JI Summer Book Club: A House Full of Females Chapter 13

By September 3, 2017

This is the thirteenthentry 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.

In Chapter 13, “What a life of wandering,” Laurel Ulrich takes the story of Utah’s women to the Mormon outpost community of San Bernardino, California.  Central to this chapter is the diary of Caroline Barnes Crosby, who first traveled with her husband, Jonathan, as missionaries to the island of Tubuai, together with Caroline’s more well-known sister, Louisa Barnes Pratt, and her husband, Addison.  After 18 months in the South Pacific, the two couples returned to the San Bernardino Mission for two years.  Ulrich uses Caroline’s reflection of her life as a “wanderer” as a theme to consider the shifts that Mormonism was experiencing during the turbulent years of 1856 and 1857.  “A traveler knew where she was going. A pioneer settled. A wanderer lived in uncertainty.” (313)

Significantly, Caroline Barnes Crosby was one of the few women in Ulrich’s cohort of A House Full of Females who was NOT a polygamist.  The fact becomes important as Laurel summarizes, “Caroline’s diary offers a useful counterpoint to those kept by polygamous wives.  When combined with a series of letters between Caroline’s niece Ellen Pratt and a friend living as a plural wife in Salt Lake City, it creates a dialogue between two marriage systems.” Indeed, “Caroline’s description of her own efforts to care for other people’s children, and the hearing stories that other women told her, allow us to see monogamy in conversation with polygamy during a time of crisis for both Utah and California Saints.” (p. 315)  Indeed, just as the Church was experiencing the zeal of the Reformation in 1857 that encouraged its members toward more polygamous practice, Caroline and her niece, Ellen (daughter of Louisa and Addison), remained steadfastly monogamous.  San Bernardino even became a kind of refuge for those members who struggled with and even rejected the doctrine of plurality.  These “wanderers” against polygamy pushed against the fabric of the Mormon theology that was forming back in Utah.

San Bernardino served as a crossroads for many wanderers in the American West, positioned as it was along the Old Spanish Trail, on El Cajon Pass and the site of a large Mexican rancho, and within a 60-mile proximity to the Mission San Gabriel and the Pueblo of Los Angeles.  Mormons encountered the area through the activities of the Mormon Battalion, and as an end settlement on the Mormon Corridor between 1851 and 1857.   I often tell my students that early westerners were always “running into each other,” following the same migratory routes that humans had followed for thousands of years, facilitating serendipitous encounters between individuals and groups along those highways. Caroline found herself on one of these crossroads, and her diary provided a window to the comings and goings of Mormons and gentiles, white Americans, Indians, Mexicans, slaves and freedmen, and others.  She even ran into “Mr. Bidaman from Nauvoo,” who arrived in California to partake of the gold rush (unsuccessfully). Many Mormons came and went along the Corridor, some even seeking San Bernardino specifically for its distance from Salt Lake City and the possibility to escape the controlling arm of Brigham Young.

Indeed, San Bernadino attracted Mormons on the edges, even those disaffected and departing.  Caroline felt the strain of core vs periphery belonging, insider-outsider tensions, and the challenges of diasporic belonging.  She confessed, “I hear many complain that they cannot, or do not, enjoy as much of the Spirit of God here as they did at headquarters, but where the fault lies is difficult to determine.  Perhaps it is reasonable that we should not, as we are certainly deprived of many privileges which are there enjoyed.  But if I am capable of judging there are many good kind people here, who apparently enjoy the Holy Spirit.”  (p. 321) Caroline’s narrative invites us to think about how religious communities are built and how individual spiritual commitment is often very dependent upon group support. Lacking the community pressure, Caroline, Louisa, Louisa’s daughter, Ellen, and other San Bernardino women did not feel the same expectation to commit to polygamy as did their sisters in the center of Reformation fervor back in Utah.  In fact, anyone who considered polygamy, Caroline remembered, was “threatened” by the “opposers.”

