The Forgotten Women Who Gave Us BYU

These are the six polygamous wives of Abraham Owen Smoot (the man who saved BYU) – Margaret, Sarah, Emily, Diana, Anne and Caroline.

Four years ago in the fall of 2015, I attended the BYU Homecoming Spectacular featuring David Archuleta (who is not important to this story at all, but he was adorable and my favorite part of the night). As part of the evening’s events they honored a man named Abraham Owen Smoot, an important figure in church history and especially that of BYU (which he personally funded in a time of the institution’s financial crisis and consequently died penniless). His great great great great (I forgot how many greats) granddaughter is a singer and performed as well, right alongside the adorable David (and she was very good, too). Recently a news story was published questioning the wisdom of honoring this man so much without ever mentioning his complete life story – which includes the fact that he owned multiple slaves, was a vocal proponent of keeping slavery legal, and very instrumental in perpetuating the priesthood and temple ban on black members and making slavery legal in Utah. As a missionary he was asked to distribute literature for Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign in 1844, but wouldn’t because it was critical of slavery (yay, Joseph!).

One of his slaves named Tom was a particularly interesting situation, because this black man was also a baptized member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Not only was Abraham Smoot his slave master, he was also his bishop. It boggles the modern mind.

Luckily in 2019 we have figured out that hey, owning other people is WRONG. We can look back at his active campaigning to continue slavery and acknowledge that he was gravely mistaken. (And I suspect that Brother Smoot would agree and look with regret on those actions now if given the chance.) People are discussing what to do with his memory as this knowledge becomes more public. We don’t have to torch the campus building named after him, but you know, maybe we could put a plaque out front acknowledging the names of the slaves he owned who also dedicated their lives (against their will) to Smoot’s work, freeing him up to run the academy that later became BYU. I think this sounds totally reasonable. Let’s take ownership of the university savior’s history and mistakes, and honor those who have been erased from the story.

I didn’t know that Smoot was a slave owner at the Homecoming Spectacular in 2015, and yet I was deeply bothered by the evening dedicated to his honor for an entirely different reason. I had been intensely learning all about polygamy during the 12 months prior to this (from Joseph Smith’s polygamy up to modern day practices). In between performances by BYU groups they played a video montage of Abraham Smoot’s life, talking about his great faith and fortitude, and the trust placed in him by prophets such as Joseph Smith, Wilford Woodruff, and Brigham Young. The music to the video suddenly stopped after the short bio of his life and mentioned his wife for the very first time. It said that she didn’t like the desert they’d moved to, and that she “complained” about their circumstances. I rolled my eyes internally about the way she was described compared to him, because come on – all she did was complain, and he NEVER complained about anything? That seemed a little simplistic.

At another point in the video it quoted a letter he’d written to his wife. At the second mention of her, I decided to Google “Abraham Owen Smoot polygamy”, right there on my phone (we were on the very back row of the side section, so no one would’ve seen me). Turns out he had SIX wives, and 27 kids. Suddenly his first wife’s complaints make a lot of sense. Your husband brings you to the desert where you hardly have any food and your starving kids scavenge outside after dinner for anything else they can find to eat, while your husband gives all of your money to the school that would become BYU, goes away on missions, and when he’s around he still has multiple other women to spend time with and impregnate. *He* didn’t just die penniless to save BYU, so did all of his wives and their children. Abraham Owen Smoot was heavily in debt when he passed away, so I assume that financial burden passed on to his living wives. But who gets a Homecoming Spectacular with the adorable David Archuleta in his honor, and who doesn’t even get mentioned or named? Not his six wives, only him. If my children and I ever live alone and starve on the frontier so that future generations can have the option for quality, affordable education, I’d really appreciate them singing a song in my honor at some point, dang it.

David and the great great granddaughter were talking about how nothing they did tonight could have happened without Abraham – not the homecoming weekend, the Marriott Center, the performances, the school, nothing. I wondered what it would be like to be say, his 5th invisible and unnamed wife who spent most of her time raising kids alone while her husband spent time with the other wives or with the prophets, funneling all of their money into an institution of higher learning rather than his family.

I graduated from BYU. This guy impacted my life. But what about his wives? What about the supposed “equal” role that we women play in marriages and history? Why could they not even mention 5/6 of his wives, and only mention how the other one complained?

Long after everyone else in the audience had clapped and moved on to ballroom dance performances and the Jazz Band, I was still sitting there, fuming a little on behalf of the stories I knew were being ignored in order to promote a more whitewashed version of the polygamist man who saved our university. (Who might’ve been a genuinely swell guy (outside of his racism), but come on! It was too convenient that only one wife was even mentioned. Own up to your polygamous roots, BYU.)

