Revisiting William Seely

Kate Vasicek Challis brings forward expanded information about William Seely (1816-1851?), first husband of Lucy Ann Decker, the first woman Brigham Young would covenant with as a plural wife. Meg Stout provides a brief response after Kate Challis’s comments.

A New Perspective on William Seely

Kate Vasicek Challis is a 30 year old wife and mother of 4 children living in Iowa, USA. She has a BA in French Teaching and a minor in TESOL K-12 (BYU ’09). She has been blogging at Czech Out Your Ancestors since 2013 and is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists.

Although I enjoyed Meg Stout’s post of 31 March 2014 titled “Wives of Sorrow,” I feel the post had some erroneous and misleading information about William Seely (1816-1851?), the first husband of Lucy Ann Decker Seely Young (1822-1890).

Meg wrote: “Lucy Ann Decker Seeley, born in 1822, was abandoned by her first husband, William, a non-Mormon who was allegedly abusive and an alcoholic.”

He was (at least at one time) a Mormon, according to his own 1840 deposition about being kidnapped by the Missouri mob at the battle of Crooked River, as well as early LDS membership records here and here. Also, according to a biography of Brigham Young, Lucy was told that William was dead, inferring that that knowledge could have influenced her decision to marry Young.

Meg continued: “William left Lucy with the couple’s three tiny children, leaving her a widow for all intents and purposes.”

It is possible that he first abandoned her with their three children (she also had an unnamed stillborn child, according to the above source), but eventually Lucy would travel west with her two children (one of the three died) in the company of Brigham Young.

Timeline:

William beats and abandons Lucy, kidnapping their 3 children.
Lucy is told William is dead.
Lucy marries Brigham Young.
Lucy recovers her children and travels west with Brigham Young to Utah.

But how does she recover them if she thinks William is dead? And when exactly did he kidnap these children? Was it a kidnapping from his perspective? It seems that all the above sources have only considered Lucy’s perspective, but the timeline of these assertions does not make sense and requires further research.

Meg continued: “It’s possible that William Seeley merely left and Brigham Young extended the young Lucy his protection. Or it’s possible that William left because Lucy had been induced to participate in illicit intercourse as a means to supplement the food and funds William was squandering with his drunken ways. A third option, that the drunken, abusive William Seeley would have been recruited to participate in Bennett’s band, seems unlikely. Bennett seemed to recruit men of power, influence, and discretion.”

In my opinion, there is a fourth option which may have contributed to William Seely’s abandonment of Lucy. Is it possible that he sustained lasting psychological damage from his experiences in Missouri that can explain, to some extent, his actions?

Let’s examine those Missouri experiences. Three Mormon men were captured by a Missouri mob in October 1838: Nathan Pinkham Jr. (1816-1889), William Seely (1816-1851? – note that there is no clear source identifying his death on Familysearch), and Addison Greene (1819-1892). Their capture set in motion the Battle of Crooked River, which was the main allegation Missourians had against the Mormons and lead directly to the infamous Extermination Order by Governor Boggs. All three of the men who were captured seem to have left the LDS church at some point in their lives, as they did not end up journeying to the Salt Lake valley with the overland pioneers. But when they were in Missouri, it seems they all were Mormons (though this should be confirmed).

Their own personal affidavits about their experiences (found here, and here) are horrifying to read.

William Seely lived on a property in Daviess County, Missouri worth $450 as a law-abiding citizen with his (probably) pregnant wife and 1 year old son. A mob of angry Missourians stormed into his house, claimed it as their own along with all his belongings, and forced him to flee with his young family immediately. He went with his family to neighboring Caldwell County. Two weeks later, William went to see Nathan Pinkham, when both he and Nathan were captured by 15 armed men, stripped, searched for weapons (he lost his jack-knife, the only defensive weapon which he had on him), then thrown out of the building, dragged along a panel of fences, and beaten.

“Are you a Mormon?”
“Yes.”
“You’ll never see your home again!” He was forced (presumably at gunpoint) to march.
“Where are you taking me?”
“To the rest of the company!”
“Who is your captain?”
“Bogart!”

Imagine his surprise when he and the other two captors (by this time, they also had kidnapped Addison Greene) found themselves face to face with a band of 70 armed men.
“What do we do with the prisoner?”
“Put him to death!”When taken to the leaders of the mob the next morning:
“What have you got there?”
“A damned mormon!”
“Where did you catch him?”
“Down [at] old Pinkham’s!”
“We’ll blow his brains out if he don’t leave here before tomorrow morning!”At some point, one of the captors tried to bribe him to renounce his faith for 40 acres of land. This captor apparently not only had the audacity to justify his thievery and violence to William (I imagine in a harsh, cruel way), but also claimed he had the right to murder him in cold blood!The next morning, their Mormon friends came to their rescue in what is known today as the Battle of Crooked River. Bogart’s men fired and killed David W. Patten (see Patten’s biography here), then one of the 12 apostles. Then they placed William Seely twelve feet in front of their line, using him as a human shield and exposing him to fire from both sides.”Fire!” Bogart yelled.

At this, Seely ran in a desperate attempt to escape his enemies. He was shot in the shoulder, fell to the ground, and thought to be dead. Fortunately, his friends grabbed him, and upon discovering he was not dead, returned him to his family. He spent the next four months recovering from his wounds.

Like most frontier Americans including the early Saints, Seely probably drank alcohol, which was probably the only cheap anesthetic available to him in his painfully injured state. If we imagine the possibility that Seely was genetically predisposed to alcoholism, suddenly we might feel a measure of sympathy for this man that wasn’t in the narrative before.

