I May Be Related (By Marriage) to a Direct Descendant of Joseph Smith

A number of years ago, I began to see references in my family’s letters to DNA testing to see whether my brother-in-law (husband to my oldest sister) might be a descendant of Joseph Smith through his plural wife, Sylvia Sessions Lyon, and her daughter, Josephine Fisher (my BIL is a Fisher). I was totally fascinated by this, but my relatives didn’t really understand the DNA or the details of the project very well, so it was hard for me to get more specific information at that time.

A few years ago I attended the MHA conference in Killington, Vermont, and there I met Ugo Perego of the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, who happens to be the very person who is pursuing this research. That’s one of the great things about MHA; you meet the most interesting people. So I finally was able to discuss the project with him.

There are eight names that scholars have identified as possible children of Joseph through his plural wives. Two died as infants and left no posterity to test for DNA:

George Algernon Lightner (Birth: March 22, 1842)
Mother: Mary Rollins Lightner
Father: Adam Lightner

Orson Washington Hyde (Birth: November 9, 1843)
Mother: Marinda Johnson Hyde
Father: Orson Hyde

Two have been excluded as descendants of Joseph by study of Joseph’s Y-chromosome:

Moroni Pratt (Birth: December 7, 1844)
Mother: Mary Ann Frost
Father: Parley P. Pratt

Zebulon Jacobs (Birth: January 2, 1842)
Mother: Zina Huntington Jacobs
Father: Henry Jacobs

See Ugo’s “Reconstructing the Y-Chromosome of Joseph Smith,” Journal of Mormon History 32/2 (Summer 2005).

That leaves four possibilities (although Ugo is still pursuing some other leads):

Josephine Lyon (Birth: February 8, 1844)
Mother: Sylvia Sessions Lyon
Father: Windsor Lyon

Oliver Buell (Birth: 1838 – 39)
Mother: Presendia Huntington Buell
Father: Norman Buell

Frank Henry Hyde (Birth: January 23, 1845, 1846?)
Mother: Marinda Johnson Hyde
Father: Orson Hyde

John Reed Hancock (Birth: April 19, 1841)
Mother: Clarissa Reed Hancock
Father: Levi Hancock

The strongest circumstantial evidence favors Josephine Fisher as a daughter of Joseph. Josephine (note the feminine form of the name “Joseph”) wrote:

Just prior to my mothers death in 1882 she called me to her bedside and told me that her days were numbered and before she passed away from mortality she desired to tell me something which she had kept as an entire secret from me and from all others but which she now desired to communicate to me. She then told me that I was the daughter of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Of course, descent from Joseph through Josephine cannot be studied by the Y-chromosome, since she was a daughter, not a son. To definitively make this conclusion using DNA evidence will require a complex study of autosomal DNA. I know Ugo was going to visit a Joseph Smith family reunion to try to get a larger database of Joseph Smith descendant DNA for such purposes; I haven’t heard whether he was successful in that effort. I do know that the research to try to confirm or disconfirm Josephine as a daughter of Joseph has cost into the six figures so far.

I think this is all very exciting, and I personally am rooting for a positive conclusion. I think it would be totally cool if my BIL and nieces and nephews were direct descendants of Joseph through one of his plural wives.

Comments

  1. Kevin: My wife is a direct descendant of Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner. We have always understood, based on Mary’s autobiography and other writings that she was eight months pregnant with George Algernon when she married Joseph. If that is true, there is no basis to believe that George have been fathered by Joseph. Can you explain the basis for the speculation that he was?

  2. Kevin: Are you sure you don’t mean Florentine? That’s the only child of Mary Elizabeth that could be Joseph’s by my reckoning.

  3. Kevin: After doing a little more research, my wife and I are sure we are correct on this point. Email me if you want to hear more about it.

  4. All the children listed above have both a mother and a non-Joseph father. What does this mean?
    1) These are some of Joseph’s polyandrous wives?
    2) If their marriage to Joseph was a secret, these women were going around Nauvoo appearing to be unwed mothers?

  5. Joanne, the standard understanding then and now is that if there were plural children of JSJ, they were raised as the children of other fathers.

    The Antis said there was a house for unwed mothers, and it was all kept hush-hush, but based on the data I’ve seen, this was not based in fact. There were others less circumspect in Nauvoo, though, and unwed motherhood was a great social sin at the time, so it is possible that Nauvoo had a way to deal with hiding the problem.

    My memory of Rollins Lightner is that she claimed that one of her children was Joseph’s.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Joanne, the fathers named are the putative fathers who raised the children as their own. These listings are not meant to establish paternity.

    MCQ, I’ll have to look into why some people have suggested Mary Elizabeth might have had a child by Joseph. In a 1905 speech at Brigham Young University, she said:

    I know he [Joseph] had six wives and I have known some of them from childhood up. I know he had three children. They told me. I think two are living today but they are not known as his children as they go by other names.

