[This post is part of a series on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. To read from the beginning or link to previously published posts, go to A Faithful Joseph.]
The Mormon exodus and pioneer period tends to be well understood by Mormons. However as we typically don’t focus on the history of polygamy as part of that history, I feel it is useful to trace the impact of polygamy in the pioneer history between Brigham Young’s departure from Nauvoo until we see the Mormon Church denounce new plural marriages in 1890 (and again in 1904).
For purposes of this discussion, the Fifty Years I presume we agree that Mormons were in the wilderness stretch from their exodus from Nauvoo and the state of Illinois (starting 4 February 1846) to Utah’s admission as a state of the United States (January 4, 1896).
1846 – Winter Quarters
Brigham Young had urged each family to gather a year’s supply of food, expecting it would take the entire summer growing season to reach safety in the Rocky Mountains. But not everyone prepared the requested supplies, and by the winter of 1846/1847 the Mormon refugees had only gotten to Nebraska, where they established Winter Quarters.
Concerned with the crushing poverty facing the people and the Church, emissaries to Washington D.C. arranged for a battalion of 500 to be raised from among the Mormons. The funds from the service of these 500 significantly helped those left behind.
Numerous plural marriages were solemnized at Winter Quarters, as single women without supplies attached themselves to the able men who had not left with the Mormon Battalion. Babies born to women who had contracted plural marriages in Nauvoo make up a portion of the 300 who died that terrible winter, including the babies of Joseph’s widows Emily Partridge and Elvira Annie Cowles.
1847 – This is the Place
The pioneers did not reach the Salt Lake valley until late July, 1847. The crops they got planted did not yield significant food. The likelihood of a second winter of crushing illness and death loomed.
The Mormon Battalion was ordered to remain in California to avoid increasing the stress on the meager supplies available. Again, the pressure of pregnant wives caused great concern and the presence of “Europeans” in the valley caused the local Indians to become ill.
The Indians came to John Taylor, asking him to heal the Chief’s boy, who lay near death. John Taylor blessed the boy, then came back to the Old Fort, praying that the Lord would bless the child to live. Shortly thereafter the Indians approached the fort again, this time bringing gifts of sego lily bulbs, thistle root, and a nutty mash. Weeks later, when the nutty mash was exhausted and the pregnant women were again suffering, John Taylor traveled to visit the Indians again. The Indians were happy to share more of the nutty mash, which they revealed was made from ground up roasted crickets (a local pest) drizzled with honey.
John returned to the fort with the mash. He refused from that point to partake of the stuff, but did not tell the others what they were eating. Had he told the truth, it’s likely some of the pioneers would have refused the life-saving food. If your ancestor was born in 1848, it’s possible their life was saved by the Indians and John Taylor’s “lie.”
1852 – Preaching Polygamy from the Pulpit
In August 1852 Orson Pratt was asked to deliver a sermon explaining the Mormon doctrine of polygamy. 1 As Orson explained,
…it is rather new ground to the inhabitants of the United States, and not only to them, but to a portion of the inhabitants of Europe; a portion of them have not been in the habit of preaching a doctrine of this description; consequently, we shall have to break up new ground.
It is well known, however, to the congregation before me, that the Latter-day Saints have embraced the doctrine of a plurality of wives, as a part of their religious faith. It is not, as many have supposed, a doctrine embraced by them to gratify the carnal lusts and feelings of man; that is not the object of the doctrine.
Orson Pratt had notably been the apostle whose wife had been seduced by John C. Bennett, and Orson’s original refusal to sustain Joseph Smith as innocent of the seduction Bennett had accused Joseph of attempting had caused great turmoil in the Quorum of the Twelve while Joseph was in hiding during 1842.
