Sister Wives Series #3: Abigail Sprague (the 2nd wife)

Part 3 in a series; see the rest of the series here.


Abigail Sprague Bradford Gardner (1813–1879)

Abigail was a tough, stout, and gregarious pioneer woman. She had a sense of humor even in the wake of great tragedies. She wasn’t known as the most beautiful of Archie’s wives, but she also doesn’t seem to have been the type of woman who would have cared about looks. At one point she was heavy enough that she would handily keep her thimble and spool of thread in her fat rolls, where they would stay put until she needed them (I find this detail amazing and delightful). She found great pleasure in smoking her corncob pipe as well as in telling delicious and terrible stories to children about witches and fairies. She had tremendous respect for Native Americans and learned their languages. She made friends with Indians and served them, eventually adopting a young Indian girl who had been stolen from her home by a warring tribe and sold to Abigail’s brother for a pony. Abigail treated Fanny like her own daughter, and Archibald seems to have welcomed her into his fold without complaint.[1] Abigail could frequently be found smoking peace pipes in Native American circles, doing her part to build bridges between the two cultures and counteract much of the fear and suspicion harbored on both sides.

She had already lost a husband and children when she met Archibald Gardner. Abigail (age 33 at the time) and her five remaining children (Mary Ann, 15; Rawsel, 13; Sylvester, 7; Pleasant, 4; and Tryphenia, 1) traveled from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley with the Edward Hunter and Joseph Horne Company in 1847, along with Archibald and the rest of the Gardners. Archie and Margaret’s two surviving children, Robert (7) and Neil (6), likely played with Abigail’s children on the journey west. I imagine that Margaret and Abigail got to know each other pretty well on the trail, since there were only 20 or so women in the company between the ages of 25 and 35 years old. I like to think that the two women admired each other from the beginning.

Whereas Archibald and Margaret were both Scottish immigrants, Abigail’s family had been living in the New World since her forefather William Sprague[2] came from England on the ship “Abigail” in 1628 with Governor John Endecott (the headstrong Puritan who was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony). Sprague and his brothers founded Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1638, where he served as a constable. Later down the line, Abigail’s grandfather served in the Revolutionary War as first lieutenant in Captain Samuel Taylor’s 6th Company, Hampshire County Regiment. The Sprague family was an All-American dream team, in other words.

Hezekiah Sprague, Abigail’s father, had settled the family in Indiana near the Ohio River. Here, one week after she turned 17, Abigail would marry her first husband, 25-year-old Je Hial Bradford. While in Indiana they had six children in quick succession (one baby boy only lived 16 days). In 1840, Abigail’s entire family converted to Mormonism[3] and left for Nauvoo, where Abigail’s father was “a true friend of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” lending Joseph consideral sums of money during the church’s financial hardships. In return, Joseph promised Hezekiah that they “would be neighbors in the Hereafter.”

Abigail and Hial knew the Prophet, too. In Nauvoo, their young son Rawsel injured his hand so badly that Hial feared it would have to be amputated. In a panic, Abigail and Hial were rushing their little boy to the nearby doctor when they met with Joseph Smith en route. Joseph asked to see the hand, examined it, and then told them to return home because Rawsel would be healed without a doctor. Rawsel’s hand healed quickly and completely, without a doctor’s aid—a miracle that bolstered the faith of Abigail’s young family.

The peaceful times the Spragues experienced in Nauvoo were quick to end, unfortunately. Persecution threatened the body of Saints, and then, unbelievably, the prophet and his brother were killed. Abigail and her daughter Mary Ann (13, at the time) stood among thousands of others to witness the slain bodies. Then, in 1845, Abigail fell ill when she was very pregnant with her daughter, Tryphena. Hial rushed away to find help but became extremely sick himself (possibly a stroke?) and was dead by morning. Abigail’s 8-year-old son, Grandville, died right around this same time. Tryphena was born in the wake of these two deaths, and, the family story recounts, “Two vacant chairs met her gaze when Abigail was able to sit up.”

It was time for the Saints to make their exodus west. Hial’s brothers (who had not converted to Mormonism) heard Abigail’s plans to follow the Saints and desperately pled with her to stay, offering to care for her and see to the education of her children. Abigail’s heart, however, now belonged to the Saints. She sold her two farms, two thousand bushels of corn, her livestock, her home and all her furnishings for two wagons (one she referred to as “good-for-nothing” and prayed each night that it would get her Salt Lake; it finally broke beyond repair in Emigration Canyon, within sight of her final destination)[4], a plow, two teams of oxen, a cow, and some seeds. A week before the Nauvoo Temple closed for good, Abigail arrived alone and received her endowments on January 21, 1846.

