By Angela Pulley Hudson
Angela Pulley Hudson is the author of Real Native Genius: How an Ex-slave and a White Mormon became Famous Indians (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). She is an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When envisioning Mormon polygamists, people of color don’t often enter the picture. And it’s true that the history of Mormon plural marriage is mainly populated by white faces. In fact, one hallmark of most current fundamentalist Mormon groups is a streak of white supremacy that has roots in the prejudices of early Mormon leaders.
However, Mormon polygamy, like other phenomena involving gender, sexuality, and marriage in the United States, did not evolve in a vacuum. Other racial identities have also shaped its history, an interesting example of which can be found in the extraordinary story of William McCary.
McCary was born a slave in Natchez, Mississippi but became the property of his free black half-siblings when his owner died. Though he spent most of his young life in bondage, he was finally manumitted in his early 30s, and then reinvented himself as an American Indian.
For a few years, he travelled around the country as an itinerant musician, claiming that he was a Choctaw Indian. In 1846, he met Lucile (Lucy) Stanton and was baptized into the Mormon Church at Nauvoo. They were instantly attracted to each other, and McCary asked her to marry him during their first conversation. Stanton was intrigued by his offer because she had felt called to minister to the Indians through a childhood vision. She felt that this was God opening a way for her to fulfill her mission.
It was unusual at the time for a white woman to marry an Indian man, but not unheard of. Mormons believed that the Indians were descended from the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon, and that they were a people destined for greatness. Joseph Smith had even told some of his male followers that they would marry Indian women. The two were sealed quite soon after meeting. It would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, for the couple to marry had McCary presented as a black man.
Church leadership was in disorder at the time because of Joseph Smith’s death, and amidst the confusion the charismatic McCary began to gather a reputation as a “Lamanite prophet.” But he and Lucy soon departed Nauvoo and headed to Cincinnati. While there, Lucy reinvented herself as a Delaware Indian, calling herself Luceil Bsuba. The couple started assembling their own band of about 60 believers. One newspaper reported that the group’s leaders had “abolished marriage” among their followers, perhaps reflecting the couple’s Mormon roots.1
Their little congregation soon fell apart, however, and the two rejoined the Saints then assembling in Winter Quarters. There, Lucy dropped her Indian persona, but McCary maintained his, steadily building his reputation as a gifted musical performer, a “civilized Indian,” and a charismatic prophet, displaying many of the spiritual gifts popular at the time. Soon, the McCarys started holding their own “secret” meetings with Latter-day Saints. This challenge to Church authority, combined with suspicions about McCary’s race and the era’s antipathy toward interracial marriage, created a very tense situation for the couple.
When Lucy and McCary were called before the Quorum of the Twelve, McCary countered the Quorum’s accusations of apostasy with accusations of racism. He claimed that their real problem with him was not his faithlessness or disobedience, but his interracial relationship with Lucy Stanton, saying he often heard remarks about the “nigger and his white wife.” After a bizarre interlude in which he disrobed and then dressed himself again, he asserted, “so long as a White woman is so much in the way, good God why dont [sic] they give me a red woman.” It’s hard to tell whether McCary meant this as a request for permission to take a plural wife, but what is clear is that he believed that the Saints were incapable of considering his marital choices outside of his racial identity. And he wanted to be sure that they understood that identity to be Indian—not black. In response, Brigham Young tried to assure him that his race was immaterial, but his choice to compare McCary to another black convert associated with white women (Q. Walker Lewis) tipped his hand.2
The McCarys relocated across the river to Mosquito Creek and continued to build their following. According to a report from Quorum of the Twelve member Nelson Whipple, the couple even devised their own sealing ceremony.
[McCary] had a number of women sealed to him in his way which was as follows; He had a house in which this ordnance [sic] was performed. His wife Lucy Stanton was in the room at the time of the performance, no others were admitted. The form of sealing was for the women to bed with him, in the daytime as I am informed three different times by which they were sealed to the fullest extent.”3
Whipple named seven females who participated in this ceremony, his description of which suggests not only a form of plural marriage but also group sex, or at least a shared sexual experience. Lucy McCary’s feelings about the matter are unknown, but she was apparently an active participant.
News of the ceremonies spread when one woman escaped her “sealing.” This led to open hostility toward the couple, motivating McCary to leave the area quickly.
By this time, it seems that few of the locals believed McCary’s claim to be Indian. In fact, his actions were so disruptive to the Church that some historians have speculated that McCary was a major influence on Church leadership’s decision to ban black men from holding the priesthood.
