MORMON FAMILY TREES can drive even the most experienced genealogists a bit crazy. My own tangled family tree is a good example.
My great-great-grandfather, James Dalley, married five wives, who bore him almost 60 children. Two were sisters, so that means sisters were cousins and mothers were aunts. I’m not sure my great-great-grandfather remembered the names of all his children, and so his progeny can be forgiven if they find it difficult to remember the confusing lines of the family tree.
Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were so prolific in their courtships and marriages that many people born into Mormon families—including me—are related to the original Church prophets. My great-great-great-grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner (pictured), received a lock of hair from Joseph Smith when she was a girl and wed him as a young woman, despite the fact that she was legally married to another man at the time. The prophet persuaded Mary Elizabeth, telling her an angel with a drawn sword had threatened his life should he not obey the command to marry her. She wrote, “Joseph said I was his before I came here and all the Devils in Hell should never get me from him.”
According to the Joseph Smith Foundation website, ldsanswers.org, Mary Elizabeth was married to Joseph before she was born and had married the wrong man in this life. The website speculates, “It seems logical that the Lord had the right to re-establish this union that existed for ‘eons of time’ but had been mistakenly interrupted because of mortal foibles. … Imagine forcing someone to stay in the wrong relationship from a mistake made in ignorance, during mortality. This would be the true injustice.”
After Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, Mary Elizabeth, still a young and vibrant woman, and still married to her first husband, was married to Mormon Prophet Brigham Young (pictured).
Latter-day Saints are a record-keeping people, and many stories from polygamous ancestors have been passed down. Some of the most poignant writings have been collected by Paula Kelly Harline and published in The Polygamous Wives Writing Club. Searching through diaries, she explores the question of whether the pioneer women who shared a husband thought their sacrifice was worth the loneliness and pain it caused.
Plural marriage creates tangled—and prolific—family trees, but behind every name on a tree is a story, and a real person. The Gates of Eden was loosely inspired by my great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Barton Allen. I found her story heartbreaking. As an author, I could give her a different ending.