Latter-day Saint History

Why Did Susa Young Gates Get Divorced?

Her lack of experience clashed with her husband’s alcoholism.

Susa Young Gates divorced Alma Dunford several years after she was married at the age of 16. She admits being immature, and her lack of experience clashed with her husband’s alcoholism (which may have had underlying causes). In this interview, historian Lisa Olsen Tait explains that Susa’s divorce is more than a tabloid story because of how it contextualizes legal, social, and gender norms in pioneer Utah.

Learn more about the divorce of Susa Young Gates in Lisa Olsen’s Tait’s article in the Spring 2023 issue of the Journal of Mormon History.

Who is Susa Young Gates?

Susanna Young (as she was listed on the 1860 census) was born March 18, 1856, in the Lion House. (She started going by Susa sometime in the late 1870s.) She was the second daughter of Lucy Bigelow and Brigham Young.

She had an older sister, Dora, and a younger sister, Mabel. By her own account, her mother was deeply disappointed at not having more children and especially wished she had had a son.

All roads lead through Susa Young Gates.

Susie, as she was known, imbibed a deep sense of conflict about her gender, recognizing that she did not have the same opportunities as her brothers and yet feeling that it was a good thing to be a woman. In many ways, she wrestled with questions about gender her entire life.

Susie showed great literary talent, and deep ambition, from an early age. She first made a name for herself as a writer of letters and stories published in Latter-day Saint periodicals, and then in 1889 she founded the Young Woman’s Journal (organ of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association) and edited it until 1900.

During that same decade, she became involved in quite a breathtaking array of activities in the burgeoning women’s movement, notably the National and International Councils of Women, which led her to travel to many conventions and meetings where she rubbed shoulders with the leading women of the day.

She also traveled a lot for the YLMIA, attending conferences and drumming up subscriptions for the Journal.

She was interested in education, physical culture (as it was then called—the new idea that women could participate in exercise and athletics), home economics/domestic science, politics, and all things related to the advancement of women.

He finally overcame his drinking problem.

In the early twentieth century, she became a central figure in developing the Saints’ expertise in genealogy and was a proponent of temple work; she served as a temple worker herself for decades. She founded and edited the Relief Society Magazine from 1914-1922 and served on the Relief Society general board.

She wrote lengthy biographies of her father (published) and her mother (unpublished) and thousands of pages of drafts of a monumental but ultimately unfinished work, the History of Women.

She was involved in everything, though she was rarely president of anything. She was a formidable intellect, writer, and personality, well known in her day. Because of all the writing she did, especially the historical materials she compiled, I often say that all roads lead through Susa Young Gates for a certain period of church history.

After her divorce, Susie married Jacob F. Gates, a young man she had known growing up in St. George. They had eleven children together and a very happy marriage. Jacob was content to let her do her thing and was remarkably supportive for a man of his generation. Sadly, they buried eight of her thirteen children (including her son from the first marriage) before the turn of the century.

Jacob Gates (left) married Susa Young Gates after her divorce from Alma B. Dunford. Credit: Utah State Historical Society.

Who is Alma B. Dunford?

Alma Bailey Dunford was born in 1850 in England. His family had recently joined the church, and when Alma was three years old, they emigrated to the United States. They spent a number of years in St. Louis, where his father was branch president.

In 1864, they went West, settling in Bloomington, Idaho, in the Bear Lake Valley, where they struggled to make ends meet at farming. Alma stayed in Idaho for only a short time. At the age of fifteen, he moved to Salt Lake City, where his older brother William was already living, to try to find work and make a start in life.

Dunford became a pioneer dentist in Utah. He apprenticed to a Dr. Sharp and then struck out on his own in 1872 at the age of 21. He traveled around southern Utah as an itinerant dentist, providing services in the sparsely settled towns and earning money to pay off the debt he had incurred for his tools. Later he established a successful practice in Salt Lake City and trained a generation of younger dentists as modern methods developed. He was highly regarded as a “fine type of gentleman,” according to his obituary, who left behind “an enviable record of a useful life.”

According to his daughters, he finally overcame his drinking problem late in life, after raising his children to abstain from alcohol and to be active in the church.

There are a lot of sensitivities involved.

After his divorce from Susie Young, he married Lovinia Clayton (a daughter of William Clayton), and they had ten children together. Dunford was a loving, indulgent father who took great pride in his children. He was generous and friendly and a man of high integrity and ability.

