Sister Wives of the Traveling Pants #2: Margaret Livingston (the 1st wife)

Part 2 in a series; see the rest of the series here.


Margaret Livingston Gardner (1818–1893)

My great-great-great grandmother Margaret was born October 12, 1818, in Lochgilphead, Argyllshire, a small maritime village on the western coast of the Scottish highlands near the Forest of Achnabreck, nestled between the Firth of Clyde and Loch Craignish, with the Atlantic Ocean just beyond that. Margaret’s family immigrated to Canada when she was only two, so I’m not sure she ever remembered much of the dark waters and wild heathered moors that had been her birthplace.

Margaret’s mother, Janet, gave birth to her little sister in a hotel the night they reached Canada from the boat overseas. Once her mother was strong enough, the family moved into a log cabin in the backwoods to scratch out a living. The farming was poor; Margaret’s father left to find work one day and never returned. I wonder how many days he must have been missing before Janet and her four daughters realized that they were on their own.

Janet moved herself and the girls to Detroit, Michigan, where her eldest daughter, Sarah, worked as a dressmaker, and the next oldest, Mary, worked as a serving maid. Margaret worked as a lady’s maid, and her little sister, Janet (the baby born that first night in Canada), worked as a kitchen servant. In 1836, 18-year-old Margaret met 23-year-old Archibald when he was cutting a road from his grist mill to the location of his future saw mill.

Archie described meeting Margaret like this:

“I Staid at A highland Scotchmans house all night when three young Girls come in. the first I did not notice nor the Second but when the last one come in although I never [saw] her before nor did She Speak one word of English Something as it were Spoke to my understanding that is your wife. I tried to court and even Marry other girls as circumstances seemed against me [marrying] but could not. my mind would always Return to her.”

Archie returned to Detroit, but Margaret’s impression on him stayed. He walked a hundred and ten miles in 16-inch snow just to see her again. After he got the mill started in Detroit, Archie sent for his “little Highland Scotch lassie,” and they were married on February 19, 1839 (Archie was 25 years old, and Margaret was 21). They lived in Brooke Township, Canada, their first home surrounded by a grove of maple trees overlooking Bear Creek. They had four children in those first five years: Robert, Neil, Archibald, and Janet. Archie later wrote that their “first great sorrow” was burying little Archibald after he died of “bowel trouble” at 18 months old.

In 1843, a Mormon missionary named Elder John Borrowman converted Archibald’s brothers and their families. On a visit to his brother Robert’s home, Archie heard Elder Borrowman preach, later recalling, “It had a familiar ring and I knew from the first that it was true. I made a reasonable investigation to reassure myself and with an honest heart was baptized in April, 1845.” Five days later, he was ordained an elder with his brother Robert. In order to meet up with the rest of the Saints in Nauvoo, Archie sold $11,000 worth of grist and saw mills for $3,600 and sacrificed the rest of his property for nothing. I imagine my grandmother laid flowers one last time on little Archibald’s grave as they left their Canadian home, knowing that she was not likely to return to this land again.

It took a month to reach Nauvoo. When they arrived, the prophet Joseph Smith had already been martyred, and the exodus toward Winter Quarters had begun. During this time, Margaret’s sister-in-law had a baby and the older children contracted measles. Just before reaching Winter Quarters, Margaret’s youngest child, 14-month-old Janet, died in the same manner as her brother Archibald had. Margaret and her 7-year-old son, Robert, were both very ill at the time. Archie later recalled,

“There was so much sickness when little Janet died, that the care of the living left no time for mourning for the dead and so our baby was laid away hurriedly and unceremoniously. But when general health returned we grieved for the loss of our little one and have never ceased to mourn for her.”

Illness and death were followed by injury. Soon after baby Janet’s burial, 5-year-old Neil was run over by a wagon bearing “eight large green cottonwood logs,” the wagon wheel crushing him across his chest and rendering him unconscious. Neil received a priesthood blessing, and for three days and nights the family treated him by “pouring water on hot bricks wrapped in clothes which were tucked around him so that he did not turn black.” Neil lived and was healed. All accounts of this incident call it a miracle.

