The William Gilbert Burton Odyssey

Part 1: What to Look for and How to Find It

By David G. Burton, great-great-grandson of William Gilbert Burton

William Gilbert Burton

William Gilbert Burton was the patriarch of the family, an immigrant who came to Utah in the last pioneer wagon train from England. He had had six daughters and four sons.

In 1997 I started trying to do some genealogy for the first time in my life by entering my family history on the computer. I felt motivated to do it after seeing The Civil War PBS TV series that included an inspirational letter from a soldier named Sullivan Ballou, who died in the first battle of that war. But I never really knew what I was supposed to do. The impressions to do genealogy got stronger. I went to the genealogy library more often, learned a few things and looked at a few things. But for the most part I just wandered around, not knowing what I was supposed to do or how to do it.

Up to that point I had thought of people of bygone generations as different from us somehow—not caring about the things we care about, not valuing life as much as we value life. But after watching that television show, I knew that was wrong. I wanted to know more about these courageous people.

The next week I went to the Family History Library by Temple Square in Salt Lake City and started looking for books on Sullivan Ballou. Someone asked if I needed help, and I mentioned the television show. They told me a lady named Betty Babcock had been doing some genealogy for the Ballou family and introduced me to her. She said she had some Ballou names ready and invited me to join her and her family in a temple session for the Ballou family. Several weeks later, my wife and I served as proxies for members of the Ballou family.

I visited the Family History Library several more times, still not knowing what I was looking for or how to find it. In January I signed up for the genealogy class in my ward. It had an excellent teacher, George Wilkins. I learned how to find things, but I grew more frustrated because I still didn’t know where to start. I felt I was taking time from my living family to help those who had passed away. I began to rationalize that since they had waited so long already, what were a few more years until the Millennium?

Joseph Gale Burton

William Gilbert Burton's son Joseph Gale Burton, great-grandfather of David G. Burton.

I finally asked George, "How do you know what to look for and where to start?" He said I needed to pray about that question and the Lord would help. Finally I prayed, "Lord, you know I have been trying to do something with genealogy, but I am going in circles. I am getting nowhere. If you want me to be effective, please tell me what to do. If I'm not close enough to you for you to tell me what it is that I am supposed to do, please tell someone else who is close to you so they can tell me what to do." That same night I felt I should start a fast.

When I got from work the next evening, September 3, 1997, I walked into the kitchen and there on the counter was a photocopy of a newspaper article that grabbed my attention. Underlined in the article was the name of a pioneer who lived in Evanston, Wyoming: William Gilbert Burton. I recalled my dad telling me years ago of an experience he had when he was driving through Evanston and decided to get out to stretch his legs. He pulled off the main road onto a side street, got out of the car, and found himself in front of a monument with a plaque on it that said, "This is the Evanston First Ward. William Gilbert Burton was the first bishop for the Mormon Church in Evanston."

My father said that as he stood there and gazed at the plaque, he knew someone else was standing right by his side that he could not see. He said it was "really, really, spooky." He told me that William Gilbert Burton was my great great-grandfather.

I knew that the article could only have come from someone outside my home, as I do not take the Deseret News. I asked my family and some neighbors who might have given us the photocopy, but no one knew.

The article, “A Legacy Discovered,” was in the Church News “Family History Moment” section, on August 30, 1997. The writer was Sherry Gamble, who now lives in Eagle River, Alaska. I read the article and learned that she too is a descendant of William Gilbert Burton. The article mentioned two other ladies that Sherry had worked with in researching the Burton line, LaVern Lethbridge and June Berdette. I was able to get a phone number for LaVern, who gave me June's phone number. June gave me the phone number for Sherry in Alaska.

I then called Sherry and said, "Hi, my name is David Burton, and I am a descendant of William Gilbert Burton." She exclaimed, "Wonderful! How were you able to contact me?" I then told her about the newspaper article appearing on my kitchen counter. She said, "I have been doing a lot of research on William Gilbert's children. I have found descendants of his six daughters, but I have searched and searched and have not been able to find any living descendants of his four sons. Two weeks ago I prayed and felt impressed to write the article. I sent it to the Deseret News, hoping that they would print it and someone would read it who would be a descendant of William Gilbert's boys." I replied, "Well, you just found some. I am a descendant of one of William Gilbert Burton's sons."

Joseph Harold Burton

Joseph Harold Burton, son of Joseph Gale Burton and grandfather of David G. Burton.

Sherry was thrilled, and so was I. I told her I was happy that her prayer had been answered. I told her about my fast and prayer. I asked if she could answer my prayer and tell me what I was supposed to do with genealogy. This person I had known all of five minutes then said with authority, "Well, I'll tell you what you are supposed to do. You are supposed to do the genealogy for William Gilbert's boys!"

I thought, "Well, if that isn't an answer to the prayer I said just yesterday, I don't know what is."

Sherry Gamble told me William Gilbert Burton had come to Utah in the last pioneer wagon train from England. He had been a bishop, a patriarch, and at age 72 a missionary to England, where he collected genealogical information. Later he moved to Logan, Utah, so he could do temple work. She said she was convinced that William Gilbert was trying from the other side to get the genealogy work done for his family, and that he wanted his living descendants to meet each other. She said it was the least we could do after all he had been through and sacrificed for the gospel's sake.

She told me of the many times she had been led by the Spirit to find records and journals of William Gilbert's family. When she had to move to Alaska because of a change in her husband’s work, she was concerned that the momentum in these research efforts would be lost. She had been praying that the work could continue.

About a week later, my dad called and said, "Hey Dave, did you get that article from the Church News that I left in your mailbox about your great-great-grandfather William Gilbert Burton who lived in Evanston, Wyoming?" I said, "Dad I didn't know that you took the Church News." He said, "I don't. The article was given to me by a lady in her 80s whom I met over a year ago. I met her in a band I was playing in and happened to find out that she was from Evanston, Wyoming, the same town where William Gilbert Burton was the first bishop." I was further amazed when he told me that she had remembered their discussion when she saw the article in the Church News. She took the time to mail a copy to my father, who then put it in my mailbox the day I fasted for help, two weeks after Sherry sent it to the Church News hoping it could be a tool to find some living descendants of William Gilbert Burton.

Coming Soon! Part 2: Finding Living Members of the Burton Family