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Did Brigham Young have a secret wife? Cemetery search could provide answers

Posted at 9:59 PM, May 23, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — The man in the photograph is Brigham Young, a founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But the face of the woman seated next to him has been scratched out.

"If you really look at his face... it's the closest thing to a smile that you'll ever see on Brigham," said Brent Herridge, a Utah photographer who appraised the Daguerreotype decades ago that sparked his quest to know more about the mystery woman in it.

Brigham Young secret wife
Brigham Young and unknown wife

Herridge is moving ahead with his efforts to try to prove a hypothesis he has about the image: that the woman is a previously unknown wife of the revered church leader. He is now actively looking for the Native American woman's gravesite to prove it.

The image is known as "Brigham Young and unknown wife." Herridge said at the time, he appraised the image but was also curious about who was in it and had been erased.

"What we found was that nobody — and we looked at all the wives — nobody quite fit what we were looking for," he said. "So we looked outside of the circle and we're lucky enough because of some of the details in the photograph, such as bracelets, and a chain around her neck and the hand... and there was a hand that was damaged."

Herridge believes the woman in question is named Sally Kanosh who lived in one of Brigham Young's homes with some of his other wives and children. But Herridge breaks from fellow historians who insist the image is of someone else. He also believes that Sally Kanosh was not just a servant in the household.

"She, in this photograph, was being married to Brigham Young," he told FOX 13 News.

Herridge points to the hands of the woman in the photograph with the LDS leader and compares it to a photograph in Utah State Historical Archives of Sally Kanosh.

"Her right hand was shingled, and then little finger was so damaged that was cut off," he said, adding there are similarities with bracelets and a chain around the woman's neck.

Historical accounts of Sally Kanosh's life state that she was believed to be Shoshone or Bannock when she was kidnapped as a child by a rival tribe. She was purchased by a Latter-day Saint settler named Charlie Decker.

"Charlie Decker was the younger brother of Clara Decker, who was a wife of Brigham Young. So once he'd purchased her, and he claimed he purchased her because she was being tortured and wanted to stop that," said Dr. Jenny Hale Pulsipher, a professor of early American and Native American history at Brigham Young University. "That's a claim that's made with a lot of these, it's kind of a controversial claim. But several people recorded that same story. He gave her to his sister. And she basically just took her into the family."

Historical records show Sally Kanosh lived part of her life in the Lion House, which stands to this day on Temple Square. She was raised with the Young children, but was considered a servant.

"They gave her an Americanized name, which was Sally, because she, of course, had an Indian name. That's how she came to live with the Young family," said Ellen Jeppson, the president of the International Society of Daughters of Utah Pioneers. "I do know that in the record, she was well loved in the family."

Jeppson said their records show Sally Kanosh lived with the Young family for many years until Brigham Young encountered Chief Kanosh, who offered horses to marry her.

"Brigham Young said, 'If she wants to go, she can go.' Well, Sally said no. This went on for several years, and Brigham Young always said to her, 'If you want to marry him, you can go. It's your decision.' And finally, she did decide to marry Chief Kanosh, and then she left the home," Jeppson said. "That's all I know and all I know that is documented."

Herridge believes there were two Native American girls who grew up in the Young household and their stories have been conflated by other historians and authors. But he said Sally Kanosh did marry Chief Kanosh. Prior to that, he believes, she was married to Brigham Young.

"He wanted the Indigenous people to be part of the greater community that he was trying to establish in '47," he said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had no comment on Herridge's theory. Dr. Pulsipher said at that time, Brigham Young did try to convince LDS missionaries to marry Native American women.

"It wasn't very successful. He had a hard time talking very many people into entering into those kinds of marriages. Partly because of, you know, widespread cultural prejudice against those kinds of marriages in this time period," she said. "Not only on behalf of the men who might have entered into the marriages, but the women who, sometimes they were polygamous, and their white wives weren't interested in that idea. I'm actually a descendant of one of the very few Shoshone and LDS missionary marriages that took place."

Dr. Pulsipher said there are historical accounts of Brigham Young referencing Sally Kanosh living in his home and she believes there is nothing that would have stopped the church leader from marrying her. But Dr. Pulsipher said she was skeptical it actually happened.

"I need to look at whatever additional evidence he has found and evaluate it," she told FOX 13 News. "But without that? No. It just doesn't seem very likely."

Jeppson said the Daughters of Utah Pioneers is neutral on Herridge's theory, but she adds that Brigham Young's life was well-documented.

"You would think if it had happened, that people would have talked about it and been interested in it," she said. "And I haven't found any research for that."

Sally Kanosh died in 1877. When Brigham Young died in 1878, historical records show he had 56 known wives.

Herridge said he believes historical records do signal Sally Kanosh was married to Brigham Young. When he first presented his theory to a conference of the Utah State Historical Society in 2012, it generated a little buzz and mixed reaction. Some pushed back on the notion, while others acknowledged Brigham Young had a lot of wives.

To prove his hypothesis, Herridge is now looking to find Sally Kanosh and any descendants. He has also enlisted the nonprofit Utah Cold Case Coalition, forensic genealogy and DNA to help.

"I have seen his a lot of his research into this subject, and I believe him. I think he's got it nailed," said Tom Harvey, who works for the coalition.

Herridge is working to find Sally Kanosh's actual grave. In 2019, he obtained permission to use ground penetrating radar in the Kanosh town cemetery in an effort to find her grave. It wasn't where the tombstone indicated. He has since expanded his search to a potential descendant: Talula Young Wood is listed as a daughter of Brigham Young and Clara Decker Young. Herridge said he suspects she was actually a child of Brigham Young and Sally Kanosh.

"We work with unidentified bodies as part of what we do to try to identify them," said Harvey. "It's a little bit older case than we normally work with, but it's the same type of thing. Brent would like to not just depend upon historic research that he's done, but also get the science involved, the DNA involved. And that's one of the places where we can help out."

Once they find the graves, Herridge said he is considering seeking to exhume the bodies to obtain DNA samples. He has one of Brigham Young already from a direct descendant.

"We think we know where Sally might be, and we're going very slow. We're not trying to offend anything," he said. "We realize that exhuming bodies is a very serious thing and we're trying to approach it in a way that's very respectful to everyone yet gets to the truth."

Darren Parry, the chairman of the Northern Band of the Shoshone Nation (the tribe that Sally Kanosh might have belonged to), said they would not support an exhumation.

"Once a Native American has been buried, we don’t ever disturb those sacred grounds. It’s important to us we let them rest," he told FOX 13 News.

As to Herridge's theory, Parry said Sally Kanosh did live in Brigham Young's house for a long time but "I don’t think he would have shied away from taking her as a wife if he did."

Herridge said he would revisit whether to exhume the grave or not once they found where it actually is. Harvey said the Utah Cold Case Coalition would examine if the family trees "at a certain point, come together or don't come together."

As to why Sally Kanosh would have been erased from history if she truly was married to Brigham Young, Herridge believes it was the politics of the time.

"I think polygamy is definitely a piece of that," he said. "I think it was specifically with Sally is that one, Sally was Indigenous. Brigham believed that it was part of the future, but it was a very new thing to engage in a relationship with Native American woman."

Herridge plans to write his own book about Sally Kanosh. Harvey said what they find will add to historical accounts about Brigham Young and his families.

"That's kind of what we hope to do is to bring this person back into the historical record and where she rightly belongs," Harvey said. "We believe the implications of it, I don't know, just expanding the historic knowledge about Brigham Young and his his wives and his his children."

Said Herridge: "I feel that her real story needs to be told."