Abigail’s 74-year-old mother would die at Winter Quarters, suddenly and peacefully in her sleep. Abigail’s brother Ithamer would lose his wife and all of his five children to death on the journey west. Full of grief, Ithamer would rejoin Hezekiah and Abigail’s wagons as a single man once again.

In spite of so much death and loss, Abigail remained high-spirited and waggish. Along the trail, an ox pulling Hezekiah’s and Abigail’s wagon died, so Abigail hitched up the milk cow, Old Lil’, in its place. The story goes that each morning Abigail milked Old Lil’, put the cream inside the churn, put the churn inside the jostling wagon, and let the bumpy trek shake out a fresh pat of butter for every evening. (I don’t care if that story is true or not—it is a great story.)

Abigail is also known for pulling “Old Sow,”[5] a cannon used in the War of 1812, into the Salt Lake Valley. This seems to be the same cannon mentioned in my last post that was fired three times in celebration after the company danced with Native Americans on that special July evening. Abigail’s 7-year-old son, Sylvester, and his friends Al Babcock and Wiley Thomas took turns riding it across the plains. After reaching Salt Lake, the cannon was also used as a pulpit; the first sermon preached in the Salt Lake Valley on July 25, 1847, was by Elder George A. Smith, speaking loudly and clearly from the top of “Old Sow.”

Once in Salt Lake, Abigail and her children lived in a dugout, a roughly hewn earthen dwelling typically dug into the side of a hill. Dugouts tended to be muddy, disease-ridden, and vermin-filled, but they were also warmer in cold weather than wagon boxes. 71-year-old Hezekiah Sprague died during his first winter in Zion. The crops Abigail planted were devoured by cricket swarms. Still Abigail persisted in working the land, irrigating, replanting grain, and baking crude breads. She fed her five children sego lily roots. She, Mary Ann, and Rawsel, learned to make adobes from clay, straw, and grass, and together constructed a new home.

In 1849, after receiving the reluctant consent from his first wife Margaret to practice plural marriage, 34-year-old Archie proposed marriage to young Mary Ann who eagerly accepted, having already considered herself an admirer of the rugged pioneer leader. When Brigham Young was about to perform the ceremony, he stopped and said, “Where is the mother? I want you to marry her and be a father to her family. Archie, your shoulders are broad and you must help carry the burden.”

And so it was that on the same day that Archibald married the 17-year-old Mary Ann, he also married Mary Ann’s mother, 35-year-old Abigail, on April 19, 1849. Mary Ann became pregnant first, giving birth to Mary Elizabeth Gardner on February 1, 1850. Abigail became pregnant just a few months after her daughter, giving birth to Mary Ann’s half-sister Lillian Abigail on April 26, 1850.

I am 34-years-old as I read and write about these stories, the same age as Archibald when he married both mother and daughter. I am one year younger than Abigail was—who by this time had been widowed, had given birth seven times and had buried a stillborn and an 8-year-old child. I wonder if Abigail wished Archibald had proposed to her first, especially considering how close Abigail and Archie were in age. I wonder if she worried that Brigham Young made the marriage match out of pity, or if she cared. I wonder if Abigail looked Margaret in the eye at the ceremony, or if Mary Ann looked Abigail in the eye. I wonder if Abigail told her daughter about wedding nights and what would happen, or if it was too terrible to broach the topic knowing that they would both be sexually engaged with the same man within the same week. I wonder if they shared joys and grievances about their common husband. I wonder if they gave each other tips or advice on how to please him or communicate with him. I wonder if they stayed silent on all that. I wonder if they touched pregnant bellies together, rejoicing in the shared experience of bringing new little half-sisters into the world, if they compared when they felt first kicks or when morning sickness dissipated. I wonder if they shared food cravings, and if Archibald’s success building grain mills gave them access to more than just sego lily roots. I wonder if they were by each other’s sides when they gave birth, taking turns to hold their ruddy-cheeked, howling newborns to the same proud father. I wonder if they felt an inward twinge of shame and embarrassment at the arrangement. I rather hope they didn’t. I rather hope they looked each other in the eyes often, and shared what there was to share.

