Women’s History Month at the JI: Thoughts on Elizabeth Kane (Smith)

By March 26, 2013

By Alex D. Smith

“To be burned unread if I die, unless Tom cares to read it. No one else. Mind! I will haunt any one who does!

  1. D. K.

I have waited with eager anticipation for Elizabeth Dennistoun Kane to fulfill this threat inscribed on the first page her 1860 diary. Elizabeth, if you are listening, at your convenience.

I appreciate the opportunity to participate in the Juvenile Instructor’s Mormon women’s history month by giving brief and informal tribute to a woman and friend whom I greatly respect and who has shaped my understanding of the value of personal record-keeping. My unabashed objective with the space below is to encourage the reading of Elizabeth’s published papers, rather than to convey information about her.

When asked to recommend a book on Mormon history or even just history in general to an interested uninitiated reader, among my first choices are always Elizabeth Kane’s Twelve Mormon Homes or A Gentile’s Account of Life in Utah’s Dixie. Either of these books–the former a series of accounts about Elizabeth’s winter 1872­­-1873 trip with her husband and two sons from Salt Lake City to St. George, published during her lifetime by her father, and the latter a more recent transcription of her journal during the months staying in St. George on the same trip–are sure to engage any reader. A non-Mormon with sympathies toward the church far less developed than her husband’s, Elizabeth is at once a careful observer, sensitive interviewer, and a capable (sometimes profound) writer.

In her more famous Twelve Mormon Homes, Elizabeth describes the homes of families of members of the church she stayed with while on the journey south from Salt Lake to St. George. Traveling in company with Brigham Young and others, Elizabeth’s narrative of the trip contains descriptions of the prophet not found elsewhere, including anecdotes about Young inspecting the company’s carriages each morning wearing sealskin boots and a “hideous pair of green goggles”[1] and recounting his humorous interactions with Pahvant chief Kanosh, and providing Elizabeth’s own theories explaining the power of Young’s leadership over saints in the satellite settlements:

When we reached the end of a day’s journey, after taking off our outer garments and washing off the dust, it was the custom of our party to assemble before the fire in the sitting-room, and the leading “brothers and sisters” of the settlement would come in to pay their respects. . . . At these informal audiences, reports, complaints, and petitions were made; and I think I gathered more of the actual working of Mormonism by listening to them than from any other source. They talked away to Brigham Young about every conceivable matter, from the fluxing of an ore to the advantages of a Navajo bit, and expected him to remember every child in every cotter’s family. And he really seemed to do so, and to be at home, and be rightfully deemed infallible on every subject. I think he must make fewer mistakes than most popes, from his being in such constant intercourse with his people. I noticed that he never seemed uninterested, but gave an unforced attention to the person addressing him, which suggested a mind free from care. I used to fancy that he wasted a great deal of power in this way; but I soon saw that he was accumulating it.[2]

Elizabeth’s lesser known journal from the months spent in St. George is, if anything, even more enlightening. As a non-Mormon, but with close access to Young and local church leaders, Elizabeth was uniquely situated to provide a perspective on aspects of early Mormon life–most notably plural marriage–that are as foreign to Mormon readers today as they were to her. While her journals include valuable insights into many areas of the St. George experience, from irrigation to the United Order (at a conference in the tabernacle devoted to the latter, Elizabeth writes, “I don’t understand myself exactly what is contemplated by the leaders, nor do the sheep of the flock, apparently, but they seem willing to follow in the direction indicated”[3]), the real strength of her account lies in her interviews with Mormon women. During the trip to Utah Territory, at Brigham Young’s recommendation and ostensibly for her husband’s health, Elizabeth stayed in the homes of a number of women involved in plural marriage relationships, and her questioning of them about the practice was seemingly as direct and dauntless as it was respectful. The record resulting from these exchanges, including such important topics as the relationships between wives in shared discipline of children, adds a piece to the puzzle of our understanding of Utah polygamy.

