Joseph Smith/Polygamy/Children of polygamous marriages/Presendia Buell

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Joseph Smith and rumored children by polyandrous plural wife Prescindia Buell

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Question: Did Joseph Smith father children by polyandrous plural wife Prescindia Buell?

All those who have been definitively DNA tested so far—Oliver Buell, Mosiah Hancock, Zebulon Jacobs, Moroni Pratt, and Orrison Smith—have been excluded as children of Joseph Smith

Note: This wiki section was based partly on a review of G.D. Smith's Nauvoo Polygamy. As such, it focuses on that author's presentation of the data. To read the full review, follow the link. Gregory L. Smith, A review of Nauvoo Polygamy:...but we called it celestial marriage by George D. Smith. FARMS Review, Vol. 20, Issue 2. (Detailed book review)

Nauvoo Polygamy author George D. Smith tells his readers that “until decisive DNA testing of possible [Joseph] Smith descendants—daughters as well as sons—from plural wives can be accomplished, ascertaining whether Smith fathered children with any of his plural wives remains hypothetical” (pp. 228–29, cf. p. 473). This is true, but G. D. Smith fails to tell us that all those who have been definitively tested so far—Oliver Buell, Mosiah Hancock, Zebulon Jacobs, Moroni Pratt, and Orrison Smith—have been excluded. Would he have neglected, I wonder, to mention a positive DNA test?

The consequences of George D. Smith's less-than-rigorous approach to sources becomes clear in the case of Oliver Buell, son of Presendia.[1] Huntington Buell, one of Joseph’s polyandrous plural wives. Fawn Brodie was the first to suggest that Oliver Buell was Joseph’s son, and she was so convinced (based on photographic evidence)[2]Fawn Brodie to Dale Morgan, Letter, 24 March 1945, Dale Morgan papers, Marriott Library, University of Utah; cited by Todd Compton, "Fawn Brodie on Joseph Smith's Plural Wives and Polygamy: A Critical View," in Reconsidering No Man Knows My History: Fawn M. Brodie and Joseph Smith in Retrospect, ed. Newell G. Bringhurst (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1996), 166.</ref> In a footnote, G. D. Smith notes that Todd Compton “considers it improbable that Joseph and Presendia would have found time together during the brief window of opportunity after his release from prison in Missouri” (p. 80 n. 63).[3]

The geography

This slight nod toward an opposite point of view is inadequate, however. G. D. Smith does not mention and hence does not confront the strongest evidence. Compton’s argument against Joseph’s paternity does not rest just on a “narrow window” of opportunity but on the fact that Brodie seriously misread the geography required by that window. It is not merely a question of dates. Brodie would have Joseph travel west from his escape near Gallatin, Davies County, Missouri, to Far West in order to meet Lucinda, and then on to Illinois toward the east. This route would require Joseph and his companions to backtrack while fleeing from custody in the face of an active state extermination order.[4] Travel to Far West would also require them to travel near the virulently anti-Mormon area of Haun’s Mill, along Shoal Creek.[5] Yet by April 22 Joseph was in Illinois, having been slowed by traveling “off from the main road as much as possible”[6]:320-321 “both by night and by day.”[6]:327 This seems an implausible time for Joseph to be conceiving a child. Furthermore, it is evident that Far West was evacuated by other church leaders, “the committee on removal,” and not under the Prophet’s direction. Joseph did not regain the Saints until reaching Quincy, Illinois, contrary to Brodie’s misreading.[6]:315, 319, 322-23, 327 Timing is the least of the problems with G. D. Smith’s theory.

Despite Brodie’s enthusiasm, few other authors have included Oliver on their list of possible children.[7] With so many authors ranged against him, G. D. Smith ought not to act as if Compton’s analysis is merely about dates.


G. D. Smith also soft-pedals the most vital evidence—the DNA.[8] He makes no mention in the main text that Oliver’s paternity has been definitively ruled out by DNA testing. This admission is confined to a footnote, and its impact is minimized by its placement. After noting Compton’s disagreement with the main text’s suggestion that Oliver might be Joseph’s son, G. D. Smith writes, “There is no DNA connection,” and cites a Deseret News article. He immediately follows this obtuse phrasing with a return to Compton, who finds it “‘unlikely, though not impossible, that Joseph Smith was the actual father of another Buell child,’ John Hiram, Presendia’s seventh child during her marriage to Buell and born in November 1843” (p. 80 n. 63). Thus the most salient fact—that Joseph is certainly not Oliver's father—is sandwiched between a vicarious discussion with Compton about whether Oliver or John could be Joseph’s sons. Since G. D. Smith knows there is definitive evidence against Joseph’s paternity in Oliver’s case, why mention the debate at all only to hide the answer in the midst of a long endnote? That Brodie is so resoundingly rebutted on textual, historical, and genetic grounds provides a cautionary lesson in presuming that her certainty counts for much.[9]

Maybe another Buell child?

