From the Archives: Joseph H. Dean and Joseph F. Smith on Mexico/Polygamy

By June 26, 2013

On September 24, 1890, Joseph H. Dean returned home from Samoa, where he had been serving as mission president. He returned to Salt Lake City to report on his duties to the First Presidency. After briefly speaking to Wilford Woodruff and George Q. Cannon, Dean sat down with Joseph F. Smith. Dean knew Smith from Smith’s time in the South Pacific.[1] “At his invitation,” Dean wrote in his journal, “I took supper with him, just he and I alone.”During supper, they spoke about:

“nearly every subject, among other things the advisability of my going to Mexico. The Church a ranch or rally there, where a member of the Church in good standing can settle and have all the land he can take care of. He [must][2] till the land, however, but pays a nominal [fee] for the payment of the interest in the money invested. That is so that no outsiders can get footing there and also so that an apostate could not stay there, as the laws of the state give the owners of the land the privilege of “firing” any renter that doesn’t suit them. A many can have as many wives there as he pleases so long as he only acknowledges one as such, that is, there is a tacit understanding between the church and the Mexican government, that we only practice plural marriage but must outwardly appear to have by one wife. Good land, delightful climate, and all together a desirable place to locate. I fell favorably impressed with the idea of going there.”[3]

The idea that Mexico (and Canada) would be havens for Latter-day Saints who wanted to practice polygamy wasn’t new. In the 1880s, several Latter-day Saints moved to Mexico on the advice of General Authorities (or self-preservation).[4] This set up a place for several dozen more families to relocate from Utah, Idaho, Arizona and other Mormon strongholds after the Manifesto to continue practicing plural marriage in Mexico and Canada.

Considering that Dean’s supper with President Smith came on the eve of the release of the Manifesto, Smith’s openness to polygamists moving to Mexico may shed new light on the Manifesto, or at least tell us what the First Presidency originally intended the Manifesto to be.[5]  Some Latter-day Saints, and many members of the United States government and press leaders, seemed to see the Manifesto as a press release, or a smoke and mirrors attempt to improve the Church’s image in the United States, to end the federal prosecution and financial pressure on the LDS Church.[6]  The conversation that Dean records in his journal seems to support that conclusion.[7]


[1] I’d like to thank Amanda HK for pointing out that Smith and Dean knew each other from the Pacific.

[2] Words in brackets are my best guess. They were illegible in the diary.

[3] Joseph H. Dean Journals, MS 1530, CHL.

[4] William Morley Black, Papers BYU Special Collections.

[5] Carmon Hardy’s Solemn Covenant is particularly helpful in understanding the expectations of the First Presidency and the average Latter-day Saint for Manifesto, and the confusion that the Manifesto caused inside and outside of the LDS Church. B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant, University of Illinois Press, 1992.

[6] Church leaders maintained a “don’t ask don’t tell” approach to plural marriages, maintaining an attitude that individuals could still enter into plural marriage, but without public pronouncement or approval. This changed with the Second Manifesto in 1905.  See Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon apostle. University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

[7] I believe this conclusion, but I realize that this is ONE conversation with ONE member of the First Presidency. This also doesn’t take into account what the Manifesto became in the collective memory of Latter-day Saints.

Article filed under From the Archives


  1. J, a great find! And one that helps to make the picture a little clearer.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — June 27, 2013 @ 9:46 am

  2. Joey, do you know if Dean was a polygamist at the time?

    Comment by Amanda HK — June 27, 2013 @ 10:07 am

  3. Amanda, I’m checking my notes, but I’m 99% sure that he was. He spent time in prison in 1886 before going to the South Pacific as a mission president.

    Comment by J Stuart — June 27, 2013 @ 10:21 am

  4. Interesting… I ask partially because I don’t remember his wife Florence mentioning them on her journal but I’ll have to check.

    Comment by Amanda HK — June 27, 2013 @ 10:32 am

  5. I’m pretty sure Florence was his second wife, but I’ll have to check.

    Comment by Hunter — June 27, 2013 @ 11:31 am

  6. I just found a family-created website on Joseph H. Dean. Florence was his second wife, and I also checked my notes on the diary. There’s nothing on another wife, but it’s possible that I missed it because I didn’t know her name. I just find it interesting that from her diary I couldn’t tell at the time if Dean was monogamous or polygamous. Her diary reads as though their marriage is just between the two of them.

    Comment by Amanda — June 27, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

  7. Amanda: You said:

    [Florence’s] diary reads as though their marriage is just between the two of them.

