Sister Wives Series #10: Harriet Armitage (the 9th wife)

harriet armitage

This photo is frequently attributed as Harriet Armitage Larter Gardner Larter (1830–1866), however, there is some dispute that this may actually be a photo of Phoebe Marie Curtis Neach Larter (1852–1949). 

Part 10 in a series; see the rest of the series here.

 

This was a tricky narrative to scrap together (and consequently has taken a bit longer to write than others in this series). There isn’t much I could find on Harriet herself, and even this picture is only maybe a picture of her (some have argued that this is a picture of her first/third husband’s second wife, Phoebe—I’ll explain in a minute). In researching and writing this, it felt a bit like I was dancing and skipping all around but not quite exactly on Harriet’s own story. She is like a skip on an old record; I can almost hear her, but every time I get close the needle jumps and I’m hearing someone else’s story near her.

In the same week of June 1857 (and, according to some records, even the same day) that Archibald married his 15-year-old 8th wife, Sarah Jane, he also married his 9th wife, 27-year-old Harriet Armitage, who brought with her a 2-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Deserett[1].

Harriet was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, a city in the heart of industrialized England known for textile mills, wool, and coal-mining, a setting that would later boast the birth of the Independent Labour Party in 1893. In Yorkshire Harriet met and married her first husband, Henry Larter, on Christmas Day, 1849; Harriet was 19 years old and Henry was just a week shy of his 18th birthday. Soon afterward, the couple were converted to Mormonism and prepared to meet the Saints in America.

Harriet, Henry, and their baby daughter Marintha crossed the ocean in the Ellen Maria. They left Liverpool on February 10 and docked into New Orleans on April 5, 1852. The ship was filled with Latter-day Saints, 369 of them, and this was the second trip the ship had made transporting mostly Mormons from England to America. As the Ellen Maria floated away from Liverpool, the Saints bade their country farewell by singing from their Latter-day Saint hymnbook, “Yes My Native Land, I Love Thee”[2]:

All thy scenes, I love them well;
Friends, connections, happy country,
Can I bid you farewell?
Can I leave thee,
Far in the distant lands to dwell?

Holy scenes of joy and gladness
Every fond emotion swell;
Can I banish heartfelt sadness
While I bid my home farewell?
Can I leave thee,
Far in the distant lands to dwell?

In the deserts let me labor,
On the mountains let me tell
How he died, the blessed Savior,
To redeem a world from hell.
Let me hasten,
Far in distant lands to dwell.

Bear me on, thou restless ocean,
Let the winds the canvas swell;
Heaves my heart with warm emotion,
While I go far hence to dwell.
Glad I bid thee,
Native land, farewell, farewell.

The ocean crossing included three births, four marriages, and one death (an 89-year-old woman). Besides bouts of sickness, the journey was relatively comfortable. The Saints passed the sacrament and held Sunday services, performed baby blessings, and were taught LDS doctrines, including the life and death of the prophet Joseph Smith.

After reaching New Orleans, the young couple took a river steamer to St Louis, Missouri, where they met with the larger group of Saints. It was here that their 8-month-old baby Marintha died in the August preceding their journey West. (Harriet and Henry wouldn’t have another child until 1855, just before the dissolution of their marriage and Henry’s departure from the Saints to seek gold in California.)

Childless once again, the Larters crossed the plains in 1853 with the David Wilkin Company (Henry was 21; Harriet was 23). The company included 122 individuals and 28 wagons; Captain Wilkin was already experienced in crossing the plains, first with the Mormon Battalion in 1847, followed by various rescue missions and supply runs. Elizabeth Mills, a member of the company who was 14 years old at the time of crossing, later recalled a rather horrific incident that speaks to the increased tensions between Mormons and the local Native Americans. Somewhere near where Denver is today, Elizabeth said the company came upon the body of a slaughtered white man, whose limbs had been chopped off the body and disturbingly placed in a grisly criss-cross over the corpse’s torso. Wary about what this sign might portend, the Saints proceeded cautiously, only to next come upon many more bodies—an entire wagon company—with murdered bodies strewn about, their possessions burned or stolen: “All that was left was the scrap iron of the wagons and the iron bands that encircled the wheels.” The David Wilkin Company circled their wagons, chaining wagon wheels together and camping in center of this makeshift defense. The oxen stayed yoked. Some evenings, they traveled under the cover of night, hoping to stay out of the local Native Americans’ notice. One afternoon, while letting their oxen graze at a nearby stream, the Saints were finally confronted; Elizabeth records her own terrifying part in the company’s narrative:

