by Rebecca Bartholomew
The Polygamous Minority
[p.215]One of the surprises of women’s history lies in the reality of Mormon polygamy. In contrast to the stereotypes, monogamy surpassed polygamy among rank-and-file marriages by a margin of at least two to one. Among polygamist marriages, a variety of family styles and circumstances was exhibited.
As with traditional marriage, there were happy and unhappy polygamous marriages, those in which the husband dominated and others with a decisive wife, some with shared power and decision-making, marriages marked by formal or informal separation, those interrupted by death and divorce, those which produced large families and some which were childless, couples in affluent circumstances as opposed to families which endured various degrees of poverty, and mixed-religion and mixed-race marriages.
Once an early convert assimilated the reality of polygamy, she no doubt looked about and reviewed these other, less sensational aspects of marriage relationships in her culture. When outsiders noted only the surface pattern of a male-dominated church hierarchy and inferred repressed and powerless females, the women felt discounted, resentful, and introspective.
The purpose of this chapter is to look closer at six polygamous women. Each of the six meets two criteria: (1) her history was told [p.216]in enough detail to give a more-than-cursory look into her experience, and (2) she, if only in some superficial way, resembles one of the major stereotypes of Mormon women: naive shopgirl, gullible matron, or lowly fishwife.
The Naive Shopgirl
In the anti-Mormon literature the shopgirl was unmarried and of lower-class origin. According to the standard plot, she was converted by a Mormon elder, emigrated to Utah, and became another of the prisoners of Zion. Four of five ensuing histories follow this stereotype skeletally.
Susan Dermott Barker
We know a great deal about Susan Dermott Barker through lifelong journals and letters left by her husband. Susan was born in 1843 in Southampton, England. Upon her father’s death, when she was eleven, she left school to help support her mother and three younger sisters. At eighteen she and John H. Barker, a nineteen-year-old waiter, were both working at Radley’s Hotel in Southampton. He baptized her in 1861.
As a boy John and his sisters had been placed in foster homes upon his law clerk-father’s imprisonment for debts. When his father left prison, his parents separated. Later John lived in London with his mother, who now supported herself as a seamstress and had joined the Mormon church in 1848. John had been baptized in 1859. Before meeting Susan, he was engaged to two separate girls, at least one of them a Mormon but both of whom died.
In April 1862 Susan and John received notification to emigrate on the ship Manchester. They borrowed money from John’s brother for supplies and obtained a letter of permission to marry from Susan’s mother. They were wed in the tent of company captain John D. T. McAllister just before starting across the Great Plains.
Nine years, four moves, and five to six children later, John and Susan were living in relative prosperity in Cache Valley, northern Utah. Through a brother who cowboyed in Texas, John learned the whereabouts of his younger sister Jenny, of whom the family had lost track in the breakup many years before. John began a campaign of annual letters in which he tried to entice Jenny to Utah, [p.217]and through these letters he indirectly revealed much about his wife Susan’s situation in the Mormon Zion. One of the earliest letters shows basic contentment at this time of their lives:
I have worked at every kind of work a man can do in this country, harvesting, farming, building, driving team, school teaching, mines, but at present we live in our own house on our own land and I drive my own horse team and make my living by a little farming, a little school teaching (in winter) and working some little for others at the Silver Mines … It is a life that I like very well as there is no one to call master, it is all my own (letter dated Nov. 1871).
Eight years after this Susan and John’s situation underwent a drastic change, although his subsequent letter (dated May 1879) to Jenny did not reveal it: “Susan is well and as nimble as a young sixteen and sometimes feels as young and as full of mischief—today is her birthday and I have taken her to Logan and bought her a new dress and a wringing machine.” John mentioned attending April general conference in Salt Lake City but declined to tell Jenny that he had gone alone and, during his stay, taken “a young Danish girl” and “another Danish woman” as his second and third wives. There is no clue whatever in his journal or letters as to what motivated these marriages, but his taking two wives at once suggests a decision based either on principle or a directive from a church superior. Such directives often came to a man or couple who were thought to prosper.
About this time John acquired a town house in Logan besides “the farm house” in nearby Newton. The summer after his plural marriages, he wrote Jenny that “Susan has been living at the farm house and taking care of the cows, but we are now all at home in town …” (Aug. 1880). Unable that winter to find a job offering cash wages, he hired on with the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, and later the Utah Northern, for five months. It proved a disappointing venture, costing so much in travel and living expenses that he decided not to repeat it. It was disillusioning in other ways as well, for the next year he kept his sons on the farm, insisting they avoid the railroad and mining camps “where they would be exposed to every evil.” He himself spent that summer working as [p.218]a shipping clerk in Logan Canyon during the weeks, returning home only on Sundays.
Four and one-half years after entering plural marriage, in November 1883, John wrote that Susan was “getting very heavy and fleshy and not able to do as much work.” This is the first mention of Susan’s health problems, and because of the timing one could construe her putting on weight and John’s commenting on it as intimation of stress in the marriage. On the other hand, one could also view health and economic strain as predictable conditions for a middle-aged couple.
Certainly, the pressures of earning a living (no doubt attentuated by the additional families) took a toll, for as John’s children from three families increased he wrote Jenny: “Perhaps you have heard of the eternal push and rush of the Yankee—we have a little too much of it here, we seem to live and work in a hurry & rush” (Sept. 1885). In a new country, he continued, with so much to be done, the residents wanted it all done at once or in one season. His own sons were “growing up with just such a spirit … It would be much better could we go a little slower … ”
In 1886 John wrote Jenny that he wanted to visit her in Germany (where she was then living) but could not as “it takes some labor and thought and care to provide for my families.” Work outside the farm was hard to get, and he was “not safe from the persecution now going on against the Latter-day Saints.” In addition, Susan’s health was “not very good.” A year later John confided to his sister that Susan had stayed for two months in Salt Lake City “to consult the doctors about her sickness … Her health and life depends on care in eating and drinking and good nursing.” Susan was still able to “be around but with more or less pain.”
On 30 May 1888, at age forty-five and twenty-six years after arriving in Zion, Susan died. In telling Jenny, John confirmed the hints he had dropped that he was a polygamist: “I … have failed to inform you of my circumstances, for fear that in your want of understanding of the principle you might condemn me. In 1879 I took Christene M. Benson to wife who now has Myrinda 8 years old who often says, `Father, why don’t Aunt Jenny remember me as well as Jennie and Birdie,’ and also Irvin 3 years old” (June 1888). They had “all looked for [Susan] to live for some time yet” as her disease had not seemed to progress severely, “but she was taken … Oh, how lonely for the rest of us … there is NO SUSAN AT HOME NOW.” He was sealed to his two previous fiancees (who had died in England), John continued, and now Susan was “with them and I have a place and home to go to when God shall please to call me hence.”
John had obviously not discarded his first wife on the dung heap because he had tired of her. His letters suggest some of the strain and disappointment of polygamy, including the heavier financial burden and Susan’s ill health which was perhaps aggravated by the sudden and continuing blow of having to share her husband. Otherwise the difficulties seem no more than those endured by many couples on the western frontier. Only one was unusual: John expected at any time to be arrested by federal authorities for cohabitation. He wrote Jenny that he foresaw a prison term but would not deny his plural wives and thereby “disgrace the children.”
