A Family by the Numbers

Popular stories of the 19th century had it that Brigham Young had so many children that he couldn’t even recognize them when he met them on the street:

Riding in the outskirts of the city one day, Brigham Young came upon two boys fighting. Descending from his carriage, he boxed their ears, and asked them whose boys they were. “Mother says we’re Brigham Young’s,” whimpered one of the boys. [See “The Puissant Procreator,” Sunstone Magazine, November-December 19__, for this and other examples.]

And then there’s that well-known folk song that emphasizes numbers over personality:

Brigham, Brigham Young, it’s a miracle he survives,
With his roaring rams and his pretty little lambs, and his five-and forty wives.

Number forty-five’s about sixteen, number one is sixty and three,
And among such a riot how he keeps ’em quiet is a downright mystery to me.

That notion that plural families were so large that a patriarch couldn’t possibly know his familial flock short of tracking them by number was cemented in the popular mind by the title of the tell-all book by Ann Eliza Webb, the notorious ex-Mrs. Young: Wife Number Nineteen – a ranking that Irving Wallace inflated in his 1961 retelling of Webb’s story as The Twenty-Seventh Wife.

Brigham’s daughter Susa was touring the Anasazi ruins in Mesa Verde National Park in 1916 when she ran into a group of tourists who had drunk deeply from the well of popular ignorance:

Our small party reached the ruins about the same time with nearly 70 sightseers who came from Mancos, all in automobiles. The Methodist Episcopal conference had just closed, the evening before in Mancos, and they had been honored with the presence of Bishop Eugene Hendrix who presides over that diocese. He himself was in the party. President [Davis A.] Halls knew some of the ministers in Mancos and introduced members of our party to those with whom he was acquainted.

It was to laugh when one minister was introduced to the writer with the added explanation that she was a daughter of Brigham Young.

“Would you pardon me,” said the minister hesitatingly, “what number of child were you?”

“I really do not know,” I replied smilingly, “my father had fifty-six living children, ten of them dying in infancy. Out of the forty-six I am one, but I haven’t the remotest idea just where I belong in the line.”

The shocked expression which stole over the ministerial features gave way to another glance of eager inquiry.

“What number of wife was your mother?” he inquired gently.

“I am as little able to answer that question as the first one,” I laughed.

Consternation reigned.

“Didn’t your mother know?” he asked.

“Not that I ever heard of. I don’t think she ever counted, and I am sure I never did, although I am the genealogist of the family. We all lived together in the same house when we were children, and I can’t recall any of the wives stating what number they were, or any of the children figuring out just where we belonged. We loved each other and our mothers and we adored father. I never heard one of my father’s wives quarrel with another wife in my life. I never heard a disrespectful word spoken to my father or about him by any member of his family. He was a very great man, and an ideal father and husband.”

All day long we heard remnants of this conversation as we passed groups of the party, in going about the ruins, but everyone with whom we came in contact treated us with respect and consideration, a very different attitude of mind from what some of us knew a quarter of a century ago. …

The return journey on the train to Montrose found our party in company with the ministerial party, who were returning at the same time, and we enjoyed a very delightful, occasional visit with the genial and learned bishop who could not forget that I could not remember what number of wife my mother was in my father’s family.

For the record, since I know there will be readers who won’t be able to sleep tonight if they don’t have an answer to the question …

If you count all of Brigham Young’s marriages, with no regard to the definition of “wife” except that a ceremony was held, Susa’s mother Lucy Bigelow was Brigham’s 42nd wife. And if you count the biological children but skip over those who were adopted, Susa was Brigham’s 42nd child.

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14 thoughts on “A Family by the Numbers”

  1. My great-grandfather writes in his personal history a poignant story along these lines. His mother, a plural wife of John Hess of Farmington, died when he was very young and he was raised by her sister-wives. His only memory of his mother is when she hid him under her apron so he could eat an apple all to himself.

  2. The supposed inability of polygamous fathers/husbands not always recognizing all their children reminded me of a story I believe I read in the biography of Rudger Clawson, the first person actually tried and convicted under the anti-cohab laws. In order to throw off the federal marshals who were always trying to find polygamous husbands, some children were taught to respond to the question “Can you tell me who your father is?” with the response, “For all I know, YOU could be my father.”

  3. Brigham Young knew all his children. When they were away, he wrote letters to them. (See Dean Jessee’s, Brigham Young’s Letters to his Sons (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1974) Those that lived close, he saw alot and gave advice and help. Married daughters and husbands were often invited to travel with him. He was very warm and kind to his children and grandchildren. The Young family members were very close after his death,which I think is a tribute to him. Even those that left Mormonism were included in family parties, family funerals, and family activities. While many had strong involvement in the Church, a few did not. All seemed a part of the large family.

  4. There are some remarks in Brigham Young’s correspondence to family members that show he knew his grandchildren (or at least those who lived close enough to see constantly; I don’t know about those in Idaho) every bit as well as he knew his own young children. I need to relocate the bit in a letter to an absent son where BY reports on the activities of a toddler that shows BY to be as much of a doting grandpa as anybody any of us ever knew.

  5. I guess I always expected that most fathers of large polygamous families would know their own children. I live in a neighborhood with lots of children (20+?). While I am NOT the father of most of them (just three) I know who most the children are, who their parents are and where they live. I suppose it would be easier if I had a reason to be involved in all of their lives other than the fact that my children play with them. We don’t even go to church with them. (I do have problems diferentiating between the twins that live next door.) Once you add it the children in the primary and YM/YW programs in my ward (25+), and my neices and nephews (15+), and other friends whose children I know there are over 50 children I’m able to keep track of. I think if we thought about it, most of us could keep track of that many different people with little trouble, and no need to number them.

  6. I’m glad to know that dear old Brother Brigham seemed to know his children. The son I descend from was only 14 years old when Brigham died. This son had a very difficult life, dying at the age of 41. I often wondered about the interaction between these two, father and son. Thanks for this.

  7. It is nice to hear from a descendant of Brigham’s son, Phineas Howe Young. I understand that he was a fine artist and musician. Are his descendants musicians also?

  8. I guess Phineas Howe’s numbers are more notorious/well-known than I thought. Good catch, Jeff Johnson!

    And, yes, *this* descendant of Phineas Howe Young is a musician. (Among other things.)

  9. I should warn you, Hunter — you’re not going to be able to slip anything related to BY’s family past Jeff’s radar!

  10. A couple of years ago I was visiting the ward where my daughter and her then 4 children lived in Eagle, outside Boise, Idaho. The Primary Sharing Time had a game on Father’s Day in which several brethren came in with paper sacks on their heads and numbers, and the kids were asked to ask questions that would help them figure out the identity of the dads. I was interested in how many of the kids knew the dads of the OTHER kids, from the extensive interaction they had in visiting each other’s homes. there were about 40 or 50 children there, about like Brigham’s household. I have read his letters to his sons, and have no doubt he knew his children very well, just as he knew many of the brothers and sisters of the church very well.

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