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Joseph Smith Polygamy

In Sacred Loneliness: The Documents of Joseph Smith’s Wives

Todd Compton discusses his new book about Joseph Smith’s wives.

The plural wives of Joseph Smith are the focus of Todd Compton’s book, In Sacred Loneliness: The Documents. As a sequel to his 1997 volume, The Documents provides the primary sources Compton used in his book about Joseph Smith’s polygamous marriages. In this interview, Todd Compton discusses his new publication, shares thoughts about reactions to his research, and provides highlights from his book.


This post includes an Amazon Affiliate link to the book by Todd Compton. As an Amazon Affiliate I earn from qualifying purchases.


How has the reception to In Sacred Loneliness evolved?

When In Sacred Loneliness first came out, some prominent conservative historians definitely were not happy about it. Through the years, however, it has kind of been accepted. It has a strong readership, partially, I think, because Joseph Smith’s polygamy is fascinating, but also because the women I wrote about were so remarkable. Their life stories were very involving.

Their lives were mixed: sometimes very tragic, sometimes generally happy.

I also quoted liberally from things they had written, so their voices came through. Some of these women have become famous:

  • Eliza R. Snow (Smith Young);
  • Zina Huntington (Jacobs Smith Young) (both of whom were General Relief Society Presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints);
  • Patty Bartlett (Sessions Smith Parry), the midwife.

Other wives of Joseph Smith are not well known, but they are just as remarkable:

  • Louisa Beaman (Smith Young);
  • Emily Partridge (Smith Young);
  • her sister Eliza Partridge (Smith Lyman).

For those who haven’t read the book, I should mention that it deals with Joseph Smith’s polygamy in Nauvoo. However, it mainly provides chapter-length biographies of his plural wives. The book takes them from birth, through the Latter-day Saint migrations, and into Utah (or California or other states, in a few cases).

Their lives were mixed: sometimes very tragic, sometimes generally happy. The women often lived in large polygamous families in Utah, and experienced what I call “practical polygamy.” It could be difficult.

Latter-day Saint historians Lisa Olsen Tait and Matthew Grow discuss polygamy in pioneer Utah.

Any other stories about how In Sacred Loneliness has been received?

In Sacred Loneliness won the Best Book of the Year awards from the Mormon History Association, and from the John Whitmer Historical Association, which is connected with the Community of Christ Church, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I was very honored and humbled to receive those awards.

I remember visiting the Community of Christ library for the first time. I called them before I came and told them about my research interests. I also talked with archivist Ron Romig. I remember him saying that he didn’t think I’d find much on the subject of Joseph Smith’s wives in the Community of Christ archives.

However, I spent a few weeks at the library and archives in the Community of Christ temple and had a wonderful experience. Ron was very helpful and friendly.

For example, he provided assistance documenting the life of Elizabeth Davis (Goldsmith Brackenbury Durfee Smith Lott), one of Joseph’s plural wives. She joined the RLDS church in California and later moved near Independence, Missouri, with her sons. Ron was very helpful in knowing how to document their lives.

Different reactions to In Sacred Loneliness

I’ll tell one story that shows how different people react differently to my book. One day, I got an email from someone who had grown up in a fundamentalist environment (meaning people who continue to practice polygamy in churches that have broken away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

This person had left the fundamentalist community and wasn’t sympathetic to modern polygamy. He had read my book and really liked it. He felt that it showed that Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy was wrong. He had a sister who was still a plural wife in one of these breakoff groups, and he really hoped he could get her to read my book. So, he contacted her and brought up my book—and it turned out she had already read it and had loved it.

But for a different reason. He saw my book as evidence that Joseph Smith’s polygamy was wrong, while she saw it as proof the Prophet Joseph had been right.

(As a side note, Lindsay Hansen Park has introduced a new generation to In Sacred Loneliness by talking about all the women from my book on her podcast, “Year of Polygamy.” Wonderful artists such as Leslie Olpin Petersen and Kelly McAfee have also used Joseph Smith’s plural wives as subjects for their art.)

