Polygamy and “Extra Women”

The idea that polygamy helped provide spouses for a surplus of women who had joined the Church is an old one, as is its purported refutation. However, the refutations I read were based on Census data and didn’t seem super rigorous since 1) censuses include children born in the Church, and 2) not everybody in a Utah Census is LDS. 

To get a clearer picture of converts to the Church, I wrote a program that scraped the helpful Overland Pioneer Database and created a spreadsheet of names, ages, and what year they traveled. (While I’ve posted the code, fortunately/unfortunately the overland database was very recently merged into the Church History Biographical Database, so the code is already out of date).

I then calculated percent female of adults for each cohort. In the aggregate it looks like post-Utah War (with one outlier year) there are slightly more women among those who are 18+ and for whom we have a solid year of migration.

A few surprises: 

  1. I thought that female converts might decline relative to men after the Church went public with polygamy, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. Matter of fact, the number of women relative to men increased after the Church “came out of the closet” as polygamist. Obviously then, to stop the hemorrhaging of women the Church needs to reinstate polygamy (relax ProgMos, I’m kidding).  
  2. However, men are overrepresented among those with an unknown age. While women are about 51% of people with clear ages, they are only 35% of people with unknown ages, which was surprising to me as I assumed there’d be more men with recorded ages because of priesthood records, I’ll let gender historians figure that one out.

Overall, it looks like there were about as many women as men. However, this isn’t a nail in the coffin of the “surplus women” idea since Daynes found some evidence that there were more religious women in pioneer-era Utah, so in a religiously bounded marriage market there may have been more available women than men. Also, this should not be interpreted to mean that polygamy did not lead to a higher number of women being married. Just because there is technically about one woman for every man does not mean that every woman finds a match (as many in the US dating pool can attest to today), and the presence of polygyny tightens up the marriage market for women, since virtually every woman who wants to get married (or often, remarried) can. 


12 comments for “Polygamy and “Extra Women”

  1. One factor that could be large enough to affect your data is that very, very often men appear in the overland travel database more than once, because they were members of overland companies in multiple years. Those who returned East to serve proselyting missions, or special political assignments, or to aid immigration (not the down-and-back men, usually, but the emigration agents who aided those arriving on ships, or who purchased wagons and cattle and organized companies on the western frontier) or who were merchants, or who otherwise returned East and repeatedly “emigrated,” were almost exclusively men — so the numbers of unique male arrivals might actually be significantly lower than they appear.

    I don’t know a better proxy to suggest, though, and I’ll always cheer for the creative thinking that led you to work this out. Bravo!

  2. Coming from you that means a lot, so thank you!

    Yes, the fact that some people had multiple companies listed broke an earlier version of my scraper, so I modified it so that it only recorded the first company listed, assuming that subsequent companies were the back-and-forth for missions and such that you describe. I also dropped any duplicate entries that had identical names, companies, ages, and genders to help with the repeat record issue; however, I’m also aware that sometime people will be counted twice under slightly different numbers and identifiers, so there is that. Word on the street is that this database is a work in progress, so hopefully in the next decade or so it will be solid enough to really do a strong, book-length treatment on the demography of the early Saints.

  3. Stephen, one other consideration (i.e., divorce or abandonment) is shown in the story of your great great grandmother, Elizabeth Crook Panting Wilkes Cranney, who came across on the Willie Handcart Company. In 1858 she married William Wilkes and had two children by him. (She had other children in England by her wife-beating, drunkard husband.) But William Wilkes I’ve been told abandoned her to go the the California gold rush. She then became a wife to Hyrum K. Cranney, having seven children with him, including your great grandfather in 1867. So, once married not always married.

  4. Thanks for sharing this analysis. I wanted to double check the figures. So I put together cohorts for Utah with the decennial census at NHIGS. I agree with you that most cohorts were gender balanced in 1860. But the youngest marriage-eligible group in Utah in 1860 contained some imbalance. Among those ages 5-19 in 1850, there were 2,047 males and 2,029 females. For that same group ten years later (ages 15-29 in 1860), there were 4,579 males and 4,924 females. Within this cohort, that is a net increase of 2,532 males and 2,895 females. I then checked the Church History Biographical Database and used a few filters to determine there were 9,093 female Pioneers born between 1841 and 1845 (the same as the cohort who was ages 15-19 in 1860) and 8,645 male Pioneers born those same years. These data sources have some problems, as cited above, but the general agreement between them suggests there could have been 350 to 450 more LDS females than males who were ages 15-29 in Utah in 1860. Do we have data to determine whether the excess females in this age group disproportionately ended up in polygamous marriages?