Years passed.[6] Abigail was diagnosed with breast cancer and survived it. She spent the last nine of years of her life living with Margaret, my great-great-great grandmother. She died at 65 years old on January 16, 1879, from “excessive fat around her heart.” I feel I ought to wax poetic about that description: something about the massively large and open heart of Abigail Sprague Bradford Gardner, a heart that was so buffeted and strained and tested that it required soft protection to keep it from fully breaking. I feel I ought to make this metaphor because I can’t bear for this woman to be caricatured as the dowdy wife whom Brigham Young made Archie marry, because this is how I was unfortunately introduced to her in my youth. As a child, I had always assumed that “the widow wife” was already at least 75 years old when Archibald married her—a supposed marriage of necessity to keep her from being homeless and poor. Except now I see that Abigail Sprague had never been anything but independent, strong, industrious, genial, and brave. She didn’t need Archie in the way I always assumed she needed him. I like to think, though, that maybe Margaret and Abigail needed each other in that decade they spent beneath the same roof, when they were past the age of child-bearing, as they distantly watched Archie continue to have children with wives ten years young than their own children, wives decades and decades younger than themselves. I like to think that they appreciated that company, and that they laughed at each other’s jokes. And, just to help me sleep better tonight, I would also like to think that every once in a while, Margaret reached over to take a drag off of Abigail’s corncob pipe.

Sources Consulted:

[1] Fanny is buried near Abigail and Archibald in the Salt Lake City Cemetery in the Gardner family plot.

[2] Fun fact: Lucille Ball is also a direct descendant of William Sprague, or so says Wikipedia, anyway.

[3] Hezekiah Sprague initially attacked the missionaries, who responded with, “Mr. Sprague. It is written that sometimes we entertain angels unawares!” This apparently impressed Hezekiah, as he reluctantly answered, “All right. Come in!” After staying up all night with the elders, discussing theology and swapping Bible passages, Hezekiah asked to baptized that morning. His wife, two sons and their wives, and Abigail and Hial were all quick to follow Hezekiah’s example.

[4] After leaving Nauvoo, Brigham Young found Abigail crying behind her wagon. “What’s the matter, Abbie?” he asked. She answered, “I’m afraid this wagon will never take us to the valley of the mountains, the spokes are so loose.” Brigham assured her that with faith, the wagon would help her complete her journey.

[5] “Old Sow” got it’s name like this: In the War of 1812, the cannon was positioned on a New Orleans boat and defended the nation from England’s second invasion. When it was removed from active duty, it was fired every sunup and sunset until the gun was sold as scrap iron and purchased by James Lawson, an old blacksmith, who made the purchase and had it shipped to Nauvoo. A group of Mormon women buried it in the ground to keep anti-Mormon invaders from stealing it or using it against them. Sometime later, pigs rooting around on the field uncovered the gun, and the name “Old Sow” was coined. In the fall of 1846 the gun left Nauvoo and was pulled across the frozen Mississippi and into Winter Quarters. The Saints cut a hole in the ice of the Missouri River, tied a rope to the cannon, and lowered it to the riverbottom for safekeeping. The next spring, the cannon was pulled up out of the river and hitched onto Abigail’s little wagon train. It was never used in violence again. The cannon has since been displayed in a museum at Temple Square.

[6] I’ll include some more stories from these years in my next post on Mary Ann Bradford Gardner.


  1. This series is absolutely enthralling. Thank you for the journey of emotions.

  2. This is entirely fascinating. Thanks so much for this series. Abigail’s story in particular has a familiar ring in the sense my 2nd great grandfather Jesse N. Smith was also compelled by Brigham Young to take an additional wife. He recorded in his journal the meeting with President Young as he prepared for his second mission to Scandinavia:

    While seated in Pres. Young’s office, he said to Bro. Carrington and myself: “When you get over there I want each of you to select a good girl to marry her.” I was thunderstruck, and commenced excusing myself, saying I did not think that would do at all. Without noticing my remark he repeated the same words over again, saying it would be all right. I was troubled in my mind about this matter, and meeting bro. George Q. Cannon on the street I asked him what could be done about it? “Do just as he says and all will be right,” was his reply;[1]

    In the end, he did marry a girl in the mission field (his fourth wife Augusta Outzen), as well as a fifth several years later in Arizona (my 2nd great grandmother Emma Larson Smith). I have long grappled with implications of polygamy on my ancestors on both sides of the family. You have inspired me to write a little about that as a way of giving voice to my grandmothers.

    1. Smith, Jesse Nathanial. Six Decades in the Early West: The Journal of Jesse Nathaniel Smith 1834-1906. Jesse N. Smith Family Association. 1970, 185.

  3. Thank you for this series. I love how you don’t just recount the events that happened to these women, but also what they were like as people. Abigail sounds like the kind of person I’d want to be friends with.

  4. Alpineglow says:

    I find this so painful to read. But confronting the pain and complexity is the point, right? Our pioneers had it so much harder than we give them credit for–emotionally. We regularly lionize the physical suffering and strength, but we hide from the emotional suffering and strength. I think maybe because we feel safe and distant from the physical challenges, while the emotional challenges are just real enough to us to be completely terrifying.

