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Polygamous wives who helped settle the west

By Paula Kelly Harline


Happy Pioneer Day! The morning of 24 July in downtown Salt Lake City, thousands of Westerners watch the “Days of ’47” parade celebrating the 1847 arrival of Mormon pioneers; in the afternoon, they attend a rodeo or take picnics to the canyons; at night they launch as many fireworks as they did for Fourth of July.

What may be less known than the role of Brigham Young in all this is the contribution made by polygamous women. When Brigham Young parceled out Salt Lake City land plots, he allowed polygamous husbands to draw a lot for each of their wives, and this pattern continued exponentially as polygamous wives sometimes moved without their husbands to settlements in Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico, supporting themselves as teachers, hat-makers, landlords, post mistresses, boarding house proprietors, laundresses, venders, and farmers.

Photo of Martha Heywood
Martha Heywood. Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society, all rights reserved.

For example, in 1850 not long after 39-year-old Martha Spence Heywood arrived in Salt Lake City, she became the third wife of the 35-year-old captain of her wagon train. After a few months of living in the family’s Salt Lake house, Martha moved 90 miles south to the new settlement of Nephi where she had the first of two babies in a wagon with one Church sister attending. She tried to establish herself as a teacher but wrote in her diary that there were “considerably hard feelings” against her “as a school teacher,” maybe because she was sometimes sick or maybe because townspeople resented her husband who did not live in Nephi but had a supervisory role in their struggling settlement. Along with teaching, Martha made hats that her husband advertised in the Salt Lake Deseret News. After a few years in Nephi, she moved to southern Utah and claimed a vacant “good adobe” house. Once again taking up school teaching, she even accepted produce as payment so that any child could attend school and, over the years, established herself as a legendary school teacher. The Heywood family owned homes in three towns.

Photo of Mary Ann Hafen
Mary Ann Hafen. Courtesy of International Society Daughters of Utah Pioneers.

Starting in 1890, Mormons no longer officially sanctioned new polygamous marriages, but those who were already married like second wife Mary Ann Hafen carried on until the polygamous generation died out. In 1891, she moved 50 miles away from her “general merchant” husband John (who lived in Santa Clara, Utah, with his first wife) to Bunkerville, Nevada, where they could get cheaper land. Mary Ann wrote in her autobiography that in the “first year” when she and her children were “just getting started” in Bunkerville, her husband came down from Santa Clara “frequently” and “helped [them] a good deal.” But as time went on, “he had his hands full taking care of his other [three] families,” so she cared “for her seven children mostly by [her]self” because, as she explained, “I did not want to be a burden on my husband, but tried with my family to be self-supporting.” John had provided them with “a house, lot, and land and furnished some supplies.” Mary Ann rented out her twenty-five-acre farm up the road—the 1900 census listed her as a “landlord.” Sometimes she and her children used the farm to grow cotton and sorghum cane that she could exchange at mills for cloth and sorghum sweetener. She sewed the family’s clothing on the White sewing machine she saved up for. They preserved peaches and green tomatoes and ate from their large garden, and they kept a couple of pigs, a cow, and some chickens.

Photo of David and Lydia Ann Brinkerhoff Family
David and Lydia Ann Brinkerhoff Family. Courtesy of Joanne Hadden, family descendant.

In yet another example, first wife Lydia Brinkerhoff settled in the town of Holbrook, Arizona, while the second wife Vina and their husband settled on farmland outside town—the two locations multiplied the family’s financial prospects. In town, Lydia took in boarders, did laundry for hotels, sold vegetables from the farm, and managed the town’s mail contract.

Settling new land was not easy, and, in general, frontier women worked hard sewing linens and clothing, churning butter, making cheese, raising chickens, planting vegetable gardens, preserving jams and jellies, curing meat, cooking, producing soap and candles, and washing clothes. Mormon polygamous wives also took seriously their responsibility to nurture their children into their faith.

During the historical reflection that accompanies Pioneer Day, we can see how polygamous wives also participated in the Western American dreams of independence and expanding land ownership.

Paula Kelly Harline has been teaching college writing for over 20 years for the University of Idaho, Brigham Young University, and Utah Valley University. She has also worked as a freelance writer and artist. She currently lives with her husband, Craig, in Provo, Utah. She is the author of The Polygamous Wives Writing Club: From the Diaries of Mormon Pioneer Women.

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