Sister Wives Series #4: Mary Ann Bradford (the 3rd wife)

Part 4 in a series; see the rest of the series here.


Mary Ann Bradford Gardner (1831–1864)

Mary Ann was 17 years old when she and her 35-year-old mother both married 34-year-old Archibald Gardner as his second and third wives.

She was 32 years old when she died after giving birth to her 9th child. She is buried in the Salt Lake Cemetery and shares a headstone with her infant daughter, who also died that day, Abigail Jane.[1]

As far as I can tell, Mary Ann was not terribly bothered by plural marriage the way that I am bothered, or the way that Margaret (Archie’s first wife) was bothered. Existing records and family narratives suggest that Mary Ann loved Archibald from the start, first meeting him as a young teenage girl following Archie’s lead on the journey west. Mary Ann was a child when her family converted to Mormonism and moved to Nauvoo. Early in life she learned to care for her younger siblings and her aging grandparents on the frontier. She cared for animals and learned to cook roots, berries, and wild edibles from the earth around her. Eventually, men employed on Archie’s gristmill next to her house in West Jordan would relish her homecooked meals. I like to picture her standing on a wooden deck, large ladle in her hand, the sunset hitting her just so, and calling to the men to come for supper—hearty stews with sides of molasses cornbread, perhaps, and followed up with slices of wild raspberry pie. Little faces peep out from behind her skirts, and her strong, tanned arm reaches down to tousle hair and wipe faces on her apron. Living without a husband most of the time, I picture her tending to her animals and crops, taking pride in her garden, maybe even indulging in a row of hollyhocks or a rosebush. Life on the frontier with several small children (her surviving children were only 13, 10, 7, 6, 4, and 2 years old when Mary Ann died) must have been exhausting, but I hope there was a richness to Mary Ann’s 32 short years of life, and that she felt pride in her children and her work.

Though her life was not long, Mary Ann helped to settle and establish communities along the Wasatch Front with determined grit and physical strength. Archibald Gardner built mills, ran businesses, and engineered irrigation canals and bridges. By the end of his life, he had built 36 gristmills and lumber mills: 23 in Utah, six in Canada, five in Wyoming, and two in Idaho. He had also built hundreds of miles of canals and several bridges. As Archie was establishing his mill businesses, help was often needed, but there weren’t enough local men to fill the jobs (or, if there were, there wasn’t enough money to pay them at first). Consequently, Archie’s wives were often recruited to help with the hard labor. Mary Ann and Althea (Archie’s 5th wife) were often tasked with hauling logs from the head of Mill Canyon down to the upper mill, driving two yoke of oxen each for a space of about six miles.

Mary Ann lived to attend the 10th anniversary celebration of the pioneers’ arrival to the Salt Lake Valley held in Big Cottonwood on July 24, 1857. Brigham Young led the gathering, and 2,587 persons attended (this didn’t include Margaret, Archie’s first wife, who was home nursing newborn, Delila). It took 464 carriages and wagons drawn by 1,028 horses and mules and 332 oxen and cows to get everybody there. Six brass bands played musical numbers to which the pioneers sang and danced, and six companies of militia performed drills (Archibald, as Major in the Nauvoo Legion, was probably involved in some of this entertainment).[2]

In the middle of the fanfare and good cheer, Porter Rockwell, Judson Stoddard, and Abraham Smoot soberly rode into the party and brought word to Brigham Young that the United States government had passed an extermination order against the Mormons, and that an army was headed for Utah to slay them. A silence broke out among the crowds, mothers and fathers pulling their children close as they waited for Brigham Young’s directions. Then the thousands of Mormons made their way home to prepare their defenses. The following spring no army had appeared yet, but the threat remained. The Saints decided to burn their dwellings, leave possessions too burdensome to take with them, and migrate south to Spanish Fork.

There were so many Saints living in dugouts in Spanish Fork when the Gardners arrived in 1858 that people had nicknamed the place “Gopher Town.” Archie fell to work setting up a saw and shingle mill, digging irrigation trenches, establishing business, and relocating residents into safer and more comfortable homes. When the threat of the government takeover eventually dissipated, families returned to their former lands and possessions north.

