I am tracing my Mormon pioneer roots because my story began with those who came before.
When I began to speak out about racism, I found myself entangled in some heated discussions. Some centered around whether the Mormon church has racism embedded in its foundation.
I had come to believe the answer was “Yes.” I was baffled how anyone could think otherwise based on the ban on blackness commanded by the church’s top leadership and supported by church members like my great, great, great grandfather Daniel Wood, my parents, and even me.
They countered by saying Daniel Wood couldn’t have been racist because one of his wives was Native American. This fact is true. The inaccurate part of the statement is that white people like myself who are married to black or brown people are automatically not racist.
The church felt called to save the lost souls of Native Americans, whom they called Lamanites. Their Book of Mormon described Lamanites as the descendants of people who turned their back on Christ’s teachings and killed their righteous relatives, the Nephites. For this sin, God cursed them and their lineage with dark skin. Mormons believed the Lamanites could be civilized, and their skin lightened with baptism and obedience to Mormon commandments.
Mormon law said Daniel could have been excommunicated or executed for having sex with or marrying a black woman, but doing the same with a Native American woman was acceptable as part of God’s plan to bring them closer to whiteness.
Peninah was Daniel’s native plural wife. As far as I could gather, Peninah Shropshire Cotton was born in Illinois in March 1827. Daniel was twenty-seven years older than her.
Peninah’s father, Caleb, was the son of Sarah Bluebird Crouch, the daughter of a Cherokee Indian Chief. Sarah married James Cotton; a Christian missionary sent by the Church of England to convert Native Americans.
Peninah’s mother, Nancy Meredith, was the daughter of Nancy Fulkerson, who was either Cherokee or a white colonial settler, taken captive by the Cherokee as a child. In that telling of Nancy Fulkerson’s story, she lived with her family among other settlers in Virginia. One conflict between settlers and the tribes who occupied the land resulted in her family being taken captive by the tribe. At one point, her father, Peter, escaped but returned for the sake of his family. They later burned him alive.
Years later, the tribe released the surviving captives. One of the daughters chose to stay because she had a husband and children in the tribe. Could that have been Nancy who would become Peninah’s grandmother?
Family history journals referred to Peninah as “full-blooded Indian,” “half-blooded Cherokee,” or of “royal Indian blood.”
Peninah’s parents, Caleb and Nancy, married in North Carolina in 1801. Together they had many children. Their daughter Peninah was born in 1827. At six years old, Peninah was baptized into the Mormon church in February 1833. Family journals refer to her as a Lamanite blood convert. Missionaries were baptizing thirty-three-year-old Daniel in Canada around the same time young Peninah was baptized in America.
Over twelve years later, after Daniel had moved to America, Daniel and Peninah’s paths crossed when he hired her to care for his wife, Mary, and their children. Peninah was nineteen. Following the deaths of their teenage son and twin babies, Mary had been unable to care for the home and remaining children. I imagine Mary’s grief swallowed her, leaving her deeply depressed.
By this time, Joseph Smith had introduced the practice of plural marriage into the church. He said God commanded it. Debate continues today, whether it was God or if Smith’s sexual desires factored into adding polygamy to Mormonism. Smith may have married as many as fifty wives. Some were girls as young as fourteen.
Mormon men needed permission from church leadership before taking a plural wife. Multiple wives could be granted to exceptionally faithful men or those with the means to support them.
Daniel and Mary had been married for over twenty years when Daniel told Mary that church leaders had counseled him to take nineteen-year-old Peninah as a wife. He liked Peninah’s kindness and efficiency. What did Peninah feel about Daniel, who was decades older than her?
Although a journal said Mary “graciously conceded,” I wonder whether she felt she could say no. Striving to be good sisters in the faith, did they feel pressure to obey the will of the men who said this union should happen?
In January 1846, Daniel, Mary, and Peninah traveled to the Nauvoo Temple to receive their marriage endowments and be sealed together forever. Mormons believe families can be forever through time and eternity if they participate in special rituals. Before the church ended its ban on blackness in 1978, only white people were allowed to partake in these sacred ceremonies.
A year into her marriage, Peninah gave birth to her son Daniel in Iowa. Her youthful strength benefited the Wood family’s emigration to Utah a year later. Daniel described her as a godsend. Even though she was pregnant again, she drove a wagon over rough terrain to Utah. Mary’s continued poor health meant she rode in the carriage with the children.
After arriving in Utah, they built a two-hundred-square-foot log cabin. Outside, wolves howled, and bear sightings were common. Within months of arriving in Utah, Peninah gave birth to another son, Heber.
She had six or seven children over the next twenty years, finally giving birth to her last son Caleb when she was forty.
In addition to her biological children, she cared for three Native American children Daniel brought home. Lucy, age seven; Thomas age eight; and May, age nine, were supposedly orphans. Brigham Young, the church prophet at the time, gave the children to Daniel to give to Peninah to raise, probably because Peninah was also native. Sadly, all three would die from Diphtheria.
Her skills were impressive. Peninah was knowledgeable about medicinal plants. She knit socks from lamb’s wool and spun cloth on a loom. She sewed moccasins and gloves from animal skins and braided hats and rope from straw. She turned rendered animal fat into candles and was an expert fire builder. She baked bread in an iron kettle over hot coals and made molasses, sauerkraut, and pickles. Her garden harvests and cured meat provided food through the winter. She milked cows and cared for sick and motherless animals. She was comfortable traveling alone on horseback from their homestead into the city of Salt Lake.
Many pioneer women’s stories describe them in one-dimensional or saint-like ways negating their full humanity. Peninah’s son said his mother never complained even though she never knew anything but continual want. She didn’t quarrel or have much to say. Peninah was a faithful Christian who was honest, gentle, and brave.
It is hard to imagine throughout her lifetime; she didn’t feel jealousy, loneliness, resentment, and despair. With each new wife Daniel married, Peninah and her children spent less and less time with him.
I’ve wondered how she felt about being a brown woman in a community and church filled with white women. Did she keep to herself because she didn’t feel an authentic sense of belonging? Is that why she preferred to read the scriptures alone rather than attend church meetings?
Peninah was said to have been proud of her race. What did that look like in her daily life? What parts of her native culture did she pass on to her children? The family who wrote of her consistently referred to her native roots as “her race” rather than “our race.” She was also called a “true Christian colonizer.” Having native racial pride and the heart of a colonizer seem at odds with one another. Did native identity and pride continue with her lineage or end with her?
Without a doubt, Peninah was a brave, resilient woman who played a crucial role in the survival and success of the Wood family.
Peninah’s spirit and faith remained strong until death came for her when she became frail at fifty-two from a severe illness. I wonder if, in her dying days, she hoped that the church’s promised white skin reward for a life well-lived would replace her warm cinnamon-colored skin.
I hope not. Instead, I hope Peninah dreamt of walking into heaven wrapped in the courageous copper-colored skin she was born with, her long black hair flowing proudly behind her.