Saturday, February 26, 2011

Elvira Annie Cowles

Relief Society Treasurer
Elvira Annie Cowles ("Holmes Smith)

Nineteen women gathered together in the upper story of Joseph Smith’s red brick store on March 17, 1842, and met for the first time as the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo-an organization that now numbers some 4 million women worldwide. Among them were Emma Smith, the strong-willed and beloved wife of the prophet; the poetess Eliza Snow who would become the dominant woman leader in Utah Mormonism; and Sarah Kimball, in whose home the idea of a Relief Society was first brainstormed. When the time came to appoint a treasurer, Emma turned to a quiet, gentle, trustworthy friend: Elvira Cowles, the twenty-eight-year-old daughter of Nauvoo stake presidency counselor Austin Cowles. Elvira had been living as a maid and nanny in the Smith house-hold, so Emma knew her well.
Unlike Eliza Snow and Emma Smith, Elvira lived the rest of her life in undramatic obscurity, a welcome relief amid the stark tragedies surrounding most of Smith's other wives. Her life was quiet, prosaic, and comparatively uneventful. The marriage to Smith in June 1843 was polyandrous, as she had exchanged vows with Jonathan Holmes just half a year earlier.
The Smith-Holmes sealing shows clearly how Smith, in his polyandry, most often married women whose "first husbands" were faithful Latter-day Saints. Jonathan had long been a loyal disciple of Smith and was one of the pallbearers at his funeral. After the martyrdom Elvira's and Jonathan's marriage endured, though Elvira was sealed to the prophet for eternity in the Nauvoo temple. The Holmeses eventually settled in Farmington, Utah, where Elvira raised a family of daughters who carried on her polygamous heritage in a unique way.
 There are no extant holographs from Elvira, so our sense of her personality is not as vivid as we would like. However, she appears occasionally in the journals of her friends Eliza Snow and Patty Sessions, and family traditions flesh out the contours of her life. It is clear that everyone remembered this schoolteacher and expert weaver with great warmth and affection.

Elvira was born on November 23, 1813, in Unadilla, Otsego County, New York twenty-five miles northeast of Binghamton, the first child of twenty-one-year-old Austin Cowles, from Vermont, and a twenty-eight-year-old New York native, Phoebe Wilbur. Austin, who had lost an eye at an early age, was a schoolteacher, minister, clerk, wheel wright, and small farmer. Elvira's first three siblings, Louisa W., Sophia, and Alonzo, were born in 1817, 1818, and 1819 in Unadilla. Unfortunately Alonzo died at birth and Sophia died at the age of two.
By late 1820 the Cowleses had moved to Bolivar, Alleghany, New York (forty miles southeast of Buffalo), for another daughter, Mary Ann, was born there on December 31. They were among the earliest settlers of the town. According to family traditions, Austin taught winter term at a new school house and "became a regularly ordained Methodist Episcopal Minister." He rode as a circuit preacher and conducted the first religious service in Bolivar-in a barn. Clearly he was well educated and took religion seriously, as his later prominence in Mormonism suggests. By 1825 he was an inspector of common schools and a town clerk at Bolivar, as well as joint-owner of a saw mill.
More children soon joined the Cowles family Leonard was born on November 28, 1822, then died two days later. Cynthia Fletcher and Huldah Jane followed in 1824 and 1825, though apparently Huldah died early. The loss of so many children must have been difficult for the Cowleses (Phoebe had lost four of eight children), but now an even greater catastrophe struck: Phoebe herself died on May 1, 1826, when Elvira was twelve. How she dealt with this tragedy is not known, but she must have shouldered much of the responsibility of raising the younger Cowles children as she entered her teenage years.
About a year and a half later, on October 21, 1827, Austin remarried, taking as his new wife Irena Hix Elliott, nineteen, only five years older than Elvira. She would bear Austin six more children. According to family tradition, Irena was a good stepmother and "taught her children that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong." So Elvira would grow up partially with a stepmother, then become one herself in later years. Irena's first child, Wesley Fletcher, was born on March 19, 1829, in Bolivar. So much for Elvira's family background. Her father was devout, intelligent, and capable. She experienced the loss of siblings and her mother at an early age, then helped a stepmother raise the younger children.  Of her young womanhood, we only know that she became a school teacher at an early age.

