William Henry Harrison Sagers: a brief history

When my father joined the church in Chicago in 1966, he was confident he was the first and only Mormon in his family. Much later, while doing family history research, he discovered his great grandmother was born in Tooele, Utah; and her mother was a wife of William Henry Harrison Sagers.

Sagers (going by William early on, switching to Harrison at some point, and maybe preferring Henry late in life) was from Gennesee Co., NY, and probably joined the church in Erie County in January 1833. He served several missions, including to New Orleans and Jamaica. He was part of Zion’s Camp and was called to the high Council of Adam-ondi-Ahman. By 1835 he was married and had a son.

In November 1843, in Nauvoo, Sagers was brought before the High Council, on the charge of seduction. Joseph Smith described it:

In the evening the High Council sat on the case of Harrison Sagers, charged with seduction, and having stated that I had taught it was right. Charge not sustained. I was present with several of the Twelve, and gave an address tending to do away with every evil, and exhorting them to practice virtue and holiness before the Lord; told them that the Church had not received any permission from me to commit fornication, adultery, or any corrupt action; but my every word and action has been to the contrary. If a man commit adultery, he cannot receive the celestial kingdom of God. Even if he is saved by any kingdom, it cannot be the celestial kingdom. I did think that the many examples that have been made manifest, such as John C. Bennett’s and others, were sufficient to show the fallacy of such a course of conduct. I condemned such actions in toto, and warned the people present against committing such evils; for it will surely bring a curse upon any person who commits such deeds.[1]

Context matters here. JSJ’s first documented plural marriage happened in 1841, and George D. Smith asserts that by the end of 1843, 56 polygomous marriages had been performed, involving 17 men.[2] A letter to the editor of the anti-Mormon Warsaw Signal about the trial said,

‘I heard considerable talk of the doctrine of Spiritual Wives, which doctrine, I find has been, and is now being taught to a great extent in that place…. I was happy to learn that there was to be a trial of one of their Priests, not for teaching said doctrine, but for teaching it too publicly.’[3]

Sagers was charged again, in 1844, ‘for teaching spiritual wife doctrine and neglecting his family.’[4] It was turned over to the high council and this appeared in the infamous Nauvoo Expositor in June 1844:

One Cent Reward.
WHEREAS my husband, the Rt. Rev. W. H. Harrison Sagers, Esq., has left my bed and board without cause or provocation, this is to notify the public not to harbor or trust him on my account, as I will pay no debts of his contracting. More anon.
LUCINDA SAGERS. June 7, 1844.[5]

In his study of early polygamists, Gary James Bergera includes this in a footnote, explaining why he does not count Sagers in his as a pre-martyrdom polygamist:

Sagers was linked sexually to his sister-in-law, Phebe Madison, in late 1843, but she married civilly shortly before he was tried for adultery and forgiven. While Joseph Smith subsequently explained plural marriage to Sagers and others, there is no evidence that Sagers contracted an officially sanctioned plural marriage prior to Smith’s death.[6]

In 1846, Sagers received his endowment and married three women: Sarah Lurena Bailey, Olive Amanda Wheaton and Harriet Emeline Barney.[7] He probably lived in St. Louis during this time, and in 1850, he went west in the Edgar Hunter Company with three wives, but two were new: Harriet Emeline Barney Sagers (aged 19), Lucy Marilla Wheaton Sagers (29) and Ruth Adelia Wheaton Sagers (17).[8]

Arriving in Utah, the family settled in Tooele and the children came, about one a year. Sagers married Francis Adams in 1852, but it ended in divorce with no children.

In 1856, Harriet (the ‘oldest’ of the wives at the time) married Brigham Young, after, one assumes, she was divorced from Sagers. Young had Sagers’ children sealed to him. Sagers married Marion Smith in 1858 and had several more children by her. The next record of him is that he died in 1887 in Blackfoot, Idaho.

Conclusions
I admit that I have became obsessed by Sagers. He seemed to challenge so much of what I thought about polygamy, which was, admittedly, not much. The idea that polygamist families were stable and static does not seem to be supported by the reading I’ve done. The amount of divorce and remarriage in this period really surprised me. So did the practice of marrying siblings in a polygamous family. George Smith says it was common, but I didn’t expect it at all.