Not only did Abraham Smoot do what he did with the help of enslaved blacks, he did it with the help of six women also largely missing from the public story. All of these people made BYU possible today! Let’s have a concert and honor all of them for once too, and stop erasing women’s contributions to our church by only praising the men they were associated with.

(And hey, maybe name a few buildings at BYU after some faithful pioneer woman for a change. Below are some suggestions.)

Margaret T. McMeans Smoot was the Abraham’s first wife. She was also the stake Relief President in a stake of almost 18,000 people. She was a leader and pioneer in her right.

 

Sarah Gibbens Smoot was 15 years older than Abraham, and chose not to go west with him and the other wives. I saw her listed as an “ex-spouse” on another site, so I think perhaps their marriage was brief and ended with his leaving. I read about this family for several hours online, but was never able to find an image of her.

 

Emily Hill Harris Smoot gave birth to AO Smoot’s first child (Albert), and was pregnant with him while crossing the plains. He tragically drowned in the Jordan River when he was only 16 years old. That makes my heart hurt for her.

 

This is Diana Caroline Tanner Eldredge Smoot, the 4th wife. I found this letter written to her from Wilford Woodruff:
“Thou art the mother of many children.
Thy labors have been great in Zion.
Thou wilt stand in thy lot in the family organization in the Celestial World.
Wilford Woodruff”

 

Anne Kristine Mauritzen Smoot (also went by Anna Kristina Morrison Smoot). She was born and converted in Norway, and served as the stake primary president in the same stake as Margaret, with almost 18,000 people.

 

Try as I might, I couldn’t find a photo of the last wife, Hannah Caroline Rogers Smoot, nor could I find much information about her. Abraham Smoot was her third marriage.

 

And finally, here is Abraham. Despite there being six wives and only one of him, his images online outnumber their images 100 times. His life is written about at great length, and they are generally mentioned only as passing details in his life. There’s an entire AO Smoot history foundation ran by his ancestors, but I was able to find only bits and pieces anywhere on the internet about his wives. His son (the senator Reed Smoot) is mentioned in much more detail than any of the women in his life. I wish we could change that.

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25 Responses

  1. acw says:

    Thank you! On behalf of Margaret, Sarah, Emily, Diana, Anne, and Caroline, this was very refreshing and needed.

    • Abby Hansen says:

      I really liked learning something about all of these women (despite how little was available online). When I went to the Homecoming Spectacular 4 years ago I didn’t even look anything up about them, I was just bothered that they existed and were ignored. It meant a lot more to see some of their faces and learn a little about them.

  2. Lisa Murphy says:

    Great article. The story of one family that represents the Mormon cosmology that we all live in. Thank you!

    • Abby Hansen says:

      It does! From the historical wives of church presidents to Heavenly Mother, we tend to speak often of the public male partner in the relationship and don’t even expect to learn anything about the wife – even though she is there every step of the way too.

  3. Lorraine Jeffery says:

    Such a good essay and so much I, as a grateful BYU student, did not know. Thanks for your insight.

    • Abby Hansen says:

      Agreed (as a fellow BYU graduate).

      To be fair, I also didn’t know anything about Abraham Owen Smoot until four years ago – but once you go looking online for him there’s a TON of info. Information on his six wives however, was very hard to come by. It was a real hunt!

  4. Moss says:

    This is important work. Thank you.

  5. anon says:

    Very important work, indeed. Thank you.

  6. violadiva says:

    Such great points. I hope this post gets the attention of the programming party planners at BYU, because this seems like such a blatant act of misogyny and erasure that it would be a no-brainer to do things differently.

    • Abby Hansen says:

      You know, I wrote a letter to the editor and sent it to BYU’s Daily Universe (as well as several other papers), and… crickets. Never heard back! I was sad. My bucket list item of getting a letter published in the Daily Universe remains unchecked.

  7. Barbara Thornton says:

    Thank you for this.

  8. Jessie says:

    Thank you for this post. This is exactly what Laurel Thatcher Ulrich meant when she said “well-behaved women seldom make history”, because these women did not have the public, ‘high-profile’ callings that lead to historical recognition, but their presence and contributions were still vital.

    • Abby Maxwell Hsnsen says:

      And yet, they did have some of the most visible and noteworthy callings that a woman in the church can have – Margaret as stake relief society president and Anne as stake primary president. Their church callings were about as public and high profile as a woman can have – but their husband was the stake president and bishop, so his church work is memorialized and theirs is lost to history. Women’s church callings are rarely remembered – nobody has ever made a RS/priesthood manual called “Teachings of General Relief Society Presidents”, for example.

      Men’s teachings echo in our classes and meetings for decades and generations, and women’s teachings disappear into the grave with them. I wish we had sermons taught by Margaret Smoot, not just her husband. 🙁

  9. SisterStacey says:

    I’ve been researching my family history and wondering about these women. Luckily, in one case, I know a lot about my GGGG grandmother because her husband died at Winter Quarters and she had to cross the plains alone with eight kids.
    Now for another question… was BYU built by slaves?

