Thoughts of Nancy

shadow_nancy1.jpgIt’s kind of a strange family history claim to fame: My great-great-great-great aunt, Nancy Winchester, was one of Joseph Smith’s youngest teen brides. She was fourteen or fifteen years old in 1842(3?) when she married the prophet; he was in his late thirties and was killed a year or so later.

I’ve wanted to write about Nancy for some time, but I’ve held off because I imagine it comes off as some sort of sick bragging rights. Among Mormons, to be able to say you’re descended from one of the prophets (or at least from someone fairly important in early church history) is a point of prestige. So when other people are talking about their early church pedigree (being descended from Brigham Young or from one of the Kimballs or something), this teen bride of Joseph Smith is essentially the closest thing we’ve got to a famous figure from the early church. Someone in our family was touched by greatness. Only it was, y’know, bad touch

Since I was a faithful Mormon up through my teen years (and then left the church), I tend to think of the Mormon experience in terms of teenagers. When I try to imagine what it was like to be Mormon back in the days of Joseph Smith, my own great-great-great-great aunt’s experience naturally comes to mind. As a kid, I dreamed of being prophet myself (see girlhood dreams), but it’s more likely I would have ended up in a role like Nancy’s. So I’ve been curious about her ever since I learned about her.

family_tree.gifActually it was only a few years ago that I learned that we had one of the wives of Joseph Smith in our family tree. My brother John pointed it out while making some nice charts for our family reunion. He’s posted the charts to BCC here. Nancy would fit into this one as the daughter of Stephen and sister of James Winchester. I think it was news to most of the family at the reunion as well, though our family is very big on family history and loves passing down family lore. Perhaps the most faithful Mormon genealogy buffs in the family knew this story but chose not to emphasize it. It obviously leaves a Mormon asking: should we be proud of this? or ashamed?

Personally, I just wish she had left some writings; that someone had saved her journals, if she kept any. On my recent trip back to the U.S., I ordered the weighty tome In Sacred Loneliness in hopes of learning more about Nancy and about her life. Unfortunately, she only warranted five pages — not much more than her entry on the wives of Joseph Smith website.

The most disturbing part of her story (to me) was the fact that when Joseph Smith died, she was passed along to Heber C. “I think no more of taking another wife than I do of buying a cow” Kimball — in a batch with six other widows of Joseph Smith. But a few more details (from In Sacred Loneliness) make the situation look a bit less tragic and sinister. Instead of joining Heber C. Kimball’s family, Nancy continued to live with her parents until adulthood, when she divorced H. C. Kimball to marry Amos Arnold (a guy who wasn’t already married to any other women). I’d like to imagine that this was by her own choice.

Was she forced into her marriage to Joseph Smith? Did her parents take her back (instead of insisting she stay with HCK) because her (later polygamist) father regretted making her do it? Was she was happy to have been married to Joseph Smith and did she look forward to spending eternity with him?

Since we don’t have the story in her own words, we’ll never know. Yet I can’t help but wonder…

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chanson

C. L. Hanson is the friendly American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! See "letters from a broad" and the novel ExMormon for further adventures!!

16 thoughts on “Thoughts of Nancy

  1. CL: we all appreciate your insight into how this phenom led to your heritage, which exists independent of your faith in the LDS church/culture.
    It is well-spoken and objective of you to not be overly condemning what these people did some 150 yrs ago.
    We’ve all heard the allegations-innuendo that JS adapted poly for purely selfish reasons; your take on yr ancestors gives us both information & a personal read on those events.
    JS was (most likely) a visionary, if nothing else. Too bad some of those ideas weren’t in sync/not disclosed candidly as may have been more likely in our era/times.
    THANKS!

  2. Who knew we had Mormon royalty among us? Okay, so the child-bride of Joseph Smith may not quite qualify you as Mormon royalty, but it’s probably about as close as anyone here at Main Street Plaza gets. My Mormon bona fides include having a great grandfather named “Mormon”, but no polygamy. Ergo, I’m solidly of middle-class Mormon ancestry… :(

  3. Yeah, we’re not quite royalty, but at least we have a bit of an interesting connection.

    Also, if you follow the link I posted in comment #2, you’ll learn that my great-great-great-great grandfather was a Danite….

  4. CL: (#4) You ‘didn’t even have to tell that!’; we already accepted your essay as being highly personal and a revealing of some deep thoughts & feelings.
    I say BRAVO for any/every one who can deal with conflicted feelings, esp. regarding the highly-charged LDS culture-environment sub-society.