Soon after April 6, 1830, the official date of Mormonism's founding most of the Cowles family converted. However, unlike many earlv Mormons, Austin did not immediately gather to Ohio or Missouri Elvira was in the middle of her teenage years in 1830 and would not be baptized until October 19, 1835, when she was twenty-two. By 1836 the Cowleses had moved to a different town, Amity, still in Allegheny County, New York, where David Croydon Cowles was born on October 13,1836 According to Elvira's obituary, she came to Kirtland in 1836, probably with her family, but we know very little about her stay there. In Ohio she would have met Joseph Smith for the first time, and she would have met the young women who would become her sister-wives, the Huntington sisters, Eliza Snow, Marinda Hyde, and Agnes Coolbrith Smith. Dogged by financial suits and the opposition of dissenters, the Saints soon left Kirtland for Missouri. On March 13,1838, Austin was present at a meeting of Seventies in the Kirtland temple, and it was decided that they (the Seventies) should move to "Zion" (Missouri) as a company. Austin signed the constitution of rules for the move, listing a household of nine persons. Jonathan Holmes, Elvira's future husband, also signed it, listing a household of three. Presumably they were both Seventies, a missionary calling.

To Adam-ondi-Ahman
If Austin traveled with this company, as is probable, his family assembled south of the temple on July 5 with the rest of the group and departed the next day. By September 6 they had reached Terre Haute, Indiana. On arriving at Huntsville, in Randolph County, east central Missouri, Elvira's company was met by anti-Mormons trying to prevent them from traveling farther. But they pushed on, and on October 2 came to Far West, then continued to Adam-ondi-Ahman (where, according to Mormon legend, Adam lived) and pitched their tents there on October 4, after having accomplished a journey of some 700 miles. As they camped, "one of the brethren living in the place proclaimed with a loud voice": "Brethren, your long and tedious journey is now ended; you are now on the public square of Adam-ondi-Ahman. This is the place where Adam blessed his Posterity, when they rose up and called him Michael, the Prince, the Archangel, and he being full of the Holy Ghost predicted what should befall his posterity to the latest generation." So the travelers mixed the day today rigors of practical pioneering with visionary mysticism. Unfortunately, however, the Cowles family's stay in Zion would be brief.
The immigrating party found Missouri virtually in a state of war with mob militia threatening the Mormons on every side. On the 24th The battle of Crooked River was fought, and soon thereafter Governor Boggs issued his extermination order and the Hauns Mill Massacre  took place.  Most Mormons, probably including the Cowles clan, traveled to Illinois in the early months of 1839- The obituary tells us that in the fall Elvira arrived at Nauvoo, perhaps after a stay of some months in Quincy.

"Elvira Would Tell Stories"
In Nauvoo the Mormon social structure began to stabilize once more, and Austin quickly distinguished himself as a politician and leader. On February 3, 1841, he was elected to the Nauvoo City Council as Supervisor of Streets, and on March 9 he and Joseph Smith had a friendly dispute over the bestowal of the Holy Ghost after baptism. Then William Marks, president of Nauvoo Stake, selected Austin as his first counselor on the 29th. As the apostolic office was not then as important as it now is, the office of counselor in the stake presidency was equivalent to that of a modern general authority. Austin attended high council meetings, where he shows up frequently in the minutes.
Elvira, now twenty-seven, would thus gain some visibility as the daughter of a prominent church leader. She lived in Joseph Smith's household for a time, as did many of Smith's wives. According to her obituary, "in the spring following [i.e., spring 1840] [she] became a member of the family of the Prophet Joseph Smith, where she remained a happy inmate" until her marriage to Holmes. Thus Elvira became a close friend of Emma Smith and a friend of the other leading women of Nauvoo, including such future Smith wives as Eliza R. Snow and Eliza and Emily Partridge.
Living with the Smiths also brought an important male into Elvira's life when, in late 1840, Joseph Smith welcomed an old friend, Jonathan Holmes, into his household. Jonathan worked as a handyman and served as one of Smith's bodyguards. A shoemaker by profession, he had been born in Rowley, Essex, Massachusetts, on March 11, 1806. Baptized a Mormon in 1832, he gathered to Kirtland two years later where, according to his obituary, he "made his home with the Prophet Joseph Smith, and was much beloved by the Prophet and all others who knew him He remained with Joseph and was married [to Marietta Carter] at his house, April 13, 1837." The couple had two children-Sarah Elizabeth, born on January 24,1838, and Mary Emma, born on May 25,1840. Jonathan then endured a double calamity as Marietta died on August 20, and Mary Emma passed away less than a month later on September 10. According to family traditions, these deaths resulted from a mob driving Marietta out of her cabin in Missouri.