When I wrote that book, there were no primary historical texts on the internet.


What is Todd Compton’s relationship with faith?

This is kind of hard to answer briefly. I’m assuming you don’t want a two-hundred-page answer! Maybe I’ll write my autobiography sometime. I consider myself a person of faith, but I really have a complex view of religious history.

At times, I’ve called myself a liberal Protestant Mormon. Conservative Latter-day Saints wouldn’t be comfortable with the liberal Protestant side of my faith. I believe that all religious leaders—in the Latter-day Saint tradition, in the general Christian tradition, and the Old and New Testaments—are fallible humans. I believe they’re inspired at times, and also sometimes make serious mistakes. They disagree amongst themselves. So, sometimes religious history is enigmatic.

In Gregory Prince and Wm. Robert Wright’s biography of David O. McKay, they tell the story of Sterling McMurrin, a prominent Latter-day Saint intellectual who had what you might call liberal Protestant perspectives on faith (and expressed them freely). One prominent church leader was deeply offended and began working behind the scenes to try to excommunicate McMurrin. President McKay found out about it and asked to have a private meeting with McMurrin. McKay told him, “If they try to excommunicate you, I’ll be there as the first witness on your behalf.”

So, within the perspective of religious history, who is the inspired person in this story? Is it the very prominent church leader who felt that McMurrin should be excommunicated for the good of the church? Is it President McKay, who strongly defended McMurrin? Is it Sterling McMurrin? Or, were they perhaps all inspired—and limited—in different ways?

My personal view of polygamy agrees with Eugene England’s essay, “On Fidelity, Polygamy, and Celestial Marriage,” in which England argues that monogamy is the order of heaven.

I have friends who are confirmed atheists, though very good people. When I’m in such company, I am viewed as offensively conservative. So, my views are complex and don’t easily fit into any one category.


How did Joe Geisner’s book lead to a “Documents” version of In Sacred Loneliness?

Joe Geisner had the great idea to edit a book in which authors of books of Mormon history told about how they’d written the books. Sometimes, they also shared responses to their books. It turned out to be a great publication (Writing Mormon History: Historians and Their Books), with essays by the above-mentioned Gregory Prince, as well as D. Michael Quinn, Linda King Newell, Will Bagley, and John Turner.

There were also really interesting chapters by people not as famous. So, Joe asked me to write a chapter about writing In Sacred Loneliness.

While I was writing that essay, I went back into my computer files from the time I was writing the book, looking for letters I’d written and received. I found my transcriptions of many texts written by the women in In Sacred Loneliness.

Serious historians, conservative or liberal, have to deal with his plural marriages.

When I wrote that book, there were no primary historical texts on the internet, so you had to visit library after library, sit down with your laptop, and take notes and type transcriptions. If a document was fairly short, you could transcribe the whole thing. So, I had a lot of documents on my computer that had never been published that I thought were important.

While I had quoted from them in the first In Sacred Loneliness, I felt it would be valuable to publish these documents in full. So, I mentioned the idea to Gary Bergera at Signature Books, and he was very positive about doing a book such as this.

So, strangely enough, I started work on In Sacred Loneliness: the Documents while I was trying to explain how another book came into being.


What has Todd Compton learned about Joseph Smith’s wives since first publishing In Sacred Loneliness?

Again, you need thirty pages to answer a question like this. I guess, to speak generally, in my mind, the main pattern of the lives of these women has not changed much. But some documents have come out that have deepened the stories. On a few occasions, they’ve also changed my view of some details.

New books about Joseph Smith’s wives

Several important books about Joseph Smith’s polygamy have come out since In Sacred Loneliness:

  • Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling;
  • Brian Hales’s three-volume work, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy;
  • B. Carmon Hardy’s one-volume history of Mormon polygamy, Doing The Works of Abraham: Mormon. Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice, and Demise;
  • Marti Bradley’s Four Zinas: A Story of Mothers and Daughters on the Mormon Frontier;
  • Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835–1870;
  • Kathryn M. Daynes, More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840–1910,
  • George Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: “…But We Called It Celestial Marriage”;
  • articles by Gary Bergera;
  • Carol Lynn Pearson, The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men.