Two pages later, G. D. Smith again tells us of a Buell child being sealed to a proxy for Joseph with “wording [that] hints that it might have been Smith’s child.” “It is not clear,” he tells us, “which of her children it might have been” (p. 82). In fact, what is clear is that he has not assimilated the implications of the DNA data. John Hiram, the seventh child about whom Compton is skeptical, is the only other option. Yet the only evidence for this child belonging to Joseph is Ettie V. Smith’s account in the anti-Mormon Fifteen Years among the Mormons (1859), which claimed that Presendia said she did not know whether Joseph or her first husband was John Hiram’s father.[10] As Compton notes, such an admission is implausible, given the mores of the time.[11]

Besides being implausible, Ettie’s account gets virtually every other detail wrong—insisting that William Law, Robert Foster, and Henry Jacobs had all been sent on missions only to return to find Joseph preaching plural marriage. Ettie then has them establish the Expositor.[12] While Law and Foster were involved with the Expositor, they were not sent on missions. Jacobs had served missions but was a faithful Saint unconnected to the Expositor. He was also, contrary to Ettie’s claims, present when Joseph was sealed polyandrously to his (Jacobs’s) wife.

Even the anti-Mormon Fanny Stenhouse considered Ettie Smith to be a writer who “so mixed up fiction with what was true, that it was difficult to determine where one ended and the other began,”[13]:618 and a good example of how “the autobiographies of supposed Mormon women were [as] unreliable”[13]:x as other Gentile accounts, given her tendency to “mingl[e] facts and fiction” “in a startling and sensational manner.”[13]:xi-xii

Brodie herself makes no mention of John Hiram as a potential child, going so far as to carelessly misread Ettie Smith’s remarks as referring to Oliver, not John Hiram. No other historian has argued that Buell was not the father.[14] There is no good evidence whatever that any of Presendia’s children were Joseph’s. It is not clear why G. D. Smith clings to the idea.

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


  1. Presendia’s name is also spelled Presenda or Prescindia in contemporary documents. We here use the spelling adopted by her autobiography, also followed by Compton and G. D. Smith.
  2. Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), 301. Brodie includes the picture between 298–99. ( Index of claims ) that she wrote, “If Oliver Buell isn’t a Smith then I’m no Brimhall,” which was her mother’s name.
  3. Citing Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 670, 673. ( Index of claims )
  4. See Clark V. Johnson, “Northern Missouri,” in Historical Atlas of Mormonism, ed. S. Kent Brown, Donald Q. Cannon, and Richard H. Jackson (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 42.
  5. Compton, "Fawn Brodie on Joseph Smith's Plural Wives," 170.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957). Volume 3 link
  7. The following all fail to include Oliver Buell as a potential child of Joseph’s: Danel Bachman, “Mormon Practice of Polygamy,” 137–38; Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 43–44 and 43 n. 43; Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 157–58; Gary James Bergera, “Identifying the Earliest Mormon Polygamists, 1841–44,” Dialogue 38/3 (Fall 2005): 49–50 n. 115.
  8. Carrie A. Moore, “DNA tests rule out 2 as Smith descendants,” Deseret Morning News, (10 November 2007), off-site (accessed 2 December 2008); Ugo A. Perego et al., “Resolving the Paternities of Oliver N. Buell and Mosiah L. Hancock through DNA,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 28 (2008): 128–36. For background information, see Ugo A. Perego and Scott R. Woodward, “Reconstructing the Y-Chromosome of Joseph Smith” (paper presented at the Mormon History Association Conference, 28 May 2005); Ugo A. Perego et al., “Reconstructing the Y-Chromosome of Joseph Smith Jr.: Genealogical Applications,” Journal of Mormon History 32/2 (Summer 2005): 70–88.
  9. Elsewhere G. D. Smith actually uses an appeal to the fact that Brodie was persuaded by a tale as evidence! (p. 131).
  10. Green, Fifteen Years Among the Mormons, 34-35.
  11. Compton, “Fawn Brodie on Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives,” 166.
  12. Green, Fifteen Years, 34–35.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Mrs. T.B.H. [Fanny] Stenhouse, "Tell It All": The Story of a Life's Experience in Mormonism (Hartford, Conn.: A.D. Worthington & Company, 1875 [1874]), The footnote confirms the identity of the author as Ettie V. Smith.
  14. See Bachman, “Plural marriage,” 139; Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 43–44 and 43 n. 43; Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 157–58; Compton, “Fawn Brodie on Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives,” 167; Gary James Bergera, “Identifying the Earliest Mormon Polygamists, 1841–44,” Dialogue 38/3 (Fall 2005): 49–50 n. 115.