  5. I think you should be proud of it.

    What a fun bit to have in the family history!

    If you can’t get rid of the skeleton in the closet, at least you should make him dance.

    You think people who have Blackbeard the pirate in their family history are keeping it hush-hush?

    Of course not. They’ll tell anyone who will listen.

  6. Any word on what her relationship to Heber C. Kimball was, or whether she remarried later in life, like Helen Mar Kimball did? The summary you linked to was a bit sparse on details.

  7. From In Sacred Loneliness I have a few more details (but even there the author emphasizes how very little was written about her).

    According to documents (census, etc.), Nancy didn’t ever move in with HCK’s family, but rather contintued to live with her parents until her late thirties, when she married Amos Arnold. Then, according to a family tradition that was recorded in a note on their family group sheet, it was HCK who arranged Nancy’s marriage to Amos. According to the note, HCK arranged it so that she could have children in this life, and promised Amos Aronld further wives later (not sure if he ever got them). They had one child, and Nancy died less than ten years later.

    From this, I suspect that HCK had a friendly, familial relationship with her, but didn’t really think of her as a wife (or wasn’t really attached to her as such).

  8. That doesn’t leave much to go on, but here’s what I imagine happened:

    In Nauvoo, before Joseph Smith’s death, only a minority of the Mormons knew about polygamy and were in on it. The Winchester family was among them. When the temple was completed after J.S.’s death, the women who had been married to him had to be sealed to him by proxy, and normally the proxy would be married to the widow “for time” in the same ceremony. Since Nancy Mariah Winchester was still a teenager, it made sense for (family friend) Heber C. Kimball to stand in for this proxy role (while he was at it, marrying six other J.S. widows), and then send her back home to her parents.

    Nancy Mariah crossed the plains to Utah with her parents when she was about 20, and at that point she might have decided to reaffirm her marriage to HCK or she might have tried to find a different marriage. It’s possible that — seeing other women in satellite marriages to G.A.s, raising their children essentially as single parents — she decided she didn’t want that life for herself with HCK. If we can put any stock in the note the family later wrote on the family group sheet (saying that HCK arranged the marriage so that Nancy Mariah could be a mother in this life), it strongly implies that HCK and Nancy weren’t having marital relations.

    Even though people like to say that early church polygamy was because of the overabundance of eligible women (compared to eligible men), I understand that from the overall demographics that wasn’t true — that in fact early church polygamy left many young men without the prospect of finding a wife back then just as modern polygamy does today (FLDS, etc.). In Nancy’s case, she would have been less attractive to men who were looking to “build up their kingdom” (since she and her offspring would be part of Joseph Smith’s kingdom), and that factor surely mattered to the early Mormons. Still, there were probably plenty of men (like Amos Arnold) who would decide that taking a wife for time would be better than not having a wife and family at all.

    So, since Nancy stayed nominally married to HCK until her late thirties, I would speculate that she liked the independence of living essentially as a single adult, especially since she had the status of being a wife of Joseph Smith, so she didn’t have to deal with people pitying her as an old maid. I imagine that she chose not to really join HCK’s family, and that (since he had so many other wives to deal with) he didn’t care enough to bother to try to rein her in. Then, in her late thirties, she met a single man who was also in his thirties, and they fell in love and decided to start a family. HCK didn’t object, so he let her go, and she went on to have a normal marriage (by modern standards).

    Again, all of that is basically pure speculation. I’m just looking at the few pieces of information we have and then trying to place myself in her shoes.

  9. It would have been nice to hear things in her own words.

    I’m not sure how to put it – if I really think about it, there would probably be a great deal that she and I would disagree about.

    If I focus on my “modern” opinions and perspective – I find there are many things I don’t agree with (commonly held beliefs by women and some early mormons at the time). I’m talking about marriage, child-raising, medicine, racism, slavery, politics, education of women, etc.

    Yet within the time period, some of the people I’ve read have been quite courageous (with beliefs that transcend the time).

    Even some of the beliefs expressed at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 (around the same time) I find I disagree with today. They were revolutionary at the time. Looking back on it though, it’s easy for me to say from my perspective that they didn’t go far enough. But I’m not being realistic.

    I’d like to read what she had to say, as it probably would have been worth reading. I would definitely read similar accounts from the same time period to get a better feel for her society and culture (which chanson has already linked to some references…)

  10. It’s true, I’d probably disagree with her on a lot of points. But that’s part of the reason it would be interesting to have her story in her own words — to understand her perspective better.

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