In the wake of the open acknowledgement that Mormons practiced polygamy, opposition to the Mormons and their beliefs intensified. It is widely presumed that the open preaching of polygamy ended any chance for Utah statehood when the attempt was made in 1856. The number of individuals gathering to Utah declined in the wake of this announcement. In 1852 thirty-five companies traveled to Utah. Two years later the number was less than half as many. 2
1856 – Arrest and Handcarts
A couple of years after the 1852 announcement, an unknown reporter for Putnam’s Magazine secured an interview with the US Marshall, Mormon Joseph Leland Heywood, and two of his three wives. According to the article that appeared in the magazine the fall of 1855, this was “the only instance in which I have seen two wives of the same man together…” The reporter ended his piece predicting the imminent demise of Heywood’s original wife, for he had “detected in her countenance, while in repose, a look so gloomily sad, that her whole heart of agony lay bare before me. Poor, poor wife! Her days are destined to be few, and full of trouble.” 3 A month after the article was published, the 40-year-old Heywood married his 16-year-old ward, Mary Bell, 4 and proceeded to Washington DC.
Once in DC, Heywood was notified he had been fired from his position as US Marshall. Further, Heywood was put on house arrest under suspicion of stealing five dollars (a charge that was later found to be false). Reeling from the twin blows of being fired and arrested, Heywood visited Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who he had known when Heywood was a successful merchant in Quincy, Illinois. When Senator Douglas received Heywood, he inquired after Heywood’s wife, who he had known, asking “if she was living.”
Meanwhile those who were willing to embrace Mormonism in the face of polygamy had only the most meager economic resources. As most who had traveled to the Salt Lake valley walked most the way, Brigham Young decided that these impoverished converts might be able to walk, pushing their few belongings in hand-drawn carts. Each handcart company would be accompanied by a wagon company to carry the food and supplies needed by all to succeed in the journey. The three initial handcart companies made the journey successfully, leaving Iowa City in June, and departing Florence Nebraska roughly six weeks later, in July. These three arrived in Utah nine weeks after leaving Florence, in late September or early October.
Two more handcart companies arrived in Florence roughly a month after the initial three. After deliberation, a majority of these pioneers decided to press on to Utah, hoping the warm weather would hold through October. But the snows arrived early that year, trapping the two handcart companies and their accompanying wagon companies at Devil’s Gate. Over a hundred of the handcart pioneers died that snowy October. The immediate cause of their deaths was the decision of the local Florence authorities (headed by Franklin Richards) to urge the pioneers forward despite the late date. Brigham Young, as the one who developed the handcart plan, was also condemned for the disaster. But it bears noting that the poverty that had inspired the handcart plan and the animosity of the individuals in Florence that made a late departure seem desirable were both caused in large part by the Church’s stance regarding polygamy. 5
Unaware of the terrible weather ahead, Heywood left Washington DC in October to travel to Utah with the mail party. Delayed by weather, the mail party reached Devil’s Gate the day after Christmas, 1856. They spent the rest of the winter snowed in at the horrible landmark, where the bodies of the recent dead had been left. Despite the starvation conditions, the members of Heywood’s party refused to eat wolf meat. Eventually they were able to escape Devil’s Gate, arriving in Salt Lake valley on March 23. 6
1858 – The Utah War
In 1857, the United States decided to act on its paranoia about the potentially seditious activities of the Utah Mormons. Secretary of War Floyd was a Southern sympathizer and was anxious to prevent the US government from using military force against a rebellious South. The possibility that polygamous Utah was in rebellion served as a convenient pretext for sending an army thousands of miles to the west.
The army began to form in May 1857. That same month well-loved Mormon apostle Parley P. Pratt had been gunned down by the husband of Eleanor McLean, an alleged drunkard and violent man. 7 After years of abuse, Eleanor had escaped her former marriage and sought to free her children from the man she’d so feared, aided by Parley P. Pratt, who she now regarded as her husband.