Evidently Elvira was given charge of Sarah and though she a little suspected at first, another key relationship in her life had begun. Sarah in later life, had vivid memories of her childhood tort, Sara with Joseph and Emma, Elvira and Eliza Snow According to the family biography, "The evenings that Sarah liked best were the ones she and Elvira Cowles would be left at home to care for the family while Sister Smith & Eliza R. Snow would be out caring for & visiting the sick.  The colored cook always had extra lunches & Elvira would tell stories and they would all play games." This reference shows that Elvira was warm and approachable, unlike the intellectual, austere Eliza Snow.  Jonathan and Elvira must have started courting at this time.
Elvira's residence with the Smiths extended from 1840 to 1842 spring 1842 the Nauvoo Ward listing shows "Alvira Cowles" living in the Smith household along with the Partridge sisters and Desdemona Fullmer. At this same time, as we have seen, Elvira was one of twenty women attending the first meeting of the Relief Society, where she was selected to be the treasurer. She is not mentioned frequently in the society's minutes, but one can imagine her coming to every meeting and faithfully receiving and guarding contributions to this charitable group.  She was not outgoing or charismatic, but, rather, was quiet, trusted, and valued. Emma used Elvira as a messenger on August 14 when she sent her to invite Eliza Snow, recently married to Joseph Smith, into the Smith household.

Two Streams, Mingling
By September 18 Elvira and Jonathan Holmes were engaged, for Eliza
Snow wrote a poem to them that appears in her diary on that day:
Conjugal, To Jonathan & Elvira.
Like two streams, whose gentle forces
Mingling, in one current blend-
like two waves, whose onward courses
To the ocean's bosom tend-
Like two rays that kiss each other
In the presence of the sun-
like two drops that run together
And forever are but one,
May your mutual vows be plighted-
May your hearts, no longer twain
And your spirits be united
In an everlasting chain.

They were married on December 1, with Joseph Smith himself preformed the ceremony. The marriage notice reads ‘For the Wasp'. MARRIED
In this city on Thursday evening Dec. 1st by President Joseph Smith, Elder Jonathan H. Holmes, to Miss Elvira A. Cowles. The following lines were presented to Mr. and Mrs. Holmes, on the day after the nuptials, BY MISS E. R. SNOW. Like two streams ... etc .- Elvira would now raise Sarah Elizabeth, four and a half years old; Elvira the stepdaughter had become a stepmother. Her friendship for Eliza Snow is shown once again when Eliza, after leaving the Smith home on February || 1843, moved in with Elvira and Jonathan.

According to an affidavit she signed in Utah in 1869, Elvira was sealed to Joseph Smith on June 1, 1843, in Heber C. Kimball's house, with Heber officiating and Vilate Kimball and Eliza Partridge standing as witnesses. Though it is impossible to know for certain, the fact that Holmes was so close to Joseph Smith suggests that he knew of Smith's marriage to his wife and permitted it. By this interpretation, if he was not present at the marriage, he was probably told of it by Joseph and Elvira.
He later stood as proxy for Smith as Elvira married the prophet for eternity in the Nauvoo temple, which shows that he certainly knew of her polyandrous marriage by that time. This "first husband" never wavered in his loyalty to the Mormon leader. But Elvira's father did, and it is possible that her polyandrous marriage to Smith helped bring about Austin Cowles's disaffection. Even if he had not been told of the sealing, rumors of polygamy were rife in Nauvoo, and he would surely have heard his own daughter's name mentioned. One wonders if he confronted Elvira or her secret husband directly. As so often, the limited documentation for Nauvoo polygamy only leaves us with more questions.
Elvira reported to the Relief Society on her stewardship as treasurer on June 16: "Sec. E. A. Holmes, then rose-said she was not altogether prepared to give a full and correct statement of the Receipts and Expenditures of the Society but would make a statement so soon as she could see Mrs. Smith and adjust some unsettled accounts-suffice it to say about 500 dollars have been reed and nearly 400 expended during the first year of the Society-much good had been done and the hearts of many made to rejoice." This is the closest thing we have to a first-person document from Elvira.
On June 29 the gathering of Smith's plural wives that has been referred to earlier took place, as Elvira, with Eliza Snow, Elizabeth Whitney and Elizabeth Durfee, rode to Cornelius Lott's farm in the country.
Perhaps to counsel teenaged Melissa Lott on her upcoming marriage to Joseph. The July 7 Relief Society minutes show how Elvira held money and dealt with the poor. "Sis. Lyons said when the poor come to Sis. W. and sis. Holmes, if they can not supply them, send them to orders to  her- Coun. W. said it is the counsel of Prest. E. Smith to keep accounts of small donations, when the sisters are call'd upon at their homes to assist from time to time; and bring such accounts to the Treasure.