In San Bernardino, Mormon women were mostly kept far away from the intimate connections of the Relief Societies that were a carryover from their Nauvoo beginnings, and which began to define Utah women’s charitable and religious work in the Mormon capital. In spite of this distance, Caroline maintained a strong connective thread to her sisters in Utah, especially through epistolary community that helped forge a kind of vicarious Relief Society.  When Caroline received a letter from Eliza R. Snow, it “added another layer of identification with the Church. It not only ‘cheered and comforted’ her heart, but gave her some renown among their friends.  One day, a neighbor came to Caroline’s house to hear a letter from Eliza read.  Then she and Caroline carried the letter to a gathering at the Pratt house, where Louise and half a dozen women ‘thought it quite a pleasure to hear from our beloved poetess.’” (p. 321) In this way, Mormon women also managed to “run into each other” in this distant outpost of Mormon gathering.  Receipt of the Deseret News also fostered that community spirit, access to the context and messaging of community that was coming from Salt Lake. Even the Reformation of 1856-57 touched San Bernardino through this transmission of fervor, via the printed speeches and challenges to recommitment by church leaders that came in letters and the news.

Caroline formed her own personal Relief Society, in her “efforts to care for other people’s children,” (p. 315), and found herself managing the troubles of San Bernardino Mormon society in other ways:  caring for the children of an alcoholic mother; harboring women who separated or fled from neglectful and abusive husbands, testifying in divorce cases, and assisting with members’ return migration back to Salt Lake City.  And with that role, she was creating her own system of female spiritual empowerment.  She and Jonathan even “jointly laid their hands on [one woman’s] head for a healing blessing.”  (p. 326)  Caroline’s diary was a witness to the external pressures and internal fracturing of Mormon society.

Caroline was also known for taking in native children in various situations. In this, like most Mormons of her generation, she was a contradiction between being capable of physical racial inclusion in her home, and mental racial exclusion in her beliefs.  When encountering people of color, Caroline marked their presence with note, but not alarm, suggesting the normalcy of diverse peoples coming together in western communities, while not protesting or challenging their discriminated status. Caroline’s experiences showed how the Saints could simultaneously encounter different peoples, and accept and live with that diversity as standard community interaction, while also accepting and promoting the racist assumptions that defined those relationships.

In the end, San Bernardino failed to achieve success as a micro-community of Mormonism.  Caroline’s departure for Salt Lake City after two years in San Bernadino, occurred as the Saints were called home amidst tensions with the federal government and internal tensions over plural marriage.  Caroline’s journey as a “wanderer,” as well as questions of race, sexuality, and plurality, brought her full circle back to the core of Mormon community.  These, like Caroline herself, became symbolic “wanderers” within Mormonism, still following and plaguing Mormon group identity, even today.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Gender Polygamy Race Summer Book Club


  1. Beautiful! I really enjoyed this chapter. It brought some balance between the two groups of women. Remarkable that they wrote letters to one another and those letters have survived. Our good fortune to hear their stories.

    Comment by Mary lou — September 3, 2017 @ 7:50 pm

  2. I lent out my book before I got to this chapter, and it sounds like I’m really missing out. The distinction between pioneer and traveler on the one hand and wanderer on the other sounds like a really fruitful and interesting one!

    Comment by Saskia — September 3, 2017 @ 9:49 pm

  3. […] view of the domestic life of San Bernardino. The steady flow of names in Crosby’s diary, as Andrea R-M discussed in her post yesterday, shows us how San Bernardino became a key part of the migratory route for Mormons and non-Mormons […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » JI Summer Book Club: A House Full of Females Chapter 14 — September 4, 2017 @ 10:25 am

  4. Thanks, Andrea. I like how you contextualize Caroline’s experience in San Bernadino within the West as a place of convergence. I thought this was an interesting counterpart to my chapter in terms of differing racial interactions. Well done.

    Comment by David G. — September 4, 2017 @ 11:10 am


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