Part 1 in a series; see the rest of the series here.
“Genealogy, I am doing it, my genealogy! And I don’t know why I am doing it—it’s terrifying me!” So sang my young adult self, as a joke, to some college roommates during a Sunday School Family History course after realizing that my great-great-grandparents were also first cousins (double-first-cousins, actually, since their fathers were brothers and their mothers were sisters). It turns out that genealogy work doesn’t always give one warm fuzzies. And, literal kissing cousins aside, the real deep-seated anxiety I have always had with my family history concerns my great-great-great grandfather and his eleven plural wives.
Latter-day Saints study family history in order to celebrate our heritages and learn the stories of our ancestors; ultimately, to fulfill Malachi’s promise that “the heart[s]” of “the children” would be “turn[ed] . . . to their fathers.” The problem I have always had, however, is that much of my ancestors’ polygamous relationships are uncomfortable for me to research—particularly when it comes to researching the lives and narratives of the women in my family tree.
So, yes, family history has turned my heart to my great-great-great grandfather, Archibald Gardner, a minor celebrity Mormon pioneer who undertook the difficult work of establishing grain mills and irrigation canals in West Jordan, Utah, and Star Valley, Wyoming. But while my heart turned to Archie with love and praise and endless elementary school research reports, my heart simultaneously turned away from all of Archie’s 11 wives—even the first wife, Margaret, my great-great-great grandmother.
Two of my first lessons as a young Mormon child were these:
- We are proud of our polygamous heritage, and
- Mormons are not polygamous.
Well meaning Sunday School teachers, relatives, friends, MTC district leaders, roommates, institute teachers, and anyone else who felt prompted to testify to me regarding historical polygamy preached that polygamy was often a way for pioneers to care for widows, share husbands with lonely women who had none, and pull together as a tight-knit community of husbands and sister-wives and children growing up with the benefits of having many strong mothers in their lives.
Except that my fifth-grade school report revealed that while Archibald did indeed marry a widow, Abigail Sprague, she was still only 36 years old when they married (Archibald was 35 at the time), and he also married Abigail’s daughter, Mary Ann, on the same day (she was only 18).
As for lonely women, of Archie’s 11 wives, only 4 women were older than 20 years old on the day they married him, and the youngest wife, Sarah Jane Hamilton, married Archibald two weeks after her 15th birthday (Archie was 43). So it was hard to believe that these women were old maids champing at the bit to get married solely on the basis of loneliness.
Finally, I knew even as a kid that it would have been tricky to have a tight-knit family when Archibald’s wives lived scattered across the map from Spanish Fork, Utah, to Star Valley, Wyoming. So the regular apologetics weren’t holding up with my actual family history.
My grandmother used to try to assuage my fears about polygamy by telling me that because we come from Archie’s first wife, Margaret, “our heavenly mansion would be the largest.” It was suggested that because Margaret had been selected first, and because she had made the first (grudging, as it turned out) permission for Archie to take on more wives, her line of progeny would be the most blessed and most rewarded for her sacrifices. I tried as a kid for this to make me feel better, but it didn’t. It just made me feel sorry for all the other wives who didn’t get a say in the matter. And what if I ended up being someone else’s third or fourth wife some day, even in the eternities (where, presumably, polygamy is still allowed)? It was hard enough for me in grade school to feel close to three friends, let alone 11 best friends—or 55 best friends, as in the case of Brigham Young. I fretted and fretted about this, late into the evenings, while I was in the shower, when I was on the bus to school. It didn’t add up. I didn’t understand. It scared me.
So I ended up doing what most young Latter-day Saint students are advised to do: I put polygamy on my shelf, next to other unexplainable and uncomfortable topics from church doctrine or history that I don’t expect to fully understand in this life.
For the same reasons that I didn’t grow up in the church learning the names and stories of Joseph Smith’s plural wives or Brigham Young’s plural wives, all of the strong and interesting women of my pioneer heritage were locked up and stored away in a box labeled POLYGAMY my shelf. Not only did I not learn about these women growing up—I was terrified of them. And angry at them, to be honest. I didn’t want them to exist. Joseph Smith had one true love: EMMA. And my Grandpa Archie had one true love: MARGARET. Margaret was Archie’s Scottish lass, the one for whom he walked through hundreds of miles of snow once just to see. All of those other women were necessary sacrifices, like Abraham being asked to kill Isaac. They were trials. Challenges. Refining fire. They absolutely did not work within the scheme of eternal family structures as taught by my Sunday School teachers, in which husband and wife are two halves of one whole. Add any more women to that fraction and the whole overflows with too many halves, or, even more disconcerting, the women must becoming more fractionalized, making up smaller and smaller voices in the female half of the equation. I shelved these women because trying to empathize with them hurt my testimony and made me ask big questions I wasn’t willing to ask.
But this doesn’t really seem fair. I don’t want my heart to only be turned towards my pioneer fathers—I want to turn my heart to my pioneer mothers, too.
I don’t actually remember what Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is about—I’ve never read it, and I’m pretty sure I only half-watched the film adaptation at a sleepover my little sister threw years ago. I’m assuming it is about a crew of girls who are really different from each other but realize that in spite of their differences, they all somehow fit into the same pair of jeans? Like magic pants or something? I just remember at one point Rory Gilmore or Ugly Betty or somebody says about the pants: “Wear them. They’ll make you brave.” This July, as a way to look forward to Pioneer Day, I will be a posting a series here on BCC that documents myself trying on the pants, as it were, of my great-great-great grandfather’s eleven wives.  Part of my journey will be story-collecting, but I will also pilgrimage to as many of these women’s grave sites as I can, to pay physical homage to their remembrances. For too long I have excused myself from stepping into these women’s shoes because of excuses: that it was a different time, that I wouldn’t be able to understand, that love and marriage meant something different, that God prepared their hearts for this lifestyle in a way that I can’t tap into because God isn’t asking the same of me. There may be some truth to those excuses, but it is folly to assume that we are so very different that I can’t understand or strive to empathize with these women’s lives and missions and fascinating legacies. I believe that stepping into the details of their histories will make me brave.
 One of my original titles for this post series was “Making Peace with My Polygamous Family Tree,” except that I don’t think peace is necessarily my goal. In confronting the narratives of my own polygamous ancestry, I hope to find courage and understanding, and I hope to feel like I am friends with these women whom I’ve feared for so long. There will be a kind of peace in that, I think, but I am okay with remaining uncomfortable about polygamy. It’s just that I don’t want this discomfort to be an obstacle keeping me from being close to the women in my history, in my blood.
 Archie married mother Abigail and daughter Mary Ann in April 1849 and had children with them both in 1850: Mary Ann gave birth to Mary Elizabeth on February 1 and Abigail gave birth to Lillian Abigail on April 26. Consequently, Mary Elizabeth and Lillian Abigail were the same age, sisters, and also aunt and niece. I’ll tell more of their stories in this series.
 And by “pants,” of course I mean petticoats or dresses or something.