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Funny Pioneer Stories

By Emily Milner

From the life of Phineas Wolcott Cook, one of my husband’s ancestors (spelling and punctuation modernized):

In the month of August Br. Brigham visited San Pete and found the people in want of a mill for grnding their grain. He came home and told me that he had made choice of me to go and build them a mill. … he came down with two of his wives, Margarette Pierce and Lucy Bigalo, to board his hands himself. He took them all but one who was still with us. I asked him [Brigham Young] if he would take him; he said he intended to take all. I told him my wife was nearly tired out and we wanted to get away as soon as we could. He said he had the advantage of me, for when his women got tired, be could take them home and change them for fresh ones.

Okay, so regardless of my decidedly mixed feelings about polygamy, I get a kick out of this story. “When his women got tired, he could take them home and change them for fresh ones.” I like that Brigham Young had a sense of humor about his wives himself. So many people were up in arms about polygamy, from Mark Twain’s mockery to the out and out Utah War. So, I don’t know, it’s nice to know that he had a [not politically correct, but it took a long time for the humor in the Church to change] sense of humor about it sometimes.

Do you have any funny pioneer stories?

And, for Pioneer Day, a few links:

Don’t miss Ardis Parshall’s Pioneer Day posts at Keepapitchinin:
How to Handle Your Oxen When You Cross the Plains

How to Plan Your Menu After You Reach the Valley

Covered Wagon Days… In Denmark

Emily Watt’s funny Childrens’
Parade memories

My All-time Favorite Pioneer Talk, “Under Covenant to the Promised Land,” by Tessa Meyer Santiago

Search for your overland pioneer ancestors at lds.org

African American Spirituals and the Mormon Pioneers, at Faith Promoting Rumor

Carl and Mathilda: finding about ancestors at Times and Seasons

About Emily Milner

(Poetry Board) graduated from BYU in Comparative Literature, but it was long enough ago that most of what she learned has leaked out. She would like to mention other hobbies or interests, but to be honest she spends most of her free time reading (although she does enjoy attempting yoga). She used to blog at hearingvoices.wordpress.com. For now, though, Segullah is her only blogging home, and it's a good one.

35 thoughts on “Funny Pioneer Stories”

  1. Ditto Jennifer. I felt it was another story emphasizing how women were treated like property and were easily dispensed of.

  2. I think we do everyone a disservice if we judge 19th-century humor by 21st-century mores. These people were all living the Gospel, following the prophet, working out their salvation with fear and trembling before God, just as we try to do now. There are many, many teachings of Brigham Young that show he did not consider women to be property or dispensable. The fact was that, if one of wives was unable to travel, he _could_ take a different wife.

    How many times do we hear others telling us Mormons that we need to loosen up and laugh at ourselves from time to time? I vote that we give our ancestors the same privilege.

  3. Funny story, Emily! No funny pioneer stories come to my mind, but we always liked to hear about when my grandmother was young and got struck by lightning right in the butt. This makes me want to pick my mom's brain, who knows more about our pioneer heritage. Thanks!

  4. I guess I just don't think that is funny either.

    Just because something happens a long time ago doesn't make it ok. I understand in theory why it is funny, but my first reaction was disgust. Haha, my wives are like teams of cattle, I can trade them out…

    Our early leaders of the church also had some pretty racist stories and actions, but I would still never bill them as a "funny story". Offensive is offensive, no matter who the audience or generation. Even if it was less offensive to during the time that it was said, it doesn' mean that I have to think it is funny now.

  5. I think "Jennifer" and "Just Saying…" need to lighten up. The story was hilarious. As a strong-willed LDS woman, I know when to take a joke and when to think that someone is trying to make fun of my sex. I think Brigham Young was just making a joke and that he regarded highly ALL LDS women as well as ALL of his wives. And like "Matt"…I get 19th century humor and think it's quite funny. Oh – and PS – Polygamy is part of our history…just roll with it and laugh at the humor of it.

