Student Success Stories

Violence, Family, and Religion: Discovering the LeBaron Family through Undergraduate Research

Ward conducting research on campus, February 2021

Cecilia Ward, a third year History major who plans to graduate a semester early in December 2021, conducted undergraduate research during the 2020 fall semester. Her project focused on the LeBaron family, a violent American Mormon cult that resided in Mexico. Her study was completed under the mentorship of Dr. Daniel Margolies, Professor of History and Chair of the History Department.

Cecilia received an Undergraduate Research Program Grant to support her project. With the funding, she paid to borrow sources and worked closely with Stephen Leist, Access Services Librarian, to gather information from other libraries through interlibrary loans. She presented the project at the Fall 2020 Port Day. Her presentation, LeBaron Women: Memoirs of Polygamy and Violence, is available to view.

An Interview with Cecilia Ward:

What did you do to prepare for the experience?
I realized that I wanted to take the semester to study Mormonism, since I typically study heresy and religious dissent in history, and Mormonism is a like an American heresy as it splinters off from the typically mainstream Christian traditions and was heavily persecuted during the founding of Mormonism. Of course, knowing little more than this about Mormonism, I had my work cut out for me, especially since my topic was even narrower than Mormonism. Originally I intended to specifically study the crimes of Ervil LeBaron, the cult leader and mastermind behind the assassination plots of the LeBarons, but much of his actual writings are lost or in archives and police records that are not lending at this time, so I started by reading the plethora of memoirs of his wives (this particular Mormon cult was polygamous) and his sisters-in-law and realized that in some ways it was a much more unique and intriguing topic.

What were the most important things you learned from this experience? 
I learned a lot about Mormon fundamentalism and America's relationship with polygamy, I especially learned a lot about the inner workings of the LeBaron family. At one point when meeting with my major professor, Dr. Bond (Associate Professor of History), he mentioned historians will eventually get to the point that they feel like they know some dead people more than they know living people, and while I wasn't at that point yet, it started to dawn on me that if my project were any bigger, I would start to know some of these people that well. Even now I have the suspicion that I'm one of the top fifty to one-hundred people in the world in knowledge about this family, excluding the actual members of the cult, due to how little academic research there is on the family.

How did your undergraduate research help focus your academic and career path?
While it was fairly entertaining to focus on American history for a semester, this helped remind me that in many ways I prefer history much older and European than America in the 1970s. It made me miss Medieval heresies and so going forward, while I still love learning about religious dissent, I realize that American history (and to an extent Mexican history seeing as the LeBarons were Americans living in Mexico) is not what I'm meant to research. It did satisfy my desire to research Mormonism and American cults, however, so I'm glad I allowed myself the flexibility to explore it. It is also helping me to narrow down graduate schools because I can focus on schools that specialize in European religious dissent.

What did you find most surprising about your undergraduate research experience?
One of the most surprising (and albeit frustrating) things about my undergraduate research experience is since I picked such a narrow and obscure topic, it was hard to get access to sources. I found sixty sources during my preliminary research that I requested through interlibrary loan, and of those sixty, only nineteen of them, less than one-third, I eventually gained access to, some of them after using grant money to pay to borrow. Of course, I was able to find some sources in other places, but I wouldn't recommend to other students to do super obscure topics unless they were really interested in them, sometimes it felt like the hardest part of my research wasn't even the research, but simply getting sources I knew existed but evaded me.

What is one of your most memorable moments?
It’s cheesy, but one of the most memorable moments was actually finishing my second draft, because my first drafts are always partially unfinished due to my drafting process, but witnessing the full twenty pages for the first time is exhilarating, and it makes you want to keep researching to see how much you can do. Of course, my second draft wasn't all that good, so even though there was a rush of adrenaline from finishing, there wasn't too much pride, and I ended up scraping about nine of the twenty pages and rewriting them from scratch. But it's always nice to see that your work is adding up even if it's flawed or still needing work. If I'm honest with myself, even after finishing my final draft and getting an A on it, I still feel like I could continue to write and improve, time and resources allowing, so at least in history your work is never truly done because there is no "right answer."

What is one piece of advice you would give to VWU students considering research?
My best advice for students engaging in undergraduate research is going to be the same no matter what major or topic you do as long as there's any sort of written component: Your first draft is allowed to be awful, even if people are going to see it. Just keep writing until you get to the page limit on the first draft, even if some sections are incomplete and your wording is bad, your grammar is terrible, and your citations are doing the bare minimum, because the great thing about a first draft is that there are no real expectations for it. So create an awful first draft and don't be afraid to cut it up with scissors and remove entire sections and rebuild from the ground up.