Learn more about The Gates of Eden in Utah State Magazine.
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 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 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.
After Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, Mary Elizabeth, still a young and vibrant woman, 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.
EXPERIENCE PIONEER HISTORY on an adventurous hike along the Mormon Trail, which winds through the Wasatch Mountains in northern Utah.
From Salt Lake City, follow Interstate 80 to the turnoff onto Highway 65. This small highway will take you to the crest of Big Mountain, where the handcart pioneers caught their first glimpse of the Salt Lake Valley. From there, you can hike in either direction, enjoying as much of the trek as you like.
Travelers can also drive the Mormon Trail. From Big Mountain, follow scenic Highway 65 over Hogsback Summit to the little town of Henefer. Take Interstate 84 to Echo. From there, Highway 80 will take you through the once-treacherous Echo Canyon to the Wyoming border. Along the way, you’ll find historical markers that will take you back in time.
Be sure to stop at the sign for Hogsback Summit, often called Heartbreak Ridge. One of the most poignant moments in my book research was visiting
On your return to Salt Lake City, don’t forget to stop by This is the Place Heritage Village to check out the reconstructed pioneer village from the mid-19th century. This is the spot where Mormon pioneers first entered the valley.
Enjoy your travels in the beautiful mountains of northern Utah!
THE STORY OF JOSEPHINE BELL in The Gates of Eden was initially inspired by the account of my great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Barton Allen. In spite of the taunts of her older siblings, she joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in England, and at age 14 left a life of child labor and sailed for America.
The girl joined the ill-fated Martin Company, pulling a handcart over several mountain ranges to Brigham Young’s remote desert kingdom. On that trip more than 200 people died from starvation, exposure, exhaustion and disease. Wolves followed the camps, waiting to devour the bodies of the dead.
Mary Ann was stranded in the Wyoming Territory by winter storms and bitter cold. For her party, the journey turned into a death march. She ate the hides and feet of cattle to survive, and grieved the death of her father, who was wrapped in a blanket and left under a tree.
When rescuers from Salt Lake finally arrived, Brigham Young’s son, Joseph, passed over Mary Ann with the comment, “Well, here is another dead girl.” He was startled when she opened her eyes, and freed her by chopping her hair from the ice.
The survivors of Mary Ann’s party straggled into the Salt Lake Valley in late November, and in the shuffle for a home, the girl soon ended up as the plural wife of a man almost four decades older than herself, old enough to be her grandfather.
The man’s first wife was bitter, and Mary Ann was eventually left mostly to “her own resources” on a farm not too far from Cedar City, where The Gates of Eden is set. She took her husband into her bed when he visited from Parowan, where he lived with his first wife, and raised the children that came from their union. In her memoir of several pages, Mary Ann recounts how one New Year’s Day she walked five miles to Parowan, a four-day-old infant in her arms, to take in a load of washing.
As the years passed, Mary Ann often related the story of her harrowing handcart journey to her children and grandchildren, but her granddaughter said that “in later years she would not talk of these things.” She passed away in Utah at age 72, a devoted Latter-day Saint until her death.
Josephine Bell, the fictional heroine in The Gates of Eden, eventually creates a different sort of life for herself, but both girls—and then women—were incredibly brave in the face of overwhelming circumstances. I am awed by the courage of my ancestors, who abandoned their roots in Europe and embarked on a journey of faith across a treacherous ocean and into a remote wilderness.
TENS OF THOUSANDS of pioneers were bound for the Utah Territory, but many others continued their journey west, drawn by promises of gold in California or fertile farmland in Oregon. The attraction of gold spoke for itself, and early publicists for the Oregon Territory regaled farmers back east with tales of soil so fertile that crops almost grew themselves and rivers so full of salmon that Indians walked across them without getting wet.
Oregon beckoned as a Promised Land, but getting there was the problem. Crossing the thick tangle of old growth in the Cascade Mountains proved almost impossible. Unfortunately, the alternative was navigating the wild currents and waterfalls of the mighty Columbia River.
Still, pioneers came, by the thousands. The Oregon Trail ended in Oregon City, where a small city sprang up (pictured).
Today the Columbia River is still majestic.
The Cascade Mountains are more accessible than they were in the 19th century, with hundreds of hikes for those who love to wander.
MOST PIONEER WOMEN worked almost continuously from dawn to bedtime. Their tasks included baking bread, baking pies, churning butter, canning green beans, butchering hogs, sweeping floors, giving birth, tending children, tending chickens, tending cows, making lye soap, making candles, stitching quilts, braiding rugs, spinning yarn, knitting mittens, sewing trousers, darning socks, planting corn, weeding potatoes, carrying water, milking a cow, and whatever else needed doing that day.
“I’ve been a hard worker all my life, but ’most all my work has been the kind that perishes with the using, as the Bible says. That’s the discouraging thing about a woman’s work … if a woman was to see all the dishes that she had to wash before she died, piled up before her in one pile, she’d lie down and die right then and there.”
(Memory of “Aunt Jane” of Kentucky, 19th century)
… There’s too much of worriment goes into a bonnet,
There’s too much of ironing goes into a shirt.
There’s nothing that’s worth all the time you spend on it,
There’s nothing that lasts us but trouble and dirt. …
It’s sweeping at six and it’s dusting at seven,
It’s vittles at eight and
It’s potting and panning from ten till eleven,
We scarce break our fast till we plan how to dine. …
(From the diary of Sara Price)
THE PRACTICE OF POLYGAMY was instituted by Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The young prophet testified he had received a visit from God the Father and his son, Jesus Christ, who warned him he would be damned if he didn’t take additional wives.
Beginning in 1852, plural marriage was publicly promoted and openly practiced in the Utah Territory. Thousands of women and girls, some as young as fourteen years old, were persuaded to enter polygamous marriages. Plural wives struggled with jealousy, bitterness, loneliness, and often, poverty, and their accounts are heartbreaking.
In spite of their hardships, Mormon women who practiced plural marriage were a spirited lot, becoming early revolutionaries in the fight for women’s suffrage. In 1870, Utah became the second territory, after Wyoming, to give the vote to women. At the time, no states allowed women to vote. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has written a fascinating book, A House Full of Females, that details their struggles and triumphs.
Under pressure from the federal government, the Mormon Church renounced the practice in 1890. It now excommunicates members who practice polygamy.
Owning our brokenness, claiming our power as storytellers
Three and a half years ago I quit my job and took up a new life. A story had been calling. Long ago my great-great-grandmother had taken a journey; I wanted to follow. MORE