  6. I am sorry to those who were offended by the story; that was not my intent. Like Em-Cat, I feel that polygamy is part of our history, and there's a lot of humor there. I also think Brigham Young had a great deal of respect for his wives, who were well-educated and wielded quite a bit of power and influence.

    I've been thinking about this all morning: I would not repeat a racist story from back then and call it funny, but the polygamy ones tickle me. I think I feel far enough removed from them that they don't bug me quite so much. The closer to my time I hear a sexist joke, the more I dislike it. But this story feels distant to me, yet it provides a window on a time I'm fascinated by, so I like it. However, it was not my intent to offend, only to amuse, and I apologize.

    So, those of you who aren't fans of this pioneer story–do you have any that you consider funny by standards of our day too?

  7. Em, I thought the story was funny. It does capture a moment in time and I'm sure Brigham would be the first to admit he'd never cross a pioneer woman because he'd rue the day. He knew as well as anyone their power and influence.

    It reminded me of a story in my family. There is a distant relative who had two wives towards the end of the polygamist era. He had been quite a brute to both of his wives and soon found himself living alone in a shack. They had agreed that until he treated them better he wouldn't live in either home. Way to go Sisters!

    Also the talk by Santiago was amazing, thanks for the link.

  8. I don't think anyone needs to "lighten up". Everyone is going to react differently to something like this. Someone who has stronger feelings about women's rights and against polygamy is clearly going to be bothered by this. Count me in that category. But I wouldn't chastise those of you who found it funny, so please don't chastise those of us who didn't.

    Umm, no funny stories to contribute, sorry! I'm looking forward to others though.

  9. Not only is polygamy apart of our past (as Emily M said in comment) but it may very well be part of your future. People who get upset by polygamy need to figure out a way to be okay with it because I'm certain at some point we'll have to be supportive of it. Many, if not most, cultures in the world practice it on some level. It's only demeaning to women if women are treated poorly in the practice of it. The practice itself is not inherently (yeah, I can't spell) wrong.

    I laughed at your story a lot. Love Brigham Young.

    I remember reading a story from my great great grandma's journal about a bear coming into their house- while they were asleep! She was so nonchalant about it. Always made me chuckle, but I lack the ability to relate the story in a humorous way, so whatevs! Happy pioneer day!

  10. Sadly now this is becoming a post about polygamy. But I take issue with Carrie's coments. (sorry) I do think that polygamy is demeaning to women no matter what. It is not the ideal and that is in the Lord's eyes too, I believe. I base this off the teachings of Jacob in the Book of Mormon. It sometimes becomes a necessary evil just like Nephi killing Laban. But in general it is not good for anyone. I hope and pray we are never asked to participate in polygamy again. But in the end if it is commanded I would do it. I just wouldn't like it.

  11. I think it's possible that Brigham Young's comment might have been meant in a more matter-of-fact way than in a humorous way. It might have been merely truthful, not flippant.

  12. I would totally be a polygamist! I have a few conditions, though. First I would have to have a say in who the wives are. We would definitely have to get along. if I liked the other wives, i could see it ending up being a big, fun sleep-over. Second, I would have to be the "baking wife". Not the "cleaning wife" or "laundry wife". Plus, if I were ever "not in the mood" (not that that's ever happened, ha ha), I'd be totally off the hook. "Honey, I have a headache. Go see if you have better luck with somebody else."

  13. I literally laughed outloud at that! I'm still chuckling. Brigham Young had a VERY droll sense of humor, and it shows here. My hubby would totally make a joke like that if he were in that situation!

    And I agree with Jennie W. Sharing household/child-rearing duties would be great! Though I don't know about the actual sharing the *husband*…luckily I don't have to seriously consider it. I don't think I'd want him in love with another woman.