Elizabeth’s preconceptions of the Mormons prior to her trip to the West had been colored by her indignance at what she considered the derogatory coupling of her husband and Mormonism by her Philadelphia society. As a result of close interaction with the saints on this journey, her attitude toward the saints underwent a significant transformation which is honestly and touchingly revealed in her journal. Toward the end of her stay in St. George, Elizabeth wrote a note to her daughter Harriet, who had remained back East: “You will not understand how I have come to pity this people; for you know how hard it was for me to make up my mind to come among them and associate with them, even for the sake of benefiting Fathers health by this climate. I have written to you as a sort of penance for the hard thoughts and contemptuous opinions I have myself instilled of you.”[4] Earlier she wrote, “If I had entries in this diary to make again, they would be written in a kindlier spirit.”[5]

The concluding words of Elizabeth’s St. George journal are a more eloquent testimony to the power of her narrative than anything I might say:

On my return to Salt Lake City I spent a week or so at the Lion House, a step which I took as a public testimony to the little circle of those to whom my name is known, that my opinion of the Mormon women had so changed during the winter that I was willing to eat salt with them.

It would probably be more interesting to my father should I describe that household than any other in Utah. I am the only “Gentile woman” to whom every door within the walls was set freely open, and who was invited to the most familiar intercourse with Brigham Young’s wives and children. Yet that very fact seals my lips. I was not there as a newspaper correspondent, but as the wife of an honored and trusted friend of the head of the household. The members of that family have already suffered enough from the prying curiosity of strangers. . . .

The Mormon battle-ground is no longer in the Salt Lake Valley.

I found the best men and women, the most earnest in their belief, the most self-denying and “primitive Christian” in their behaviour clad in the homespun garments of the remote settlements.

It will all pass away soon enough, unless Persecution befriends them by making the young pass through the same purifying fires their elders traversed, burning out the impure and unsound in faith. Such industry as the Mormon religion inculcates, with such simple habits as prevail among the “Saints of the old Rock,” will too soon bring corrupting Wealth.

No use for us to “put down the Mormons.” The World, the Flesh, and the Devil sap earnestness soon enough.

“And I for one shall say, Alas!”[6]

[1] Elizabeth Wood Kane, Twelve Mormon Homes Visited in Succession on a Journey through Utah to Arizona. Tanner Trust Fund, University of Utah Library, Salt Lake City, UT: 1974, p. 5. Young’s hideous green riding glasses may be seen on display in the Presidents of the Church exhibit in the LDS Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, though sadly with less colorful language on the identifying label.

[2] Ibid., 101.

[3] Norman R. Bowen, ed., A Gentile’s Account of Life in Utah’s Dixie, 1872-73: Elizabeth Kane’s St. George Journal. Tanner Trust Fund, University of Utah Library, Salt Lake City, UT: 1995, pp. 155-156.

[4] Ibid., 170.

[5] Ibid., 168.

[6] Ibid., 177-179.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Cultural History From the Archives Women's History


  1. Well, you’ve succeeded in your mission, Alex. Your post has indeed made me want to read her journal. Nicely done. But I question your cavalier encouragement to Elizabeth to haunt you. She sounds like a woman of spirit (no pun intended). If she does haunt you, you will have come by your just deserts. 🙂

    Comment by Mandy — March 26, 2013 @ 11:50 am

  2. Thanks Mandy. A visitation from Elizabeth could get a little dicey, particularly if the curious parenthetical “Smith” at the end of the post’s title is not some JI editorial convention denoting authorship, but rather a reference to a later marriage by Elizabeth. My wife might object.

    Comment by Alex S. — March 26, 2013 @ 12:04 pm

  3. This is wonderful Alex. I think BY’s green sunglasses are my favorite thing currently displayed at the History Museum.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 26, 2013 @ 12:27 pm

  4. Thanks J. I too prefer those glasses–even over the John Taylor watch that didn’t stop a bullet.

    Comment by Alex S. — March 26, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

  5. Fantastic stuff, Alex. I read her Twelve Mormon Homes as part of a Harvard seminar I sat in on that Laurel Ulrich was teaching, and she did wonders in showing how the texts helps recreate social life in 1870s Utah. Now you have me anxious to read the diary!

    One could say she serves as the Tocqueville of Deseret.

    Comment by Ben P — March 26, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

  6. Excellen post. I must now read Twelve Mormon Homes and the diary.

    Comment by Natalie R — March 26, 2013 @ 9:47 pm

  7. Thanks Ben and Natalie. Ben, your comparison to Tocqueville is apt–I may steal that.

    Comment by Alex S. — March 27, 2013 @ 8:19 am


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