Although the Winter Quarters episode may or may not have been directly tied to the issue of polygamy, a later event makes the connections between race and marriage clear.
In August 1851, McCary (now using the name Okah Tubbee) married a white woman named Sarah Marlett at Niagara Falls.4 Area newspapers carried word of the nuptials and highlighted the fact that the self-proclaimed Choctaw already had an Indian wife (Lucy Stanton McCary, now using the alias Laah Ceil Manatoi Elaah Tubbee, and claiming to be both Delaware and Mohawk). One early response came from “A Buffalonian,” who wrote to the city’s Commercial Advertiser that, despite women’s rights, “I do not believe that one woman has a right to marry another woman’s husband.”5 What western New Yorkers could not have known, however, is that McCary’s dalliance with Marlett may have had roots in Mormonism. Although the McCarys had not been participating in the Church formally since 1847, it is entirely possible, if not probable, that this episode represented an experiment in plural marriage. Lucy Stanton McCary did not abandon her husband when he wed Marlett, and though her personal feelings are inaccessible to us, she was still at his side when legal charges were brought the following year.
What’s fascinating is the defense McCary mobilized in the face of widespread criticism. Ever ready to prove his Indian ancestry, he acknowledged a previous wife—“a Squaw” by whom he had several children. He claimed, however, that he was married “to his first wife only for a term of years, according to the custom of his nation—that the time had expired, and he renounced her, as the laws of the Choctaws permitted him to do.”6 Since bigamy was illegal, McCary had to assert that he “renounced” his first wife. But he was nevertheless invested in using the controversy to shore up his claims to Native American heritage, just as he had done at Winter Quarters. And he did so in a way that would have resonated with antebellum audiences accustomed to reading fiction about “Indian romance,” attending lectures on “Indian manners and customs,” and seeing performances of “Indian war and marriage dances.”
Ultimately, however, the Marlett affair was the beginning of the end for McCary. News of the bigamous marriage appeared in northern papers at the same time that word arrived from southern papers that the celebrated Choctaw flutist was actually a “greasy negro” who had once been a slave in Natchez.7 While audiences might have accepted a relationship between a Choctaw man and a white woman, even one based on peculiar Indian marital customs, the union of a black man and a white woman was far less palatable. Just as in Winter Quarters, McCary tried to deflect criticism of his marital and sexual practices by performing his “Indianness,” but found himself again tarred by “blackness.” Within a year, he and Lucy Stanton McCary had fled to Toronto, where they unsuccessfully tried to revive their stage careers and dabbled in “Indian medicine.” Soon thereafter, McCary disappears into the pages of history.
An interesting postscript to this story is found in the fate of Lucy Stanton McCary. Throughout the various identity crises her husband experienced, her pretended identity as an Indian remained unquestioned. What’s more, assertions of his African American ancestry largely shielded her both as a white woman and as an Indian. In Winter Quarters, he bore the brunt of criticism for their interracial relationship (though, clearly, his alleged spiritual and sexual impropriety were scrutinized too). During the bigamy controversy several years later, he was the villain, while she was regarded as the poor “deluded squaw,” never accused of either imposture or indecency. Given what we know, then, about how perceptions of her husband’s race overlapped with notions of gender and sexuality (in relation to plural marriage and beyond), it is also incumbent upon us to interrogate how “whiteness” functions. As I’ve written elsewhere,8 Stanton’s identity provided certain privileges unavailable to her husband. Thus, even when we consider topics like plural marriage in a presumptively “whites-only” context, we must be aware that “whiteness” is always defined not only in relation to gender, sexuality, religion, and class, but also in opposition to other racial categories and the privileges (or lack thereof) that attend them.
- Gospel Herald, Voree, WI, 5 October 1848, quoting the Cincinnati Commercial.
- Church Historian’s Office, General Church Minutes, 26 March 1847–6 April 1847.
- “History of Nelson Wheeler Whipple,” 37, Nelson Wheeler Whipple Diaries, 1863–87, LTPSC.
- Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, Buffalo, NY, 18 August 1851.
- Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, Buffalo, NY, 26 August 1851.
- Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, Buffalo, NY, 1 September 1851.
- Mississippi Free Trader, Natchez, MS, 13 September 1851.
- Angela Pulley Hudson, “On Racial Passing, Posing, and Posturing,” UNC Press Blog, 10 September 2015, http://uncpressblog.com/2015/09/10/angela-pulley-hudson-on-racial-passing-posing-and-posturing/ (accessed 23 June 2016).