Sagers also seemed to have a relationship with the church I find odd but not bad. Here’s a guy that publicly exposes the prophet for teaching polygamy when it was meant to be kept secret and in theory perverts a sacred doctrine for his own gain — on one hand he wasn’t punished, and on the other he remains faithful enough to be endowed and head west. There seems to be a measure of fairness and forgiveness in the face of a challenge to authority along with real devotion. How he dealt with Harriet and Brigham I can’t imagine.

I was also frustrated by how little I could find out about the Wheaton sisters. They seem to have been early members, but I couldn’t find any mention of them, except as spouses.

Our family myth is that Sager’s wife Lucy Wheaton, my g-g-g-grandmother, was a polygamy runaway. We have no proof of that except that she appears to have died in New York, but I think it has insulated my father’s sensibilities about polygamy. If one is to have polygamists in the family, his reasoning probably goes, it’s better to have eventually repentant polygamists.

Other observations and conclusions are welcome.
_________________________________________________

A disclaimer: it’s really hard to get access to church history sources out here in the outer reaches. There are doubtlessly flaws here which I’m happy to have pointed out.

All other information comes from familysearch dot org.
[1] HC 6:81
[2] Smith, George D. ‘Nauvoo Roots of Mormon Polygamy, 1841-46: A Preliminary Demographic Report.’ Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Vol. 34, no. 1&2, Spring/Summer 2001. p. 123-158.
[3] Warsaw Signal, March 20, 1844, 2. From ‘Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy, Vision Articles — The Harrison Sagers Case.’ Restoration Bookstore. Online resource.
[4] HC 6:333
[5] ‘1844 Nauvoo Expositor newspaper: pages 3-4.’ Solomon Spaldingdotcom. Online resource.
[6] Bergera, Gary James. ‘Identifying the Earliest Mormon Polygamists, 1841-44.’ Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Vol. 38, no. 3, Fall 2005. p. 1-74.
[7] ‘Early Latter-day Saints Database: William Henry Harrison Sagers.’ Early Latter-day Saints. Online resource.
[8] ‘Pioneer Company Search Results (Edward Hunter Company).’ Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel, 1847–1868. Online resource.

Comments

  1. Norbert, this is a very intriguing post. Thanks.

    Brown’s Nauvoo Sealaings, Adoptions and Anointing lists only two wives being sealed to him in the Nauvoo temple, both by Heber C. Kimball: Olive Amanda Wheaton and Sarah Loren Bailey. He also notes that Sarah is listed as “Sarah Sagers” on the Temple record which implies that they had previously been married/sealed. Sarah was also admitted to the Relief Society on June 23, 1842 as Sarah Sagers.

    Some other references that you might be interested in are in Collier’s Nauvoo High Council Minute Book. Search for “Harrison Sagers” “Harrison Sagars.” In fact, I’m not completely certain that there isn’t more than one Harrison Sagars/Sagers.

    The JS sermon from the HC is originally from Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, Vol. 2, p.328.

    Some other materials:
    He wrote a letter published in Times and Seasons, Vol.2, p.445.

    Black’s Membership lists four other wives that appear to have joined him in Utah.

  2. Norbert,

    Good post.

    I just glanced over my family history to make sure, and I see men marrying sisters all over the place. Polygamy took a toll on those who participated, without question. Our first six prophets (Smith, Young, Taylor, Woodruff, Snow, J. F. Smith) were all divorced men.

  3. Before the polygamy discussion begins, a note on Bro. Sagers’s name. He was born in May 1814, in Genesee County, New York (just east of Erie County, where Buffalo is located). His parents were clearly conversant with current events, as their son was named for perhaps the greatest military hero of the day, William Henry Harrison.

    Harrison, then governor of Indiana, led the American troops against Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe in November 1811, and his victory there was an important step in ending Tecumseh’s dreams of a united Indian confederacy. Two years later he led American forces who defeated the British and their Indian allies (including Tecumseh) at the Battle of the Thames–the one in Ontario, not England. American victories in the War of 1812 were rare, and Harrison was the most successful of American generals up to the birth of Bro. Sagers.