  14. I am usually the first to "lighten up" and laugh about anything and everything, but I have to stand my ground on the polygamy thing. I think jokes about it bother because I don't feel it's a distant part of our past. I feel, as Carrie pointed out, that it's a very real possibility for our future. Only the practice–not the doctrine–of polygamy has been cancelled, leaving it a looming threat to which I am probably too sensitive. I agree wholeheartedly with Heathermommy: polygamy is always demeaning to women, no matter how kindly it is practiced. The lighthearted comments about sharing chores, intimacy, etc. just don't jive with me. I am deeply in love with my husband and view my marriage as my most treasured relationship, not a balance sheet of household chores and child-rearing responsibilities. If you extract feelings, romance, passion, fidelity emotional intimacy, and even love out of the equation, then sure…polygamy makes great sense.

    I agree with the notion that it was a temporary, necessary evil. This is what I hope and what I tell myself. But, like Heather, if commanded to practice polygamy, I would. In the end, I love the gospel much more than I despise polygamy (and that's alot.)

    Maybe I need to grow spiritually and develop a better testimony of it like some of you have. I mean this sincerely. But in the meantime, it just seems to defy every last thing we're taught about love, chastity, and loyalty. And Emily, sorry for taking your innocent story too far. I know you meant well and I was not offended by it the least bit. I just didn't think it was funny.

  15. I have a funny story to share, but this is such a tough crowd so who knows?

    I was reading my husband's female ancestor's biography of the pioneer days. She suffered so much and had the most profound testimony of the gospel. On and on the biography went about Nauvoo and the Book of Mormon and the sacrifices required during that time. Then she spoke of the privations of the journey West, losing her husband at the beginning of the trek, all the while praising God for the gospel, her children, her late husband and all of her blessings. I had never read such a detailed testimonial account by a woman closely linked to me. Her testimony was moving. Then as the narrative reached an end, with more gratitude to God, she said something like, "God is so good, I think he doesn't mind that I smoke."

    LOL I just was not expecting that! Apparently she had been instructed by a doctor to smoke to alleviate a persistent medical problem, like a headache, and she was totally hooked! LOL Incidentally, I personally know of a older sister in my area in this same predicament and everyone treats her with such compassion, I know God would be infinitely more compassionate.

  16. Jennifer, no worries on taking the story too far. I can tell your commitment to both your husband and the gospel.

    This has been a very interesting discussion for me–not all funny stories (though Carol, if we were giving out prizes, yours would win! thank you also jendoop and Carrie for yours 🙂 ), but very interesting perspectives on polygamy. Thanks for sharing, everyone.

  17. Thor's direct ancestor, David H. Cannon, had a small problem with tobacco. The story goes that he smoked much to the dissatisfaction of pretty much everyone, especially his bride. While out doing "the errand of the Lord" one day he broke his leg. He was deposited at home to recuperate. A few days went by and while going for a smoke, fell and broke the other leg. He was rescued and brought back into the house, again to heal. Another few days go by and his addiction is getting the best of him and he has *again* asked his wife to reach for his smoking pouch and matches. She pretty much just tells him that this was the Lord's way of getting him to quit and that if he pushed it any further with her she would go about the "Lord's errand" and break his neck.

    He quit smoking over those 6 weeks. : )

  18. S'mee, now that is funny! My great-great-great grandfather is Angus M. Cannon, brother to David H. and George Q.. I'm related. My dear friend is a direct descendant of David H. I wish we could talk.
    Here's one about Angus. He was so in love with a woman and she him. They went to the temple to get married and old Brigham said, "You have to marry her older sister first." So, right there, Angus married the sister and then the woman he was in love with. From what I understand it was extremely difficult for everyone. Now, that is not a funny story, but an honest one.

  19. That is a tough one, Melonie. I wouldn't want to be that older sister.

    But my reaction to the first story was that, whatever other aspects of polygamy might have been difficult, I'd *love* to have a "fresh" wife come replace me when I got tired. And Jennie W., if you'd be the baking wife, I'd be the sewing wife. (I'm sure there was never a wife who wanted to be the "garbage-taking-out wife" so it's not really as simple as it sounds, but I've always liked *that* part of the idea of living polygamy when it did work well — women sharing their strengths and supporting each other.)