All of these dealt with some of the subject matter of In Sacred Loneliness, and have made great contributions.

Interesting polygamy details

Lucinda Pendleton

As an example of a fact that has appeared since my book was published, Brian Hales has an alternate date for the death of Lucinda Pendleton (Morgan Harris Smith). If the new date turns out to be correct, her later life must be told a little differently.

Brian has dealt in greater depth with some of the women who are not on my list of thirty-three wives of Joseph Smith. He has also collected additional material on the women from my list.


Flora Ann Woodworth

Someone found a marriage record for Flora Ann Woodworth’s marriage to non-Latter-day Saint Carlos Gove. So, that new date requires you to tell her story a little differently. I also found out a lot more about Carlos Gove’s later life from Find a Grave.


Eliza Partridge Lyman and Sarah Kingsley Cleveland

While working on the new book, I found letters by Eliza Partridge Lyman and Sarah Kingsley Cleveland that I didn’t know about in the 1990s. These letters are not earth-shaking, but they provide added depth to their life histories and their personalities. I’ve included the letters in In Sacred Loneliness: The Documents.


What’s the value in publishing the documents when you’ve already narrated the stories?

It’s great to have the full document. When you’re dealing with something that might be controversial, it’s helpful to have the full context for a quote. In addition, the woman’s voice comes through more fully. You will know her better if you read a full document rather than isolated quotes.

For the first In Sacred Loneliness, I selected quotes carefully, depending on if they were dramatic, funny, or historically valuable. But it’s wonderful to read the whole letter, autobiography, or interview.

For example, when I do readings in live appearances to support this new book, I often share a letter from Ina Coolbrith that includes her negative evaluation of polygamy. I do that because it illustrates vivid and funny writing from a precocious 16-year-old girl.

But in her 1857 letters to Joseph F. Smith, she also gives a great description of early Los Angeles and the violence of that town during the Gold Rush era. It’s fascinating to someone like me who is a California resident interested in California history. But it also gives you greater insight into what life was like for Ina and her mother, Agnes, in that time and place.


When and why did Joseph Smith’s plural marriages become taboo?

This requires retelling almost all of Mormon history! Well, Joseph Smith’s revelation on polygamy (D&C 132) and his extensive practice of polygamy laid the foundation for polygamy being an important doctrine and practice of nineteenth-century Mormonism in Utah. When RLDS (modern Community of Christ) missionaries and leaders came to Utah and denied that Joseph Smith had been a polygamist, devout Latter-day Saints such as assistant Church historian Andrew Jenson and apostle Joseph F. Smith proclaimed publicly—and provided documentation—that Joseph Smith had been a polygamist.

When the Saints were required to give up polygamy at the turn of the century, it was an incredibly painful transition period. But the church had to make the complete transition from polygamy to monogamy. And soon, church leaders accepted monogamy as an important element of this new Mormonism.

And nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint plural marriage kind of dropped out of the picture of official church history. In fact, it was actually almost viewed as opposed to twentieth-century Mormonism—although what Carolyn Pearson calls the “Ghost of Eternal Polygamy” always remained.

Brigham Young was sometimes accepted as a much-married polygamist, but Latter-day Saint culture downplayed Joseph Smith’s polygamy—despite the fact that D&C 132 is still in our Doctrine & Covenants, and that Jenson and Joseph F. Smith carefully documented Joseph Smith’s plural marriages.

For twentieth-century Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith became highly idealized. His extensive polygamy just didn’t seem to fit with his prophetic, founding mission. I sometimes run across lifelong Latter-day Saints who don’t realize that Joseph Smith was a polygamist, let alone know the details of his many marriages.

However, Joseph Smith is obviously a major figure in Mormonism—and American history. So, serious historians, conservative or liberal, have to deal with his plural marriages.

I really admire how fairly conservative historians like Richard Bushman and Brian Hales have begun to tell the story of Joseph Smith’s polygamy. Though, of course, I occasionally disagree with them on some details.