    Also, how was this generation not completely traumatized? Or maybe the better question is what was the manifestation of this trauma?

  5. Cathy, thanks for sharing that story—incredible! I’m still not sure what to do with these stories in which the Saint’s initial reaction and dictation from their conscience is to say no to polygamy. I wish I could tap into their hearts and understand better what changed and how. That was a fascinating anecdote.

    Alpineglow, you ask good questions. I wonder, too, what might have been lost when the stories were passed down through the generations in faith-promoting narratives. I do believe that these were women of strong faith, but I imagine their lives were also more complicated than that. I wish more of these women had kept journals.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    This was all fascinating. I was particularly struck by this: “Abigail’s brother Ithamer would lose his wife and all of his five children to death on the journey west. Full of grief, Ithamer would rejoin Hezekiah and Abigail’s wagons as a single man once again.” I can hardly fathom going from being a married father of five to a widower with no living children at all in so short a time. Incredible suffering. (I’m loving the series.)

  7. Thank you so much for this. I am enjoying these posts so much.

  8. Mary Bradford says:

    This is my husband’s ancestry– Mary Bradford​

    On Tue, Jul 5, 2016 at 11:32 AM, By Common Consent, a Mormon Blog wrote:

    > Grover posted: “Part 3 in a series; see the rest of the series here. > Abigail was a tough, stout, and gregarious pioneer woman. She had a sense > of humor even in the wake of great tragedies. She wasn’t known as the most > beautiful of Archie’s wives, but she also doesn’t ” >

  9. I’m excited to get to Mary Bradford, MB! There are touching anecdotes in her life story. I hope your husband chimes in and let’s me know if I need to add or modify anything in my next post!

  10. These stories are compelling and heartbreaking. A mother and daughter marrying the same man on the same day! I can’t imagine such sorrow. Most pitiful was what happened to these women after their *husband* died. The first wife legally inherited everything and often the other wives were left destitute. Several of my ancestors were polygamists and I cannot imagine the suffering of the women and children. Very sad.

  11. God’s work, Emily.

  12. What an incredible series. Reading these stories really does shift paradigms about mormon history, and mormon women and my own place in it all. thank you.

  13. The Other Aussie Mormon says:

    When I saw the title of these posts I almost ignored them. Time poor and didn’t think something about that old chick flick would interest me.

    Boy was I wrong!

    I have spent the last hour reading these posts. I think this might be my favourite thing I have ever read on this website, and perhaps one of my favourite things I have ever read on the Internet! Really looking forward to the rest of the series. Thanks for sharing.

  14. marcella says:

    I really am loving these posts you are writing.

    Something that has me wondering though. I am from a family of converts so there is no polygamist ancestry in my family. I have always found the women of polygamy interesting – it’s the men’s stories which actually repel me. Yet, it seems there have been a number of comments (and your own first post) that express exactly the opposite – interest in the men’s histories and none for the women. I wonder if it’s a dividing opinion among those with polygamist ancestors or not?

  15. Thanks for reading, Aussie Mormon! That is high praise.

    Marcella, that’s a good question. I think for me, I knew I should be proud of my pioneer heritage, but I didn’t want anything to do with polygamy myself. I didn’t want to know what the women’s experiences with polygamy were, because if I studied it and didn’t like what I read, how would that affect my testimony? I didn’t want to risk it. So I focused on my grandpa building mills and settling towns, trying to keep the wives out of my periphery. What a shame, too, because I’m really amazed at who these women were. I wish I had let their voices into my life decades ago.

  16. Wonderful post SG. Especially poignant with mother daughter marriage. The silent record needs a thoughtful mind like yours.

  17. I realize that I’ve now had three IRL conversations about this series and it would be only right and fair to express appreciation where you can see it. I think the almost lost stories of these women valuable and important. Thanks.
    I will note that you’ve done absolutely nothing to make me like or approve of polygamy! The women are jewels. The Practice gets worse and worse.

  18. What! This is my favorite ancestor! I try to work her into all of my sacrament meeting talks. I recognized her from the picture! I like to tell people that my ansector’s daughter fell in love and married the guy who made Gardner Village in West Jordan, but Brigham Young said Captain Gardner could marry her if he also married HER MOM! And it wasn’t a “take care of the widow” situation, because they both had children with him.

  19. Stephen Bradford says:

    Emily, it’s been so fun to read up on my great-great-great grandma Abby. Thanks for bringing her to life! Best regards, Steve Bradford (son of Mary)

  20. Christopher Bradford (Grasshopper) says:

    Thanks; this is my 4th great-grandmother. I knew some of her story, but this is a lot more than I knew and is excellent!

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