Word of Parley’s death arrived with word that an army was forming to march on Utah. Brigham sent out word that no one was to interact with the various wagon trains passing through Utah. But failure to interact meant inability for these wagon trains to obtain necessary food and water. Tensions rose, resulting in the Mountain Meadows Massacre on September 11, 1857, where a group of Mormons in Iron County attacked the Baker-Fancher wagon train headed for California. Only children too young to report on the massacre were spared. 8
Brigham required the saints to gather in Provo, a settlement south of natural topography very similar to Saratoga, where the embattled Americans were finally able to turn the tide against the British during the Revolutionary War. A few men were left behind in the settlements, ready to destroy all “improvements” on the land to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Army.
Once the Army approached Utah, negotiations ensued to avoid what was anticipated to become a bloody and damaging interaction. It wasn’t until late June that terms were established, and the Army marched peacefully through the valley. By early July, when the Mormons began to return home, they had lost yet another growing season. Worst, the bodies of unfed livestock littered fields throughout the Mormon settlements. By some accounts, the Mormon economy would not recover for as much as ten years.
The Utah War, prompted in large part by outsider concerns revolving around polygamy, created horrific economic conditions that further increased the need for leading men to reach out to protect Mormon women in the community.
Meanwhile Congress passed the 1862 Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. 9 However given the US involvement in Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln decline to use the act to interfere with the Mormons so long as they left the United States alone. The act would not be upheld by the Supreme Court until 1879.
1870 – Women and the Vote
By 1870 various conditions had combined to make polygamy a marital fact for fully half of all Mormon women – they either were or had been married to a man with more than one wife.
Not obviously related, Brigham Young didn’t want anything to do with outside economies. By demonizing trade outside of the Mormon community, Brigham Young alienated merchants, particularly William Godbe. Godbe and his supporters began publishing in the Utah Magazine, a periodical that would later become the Salt Lake Tribune. In time Godbe became convinced that getting the vote to women would contribute to Brigham Young’s downfall. Godbe worked to get women the vote in Wyoming towards the end of eventually getting Mormon women the vote.
An amazing thing happened next. Both Mormon opponents and Mormon proponents decided it was in their best interest to secure the vote for women. Opponents thought the “oppressed Mormon women” would reject the political involvement of their men, and proponents saw that awarding women the vote would counter the image that Mormon women were oppressed.
While Wyoming’s fledgling vote for women got tied up in the courts, Utah’s decision to award the vote to women was celebrated by all. The size of the Mormon electorate swelled to three times the previous male-only Mormon electorate. And the women voted the way their men did.
As the opponents of Brigham Young realized their error, taking the vote away from the Mormons became the highest priority.
1882 – The Edmunds Act: Taking Away Mormon Rights
By 1879 the Supreme Court had upheld the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. Congress next moved to strip Mormons of the vote. The Edmunds Act 10 increased the penalties for bigamy, expanding the coverage of the law to include any case where a couple was determined to have been living together as man and wife, even if no marriage certificate could be found. This act of living together was termed co-habitation. During the weeks preceding passage of the act, the non-voting representative to Congress was denied his elected seat in Congress because he was a polygamist. 11
Ironically, a man keeping a mistress was not considered co-habitation. Thus the non-Mormon politicians of the day could continue carrying on as they wished. This included legalized prostitution near the army barracks, in Salt Lake City around second street, and in Ogden. 12 These legal brothels were populated with non-Mormon girls brought in to satisfy the sexual needs of non-Mormon men in the region.
From the time polygamy had been formally announced as a doctrine in 1852, Mormon apologists had argued that polygamy reduced the need for prostitution. Men commonly think this reduction was due to men being able to “get enough” at home. Women usually realize that the reduction came from women having no need to resort to the oldest profession to support their children. Even the many women who didn’t choose to marry into polygamy had vast extended families by virtue of the polygamy of others.
In an effort to destroy the Mormon influence in the region, the Edmunds Act denied the vote not only to “cohabs,” but to anyone who would not publicly recant the right of individuals to cohabitate.
1886 – John Taylor Seeks Revelation
In 1885 the hunt for the Mormon leadership had intensified to the point that John Taylor, Mormon President and prophet, decided he had to go underground.
