One of my (very) great grandmothers is known as Mary Alzina Knapp Smith. She was adopted by Elias and Amy Jane Smith upon the death of her mother in childbirth. Elias wrote a letter (Or so I am assured, I don't have said letter) to Mary informing her that her birth parents names were James and Sarah Knapp. Here's what I know about Mary with documentation:

Pre-birth information:

  • Her adoptive parents were in Iowa in 1850, Salt Lake City in 1860.
  • The Utah 1856 census has an Elias Smith in Salt Lake City, although it's an index only record.
  • James Knapp doesn't appear in the Pioneer Overland records. Nor does Sarah or Mary Knapp. In fact, I can't find any record of a Knapp in Utah in any census I checked (1856, 1860, 1870).

Post-birth information

  • Mary's headstone gives her birthdate as 16 May 1865. Family Search Tree indicates she was born in Salt Lake City. Her death index says she was born in Utah.
  • Mary's birthplace on census records show up as Utah, and in later ones, Idaho.
  • July 6, 1865- Elias Smith wrote in his journal about having a girl live with him by the name of Mary Alzina, 6 weeks old. Her parents were known by the name of Knapp, headed to Montana to mine gold. (See entry below)
  • I can't find a death record of Sarah, or anything, around Mary's birth.
  • Mary shows up in the 1870 census under the household of Elias Smith, as Mary Smith. She shows up after younger children, and as born in Utah.
  • I can't find a record for James Knapp in 1870. Specifically, I can find a number of records in the Eastern United States, but too many in the western states to know anything for sure. There are two in Montana that I'm studying still.
  • The 1880 census includes a "Mary A Smith", which is consistent with everything I know, living in Utah (Location not specified closer than this). The order on the record is quite jumbled, with many children-in-law living there, but she is close to the end.
  • I have a number of records beyond that, two marriage records (1884 and 1937), etc.
  • At least one less reliable Utah Pioneer records database shows Mary as having crossed the plains to Utah, although I do not trust the source.
  • Some census records indicate her parents were born in California.
  • In fact, the state of birth of her parents varies dramatically. Her father is listed as Vermont (Adoptive), California, and Iowa, her mother is listed as Ohio (Adoptive), California, and Pennsylvania. (In order of chronological appearance)
  • Mary died 20 Jan 1953 in Moreland, Idaho.

The best source that I have comes from the journal of her adopted family (Elias Smith, father), dated July 6, 1865:

Amy Jane brought with her from her father's an infant child about six weeks old, which had been abandoned by its mother or given by her to some person in this city, and subsequently taken by Amy Jane's mother, who wished to have it, and would still be glad to keep it, but her husband is not willing for her to do so. I have been told that the parents of the child were known while in the city by the name of Knapp, that the mother was quite young, that they were going to the gold mines in Montana Territory. How much truth there may be in the report I do not know. Amy Jane will keep the child, a girl, to whom Amy Jane's mother gave the name of Mary Alzina, till I have an opportunity of placing it with some persons who may wish to raise it that will be likely to treat it kindly and bring it up properly.

From family legend, I have the following quotes, each paragraph from a different person. Aside from this information, I have no evidence supporting any of the claims, but they still are of some interest.

It is true that she was only told that her parents were Knapp but her adopted father Elias Smith who was a judge wrote a letter stating the names of the birth parents. I am in possession of that letter. The story that she was told is in her autobiography of which I have a copy. It is certainly possible that these sources are incorrect but that's all we have at the moment. Elias Smith had extensive journals which I would like to go through at some point.

As far as I know she was only "told" that Knapp was her birth parents name. I have yet to find anything that actually states that. No records for Sara(h) or James Knapp at the place and time of her birth. My grandmother (Mary H. Johnson) looked for years.

Julie Caprice Olsen Nielson states: Her birth parents were James and Sarah Knapp. Sarah died in childbirth with Mary and her father felt he could not take care of her. Elias and Amy eventually adopted her.

I'm not quite sure where I should go from here to figure this out. I suppose she might have been cared for a period of time by someone else, and brought eventually to the Smith household. I see in the 1860 census they had a number of people with a variety of last names living with them, it seems like they might have often taken care of "strays". Any thoughts on where to go from here to find out information? In particular, I suspect the following might help:

  • Birth record of Mary Knapp, indicating her parents.
  • Census record from either 1860 or 1870 for James Knapp. (Trying to find his birth record). Should be living in the West, beyond that, I don't know.
  • Death (Or burial) record of a Sarah Knapp- Can't find one of child bearing years in the United States in 1865, but might have missed something.
  • Record of Mary Alzina Knapp crossing the plains into Utah.
  • Any similar sounding last names that are consistent with the story of James and Sarah having a child in Utah 1865, where Sarah died.
  • 2
    Upvoted for research effort. Longer comments about a possible edit for clarity are in Roots, linked to your message there.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Sep 16, 2015 at 19:55
  • From Elias Smith's journal, it is possible and more likely you will never find her maiden name if "an infant child about six weeks old, which had been abandoned by its mother or given by her to some person in this city" is true. The mother of an abandoned child is rarely known and if given by person in city, you may not know if it by the mother or other family member. Also Amy Jane may have been sworn to secrecy. If the child was illegitimate, all information given to Amy Jane may have been false. Nevertheless good luck on your quest. Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 17:09
  • I've done some work on this, and found a fair bit more information. I have enough now that whenever I can next get my hands on the journal I will know what to look for. It seems what happened is her birth mother died, but birth father came to visit for the first 4 years of her life, after which time he was mistakenly lead to believe she died of disease, and never returned. I'm going to see if there's anything about those visits when I next can get ahold of the letter. Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 18:47

1 Answer 1


There is a letter afloat from Elias to Mary that said as far as he was concerned she was his daughter and hoped to put her anxieties to rest. The tone of letter suggested he didn't really know about her parents. The only thing I can think of is trying to take a genealogy DNA test to see if it can then link you to a blood relative who has also submitted to the test. Amy Jane was the ideal candidate for an adoptive mom because Mary & Martha born within a month or so of each other.

  • 2
    Hi Greg, welcome. Could you add some more details to your answer, for example where the OP might find a copy of said letter? Feel free to add more detail by using the edit button below your post.
    – Harry V.
    Commented Jun 11, 2018 at 3:21

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