed in my mind the story of a young, adventurous couple with their eyes set on the West. I imagine that John, after Miriam’s untimely passing, continued on the journey alone, until he reached his ultimate destination: Colorado.

Is this true? Truth be told, I have no idea. Perhaps they simply moved where job opportunities arose. But I prefer my “Manifest Destiny” version.

In Trinidad, I stopped at Temple Aaron, where John’s daughter Lily (Leah) may have been married in 1889. She would have been one of the first as the temple was founded that year. Nevertheless, it was remarkable to step on the same ground my ancestors did over a century ago.

Over the years I have managed to piece together bits of information: dates of release from the orphanage; birth certificates; ship manifests. But the story largely remains a mystery. Genealogy will never provide the thoughts, wishes and hopes of one’s antecedents. That’s unsolvable, in the absence of other documents, such as diaries or letters. It doesn’t stop this mystery reader from trying, however.

Shana Goldberg may be reached at

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Shana Goldberg

IJN Assistant Publisher |

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