    Harrison was elected President nearly 30 years later–at that time the oldest man ever elected President. But, alas, he served only 30 days, succumbing to pneumonia which he caught after refusing to wear an overcoat at his inauguration.

    If only Bro. Sagers had been born a year later. Harrison had by then been supplanted by Andrew Jackson, the hero of New Orleans, so Norbert’s post might have been about his ancestor Andrew Jackson Sagers.

  4. Wonderful post, Norbert. What a great history.

  5. This post shows why I can’t stand it when polygamy gets discussed as a simple, black-and-white issue. (only choices being “obviously God’s ultimate plan for mortality” vs. “obviously of the devil”) It wasn’t well understood (at least with a degree of “universal/Church-wide” understanding) when it was instituted (seemingly even by Joseph); it wasn’t well understood at any time prior to the Manifesto; it was deeply faith-building *and* deeply divisive and faith-damaging; it still remains one of the most complex issues of our entire religious history.

    Thanks, Norbert.

  6. Last Lemming says:

    a note on Bro. Sagers’s name

    My wife is a descendant of WHH Sagers. One of her aunts wrote a history of the Sagers family that includes a priceless analysis of WHH’s name. I will look it up and post it tonight after I get home.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Yup, there were lots of sisters married to the same man. In this article, Julie Hemming Savage, “Hannah Grover Hegsted and Post-Manifesto Plural Marriage,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26/3 (Fall 1993): 101-17, it talks about a descendant of Thomas Grover. I am descended from this woman’s sister, married to the same man. And my ancestor Thomas Grover had sisters among his wives as well.

  8. Kevin,

    I guess there always was a reason I liked you.

    Apparently blood is thicker then water. I am related to your Rexburg Grovers and hence you distantly.

  9. Interesting story, Norbert. W.H.H. Sagers seems to have had quite the life.

    Re #6, I noticed that a book entitled The Sagers Clan has been repeatedly offered on the Deseret Book auction site in recent weeks.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    bbell, when I first moved to the Chicago area there was a woman in my ward who was also descended from Thomas Grover (through a different wife), so we would call each other “cousin.”

  11. Last Lemming says:

    I noticed that a book entitled The Sagers Clan has been repeatedly offered on the Deseret Book auction site in recent weeks.

    That’s the one. I had no idea it was so valuable. Stay tuned for excerpts.

  12. Jessie Embry’s Spring 1992 JMH article on taboos and polygamy notes that in 25 percent of the families that she studied for her book Mormon Polygamous Families, and 20 percent of the cases in Kimball Young’s Isn’t One Wife Enough?, men married sisters (pp. 101-102).

    Kathryn Daynes’ book More Wives Than One states that 12 percent of the men in the Manti community that she studied married their sisters-in-law (p. 70).

  13. Last Lemming, it probably isn’t that valuable. The same seller has other auctions where he has $30 books listed for $150.

  14. Yeah,

    My wife and I have several distant relatives in my current ward. Its a weird small world sometimes eh?

    Interestingly enough the latest living “sanctioned polygamists” that I can find passed away in the 50′s involved Camilla Eyring Kimball’s Father and his 2 wives who were sisters (Romney)

    Our current Eyring apostle probably knows more about post manifesto polygamy then anyone around since he witnessed it first hand as a young adult in the 1950′s

  15. My wife’s grandmother was Camilla Eyring’s half sister born to the other wife of Eyring. She is still alive and has some interesting stories to tell.

  16. Last Lemming says:

    From page 19 of The Sagers Clan.

    “We have to wonder why he was given so many names. The ‘William’ was probably to honor his uncle, William Sagers, who was pioneering the area with John. The ‘Henry’ was no doubt in honor of John’s father, John Henry Sagers, who we first found in Connecticut and then in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. We have not found any specific link which might establish a reason for the ‘Harrison’, except that his great-grandmother in Connecticut was Sarah Harris.

    “Some relatives suggest he may have been named for the William Henry Harrison who rose to fame before and during the War of 1812 as a great military leader, gaining victory at Tippecanoe and Thames. There is this possibility, of course, for parents often name their children for famous people. But I venture a guess that if the mystery is ever to be cleared up, we will have to ask John and Amy, or Harrison himself, when we next meet them!”

