Sister Wives Series #6: Laura Althea (the 5th wife)

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Laura Althea Thompson Gardner (1834–1899)

Part 6 in a series; see the rest of the series here.

Laura Althea was 17 years old when she married 37-year-old Archibald Gardner as his fifth wife on March 3, 1852. By this time, Archibald’s first wife, Margaret, was 34-years-old with 5 living children, her youngest about a month old. Abigail, the second wife, was 38 years old with seven living children. Abigail’s daughter and Archie’s third wife, Mary Ann, was 20 years old with two children in the three years since her marriage (her baby William would die before the end of the year, however). Big Liz, Archie’s fourth wife, was 19 years old, and had been married to Archibald less than a year when he married Laura Althea. Althea met Archibald in Cottonwood, Utah, where she was the schoolteacher for some of his children, working from a one-room log house in Mill Creek. Later, Althea would teach English to Archie’s seventh wife, a Norwegian named Terjer Serine (or “Serena”).

Althea would have 11 children with Archibald—more than any other of his plural wives. Three would die as babies or toddlers, and two would die as teenagers. Althea and Archibald named many of their children after early church leaders, including sons named Joseph Smith, Hyrum, and Brigham.

Althea’s life as a plural wife was filled with movement and endless change; as Archie took on more wives and build more gristmills, Althea would be placed in different homes with different members of the ever-growing family, from Mill Creek to Spanish Fork, Taylorsville, West Jordan, and eventually Star Valley, Wyoming.

In 1857, after President Buchanan sent thousands of soldiers after the Utah Mormons, the Gardners evaded the troops by moving temporarily to Spanish Fork. There Archie put Althea in charge of running a small store where early settlers and Native Americans came to shop and trade. As a storekeeper, she was witness to violence indicative of the wild Western frontier, including selling goods once to a young Native woman who had come to the store just after her inebriated husband had cut off her nose with his tomahawk. Blood still running down her face, a terrible open wound where her nose should have been, the records do not say how Althea responded to the scene, whether she was overcome with compassion and sorrow for the woman, grabbing scraps of cloth to hold against the woman’s face, or whether she steeled herself stoically against the shocking scene and recorded the trading of flour or grains with her usual mathematic accuracy.

Nettie and Laura

Two of Althea’s daughters: Ellen Jeanette “Nettie” Gardner (on the left; she would marry into the Bennion family) and Laura Althea Gardner (on the right; she would pass away at age 13). I find this picture startlingly beautiful. Althea’s loss in her bright young pupil, daughter, and namesake must have been devastating.

Althea’s 18-year-old son Archibald died on a cold December morning in 1876, after embarking into the biting Utah snow to get a load of lumber from a mill at White Pine. Young Archie stepped inside the mill to warm his tingling hands and toes when the boiler exploded, blasting the young man out of the mill and 200 yards into the canyon. The explosion was followed with litigations and lawsuits that sent the family into debt and near ruin. A young friend of Althea’s son Archie had to have his leg amputated from the same explosion that killed Archie, and in spite of his friendship with the family he sued Archibald, Sr. over the event, winning $1,500 from the settlement. Stricken with grief and worry, young Archie’s death sent Althea into labor, and ten days later she gave birth to a premature baby boy, Perry, her eleventh child. Fifteen months later, Perry would die, too. The same year as baby Perry’s death, Althea’s 13-year-old daughter and namesake, Laura, a bright child that took after her mother’s love and savviness for learning and schoolwork, would get sick and die a week later from “brain fever.”

At Laura’s funeral, an 18-year-old son from Archibald’s 8th wife (Sarah Jane), James Hamilton, met Althea’s family (whom he hardly knew because of the great distance between the families’ homes) and became their fast friends. He felt so kindred with Althea’s family, in fact, that James left his mother’s family to live with Althea’s, where Althea embraced him as if he were her own son all along. Abigail’s adopted Native American daughter, Fannie, would also move into Althea’s family for many years.

 

Althea is characterized as obedient and never complaining, as well as “capable and trustworthy,” “refined, dignified, and kindly.” She served for nearly 30 years in various Relief Society presidencies, working tirelessly for her communities. She treated her sister-wives’ children like her own, and one of her neices didn’t realize until she grew up that the children she played with at her Aunt Althea’s house were not all her own blood cousins.

One time as Rena, one of Serena-the-Norwegian’s daughters, was visiting “Aunt” Althea, Archibald entered the house and asked Althea if she would like to go with him on an excursion to Salt Lake City. The offer came with conditions, however: if Althea came, they would have to set up the horse and buggy, but if Archie went alone, he could afford to just take the train.

Althea apparently wanted to go, especially as this was likely a rare opportunity to spend one-on-one time with her husband in the city, whom she rarely saw because she shared him with ten other women. However, she knew that this would inconvenience her husband, so she declined the offer, perhaps hoping that Archie would make a stronger attempt to talk her into coming.

Rena recalled that Archie promptly left and Althea went back inside and uncharacteristically broke down weeping. Rena reached out to comfort Althea, saying, “He should have taken you on the train.”

Althea stopped crying and pulled Rena to her side. With seriousness she told Rena, “Sit up in the window with me.” Once situated, Althea looked Rena in the eyes and continued: “Your father was not to blame. It was all my fault. No finer, more considerate, better man ever lived. Always remember that.”

So here I am on Pioneer Day 2016, trying to remember that and as many other stories as I can get my hands on. As today we celebrate the liberation early LDS pioneers experienced as they escaped the government to pursue their religious worship and policies in peace, I am thinking about Laura Althea, the selfless schoolteacher, who thought that it “was all [her] fault.” Aunt Althea, I also think that Archie was a good, considerate, kind man. But I’m with Rena: he should have invited you to come on the train that day.

(Readers, I had originally hoped to complete this series on Pioneer Day, and I hope you don’t mind if I continue to post biographical sketches of Archie’s remaining six wives throughout the rest of this summer. Next on the list is Archie’s sixth wife, 18-year-old Jane Park. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!)

Sources consulted:

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Loving the series; many thanks!

  2. These are great. Feel free to start writing about cousins and stuff when this series is over.

  3. I agree with Michael. I think 8th is great to read your perspective and the stories. Thanks

  4. *this is great

  5. I am also very much enjoying the series! Thank you for writing it!

  6. Jason K. says:

    I love reading these stories. Thank you!

  7. Genevieve says:

    This series is wonderful. Thank you!

  8. Anne Chovies says:

    Interesting. It is through Laura that I am a descendent of Archibald. Thank you for this post.

  9. wreddyornot says:

    Adding my kudos.

  10. Thank you for writing this series!

  11. Wonderful series! Keep ’em coming!

  12. So interesting! And that photo is wow!

  13. Cathy Cann says:

    I, too, stand with Rena. I love these posts!