    • DB says:

      Brigham Young Academy, precursor to BYU, was started in the 1870’s so it’s unlikely that it would have had any direct connection to slavery.

      • Abby Hansen says:

        I think there’s an argument to be made that BYU probably would have been built partly by slaves if the practice hadn’t been outlawed when it was. AO Smoot and Brigham Young were strong supporters of slavery, and Utah made the choice to be a slave territory when it could’ve been a non-slave territory. If BYU had been founded just a couple decades earlier than it was (just like Harvard, Princeton and Georgetown), I think it probably would’ve had a much stronger link to slavery than it does, simply because the founders would have been allowed to build it that way.

      • DB says:

        It’s an interesting “what if” idea to consider. I really know nothing about the history of slavery in the Utah territory but I suppose if someone who does know about that history would comment on what public or private works were constructed in Utah with slave labor prior to the emancipation then we could better extrapolate the probably of slave labor being used for the building of BYA had it been founded a couple of decades earlier.

  10. Mormonish says:

    Thanks so much for this. I am intrigued by your observations about an often overlooked reality: that plenty of early Mormons participated in not one, but both of the twin relics of barbarism. Many converts from the pre-civil war south (including some of my own ancestors) would have come from communities and families where slavery was status quo. Slaves were considered property, and so were women. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how easy it would have been to use polygamy to augment (and eventually replace) slavery in Utah territory. Where slavery was often referred to as the “peculiar” practice upon which an entire social and economic system was based, and Mormons became known as a “peculiar” people. Coincidence?

  11. Love this post! I think it is so important to remember the women and in this case, enslaved people, who made the work of the men we more often choose to remember possible.

  12. Clay Cook says:

    The picture you have of Margaret Thompson McMeans is wrong. You have a picture of Margaret Thompson Smoot the third child of Abraham Smoot and Emily Hill. You also did not list Hannah Caroline Rodgers Daniels Smoot. She married Abraham in March 1886. There are several good histories of her on FamiySearch.

    • Abby Hansen says:

      Aaah, thank you for catching that about Margaret! Honestly, I tried so hard and it was nearly impossible to put together the puzzle pieces from what’s available online. I found two different photos of a Margaret Smoot and saved both, finally deciding they were just the same woman at different ages. This one popped up most frequently, and was included in an 8 article series in the Dailey Herald in the chapter that covered his wives (but it was unlabeled). Even trying so hard, that I could mix up the photo, further shows how little is available for the average person learning about this family.

      But I did cover Hannah (Caroline). She’s not missing. Her gravestone is the sixth image in the main photo, and she’s the last wife listed right above Abraham in the list of photos at the end.

  13. Eleanor says:

    Your post reminded me of my experience at the BYU Homecoming Spectacular in 2014. I began with great hopes of being entertained, and ended fuming. My overall impression was that it was a man-fest. For example, two male alumni were the guests of honor. The music and dance performances were either co-ed (with plenty of male leads and female sidekicks), or all-male (including the Men’s Chorus, but no Women’s Chorus). Three of the featured music presentations were: 1) I’m Looking at the Man in the Mirror, 2) The Brotherhood of Man, and 3) Go My Son, Get an Education. Any one of those songs would not have caught my attention–but all three? And nothing about women? There was even a situation where a male music director was literally spotlighted during the applause, in contrast with the female director of another song who stood in the dark during the applause. After the show, I wrote letters of concern to several of the BYU faculty in charge of the production. Like you, I did not receive any reply. I hope in the future that BYU will consciously pursue more enlightened production values for their Homecoming Spectacular, as befitting a modern co-ed institution. If they’re taking their cues from General Conference, we’ll be waiting for awhile.

  14. Alena Allred says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. Will you please list your sources here as I like to read from primary sources as much as possible.

    • Abby Hansen says:

      Please don’t be disappointed in my scholarship when I tell you that my sources are “everything I could find on the internet with 3 hours of google searches on variations of the theme ‘Abraham Owen Smoot and his wives’.” 🙂 I certainly didn’t intend this blog post to be scholarly, just my experience as a regular person who graduated from BYU trying to learn more about its history with articles available online. There was an 8 part series in the Daily Herald a few years ago, written by people that are part of the A.O. Smoot Family Organization that I’d recommend. The first chapter is here: https://www.heraldextra.com/news/local/central/provo/a-o-smoot-chapter/article_a57a81c5-ebdd-5155-a89a-f48c185a925e.html

      They have sources from BYU Special Collections and books that his ancestors have written. You can probably find more primary source materials by following up after them and their books. Good luck! Tell us anything interesting you learn.

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