    ["Remarks", April 14, 1905, BYU Lee Library.]

    These remarks suggest to me that there were perhaps three chldren of Joseph raised under other names, but that she was not the mother of one of them. If she was this forthcoming about the subject, I suspect if she had mothered one of them she would have acknowledged it.

    Please keep in mind that this list of eight possible children is not based on Ugo’s research, but suggestions made in the past by others that he is examining.

  7. Mary Rollins Lightner was married to a non-Mormon concurrently with her plural marriage to Joseph Smith. Presendia Huntington Buell’s concurrent husband, during her Smith plural marriage, was a disaffected Mormon. Zina Huntington Jacobs’s first husband was a friend to Joseph Smith and a devoted missionary and member of the church. Sylvia Sessions Lyon’s civil-marriage husband during her marriage to Smith was a faithful member who loaned Smith money after the plural marriage. Marinda Johnson Hyde and Mary Ann Frost were civilly married to Apostles during their plural marriages to Smith. Clarissa Reed Hancock had been married since 1834 to an 1830 convert to Mormonism, veteran of Zion’s Camp, and one of the seven presidents of the Seventy.

    All of the suspected children of Joseph Smith through plural wives thus involve polyandry. Unwed mothers roaming the streets of Nauvoo was a problem that didn’t arise. Some stories of heartbreak regarding first husbands certainly did arise, however.

    Regarding Rollins Lightner, she certainly claimed that Joseph Smith had descendants through his plural wives. In an April 14, 1905, speech at BYU (much more interesting than some of the campus devotionals I attended there), Rollins said:

    I know he [Joseph] had six wives and I have known some of them from childhood up. I know he had three children. They told me. I think two are living today but they are not known as his children as they go by other names.

    Lightner clearly undercounted Smith’s wives, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate her claims about children. However, I am not aware of an instance in which Lightner claimed to have had one of Smith’s children.

  8. Kevin: jinx. You owe me a Coke.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m not sure what this is, but in the last paragraph of this text, it reads: “It is possible that Mary’s fourth son, born in 1843, was Joseph’s child and that Adam Lightner’s desire to move from Nauvoo came from suspicion or actual knowledge of the relationship between Joseph and his wife.”

    So this text does indeed suggest the speculation is on a later son.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    I found the following paragraph from an anti site:

    Researchers have tentatively identified eight children that Joseph Smith may have had by his plural wives. Besides Josephine Fisher (b. Feb. 8, 1844) and Oliver Buell, named as possible children of Joseph Smith by his plural wives are John R. Hancock (b. Apr. 19, 1841), George A. Lightner (b. Mar. 12, 1842), Orson W. Hyde (b. Nov. 9, 1843), Frank H. Hyde (b. Jan 23, 1845), Moroni Pratt (b. Dec. 7, 1844), and Zebulon Jacobs (b. Jan 2, 1842). (“Mormon Polygamy: A History” by LDS Historian Richard S. Van Wagoner, pages 44, 48- 49n3.)

    This suggests that the list of eight possible children derives from Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy: A History. My copy is buried in my bedroom (we’re rebuilding some bookshelves), so I can’t check the original to see what he says about it.

  11. Since it is now possible to extract DNA from bones, it seems to me that such enquiries may not need to be limited to Y-chromosone and mitrochondial DNA studies. Instead of looking only at the DNA of distant but living descendents, we could now investigate the bodies of Joseph’s suspected children.

    One would have to be able to extract Joseph’s own DNA. If the researchers could also recover the DNA of the suspected mothers and their original husbands then more powerful paternity tests will be possible.

    Of course, one would have to identify graves and exhume remains but that’s not unusual in historical research.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    That was weird, J.; at first I had three comments in a row, and then your two additional ones popped up after my first but before my second and third. But I’ll definitely buy you a Coke the next time I see you.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Here is an article from the Deseret News in 2005 that mentions this research.

  14. JNS and Kevin — thanks for the 1905 Lightner quote from a BYU Devotional. It looks like Latter-day Saints have been aware of Joseph Smith’s polygamy for quite some time after all.

  15. Costanza says:

    John,
    In the 19th century church leaders talked about it all the time, in large measure in response to RLDS claims that Brigham introduced plural marriage. After polygamy finally died out among LDS church leaders (ca.1910), Joseph’s polygamy was brought up much less frequently.

  16. It really surprised me as an immigrant that so many American Mormons were surprised about Joseph Smith’s polygamy, John. That and the priesthood for Africans were the negatives that we all knew about that. We did not know about women with several husbands or the controversies about New Mormon History.

    I guess that the state churches had an interest in disseminating information about Joseph’s polygamy but their approach to Mormonism was not sophisticated enough to capitalize on contemporary cleavages.