    I also have to say that, having read just a little bit of early Mormon journals and letters, I think some early Mormon women would be VERY offended by their descendants' (literal or spiritual descendants) assertions that polygamy is "demeaning to women no matter what" or a "necessary evil" — many of those who practiced polygamy absolutely saw it as a higher law and as a necessary good. I personally think it very disrespectful to them to impose those kinds of judgments on their great sacrifices.

  20. Jennie W., I need to add that, the first time I read your comment, I thought you said that you would be the "barking wife." I had a good laugh until I re-read it the right way.

  21. Yeah for Phineas Cook! He is one of my ancestors too. Boy are there some funny stories about him, since he always seemed to me to be a cranky old polygamist.

    Actually, being in the Cook family organization has taught me a lot about how people react to polygamy. The decedents of the first wife feel superior because they are from the first wife, whom he obviously loved more than the rest. The descendants from the last wife feel superior because he fled with her to Wyoming when the marshals came and stayed with her as polygamy was abandoned. I am from the second wife, not very glamorous, but our recent claim is that Elder Cook is descended from her as well.

  22. Hey! I'm already the barking wife!

    Melonie C. Howdy cuzin'! Yeah, we joke around here a lot about that ancestor. Our Bishop is a direct descendant of George Q. (He's actually George Q 3rd) and Thor is the descendant of the black sheep of the family, David H.! Oh well.

  23. Sar, we're fourth-wifers on the Cook line. My husband's great-great-grandma was forever bitter because she always got the last of the shoes. He'd bring a barrel of shoes for his wives and kids, and the first wife and kids got first pick, and so on down, until poor Great-Great-Grandma Cook.

    She didn't have a lot of love for polygamy.

    But Zina, I think your point is an important one to consider as we discuss polygamy: last year I read the letters of Catherine Romney, plural wife of Miles Romney, and she did see it as a higher law, and a necessary good. She made great sacrifices because of polygamy, and was happy to do so. That may be hard to fathom, but it's not a bad thing to celebrate these pioneer women for the sacrifices they made to live the laws they'd been given, rather than focus on … I don't know, what's the word? pitying them for having to live polygamy in the first place.

  24. I don't think polygamy is the higher law. I think obeying God no matter how hard is the higher law. To my understanding polygamy was just the means to a desired end: raising up a righteous people, not that there was anything particularly necessary about being in a polygamous marriage. I mean no respect to our ancestors, obviously they had a great faith. I am sure some people found some positives from a polygamous marriage but the truth is it was a trial of their faith.

    But the real issue at hand for me is that a polygamous marriage could never be for me what marriage is supposed to be. How can a man make his wife his #1 priority if he has several wives. The shoe story exemplifies this. No matter how hard people tried to be fair there was a hierarchy of wives. I don't see how this is uplifting to women at all.

  25. I sometimes wonder if polygamy will be practiced in the celestial kingdom precisely because it was practiced here. So many women and children would be ripped apart from their parents and spouses if the Lord required them to maintain one man/one woman. Remember, of course, that polygamy has been practiced occasionally throughout all of history. This is, however, total speculation.

    That pet theory of mine, however, would make an allowance for polygamy to continue without requiring me myself to practice it!

  26. I am a direct descendant of the Miles Park and Catherine Romney mentioned by Emily. Catherine Cottam was a beautiful, sought-after young woman of St. George who denied at least one offer of marriage from a single young guy in order to be available for polygamist Miles Park Romney. Catherine desired to be in a polygamous relationship because of what she believed was the higher road. Times were different!

  27. My great great grandmother, Lorena Eugenia Washburn Larsen, tells about growing up in Manti, Utah and being chased by what are basically creepy old men. Those aren't the words she uses, but she does talk about how these men that were much, much older than her sought after her as a wife, and how she had no interest in them whatsoever and felt it was inappropriate for them to be seeking young wives. She did end up marrying a younger man as his second wife. I sense that it was a difficult choice to go into marriage as anything other than the first wife, and that the primary reason she did was because she believed it was a higher law. The two wives held down the farm and provided emotional support to one another while their husband was away for several years serving a mission in Europe.

