A Short History of Jonathan Holmes and Elvira Cowles

A relative is writing a family history and heard I was doing research into Jonathan and Elvira. Below is the result. The dates confused her – so I will reiterate here that the marriage/sealing dates are not typos.

Jonathan’s First Wife. Jonathan Holmes was less than three months younger than Joseph Smith, but didn’t marry until the late 1830s. Jonathan married Marietta Carter in 1837 in a double ceremony with Wilford Woodruff and Phoebe Carter (not Marietta’s sister or cousin). Marietta was the 16-year-old ward of Jared Carter, her father having died of cholera during Zion’s Camp.

The Mob Attacks Nauvoo. By the spring of 1840, Jonathan, Marietta and their first daughter, Sarah, lived by the river in Nauvoo, Illinois, a stone’s throw east of Joseph Smith’s homestead. Jonathan and Marietta had their second child that summer, a daughter named Mary. One week after Joseph first preached about baptism for the dead, a mob came across the river during a rain storm. I think the mob intended to attack the homestead, where Emma Smith had recently given birth to her son, Don Carlos. But when the mob fled, it was the Holmes cabin that was in flames. Little Sarah came through the attack unscathed, but Marietta died the next day. Infant Mary died a month later. The record indicates the victims were taken in by neighbors. It’s possible those “neighbors” were Joseph and Emma Smith. Since Emma was nursing her own infant at the time, she makes sense as a wet-nurse for baby Mary during the month after Marietta died. At any rate, Jonathan and Sarah ended up living in the Smith home after the attack. Elvira also lived in the Smith home, where she was the hired governess for the Smith children.

The Beginnings of Plural Marriage. Scholars think Joseph originally received the commandment regarding plural marriage in February 1831 while he was translating Genesis. I believe Joseph resisted obeying that commandment until the death of his father, when Father Smith’s dying prophesy (Joseph’s patriarchal blessing) told Joseph he would live to fulfill all the Lord had ordained. Lucy Mack Smith wrote that Joseph wept, asking, “Will I?” Elvira was the only single woman who was an intimate of the family at that time. I think Joseph approached Elvira about becoming a plural wife that fall of 1840. But Elvira did not agree to be sealed to Joseph until years later.

Friends of Eliza R. Snow. In August 1842 Emma Smith had Elvira ask Eliza R. Snow to come live in the homestead (the famous Relief Society secretary had been evicted that day–Elvira was the Relief Society Treasurer). A month later, Eliza wrote a poem in her journal, titled “Conjugal, to Jonathan and Elvira.”

Like two streams, whose gentle forces
Mingling, in one current blend–
Like two waves, whose outward courses
to the oceans bosom tend–

Like two rays that kiss each other
In the presence of the sun–
Like two drops that run together
And ever are as one–

May your mutual vows be plighted–
May your hearts, no longer twain
And your spirits be united
In an everlasting chain.

Elvira and Jonathan were married by Joseph Smith on December 1, 1842. Their marriage was announced in the 10 December issue of the Nauvoo Wasp. Eliza R. Snow’s poem was reprinted under the announcement. On February 11, 1843, Eliza Snow left the Smith homestead and “had my lodging removed to the residence of br. J Holmes.” Eliza didn’t stay in their home long, but she remained close to Jonathan and Elvira for the rest of their lives.

Elvira Sealed to Joseph Smith. We do know Elvira and Joseph were sealed on June 1, 1843, three days after Emma finally accepted the New and Everlasting Covenant. Elvira’s lack of children during this time indicates this sealing to Joseph was not physically consummated, despite Phoebe Holmes Welling’s 1939 history (remembered hearsay recorded almost 100 years later). Family tradition and the lack of children also indicate that Jonathan didn’t consummate his marriage to Elvira until after Joseph’s death, as late as February 1845. [Elvira’s first child, Lucy, was born nine months later. Elvira’s daughter, Marietta, would be born nine months after Jonathan returned from his Mormon Battalion service. Elvira continued to bear a child every two years thereafter until she was 43 years old.]

Friends of Emma Smith. There’s a story told by Sarah Holmes of how Elvira would tell the children stories in the evenings while Eliza Snow and Emma Smith went about ministering to the poor. The children would listen to the stories and steal cookies from the black cook. That “black cook” was Jane Manning James, who only arrived in Nauvoo the winter before Joseph’s death. So though Elvira and Jonathan now lived in their own home, they spent a great deal of time with the Smith family for the rest of Joseph’s life and beyond. In fact, Emma Smith considered Jonathan such a close friend that she asked him and three others to secretly relocate the remains of Joseph and Hyrum in February 1845. One of the four men, possibly Jonathan, cut a lock of Joseph’s hair and presented it to Emma. Emma wore that lock of hair around her neck for the rest of her life.

Elvira Chooses Jonathan. During the few weeks the Nauvoo Temple was used to perform sealing ordinances, women asking to be sealed to a dead husband were married to the proxy in mortality. Most of Joseph’s other plural wives chose apostles (or at least agree to let an apostle stand as proxy when they were sealed to Joseph–now you know why Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball ended up with so many wives). Elvira chose Jonathan to stand as proxy when she was sealed to Joseph in the Nauvoo Temple in 1846. Jonathan was the only man in the Mormon Battalion who was married to one of Joseph’s plural wives. He was at Sutter’s Mill when gold was discovered. Jonathan was elected to lead his company back to Salt Lake after the original three leaders were found dead at Tragedy Springs. That group, the Holmes/Thompson Company, created the wagon trail across the Sierra Nevada mountains that would be used by tens of thousands of people rushing to California to seek gold starting in 1849. The married men in that company rode ahead when they neared Salt Lake Valley, but the record indicates Jonathan remained with the rest of his company, not arriving in the valley on 6 September 1848. He would tell his girls, ‘I came home as soon as I could.’ Jonathan and Elvira lived in Farmington in relative obscurity for the rest of their lives. Even so, when Elvira died in 1868 the line of those who came to pay their respects stretched half a mile.


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  8. Meg Stout Says:

    So hilarious. My husband recommended I read the new three volume set on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy that came out this past year (Feb. 2013). Putting together conversations, it appears my husband became aware of the volumes while in Utah for a High School reunion. During this Utah visit, my husband also popped in to visit with BYU Professor and historian, Dr. Robert L. Millet. During their discussion, my husband mentioned my position on Joseph Smith’s polygamy, that I think the grand secret is that he wasn’t having sex with anyone other than Emma. Given the fact Joseph was supposed to be reinstituting eternal marriage and, necessarily, plural marriage, it would have been a great dark secret if his marriages to plural wives and visits merely consisted of pillow talk without any bangy bangy.

    Anyway, Dr. Millet mentioned Brian C. Hales’ three volume work and said Brother Hales’ interpretation is similar to mine.

    So now I’m dutifully plowing through the books, busily making margin notes. Imagine my surprise when I find myself identified as “polygamy researcher, Meg Stout…” This post is quoted in the Volume 1, in the chapter addressing the credibility of assertions that Joseph Smith practiced sexual polyandry.

    To quote Phineas and Ferb, “I know what we’re going to do today!” In addition to laundry, cleaning, feeding the missionaries, and re-organizing my tool cabinet, I will be writing up a brief post on the plausible explanations explaining the non-sexual explanations for assertions regarding Joseph Smith’s sexual consummation of his plural marriages. For fun!