“A Brother in the Pale-face”: White Mormons and Indigenous Polygamies

By Amanda Hendrix-Komoto

Amanda Hendrix-Komoto has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan. She is the author of “Undressing Mahana: The Development of Mormon Modesty Culture and the Display of Polynesian Bodies,” forthcoming in Out of Obscurity: Mormonism after 1945 from Oxford University Press.


When Mormons adopted polygamy in the mid-nineteenth century, many Americans and Europeans considered it a practice more appropriate for Native Americans, Turks, or Chinese than for white, middle-class Americans.1 The British traveler William Hepworth Dixon, for example, accused Mormons of learning both incest and polygamy from the Ute and other Native Americans. In the figure of the Mormon, he argued, “the Shoshone had at length found a brother in the Pale-face, and the Pawnee . . . the morals of his wigwam carried into the Saxon’s ranch.”2

Although we might assume that the practice of polygamy would have made Mormons more sympathetic towards indigenous peoples, their legacy among American Indians and Native Hawaiians in the nineteenth century was mixed. On the one hand, they were more willing than other white Americans to accept indigenous polygamies. On the other hand, white Mormons required American Indians and other indigenous peoples to be willing to submit their sexual relationships to the authority of the priesthood.

As a result of an interest in Mormon interactions with indigenous people, I have collected dozens of snippets from nineteenth-century Mormons describing their encounters with Native Americans and Polynesians. In one diary entry, Joseph F. Smith writes with disgust of a dog with “runing sores” standing over a bowl of poi.3 In another scene, Jacob Hamblin is compelled to participate in a brutal game where the prize is an Indian wife.4

Many of the items I have gathered involve polygamy. The Salt Lake Herald, for example, used the unwillingness of federal officials to arrest Indian polygamists to critique its policies against Mormons. In a 4 June 1880 article, it described Deputy Vandercook rushing to the spot where he had heard a man with two wives was appearing in public only to discover it was “Old-man-not-afraid-of-cracked-wheat” and “his two squaws and a flock of papooses.” Vandercook refused “to interfere with the Ute’s domestic relations.”5

Mormon women also occasionally wrote about Indians and polygamy. In an autobiography published in the Woman’s Exponent, Elizabeth Brotherton Pratt recalled a man named St. Clair who had two Indian wives. She described his daughter by his first wife as “well educated” and “very graceful on horseback.” Pratt had only entered into polygamy a few years earlier and would have still been adjusting to that lifestyle.6

Some Native American converts to Mormonism practiced polygamy. An Indian woman who had been adopted into Brigham Young’s household as a child married the Ute leader Kanosh. Before the death of his previous wives, the groom had practiced polygamy.7

There is evidence that the Mormon willingness to accept indigenous polygamy extended beyond the Great Basin. In 1899, a Native Hawaiian woman named Hannah Kaaepa accompanied the Utah delegation to the triennial meeting of the National Council of Women.8 Kaaepa was a devout Latter-day Saint who had emigrated from the Hawaiian Islands to Utah. Interestingly, Kaaepa’s Mormon mother, Makanoe, had been involved in a punalua relationship, in which two individuals share a single spouse.9 In the nineteenth century, few white women would have participated in this kind of relationship, much less emerged with their reputations unscathed. But Makanoe seems to have been a respected member of the Hawaiian Mormon community in Utah. When Joseph F. Smith visited Honolulu in 1899, Makanoe accompanied him.10

The Mormon acceptance of indigenous polygamy was complicated. Although white Mormons theoretically promoted polygamy, they often muted their advocacy outside of the Great Basin for political reasons. In order to gain legitimacy in Hawai‘i, for example, the Mormon Church did not officially endorse the practice of plural marriage in the islands. When John Stillman Woodbury preached there in the 1850s, he told listeners at one meeting that the practice was only “for those who wer [sic] commanded of the Lord and that we had nothing to do with it here.”11 In so doing, he distanced himself from a sexual practice that Protestant missionaries and some Native Hawaiians considered immoral.

White Mormons could also be enthusiastic about changing the domestic practices of Native Americans and Hawaiians. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, white Mormon women organized Relief Societies designed to teach Native American and Polynesian women the habits of civility. In an article on the Hawaiian Relief Society, Susa Young Gates described the work that Native Hawaiian Mormons were doing to prepare for a fair the Relief Society was hosting. She wished that the children of Utah “could come in any day now and see the black-haired, dark-skinned women and children all busily, quietly, eagerly working at mats, tidies, baby hoods and socks, crochet work for pillow-slips and clothes, [and] shoulder shawls.”12 The Thistle Valley Relief Society in Utah had a similar focus. The Woman’s Exponent reported that the Society had led to Indian women “learn[ing] to cook and wash and sew and make quite a neat and tidy appearance.”13 In another issue, the newspaper described one Indian woman as being “anxious to learn to keep house and to keep herself clean.”14 Another Indian woman was reported to have remarked that she “liked [the Mormon way of keeping house] better than her former way of doing.”15 Mormon newspapers portrayed both Polynesian and Native American women as happy to learn to live as white women did.

While white Mormons theoretically accepted indigenous polygamy, they expected it to conform to their expectations. The irony is, while the rest of the United States was trying to reform the Mormons, the Mormons were trying to reform American Indians and Native Hawaiians.




  1. See, for example, William Hepworth Dixon, White Conquest Vol. 1 (London: Spottiswoode & Co., 1876), 197.
  2. William Hepworth Dixon, New America Vol. 1 (London: Hurst & Blackett Publishers, 1867), 315. Also quoted in Dixon, White Conquest, 197.

3. 4 July 1856, Diary, 30 March–29 August 1856, Joseph F. Smith Papers, 1854–1918, Box 1, Folder 3, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.

  1. Jacob Hamblin and James Little, Jacob Hamblin, A Narrative of His Personal Experience, as a Frontiersman, Missionary to the Indians and Explorer (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News, 1909), 36–37.
  2. “Local Briefs,” The Salt Lake Herald Vol. 15, No. 308 (4 June 1885): 8.
  3. “Autobiography of Elizabeth B. Pratt,” Woman’s Exponent Vol. 19, No. 13 (15 December 1890): 102.
  4. John Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press in conjunction with the Harvard University Press, 2012), 348.
  5. “The Recent Triennial in Washington,” Young Woman’s Journal 10:5 (May 1899): 203–204.
  6. Jean Greenwell, “Doctor Philip Trousseau, Royal Physician,” The Hawaiian Journal of History Vol. 25 (1991): 126–127.
  7. “Apostle Joseph Smith: Prominent Man in Mormon Church,” The Hawaiian Star Vol. 5, No. 2086 (18 January 1899): 1.
  8. 22 May 1853, John Stillman Woodbury, Diary 1853, John Stillman Woodbury Diaries, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.
  9. Homespun [Susa Young Gates], “What the Sandwich Islands Children are Doing,” Juvenile Instructor, 23:19 (1 October 1888): 301.
  10. “Visit to Sanpete-Notes by the Way,” Woman’s Exponent Vol. 9, No. 6 (15 August 1880), 44.
  11. “Lamanite Sisters Testify,” Woman’s Exponent Vol. 9, No. 10 (15 October 1880), 75.
  12. “Lamanite Sisters Testify,” 75.