There’s a fun headline from a Southern Utah news station today, “Cousin to Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith reveals truth behind polygamy.” Apparently the descendants of one of Joseph Smith’s cousins, Jesse N. Smith, are having a big family reunion later this month in Orem, Utah, and inviting the media to attend. “It is the hope of reunion organizers that media might observe and ask questions of descendants of early polygamists to gain a better understanding of the practice of polygamy.”
I was amused when I read the description of the exemplar polygamist family: “Jesse N. Smith became a prominent church and political leader. He practiced plural marriage and eventually married five wives. Jesse, together with them, successfully raised 44 children. Jesse’s wives wrote in their journals that all the wives and the children all got along well together.” That’s cool – one husband, five wives, and 44 children, and there were never any family problems. Yup, completely believable. And totally typical of the historical Mormon polygamy experience.
I have 16 different male Mormon polygamist ancestors and a love of family history. Here’s something I’ve learned: there is no “typical” Mormon polygamist family. But you don’t have to take my word for it. From the official First Presidency-approved gospel topics essay: “Where the family lived—whether in Salt Lake City, with its multiple social and cultural opportunities, or the rural hinterlands, where such opportunities were fewer in number—made a difference in how plural marriage was experienced. It is therefore difficult to accurately generalize about the experience of all plural marriages.”
One thing’s for certain, five wives aren’t a good representation of historical polygamy. From the essay, “Although some leaders had large polygamous families, two-thirds of polygamist men had only two wives at a time.” The key phrase here is “at a time.” It’s one thing to describe someone as a polygamist. It’s another thing to actually look over the lifetime of that guy and see when wives were living concurrently. What’s interesting is how much it can impact your perspective.
A year ago I was sitting in the temple with a distant cousin my same age (mid-thirties). We were attending a family temple day in honor of our common Mormon pioneer ancestor. I can’t remember how it came up, but she referenced the pioneer’s practice of polygamy and his five wives with the normal roll of the eyes and nervous laugh. I countered, “Well, you got to remember only three of those wives were plural wives.” Because, you know, I’m a nerd. But I’m also a girl, and I knew the information would be helpful. “See, he was married to his first wife for, like, twenty years before he ever took on plural wives. Then he married those three sisters all at once. Thing is, they only lived like that a few years (6, tops) before he was a monogamist again. The first wife and one of the plural wives died. The other plural wife divorced him. He was down to just the one plural wife for a couple years. Then she died. That’s when he married his fifth wife. He was a monogamist for the vast majority of the time.” She thought about it and smiled a little, like I knew she would. Hello, none of us like the idea of polygamy.
Want something else likely more “typical?” From the essay: “Church leaders recognized that plural marriages could be particularly difficult for women.” Whoa, understatement. A female ancestor said one day her husband “got it in his head” to get a second wife. She said it felt like her husband died the day he married the other girl. Another ancestor told her husband that if he took a second wife he’d never be allowed back in her house. In another case, my ancestor was the much younger plural wife who made the first wife crazy jealous. Another first wife ancestor ended up refusing to go with her husband and his two younger plural wives down to Mexico. She wanted to stay near her grown kids in Utah, and she felt there was nothing for her if she went with her husband. I had another guy who married three sisters (different from the one I talked about before). My family always said there was a running joke about why it was good to marry biological sisters – they knew how to live with each other without killing each other. The majority of my female ancestors who dealt with plural marriage didn’t leave a record about how they personally felt about it. I know some of the plural marriages were the “taking care of old widows” type, so at least they probably had little drama.
Finally, if you’re going to talk “truth” of polygamy, you need to cover different time periods. The token polygamist, Jesse N. Smith, first got married in 1852, so we’ve totally missed all the early Nauvoo plural marriages (come on, I have four guys who were polygamists during Joseph Smith’s lifetime). His last marriage is in 1881, so we don’t get any of the post-Manifesto polygamy intrigue (he spent one year in Mexico pre-Manifesto. Pfft.). I don’t even see anything about fundamentalist trouble (one of mine got excommunicated for performing plural marriages after 1904, just so ya know).
Look, I’m all about family history and I’m 100% supportive of big family reunions, but claiming to have the “truth” about Mormon polygamy? Good luck with that.
 It’s a hilarious brand name for Utah-made vodka, though.
 Yes, I minimized the impact of polygamy to my cousin. I felt sorry for her. Sue me.
 It didn’t help when he moved away to escape government officials and left his first wife alone for two years. She got fed up, packed her family in a wagon, and chased him down.
 He moved out and got a second wife. My grandma told me about this woman (her great-grandma) to explain where she got her “feistiness” from. Then she cleared her throat and said we probably weren’t supposed to share those stories. My grandma was awesome.
 Why would the jealousy be mentioned to later descendants? Because the plural wife died young leaving a little girl. The first wife felt so guilty that she vowed to love and raise that little girl like she was one of her own children.
 Near as I can tell this family got along pretty well. They were relatively wealthy, though. All the kids (sons and daughters) were well-educated.
 At least they’ll have a Brigham Young reenactor. If you want to give the media good sound bites on polygamy, he’s definitely the go-to guy.