The institutional church has begun to deal with Joseph Smith’s polygamy, such as in the gospel topics essays and the Joseph Smith Papers introductions and notes.

I should also mention that the Church History Library has done a wonderful job of making important historical documents available, now often online. When I was researching both my In Sacred Loneliness books, the people in the church archives were always very helpful to me.


How many plural wives did Joseph Smith have?

I found thirty-three women who I felt could be adequately documented as plural wives of Joseph Smith, but there is no absolute, certain answer. The research and documentation by Andrew Jenson and Joseph F. Smith were extremely helpful in creating my list of thirty-three.

Other historians have lists with more wives (such as Brian Hales and D. Michael Quinn), and some have lists with fewer wives (such as Richard Bushman). Andrew Jenson had a list of 27 wives, which he published in 1887.

I also have a list of about sixteen women who are possible wives of Joseph Smith. But they’re not as well documented as the above thirty-three.

Emma Smith was the wife of the Prophet Joseph Smith
Historian Todd Compton says that Joseph Smith married 33 women, in addition to Emma Smith. His list includes plural wives such as Fanny Alger, Eliza R. Snow, and Helen Mar Kimball.

Who were Joseph Smith’s plural wives?

The first date is the date or time of the marriage:

  1. [early 1833] — Fanny Alger (Smith Custer) (1816–1889)
  2. [1838] — Lucinda Pendleton (Morgan Harris Smith) (1801–[1856])
  3. Apr. 5, 1841 — Louisa Beaman (Smith Young) (1815–1850)
  4. Oct. 27, 1841 — Zina Diantha Huntington (Jacobs Smith Young) (1821–1901)
  5. Dec. 11, 1841 — Presendia Lathrop Huntington (Buell Smith Kimball) (1810–1892)
  6. Jan. 6, 1842 — Agnes Moulton Coolbrith (Smith Smith Smith Pickett) (1808–1876)
  7. Feb. 8, 1842 — Sylvia Porter Sessions (Lyon Smith Kimball Clark) (1818–1882)
  8. late Feb. 1842 — Mary Elizabeth Rollins (Lightner Smith Young) (1818–1913)
  9. Mar. 9, 1842 — Patty Bartlett (Sessions Smith Parry) (1795–1892)
  10. Apr. 1842 — Marinda Nancy Johnson (Hyde Smith) (1815–1886)
  11. < June 1842 — Elizabeth Davis (Goldsmith Brackenbury Durfee Smith Lott) (1791–1876)
  12. < June 29, 1842 — Sarah Kingsley (Howe Cleveland Smith Smith) (1788–1856)
  13. < July 1842 — Delcena Diadamia Johnson (Sherman Smith Babbitt) (1806–1854)
  14. June 29, 1842 — Eliza Roxcy Snow (Smith Young) (1804–1887)
  15. July 27, 1842 — Sarah Ann Whitney (Smith [Kingsbury] Kimball) (1825–1873)
  16. Aug. 1842 — Martha McBride (Knight Smith Kimball) (1805–1901)
  17. Spring 1843 — Flora Ann Woodworth (Smith Gove) (1826–[1850])
  18. Mar. 4, 1843 — Emily Dow Partridge (Smith Young) (1824–1899)
  19. Mar. 8, 1843 — Eliza Maria Partridge (Smith Lyman) (1820–1886)
  20. May 1, 1843 — Lucy Walker (Smith Kimball) (1826–1910)
  21. May 1843 — Sarah Lawrence (Smith Kimball Mount) (1826–1872)
  22. May 1843 — Maria Lawrence (Smith [Young] Babbitt) (1823–1847)
  23. May 1843 — Helen Mar Kimball (Smith Whitney) (1828–1896)
  24. [May 26, 1843, to Feb. 1844] — Ruth Vose (Sayers Smith) (1808–1884)
  25. < mid-1843 — Hannah Ells (Smith) (1813–[1845])
  26. Spring, after May 26, 1843 — Almera Woodard Johnson (Smith Barton) (1812–1896)
  27. June 1, 1843 — Elvira Annie Cowles (Holmes Smith) (1813–1871)
  28. June 12, 1843 — Rhoda Richards (Smith Young) (1784–1879)
  29. July 1843 — Desdemona Catlin Wadsworth Fullmer (Smith Benson McLane) (1809–1886)
  30. Summer 1843 — Olive Grey Frost (Smith Young) (1816–1845)
  31. Sep. 20, 1843 — Melissa Lott (Smith Bernhisel Willes) (1824–1898)
  32. [1842–43?] — Nancy Maria Winchester (Smith Kimball Arnold) (1828–1876)
  33. Nov. 2, 1843 — Fanny Young (Carr Murray Smith) (1787–1859)

