A Short History of American Polygyny
Posted Aug 28, 2016
It’s summer, and it’s hot. Out here on Michigan’s lakes, we appreciate that. It’s hot on the little lakes that dot the peninsula down south; and it’s hot on the Great Lakes that divide the peninsulas up north. Around, for instance, Beaver Island.
A full 32 miles off the Lower Peninsula, and roughly halfway to the UP, the biggest island in Lake Michigan is crossed by the King’s Highway—a reminder of the man who settled there in the mid-19th century, the Latter Day Saint, James Jesse Strang. In the hall of a log tabernacle, under a red robe, breastplate and shield, full-bearded, 5’3,” 37-year-old King James had himself crowned on 8 July, 1850; six years later almost to the day—on 9 July, 1851—he died. A couple of disaffected subjects had shot him in the back, then pummeled him with a pistol till the barrel broke. Tom Bedford was an adulterer who’d been flogged on the king’s orders; and Alex Wentworth “was merely trying to protect his girl from the king’s eye.”
Strang’s tenure had been short, but sweet. In the year after the Latter Day Saint Church founder, Joseph Smith, died, he distanced himself from the marrying of more than one woman. “We have talked hours, yea, even days with President Strang, and we find to our utmost satisfaction that he does not believe in or cherish the doctrine of polygamy in any manner, shape, or form imaginable whatever,” remembered one of his friends. Then he met a 17-year-old schoolteacher, and changed his mind. Altogether, the King of Beaver Island collected 5 wives (who were 18 to 43 years old at their widowhood) and fathered 10 legitimate children (another 4 were on the way the day he died). “Strang was able to pull this off because he brought to the task of creating a kingdom not only tact and cunning but a rare mixture of idealism and deceit, saintly asceticism and sexual appetite,” wrote a contributor to the American Heritage; “Strang ruled over the island with an iron hand and headed one of the most desperate bands of pirates that ever infested American waters,” reported the New York Times. Then they lined up with pistols behind him.
Something like that had already happened to Joseph Smith. The original LDS prophet and Church founder, who translated the Book of Mormon from reformed Egyptian hieroglyphs unearthed on a set of golden plates, moved from Palmyra, New York to Kirtland, Ohio to Far West, Missouri, to Nauvoo, Illinois—where his followers drained swamp, started farms, and built a town on a beautiful promontory along the Mississippi. In March of 1844, Smith appointed a Council of Fifty to rule over the Kingdom of God; and that April, they appointed him King, Priest and Ruler over Israel on the Earth. He fell out of a window that June, in a jail in Carthage, Illinois, and was pumped full of lead as he died. Bob Foster and Bill Law—whose wife was coveted by the prophet—had put articles about his Mormon seraglio in their newspaper, the Expositor. So Smith wrecked their printing press, and went to jail for it; he was hunted down by a mud-covered mob that shot him in the chest, and in the back.
Joe Smith, like Jim Strang, started out a monogamist. The Book of Mormon condemned men who indulged in wicked practices, “such as like unto David of old desiring many wives and concubines, and also Solomon, his son.” But Smith was a confirmed polygamist by as early as 1831; and in 1843, he made that clear in a revelation about marriage. “If any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then he is justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else. And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore he is justified.” Abraham and Jacob and David and Solomon had been right all along: Hundredfold in this world, of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, houses and lands, wives and children, and crowns of eternal lives in the eternal worlds would belong to the polygynous man. By the time of his death at 38, the prophet had 30 or 40 wives: 5 pairs were sisters, 2 pairs were mothers and daughters; and some had been his friends’ wives. So they chased him out of a window.
The big winner was Brigham Young. Joe Smith’s successor was neither Jim Strang, nor his own adolescent son, but the “American Moses” who went west of the Mississippi and settled in Salt Lake Valley. The first governor of Utah, founder of Salt Lake City, he was “the only absolute monarch in America” to Mark Twain, and “ruled as he pleased, without a rival or opposition” to Millard Fillmore’s ambassadors. On 27 December, 1847, he became president of the LDS Church; 30 years later, he died in his bed.
Mr Young, like Mr Smith and Mr Strang, was at first disconcerted when he heard about plural marriages. “It was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time. And when I saw a funeral, I felt to envy the corpse its situation, and to regret that I was not in the coffin,” he remembered in a letter. But as early as 1842, he was a bigamist; and in the end, all of 55 women were "sealed" to him, some for eternity, and others for a time only: They’re supposed to have given him 57 children. His last wife, Amelia Folsom, was 24 when he took her; they lived in his Salt Lake City “Beehive” with as many as 75 family members, including the Dutch, Swedish, German and Welsh girls who kept house. By the late 20th century, Brigham Young had left over a thousand descendants.
But the history of American polygyny was short. Polygamy worked on an island. It worked in a remote valley. It stopped working when huge ships showed up on the Great Lakes, and when transcontinental railroads reached out to the American West. Promiscuous absolutists had had their day after the people found ways to sail, ride or walk away.