As pressure mounted on the Church, John felt the will of his people requesting that he seek revelation on tha matter. Apparently he inquired how far the New and Everlasting Covenant was binding on the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Apparently in John’s mind, polygamy was synonymous with the New and Everlasting Covenant. Given the way he had learned of “the Principle” in Nauvoo, this was an understandable mistake, a mistake Brigham Young and Heber Kimball might not have made, had they still been alive.
The response John got demanded that the New and Everlasting Covenant remain in place. By this, John understood that he was not at liberty to end the practice of plural marriage.
Two men in the safe house where the revelation was received would play a large part in advocating polygamy after the death of John Taylor. One was John’s son, Apostle John W. Taylor. The other was the owner of the safe house, Lorin C. Woolley.
1887 – The Edmunds-Tucker Act: Taking Away Mormon Property
Four events occurred in 1887.
Sophia Whitaker, wife of John Taylor, suffered a serious stroke. As she lay near death, federal agents surrounded the home and bed where she lingered, expecting to thus entrap the Mormon Prophet. They would invade her bedroom whenever it was possible John Taylor had returned to comfort his dying wife. Sophia’s son, at the time still a monogamist, stood at her side, witnessing these indignities. Sophia would die without ever seeing her husband again, to their mutual pain. 13
David Patten Rich, son of noted polygamist Charles Coulson Rich, was arrested for robbing a bank. His example as a moral degenerate produced by Mormon polygamy became an important part in the lobbying to pass the Edmunds Tucker Act, which would confiscate the property of the Mormon Church, leaving it with no more than $50,000 in assets. 14 David Rich was convicted of felony by the law and excommunicated by the Church. His wife, Alice Ann Kimball, divorced him and married Mormon apostle, Joseph F. Smith. 15
The Edmunds-Tucker Act passed. The assets of the Mormon Church became subject to seizure. 16
Heartbroken by the death of Sophia and passage of the Edmunds-Tucker Act, John Taylor died roughly two months after receiving news of these twin disasters in the same day. 17
Before John Taylor’s death, advisors had suggested the Mormons flee to Mexico. However John did not act on this advice. Instead he had moved to transfer as much Church property as possible into private hands.
1890 – Mormons Renounce Polygamy (Part 1)
With the death of John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff became the Mormon Prophet. 18 Woodruff had not been in Nauvoo during the final period of Joseph Smith’s life, as he was heading up the Eastern States Mission at the time. Woodruff had not become a polygamist until the fall of 1846, as famine threatened the Mormons at Winter Quarters. The two young women Woodruff married would not submit to his request to avoid staying out all night with other men, so they were sent back to their families. It is not clear if these plural marriages had been consummated, nor is it certain that the women had engaged in sexual activity with the men with whom they had spent their nights.
As federal scrutiny intensified and the leaders of the Church went underground, Woodruff had ceased living with all but one of his plural wives.
In 1890 Woodruff faced the realization that the Edmunds-Tucker Act would result in the loss of the temples, the location where Mormons performed saving ordinances on behalf of their dead. He felt inspired that it was more important to retain these properties and the ability to perform the saving ordinances than maintain the practice of polygamy in mortality.
In September 1890, President Woodruff issued the Anti-Polygamy Manifesto, advising that Mormons should not enter into any future plural marriages prohibited by the law of the land. 19
Four years later, Woodruff’s revision of the Mormon understanding of temple ordinances took another dramatic turn. From the time of the 1846 temple ordinances in Nauvoo, it had not been possible for many saints to seal themselves along family lines. And so the practice had grown up of sealing people to Church leaders. In April, 1894, Wilford Woodruff stated that sealings should be performed linking individuals to their actual parents. 20 Shortly thereafter the Utah Genealogical Society was formed.
1896 – Utah Becomes A State
With Mormon polygamy renounced, the United States cautiously considered making Utah a state.