Do we know why Joseph Smith married so many women?

According to Benjamin Johnson, who had known Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, and who was the brother of two wives of Joseph Smith, Joseph Smith developed a theology in which the greater number of wives and children you had in this life, the greater your exaltation in the next life.

According to Johnson, Joseph Smith used the parable of the talents from the New Testament to teach this concept. Passages from D&C 132 fit in with this. These concepts were also found in Utah, but I think they derived from Joseph Smith.

My first book has a kind of paradoxical title (In Sacred Loneliness). On one hand, polygamy was viewed as sacred, necessary for the highest exaltation. On the other hand, the more wives a man had, the less time he could spend with each wife and their children—and the more his financial resources were fractured. As a result, polygamous wives often experienced isolation and limited financial support.


Does the historical record indicate that Joseph married Fanny Alger?

Yes, in my judgment the historical record says that Joseph Smith married Fanny Alger. Although it’s important to point out that the historical community hasn’t come to a consensus.

Some historians can look at a piece of retrospective evidence—a memoir by Emily Partridge Smith Young, for example—and say, “I believe it.” Another historian may legitimately say, “I don’t believe it.” Or, you can say, “I accept it, but she got some details wrong because of a lapse of memory” (which I think is a more reliable critique of retrospective evidence, rather than a complete rejection).

In my judgment, there is convincing retrospective evidence that Fanny Alger was a plural wife of Joseph Smith. For example, Mosiah Hancock, Fanny’s cousin, told the story of how his father, Levi Hancock, performed the formal marriage of Fanny to Joseph Smith in the Kirtland era. I accept this. But another historian can make the sincere judgment that this is an unreliable late family tradition.

Accumulation of evidence is also convincing, and I find that accumulation in the case of Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger.

Without getting into a long discussion of historiography, I do not reject all late evidence—or all family tradition. But I agree that it can sometimes be flawed. All historical evidence—even contemporary evidence such as a diary—is written by humans who are flawed, and see reality from their own limited perspectives.

A historian has to consider all available evidence and see how it fits together to make a consistent picture.


What are the biggest questions about Joseph Smith’s polygamy today?

Today, Latter-day Saint historians generally accept that Joseph Smith was a polygamist and had roughly thirty plural wives. However, about eleven of these women were married to other men when Joseph Smith married them and continued to live with these “first husbands.” I call this polyandry, in the sense that the woman was married to two men at the same time.

However, I agree that the marriage to the first husband was a legal marriage only, while the marriage to Joseph Smith was a religious marriage, with earthly and eternal dimensions. (Some people reject the term polyandry because the marriages are of different types.)

While people like Richard Bushman and Brian Hales agree that these marriages took place, there is disagreement about the meaning of these marriages. For example, Brian argues that Joseph Smith’s marriages to these women were all for eternity only, while I don’t believe the evidence supports an “eternity only” interpretation.

Again, this is an issue that can’t be discussed fully in a short interview. Both Brian Hales and I have articles coming out in which we try to understand Nauvoo polyandry better.


Could you share a few snippets from the documents that you find especially interesting?

Ina Coolbrith

Here is the anti-polygamy quote by Ina Coolbrith that I mentioned previously. She went on to become a famous poet in nineteenth-century California. She was also a friend of Bret Harte, John Muir, Mark Twain, and Jack London.