“400 Indian braves rode up to our camp[.] They rode close and teased the children, knocked the lids off the skillets and took the biscuits[.] I was in the back of a wagon watching some children when the Indian chief came up to the wagon and tried to get one of the children[.] I cracked his knuckles with an ox yoke, where upon he laughed and said, ‘brave squak’[.] Then he put his arm around me and drew me on his horse and rode swiftly toward the mountains fortunately for me as we disappeared from view of the women at camp we chanced to come upon father and the other men who had gone hunting a short time earlier[.] Father and the other men talked with the Indians an hour trying to persuade them to let me free. Then they drove to the camp and talked for three hours more[.] The Indians finally consented to sell me back to my people[.] Some gave sugar, salt, rice, flower and whatever they could, until they could spare no more. The Indians said ‘more more’[.] Then Captain Wilkie became angry, fired off a small cannon[.] This frightened the Indians away but they followed us for five days frightening the horses and causing the cattle to stampede. Some of the wagons were broken up and several men were compelled to walk the rest of the way. I had a good time all the way across the plains, except for this incident.”[3]

Another member of David Wilkin Company, John Duncan (who was 25 at the time of the journey, was blind in his left eye, and had a wooden right leg), records the events of the trail with much less optimism and fondness. I’ll share this excerpt in its entirety, too, because I am endeared by John’s Charlie-Brown-defeatist attitude, especially since he manages to arrive in Salt Lake all in one piece (or at least all of the pieces he had upon leaving Missouri):

“The Elkhorn River having over flowed its banks the teams had to drag through the mud half way to the Axeltrees, my wooden pin [his leg] sinking from four to eight inches in the mud every step I took, until I was so exhausted that if the Pawnee would have come and cooked me for their supper it would have been a blest relief to me. After getting through this swamp I sat down with my wife [Margaret] by me side, intending we would die together. [They didn’t.] Our next trouble was on Wood River, here we had our first stampede, between one and two A.M. In one minute everyone was on his feet, and crash went chains, spokes, wheels, horns and animals scattered in every direction all over the Prairie. Took several days to gather them up. This was the beginning of our stampedes. Six more followed and some a great deal worse. The smalled trifle such as a dog running along the side of the cattle would scare them.

“When 125 miles on this side of the Laramie over 100 Indians made a line across the road and it was ‘Hither to shalt thou come but no farther’ until we get so much flour and so much coffee. While parleying over this matter some of them was trying to find out what kind of a leg I had. I made signs to them that I could shoot with it, which I sorely repented of before that day was done. Three times my scalp was going to be taken off. One fellow brought a rifle barrall down onto my head. I thought it was to be one half for each shoulder, but the hand was stayed.

September 2nd [1852] arrived in Salt Lake City, hungry as a Wolf.”[4]

When the company reached Echo Canyon in the Salt Lake Valley, Harriet was met by a huge celebration accompanied by the Ballos Brass Band. This was the first company of Saints to have benefited from Brigham Young’s Perpetual Emigration Fund, church funds and donations that were loaned to early Saints to help them cross the plains more quickly and safely (in 1880, President John Taylor forgave any outstanding debts from recipients of the PEF who were too poor to pay the loans back).

Somewhere between 1855 (when Deserett was born) and 1857 (when she was sealed to Archibald as his 9th wife), Henry Larter left Harriet to join the Gold Rush in California. It is unclear if this resulted in divorce or just separation. There are no records of Henry telling Harriet he would return, or if the marriage was unsatisfactory prior to his departure. I only know that he left, and that Harriet let herself be courted by Archibald shortly thereafter.

Harriet is recorded as being rebaptised on March 15, 1857, in Mill Creek, Utah. Three months later, she was married and sealed to Archibald Gardner on the same day (according to some records) as the newly 15-year-old Sarah Jane Hamilton. Harriet would have two children with Archibald: Lovina (born in 1858) and William (born in 1860).

Harriet moved to Spanish Fork with her son William in 1862, where he died at 2 years old. In 1863, Harriet’s first husband returned from California and asked if she would have him back. I wish I knew more about Harriet’s heart at this point. I wish I knew what sort of a man Henry was, and if she was delighted to see him, or terrified, or embarrassed. I wish I knew if they had corresponded in his absence, if Henry had known that she had become someone else’s plural wife. I wish I knew if they had to secretly court each other again while she was still married to a husband she rarely saw. Maybe it was much more abrupt and open than that. I hope it was a heartfelt reunion rather than just an escape from plural marriage, although I’m not sure that desire makes me a traitor to Archie or not. Whatever the case, Harriet consented to be Henry’s wife again. Following a divorce from Archie (who really seems to have never become an impediment against any wife who wished to separate from him), Harriet remarried Henry Larter and moved with him to Moroni, Utah, taking Lovina with her.

Just three years later, Harriet passed away at age 36, and 8-year-old Lovina returned to Archibald’s family and moved in with Jane’s family, Archibald’s 6th wife (Jane Park was the young wife who bore two children with Archie herself but then later adopted and raised several of Archibald’s other children). Lovina lived with Jane until she turned 17 and married Sidney Rigdon Savage. Together they had three children, William, Hattie, and Leo. After their third baby was born, Sidney deserted Lovina, and Archie arranged for Lovina and the children to return to his fold in West Jordan. Archibald set up living arrangements for them in an old factory house and supported them financially. Lovina sued Sidney for divorce, which she apparently obtained even though Sidney was nowhere to be found and never heard from again. In 1885, Lovina secretly married Levi Naylor (secretly, because this was a plural marriage, and the government spies were actively searching out polygamists and sending them to prison[5]).