Susan’s death was followed by a rift in the family. The plural wives had been living in Ogden during Susan’s last illness, and John now moved Christene to Cache Valley. She would eventually bear him eight children. Johannah proved “false to her religion,” in John’s words, and refused to leave Ogden. In 1889, within a year of Susan’s death, she sued for divorce, leading one to wonder if Susan had been the glue that held this plural family together, even if only as a diversion of jealousies. According to John, Johannah remarried “a worthless man” who “in one month … beat her and she has left him—and she is now alone in the world with my two Boys.” Thus John once more found himself “with one wife and free from persecution … I feel lonely at times and have the Blues, natural to dyspeptics” (June 1888).
Susan Barker’s story does not end there, for it is partly tied to that of her sister-in-law Jenny, whom she never met and who outlived her by forty-six years. John continued to write to Jenny about family life and economic conditions in Utah. The fall of 1889 brought a real estate boom and growing trade to the territory. The next spring Jenny, at age forty, wearied of her work as governess [p.220]to British families who had taken her to Ireland, the Austrian Tyrol, Italy, and Germany, and she agreed to come to Utah. John paid her passage. Jenny stayed a short time in Logan, then became traveling companion to the wife of a Salt Lake City mining magnate and continued her adventurous life by traveling to Alaska and many western sites. Jenny liked Utah well enough that she married her employers’ gardener, Stephen Stanford, in two ceremonies since he was LDS and she was Anglican. He lived seven years.
Jenny lived until 1934. The family history does not precisely state that she left Salt Lake City after her husband’s death, but since John took a mission to Britain in 1909, the year Stanford died, it is possible one of his purposes was to escort Jenny home and that she passed the rest of her life in England.
If we were to combine the stories of Susan Dermott Barker and Jenny Barker Stanford, we might come close to the stereotype. Yet neither was a prisoner or abused, though disillusioned perhaps. Add to this Johannah’s choice to leave her husband and Jenny’s choice to remain Anglican after acquiring a Mormon husband, and we see considerable freedom to live and marry as one chose in the Mormon capital. Jenny was known by her Mormon relatives as “a gentle, refined lady, kind and generous, dearly loved,” not as an outsider. The irony, I suppose, is that Christene and Johannah, though family, were for a time treated as outsiders.
Mary Elizabeth Hilstead Shipp
Another of the “shopgirl” class of British converts was Mary Elizabeth Hilstead Shipp, born in 1852 in Hull, York County, off the beaten track of Mormon conversion centers. She was a teenager when Milford B. Shipp, on one of his fourteen missions, became ill and was nursed by her parents, members of the local branch. About 1870 the family gathered to Zion, and Mary was eighteen when she married Shipp.
The family she married into was to become one of Utah’s most accomplished, and as a plural wife Mary served both as agent and participant in this achievement. Polygamy seems to have been the catalyst for tremendous personal growth among at least some Shipp family members. Their story gives new meaning to the principle of enlargement. Unfortunately, Lizzie left no record of [p.221]her life. So the story must be told mostly through the record of one of Milford’s other wives, The Early Autobiography and Diary of Ellis Reynolds Shipp, M.D.
Ellis as a child was brought to Utah from the Midwest by her grandfather. She worked for a time in the home of Brigham Young, who took a father’s interest in her. In time she was courted by Milford Shipp, considered a poor suitor by Young partly because Shipp’s two previous marriages had ended in divorce. But Ellis married Milford anyway and made the marriage last.
Milford was ambitious throughout his life, volunteering for missions, seeking out polygamous life, and eventually law school. One Mormon myth about polygamy is that it was always undertaken with the first wife’s permission. This was not the case for Ellis. Milford simply came home one day with the dramatic announcement that he was bringing “a sister and companion” into the house. Regarding this and others of her husband’s behaviors, Ellis wrote, “It was many years before I believed that my husband could err—if he did, I always blamed it on myself. I should have known that every mortal is but human, and in this earthly probation we cannot expect perfection.” Later Milford brought home another wife, and Ellis said, “I do not allow myself to become low spirited.” Then he brought a fourth wife into the family, Lizzie Hilstead.
In the summer of 1873 Ellis was pregnant with their fifth child when she heard general Relief Society president Eliza R. Snow broach a plan to send sisters back East to study medicine so they could teach territorial midwives better obstetric methods. Someone asked Ellis why she did not go: “I thought it would be what I would love and delight in, if this knowledge could be obtained here. But the thought of leaving home and loved ones overwhelmed me and swept from me even the possibility of making the attempt.” Maggie, the second wife, went instead. But Maggie stayed in the East only a few weeks before returning homesick.
Leaving her sons in the care of Milford and a childless wife, Ellis decided to go to Philadelphia to medical school. It was 1876; Ellis was twenty-nine years old, Mary Hilstead twenty-two.
At about half past three o-clock on Monday morning the old [p.222]whistle gave the signal of our arrival in the far famed city of Philadelphia. A crowd, a rush, extending of welcoming hands, friendly greetings, loving embraces (for others) … I was left alone, where a policeman had told me to remain until he could show me to the waiting room. Oh what strange sensations—to be alone in a strange City at such an hour.
Ellis slept on a bench in the station until dawn, then took the car to 1324-22nd Street where another Mormon woman, Romania Pratt, was staying. Romania took her over to the college and helped her register, pay fees and begin classes. “For a time I felt almost bewildered,” Ellis wrote, “but soon my interest was awakened and I began to feel my desires for knowledge increase as I began to see and realize how little I knew.” At times during the next few weeks Ellis almost decided to go home. When she did not receive letters on time she could not sleep. She was an early riser anyway, causing her roommate enough disturbance that Pratt finally asked her to find other quarters. Ellis fought a tendency to become depressed:
A lady remarked to me today, “You always appear so sad, as though you were grieving over something.” I wonder if it is really true … I endeavor to be cheerful or at least not to be melancholy. I know I have much to be thankful for, much that should make my heart rejoice, but it requires a constant struggle, a continued watchguard to keep myself from feeling lonely and despondent. My darling sweet little children, how Mama longs to see you. Oh, how my heart aches—oh, Milford, if I could just have one word from you, one look at your dear face.
Back home Milford had taken up legal studies, aiming to complete them by the time Ellis returned, an intimation of competition or pacing each other in this family becoming remarkable. Once Milford wrote to her somewhat sharply, and Ellis confided to her diary: “If I did not know him so well and understand his great desires for my success I should feel hurt, at times. His words, though bitter and sharp, have a good tonic effect and urge me ever onward.” But there was so much to learn. Ellis was eager, and her excitement and triumph came to dominate her school journal. Back home, Lizzie Hilstead Shipp must have almost as eagerly read [p.223]Ellis’s letters, judging from her later devotion to Ellis’s work. The entire family helped Ellis. From Mary, the childless wife, Ellis received letters telling what the baby was learning. From Maggie she at least once received a $20 bill. On another occasion, when Milford was too poor to send Ellis anything, Lizzie sent $50 she had earned from braiding and selling hats. Without these sister-wives, Ellis could not have finished medical school.
Ellis is credited with founding modern medicine in Utah. Returning home, she would train hundreds of midwives who in turn would take new ethics of cleanliness, sound anatomy, and safe delivery methods to settlements from Idaho to Mexico. Her midwives were far ahead of frontier doctors.
There are many interesting entries in Ellis’s journal written before and after Philadelphia which reveal her grief when Milford took other wives. Ellis thought he did not love her or she did not satisfy him. He took another wife after Ellis returned home.
Yet in this case polygamy seemed to relax the demands of Victorian wifehood to allow Ellis a full-time career. She was not constrained by the old dilemma of how to manage the home front while in the workplace. She did not need to worry about a tendency to faithlessness by her husband since he had other women under a system which legitimized multi-partner sex for men, held them responsible for its consequences, and protected the women involved from many abuses short of grief.