  17. Maryh Elizabeth never admiiied to a sexual relationship with Joseph, much less that she had a son by him. George Algernon is mathematically excluded from being a son of Joseph. He was born in March 1842 and Mary Elizabeth was not in Nauvoo until January of 1842.

    Unless you believe in immaculate conception or the shortest gestational period on record, it’s impossible. Florentine was conceived sometime in June of 1842. That is the only child of Mary Elizabeth that was conceived at a time when she was in the same city as Joseph. If she had a sexual relationship with Joseph, it could only have lasted from March to July of 1842.

    The reason she and her husband Adam left Nauvoo was because Adam found work in Pontoosuk. Adam loved Joseph all his life and never spoke a work against him, that is recorded, to my knowledge. He risked his life for the Prophet many times.

    Does it need to be said that you shouldn’t believe everything you read on an anti site?

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    MCQ, what in the world makes you think I believe it? You asked for the source of the claim, and I found one for you. Until I see more, I agree with you that George Algernon was not sired by Joseph. Florentine remains an open question.

  19. Sorry, Kevin, I didn’t mean it that way. I have found a lot of false material about Mary Elizabeth on the internet over the years and it irks me. One site I found claimed that she admitted that her daughter (whom the site called Josephine) was Joseph’s. Obviously, they were mixing up two different wives.

  20. Also, Kevin, I believe you are correct that if she had a child by Joseph she would have admitted it. She was very proud of her marriage to Joseph and spoke of it publicly many times during her life.

    If Florentine were fathered by Joseph then Mary Elizabeth would have been pregnant with Florentine at the time that she left Nauvoo with Adam.

    a story: Just before Adam and Mary Elizabeth left Nauvoo in July of 1842, Joseph made a last ditch effort to get Adam baptized. The effort was a hilariously elaborate ruse involving rebaptism of most of Adam’s family and others just to convice Adam to get in the water. He refused. Joseph then prophesied privately to Mary Elizabeth that Adam would never be baptized unless it was a few minutes before his death. That prophecy was fulfilled, as was Joseph’s prophecy that the family would have terrible calamities if they left Nauvoo.

    Soon after leaving, Mary Elizabeth’s oldest child died of illness. In June 1843, their house was struck by lightning, nearly killing them all. Later, George and Florentine died by poisoning from a travelling snake-oil salesman.

    I believe Mary Elizabeth would never have left Nauvoo if she was pregnant with Joseph’s child at the time. I also believe she would have been very proud of Florentine’s parentage if that had been the case, and she would have spoken of it many times during her lifetime.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, MCQ, I get the same sense of pride in the connection that you describe. It’s way cool that your wife is a direct descendant of her.

  22. Thanks, Kev, it will be even cooler if they find direct living descendants of Joseph. I always find it amazing that with all the (33? 34? 42?) plural wives, and all the supposed sex, they haven’t come up with more than a few alleged children. My own explanation for this is that here wasn’t that much sex, but who knows?

    Sorry that I totally jacked this thread, but to get back on track, is there a timetable for when the DNA tests are supposed to be complete?

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    I don’t think there’s a timetable, because the kind of multigeneration autosomal DNA study it is going to take is really cutting edge stuff.

  24. re # 15, I know that the Church and its members often discussed and used Joseph Smith’s polygamy as an argument against RLDS claims that Brigham Young was not a prophet because of his practice of polygamy. My comment was an expression of my incredulity at many who say that they never knew Joseph Smith was a polygamist and then because they did not know this, claim that the Church was hiding something or covering something up. I don’t believe this is the case and I always find it amazing when some Latter-day Saint says that they didn’t know Joseph Smith was a polygamist.

  25. Costanza says:

    John,
    I know what you were arguing. My point was that, in fact, one was much less likely to hear about Joseph’s polygamy in the nineteenth century than the twentieth. There was clearly a shift in emphasis. They may not have been “hiding it” but the church has certainly kept it well out of the mainstream of church discourse for about 100 years. I don’t think that members who have followed that mainstream church discourse and have not heard of Joseph’s polygamous marriages deserve your incredulity for wondering why it isn’t as widely discussed as it once was.

  26. Costanza says:

    Reverse my first sentence. Much more likely to have heard about it in the 19th century.

  27. John #25, it is instructive, though, that Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner — one of Joseph Smith’s wives, no less — radically underestimated the number of wives that Joseph Smith had. Misinformation about Joseph Smith’s polygamy is evidently very old indeed.

  28. Kevin Barney says:

    Here’s an interesting article about James Sorenson, the Utah billionaire who is behind this research.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] I mentioned in the thread to Kevin’s post, my wife is a descendant of Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner.  You may not believe this now, but I [...]

  2. [...] Elizabeth Rollins Lightner As I mentioned in the thread to Kevin’s post, my wife is a descendant of Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner. You may not believe this now, but I [...]

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