One major question was whether women would be allowed to vote in the new state. Initially advocates of statehood desired to separate women’s suffrage from the matter of statehood, concerned that opposition to giving the vote to women would further delay statehood. But support of the women led to inclusion of their right to vote with the language making Utah a state. Despite the long history of female suffrage in Utah and denial of the vote to Mormons, only Wyoming and Colorado had granted the vote to women by the time Utah became a state. Female suffrage would not be granted throughout the United States until 1920.
In the minds of many Mormons, it was unclear whether the Manifesto affected their ability to practice polygamy in other nations. Although polygamy was illegal in Canada and Mexico, those countries had not decided to take a hard stance against Mormon polygamy. Various communities, such as Colonia Juarez, Mexico, sprung up just outside the US border, filled with plural wives and their children.
Though the majority of Mormons shrugged off polygamy willingly, a select few clung to the doctrine, believing it was a critical component of the restored gospel. The days of defiance were about to begin.
Future Planned Posts:
Days of Defiance
God’s Strange Act: A Legacy
- Orson Pratt, Celestial Marriage, delivered in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, August 29, 1852.
Reported by G. D. Watt. Available online at http://jod.mrm.org/1/53, retrieved 20 July 2014. ↩
- See Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel – Chronological Company List, available online at http://history.lds.org/overlandtravels/companydatelist, retrieved 20 July 2014. ↩
- Putnam’s magazine, Vol. VI, September 1855, No. XXXIII p. 265-266, reprinted in Ipson, Ever Faithful: The Life of Joseph Leland Heywood, pp. 220-221. ↩
- It appears the marriage was more of an engagement intended to secure Mary as his wife upon his intended return a year later. Apparently Heywood married his ward at the request of his other three wives, as “they all loved her she did much to lighten the work load.” Besides this, Mary was the effective “mother” to the Paiute Indian boy Heywood had adopted. ↩
- Various sources, including Mormon Handcart Pioneers, available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormon_handcart_pioneers, retrieved 20 July 2014. ↩
- Ipson, Ever Faithful, pp. 198-202. ↩
- http://jared.pratt-family.org/parley_histories/parley-death-stephen-pratt.html, retrieved 20 July 2014. ↩
- See Mountain Meadows Massacre, available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_Meadows_massacre, retrieved 20 July 2014. ↩
- See the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morrill_Anti-Bigamy_Act, retrieved 21 July 2014. ↩
- See Edmunds Act, available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmunds_Act, retrieved 21 July 2014. ↩
- This elected representative was George Q. Cannon, a high-ranking member of the Mormon hierarchy. ↩
- Hal Schindler, The Oldest Profession’s Sordid Past in Utah, available at http://historytogo.utah.gov/salt_lake_tribune/in_another_time/theoldestprofessionssordidpastinutah.html, retrieved 21 July 2014. ↩
- Samuel Taylor, John Taylor: The Last Pioneer. ↩
- Personal account conveyed to Meg Stout. ↩
- Joseph F. Smith Marriages and Family, available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_F._Smith#Marriages_and_family, retrieved 21 July 2014. Mormon prophet, Spencer Woolley Kimball, later opined that his cousins, the children of Alice Ann by David Patten Rich, should not have been sealed to Joseph F. Smith. ↩
- See Edmunds-Tucker Act, available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmunds%E2%80%93Tucker_Act, retrieved 21 July 2014. ↩
- Samuel Taylor, John Taylor: The Last Pioneer. If the news of Sophia’s death and passage of the Act wasn’t received exactly the same day, the twin disasters were relayed close together. ↩
- See Wilford Woodruff, available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilford_Woodruff, retrieved 21 July 2014. ↩
- See 1890 Manifesto, available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1890_Manifesto, retrieved 21 July 2014. ↩
- Wilford Woodruff Sermon, available at http://scottwoodward.org/Talks/html/Woodruff,%20Wilford/WoodruffW_LawOfAdoption.html, retrieved 21 July 2014. ↩