At 28 years old, Margaret and Archie journeyed from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley with the Edward Hunter and Joseph Horne Company in 1847, a group led by the apostle John Taylor and comprising of 197 people (nearly 20 of them Gardners) and 72 wagons. The journey took about five months, traveling 10 to 15 miles per day, starting in June from the Elkhorn River and reaching the Salt Lake Valley on October 1, 1847. The company experienced skirmishes and trades with Sioux, Ottowa, Pawnee, and Shoshone tribes. The cattle were constantly dying: they suffered from thirst, starvation, and occasional alkaline poisonings, subsisting off of brackish water and wild sage. Dust clouds stirred from traveling through the sage brush plains threatened to suffocate the large company. Food rations were supplemented with wild buffalo, roots, wild potatoes, service berries, and prickly pear cacti. When an argument over a cow’s ownership escalated and Frank Pullin drew his knife on Joseph Horn, the company punished Pullin by tying his hands together and forcing him to walk behind the wagons for three days. Religious services were held weekly, and John Taylor frequently sermonized on “the principle of unity” and obedience.

On July 10th, in an event achingly reminiscent of what had just happened to 5-year-old Neil, Archie and Margaret’s 5-year-old nephew Robert was kicked under the wagon by an ox, and he, too, was crushed across his middle by two wagon wheels. When he came to, the first words he spoke were, “I am not hurt, Mother.” The bruises on his breast and back were treated with a poultice of wormwood and vinegar, and priesthood holders in the group blessed him. Little Robert survived for an entire agonizing month, traveling for over 500 miles of desert, until he died from his injuries on August 17th and was buried. His father, who was himself shaking from ague at the time, said the little boy “suffered fifty deaths. [He] lived till there was nothing left but the Skin and bones. I had to drive my teem all day and Sit and hold him all night driving over five hunder miles and See him Sufer all the time.”[1]

I wonder how long this month must have felt to Margaret, whose own 5-year-old son had only just been miraculously healed by nearly the same wagon incident back at Winter Quarters. I wonder if she was able to mourn with her sister-in-law, having buried two of her own four children already. I wonder if Margaret held Neil so tightly at night, under the stars, knowing that it could have been Neil slowly dying from internal injuries, that it could be Neil or Robert or another child the next time. I wonder if it was easy for her to put her faith in God. I wonder if she ever looked backwards, like Lot’s wife, and wondered what their lives would be like had they stayed in Canada. I wonder if her heart fluttered in fear, if it burned with righteous determination to stay the course, if it stung with tragedy while it simultaneously felt peace and comfort from God and from the companionship of the company. At the very least I think it likely that no one mourned alone.

100 miles from Salt Lake, Robert’s 1-year-old baby brother William also fell out of the wagon, and the same two wheels that killed his brother ran over his small toddler ankles. His mother shouted for the men to administer an immediate blessing, and then his ankles were pounded with cedar berries and wrapped. To everyone’s surprise, baby William’s ankles completely healed “in a few days,”[2] a precious miracle felt throughout the company in gratitude and awe.

The journey west was not completely toilsome and tragic. In the evenings, the children would play around the corralled wagons, the older members of the company playing fiddles while others danced barefoot around the fires. Jane Gardner, Margaret’s niece who was 13 years old at the time, recorded memories of seeing “millions of Buffalos the hills” and that the “vales were black with them.” She continues,

“we saw also lots of Indians but they did not try to hurt us they were quite friendly. Father found a fawn at Elk Horn we fed it milk and bro[ugh]t it here to the valley with us. It grew to be quite a deer. We lost it on our way to the Weber and never found it again, we were sorry to loose it. It was such a pet.”

