The Midnight Raid on Short Creek and My Genealogy. Part II: How I Learned My Story.

I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (often called a Mormon). Before 1890, some 5% to 20% of the Utah members practiced polygamy.That year, the Church leaders unanimously agreed to abolish plural marriage and it was affirmed by the membership in General Conference.  After 1890, LDS members were excommunicated for polygamy.

But, not everyone agreed to give it up. And those persons, who continued the practice, formed their own churches.  And established a sub-culture in Utah.

Most of my own family did not practice polygamy.  Actually, I did not think any of my family did.  And I discovered a part of my family history in short episodes that all meshed into one story in one dramatic, stunning encounter.  Read on gentle reader…

  1. As a child I accompanied my mother and her aunt to visit my aunt’s son. He lived in a mobile home just off the highway between Salt Lake City and Provo UT. My mom would never let me come in. They left me in the car–and I was quite content to stay there because I could read without any interruption.  I loved to read.
  2. Years later, when I began to trace my ancestors, I did research at the Cache County court house in Logan UT. I found the probate of my great-aunt’s son–my cousin–where he was declared dead by the testimony of his parents–my great-aunt and -uncle.  And his estate was divided between them and his siblings by the court. So on my family group record, I recorded his date and place of death.
  3. I interviewed my mother’s sisters for genealogy details about our family. For a time, they encouraged me. Then abruptly they told me to stop, just as I was learning a few things–which I always shared with them.   I would stop and they would switch me to another line.  Since I wanted to learn it all, I switched.
  4. My great-uncle died while I was attending the University. I told my mom I would meet her at the mortuary.  As I walked in the door, there was a handsome man leaning against the first pillar.  I looked at him for a  few minutes and he watched me. I knew he belonged to my family for he was short like me and resembled my grandfather. With each step I took, I tried to recall if I had ever met him. And he watched me. I ran all of my great-uncle’s children through my mind. And he watched my face. As I neared him, he held his hand out and introduced himself, “I a son, he said.” In shock, I gave him my hand. “I know,” he said quietly, as he shook it, “I’m dead.”
  5. Two family reunions came and went. He was invited to come and bring his family. But he came alone came alone–always with excuses about his family. He was well educated, soft-spoken, with a delightful sense of humor. I enjoyed talking to him.  And I was dying to ask him about the probate. I discovered that he spent most of his working time in Phoenix as manager of his own business. And that he had very little time. He gave me his address and invited me to visit him if I ever came to Arizona.
  6. One summer evening, my husband Alma and I went dancing at a public ballroom in Salt Lake City. Who did we spy? My cousin and his sister (who was a widow) dancing around the room. As we sat out a dance, the sister came to over to chat with us. “My brother is here looking for another wife–this will be number 7,” she said. “Number 7?” my mind crackled with the impact of that sentence! And click, click, click–all the events above sorted into place and meshed. And probably a lot of family lore and data provided the glue–lore that I did not realize I knew.

It seems that by declaring him dead, he was placed beyond the law.  And since no one ever questioned anyone about it, the law never discovered the truth.  Several family members knew he was alive and so did my mother.  She did not, however, know about the probate records until I told her.

Polygamist population in Southern Davis County UT–“them” and “us”

I grew up in Woods Cross UT–southern Davis County–where there is a very large group of religious fundamentalists who practice polygamy. Mostly undisturbed by the government. My children played with some of the kids–when they were allowed to play. And I wrote a Bicentennial History of Woods Cross.  Including a chapter on this significant sub-culture.

For the chapter to be sympathetic to the group, I especially wanted to interview their local president. I knew him. His daughter and I were good friends in school, and I believed that he would consider an interview. But the timing was all wrong. Their general president was assassinated. And all of the leaders went underground. So I never got the chance to talk with him directly.

An illegal sub-culture leads an often murky existence.  A truly miserable challenge in the community–“them” and “us.”  In the chapter, I described the two bus lines–theirs and ours. And how the children were not permitted to sit together on the school bus lest fights broke out. And how they were never allowed to attend local parties or play on sports teams. And how neither children nor their mothers would accept a ride to or from the local market. And how they would not open their door, when you knocked.

And especially, how devastating it was when a very small tot wandered up the lane alone and was taken in by a neighbor over a block away. There was no report of a missing child when the neighbor called into the police.

But later in the morning, a very frantic young mother was seen hunting through the fields, along the fence lines, and even in the big irrigation ditch for something. And how we asked her if we could help and she refused, at first. But as the day wore on, she gave in. In broken words, she described her toddler and we hunted for him with her.

At any suggestion that we call the police, she cringed and said, “Absolutely not!” Only when it began to get dark did she relent. And there was her baby–safe and sound all day long, in the home of her neighbor. He was so happy to see her. And she shook all over when she realized he was safe. (Just telling this story again brings tears to my eyes.) Have you ever hunted for a small child who has wandered away?

Legalities can be avoided by quick-stepping around them:  declarations of death, houses dispersed through several communities, first marriage performed by civil authorities and subsequent marriages (called spiritual unions) performed by religious ceremony, delayed registration of births, shaving ages when the census enumerator comes around and realigning the children in the order of their ages, tucking additional mothers into the family as if they were children, use of mothers’ maiden names for children born to second and subsequent marriages, recording land titles in women’s names, appointing trusted executors to distribute the property fairly even when allotted in wills and codicils unfairly.

In short, altering the records to conceal the facts.

We’re genealogists and we are dependent upon records for our genealogical proof.  Review the paragraph above–these and many more disguises await us in searching the records.  Your favorite genealogist, Arlene Eakle

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