“Outspoken and Energetic in His Opposition"
In early 1843 Austin apparently did some missionary work in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, but he soon returned to Nauvoo and played an important role when a storm of opposition confronted Joseph Smith in the summer. On Jury 16 Smith preached, denouncing internal traitors, and Willard Richards, writing to Brigham Young, guessed that the church president was referring to William Marks, Austin Cowles, and Parley P. Pratt. These men-the Nauvoo Stake president, his first counselor, and an eloquent apostle-would be a serious obstacle to Smith, despite his charismatic authority and ecclesiastical position, especially when one considers the dominance of central stake leadership in early Mormonism, Soon William Law, a counselor in the First Presidency, would be another formidable opponent.
Their opposition became public when Hyrum Smith read the revelation on polygamy, presently LDS Doctrine and Covenants 132, to the Nauvoo High Council on August 12. Three of the leading brethren opposed it: William Marks, Austin Cowles, and Leonard Soby. Considering the secrecy of polygamy, it is remarkable that Hyrum would announce it even to the high council. It is also remarkable that Marks, Cowles, and Soby would openly reject it. This was a watershed moment in Latter-day Saint history.
Undoubtedly Austin soon saw that he could not function as a church leader while he and Marks were opposing one of Joseph Smith's revelations so bluntly and completely. On September 12, according to the high council minutes, "President Austin Cowles resigned his seat in the Council as Councillor to President Marks which was accepted by the Council." Ebenezer Robinson later wrote that Austin "was far more outspoken and energetic in his opposition to that doctrine [polygamy] than almost any other man in Nauvoo." After resigning his presidency, he "was looked upon as a seceder, and no longer a Prominent place in the Church, although morally and religiously speaking he was one of the best men in the place." Mormons in the main body of the church viewed him less sympathetically.
Toward the end of April 1844, the anti-polygamy dissenters began organizing a new church. William Law was appointed president and selected Austin Cowles as his first counselor. Not surprisingly, Austin was cut off from the main LDS church for apostasy soon thereafter, on May 18. He then helped write the fateful first and only issue of the Nauvoo Expositor, the paper which so infuriated Smith with its criticisms of him and public discussion of polygamy. It appeared on June 7, with antipolygamy affidavit by Cowles on the second page.  They destruction of the Expositor press, engineered by Smith, set off a chain of events that led to his martyrdom.
Ironically Jonathan Holmes helped destroy the Expositor, so father, in-law and son-in-law found themselves on different sides of the fray. We can only guess how Elvira reacted to her father s militant anti-polygamy stance and his departure from the church. She loved her father, yet loved the church, Joseph Smith, and Jonathan at the same time, which would have created a difficult and painful situation.

Whistled Out of Town
On June 27 Joseph Smith was killed and Elvira was (partly) widowed. Once again we see how close Holmes was to Joseph, as he served as one of the prophet's pallbearers in the funeral. So Elvira's husband honored Smith, while her father had helped precipitate his death. Elvira's last half-sibling, Martha Maria Cowles, was born on October 3 in Hampton, Rock-Island, Illinois, some sixty miles north of Nauvoo, a town that became a stronghold of the dissenters. Seven months later Hosea Stout's journal provides a vivid description of Mormon dislike of Cowles, now known as an influential "apostate." On April 27, 1845, Stout and his wife attended an open-air preaching meeting in Nauvoo. "Old Father Cowles one of Law's apostates was there, a company of boys assembled to whistle him out of Town but I prevented them. I came home and in the evening went to police, on my way was informed that the old man had been whistled out immediately after meeting. I met police & came home before dark." The Whittling and Whistling Brigade was a group of Mormon men who would whistle and brandish knives at unwanted visitors-a practice that added physical threat to ecclesiastical excommunication.
Of Austin's later life, we are told that "he moved about from place to place but never found complete contentment although he kept his family around him." Indeed, he lived in Burlington, Iowa; Hampton, Illinois Kirtland; Sycamore, Illinois; and Fulton City, Illinois, where he managed a grocery store for years. He was appointed president of the high priests quorum in Sidney Rigdon's church in April 1845, but by 1849 had joined the “Brewsterites," a Mormon splinter group. He soon left them also and finally moved Pleasant, Decatur, Iowa, in 1854, where he operated a grist and sawmill.  There he was associated closely with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, preached in their meetings, and investigated spiritualism seriously. He died on January 15 1872, in Hamilton Township, Decatur County Elvira wrote of him “After spending a long life in making the world better an example of all who knew him with charity for all and malice toward none, his tall form was  laid to rest in the old homestead (probably at Pleasanton, Decatur, Co.  Illinois). His wife, Irena, laid by his side. Two simple slabs mark their resting place. These lines are cut in the slab at his head: He choose virtue as his sweetest guide; lived as a Christian and as a Christian died.”
Elvira's love and admiration for her father, despite his rejection of Joseph Smith and polygamy, did not waver. Early Mormon historiogranhv generally demonizes such men as Cowles who separated from the Utah church. But Elvira's epitaph, supported by Ebenezer Robinson's evaluation of his character, shows him in a more sympathetic light. A man of intelligence and sincere religious conviction, a major church leader, he nevertheless profoundly disagreed with Smith's polygamy and polyandry, and his honesty required him to openly oppose him rather than to leave the church. Some expressed their loyalty to Mormonism by following Smith without questioning, while Austin expressed his loyalty to the faith by rejecting polygamy and dissenting. So he ended up closely associated with the Reorganized Latter Day Saint church-which ironically denied that Smith ever practiced polygamy.