What about Lizzie Hilstead, the poor English girl who happened into Milford’s and Ellis’s life? After Ellis’s return Lizzie studied under her, read the medical books Ellis brought back, and eventually moved to Fillmore in central Utah where she taught classes, practiced obstetrics, and bore four daughters. Perhaps because of Ellis, Lizzie seems not to have suffered so agonizingly the pangs of her model elder wife who ended a book of poems with this statement: “Great minds are they who suffered not in vain. If wondrous True, we have suffered not in vain. I do not feel my spirit Great. But Oh, I have suffered—and pray it has never been in vain.”
Hannah Greenwood Fielding
Another convert whose story conformed superficially to the [p.224]shopgirl-proselyte stereotype was Hannah Greenwood Fielding. The youngest child of a working-class Lancashire couple, Hannah was of the population that Theodore Winthrop ridiculed in John Brent. Lancashire women were said to have tongues like rattlesnakes and minds that could not comprehend anything not literal and prosaic, minds susceptible to the manipulations of wily Mormon elders.
Hannah joined the Mormon church on 15 March 1838, one of a thousand to be baptized in the Preston area the first year of the British Mission. One of those early missionaries was Joseph Fielding, a forty-one-year-old English bachelor who had emigrated to Canada, joined the church there, migrated to Nauvoo, then returned to England to introduce the gospel to former friends and relatives. Joseph’s journal is one of the finest sources of information about the British Mission and its womenfolk.
On 11 April 1838 Joseph made a notation in his diary about a meeting which went “till near midnight” only to resume the next morning. Its proceedings were “for the greater Part spent in blessing. Many Tears were shed; a great Blessing was pronounced upon Sister Ann Dawson … And a good and great Blessing was confirred upon Sister Hannah Greenwood.” Two months later Joseph married Hannah Greenwood. “Her age is near 30,” he wrote, when actually she was nineteen. Either the family typist misread the original diary or Hannah misled Joseph, perhaps so that he would think himself only twelve years her senior rather than twenty-two, the reverse of the Mormon Elder deceiving the Proselyte. Joseph wrote in his journal, “I have not sought for Money in this nor do I get much of [it],” referring no doubt to the lack of a dowry. What he got was criticism from local members who worried about the burden a missionary’s wife would place on branch and member finances.
This resentment probably increased when Hannah became ill and had to quit her factory job. It was in December 1838 that Joseph described things in the mission as “very dark,” when their landlady Sister Dawson was contemplating moving to a smaller house “to get rid of us,” and his missionary companion Willard Richards and wife were suffering from an extended “affliction” of some [p.225]kind. But a year after their marriage Hannah and Joseph were still living with the Richardses in an apartment belonging to Mrs. Dawson, with predictable tensions.
Later in 1839 the Fieldings moved to Manchester, and in 1840 Joseph’s work took them to Liverpool. By 1841 they were back in Preston where Hannah’s first child was born. Joseph was Hannah’s only attendant until “at the time of delivery” a woman from the branch arrived “as if by chance,” followed by two other branch sisters. Joseph’s diary entry gave thanks: “Freely our Bread has been given us …”
In 1842 or 1843 the Fieldings emigrated to Nauvoo, Illinois, in time to visit the temple before it burned in 1846. Three days after their temple sealing, Joseph was also sealed to Mrs. Mary Ann Peake Greenhalch, a forty-four-year-old Lancashire widow. She participated in the exodus from Nauvoo with Hannah and Joseph and bore three children between 1846 and 1848. All we know of Mary Ann Peake is that she continued in the faith until at least 1854 when she was rebaptized in Salt Lake City, and that she outlived Hannah by eight years even though Hannah was sixteen years younger. But this was after both she and Hannah spent many years as widows due to Joseph’s early death.
Hannah may have been of poor socio-economic status and become enamored of a Mormon elder, but it appears that it was she rather than he who did the captivating. She felt free to speak her mind, and her husband was as frustrated to prevent it as any Victorian husband. In Preston, readers will remember, she had sharp words for the church for overloading her husband’s schedule. Richards threatened her with disciplinary action. Though the details are sketchy, it seems that she permitted her husband to take a plural wife, neither of whom was disillusioned enough by this event to leave Utah after being “freed” by their husband’s death.
Fanny Warn Stenhouse
Another English lass who fell in love with a Mormon elder was Fanny Stenhouse. This time the bachelor was the handsome, intellectual Scottish missionary, Thomas Brown Holmes Stenhouse, and Fanny would spend twenty years in the Mormon faith. Then, after apostatizing with her husband, she would take up the pen “to plead the cause of the Women of Utah” in two books, Polygamy in Utah and Tell It All: The Tyranny of Mormonism, or An Englishwoman in Utah.1
Born in 1828 or 1829 at St. Heliers on Jersey Island in the English Channel, Fanny was “one of the younger members of a large family” of Baptist parents and an invalid father. “When I thought of the future,” she said, “I readily saw that if I desired a position in life I should have to make it for myself.” At a plucky fourteen she went to France as governess to a British Army family. Soon she was teaching English and needlework in a French girls’ school and taking instruction in Roman Catholicism. Perhaps to insert a romantic element in her story, she told of becoming engaged to “the wealthy Constant D——,” brother to her gentleman master. But after several years, her desire for “an honorable social position” waned along with the appeal of Continental culture and religion. Fanny returned to England.
During Fanny’s long absence, her parents had converted to Mormonism and moved to the mainland. Her older sister remained at St. Heliers, however, and Fanny visited her long enough to hear anti-Mormon stories from her and the brother-in-law, both by then disaffected members. This was the first Fanny had heard of the faith, and it was not a very encouraging introduction. She was told “the turbulent experience” of the St. Heliers LDS branch, where “improper conduct” by some elders had, according to Fanny’s sister, “disgusted the people with their doctrines.” Fanny had to agree that Mormonism must be “a vile delusion.”
Yet Fanny felt the new church must have some merit if her parents had joined. Reunited with her parents and younger sisters in Southampton, she took it upon herself to attend a Mormon lecture with them. She was surprised to find Mormon teachings “in accordance with Scripture.” In addition, she found her family changed. Her sisters were no longer silly, light-minded girls but now delighted in more serious things such as reading scripture [p.227]and serving the missionaries. There was new love and harmony at home which she attributed to the influence of the Mormon gospel.
Her resistance to the faith was not completely overcome until a young elder, of whom she had heard great praises from her parents and associates, spoke at meeting. Over thirty years later Fanny would write almost nostalgically about this experience and the early days of the British Mission:
Mormonism in England then, had no resemblance to the Mormonism of Utah to-day. The Mormons were then simply an earnest religious people, in many respects like the Methodists, especially in their missionary zeal and fervour of spirit. The Mormon Church abroad was purely a religious institution, and Mormonism was preached by the Elders as the gospel of Christianity restored. The Church had no political shaping nor the remotest antagonism to the civil power. The name of Joseph Smith was seldom spoken, and still more seldom was heard the name of Brigham Young …
Polygamy, blood atonement, the Adam-God theory, “together with the polytheism and priestly theocracy of after-years” were at that time “things undreamed of.” The young elder talked about “the saving love of Christ, the glory and fullness of the everlasting Gospel, the gifts and graces of the Spirit … fortifying every statement with powerful and numerous texts of Scripture.” Years later, in spite of revulsion at what she had come to perceive as the tyranny of Mormon patriarchy, she would remember these early days in English Mormonism as “among the most pleasant reminiscences of my life.”