I recognize in writing about this story that there are a lot of sensitivities involved, especially on the Dunford side, and understandably so. I have no wish to denigrate or judge him.

There seems to have been a streak of alcoholism in the family: his older brother, William, married a daughter of Emmeline Wells, and his cousin, Morley, married Susa’s older sister Dora. Both of those marriages ended in divorce, likewise over charges of drinking and abuse. We know so much more now about addiction and alcoholism, and I hope we can treat those problems with compassion and forbearance in terms of judgment.

It’s possible that there were underlying issues for which alcohol was the only medication available. We just don’t know.

At the same time, alcohol abuse and its terrible consequences have been a fact of life since time immemorial, and women and children have often suffered terribly as a result. As a historian, I think it is important that we look at these facts and accept them as part of the human experience.

Why is Susa’s divorce worth studying?

I have been working on Susa for many years, and I currently have two books about her life in the works. Her divorce has been one of the events that people have consistently asked about. A few versions of the story have been published, but none of them has been complete or, in my opinion, has fully taken into account her point of view.

I felt it was important to lay out the full story, including some of the ugly details, and to contextualize it in terms of legal, social, and gender norms surrounding divorce among Latter-day Saints in the nineteenth century.

Lisa Olsen Tait often receives questions about the divorce of Susa Young Gates. While the divorce was a difficult time in Susa’s life, she made so many contributions in pioneer Utah that she became inseparable from much of early Utah history.

What sources did Lisa Olsen Tait consult?

The sources are few, but they have a lot of detail:

  • Letters. There are a few letters, mostly from Alma Dunford, that detail the courtship and marriage, his mission, and his response to Susie’s request for a divorce.
  • Court records. The Washington County Probate Court records contain the original divorce complaint as well as a transcript of the trial proceedings. The detail in this record is quite amazing, though it is not what we would consider an adequate verbatim account by modern standards. Mine is the only account of the divorce to use this crucial source.

She was a romantic, impulsive girl with her head in the clouds.

  • Susa’s letter. Shortly after the trial, Susie wrote a lengthy letter to her sister, Zina Williams, laying out her side of the story in detail, from the time of the marriage through the ordeal of the trial. She knew that there was a lot of public fervor over the case, and she wrote the letter to defend herself and asked Zina to make sure that certain people saw it.
  • Erastus Snow’s findings. After the divorce, in response to the controversy stirred up in the community, President John Taylor commissioned apostle Erastus Snow (resident authority in St. George) to collect statements about the case. Adolphus Whitehead, clerk of the probate court, copied his statement into his journal. It corroborates certain details, supplies others, and provides a male-centric perspective on the case.

There are a few other sources here and there. I argue in the article that Susa may have written a veiled description of her first marriage in one of the novels she wrote for the Young Woman’s Journal in the 1890s.

How did Susa and Alma meet?

Alma was traveling as an itinerant dentist in the summer of 1872 when he met Lucy Young and her charming daughters and began spending time with them in their home in St. George. It’s likely that his relationship to Morley Dunford (his cousin and Dora Young’s husband) provided an “in” with Lucy.

How old were they when they got married?

Susie was sixteen years old, and by her own account, she was a romantic, impulsive girl with her head in the clouds, having grown up reading novels and attending the theater where stories of romance abounded.

Alma had turned twenty-two in August of 1872. Alma’s letters suggest that they were quite smitten with each other, and the courtship progressed rapidly. They were married on December 1 in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City.

How did Susa’s parents feel about the marriage?

We have no record of Brigham Young’s response—or of any correspondence about the matter. He does not seem to have been at the sealing, which was performed by Daniel H. Wells and witnessed by two family friends. Thomas and Elizabeth Kane, prominent visitors from the east, had recently arrived and were preparing to travel south with Young for the winter. I speculate that he may have been preoccupied with hosting them that day.

Lucy begged Alma and Susie to wait.

As reflected in the trial transcript and in Susie’s letter describing the ordeal, Lucy was apparently quite distressed at the engagement and begged Alma and Susie to wait.

She was concerned about how young Susie was; she knew that her daughter had not been “brought up to work” (as she said) and thus had very few domestic skills to run a household.

It’s likely that by this time, Dora and Morley were already having problems related to his drinking, and that may have contributed to Lucy’s worry.