Seely went on to obey one of the most unconstitutional and anti-American state laws ever enforced in the history of the United States, Executive Order 44 aka the Extermination Order, which required him and his family (remember, his very likely pregnant wife and his one year old baby) to leave the state immediately. He went to Illinois, “in a state of extreme destitution,” with no property, no money, and no earthly possessions. He testified that though he had somewhat recovered, he was still in trauma after the violent persecution he had experienced.

I do not know what happened to William Seely after this terrifying experience. I do know that his wife, Lucy Ann Decker Seely Young, went on to become the first plural wife of Brigham Young and a remarkably strong woman whom I deeply admire. But I also admire William for refusing to denounce his faith as well as for apparently living it by following the law of the land instead of taking revenge on his enemies. Ms. Stout’s article leads us to pity Lucy, and I do. But I also pity William.

As troubled as William and Lucy’s relationship may have become, it is wrong to vilify him by asserting that there were only three possible reasons that he might have abandoned her. We simply do not have all the information about his motives, though probably if we employed the genealogical strategy of reasonably exhaustive research (which I do not claim to have done while writing this article!), we might be able to uncover more of what really happened. The more information I discovered about William Seely lead me to blur the stark lines drawn between “wife-beating, kidnapping, alcoholic apostate” and “lawful citizen and innocent victim of alcoholism and PTSD.”

I love family history research, and though neither William nor Lucy are in my (or my husband’s) vastly LDS direct genealogical lines, my experience looking at some of the unsavory imperfections of my own ancestors has led me to this conclusion: It is not our position to judge our forbears as villains, especially since our very existence is always a testimony of their heroism, at least on a personal level! We do not (and never will) have enough information to know the whole story, and thus cast final judgment. Fortunately, the prophet Mormon assures us that final judgment belongs to Jesus Christ alone as the only one who truly knows and experienced all of our pain. In the meantime, seeking additional information from primary sources will help us avoid the pernicious trap of presentism.

Meg Stout’s Response

Meg Stout has been an active member of the LDS church for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

In the years since I wrote the original posts comprising my Faithful Joseph series, I have been delighted to discover new and deeper insights into the many participants I discussed. I am delighted by Kate Challis’s additional information regarding William Seely, particularly his participation in the Battle of Crooked River and the privations he endured as the Mormons evacuated Missouri.

Kate has apparently not followed the evolution of my theses regarding what I now term the Illicit Intercourse Heresy of 1841-1842. According to my current paradigm (which can be explored in the 6th edition of Reluctant Polygamist), numerous individuals who had previously proven their mettle became embroiled in wrongful teachings and actions. According to my reconstruction, this involved individuals such as Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, Vinson Knight, Hyrum Smith, Robert Thompson, Benjamin Winchester, John Higbee, John Snider, George Miller, William Law, Almon Babbitt and Eliza Snow. Most of these repented and properly were allowed to live the rest of their lives without having their errors publicly discussed, most documentation of their errors expunged from available histories.

William Seely is one where additional investigation into his prior life leaves one with a sense of awe at his heroism and bravery in Missouri. By contrast, I would suggest that additional investigation into the life of William Noon leaves one with a sense of disappointment in that man’s depravity. There are many other instances where additional research modifies the impression one might have taken from the summaries I put forward in my concise posts from 2014.

I don’t see that the new information Kate brings forward substantially affects the likelihood that either William Seely and/or Lucy Decker had become involved in the illicit intercourse heresy. The additional information Kate brings forward does indicate William Seely had taken his children away from Lucy Decker, suggesting that William felt Lucy was the one who had acted most incorrectly. I look forward to learning more about how Lucy was able to effect the “rescue” referred to, if that information is extant.

As to the tale that William Seely was dead, it seems likely that was a version of events that was told to younger generations to simplify the story to prevent anxiety and questioning. I look forward to looking at the accounts to determine if it is credible that Lucy Decker could have believed circa 1842 that her first husband was actually dead.

Going to Crooked River, my relative Gideon Carter was killed during the altercation. He was not wearing anything that would clearly identify him as either Mormon or “mobocrat,” and his face had been blown off. We read from the records that the “mobocrats” believed that Mormons had killed at least ten of their number (only one death of those attacking the Mormons at Crooked River is substantiated). I suggest that many of these reports arose from people seeing the dead and faceless corpse of Gideon Carter and misidentifying him as one of the Missourians. I dare say some of those men went to their graves honestly believing that Mormons had killed a large number of Missourians in that battle. While this mention doesn’t directly address Kate’s comments, it goes to the fact that the full history of any event involves numerous details that humanize the participants, even in their inhumanity.

Kate concluded her comments with the following: “seeking additional information from primary sources will help us avoid the pernicious trap of presentism.” I would suggest that it isn’t presentism that plagued my 2014 post so much as the inevitable problems of attempting to paste together a narrative involving dozens and hundreds of individuals while bringing forward a perspective that is lacking from other accounts of this timeframe. Namely, I am putting forward the assertion that many good and honorable people were convinced to advocate for or participate in aberrant sexual activities circa 1841-1842, a heresy that caused horrific ramifications for the individuals involved, their families, and the Mormon movement as a whole. In the particular post Kate mentioned, I was putting forward a pattern of women who appeared to have been damaged by the illicit intercourse heresy. William’s heroics in Missouri do not negate that pattern.

I am delighted to learn more about the honor of William Seely during the Missouri persecutions. While this additional information doesn’t negate my larger thesis, it does cause me to sorrow for this one particular family caught up in the maelstrom of evil spawned by the selfish desires of Dr. John C. Bennett.

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