Fanny was baptized within three weeks of meeting Elder Stenhouse. Her baptism experience is described in the conversion chapter. Several months later she became engaged to Thomas and they were married on 6 February 1850. Not four months after the wedding Thomas was appointed to accompany Apostle Lorenzo Snow to open the Italian mission, and Fanny’s grievances with Mormonism began.
Pregnant, unemployed, dependent on Thomas’s family and local members for rent and food, she felt abandoned. By her account it was several months before she could obtain any sewing [p.228]commissions, during which period she claimed to have gone two weeks at a time with only dry bread and water to eat. Her comment on this period of her life may be more an indictment of Thomas than of Mormonism: “Men who look for miracles, and count upon special providences for daily bread, are not generally very prudent or far-seeing in their domestic arrangements.” In preparing for his new assignment her missionary-husband had had no thought for himself “and certainly he made no preparation for me.”
Thomas found Italy hard ground for the Mormon gospel, and just days before Fanny’s daughter was born he was reassigned to work with the Waldensians in Switzerland. He spent the winter learning French. Before this new mission began, Snow returned to England and discovered Fanny’s situation. He chastized the local branch and summoned Stenhouse home. Donations were gathered, and when Stenhouse returned to Switzerland Fanny and little Clara went with him.
The years in Switzerland were said to be years of frugality, while in actuality Fanny had a Swiss handmaid the entire time who followed the Stenhouses to Utah. Arriving in Great Salt Lake City for the first time, Fanny found not the golden, godly society, but log houses and poverty, although she exclaimed joy upon first glimpsing the valley.
From her early marriage Fanny had heard talk that the apostles in Zion had plural wives. In England, when she questioned Thomas, “He did not deny it, but he would not talk about it, and did everything he could to banish the thought from my mind.” Finally in 1852 he told her that the doctrine was to soon be publicly acknowledged, and when two elders early the next year delivered the issue of the Millennial Star which published the revelation on celestial marriage, Fanny was so upset she had to leave the table.
Fanny herself preached polygamy to female converts in Switzerland. From this point on Fanny’s book is absorbed with polygamy. Though she claimed early rejection of it, such decisiveness was slow a-borning in this young wife so eager to live up to her husband’s expectations. Long into her career as a Mormon, when a female friend admitted, “How I hate Polygamy! God forgive me; but I cannot help it … and yet I believe that it is true,” Fanny’s [p.229]response was, “Poor child! I understood her too well, for her position was exactly mine.”
Fanny said that Thomas promised early in their marriage never to take a plural wife. But once in Utah, his increasing influence and affluence as a newspaper publisher and his daily interaction with church leaders made this more and more untenable. Increasingly after 1852, polygamy was a qualification for advancement both spiritual and economic. Fanny’s accounts of conversations with associates, selective as these accounts are, show that there was social pressure not only from church leaders but from friends and other polygamist wives. Yet Thomas “held out” for five years, perhaps because of his wife.
Fanny really did not have a chance. Thomas was ambitious, and she ambitious for him. When he began furtively courting a girl, Fanny looked on silently. When one day he asked her to meet with Eliza R. Snow, Fanny obeyed even though she guessed the purpose of the summons.
Sister Snow was the Prophetess of Mormondom. Although not the first plural wife of Joseph Smith, she was the most widely known of his widows and was assured a measure of autonomy and prestige in Utah by her marriage to Brigham Young as well as by her successful revival of the female Relief Society, which had been dormant since Nauvoo.
Fanny recounts in detail her conversation with Snow. By now Fanny had already consented to Thomas’s taking a second wife but was not happy about it. She argued that her husband was not yet in a financial position, that he did not really want another wife, and that her own feelings made it an unwilling and thus ineffectual sacrifice. Sister Snow countered with arguments which could be interpreted as either good pioneer sense or calculated plays on guilt: “Where would the kingdom of God be if we had all talked in this way? Let your husband take more wives, and let them help him, and you will feel blessed in keeping the commands of God.” And, “Your husband is a very good man, and desires to live his religion, and it is a great grief to him to know that you feel as you do.” Finally, “If you had a loaf of bread to make, and you made it, and it was pronounced good, do you think it would be of the [p.230]slightest consequence what feelings agitated your mind while you were making it, so long as it was well made?”
Personally wooed by Zion’s elite, it was no wonder Fanny and Thomas succumbed. Indeed, Fanny was given far more time and attention during her struggle than most sisters. That she took the ministrations earnestly and tried to adopt the orthodox attitude is apparent in her account of daily self-attempts “to subdue my rebellious heart.” She believed that her husband’s lot was “irrevocably cast with the Mormons—I knew that when I married him.”
Thomas’s second wife, wooed both in Fanny’s home under her eyes and at socials and the theater while Fanny sat home with the children, was the young and pretty Belinda Marden Pratt. Belinda’s mother, Belinda Marden Hilton Pratt Box, had divorced her first and third husbands and was widowed by Apostle Parley P. Pratt.
By her own admission Fanny was barely civil to Belinda who lived with her the first year. Fanny says Thomas courted a third woman during the birth of Belinda’s first baby. Belinda and Thomas divorced,2 and the third marriage never took place.
To Fanny’s retrospective delight, Thomas associated increasingly with non-Mormons and became embroiled in the Godbeite schism by 1869. Although Fanny’s own daughter Clara was now a plural wife to Brigham Young’s eldest son, Fanny wrote, “I took my stand with the heretics; and … my own was the first woman’s name enrolled in their cause.”
Thomas went to New York City to write his Rocky Mountain Saints, a somewhat objective work, and on her own subsequent visit to the East Fanny fell to writing a less reasonable book about her Mormon experience. She later lectured in major eastern cities about Mormon polygamy and theocracy. The Stenhouse children apparently abandoned Mormonism as well, for Clara Federata Stenhouse Young is the only one of the four mentioned in LDS genealogical records.
Fanny’s autobiography is not as easy to evaluate as some. It would be facile to say that she came into the church murmuring and left it still complaining. Yet she sprinkled her book with deprecations, vague allusion, and loaded statements which tell only half the story. The paradoxical thing is that Fanny seems to have been sincere. She avoided outright lying, yet she appears to have seen, especially in her later life, only that which colored Mormondom as diabolical. She ended her autobiography with these words:
Full of love for them—my sisters, my friends, the companions of my life hitherto, whose religion was once my own, whose hopes and joys I have shared, whose sorrows and trials have been also mine—with hopeful prayer I lay down my pen and present my labours to the world. And if my humble efforts shall have conduced, even in the smallest degree, to keep one sister from entering into this sinful “Order”; if they shall have aroused the women of Utah to investigate the foundations of their faith, to calmly and impartially consider the iniquities of the system of Polygamy to renounce the man-made slavery of the “Celestial Order” … I shall feel that my endeavours have been abundantly rewarded, and that my labours have not been bestowed in vain.
How could a woman’s view change so radically? Perhaps by a process resembling a mid-life crisis: too many stresses which culminated in the uncovering of some early-laid fault lines. The breakline is distinct: polygamy was more than she could bear. By her own forthright admission, she lacked the emotional composure to make sacrifices with much grace. When asked to undergo the ultimate test, she broke. It was a mistake for her to have ever acquiesced to “celestial marriage.” Through coercion she became a victim and spent the rest of her life getting revenge.