  17. Last Lemming says:

    Another interesting excerpt from page 55.

    “Harrison was [in 1841] the first LDS missionary sent to Jamaica. Church leaders felt that he, with his long experience plus his spirituality, dedication, and winning personality, could surely touch the hearts of the Spanish and English people in this predominantly black area, if anyone could.”

  18. It is worth pointing out, with all this talk of men marrying sisters, that what is meant is that a man would marry two women who were sisters of each other, not that a man would marry his own sisters.

  19. Interesting suggestion as to the names. Frankly, I’m puzzled though that the link to “Old Tippecanoe” is downplayed. How ever many Williams and Henrys and Harrises the guy has in his near family, how else do you account for the precise ordering of the names? And, consider that he was at the peak of his fame (until the late 1830′s, when he ran for President twice) at the time of Bro. Sagers’s birth.

    Maybe the author of The Sagers Clan was a Democrat, and couldn’t bring herself to accept that a relative had been named for a Whig. Sort of like my Republican cousins trying to explain away how their father, born 1934, was named Delano.

  20. Last Lemming says:

    I have yet to meet a Democrat among my in-laws. I think the author was just projecting her preferred method of naming children onto her ancestors.

  21. Kevin,
    Just stumbled on to your web page and found your synopsis of WHH Sagers. I have been trying to piece together what happened in my father’s family. He died when I was 4 so I never found what him and his father had to say. I was born into the Mormon Culture a retained a place in that for 65 years. I was told I was a descendant of Brigam Young and did not begin to find the truth until I was 65years old. I am now 83 and my wife also descended from polygamous family as Harold B. Lee was a 3rd. cousin. The facts are my gradfather was a son of Joseph Ormal (Sagers) and Arrabella Bird one of JO(sagers)Young’s plural wives. His mother Harriet Barney (Sagers)Young was Married to WHHS who had 4 children with Sagers and my great grandfather JOSagers Young was one of them. Harriet Barney is my GGgrandmother. I have had the name YOUNG all my life due to the fact Brigham her Sager children were adopted by BY when he Married Harriet Barney Sagers. My family members, Sister, Mother, all my Aunt’s, Uncles and cousins by the dozen never spoke a word. I was born in Pocatello, ID. just 30 miles from where WHHSagers was buried at Blackfoot, ID. It is encreduless to me that my grandfather who was alive at that time never mentioned it. It sounds like most of the participants on your site are Mormon and well educated. I only had a HS education so forgive me for errors in my writing. I served in the USNavy during WWII and worked in sales until I was 74. I have watched the church change over the years in many things that I felt were teachings set in concrete. At the time I found out about Sagers I began to study Christianity. I wrote a letter to my Bishop and Stake President. Because I had been a Bishop they called my wife and I into High Council court. When I told them I believed the literal translation of the Bible to trump anything Joseph had written. I told them I had found a different Christ than the one I had worshiping. I explained to all my friends in the High Councel that I was now a Born Again Christian. The upshot is that they excommunicated us in 1988. All my Mormon family shunned me for a few years and now that I am 83 they keep calling wanting to know when I planned to return Mormonism I tell them the truth as I am able in a kind way to talk about my Christianity. They tell me we should just agree to disagree but they go right on with Mormon speak because that is who they are completely.

    Forgive my message to you for gramitical errors and etc. God Bless, Walt Young

  22. Connell O'Donovan says:

    The History of the Church quote [footnote 1] is actually based on Wilford Woodruff’s journal, and made to sound like Joseph Smith wrote it. Here’s Wilford’s text from November 25, 1843, which is slightly different:

    I was called in the evening to a Council with the Twelve. When I arived at Joseph Smith’s Store I found the High Council sitting on a [William Henry] case of Harrison Sagers for some improper Conduct or offer towards some female.

    At the close President Joseph Smith made an address upon the subject which was highly interesting & its tendency was to do away with evry evil & practice virtue & Holiness before the Lord. That the Church had not received any license from him to commit adultery fornication or any such thing but to the contrary if any man Commit adultery He Could not receive the Ceslestial (sic) kingdom of God. Even if he was saved in any kingdom it could not be the Celestial kingdom.