“But They Were Not Alone"
A July 6, 1845, diary reference by Apostle Willard Richards shows Elvira once again in the upper echelons of Mormon society: "Sister Holmes spent the P.M. with Jennetta [Richards's wife]." Elvira bore her first child, Lucy Elvira Holmes, in Nauvoo on October 11. On December 23 Jonathan and Elvira received their endowments together in the Nauvoo temple. A month later, on February 3, 1846, she was sealed to Joseph Smith for eternity in the temple, with Jonathan standing as proxy for Smith, then was sealed to Jonathan for time. This left Jonathan without his own eternal companion. However, on the same day Jonathan was sealed to his deceased wife, Marietta Carter, for eternity, with Elvira standing proxy. Thus Jonathan and Elvira, like Helen Kimball and Horace Whitney, would go through life together, sharing each other's earthly burdens, sealed for time only, Elvira bearing Jonathan's earthly children. But they both believed that in the eternities they would be sealed to different people and that Jonathan's children by Elvira would belong to Smith. One wonders what the psychological dynamics of such a paradoxical union might have been. Nevertheless, to the best of our knowledge, the marriage was stable and happy.
Mormons were once again preparing for a mass migration and Jonathan and Elvira, with Sarah Elizabeth and little Lucy Elvira must have left Nauvoo with the body of Latter-day Saints soon after their proxy marriages. According to family tradition, their wagon was pulled by a mismatched ox-and-cow team, to which they entrusted all of their possessions.
They arrived at Council Bluffs around July 1, 1846, after a journey across Iowa that undoubtedly was rainy, muddy, and uncomfortable However, at Winter Quarters they would soon be separated, for Jonathan joined the Mormon Battalion and departed for the Far West on
July 16. Elvira, left alone with two children, spent a harsh winter living in a "log room" that had only blankets for doors and windows. Though she endured the typical hardships of Winter Quarters life, she once again spent time with prominent Mormon women and undoubtedly shared many a blessing meeting with Eliza Snow, Zina Young, Louisa Beaman, and other wives of Smith, Young, and Kimball. In September 1846, when Eliza was gravely ill, Elvira helped nurse her back to health. Meanwhile Jonathan and the battalion arrived at San Diego, California on January 29, 1847.
Like so many women at Winters Quarters, Elvira lost a child-little Lucy Elvira, nearly two years old-on June 1, 1847. The next day Eliza Partridge Lyman helped her mourn, writing in her diary, "Received an invitation from Sister Holmes to come and spend the day with her which
I accepted. Visited with her the grave of her child." Less than two weeks later, when Elvira was still grieving, on approximately June 12, she, with nine-year-old Sarah Elizabeth, set out on the overland journey to Utah in Jedediah Grant's company. Family tradition holds that she "walked and drove her own ox and cow team the entire way across the plains." Eliza Snow, also in the Grant company, mentioned Elvira on July 11 in our only explicit testimony that Elvira participated in the gifts of the spirit: "Sis. Holmes called to see me in the eve, & spoke in the gift of tongues.
We are said to be 180 ms. from W. Quarters." On July 19 Eliza "took supper with sis. Holmes-had a good season in sis. Love's tent... Here the South Fork unites with the main Platte." The poetess ate dinner with Elvira again on August 7, and a week later she paid her a social visit. The next day Elvira took part in one of the blessing meetings that so uplifted the sisters on the overland journey. "I go to moth. Chase's," wrote Eliza, "sis. H. calls while we are having a rich treat from on high." Two family anecdotes illustrate the dangers and hardships of a woman traveling alone as a pioneer. Once Elvira's wagon was suddenly surrounded by a herd of stampeding buffalo: "As they rushed along she drew little Sarah close to her, spoke firmly and assuringly to her team, and waved her hand at the wild beasts." When they passed her by without causing any damage, "her fervent prayer" was answered. The second incident was precipitated by Elvira's cow losing a shoe a major crisis on the trail.
She reported this to her captain, who advised her to walk back ten miles to the following company, which had a blacksmith.  So Elvira undertook this dangerous journey alone, then walked back to her wagon accompanied by the smith, adding an extra twenty miles to her day’s trek. 
Family traditions add a haunting detail, an evocation of sisterhood and motherhood extending beyond death: “ But they were not alone,  The spirit of Marietta Carter, now freed from earthly limitations, shared their wagon and walked by their side.  She was their advocate and ambassador in the kingdom of heaven.”