Throughout a re-reading of Fanny’s book, one wonders why she did not divorce Thomas. Instead she insisted on beholding him in a stubbornly positive light, overlooking his frequent if non-violent cruelties to her and their children:
During all his efforts to obey counsel and build up a “kingdom,” [p.232]my husband, I know, never ceased to love me. For the misery which he then, in—as I firmly believe—his conscientious endeavours to live his religion, inflicted upon me, I have long ago freely and fully forgiven him. I think that during all that time he never ceased to entertain the fondest affection for me; and, if he was foolishly confiding in those who he believed were divinely authorized and speaking by inspiration, can I blame him when I remember that I myself was actuated by the same faith?
Thomas gets off Scot-free. Fanny’s worst blind spot regarded her own husband, from whom she called the idea of divorce “repugnant.”
It is my opinion that Fanny’s judgment snapped—that Thomas’s willingness to enter polygamy was an unendurable reality to her mind. One wonders what would have happened to her marriage, much less her sanity, had Brigham Young not been available as an emotional stand-in for Thomas, with whom she never lost her temper.
Ironically, the woman who thought pioneer Mormonism deprived women of identity has been denied her eternal identity by modern Mormonism. In 1973 Thomas’s standing in the church was reinstated while Fanny’s inexplicably was not. All but her birth information was either never entered or was expunged from the Mormon record. Poor Fanny! Mormonism is less forgiving of female heresy than of wife abuse. Her consolation will have to be that her books sang a strong melody in the swan song of polygamy.
The Gullible Matron
The second stereotype is of the British wife struck twitless by a charismatic elder. She deserts her happy, middle-class hearth and cherry-faced cherubs only to be brought to ruin under polygamy. This type is rarely represented even on a superficial level among our histories. Most of the married women of the sample did not enter polygamy.
Hannah Daniel Job
One of the few who did was Hannah Daniel Job. Born in 1828 near Carmarthen, Wales, Hannah is the eighteen-year-old whose [p.233]thirty-five-year-old fiance was studying for the Baptist ministry when Hannah became pregnant, dashing his plans.
Thomas has an interesting history more detailed than Hannah’s. As a boy he was bright, eager to read and write, though his first chance to do so did not occur until he was sent to the parish school to learn the alphabet at age twelve. Later he attended a free Welsh school for two months where he learned to read but poorly. Then at age sixteen he “was put in school again over the winter to learn arithmetic … This was all the school my parents intended that I should have.”
As a youth Thomas and a friend trained snakes. Later he became interested in alchemy, both of which disturbed his Methodist mother. She thought he was “playing with the devil when he played with snakes.” His father considered her theory nonsense but insisted that Thomas be doing something “useful.” So the boy was put to work as a mason’s attendant and farm laborer. His wages went to his father, but whenever he could get extra work he would save the earnings to buy paper and pens with which to copy those few books he could borrow. These, in keeping with Welsh folk education of the day, turned out to be mostly about mathematical games, alchemy, astrology, and conjuring.
What Thomas really wanted was to go to college in the city, which eventually he was able to do through an offer from a generous acquaintance. This education, too, was cut short when he returned home on a visit to find his parents ailing and about to lose their farm with no sons left to work it. Pressured to remain with them, he stayed ten years, his dreams of further education destroyed.
It was while working his parents’ small farm that Thomas met Hannah Daniel, whom Thomas’s mother considered slightly evil because she was Church of England and danced. Later Thomas, Hannah, her mother, and her sister all became Mormons through the influence of Thomas’s uncle. Between 1848 and 1853 Hannah bore three children, all girls.
After the death of his parents, Thomas felt free to emigrate, moving his family to Carmarthen for this purpose. But now it was Hannah who held him back. She, her sister, and her father wavered [p.234]because of stories told about Utah Mormons, and she refused to subject her weak infant daughter to the voyage. This caused a rift with Thomas who had already paid their fares. Hannah took the children and returned to her parents’ home in Abergwilly.
The family history states that before emigrating Thomas made one last visit to Abergwilly. Hannah would not even see him, but when two-year-old Elizabeth ran out to greet him, he picked her up and took her away to Carmarthen and to Utah. Hannah could do nothing under the laws of that time, he being the child’s father.
Hannah was not the only wife left by an emigrating husband. One recalls Jane Strachan Heggie who refused to be baptized. Andrew Heggie left her with funds to emigrate should she change her mind, instructing her that he would wait five years before remarrying. Faithful to his word, he waited.3
Thomas Job, in contrast, met a Welsh girl on board the Golconda, Elizabeth Davis, who was also without family. She had worked in a woollen mill since age nine and had joined the church by herself. Her boarding was delayed because for some reason she was not listed on the emigration clerk’s register. Thomas became interested in her, and they were married in August 1855, possibly even before arriving in Utah. The family history extenuates this by noting that it was not until two days after the wedding that he received a letter telling him baby Anne had died and Hannah and her mother were back in the church. He immediately wrote to Hannah offering to pay her fare to Utah but did not tell her about Elizabeth. It was only when he met Hannah’s wagon train in Salt Lake City that she learned about the new wife.
Hannah now refused to live with Thomas in spite of his pleading that he needed her as he kept “two maids in the house always.” She had to find a place for herself and daughters, but because no one would take a servant with children Thomas kept the girls. The strange story is told that Hannah found employment [p.235]as housekeeper to a South Cottonwood widower, Albert Miles. Hannah “spoke only Welsh, he only English, and when he asked her to marry him, she brought him a glass of water.” Miles took Hannah to see Brigham Young, who married them—in English. The point of the visit was not immediately clear to Hannah.
She was never very happy with Miles, who drank heavily, but family tradition is that she blamed herself for her situation. Her second marriage, she said, “was no more than I deserve,” and she named her first son Thomas. Eventually she and Miles lived apart, and she spent her last years philosophically alone except for extended stays by daughters and grandchildren and a rare letter to her first husband.
Thomas’s second marriage was reportedly a happy one which resulted in eight children, but he had his troubles as well. The daughter he had abducted ran away at age thirteen to live with her mother before marrying young. Thomas became uncomfortably persistent in his mathematical and astrological theories, writing letters to church leaders, apparently being alternately ignored and admonished for presuming to tell authorities what to do. When he began teaching that the Nauvoo church was the true one, he was dismissed from Mormonism. He served for many years as regional mission president for the Reorganized LDS church (led by Joseph Smith’s son, who had remained in Nauvoo), a masochistic undertaking in Mormon country where Reorganites occasionally suffered mob violence.
In Hannah’s case the stereotype of the gullible matron may apply, though she did offer resistance. Still, through illiteracy and trickery she was duped by two husbands, both Mormons, with perhaps unwitting complicity by the Mormon leader who married her to Miles. The wrongs are not clearly one-sided, for who knows what was said between Hannah and Thomas at that last parting at Abergwilly. And family tradition is that one reason for Albert’s roughness was Hannah’s refusal to love him. Yet Hannah had obvious reason to be disillusioned with Zion.
But she was not. Hannah’s remarks in later years imply that she felt that if she had emigrated as counseled she would have kept her family intact. As time passed, rather than feeling imprisoned, [p.236]Hannah became more orthodoxic Mormon in her outlook, regretting her early defiance of polygamy and seeing the situation of a plural wife as preferable to separation from her children and an unhappy second marriage. When her son-in-law contemplated taking a second wife and her distraught daughter ran home for comfort, Hannah advised her to return to him “if she loved him and he was good to her, even if she had to share him.”