One July evening, Native Americans in beaded buckskins and moccasins visited the Mormon camp. Though the two companies did not share a language, the Indians motioned that they would perform a dance for the group, which they did, the Mormons accompanying them with music by drum and fife. They ate together, made trades, and passed around a peace pipe. The Mormons celebrated the evening by firing the cannon three times, something that stunned their Indian friends. On the day they spotted the Great Salt Lake, the children played “I Spy” in the grass and sage.

Well into her fifth pregnancy, Margaret drove a team of horses the entire way, “across the dreary plains, through rivers and deep canyons, even over the Big Mountain.” When they reached the mouth of Emigration Canyon, Archibald and Margaret, who was by then perhaps already feeling the early contractions of impending labor, looked down at the desolate valley that was to be their home. “Peg, my brave lass, how are you?” Archibald asked her, looking into the glint of the Great Salt Lake below, the endless span of sagebrushed desert, small flashes of bright green leaves following Big Cottonwood and Mill Creek.

My grandmother answered, “Oh Archie, after all this wearisome journey, is this ‘the place’?” Then she sat down on the wagon tongue and cried.

She gave birth to her fifth child, Margaret, in a wagon bed four nights after their arrival to the Salt Lake Valley. Archie would later boast of his wife’s grit and stamina, concluding: “So you can se what the Lord can Do to Strenthen the back for the Burthen.”

A year later, Archibald considered taking a plural wife. Margaret told him she would rather lose him than have to share him with other wives and left him. She moved into her sister’s house and could not be persuaded to return. I’m not sure how long she lived apart from Archie, or if she took the children with her, but the way the story goes is that Brigham Young held a conference in a cottonwood grove in Mill Creek, and Archie pleaded with President Young to talk to Margaret. I’ve wanted desperately for many years to know what Brigham Young must have said to my grandma on their walk together. In Archie’s words, “there was a feast of reason and a flow of soul.” Whatever he must have said, it worked. President Young gave her a blessing of comfort, and Margaret returned to Archibald. In April 1849, a year and a half after arriving to the valley, just after their 10-year anniversary, Margaret and Archibald were sealed for time and all eternity, and both Abigail Sprague (36) and her daughter, Mary Ann Bradford (18), were also sealed to Archibald on the same day.

I’ll pause my story about Margaret here and come back to her later. My next installment will tell some stories about Abigail Sprague, Archie’s 2nd wife. Thanks for reading, and I hope you find these stories as interesting as I do.

Sources consulted:

[1] Wolves later dug up little Robert’s grave and scattered his bones, but his Uncle William and Cousin John crossing the plains the following year would rebury the bones. It was later recorded, “The sight was too much for kind-hearted John. He wept and wailed and tore his hair. They tenderly gathered up the bones, reinterred them and sadly journeyed on.”

[2] William’s mother later wrote, “While traveling along I picked up several dry buffalo bones and threw them under the wheels to try the weight of the wagon, but the wheels crushed them to powder, so I knew the power of God saved the boy for future usefulness. He has filled two honorable missions to New Zealand.”


  1. “No one mourned alone.” And they still don’t — you want to do something to relieve Margaret’s burdens all these years later, don’t you? What a brilliant beginning to your series!

  2. Thanks, Ardis! That means a lot. I likely wouldn’t even have the guts to do this series this year if you hadn’t supported my pioneer posts last year. So thank you :-)

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I absolutely find the stories fascinating. I’m so glad you’re doing this.

  4. Fascinating is the word for it. Thank you so much for this. I can’t wait for the next installment.

  5. This is great. Looking forward to the rest.

  6. So interesting! I’d like to know what Brigham Young told her, too.

  7. These stories are important to tell, and you tell them exceedingly well. Without the stories, our ancestors are merely names on a pedigree chart, a fate that should never be when we have the means to share their destinies. You elevate these women from ordinary to extraordinary.

  8. Ryan Mullen says:

    I confess, I find most pioneer stories boring and dry (heresy, I know), but you brought Margaret to life in a way that makes me wish I’d known her. Thank you for this.

  9. wreddyornot says:


  10. Thanks so much for this. It’s fascinating.

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