"Wolf Meat, Sego and Thistle Roots"
Elvira arrived in Salt Lake City on October 2, 1847. There she lived with Sarah in the Old Fort and experienced all the privations and hard ships of the early Salt Lake settlers. A family history records that "She taught the first school that was taught in what was called the Old Fort, and took wolf meat, sego and thistle roots for pay." According to her obituary, she often shared her scanty supplies with those who were more hungry than she was.
After Jonathan was discharged on June 16, he traveled northward to Sacramento and Sutter's Mill and made shoes in the area during the winter. On July 2, 1848, a group of forty-six battalion veterans departed for Salt Lake and Jonathan soon replaced the murdered Daniel Browett as leader of the company. With no road or guide, these men blazed a trail across the Sierras that was later used by thousands of travelers to California (the Carson Pass). In October they reached the Salt Lake Valley, and the small Holmes family was re united after their individual overland odysseys. Now Elvira would have a companion to help her support Sarah, and the Holmes family could begin to grow again.
On December 23 Patty Sessions and possibly Eliza Snow came to Elvira’s dwelling "to celibrate Joseph Smiths birthday," as Patty wrote. As we have seen, Smith's widows would frequently meet on his birthday or the day of his death to remember their prophet husband. Patty also visited Elvira on February 24,1849, and Eliza Partridge frequently stopped at the Holmes residence. On April 18 she wrote, "Called on Sister Holmes in the evening. We are spinning some candle wick which we shall try to sell for bread stuff.  She recorded an apparent blessing meeting at the Holmes recidence on May 2: "Went to the Fort and visited at Sister Holmes with Sister Fuller and E. R. Snow. Had quite a rain with high cold wind.” On June 27 Elvira hosted a meeting of Smith wives, recorded by Patty Sessions.  "Visited at sister Holmes with Sister E R Snow and Love and many others it being 5 years this day since the Prophets were martyred.”
Elvira’s second child, Marietta Holmes names after Jonathan’s first wife was born at the Old Fort on July 17.  Patty Sessions delievered: ”Put Sister Holmes to bed with a daughter born 6 AM." On September 13 Patty wrote, “I must go and see sister Holmes babe it is sick. Fortunately Marietta recovered.
Weaver Soon after this, probably in May or June, the Holmes family moved
to Farmington, ten miles north of Salt Lake City, where they built a "two story rock building" and worked a small farm, producing and selling butter and cheese. The Holmes dairy operation is attested by an entry in the Eliza Partridge journal: "Sister Caroline and I are weaving for Sister Elvira Holmes, to pay for butter, cheese and flour." Elvira also was a weaver.
According to her daughter, Phebe, "She was a weaver by occupation and in her time she wove all kinds of weaves, from bed counterpanes to men's wear, women's out and underwear, table linen, towels and gingham for aprons. My father raised sheep and flax from which she made cloth, thread and head- and footwear." At times Elvira returned to her old profession of schoolteaching in Farmington.
The Holmeses were active in local church activities. When the Relief Society was organized in Farmington, Elvira was one of its first teachers Jonathan, who continued shoemaking as well as farming, was a longtime member of the Davis Stake High Council.
Another daughter, Phebe Louisa, was born on February 5, 1851. The 1851 census shows the Holmes family as follows: Elvira thirty-seven; Sarah thirteen; Mariette one; Phebe one month. Two more daughters followed—Josephine Octavia Ann Holmes on July 8, 1854, and Emma Lucinda, Elvira's last child, on February 1, 1856. Elvira was forty-two at the time of Emma's birth, Sarah was seventeen, Marietta seven, Phebe five, and Josephine nearly two. Elvira and Jonathan had no sons, but they adopted a boy, John Hendricks, who kept his own name. According to family biography, Elvira's daughters herded sheep and helped to shear them: "They learned carding, spinning, weaving, and sewing." Phebe and Emma followed another of their mother's professions, becoming teachers. In 1857 Josephine died at the age of three, so Elvira endured the ordeal of losing a child one more time. She became a plural wife once again on November 29, 1862, when Jonathan, fifty-five, married Sarah Ingersoll Harvey Floyd, a forty-five year old widow. There are no family traditions documenting the relationship between the two sister-wives.
Elvira and Jonathan made frequent visits to Salt Lake proper and therefore continue to appear in Patty Sessions* diary. In February 1859 Jonathan bought peaches from Patty and trimmed her trees for weeks following. Eliza Snow, Zina Young, and Zina's children visited Farmington on May 21 and, wrote Zina. “took dinner with Johnathan
Holmes old acquaintance." Elvira visited Patty on August 1, 1863 and staved overnight at her house. Two days later there was another gathering of Smith widows. Patty wrote, "I went with sister Holmes to Prs B Youngs visited sisters. Margaret & Snow and Zina then to Sister Cob and Chase I then came home.”  Elvira was now fifty.