Gates later described her mother as being fearful of romantic notions; she was brought up on the frontier where she learned to work hard from an early age and developed a pragmatic orientation to life, which could only have been reinforced by her marriage into polygamy. She seems to have struggled to know what to do with her three girls who grew up in very different circumstances with very different expectations.

Was Susa’s age typical for a young woman to marry?

One of the things I wanted to do with the article was to place Susie’s marriage in context of marriage patterns for the time and within her family. We don’t have extensive demographic data, but there have been a few important studies. Sixteen was definitely lower than average for girls to marry in Utah at the time. For women who were born in the 1850s, the mean age at marriage was 20. In St. George specifically, the average age of marriage in the 1860s and 1870s was 19, which was a little lower than the overall average for Utah. Either way, sixteen was very young.

It is hard to say.

Marriage at sixteen was also something of an outlier in the Brigham Young families. There were twenty-nine daughters who lived to adulthood and married. Seventeen of them had married by the time Susie did in 1872, and of those a majority (thirteen) married between the ages of seventeen and nineteen. The average age at marriage for Young daughters overall was just under nineteen. Only three other than Susie married as young as sixteen.

Now, it may be significant that Susie’s mother Lucy had married Brigham Young at the age of sixteen. They were sealed in 1847 in Winter Quarters, but the marriage was not consummated until 1850. This pattern was true for Young’s marriages to young women (and there were only three others who were sealed to him before age twenty).

Still, knowing that her mother had married her illustrious father at such a young age may have given Susie to feel that sixteen was a reasonable age to marry.

Throughout Gates’s writings here and there you’ll find her saying that sixteen was considered the “marriageable age” among Latter-day Saints. I don’t know of any authoritative source that would confirm that claim; it may come from her need to rationalize her own early marriage.

For how long was the marriage happy?

It is hard to say. In the Dunford family letters collection there are a few letters from Susie to her in-laws dating to the first year or two of the marriage. She claims that they are blissfully happy, that Alma has few faults, that they stay home together at night and enjoy each other’s company. Alma’s letters to his parents paint a similarly positive picture. There is certainly no reason to doubt that they loved each other.

She later referred to the situation as a “hideous skeleton.”

That said, Susie’s letter to her sister, written after the divorce, lays out a different story, suggesting that the relationship deteriorated quickly as Alma began staying out late at night drinking and coming home inebriated, which caused him to become angry and violent.

She recounted seeking out help from Zina D.H. Young (whom she called her “other mother”) and from her sister Zina Williams, going to their homes alone and frightened at night. Apparently Alma often went out drinking with his cousin Morley, husband of Susie’s sister Dora, and one night he came home and found the two girls talking over the situation. It enraged him, and he became violent. These kinds of things apparently began happening quite early in the marriage, within a few months at least.

Thus, Susie’s positive letters probably shouldn’t be taken entirely at face value. There would have been immense pressure to present a happy face to the world, especially in light of the opposition to the marriage that at least some in her family had expressed. And she couldn’t have been expected to lay out their marital troubles in detail to his parents, whom she would hardly have known.

She later referred to the situation as a “hideous skeleton” that she had kept hidden for years.

How did Susa contribute to the divorce?

For many years, Gates was haunted by the failure of her marriage and by her own role in it. The best source for understanding this is the diary she kept in 1888 (a decade later) while she and Jacob were serving a mission to Hawaii. Many times she reflects with wonder on how much she has grown up, how she used to sleep in and struggle to complete her housework.

By her own admission, she was immature.

As her mother said, Susie had not been brought up to work. She lived in the Lion House with more than a dozen “mothers” and a number of hired hands who did most of the work. She and her sisters spent their lives going to school and to the theater and social activities. When she moved to St. George with her mother in 1870, she did receive a little more training in housework and cooking, but it seems to have been quite minimal.

And by her own admission, she was immature. She wasn’t used to getting up early in the morning. She liked to go out visiting. She struggled to keep her babies clean and cared for and to get dinner on the table on time.

These were not just individual failings. It is important to understand that there was a well-developed script for women, and these kinds of things were the absolute bedrock of expectations for what it meant to be a successful woman, wife, and mother. Susie failed at this script.

The transcript of the divorce trial shows that Alma was frustrated and angry that she did not live up to expectations for creating a clean, well-run household as she should have.

How was Alma culpable?

Alma was a hard worker and a conscientious husband and parent. He cared deeply for his family and truly suffered, for example, one year when business was slow and he had no money to buy them Christmas gifts.

