I am tracing my Mormon pioneer roots because my story began with those who came before.
Mary Elizabeth Snyder was born in 1803 in Canada. At twenty-one, she married Daniel Wood.
I don’t know what to call Mary. We are not blood-related. I stumped Google when I asked, “What do you call a woman who is related to you through polygamy?” Google’s replies were as confusing as my original question.
I am a descendant of Daniel’s marriage to a different wife, Emma. But that is getting ahead of the story.
In one photograph, Mary is sitting beside Daniel. It is hard to tell how long Mary’s dark hair is, as it is tucked neatly under a light-colored bonnet. A wide striped ribbon crisscrosses her chest, and a shawl wraps loosely around her shoulders. Their faces are serious, typical of pioneer photos. They both have long, prominent, take no guff, not to be trifled with noses.
I wonder if she would have said yes to Daniel’s marriage proposal if she had known her journey would include leaving behind the country she was born in, her parents, and all her siblings forever. And that she would share her husband with at least seven other women through the Mormon practice of plural marriage.
I wish I could have been a fly on the wall to hear Mary and Daniel discuss converting from Methodist to Mormonism, emigrating to America, and Daniel having sex with other women.
One journal called Mary the maternal guide for the Wood family. But did she have a choice, or like me, was Mary taught God speaks his will for the church through an old white man called the living prophet? God would also share his desire for her family with her husband, who would then tell her.
These strict gender roles within the church left my dad alone, figuring out what was best for our huge family. By the age of thirty-five, he had fathered eight children.
How could he go to my mother with vulnerability and confusion when he was the one endowed with the priesthood, which included God’s power to know? Where was the respect for my mother’s discernment and connection to the divine? If he had times he could be weak, and she had times to be powerful, they may have had a healthier marriage.
Once the church instituted the principle of tithing, a practice of giving financial support to the church, Daniel’s job as the head of his house was to share this commandment with Mary. Mary did not understand why the church asked for financial support since they lived a less stable life. Still, being the “good wife,” she agreed, even though it added stress as she figured out how to feed and clothe the children.
Mary gave birth to at least seven children, three in Canada and four in America. Mary was nearly forty when she got pregnant with twin baby girls during a time Latter-Day Saints faced violence and forced expulsion from many communities. Her babies, Mary and Catherine, lived long enough to be christened. Although Daniel would have dozens of more children with other wives, the twins were the last Mary and Daniel would have together.
A few years later, Mary’s heart shattered again when her teenage son Henry died from pneumonia he caught while guarding the Mormon temple in Nauvoo, Illinois. Townspeople had threatened to burn it down, which prompted the church to post guards around the clock. Henry’s death was the price paid for protection.
Mary never recovered from the deaths of her children. References to her needing help to care for the home and children leave it unclear whether she struggled physically, mentally, or emotionally. My daughters are my tether to this world. Losing them would leave space for thoughts of leaving. I wonder if she felt the same.
Regardless, Mary’s incapacitation prompted the hiring a young woman named Peninah. Peninah was a year younger than Mary and Daniel’s daughter Rebecca. A short time later, forty-six-year-old Daniel would take nineteen-year-old Peninah as a plural wife. Daniel had to show he could support her and get approval from church leadership before marrying her.
During the Wood family’s overland trek to Utah, Peninah’s youthful strength was invaluable. Mary’s poor health required Peninah, late into her first pregnancy, to shoulder most of the responsibility of driving the heavy wagon, cooking, and caring for the children.
Once in Utah, Daniel built a home in Woods Cross called the big house. For years Mary lived there with other wives Daniel married and their children. As their polygamous family grew, some wives would have their own places. How did Mary feel seeing other women’s bellies swell and grow with the babies Daniel made?
Mary and the other wives took care of the family and farm when Daniel was away for extended periods doing church work. He was a part of a group Brigham Young sent to rescue distressed saints stranded on the emigration trail.
Daniel also took several months-long mission trips to Canada. He was seventy when he went on his last one with his eighteen-year-old son Peter. These missions allowed Daniel to visit his parents and siblings who had remained in Canada. Whereas once Mary emigrated, she never saw her parents and siblings again.
Some Mormons brought enslaved people with them when they moved to Utah. The Compromise of 1850 gave Utah autonomy in voting to make slavery legal, which they did.
You would think white women would have greater empathy for oppression because they have experienced forms of oppression themselves. But Mary held firm to the church’s truthfulness, which included the “truth” black people were inferior because of their skin. If Mary had the right to vote, she would have voted for slavery, something the church prophet condoned.
White women have had more autonomy over their bodies than black women, whose bodies were belongings. Black women were raped and forced to carry and birth babies, which added to an inventory of human chattel. Their children sold as one might sell a sack of potatoes.
Some Mormons enslaved people and brought them to Utah. Jane Manning James was the first African-American woman recorded to arrive in Utah not enslaved but as a church member. In Illinois, Jane lived with the church founder, Joseph Smith, and his family. Before I’d heard of internalized racism, I found it puzzling any black person would willingly join a church that labeled their skin as cursed.
Jane and Mary lived less than ten miles from one another. Did they know one another, worship together or greet each other in passing?
Mary was ill for four months before her death in 1873 at age sixty-nine. She said goodbye to Daniel, her sister-wives, and her extended family and chose her burial spot in the family cemetery. Mary was not afraid of dying because Heavenly Father’s grand reward awaited her. The Mormon belief that families are forever guaranteed Mary’s reunion with her children, who had died decades earlier. Upon her death, the prophet Brigham Young described her as a queen in heaven.
She was the first wife Daniel married and the first wife he buried. Daniel lived another nineteen years but was never the same after her death.
Journals and church documents contain an abundance of details about the lives of early pioneer men. The absence of pioneer women’s stories points to their status and makes truly knowing them impossible.
Mary Snyder Wood was more than the words ascribed to her, including faithful, beloved, devoted to her husband, mild, and modest with a sincere disposition.
Although Daniel called her Mrs. Wood or Aunt Mary, I call her Mother Mary. I hear Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be” song lyrics in my head each time I think of her.
“When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me.
Whisper words of wisdom. Let it be.”
I yearn for Mary’s whispers to fill the spaces around her so I can see the authentic, complete, and complicated woman she was.