    That’s fascinating! I could be wrong, but I don’t think there was ever a substantial period of time when Florence lived with the other wives. If I recall correctly, I believe that Florence spent large periods of time alone (with Joseph living in another state at times), or living solely with Joseph. So, it would make sense why the other wives didn’t figure in Florence’s day-to-day diary writing. Still, the thought of her writing her diary and conveying the sense that their marriage is just between the two of them is bittersweet to me.

    J Stuart: You said that one possible conclusion to draw from JFS’s conversation with Dean about the possibility of moving to a polygamy-friendly place such as Mexico–on the eve of the Manifesto’s issuance–is that some people (both within and without the Church) may have believed that the Manifesto was just a press release designed to improve the Church’s image and end the federal pressure. Maybe. To me, the conversation mostly evidences an understanding that the Church wouldn’t be able to sanction the practice of polygamy in the United States anymore, and that heading to Mexico was a way to continue to practice it. (A troubling conclusion to some, no doubt.) But what I don’t think the conversation reveals is whether JFS is supportive of continuing to live the doctrine (i.e., possibly taking on new wives), or whether he was merely suggesting one venue for living in peace with ones existing wives. I don’t know. I guess I just don’t think JFS’ suggestion to flee to Mexico somehow means that the First Presidency, et al, viewed the Manifesto as merely a serious P.R. effort. Thoughts?

    Comment by Hunter — June 27, 2013 @ 3:55 pm

  8. Hunter: I appreciate your thoughts. I don’t think that our thinking is too far apart. I should say that I don’t think that the Manifesto was just a press release. But I think that in the short term, it was certainly a motivation for the Manifesto. George Q. Cannon reportedly wanted a Manifesto drafted in the 1880s to take pressure off of the Church. Mexico was definitely seen as a place where polygamy could be continued, a place where it could be practiced faithfully.

    BUT, Woodruff sent out 1000 copies of the Manifesto to government leaders before General Conference. So, there’s that too.

    Comment by J Stuart — June 28, 2013 @ 10:02 am

  9. Florence was his plural wife, and they hadn’t been married too long (three years maybe?) during the time her diary covers, 1887-88. She mentions in her diary about the death of one of his children by the first wife. If I remember correctly, she herself had lost a baby within a few months before they went to Laie in the fall of 1885, and she had a baby (Jasper, I think), born in Samoa. When you know the backstory, it’s a very poignant diary.

    On the question of Mexico and the Manifesto, I don’t think it has to be either/or. I think there was just a lot of uncertainty and ambivalence. There may have been some who viewed it as political expediency and not necessarily the last word, but there is plenty of evidence that people at the time did see it as a momentous break. I think there was still some sense that maybe another way would be opened, perhaps through revelation and divine intervention, and perhaps the effort to colonize in Mexico could be looked at from that angle.

    In fact, I’ve always wondered how much Joseph Smith’s statement about his seeing the Lord when he was 85 (see D&C 130) may have played into the atmosphere at the time of the Manifesto–which occurred two months before JS would have been 85. Was there a wave (or hiccup) of millennial expectations at the time? Did this play into the Manifesto in any way? I don’t remember Hardy talking about this.

    Comment by LisaT — June 28, 2013 @ 10:17 am

  10. Lisa, thanks for the additional information about Florence. She mentions the death of her daughter (August 14th entry) very quickly. I think Thomas Alexander deals with the surge in millennial expectations in his biography of Woodruff.

    Comment by Amanda — June 28, 2013 @ 10:23 am

  11. Thanks for your follow up, J. Intriguing . . .

    Comment by Hunter — June 28, 2013 @ 10:25 am

  12. P.S. Who are all you people who know so much about Joseph H. Dean and Florence Ridges Dean? J Stuart posts a little snippet from Joseph’s diary, and all this discussion bubbles up. Wow! I guess that’s to say that I’m amazed at the breadth and depth of knowledge here at JI.

    (I only know about them because I’m a GG-grandson and their stories floated around the extended family a bit while growing up. My familial connection aside, I can say objectively that they both led truly fascinating lives.)

    Comment by Hunter — June 28, 2013 @ 10:44 am

  13. Hunter, I’m glad you found the link. I’d love to speak with you about Joseph Dean sometime.

    Lisa T, there’s an article in JMH on millennialism i. 1890. One day, I’d like to write a more in depth article. BH Roberts and an apostle discuss it earlier in the October Conference. There’s definitely some millennialism in the air, including, as Amanda points out, from Wilford Woodruff.

    Also Lisa T, thanks for succinctly and eloquently summarizing my feelings as well. There’s not enough info from major players in the Manifesto, JFS or GQC to make a totally informed decision.

    Comment by J Stuart — June 28, 2013 @ 11:56 am


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