“Ina Coolbrith” was a pen name. Her full name was Josephine Donna Smith (Carsely). She was the daughter of Don Carlos Smith, Joseph Smith’s brother, who died in Nauvoo. Her mother, Agnes Coolbrith (Smith Smith Smith Pickett) married Joseph Smith after Don Carlos’s death and then went on to marry lapsed Latter-day Saint William Pickett before the family came to California in the Gold Rush era.

We have wonderful letters by the teenage Ina in Los Angeles writing to her cousin, Joseph F. Smith, who was on a mission in Hawaii. This letter was written on July 22, 1857:

Is it right for a girl of 15 and even 16 to marry a man of 50 or 60. Can there be any love there? and has not God willed a woman to love honor and obey her husband? And can it be right thus to pledge false vows at the altar, in perfect mockery of all that is good, and pure in Gods most holy laws? I think I see myself, vowing to love and honor, some of old driv driveling idiot of 60, to be taken into his harem and enjoy his fav the pleasure of being his favorite Sultana for an hour, and then thrown aside, whil’st my Godly husband, is out Sparking another girl, in hopes of getting another victim to his dep despotic power. Pleasant prospect, I must say. And this, Joe, this is of God, is it? No, never, never, never! You may preach, you may talk to me from now, to Eternity, but you never will make me believe that polygamy is true.

In Sacred Loneliness: the Documents, page 127.

Eliza Partridge Smith Lyman

To give a contrasting view of polygamy, Eliza Partridge Smith Lyman spoke at a “Mass Meeting of Ladies in Fillmore to Protest Against the Proceedings of the Anti Polygamous Ladies of ^Utah^” in 1879, and copied her speech into her diary:

It is now about thirty one years since the Prophet Joseph Smith taught to me the principles of Celestial marriage. I was then married by that order and have raised a family of both sons and daughters in what is called Polygamy, and I am not afraid to say that it is one of the most pure and holy principles that has ever been revealed to the Latter day Saints, and one that is necessary to our exaltation. The Anti-Polygamists say the laws of Celestial marriage are a curse to our children. Will they be kind enough to tell us where it is any disadvantage to them? We are not afraid to compare our children with those born and raised in Monogamy. Perhaps they do not know that the Lord reserved some of the most noble spirits to come forth in the last days, to perform the great work which he has begun on earth, and which he will consummate in spite of all opposing influences. . . . Then let us rejoice my Sisters, that we are numbered with the People of God, that we have embraced the Celestial Order of marriage, and happy shall we be in a coming day if we have never spoken lightly of sacred things.

[In Sacred Loneliness: the Documents, 488]

Emily Partridge Smith Young

Here’s an example of how a woman remembered Joseph Smith’s proposal and marriage to her. It comes from a memoir by Eliza’s sister, Emily Partridge (Smith Young), who left many memorable writings, diaries, memoirs, letters, and legal testimony.

There are about sixty pages of her writings in my book. Her memories of Joseph Smith and Nauvoo were remarkably honest and detailed:

Mrs. Durfee came to me one day, and said Joseph would like an opportunity to talk with me. I asked her if she knew what he wanted. She said she thought he wanted me for a wife. I think I was thoroughly prepared for almost anything. I was to meet him in the evening at Brother Kimball’s. . . . [Emily goes to Kimball’s home, but takes an opportunity to leave.] I started for home as fast as I could, so as to get beyond being called back, for I still dreaded the interview. However, I soon heard Brother Kimball call, “Emily, Emily” rather low — but loud enough for me to hear. I thought at first I would not go back, and took no notice of his calling, but he kept calling, and was about to overtake me, so I stopped and went back with him.

I cannot tell all Joseph said, but he said the Lord had commanded him to enter into plural marriage, and had given me to him, and although I had got badly frightened, he knew I would yet have him, so he waited till the Lord told him. My mind was now prepared and would receive the principles. I do not think if I had not gone through the ordeal I did, that I could ever gone off at night to meet him, but that was the only way that could be done then. Well, I was married there and then — Joseph went home, his way, and I going my way alone. A strange way of getting married, wasn’t it? Brother Kimball married us, the 4th of March 1843.

