Tracing my Mormon pioneer roots because my story began with those who came before.
Shortly after arriving in Utah, the church prophet, Brigham Young, asked Daniel to take in three Native American children. Mormon scouts on patrol had returned with the children, saying they were orphans.
The scouts said when they approached the Jordan River; they noticed a cluster of limbs resembling a small hut. Inside were two girls between the ages of seven and nine who said they had witnessed their family’s massacre. Since then, they had been living in this primitive lean-to.
The scouts coaxed the girls out of the hut by showing them bright trinkets the prophet had instructed them to carry for bartering and to build trust and goodwill with the local tribes.
A scout gave one girl a thimble she held briefly before offering to give it back. “You keep,” the scout said. Next, they handed the second girl a pair of tiny scissors, which the scout told her to keep. The girls giggled and laughed.
A third child, a boy about the same age, watched from his hiding spot by the river. After hearing the girl’s laughter, he came out of hiding, and a scout gave him a small knife.
Wanting to continue to build trust, the scouts offered to let the children ride their horses. The well-trained horses came back when the scouts whistled for them to return.
“Do you want to see our Chief?” the scouts asked the children. When the three children agreed, each man lifted a child onto their horse. The children held tight to the thimble, scissors, and knife as the horses headed toward the Salt Lake Valley.
The scouts took the children to Brigham Young. He told them to take the children to Brother Daniel because his second wife, Peninah, “is an Indian, and they would love being with her.”
The scouts followed Young’s instructions and headed toward Daniel’s farm. They were unaware they were being watched from a distance by “Indian spies.” Once at the farm, an “Indian Chief” visited and demanded payment for the children. Eventually, Daniel made a deal to give the chief three horses in exchange for the three children. Family history says Daniel adopted them and erased their birth names when he renamed them Lucy, Mary, and Thomas.
Were the children truly orphans without any family members to care for them? Did they understand by agreeing to ride with the scouts to “see the Chief” that they would never return to their hut? Were the “spies” actually tribal members who followed out of concern for what was happening? It is unclear whether the Chief may have tried negotiating their return before agreeing to be paid in horses.
Either way, everything around Lucy, Mary, and Thomas’ was unfamiliar, including the people, language, clothing, food, furniture, daily life, and spiritual practices.
I imagine one of the most significant changes was going from a tribal community where everyone looked like you to a predominately white pioneer town. I wonder how it felt for the children to learn Mormons believed their brown skin meant they descended from sinners. Did they begin to feel whispers of dislike for their skin or hope to gain lighter skin through adherence to the gospel?
Lucy, Mary, and Thomas’ stories are not unique. Brigham Young encouraged Mormon families to purchase or barter for native children believing they would be better off in Mormon households. Native Americans, called Lamanites, could lighten their skin, becoming white and delightsome through conversion to the Mormon church. The saints saw bringing native children into their homes as an opportunity to save them while increasing the church roster.
Some were not purchased but were captives from skirmishes between the Mormon militia and the tribes. After killing the men, women and children were taken to towns to be “cared for” by Mormon families.
Some tribes raided other tribes, selling their captives to the Mormons. One reason was that selling people from different tribes protected the capturing tribe from being sold. Some native parents facing starvation sold their children in hopes they would survive.
Native women and children proved to be a vital source of labor, thus creating more demand for enslaved and indentured labor. Mormons sold them among themselves or gave them as gifts. Local Native populations declined as more and more of their people were killed, enslaved, or adopted.
Considering the goal was assimilation, it is unlikely Lucy, Mary, and Thomas were encouraged to stay connected to their native roots and culture. They attended school and learned the gospel. Daniel must have felt proud the day he baptized them into the church. It was the first step towards shedding their Lamanite blood for something more pure and pleasing to God. Church doctrine asked these children to internalize degradation.
Mary, Lucy, and Thomas lived with the Wood family for about eleven years. Journals written by descendants describe them as happy, healthy, and obedient. Mary was quiet, lovely, and shy. Lucy was a good scholar who used her writing skills to pen a tribute to Daniel. She thanked him for his kindness towards her and her people.
Tragically, a Diptheria outbreak killed Thomas and Mary. Lucy lived another year and a half before dying in July 1861. They were so young, dying between the ages of eighteen and twenty. Daniel buried them in the Wood Family Cemetery.
Over a century later, a Wood descendant described feeling haunted by Lucy, Mary, and Thomas. He felt compelled to complete their temple work so they would be guaranteed spots at the highest levels of heaven. It is common for Mormons to do temple rituals for those who have died.
When he asked permission to do these rituals on their behalf, church leaders said, “No.”
For years he prayed and fasted, asking for direction on what to do next. One day while praying at the temple, he had a vision. In his dream, he saw sweet Lucy dressed in white, standing in a circle of “Indian chiefs.” The men were attentive as she told them of the church’s gospel.
This vision prompted him to write to church leaders again. This time he included the vision story. A few weeks later, he cried when their reply in the mail said, “Yes.” He was ecstatic to finish the temple rituals for Lucy, Mary, and Thomas, ensuring everlasting salvation.
In family journals, Lucy, Mary, and Thomas were called Daniel and Peninah’s “three little Indians.” As a child, I sang what I thought was a simple counting song, “Ten Little Indians.” The original version begins with ten “Indians” or “Injuns”. When the tune ends, all are dead. Some died from breaking their necks, kicking the bucket, drowning in an overturned canoe, and getting shot.
Horrible lyrics like, “Ten Little Indians, Standing in a line one stood looking at another man’s wife; then there were nine,” and “Nine Little Indians, Their hearts were full of hate. One took his neighbor’s goods, then there were eight,” were widely sung at minstrel shows.
A version for black people was called “Ten Little Niggers.” In this song, some deaths occurred through choking, being chopped in half, being swallowed by a fish, or hanging oneself.
Long after I stopped using the song to count people, I still used the tune with my students to count bears or bunnies. I was insensitive at the very least, racist at most, to think the jingle held enough value to overlook the derogatory intent that seeded its creation. Hearing Lucy, Mary, and Thomas referred to as “three little Indians” reminded me of the dehumanization in the song.
Some say, Lucy, Mary, and Thomas prove Daniel Wood was not racist. How could Daniel have brought them into his home if he was racist towards brown people?
Racism is a tricky beast and can show up even if we are white parents of brown and black children. It can show a naivete about how our lived experience differs from theirs. It can show up in distancing them from their roots. It can show up in expectations they camouflage into whiteness and not understanding the importance of mentors, teachers, and pastors who look like them. It can show in our signaling of what good Christians we are in God’s work. It can show up in the insensitivity of singing a song about the death of brown and black people.
Like Peninah, Lucy, Mary, and Thomas may have needed to shed their rich indigenous identity to assimilate into Mormonism and the overwhelming whiteness surrounding them.