New Generation of Plurality
The rest of Elvira's life is to a great degree bound up with the lives of her children.  Her stepdaughter and her own daughters married polygamously, though in a somewhat surprising fashion, in contrast to some of the polygamous wives studied in this book, they were all apparently happy in their marriages. The Holmes daughters give a striking view of polygamy creating or cementing sisterhood in a familial context.
On January 7, 1855, Elvira's step-daughter, Sarah Elizabeth, married Miles Weaver, who was already married to another Sarah, Sarah Clark. The two wives were playfully called the "White Sarah" and "Black Sarah" in the neighborhood because of their complexions. Unfortunately Miles died on December 7, and (according to family tradition) his brother, Franklin Weaver, was advised by Brigham Young to marry Miles's two widows. However, he was reluctant because he had promised his first wife, Cristinna Reed, that he would not ask her to live polygamously. Soon Franklin was assigned to help settle Millville, Cache Valley, north of Ogden. As he and his family prepared to go, one day he came home to find Cristinna in tears. Having no idea why she was weeping, he tried to console her, but was surprised when she blurted out, "I will go to Cache Valley with you if you will marry those girls and take them, too."
The monogamous wife could not bear to be separated from her sisters-in-law. So on May 9,1856, Franklin married the two Sarahs in a precise Levitate marriage, and the newly enlarged family went north to help settle Millville. This is a notable inversion of the classic polygamy story in which the husband marries without the first wife's knowledge, leaving her emotionally devastated and feeling displaced when she learns about the marriage. Cristinna, in contrast, was upset when Franklin was not going to take his sisters-in-law as plural wives. Of course, these women were not stangers, which probably made a great deal of difference, and Franklin had been honest with Cristinna and concerned for her feelings.
On May 12,1866, when Elvira was fifty-two, her first biological child grew to maturity, Marietta, aged sixteen, married Job Welling, an Engish convert and tailor and a widower with two small children, Willard and Annie.  So Elvira's daughter followed another Cowles tradition and became a stepmother.  Marietta and Job would add eight children to the Welling family.  Four years later, on December 21, 1868. two of Elvira’s daughters became polygamous wives at the same time, when Phebe, age seventeen, married Job Welling in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City.  They returned home the same night to join a dancing party at Farmington.  Family history reports: “As the surprising news leaked out they became special guests, or at least claimed special attention and congratulations.” Phebe would also bear eight children to Job.