But he had a problem with alcohol, and when he drank he became angry and abusive.

Again, in the trial transcript it is very clear that he had been violent with Susa and the children and had done damage to the household in some of his tirades. Even when he was not drunk, there was conflict and emotional abuse. They threatened each other with divorce repeatedly, and he taunted her that he would take the children and leave her with nothing.

Susie’s mother came running when she would hear screaming and commotion at their house; it is likely that others in the small community were at least somewhat aware of problems in the family.

What were the turning points that led Susa to seek a divorce?

There were a few. In May 1876, Alma and Susie moved to St. George seeking a fresh start. They traveled in company with Brigham Young, who was going down to inspect work on the temple. Dora was also with them. A few months later, she filed for divorce from Morley Dunford on the grounds of his drinking. Susie testified at the trial, and as I’ll discuss below, it may have given her a sense of precedent.

It was the reason she was vilified.

The real turning point came in 1877 when Alma was called on a mission to England. It has been suggested that the mission call was Brigham Young’s attempt to rehabilitate his son in-law, but no contemporary sources corroborate that idea directly.

By Susie’s later accounts, the marriage was in dire shape by this time, and before he left Alma had once again threatened a divorce. They left St. George and went to Salt Lake City in preparation for Alma’s departure in June. While there, he continued drinking, to the point that one night Susie and her sister Mabel found Alma passed out in the street and had to summon Wilford Woodruff to help them get him inside.

It is no understatement, then, to say that once he was gone, Susie felt an incredible sense of relief. She continued writing to him, but she later said that she had decided very quickly that she could not go back to the marriage.

Meanwhile, in August, while she was still in the city, her father died. I think this was important because she had feared disappointing him by getting a divorce. Also, shortly after his death, she had a dream that convinced her he knew her situation and approved of her desire to end the marriage. That was crucial.

Why didn’t she wait until Alma’s return from his mission?

This has been a central question ever since, and it was the reason she was vilified in the community at the time.

I suspect one of the most important factors was Susie’s experience observing her sister Dora’s divorce about a year and a half earlier. Dora filed her divorce complaint in the same court, invoking essentially the same grounds, before the same judge who later presided over the Dunfords’ trial.

She wanted it handled quietly.

The crucial difference was that her husband Morley did not show up to the court. He seems to have basically left the allegations uncontested and tacitly agreed to the divorce. Dora was awarded custody of the children and all of the couple’s property.

When Susie first approached the court clerk about filing for divorce, she told him that she wanted it handled quietly, and she “did not wish to expose Alma’s faults too much.”

Based on what she had seen with Dora’s divorce, with Alma having said he wanted a divorce before he left, and with him out of the country, she likely thought that the matter could play out quietly and be resolved quickly.

Frankly, I think she was also afraid to face him—which is understandable given the history of the marriage. I think she needed the physical distance in order to have the courage to do something she had long contemplated. She must have calculated that this gave her the best chance of having the divorce settled with the least trouble.

Sadly, she was wrong.

What were Susa’s expectations in the divorce?

I think she had somewhat contradictory expectations, all driven by fear. On the one hand, she hoped it could be handled quietly and without too much contention. That did not happen, and she paid a high price in legal, financial, social, and emotional terms. Unlike her sister’s divorce, Susie’s husband came back to town, angry, armed with lawyers, and gearing up for a fight.

It made the newspapers.

Meanwhile, Susie tried to draw on the traditional practice of having the ward teachers arbitrate family disputes, in hopes of keeping contention to a minimum and avoiding the court system. She was advised by her bishop not to engage a lawyer. This did not serve her well.

I think she also expected that she would face a lot of social penalties. She knew that women who sought divorces were not always treated well in the court of public opinion. Even though Utah had relatively liberal divorce laws, that didn’t erase the stigma that could accompany a divorce. The article talks about the backlash she experienced from the community.

What was the final outcome?

The divorce was granted, as we know. The couple’s property was divided up in a way that is hard to characterize as fair. Susie was given the property in St. George, which had an unfinished house and a debt of $1,000.

Dunford was given their lot and house in Salt Lake City. This lot had been deeded to Susie by her father on the condition, she said, that she would never deed it away to anyone else. The dispute over this property was the central sticking point in the divorce and led to Susie’s being taken into custody for contempt of court.

It was her duty to return home.