As for Henry Larter, he went back to California to pan for gold, divvying up his remaining children to nearby relatives. His second round of gold-mining was as unsuccessful as the first. He returned emptyhanded and family-less to Utah and married Phoebe Marie Curtis Neach, a clean and large-statured Mormon woman who bore him eleven children (she was 22 years younger than Harriet would have been). After Henry died, Phoebe married a Mr. Pierce, outlived him, and then married a Mr. Osborne. At 90 years old, she told her son she would marry yet again if someone would have her in her old age; apparently nobody ever did. She died in Salmon, Idaho, at the age of 97. And it is this woman who might possibly be the woman in the picture attached to this post, the face more frequently attributed to Harriet.

Harriet’s shoes have been harder to step into than many of Archibald’s other wives. I can see her in the background of the above stories. I know that she was in the same rooms and wagons and conversations as the people whose voices are heard in this post. I know some of the things that she did and the places that she went. But I know virtually nothing about what she thought or felt. I’m not even sure I have the right picture. No one even knows where she is buried, because no one has been able to find her tombstone in any of the Moroni, Utah, cemeteries. So Harriet, Archie’s 9th of 11 wives, continues to haunt like a shadow in the family narrative. This seems to be a common element of polygamy research: some wives shine like brilliant lanterns, whether they rejoiced in polygamy or kicked against the pricks; other wives get lost in the shadows, and no one really remembers who they were or what they did at all.

Sources consulted:

[1] I’ve not been able to find very much at all about Harriet Deserett. She was born in 1855 and died in 1936. She married George Washington Wilson in 1873 and with him had a daughter, Jesse Virginia. An unsigned note from Family Search gives this rather tragic detail: “Harriet Deseret was born to Henry Neach and Harriet Larter in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her grandniece, Madge, said that she remembers her as a tiny, sad, frail woman who always walked with humped shoulders.” Her tombstone spells her name, “Deserett,” but most family records spell it “Deseret.”

[2] This hymn is no longer in the LDS hymnbook, but it was so widely beloved by early Saints that in September 1847, Eliza R. Snow wrote a hymn to the same tune, “Hail to the Twelve and Pioneers,” with the concluding stanza: “We will onward to the valley, / Speed your way, make haste and come; / That, ere long with joy and gladness, / We may bid you welcome home.”

[3] This is maybe the best possible final sentence I have ever seen on a pioneer memory. Let it be known that Elizabeth Mills Whitaker “had a good time all the way across the plains” except for that one time that she was kidnapped by strangers and had to be exchanged for goods in order to rejoin her family.

[4] Actually, no, I’ve changed my mind. This actually might be the best possible final sentence I have ever seen on a pioneer memory.

[5] Lovina was brought at least once before a grand jury to be questioned about Archibald’s plural marriages (Archibald was then in hiding), likely the same year that she became a plural wife herself.

Comments

  1. I love these bios. I love that you’re giving voice to some invisible women–or at least trying to. This has been just an exceptional series.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I like the name Deserett. I see the extra t as a feminizing element.

  3. This entire series is remarkable, Emily. Well done. I’m sad that it’s drawing to a close.

  4. This series has helped me so much to reconcile with my polygamous ancestry. I, like Jessie, am so sad that there will only be two more wives (not that I wish Archie had added to his 11). I am planning on doing this same research for my polygamous fore-mothers so that my family can have a record such as this. You’ve helped me be less ashamed to teach my children about polygamy, which has been a big stumbling block in my life. Thank you.

  5. alesueur218 says:

    I love how this series is about the women. LOVE IT. And somehow it has made me more….patient with polygamy. Not comfortable. But willing to wait it out. I would love to hear more about the process of this research and how you found so much personal history on seemingly difficult to find women.

  6. Excellent series. Thanks for your work in putting it together and your willingness to share it. These women were strong to go through what they did. These stories of conflicts with the natives are a reminder not to underestimate that part of their struggles.

  7. Being a second-generation Mormon, I have no polygamous ancestors and have only thought of the practice as something strange and foreign. I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed reading your beautiful posts. The love and respect you’ve developed for these women as you’ve studied their lives is evident in your writing, and I feel like I’ve come to love and respect them right along with you. There’s something sacred and holy in this work you’re doing. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  8. This series is a remarkable achievement. I really feel honored that you’ve shared this with us.

  9. Wonderful series. I keep referencing and recommending it. Thanks.

  10. Echoing what Karen said, I think that stories like Harriet’s are especially important to tell, sparse as they are. Thank you! This has been such a great series.

  11. My ancestor was the child of Archibald and Mary Anne Bradford Gardner. I would very much like to locate a reunion for this family. If you have any information can you please contact me at email attached? This is an interesting and helpful blog and much appreciated! More information that any other source. Thank you!

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