PAROWAN, Iron County — Wherever Jesse Nathaniel Smith is, whatever he’s up to, he has to be extremely pleased about the way his posterity is handling his legacy.
Born in 1834, Smith, who married multiple wives back when it was legal to marry multiple wives, died in 1906, leaving behind 44 children. Consequently, a century and then some later, the Smith family tree is a giant redwood, capable of populating a small country.
And the offspring have not forgotten where they came from.
As proof, check out the Jesse Nathaniel Smith home and pioneer museum here in the heart of Iron County’s oldest settlement. If people from the 1800s were to walk along 100 South in Parowan today and stop at 35 West, they wouldn’t think a thing had changed.
The house, built by Jesse N. in 1856-58, looks like it always did. Same adobe walls. Same elegant front portico. Same gable roof. Same picket fence outside. Same pioneer furniture inside. There’s even a picture of Jesse hanging above the fireplace.
This is all courtesy of the Jesse N. Smith Heritage Foundation, a tax-exempt organization filled with Smith’s prolific progeny that preserves and maintains the pioneer homes their ancestor lived in with his wives in Parowan and Snowflake, Arizona.
These descendants also publish books and CDs and write family newsletters, all in the cause of — as stated on the foundation website, jessensmith.com — “informing family members and the public about the remarkable story of Jesse N. Smith and his wives and children.”
Few men could lay claim to living a life much busier than Jesse N. Beyond feeding and housing his five wives and 44 children, he was, at various times, a colonizer who was the first to settle the towns of Parowan and Snowflake, Arizona; a member of the state legislatures in both Utah and Arizona; a probate judge; a colonel in the Utah militia; clerk of Iron County; mayor of Parowan; an LDS mission president in Scandinavia, twice; a businessman who organized mercantile cooperatives in both Utah and Arizona; and an LDS stake president.
And all this was after he fled persecution in Illinois and walked all the way to Utah.
Jesse’s father, Silas Smith, was a brother to Joseph Smith Sr. Thus, Jesse’s cousin was Joseph Smith Jr., the Mormon prophet. Jesse’s childhood in the early 1840s was spent in a little settlement just outside of Nauvoo, Illinois, headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When he was 7 years old he was walking past his cousin’s house in Nauvoo and Joseph Smith handed him a second edition copy of the Book of Mormon that now rests in the custody of the church.
As a 12-year-old, not long after his uncles Joseph and Hyrum were murdered by a mob, Jesse joined the Mormon trek across the plains, walking ahead of a team of oxen. He arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in September 1847. Four years later, at 16, he was part of the colonizing group sent by Brigham Young that established Parowan. After that he married Emma, then Margaret, then Janet, then Augusta and then another Emma (which might have been a tad confusing), in addition to doing everything else listed above.
He died in Snowflake when he was 71.
Among his grandsons was Joseph Fish Smith, and among J. Fish Smith’s sons was Menlo Smith, one of the key figures in making sure the homes in Parowan and Snowflake Jesse N. built and lived in in Parowan did not fall into rack and ruin.
A successful businessman who has spent most of his life in St. Louis — and was himself continuing the family tradition, a mission president in the Philippines — Menlo organized the nonprofit Jesse N. Smith Heritage Foundation that raised the funds to restore both properties as close as possible to their original condition.
The home in Parowan is on the Utah Register of Historic Homes and also lays claim to being the oldest adobe structure in the state.
Deed to the property has been transferred to the city of Parowan. Maintenance is taken care of by the foundation. There is a list of names near the front door of locals who will come and open the property to any visitors who would like to walk through.
Some of these Parowanites, and this should come as no surprise, are descendants of Jesse Nathaniel Smith.
Menlo Smith guesses there are “in excess of 50,000” in his great-grandfather’s down-line.
“Nobody really knows the exact number,” he says. “What we do know is that those of us involved in this little project here, our hearts are turned to Jesse. We feel his home is our home and an important part of our early history that shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Got a great Utah story? Please email: [email protected]