Sister Wives Series #9: Sarah Jane Hamilton (the 8th wife)

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Sarah Jane Hamilton Gardner Howard (1842–1924)

Part 9 in a series; see the rest of the series here.

The year after Archie was married to 34-year-old Norwegian Serena, Archie was married and sealed to his youngest—and, at six feet, his tallest—wife yet: his 8th wife, Sarah Jane Hamilton. Sarah Jane married Archibald just ten days after her 15th birthday. She was the youngest of Archie’s wives by nearly a decade, and she was a full 24 years younger than his first wife, Margaret (my g-g-g-grandmother). Two years into this marriage, Sarah Jane would give birth to a boy, James Hamilton Gardner. This would be the only child she and Archie would have together, as Sarah Jane would leave Archibald soon afterward, followed by a divorce.

Sarah Jane was the oldest of 15 children (and her father did not practice polygamy—all fifteen were from one wife). She was born in Toronto, where her family converted to Mormonism. When she was a very young girl, her family moved to Nauvoo. Unfortunately, the family arrived just as the Saints were being driven from Nauvoo westward toward Winter Quarters. It is probable that the Hamilton family witnessed the Battle of Nauvoo that ended with the Saints ultimately surrendering the city to the angry mobs. The Saints in Nauvoo were already weakened from illness, many suffering from poverty after cashing in their savings and inheritances to come to Zion. Ammunition was apparently so scarce among the Mormons at the time that the Saints retrieved cannonballs shot at them by the mob only to load them into their own rigged cannon (built from a steamboat shaft) in order to shoot the balls right back at those who shot them first. In spite of giving a good weeklong fight—a particularly horrific week for any families attempting to protect small children from the violence—the Saints were too outnumbered and overwhelmed to make any headway. They gave the city to the mob and prepared to depart. The mobs responded to this submission by ransacking the Saints’ wagons, leaving discarded goods in the streets, taking what precious few firearms were left. Some Mormons were marched out of the city with bayonets pressed against their backs, their final memories of their beloved city consisting of mob members wildly ringing the bell at the top of the Nauvoo temple and shouting obscenities at the remaining Saints below.

The_Battle_of_Nauvoo_by_C.C.A._Christensen

“The Battle of Nauvoo” by C.C.A. Christensen

After being driven from Nauvoo, the Hamiltons fled with the Saints to Winter Quarters, where the family would live until 1852. Sarah Jane’s most vivid memories of her early childhood were of trading with Native Americans and seeing people she knew die of cholera. At nine years old, Sarah Jane’s family crossed the plains to Salt Lake City, her mother continuing to have babies in each of these places (and all of her children would reach the Salt Lake Valley safely).

Upon reaching Salt Lake, the Hamiltons were welcomed into the home of William Gardner, Archibald’s brother. There, Sarah Jane learned to weave cloth from wool and fashion clothing for the family. She designed and created hats, collecting, bleaching, and braiding the straw herself. I imagine Sarah Jane was glad to be able to custom-fit her clothing to herself, as I imagine finding clothing for a six-foot tall woman on the frontier was even harder then than it is today. Dressed head to toe in her own creations, Sarah Jane would then walk six miles to attend church in Salt Lake.

In spite of their industriousness, Sarah Jane’s parents found it difficult to feed their evergrowing family. Sarah Jane taught herself to read and write, as her parents could not afford to let her leave her household duties to attend school. The eldest of the brood, Sarah Jane often fasted in order for her brothers and sisters to have larger portions of food. This would sometimes make Sarah Jane so weak that she would not be able to get out of bed, and, on at least one occasion, her father had to ask William Gardner for food to spare as their own storage was bare. I think it is very likely that Sarah Jane was so young when she married Archibald in part because he could feed her and care for her, relieving Sarah Jane’s parents of one less mouth to feed.

Whatever the case, 43-year-old Archibald married the newly 15-year-old Sarah Jane in Brigham Young’s office on June 17, 1857, just in time for the first Pioneer Day celebration on July 24, 1857, in Big Cottonwood Canyon, where she stood with six of her sister-wives (Margaret wasn’t in attendance as she had just given birth to her ninth and final baby) and watched her new husband perform in the festivities and rub shoulders with Brigham Young. When the Saints evaded the government by moving to Spanish Fork, Sarah Jane went with them. Before giving birth to James Hamilton, however, she was one of the first to return to the house in Big Cottonwood and delivered her baby there.

Then, for reasons unclear, Sarah Jane moved back in with her parents in Mill Creek and left Archibald and polygamy behind. She continued to make clothing, and for miles around people would watch for the tall young woman walking into town and bringing her merchandise to sell. She became a cook and a laundress at Bishop Reuben Miller’s home, her young son James left in the care of her mother (who was still having children herself and would continue to do so until 1870[1]). Sarah Jane maintained associations with Brigham Young during her employment at Bishop Miller’s house, and it was during one of these visits that Sarah Jane met her second husband, the young Englishman, Samuel Lorenzo Howard[2], who was only two years older than Sarah Jane and a much better match.