Even more painfully in the short and long term, Susie lost legal guardianship of both of her children. Bailey, the two year-old baby, was permitted to stay with her, but her four year-old daughter Leah went with Dunford. She and her mother barely knew each other until she was fifteen years old.

Meanwhile, after raising Bailey until he was ten years old, Susie lost him when Dunford showed up with legal papers and refused to let her and Jacob take him with them on their mission to Hawaii.

It caused such a scene at the rail station that it made the newspapers. The loss of her children was a deep heartbreak that haunted Gates’s life for decades.

What was the role of marital norms and gender roles?

First of all, women in this era internalized an ethic of “suffering self-sacrifice,” as one historian puts it, in which it was understood to be women’s lot and a feature of their feminine identity to suffer in silence and sacrifice themselves in the service of their husbands and children.

When Alma Dunford started staying out late and coming home drunk, young Susie went to her female relatives seeking comfort and help. All they could tell her was that it was her duty to return home and to bear the suffering she was experiencing. She should try to make home more attractive to her husband so he wouldn’t want to go out. They could tell her nothing that would contradict these central gender norms.

They implied anything else that happened was her fault.

As for the divorce itself, we have to remember that in those days, divorce was an adversarial process—one party had to file a complaint against the other party establishing grounds for divorce. There was no such thing as “no-fault” divorce.

Scholars who have studied divorce in the nineteenth century have found that it was often a mechanism for litigating or policing the boundaries of gender norms. Thus, divorce trials often revolved around one party or the other making accusations of bad behavior, and those accusations often involved violation of gender norms, especially for women.

We see this in the Dunford divorce case, especially in the trial transcript, where—despite the fact that she presented evidence demonstrating her husband’s violent behavior—Dunford’s lawyers essentially put Susie on trial for being an unfit wife, mother, and woman. She did not keep the house clean; she did not fix meals on time; she did not fulfill other gendered expectations.

Therefore, they implied, anything else that happened was her fault. If she had been more attentive or kept a cleaner house, he would not have become angry or sought refuge in drink. This kind of double bind was a fundamental fact of women’s lives for generations.

Did the divorce spur Susa to her future accomplishments?

Because she never discussed it openly, we don’t know how Gates would answer that question, and it likely would have varied over the course of her life.

I think it shows something fundamental about her personality and sense of self. She internalized that script of suffering self-sacrifice, but when the chips were down, she decided she could not suffer or sacrifice herself enough to stay in a situation that must have been destroying her inside. She paid a very high price for getting out of it, but in a real sense the divorce enabled her to move on with her life and fulfill her potential to an extent that might not have happened otherwise.

Life wasn’t simpler or easier “back then.”

In practical terms, when she remarried she sought to master the homemaking skills that she had previously lacked, and she took great pride in cooking, sewing, cleaning, and caring for her family. This undoubtedly contributed to the success of her second marriage but also helped her heal from the wounds of her first.

Undoubtedly, some of her interest in women’s issues and causes stemmed from this experience. She knew firsthand how disadvantaged women could be both legally and socially. But it also made her concerned to counsel other young women not to make poor choices about marriage. This was one of the central themes in her many stories and novels.

What can we learn from Susa’s story?

For me, the power of history is in the way it shows us the humanity and the real experience of people in the past. Life was not necessarily simpler or easier “back then.”

People struggled with many of the same kinds of problems we still face. They were vulnerable. They suffered—not just in the melodramatic way we think of when we reduce history to morality tales.

They made choices. They lived with the consequences. They had to find the faith, courage, determination, and strength to survive, and they had to face down public disapproval and gossip. Anyone who has gone through a divorce today—or any number of other heartbreaking, challenging experiences—can relate.

Susa Young Gates’s story is inspiring in the way it demonstrates her character and courage. It is also hopeful. Despite the agony she suffered at the time, her divorce did give her another chance at life, which she seized and made the best of. That’s something to remember when we are going through difficult times.

Did you like this article?

About the interview participant

Lisa Olsen Tait is a Latter-day Saint historian with special expertise in women’s history. She has an article in the 2023 issue of the Journal of Mormon History detailing the divorce of Susa Young Gates, and is currently working on a biography of Brigham Young’s famous daughter. Tait has previously spoken with From the Desk about Susa Young Gates and the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead, and the theology of women and the priesthood.

Further reading

Susa Young Gates divorce resources

By Jerry Winder

History geek. Seeker of truth. Believer.

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