One wonders if Hannah, like Fanny Stenhouse, was too forgiving of her first husband. She certainly seems to have been too hard on herself. To the modern reader she was shabbily treated. Yet in the context of the times, her perspective was perhaps unavoidable. Men ruled the roost. So when she weighed her travails against the virtues of home and family, she blamed herself for the way things turned out. A jaded view would be that in Utah this age-old story simply had a peculiar twist.
Ann Steel Murdoch
A woman who to all appearances overcame any ambivalence she might have felt towards plural marriage was Ann Steel Murdoch. This Scotswoman and her husband of four years were converted by her brother in 1850. They followed the brother to Utah two years later. On the steamboat voyage upriver to St. Louis, several of their children died. John blamed this on voyage leader John S. Higbee, who he felt did not provide enough food for survival. A proud man, John found himself begging for food but being turned down. One of those who refused later changed his mind and offered nourishment, but by then the Murdoch baby had died.
John had been brought to Utah to herd Brigham Young’s sheep. When Young’s livestock manager introduced John to the prophet, Young said “he had rented his sheep to brother Lorenzo Young for five years and didn’t need anyone now,” so John was without a job. Young told him to rest, eat, and the way would be opened for him to get work. John did a month-long stint as laborer on an outlying farm before Young hired him to dig potatoes, which gave John “much joy though the work was hard, as he was working for a Prophet and the greatest man on earth.”
Ann and John lived in Salt Lake City for seven years before [p.237]moving to Heber City near relatives, where they prospered … so much so that when the time came, John and Ann both “were impressed with the importance and necessity of observing this principle [polygamy] as well as any other of the gospel.”4 It is unlikely the Murdochs felt much external pressure, since their stake president and much of his high council were stubbornly monogamous in spite of threats of dismissal over the years by various church presidents.
The second wife turned out to be Isabella Crawford, a beautiful, dark-eyed twenty-six-year-old who had been thrown out by her English parents upon joining the LDS church. With four other mill girls, she emigrated to Massachusetts where she worked for five years before walking to Utah. There “Bella” continued in mill work. During a visit to an old mill friend who had married and was living in Heber, Isabella met John and Ann Murdoch. She married them in 1862.
Ann bore fifteen children (seven of whom died young); Bella bore seven. John was able to build “a large and comfortable home” for his large family, and it is said “both wives and all the children lived together [in different areas but] under one roof for many years in peace and harmony.” One child was said to have nursed both mothers. Others joked that they sometimes did not know who was their real mother. Bella was known for her easy personality, listening to the children’s troubles, and telling them stories. On John’s and Ann’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, formal camera portraits were taken of John with each wife.
The family had its difficulties. Late in life all of John’s considerable herd of sheep was stolen by a hired caretaker and never recovered. John was imprisoned along with many other Mormon men for cohabitation. One wonders if Ann was initially as complacent under the husband-sharing system as the second wife who had not endured the dugout years. Yet Ann, her husband, and Bella became “a noble trio.” In old age, after the deaths of Ann and John, Bella left the following testimony with her children:
[p.238]What am I that God has been so good to me and brought me, a lone girl, to this favored land and given me all the blessings and privileges of the gospel; where I am surrounded with prophets of God and the holy priesthood and friends on every hand? And I have had the privilege of associating with men and women of God and had a patriarch of God to be the father of my children. So I say, “What am I?” And now this world has no charm for me. I am waiting to go, and your father and mother are coming every night to me and I am waiting to go with them.
It is no surprise that some women suffered under polygamy. What is surprising—at least to me—is that other couples, so far from Fanny Stenhouse’s experience and evidently out of pure devotion to their religion, triumphed over their natural instincts to create generally loving relationships among all parties. One has to be touched and even somewhat awestruck at this achievement.
An Informal Statistical Summary
Ninety-three of our histories were specific enough to answer some questions about Zion’s treatment of immigrant women. Eighty histories that give definitive information show that fifty-one women were monogamous and twenty-nine polygamous, or 64 percent versus 36 percent.5 Kathryn Daynes’s study of Manti, Utah, found that second wives in polygamous tended to be recent immigrants.6 She also found that plural wives tended to have no family in Utah and to be disadvantaged economically usually through the absence or death of one or both parents. She proposes that young women whose parents were both living or who had other means of support married into polygamy less frequently.
Besides being predominantly immigrants, orphans, and indigents, plural wives tended to have been daughters of polygamous [p.239]parents. Sixty-six percent of polygamous daughters married in polygamy, whereas only 14 percent of monogamous daughters did so. This means that many of the daughters of our British women probably became plural wives. Finally, plural wives tended to be young, which conforms to the stereotype of the young exploited shopgirl. In 1860 the average marrying age for women in Utah was sixteen and one-half in spite of the numbers of widows, divorcees, and older women who had opportunity to remarry because of polygamy. The marrying age for U.S. women at that time was twenty and one-half, although one suspects it was younger for immigrant women. A surge of plural marriages among teenaged Utah girls during and after the Mormon Reformation of 1856 was largely responsible for this low marrying age, but in other decades as well the average age of Utah brides was dramatically younger than for women of any other region of the country. Only toward the end of the century, after 1890, did it rise.
If economic need was one factor in polygamous marriage, women in adequate economic circumstances should show a lower-than-average rate of plural marriage. Of our 100 histories, only thirty-three contained definitive marital and economic data. Of eleven who had satisfactory means of support, three married into polygamy anyway, one married monogamously, and the others did not remarry after divorce or a husbnad’s death. Of twenty-two who could be considered in economic need at the time of marriage, nine married polygamously and thirteen married monogamously.
Another class of pioneer women should be considered—the unmarried. Among our histories, no woman remained unmarried, not even John Barker’s spinster-sister Jenny. A governess in England for most of her life, within a year after arriving in Utah she had married an English gardener and widower, even though he was Mormon and she was not.
The question of our women’s motives for entering plural marriage or choosing monogamy remains unanswered. Only Elizabeth Steadman wrote directly about her choice, and she did not give her reasons. Her letter reveals that she had her pick between single and polygamous suitors and she chose the single man. Was it because she preferred monogamy or George Stead-[p.240]man? We may be justified in supposing monogamy, for little romance seems to have been involved in this short courtship. Whatever her reasons, Elizabeth took a calculated chance on a man she hardly knew and saw it turn out well.
It is significant that two matrons who I initially thought were monogamous turned out polygamous: Charlotte Claredge and Elizabeth Handley. One wonders how many others, when further evidence comes in, will prove to have experienced polygamy, and how much this would skew the two-thirds/one-third finding. It was apparently not as easy to avoid plural marriage as I had first thought.
Of Charlotte Claridge’s daughters, one became a plural wife and one did not. Elizabeth Claredge McCune did not because her husband was a “backslider.” We assume that Jean Rio Baker’s second husband, the one who lived only six months after their marriage, was a widower and not a polygamist. And Elizabeth Lewis’s fate is unknown.
For so many first wives the choice was not theirs but their husbands’. Ellis Shipp would have liked to have kept Milford to herself. Yet for the Heber City Murdochs, it seems to have been a joint decision by all three parties. The Handleys on the other hand may have entered polygamy out of desperation to leave a posterity. Jane Ewer Palmer, Ellen Wilding Woolley, and others who came to Zion as spinsters apparently fell into the program because it was their only offer. Interestingly, nowhere in the histories does a woman eschew plural marriage because she did not like the idea.7
It should be noted that Vicky Burgess-Olson studied records of over 120 plural wives and drew the following conclusions. First wives, she thought, entered polygamy for the sake of “the prince-[p.241]ple” or under persuasion from the church hierarchy. Middle wives were motivated by economics in addition to theology. Youngest wives, exhibiting what Burgess-Olson labeled the “Amelia syndrome,” had economics and status as their primary motives.8
What of our women’s experiences as mothers? Of forty-two women about whom the histories give family information, only six were so fortunate as to have all their children live to maturity. Most families, mongamous and polygamous alike, lost infants and, less frequently, adolescents. Unlike Burgess-Olson, I found that polygamous women bore no fewer children than monogamous wives but almost precisely the same number: 7.74 births per woman compared to 7.75, of sixty-seven women total. The number of children of monogamous women to survive to maturity was 70.6 percent compared to 64.4 percent of polygamous women, but infant deaths in the Shipp family alone skew the figure against polygamous families.
