This is the sixth entry in the Third Annual Summer Book Club at Juvenile Instructor. This year we are reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism (Knopf, 2017). Check back every Sunday for the week’s installment! Please follow the book club and JI on Facebook.
Chapter Six of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females details the crossing of Iowa and depicts a people in motion, both physically and emotionally. While many histories detail the environmental and emotional challenges of the exodus from Nauvoo, Ulrich adds depth to the story of the Mormon migration and complicates our thinking about it. Like biblical sojourners, who understand that they stand at a turning point in their story, A House Full of Females describes how some diarists began new journals just before leaving the city, while other new diarists appear on the stage.
Ulrich notes that Mormon diaries share many similarities with other Oregon trail journals including records of weather and difficulties with animals. However, she also claims that the Mormon migration of 1846 was unique, highlighting the fact that Mormons leaving Nauvoo were refugees who “had a bit in common with the displaced Potawatomi and Omaha people, on whose lands they took temporary refuge once they reached the Missouri River.”(138). Chapter six fully describes the emotional and physical disorder of the Nauvoo exodus, which made it different from later waves of Mormon migration. Finally, Ulrich also points to the pressures of ideal sainthood that had mounted during the final weeks in Nauvoo, “how much they had to learn about pioneering, and how little they knew about the demands of establishing God’s kingdom.”(139). A House Full of Females paints a visceral picture of a people both moving forward and mired in mud. Men, women and children up to their waists in mud, snakes slithering out of the muck and wagons needing to be extricated from swamps all portray the challenges of a physical journey that dragged on and the need to face new emotional challenges as a radical new family structure took shape during extreme circumstances.
Ulrich deftly illustrates that the earliest Mormon migration should not be understood simply as a move west, an exodus or a displacement. It also needs to be understood as the site of changing domestic and marital identities. In the face of birth, death, disease, separation, and domestic contention, A House Full of Females tells the story of both creating and dissolving families and community. The reality of aging parents, the death of children, changing marital structure as well as conflicts about succession within the church, ubiquitous disease and the physical demands of the journey culminate in Ulrich’s conclusion of the chapter which pushes the reader beyond hagiographic depictions of the Nauvoo exodus noting that, “The Saints had struggled through the mud of Iowa only to reach a worse misery. In their would-be Zion, there was never enough of anything to go around, never enough food or shelter, never enough respect or love or charity. The harder they tried to live by the dictates of their religion, the more they exposed their own lack of perfection.”(155)