"Kind Wife and Affectionate Mother"
At some point in the following year, Elvira became sick with "exposure' (apparently tuberculosis), and soon the family realized that she was dying. At this moment we arc reminded once again of the importance a marriage to Joseph Smith had to Mormons of this era. According to family traditions, "During her last sickness her husband... in humility and sorrow at [the] thought of her passing, asked her what reports she would give to the Prophet Joseph. She replied, Only the best report.
You have always been a kind and devoted husband and father."' Joseph’s wives were often seen as otherworldly intermediaries to their prophet husband.
According to her obituary, Elvira "retained the full strength of her mind to the last, and continued to bear a powerful testimony to those around her to the truth of the plan of salvation, and gently fell asleep in a sure and certain hope of a glorious resurrection." She died on March 10,1871, in Farmington, at age fifty-seven. Cause of death was given as "Consumption" (tuberculosis). She was buried in the Farmington cemetery two days later. An obituary provides a fitting tribute: "Faith, hope, and charity were the chief traits of her character through life... She has ever proved herself a kind wife, affectionate mother, and a generous, kind-hearted neighbor."

“My Own Dear M. P. E."
Elvira's story, proper, is over, but two familial loose ends should be tied up here. On April 28,1875, at age nineteen, Emma Lucinda, Elvira's last child, joined her sisters in the family of Job Welling. "Tradition has it that her sisters used loving persuasion to encourage her to accept... Welling's] proposal of marriage ... Lucinda gave up her ambition for teaching and turned her interest to matrimony." Welling was called to go on a mission to Great Britain soon after this third marriage and addressed his letters home to "My own dear M. P. E. [Marietta, Phebe, Emma)." Once again polygamy was used by women to promote ties of (here, literal) sisterhood. Emma bore Job five children to add to Marietta's and Phebe's sixteen.
Jonathan passed away on August 18, 1880, nine years after Elvira’s death- Apostle Wilford Woodruff, an old friend, traveled to Centerville to speak at the funeral. When he visited the Holmes household, he wrote, "I found his [wife] in deep mourning of his death.” Elvira Jonathan, and Sarah Harvey now lie together in the Farmington cemetery.

Elvira and Polygamy
The life of Elvira Holmes Smith, though she was a quiet women derdocumented and unheralded, has considerable significance.  First, her marriages to Jonathan Holmes and Joseph Smith provide another case study in polyandry, showing how devoted to Joseph Smith a “first husband" could be. Jonathan was a faithful Mormon, served as a bodyguard to Smith, acted as his pallbearer, stood as proxy when Elvira was sealed to Smith in the Nauvoo temple, then begged for Elvira's good report to the prophet on her deathbed. These data are all consistent with the theory that first husbands in polyandrous triangles may have known of Smith's marriages to their wives and permitted them.
Second, Elvira's story stands out from those of most of Smith's other wives because of its mostly peaceful, idyllic tenor. She did lose two of her five children, but she nevertheless had a full motherhood, raising three daughters, a step-daughter, and a foster-son. The lives of Louisa Beaman, Presendia Huntington, Helen Mar Kimball, and the Sessions women, all of whom lost a majority of their children, provide a striking contrast. And unlike many of the women in this book, Elvira's experiences with polygamy were not traumatic, as far as is known. She lived in a monogamous marriage for many years, and when Jonathan did become a polygamist, he married only one middle-aged plural wife. He probably was not required to take more wives because he was not a general authority-or possibly his church advancement was hindered because he was reluctant to take plural wives. So Elvira's marriage experience was radically different from that of Smith's widows who married Brigham Young or Heber Kimball, who shared their husband and his resources with twenty to thirty other women, counting only connubial wives. However, Elvira, married to a non-polygamist who became a very limited polygamist, did not achieve the status of an Eliza Snow Smith or Zina Huntington Young in the woman's movement in Mormonism. Polygamy, for women as for men, was a road to status, practically speaking.
Finally, the story of Elvira's daughters gives a remarkable view of women seeking polygamy to increase bonds of sisterhood. Cristinna Reed Weaver used polygamy to strengthen her ties with two sisters-in-law, one of whom was Sarah Holmes Weaver, while Elvira's three daughters followed the same course to preserve their actual, biological sisterhood.  Polygamy often produced deep-seated tensions between sister-wives, but the story of Elvira Cowles Holmes and her daughters highlights the bonding, warm side of the feminine experience in polygamy.


  1. Elvira is my husband's 3rd great grandmother through Phebe. We really appreciate all the work put into her biography. Thank You!

    1. I want to say I took this from a book about the plural wives of Joseph Smith. It was so detailed. She was one amazing lady.

    2. I want to say I took this from a book about the plural wives of Joseph Smith. It was so detailed. She was one amazing lady.