Half of our women had only one husband during their lifetimes. But this does not mean that half lived in traditional, monogamous marriage to old age. Only fourteen (of seventy-four) enjoyed this privilege. Ten were widowed prematurely and six died in middle age. The rest were plural wives. Thirteen married twice and three married three times.
Ten out of seventy-two women elected divorce or estrangement from a husband, seven of them from a plural marriage and three from monogamy. This incidence of divorce is probably understated, for each time I found further information on a family another divorce or separation was discovered.
Does the higher number of polygamous divorces indicate dissatisfaction with polygamy? Only in some cases. Some women left one polygamist only to marry another. Maggie Shipp was one. She married B. H. Roberts after divorcing Milford. What the divorce rate suggests is that women unhappy with plural marriage were not chained to the system as the stereotype claimed. Some [p.242]husbands provided for ex-wives. And given the availability of marital prospects in Utah territory, a divorcee could be fairly confident of remarrying.
Regarding life expectancy, polygamous women outlived monogamous women. Of fifty-eight giving information, forty-one monogamous women lived to an average age of sixty-nine, while seventeen polygamous women lived to an average of seventy-four. This most likely means nothing, yet it is worth considering that polygamous life meant the sharing of domestic chores which in frontier poverty could be exhaustive. This may have been partly what Dr. Ellen Brook Ferguson meant when she argued that polygamy brought the redemption and salvation of women, although one suspects her meaning was also political and sexual.
By their own assessment, how did Zion treat British women immigrants? Only twenty-eight of the histories reveal directly or indirectly opinions about their experiences. Seventeen (fourteen monogamous women, three polygamous) indicated that the experience was a positive one. Four (two and two) expressed dissatisfaction. Six (four and two) characterized their lives as predominantly hard but expressed either resignation or acceptance. Three (three and zero) said Zion was a mixed bag of good and bad.
I have attempted to rate each woman’s external circumstances as either poor, fair, good, or excellent. The allocations are subjective. Nevertheless, out of sixty-eight giving information on this subject, twenty-seven or 40 percent can be characterized as poor throughout most of their lives in Zion. Of these, eleven were polygamous. Seventeen (25 percent) were fair (only three of these were polygamous), twenty-one (31 percent) good (nine polygamous), and three enjoyed excellent economic advantages (two polygamous). These comparisons suggest that a plural wife’s circumstances tended to be either good or poor, not mediocre as was the lot of many a monogamous woman.
If we asked whose lives were made difficult for at least one sustained period of several years to a decade because they followed Mormonism, thirty women would respond affirmatively. Seven women sacrificed considerable money and property in emigrating. Six women obviously suffered because of poor eco-[p.243]nomic and farming conditions in Utah or because they lacked the skills to master the frontier. The church made life hard on many women through cumbersome church callings which took their husbands away from home.
We have already discussed the problems of plural marriage peculiar to Mormon affiliation. But other church doctrines also created hardship. for instance, an order to pioneer a new community brought new dangers and prolonged hardship. Charlotte Claridge experienced this; Felicia Astle relocated three different times by calling and exigency.
Another two women suffered greatly through persecutions directed at Mormon converts. Mary Ann Maughan lost her bridegroom of several months to consumption after he was tarred and feathered by an anti-Mormon mob. During divorce from an abusive husband, Margaret M. Blythe lost custody of her children because of her religion; she spent many years in Utah “yearning” for them. Happily, in her later years she was able to visit them in the east, and a son eventually settled in Utah while others vacationed there.
Finally, at least one woman may have died from the massive toil of establishing a kingdom in the desert. Rachel Jones Price lived only into her forties, never seeing beyond the family’s most difficult years in Sanpete County when her husband strip-mined coal by Brigham Young’s direction. Only after her death did he acquire a store and postal franchise and live an easier life with his second wife, a widow.
But if some women suffered because of Mormonism, others just as clearly benefitted in one way or another. Sarah Hattersley Wells’s husband could find no work in England; he had no trouble finding work in Utah. Susan Dermott Barker’s husband bragged that “the poorest in Utah are better off than the poor in England.” Though he sometimes had to scramble for cash for his three families, he was never disappointed with the opportunities available in the Mormon kingdom.
People who had no chance of owning land or becoming full citizens of Great Britain found multiple opportunities for homesteading in the Great Basin. Mary Jane Ewer Palmer, for all the [p.244]ruggedness of her life in Skull Valley, improved herself in status and property by leaving England. Even though William Budge’s missions slowed his economic progress, moving to an outlying settlement proved a smart choice and the family prospered. Sarah Jeremy called her little home in west Salt Lake City “The Willow Basket.” It was pretty, and she owned rather than rented it as did most Welshwomen their row houses in Carmarthen. And while those who took up farming in arrid Utah thereby took up their cross, most were glad for the opportunity.
Some women could not have done worse than in Britain. Veronica Giles had such “a hard life” in Scotland that frontier poverty could only have been a step up. Martha Cumming Clark would most likely have spent her life in menial labor had she not emigrated to Franklin, Idaho, and met and married an indulgent widower. Elizabeth Wilkins Steadman and Jennie Barker Stanford hailed from better circumstances, but they may well have remained spinsters had they not gone to Utah.
One happy benefit of emigrating was reuniting with friends and family from the old country. In Salt Lake City Anna Evans Jenkins was offered a furnished house by her son David, but she opted instead for Samaria, southern Idaho, where many of her Welsh friends had settled. Says the history, “The weariness of her journey disappeared instantly when familiar voices called, `Anna, croesaw i America. Yr ydum yn gobeithio y byddwch yn gysyrus yma.'”9 She would recount this welcome many times to her children and grandchildren. When later she moved to Malad Valley so her sons could obtain land, the parting was eased by Samaria’s proximity and the success her sons would make in farming, livestock, general merchandising, and grist milling.
Many female immigrants experienced intellectual, educational and career opportunities not possible for them in the old world and scantily available in eastern America. Until Congress took away the female franchise as a condition for statehood, Utah women were full citizens with the rights to vote and hold office. [p.245]One British immigrant, Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, ran against her husband and was elected to the state legislature. Scores of female immigrants became trained midwives through obstetrics courses taught by Dr. Ellis Shipp, and others were “called” to study medicine at eastern colleges. Polygamy freed some wives from home duties so that they could practice their professions.
Among our women, most kept the faith. Of fifty-three who wrote enough to draw conclusions about their choices, it is safe to say that forty-seven were followers of Mormonism to their deaths. Only six left the church, were excommunicated, or expressed serious doubt about the value of Mormon doctrines or of Mormonism as a way of life. Dr. Ellen Brooke Ferguson, after spending twenty years defending Mormonism and polygamy at international women’s conferences and before Congress, retired into Theosophy in 1897, was eventually excommunicated, and died in New York City. Sarah Evans Jeremy was excommunicated for unknown reasons. She may have aligned with the RLDS church whose local leader Thomas Job attracted a large Welsh following. My ancestress, Eliza W. Horrocks, ultimatly rejected counsel to abandon non-believing spouses but retained other Mormon beliefs. Fanny Warn Stenhouse, of course, threw out the bathwater but not the baby.