At this point, the Gardner family divided: some of the wives (including Margaret, Archie’s first wife) stayed in Spanish Fork to work the businesses the family had started there. Mary Ann and Abigail lived together at what they called “the big hay field,” 1,000 acres of river bottoms in the southern end of the Salt Lake Valley. Other wives relocated to the Big Cottonwood Mill in Mill Creek Canyon and West Jordan. The wives lived across a distance of over 60 miles from Millcreek to Spanish Fork. This might not seem like much distance today—perhaps an hour or so of freeway driving—but in the 1800s, this would be at least a six-hour journey if your horse was moving at a steady trot, the roads were well maintained, and you managed to switch out horses midway (only soldiers could conceivably force a horse to travel 50–60 miles in a single day, and this would certainly have depleted the horse’s strength).[3]


The caption on Mary Ann’s tombstone reads: “Lo: where this silent marble weeps, / A friend, a wife, a mother sleeps—/ A heart, within whose sacred cell, / The peaceful virtues loved to dwell.”

In spite of all this, Mary Ann seems to have truly loved Archie very much. Whenever it was Archie’s night to be with Mary Ann, she would greet with him with a hot meal and help to unharness and feed his animals. Because of how far Archie had to travel to visit his different wives and mills, sometimes he would not arrive until after dark. Mary Ann was known to always leave a lighted candle in the window to welcome him and guide him home. Bereaved after the death of Mary Ann and their new little baby, Archibald observed, “The light in the window has gone out.”

Archibald and Mary Ann had nine children: Mary Elizabeth, William Archibald, Rhoda Ann, Rawsel B, Mary Ann, John, Rebecca, Robert, and Abigail Jane.[4] The six children who survived Mary Ann became the adopted children (at least for a little while) of Archie’s childless 4th wife, “Big Liz,” whom I will tell you about in my next post.

Sources Consulted:

[1] Mary Ann’s mother and sisterwife, Abigail, would outlive her daughter by 15 years.

[2] Archie liked to boast of a story about how he offered to fly a United States flag on a mountain peak for the celebration “two or three thousand feet higher than the camp,” since the only other flag was lamely (in Archie’s opinion) flying from a nearby pine tree. General Wells told him no—that it would take too long to reach the peak before the party ended. Brigham Young overheard the exchange and good-naturedly barked, “Let Gardner have a flag.” Wells relented and gave him the worst-looking, beaten up flag of the bunch to Archie, who in turn grabbed a friend, high-tailed it up to the peak in record time, hoisted it into the breeze and heard a return of cannon fire and striking anvils from the cheering crowds below.

[3] One journey recorded in Archibald’s biography states that on April 21, 1863, he left the mill in West Jordan at 11:00 a.m. on horseback and arrived at Spanish Fork after dark.

[4] William, John, and Abigail Jane all died as babies.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Nine children from 17 to 32; simply incredible!

  2. Thanks to the story of Archie and the flag, I’m going to be picturing him as someone I know who would do something just like that. I’m not sure if it’s historically appropriate to draw comparisons between people, but some of the people I know in real life are so much like people in early Mormon history that I wouldn’t be surprised if I slipped up and called someone by the wrong name sometime.

    I wonder if overwork and malnutrition played a part in Mary Ann’s early death, or if it was entirely a result of childbirth.

    And, I love the epitaph. Wouldn’t we all be lucky to have a bit of Thomas Gray on our gravestones. What a well-chosen excerpt! What tender emotions! In a rather different vein, one of my Vermont ancestors has a bit of Shakespeare on his gravestone: “Of Comfort no Man Speak! Let’s talk of Graves, and worms, And Epitaphs, Make dust our Paper, and with Rainy Eyes, Write Sorrow in the bosom of the Earth.”

  3. Natalie says:

    I have a hard time with our history of polygamy and so I am really appreciating this series. Thank you for bringing these women to life! You are a talented writer. I can almost imagine being in the kitchen beside Mary Ann. :)

  4. Stanley J Brimley says:

    “The light in the window has gone out .”

  5. Hi yony , sky tube law whether.

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