    He said he thought the many examples that had been manifest John C Bennet & others was sufficient to show the fallacy of such a course of conduct. He condemned the principle in toto & warned those present against going into those evils, for they would shurely bring a Curse upon their heads.
    ___
    The Nauvoo High Council Mintues Book for Nov. 21, 1843 records:

    Joseph Smith against Harrison Sagers.
    Charge.
    “Nauvoo City November 21st 1843.
    Brother Marks
    Dear Sir I hereby prefer the following charges against Elder Harrison Sagers, namely:
    1st For trying to seduce a young girl, living at his house by the name of Phoebe Madison.
    2nd For using my name in a blasphemous manner, by saying that I tolerated such things, in which thing he is guilty of lying &c. &c.
    Joseph Smith”

    The defendant pled not guilty. One were appointed to speak on a side, Viz 7) [Thomas] Grover and 8) [Aaron] Johnson.

    The charge was not sustained, but it appeared that he had taught false doctine, which was correced by President Joseph Smith, and the defendant was continued in the church. Council adj’d till Saturday the 9th day of Dec. next at 2 O’clock P. M.

    Hosea Stout Clerk
    ____

    Then again on April 13, 1844, the High Council tried him a second time:

    Lucinda Sagers against Harrison Sagars.
    Charge.
    “To the Presidency and the Twelve.
    Inasmuch as you have declared officially that you will deal with all persons who teach or have taught the abominable doctrine of Spiritual wives – This is to notify you that Harrison Sagars is guilty of [that - struck out] said sin, which thing can be proven by credible witnesses, and if he is not chastised for it by the church, the law of the land will be enforced against him.

    H. Sagars left his family in December last, since which time he has not provided for them in any way what ever. The cause of the innocent demand action immediately and you are the ones to take the matter in hand.

    Lucinda Sagers.”

    “Brother Harrison Sagers.
    Dear Sir as this complaint has been handed over to the High Council, by the First Presidency to act upon. You are requested to appear before said Council on Saturday the 13th inst. at my house at 2 o’clock P.M. to answer the [within - struck out] above charges.

    Nauvoo City April 10 1844. William Marks, President
    of Said Council”

    Defendant pled not guilty. Two were appointed to speak on a side to wit 5) D. Fullmer & 7) J.G. Devine on the part of the palintiff and 6) G.W Harris and 8) A Johnson on the part of the defendent.

    Decided that as the first part of the charge had been brought before the Council before and he tried on it; that the Council had no right to deal with it again. [Here my notes end. I did not copy the next page. Sorry!]

  23. Connell O'Donovan says:

    Sorry about the emoticon – Apparently an 8 with a right parenthesis next to it translates into a Happy Face.

    If you have any questions, contact me at odonovan@ucsc.edu

  24. Connell O'Donovan says:

    The rest of the April 13, 1844 Nauvoo High Council minutes reads:

    And that the Second part [of the charge] was not sustained and therefore that he should remain in the Church.

    Adjourned till the 27th inst. at One o’clock P.M.

    Hosea Stout Clerk.
    _____

    I forked out the $30 to buy the slim volume of the Nauvoo High Council minutes, so if anyone else wants transcripts from any particular session, let me know!

    Connell

  25. Connell O'Donovan says:

    [Adam Cowie is having computer problems and asked that I post them on his behalf to J. WALTER YOUNG]

    J. Walter Young – you provided a comment a few weeks ago about your search for more information about your fathers side of the family. If I’m correct, you are my great uncle – related through your sister Lois, who’s oldest son is Douglas (my father). I would be extremely interested to speak with you and learn more about our family. I’ve been trying to collect photographs of ancestors and hope you have (or know where I can find) pictures of LeRene’s husband (your father) or additional ancestral photos of your grandparents, etc. Looks like we’re all connected to WHH Sagers. Does anyone know of a photograph of him?

    Walt, I hope you return to read this. I can be reached at the following email address: acowie@lindoncity.org or you can contact me at (801)785-7687 at my work phone. Leave a message with your email and/or phone number if I’m not available. Hope to hear from you Walt.

    Adam Cowie

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