Two women were non-members who remained essentially friendly toward Mormonism. Jane Barker Stanford never joined, though she married Mormon Stephen Stanford. Eliza Chapman Gadd emigrated only because her husband wanted it and appears never to have been baptized although she assumed the burdens of Mormonism including accepting a church call to go east to study midwifery. She eventually delivered 2,000 babies.
A fitting end to this lengthy chapter is the abbreviated but purposefully-chosen history of Mary Jane Ewer Palmer, the home weaver who chose to emigrate rather than hand over her five-year savings to bury her younger siblings. The poverty of her childhood was so relentless that emigration even now seems to have been her only hope of a future. What became of Mary Jane Ewer in Zion?
She left for Utah alone in 1866. In Salt Lake City she obtained [p.246]some kind of work and sang for a year in the Tabernacle Choir. Perhaps that is where she met James Palmer. In August 1867, less than a year after arriving, she became at age twenty-one his third wife. James, who was not wealthy but had marketable skills as a contractor and stonecutter, joined the church in England six years before Mary Jane was born. His first wife married him in 1842, his second in 1851. How burdensome his family responsibilities were cannot be ascertained due to absent genealogical records on the other women.
James apparently meant to support Mary Jane by homesteading. Perhaps by church counsel, he set her in Tooele, a pretty settlement on the west slope of the Oquirrh mountain range a long day’s ride west of Salt Lake City. Their farm in Tooele was not an immediate success. The first year brought low yields for unexplained reasons, and the second year most everything was eaten by grasshoppers.
James then moved Mary Jane further into the west desert to Skull Valley, described by a daughter as bleak, desolate and lonely. It had its amenities, nestled against the west slope of a minor range which caught the clouds and created rainfall to feed a few small streams and springs–but it was forty miles from the nearest settlement. Here all but one of Mary Jane’s thirteen children were born (only eleven of whom are listed in the LDS genealogical records). One of the hardest conditions was fear of Indians. Several pages of the history are taken up with tales of unnerving but non-violent encounters with Goshutes.
James worked in the city to earn cash for improvements and could have spent at best no more than half of each month with his third family. So five-foot, 120-pound Mary Jane did most of the homesteading, working by hand, heating water which she hauled from the creek a block off on an outdoor fire, making her own soap from lye. In the early years, when she and her small children ran low on food, they picked watercress, pigweed greens and sego roots. Her babies came at regular two-year intervals, and four days after each birth she was up baking bread. It was a rough pioneering way, but it must have provided the hope of a good life. At least [p.247]she was her own boss and the land was hers (if legally James’s). She planted an orchard which in a few years began to bear.
Other than work, there were few diversions in Skull Valley. Settlers walked or rode eight miles to church, a cabin which Mary Jane arrived early to clean each week. Mail was delivered once a month. James’s visits must have been a bright spot once or twice a month. He taught Mary Jane to read and write and began a tradition of accompanying hers and the children’s singing by playing his clarinet.
Mary Jane’s main solace must have been her children. One guesses at her sensibility of this, as she gave each of them Ewer as a middle name. At ten Henry, the oldest, helped her till, sow and harvest one hundred bushels of wheat and vegetables of which they were proud. For a time they made charcoal to be sold by James to the forges in Salt Lake City. One wonders what James did with the cash. Surely it went to advancing the farm, for later Mary Jane described those twenty-three years in Skull Valley as “years of poverty, trial and finally years of plenty.” She told her daughter Fannie she did not mind the constant hard work so long as she was able to keep her family healthy. “She had trained herself to take her pleasure at her work, no matter what situation arose.”
Mary Jane lost her second child at only a month old. A more profound tragedy was the death of Henry at eighteen by appendicitis. After this, wrote Fanny of her mother, “she was no longer happy on the farm.” In 1890 Mary Jane moved to Grantsville to be nearer her married and working daughters and closer to medical care for her younger children. Apparently she bore two more there. The last would have come in about 1892 when Mary Jane was forty-six. How she supported herself in Grantsville is not told, perhaps from the sale of the farm.
In 1894 James, now seventy-four, married a fourth time. The records do not show the woman’s age, whether she bore him children, and if this further diluted his time and influence with Mary Jane’s still-young family. Nine years later James died, leaving Mary Jane with at least three teenagers still at home, the youngest thirteen. She lived a widow in Grantsville thirty more years.
[p.248]On the surface, Mary Jane’s treatment by Zion seems dismal, her existence there a half-life. With exquisite understatement, she herself summarized it in these words: “Marriage is not a bed of roses. The trials of life begin with marriage. When things get hard, stand by your mate and don’t weaken ” She added, “I have no regrets except that I might have lived a more perfect life.” Her attitude reminds one of the Quaker poet’s philosophy: “Clearly if there is beauty to be found/ I must seek it within me.”10 Perhaps the crowded drudgery of her English childhood prepared her for an adult life of stark isolation. On the other hand, perhaps her adult life was not stark at all but rich in children, a good if sporadic marriage, her own ground to till and plant and build on, neighbors and community on Sundays. One thing is clear: Mary Jane subordinated many expectations for this life to her hopes for the next. Like many Mormon pioneer women, she chose to see her external world through the inner eye of eternity.
Mary Jane’s most lasting accomplishment was her children, including Fannie Palmer Gleave, the daughter whose keen attunement of the material and spiritual and even keener style of expression provided Mary Jane a memorable epitaph. It might serve as epitaph for an entire generation of Mormon women: “It was said of her that few women of civilized countries gave more and asked less of life
Thousands like her have been missed by historians.”11 Mary Jane Ewer Palmer reminds us that to a great extent Zion prospered on the backs of its women, whose voices have yet to be heard.
1. I have used the Travelers’ Classics edition strangely attributed to T. B. H. Stenhouse of Tell It All, a reprint made in 1971 in New York by Praeger Publishers.
2. International Genealogical Index 2.16–British Isles and Ancestral File 4.02, computer files of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints based on submitted family records, not verified by official birth and life records.
3. Jane Heggie was born about 1815 in Scotland and married Andrew Walter Heggie, ten years her junior, a dye worker, and shoemaker, in 1848. They had one daughter. Andrew was baptized in 1852 and spent eight years trying to convert Jane before emigrating in 1860. He did not marry again until 1865.
5. This is apparently higher than the incidence of plural marriage among Utah women generally. Vicky Burgess-Olson concluded that 5 percent of Mormons were polygamists. But Ben Bennion compared two localities in nineteenth-century Utah and found that the percentage varied dramatically between areas, raising questions about the overall incidence.
7. In 1983, while teaching an American history class, I read a term paper from a student the subject of which was ancestress from Heber City. It told how, when her husband was called to take a plural wife, she, the first wife, just said no. The husband accepted her decision. They were subsequently called to colonize a site in Utah’s Dixie at which time they relocated. Regrettedly, I no longer recall the student or the ancestress’s name.
11. Fannie Ewer Palmer was Mary Jane’s eleventh child and fourth daughter, born on June 17, 1888, at Skull Valley. Fannie waited until age twenty-six to marry John Ernest Gleave, and she resided for years at 971 Diestel Road in Salt Lake City. She rather than children of the first wives came into possession of her father’s journals.