▪ All in the family

MORMON FAMILY TREES can drive even the most experienced genealogists a bit crazy. My own tangled family tree is a good example.

James Dalley and fourth wife Petrine Bertelsen and their children. He fathered at least 58 children by five wives.

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).

Mormons 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.