    However, I think the most interesting part of her story is that she speaks openly about how she felt and what she thought when the Manifesto was issued. As much as I can't imagine the idea of every living in polygamy and pray I never have to, it is heart-wrenching to read of her devastation upon being told that her family was no longer valid. Since she was the second wife, she was basically severed. She felt very abandoned and betrayed by her leaders and by God, I think. However, her feelings lasted only a little while, and she also talks about feeling great peace from the Holy Ghost and the assurance that everything would turn out OK.

    Her husband did continue to support her to an extent, but later on pretty much left her on her own with her children. They did live in a married state for awhile, because she had several more children with him. She talks of receiving counsel from a local church leader on this, okaying it. I don't think there would be any easy answers in such a situation.

    Her autobiography is in the family history section at the BYU library (at least it was 10 years ago when I was there), and it is a fascinating read–not just because she's my direct ancestor, but because a Pioneer woman is speaking so honestly about life living polygamy.

  28. OH, and as for me, I think being a plural wife would be a horribly devastating experience. I'm infertile, and the idea of my dh having children with another wife and me having to be right there the whole time and live with it all up front is completely intolerable. I don't know how those Old Testament women did it, but from reading the OT, we can see that with all the challenges inherent in polygamy anyway, infertility made it almost unbearable.

  29. Most of the 'polygamists' in the Old Testament were not doing it to follow God. They were doing it because it gave status and power. I don't think that is a good reference for us on how polygamy should/does work. I also think that we need to remember the lessons learned from polygamy in the OT. In Genesis ch 30, it says that "God remembered Rachel". Maybe her life wasn't easy or it wasn't turning out how she wanted but the Lord remembered her. What a testimony to us to perservere through our trials and to remember that the Lord loves us!

    And I believe we do know that polygamy will be in the Celestial Kindgom (per Justine's comment). Some were sealed in the temple. They will be sealed in the hereafter if they were faithful in this life. The Lord keeps His promises to his righteous children.

    I believe we are also told that there will be more women than men in the celestial kingdom. So many faithful women in this era will die without finding a righteous companion. I have to believe that they will have a chance to find a companion and receive all the blessings our Heavenly Father has for them.

    And I agree with Zina. I don't think we should pass such strong judgment on something we've never seen or participated in first hand.

  30. Of course the Lord remembers women going through any sort of trials, and of course there are great lessons to be learned. I'm not commenting on whether polygamy in any age was right or wrong or on how it should or shouldn't work. I just think it brings complex issues into the family relationships. Are those issues "wrong"? Maybe, maybe not. I'm not passing judgment on the institution of polygamy itself, I just think that for me it would be a trial. It would exacerbate trials I already had. Regardless of the reasons OT people lived polygamy vs. the reasons Utah pioneers lived it, there were complexities that they dealt with. Any kind of inequality or unfairness in the family would be harder to handle–whether it's one wife being able to have children when the other can't, or one wife getting along better with the husband than the other wife. With my infertility, at least my husband and I were in it together. If I had no children, he didn't either.

  31. I had an institute teacher who scoffed at the perpetuated idea that there will be more women in the celestial kingdom. More boy babies die and more men die in wars, etc… He also argued that polygamy would not be practiced in the Celetial Kingdom. He said the important thing was the sealing ordinace, not necessarily who you were sealed to. He said it would all be worked out there. Some women are even sealed to more than one man so things will probably not always align with who you were sealed to here. Also it is all based on worthiness, excetera…

    In the end I think it is pointless to speculate too much because we just don't know for sure. My hope is that it will never be recquired of me. To me it does not make sense to be in a polygamous relationship in the celestial kingdom, I mean it is supposed to be heaven, right? That is where I should be rewarded for enduring all my trials not given new ones!


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