In Sacred Loneliness: the Documents, pages 416-17.

Louisa Beaman (Smith Young)

My last quote is from a letter written by Louisa Beaman (Smith Young). One of the memorable moments in my research for the first book was when I discovered this letter in the Church History Library archives.

Louisa was basically a name on a list before I stumbled across this letter. We had a few brief descriptions of her marriage to Joseph Smith, and her name appears at times in the diaries of Eliza R. Snow and Zina Huntington Young. However, when I found this letter, written in her own hand, and read and transcribed it, Louisa suddenly came to life for me. She became a real person whose voice spoke to us across the gap of more than a century.

And I learned the story of her last two children. Louisa married Brigham Young after Joseph Smith’s death. With Young, she first had twin boys, who died as infants. Then she had another boy in Winter Quarters, who also died as a baby. While she was crossing the plains in 1848, she had another set of twin boys.

In a letter dated April 8, 1849, she wrote to Marinda Johnson Hyde and two of Marinda’s sister wives:

I am led to think at times their is not much else but sorrow and affliction in this world for me, the next day after I arrived in the valley my babes were both taken sik with ^the^ bowell complaint the canker set in and on the 11. of Oct I was called upon ^to^ give up the oldest one and his litle spirett took its flight to join with his brothers and father in Heaven,

my anxiety was all turned towards the other that was living, the next day after this one was / was burried the other commenced to get better, he got so that he seamed well and grew flashy [fleshy] as fast as I ever saw a child and I even deared [dared] to hope that I should raise him but I know [no] sooner hoped then [than] my hopes were all blasted one day all in a moment as it were he was taken down again with the same complaint, and all I could do both buy [by] faith and works, did not seame to do any good and on the 16. of Nov. ^he^ breathed his last and I was again left alone, you that have been mothers can better and losst children can better immagine my feelings then I can disscribe them I had fondley hoped I should raise them they looked verry much alike indeed, their ^eyes^ were jest of a colour, I called them Alvah and Alma but they are gone, and I must be reconsiled to the will of God; and I desire ever to acknowledge his hand in all things I look forward to the time when I shall again behold them and claspe them to my bosome, will not my joy be full, I feel as though it would; I desire to bear all of my afflictions with patience, realising that my Heavenly / father knows better what is for my good then myself, and I feel to submit all things in to his hands and say his will be done and not mine.

In Sacred Loneliness: the Documents, page 5.

Some historians believe that Alvah and Alma Young were the first persons to be buried in the Brigham Young graveyard, though their graves are not marked today. Louisa died of breast cancer a few years after their deaths and was buried in the Salt Lake City graveyard. But her gravestone has disappeared.

We have discovered where she was buried, and I’m hoping to encourage the Brigham Young family to place a new gravestone there.


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About the author

Todd Compton is an American historian who specializes in the history of polygamy in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is a person of faith with a complex view of religion, and has sometimes called himself a “liberal Protestant Mormon.” Compton is the author of two landmark books about Joseph Smith’s polygamy, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (1997) and In Sacred Loneliness: The Documents (2022).


Further reading

Wives of Joseph Smith resources

This section includes Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Affiliate I earn from qualifying purchases.

  • In Sacred Loneliness: The Documents (Book)
  • In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Book)
  • Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Gospel Topics Essay)
  • Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo (Gospel Topics Essay)
  • Biographies of Joseph’s Plural Wives (Web)

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

One reply on “In Sacred Loneliness: The Documents of Joseph Smith’s Wives”

Mrs Durfee referenced by Emily Partridge was one of my ancestors and I always perk up to see her mentioned in the history, but looking back I am not proud of the polygamist past for my family or the church. In our family there are more stories of heartbreak, poverty, and broken promises than there are faith promoting events relating to polygamy. I must side with Ina coolbrith about my assessment of polygamy.

I am grateful to see the church be more open about the history and to see so many primary source documents of women from this period.

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