  5. Oops, I meant to say I searched the CHBD for those born between 1831 and 1845. But I think I got the rest of the figures right.

  6. @ Dad. Interesting, I knew about the first husband but didn’t know about the second one!. If remarriage wasn’t such a convenient option with polygamy there’s a good chance we wouldn’t have been born!

    @sterling. Fascinating. The cohort you chose is undoubtedly a mix of sex ratios at births and immigrations. While my analysis was based on who was coming out west (differential conversions), you bring up another relevant point which my dad also brought up: differential apostasy (interestingly, apostasy is an actual term used in the social sciences, so it’s not necessarily pejorative). Some of that gap may be due to people leaving for the gold mines, like my ancestor’s second husband. Kathryn Dayne’s finding that there were many fewer men who received their endowments also supports the idea that they left the Church at higher rates, so functionally there may have been “extra women” in the religiously bounded marriage market.

    In terms of connecting sex ratios among cohorts to different odds of entering polygamy, the last big book to do in-depth demographic analysis of polygamy was published in 1991 (Bean’s Fertility Change on the American Frontier). In theory the Utah Population Database has the data needed to be able to do that kind of analysis, but as far as I can tell they generally only let medical researchers use that data nowadays, and since historical demographers don’t get the multi-million dollar research grants that cancer researchers (rightfully!) do, it will probably remain that way for the foreseeable future.

  7. You mention age and priesthood records — one thing to keep in mind is that priesthood offices were not really associated with age until late in the 19th century, so in contrast to today, there wouldn’t necessarily be an inherent reason to include age on priesthood records during the heyday of the overland migration.

  8. @Stephen C: I see what you are saying about the Gold Rush pulling some men away from Utah. I’ll just note briefly a smaller opposite trend concerning some older men in Utah. Among the people who were 30-39 in 1850 and 40-49 in 1860, the census reports there were 154 more men than women (1,433 women vs. 1,587 men, or almost an 11% excess of males in 1860). And in the CHBD, among pioneers born 1820-1829, there are 4,310 males and 4,113 females, or an excess of almost 200 males. The agreement between these two sources likely indicates that the initial pioneers to Utah skewed male and the later pioneers skewed female.

    Thanks for the insights about the Utah Population Database. I saw a presentation at SSHA 2021 about 20th century childhood mortality in Utah that made use of the database. I googled the presenters today and they all work at the University of Utah and most of them have ties to the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the database. So it looks like you are right about who does and does not get access to that data.

  9. @Michael H: Good point, I’ve never even seen a 19th century priesthood record, I was just trying to think of structural reasons for why one sex might show up more than the other.

    @Sterling: I do wonder how much of this is natural variation in sex ratios. If you cut the pieces up small enough you’ll obviously find variation, and I wonder if “overfitting,” or reading too much into the noise, is a problem, but maybe not.

    As far as the UPD, they are piggy backing off of Latter-day Saint genealogical work, so you would think they’d be more open about letting historians of the Latter-day Saint movement use their data.

  10. My first hunch as to why the immigration data would show more men at the beginning, but then trending to more women would be that it’s possible that some families decided to have the man go first, setup a house, and then the rest of the family would come.
    My second thought would be related to your tongue-in-check comment about rates after the church came out of the closet. My mom told me a story about a family she was doing research on, and what happened was the husband was issued the calling of becoming a polygamist. When he talked it over with his wife, she suggested that he marry her cousin who was still in Norway. The cousin was an illegitimate child and apparently that really affected her opportunities for education, employment and marriage. So they wrote a letter to the cousin saying Join the church, emigrate to the Western US, and become a second wife. After getting the letter the cousin did, because it was an improvement over her current situation.
    I don’t know if she’s the only one who was in that situation, but there may have been others.

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