And here’s the funny thing about Sarah Jane’s story: in spite of leaving polygamy, she didn’t leave the church, and her life seems to have had a happy ending. She doesn’t seem to have had much trouble divorcing Archibald[3] and getting sealed in the Endowment House to Samuel. She never lived in polygamy again—Sarah Jane would be the only wife Samuel ever had. Sarah Jane and Samuel had eight children together: Mary Ann, Samuel Hamilton, Sarah Lovina, Elizabeth Virginia, John William, Robert Lorenzo, Leonora Ellen, and Geneva Edna. Little Elizabeth (age 6) and John (age 4) would tragically die of diptheria in 1878, but the rest of their children would live long lives and outlive both of their parents.

Sarah Jane and Samuel Lorenzo helped to found the town of Riverton, where they jointly served as the first postmaster and postmistress of the city, personally delivering mail to their fellow townspeople. Samuel also served on the school board in Riverton, in spite of never having had formal schooling himself, and he also farmed wheat and barley and worked as a blacksmith (his first trade). He helped plan parties on the “entertainment committee,” was appointed the chairman of the Riverton Republican Party, and served as the Sunday School superintendent at church. Sarah Jane likewise kept herself busy with the Relief Society, where she served in her congregation’s presidency for over 30 years. In this calling she reached out to the poor and helped prepare the newly deceased for burial. She soothed and she reached out; she built and she shared. She also grew the first flower garden in Riverton.

The funny thing is that when I first glanced at the general details of Sarah Jane’s marriage to Archibald, I assumed that her life would be one of the more tragic: married away at barely 15, forced into a polygamous lifestyle that repressed and depressed her until she had to run from it, etc. I had also always assumed that she had left the church afterward, because who could keep a testimony of the gospel after such an experience? But I was wrong. Sarah Jane didn’t leave the church or lose her testimony. She left polygamy and her older first husband behind, sure, but with the Prophet’s blessing (a Prophet who was good friends with her first husband). Not long afterward, she was monogamously sealed to another good and kind man whom she seems to have truly loved—again, with the Prophet’s blessing.

So this is where I will leave Sarah Jane Hamilton Gardner Howard. I will remember her in my imagination as a tall, forgiving, hopeful, kind, adventurous woman in a cleverly self-made straw hat, folding her long self in half to weed her garden, surrounded by the sweet smells of pink and white crested moss roses, Harison’s yellow roses, lilacs, peonies, and irises. I’m glad you were given a new start, Sarah Jane. I hope you would still consider me family, even though I belong to the family you left behind.

Sources consulted:

[1] Mary Ann Hamilton’s husband, James, would die five years after their 15th child was born. Mary Ann would live another 35 years and be survived by 9 of her 15 children.

[2] Samuel was named after Lorenzo Snow, who had led his newly converted family from Liverpool to New Orleans in 1843 (maybe they changed his middle name when Samuel was three years old? Or maybe the family had known Lorenzo Snow for a few years prior to leaving England?). Both of Samuel’s parents died on the journey west, so when he reached the Salt Lake Valley, he and his siblings were orphans.

[3] One account says that Sarah Jane’s marriage to Archibald was “annulled by the prophet . . . due to the great differences in their ages.” However, as you shall see, Archibald’s future wives would end up being even younger than Sarah Jane, though he wouldn’t marry anyone at age 15 again.

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing. I can’t imagine how strong she had to be to live the life she had and it’s nice to know she had a happy ending. Her story is very inspiring! Something totally unrelated but every time I read the name Archibald I think of Cary Grant.

  2. Ha! Mary, that’s great. I would never have known if you hadn’t left this comment that Cary Grant was once Archibald Leach. (Sounds like the name of a villain from a children’s story.)

  3. I really love the way that these stories complicate stereotypes and assumptions.

  4. “Sarah Jane didn’t leave the church or lose her testimony. She left polygamy and her older first husband behind, sure, but with the Prophet’s blessing (a Prophet who was good friends with her first husband). Not long afterward, she was monogamously sealed to another good and kind man whom she seems to have truly loved—again, with the Prophet’s blessing.”

    Thank you for including this bit. It really complicates the standard polygamy narrative, in good ways. I have been spending much of the summer reading Mormon-themed dime novels from the 1870s and 1880s. In these books, the young bride never divorces amicably and remains in the Church. Normally they flee Utah on the back of a horse, along with a handsome gentile with only one name, shooting about a hundred Danites on the way.

  5. Another great entry in a great series.

  6. thank you so much for taking the time to tell these stories. I’ve loved reading them and connecting better with my/our/your past.

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