Documents and a House Full of Females

Primary sources like journals and diaries are the backbone of a lot of historic research.  In a recent interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Ulrich discussed some of the documents she used and how she used them while writing A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835–1870.  What follows here is a copost to that interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).

Close readings and use of primary source material is central to Ulrich’s work.  As she noted in the interview, A House Full of Females is a bit like a quilt:

Nineteenth-century quilts were often made by stitching together small fragments of fabric. My book is also built from fragments, day-by-day accounts found in diaries, letters, autograph albums, poems, and minutes of meetings.

I privileged records created in the heat of events, not because I consider those records more truthful than later recollections but because I wanted to understand how people behaved when they had no idea how things were going to turn out.

I treasured every scrap of women’s writing I could find, even using the dated squares on an actual quilt as one of my sources, but I also found important material in the diaries of several men, including Wilford Woodruff, whose consistent daily diaries provided a kind of sashing to hold my story squares together.

In fact, it was one of those sources that inspired the book in the first place: “I became totally entranced by the diary of Wilford Woodruff and saw new possibilities for doing another book based on close reading of diaries.”  That became the basis of A House Full of Females, which discusses “plural marriage and female authority within the church”.

While Woodruff’s journal was the initial inspiration, Ulrich made a lot of use of women’s writings in the book.  Women’s writings can be a difficult thing to find sometimes, though.  As Ulrich explained when she was asked about Phoebe Woodruff’s writings:

She might have kept a diary, but if so, it did not survive. Fortunately, a rich cache of her letters did survive.

The absence of women’s records is not unusual. As I noted in the introduction, one of Eliza Snow’s diaries almost ended up in a bonfire. And one of Zina D. H. Young’s diaries was discovered inside the wall of a cabin owned by descendants—and another in a locked trunk that no one opened for years.

Men’s words mattered to the formal institution in the way they continue to matter to the institutional church today. …

I thank Jill Derr, Maureen Ursenbach, and the many scholars who have worked with them over the years to develop an amazing archive of documents that could so easily have been lost.

I don’t think people realize that women’s affairs were not really considered part of the Church’s mission to keep records during the early years. That may have been a good thing, but it also met that without a corps of stronger leaders much of what we know about the church’s female founders might have been lost.

One of the more significant set of diaries mentioned were those of Zina D. H. Young:

Zina kept a diary in the period shortly after Joseph Smith’s death that provides insight into the chaos and fears, general and personal, that characterized that period.

It also offers some insight—though oblique—about her relationship with Henry Jacobs. She apparently believed that her loyalty to Joseph Smith required her to leave Henry and join Brigham Young’s large household.

But this is pretty cryptic.

The diary is moving in part because it is so subtle and restrained. It does a disservice to Zina to focus on the oft-told story about her relationship with Henry, which sometimes paints her as a victim (of Joseph? of God?).

References in Caroline Crosby’s diary to Henry’s behavior in California suggest he was a bit flaky. He did write to Zina trying to reconnect.

These stories—especially as embellished in later retellings—would make a romance novel. But I suspect there is a lot we do not know. …

The Utah diaries that survive are incredibly fragile. I think I described that as being “lace-like” from water and perhaps insect damage. Some pages are unreadable.

The primary sources that were used in writing A House Full of Females are both fascinating and revealing in working to understand the lives of women in the 19th-century Church.

As a final point, the interview concluded with the question: “How might our understanding of Church history change if we were more versed in original sources?”  To this question, Ulrich responded that:

I think careful readers might begin to see both the remarkable complexity and the human fragility of early Latter-day Saints. They might also become more sophisticated readers of secondary historical writing (including my own).

Understanding that complexity and being able to approach histories with more sophisticated reading is helpful in getting to the heart of matters.

For more on documents and A House Full of Females, head on over to read the interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.  It’s one of my favourite interviews yet, to be honest, and there is a lot more there than I’ve been able to discuss here (including some discussion of the William Clayton diaries).