Preface to The Second Wife’s Story (a biography)
There is a sign hanging in my mother’s laundry room. It says, “On this site in 1897 nothing happened.” But who knows if that’s actually true? Who’s to say nothing happened on that site. Right there. You know, on that very spot right next to the washing machine? If there’s no evidence of schoolchildren following a path to an old schoolhouse just down the road, a young woman milking cows, an old farmer stooping to clear a clogged ditch, or a native woman searching for firewood to warm her hearth, who’s to say nothing actually happened right there, on that very spot? If something did not happen on that very site next to my mother’s washer in 1897, I’m betting that there were a whole lot of somethings going on not too far away, and every time I see that silly sign in Mom’s laundry room, I wonder exactly what those somethings were.
Of course, I might be exaggerating a little, but the first log cabin was built in the area in 1877, so something could have happened there. Mom’s bathroom memorial makes me think. We post memorials for all sorts of historical events–things like battles, negotiations, inventions, catastrophes, births of historical figures, and of course, deaths (to name a few). Those memorials can tell us a lot. And although I could probably visit the local museum to find out if anything happened in the general vicinity of my mother’s bathroom sink in 1897, I could also look for memorials in the cemetery.
I love cemeteries. In fact, I still need to get myself that bumper sticker with the warning, “Caution, I brake for Cemeteries.” In 1997, when Utah was celebrating it’s sesquicentennial of the arrival of the Brigham Young and his followers, someone at the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints came up with a reason to make me love cemeteries even more: A plaque to adorn every tombstone belonging to Utah pioneers who came before the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. I was raised in Utah as a member of that church. I wasn’t born there, and I had absolutely no pioneer ancestors, but I still remember the stories of courage, struggle, heartache and triumph that accompanied the many families who crossed the American plains mostly by foot. It was an unfathomable journey taking about three months. I tried it last summer by car with my daughter and granddaughter from Kentucky to Utah. It took us four days. Of course, it was a round-trip ride, which meant a total of eight days in an air conditioned car. By the time we arrived back home, we discovered that we’d picked up stowaways in the form of bed bugs along the way. I am in no hurry to try that trip again any time soon.
But I digress.
The metal plaque, emblazoned with the phrase, “Faith in every footstep,” soon began appearing on tombstones throughout the state. By 2001, the pioneer plaques had been placed on nearly every known pioneer tombstone. By that time, my interest in graveyards had fully matured, and the histories known, and the mysteries unknown, called to me like ghosts in a romantic novel. So when I stepped into the Cemetery in Plain City Utah, I was hoping those ghosts would lead me to a story.
And they did.
Inscriptions on tombstones are not usually put there to make you laugh (even though some do); they are there to make you think. The family memorial I found that day left me thinking for years. Names and dates are inscribed on all four sides of the tombstone. I could tell just by looking at birth dates, that this was the grave site of pioneer settlers, but that’s not what got me thinking. It was the birth and death dates accompanying nine other names. All children. In the Fall of 1870, and into January of the next year, eight of those children died. Now I knew there had been an epidemic of some sort. I could see that there was a mystery begging to be solved.
I was in college on that initial visit, and a single mom at that. I didn’t have time to look for clues and answers, but that story stuck with me enough that I knew I had to write about it. I used an essay assignment from one of my English classes as an excuse to put my conjectures into writing. The essay won second place in a department contest at Weber State University, and I kept it over the years.
When I finished school and became an empty-nester, I finally started digging for the tombstone’s story. My first foray came up with some answers–enough to help me see that I could easily build a history around that grave marker. I went back to Plain City and took pictures of all four sides of the tombstone. What I found, shocked me. On the backside of the tombstone are the names of three of the children who died during the epidemic, and one more who was born and died in the following years. It wasn’t those children that surprised me, though. It was the inscription I had missed in my first visit at the bottom of the back side of the tombstone, “Children of William and Mary Skeen.” I stepped back around to the front and looked at the bottom. It said, “Children of William and Caroline Skeen.” There were two different mothers and one father. This was a polygamous family.
I grew up in Utah, and I am very familiar with polygamy, even though I have no Utah Pioneer roots. Many Utah pioneers practiced polygamy, and I had friends who were descendants of polygamous marriages. There was even a handful of families in my neighborhood who still practiced it, even though it was disavowed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the late 18th century and church members who currently enter into such unions are excommunicated. Today, they call themselves Fundamentalist Mormons. Knowing what I know about Utah and polygamy, I can’t pass judgment on the pioneer families who still practice it despite laws and church condemnation. I’ve seen happy children and wives who claim to share equally in marital bliss. Neither am I blind to the fact that some sects have taken the practice much too far by forcing children into unwanted marriages. It’s because of that second marriage that I decided to focus on Mary Davis, the second wife of William Dolby Skeen.
I’ve lived outside of Utah for most of the time since I started my research, but that hasn’t stopped me. Thanks to the internet, I have access to nearly everything I need to complete my research. Sometimes I think I have too much, and that I will need to pare down the story before it gets too unwieldy. It has become interesting to me that I could build a compelling biography of an utter stranger without ever having met her or having any access to written memoirs.
I nearly missed Mary, tucked away as she was at the bottom of the backside of the monument. When I found her, I realized that her story is far more important than the location on the tombstone suggests. At a first glance, it’s easy to think nothing happened here. But from surrounding names, places, and dates, I could see that something had happened, and that little name tucked away in the corner had been there and played an integral role in the town’s history. It’s not her death that’s important, it’s her life. I don’t want Mary Davis Skeen to be forgotten, and I feel compelled to commit her to the memory of others who would never have known her otherwise. We are surrounded on a daily basis by people living what they feel are ordinary and unremarkable lives, but if we make an effort to get to know them, we can learn valuable lessons and come to see them as crucial members of our community. Mary’s tale unfolds in bits and pieces. Like a patchwork quilt, it is colorful, warm and inviting. Her story includes heartache, tragedy and tribulation along with faith, perseverance and promise. While Mary’s story reminds us that happily ever after never happens, it also tells us that happy endings do.