Oakland Monument Honors Niece of Joseph Smith
By Lila Bringhurst, Church News correspondent
Sculptor Mario Chiodo selected Ina Coolbrith as one of several local heroes honored in his monument Remember Them: Champions for Humanity, which was recently dedicated in the Henry J. Kaiser Park in Oakland, California.
Josephine Donna Smith, later known as Ina Coolbrith, was born in Nauvoo, Illinois, in March 1841. She was named Josephine after her uncle the Prophet Joseph Smith and Donna after her father, Don Carlos Smith, Joseph’s youngest brother, who died in August that same year.
“I have chosen these humanitarians because, regardless of their individual backgrounds or missions, they share the common threads of courage, perseverance, education, sacrifice, and a sincere desire to strive for a better life for all,” Mr. Chiodo said.
Ina’s mother, Agnes Coolbrith Smith, stayed close to the extended Smith family until 1846 when the main body of the Saints fled from their persecutors and headed west. Agnes moved to St. Louis, Missouri, with her two daughters, Agnes Charlotte and Josephine, and her future husband, William Pickett. Because of fear of further violence and persecution, Agnes made her daughters promise to never reveal their Mormon roots.
“That was a common reaction by many Smith family members,” said Michael Kennedy, president of the Joseph Smith Jr. and Emma Hale Smith Historical Society and their direct descendant. “Most of Hyrum’s descendants moved west, but the Smith family members who stayed behind lived in fear and distanced themselves from polygamy and the ‘Utah’ Mormons.”
Ina was 10 years old when in 1851 the Pickett family moved to California and lived for a time in the Mormon pioneer community of San Bernardino. Using the pen name Ina (pronounced EYE-nah) Coolbrith, Josephine began publishing poetry. By age 17 Ina had moved with her family to Los Angeles, been honored at a grand ball by Governor Pio Pico, and married Robert Carsley. By age 21 she had lost an infant son, ended her abusive marriage, and moved to San Francisco with her parents and twin stepbrothers.
Beautiful and cultivated, Coolbrith hosted literary meetings in her home and was called the “Poetess of the Golden Gate.” She knew many great writers of her day and regularly contributed to magazines. She became an honorary member of the Bohemian Club, a rare feat in the history of that exclusive all-male San Francisco organization.
In 1874 she became the librarian at the new Oakland Public Library, where, while working 12-hour days and six days a week, she mentored young writers such as Jack London. Although she lived in poverty, she cared for her mother and, after her sister’s death, raised her niece and nephew.
Her friends organized the Ina Coolbrith Circle, which still meets monthly 94 years later, and sponsors two poetry contests each year. She was proclaimed California’s first poet laureate in 1915. When she died in 1928 the California State Legislature named Mount Ina Coolbrith in her honor, but few knew her real name or that she was a Mormon.
Four direct descendants of Joseph Jr. and Emma Smith and one of Hyrum and Jerusha Smith’s attended the dedication of the Oakland monument. They visited her grave and each other, invited and hosted by Brother Kennedy.
“Before his martyrdom in 1844, the Prophet Joseph Smith baptized his son Joseph Smith III. Joseph’s granddaughter Alice Smith was baptized in 1915 but soon left the Church due to many of the prejudices,” Brother Kennedy said. “Joseph’s great-great-granddaughter Gracia Jones was baptized in 1956 and began gathering the family.”
In 1972 President Gordon B. Hinckley called Brother Kennedy to create opportunities for the posterity of Joseph Smith to be receptive to the teachings of the gospel. Two hundred of the descendants of Joseph Smith Jr. have been baptized; 30 percent have joined because of these events.
A common theme of calamity still runs through the family, causing some wary descendants to not marry or at least not have children. For example, one direct descendant in California had been adopted, but because she was experiencing unusual hardships she decided to find her birth father. Eventually she found her birth aunt, who revealed that she was a Joseph Smith Jr. descendant. She then visited Salt Lake City and learned more about her heritage.
During the dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland Temple in 1836, Joseph Smith mentioned his family’s suffering from afflictions and persecutions and prayed that they would be “preserved by thy fostering hand” (see D&C 109:68–70).
Joseph’s descendants were often cautioned, “You don’t tell anyone that you are related to Joseph Smith. If you do, bad things will happen.” Threads of that fear still exist—genealogical records of Joseph and Emma’s living descendants are blocked to all but authenticated family members.
One-third of Joseph and Emma’s progenies live in Australia, all descended from their son Alexander Hale Smith, whose daughter, Ina Inez Smith, married Sidney Wright, the son of an Australian boat builder. They had 12 children and became successful farmers in the Nabiac area, which is five hours north of Sydney.
“We were instructed to be polite to Mormon missionaries but to not invite them in, as some historical family documents had mysteriously gone missing,” recalled Richard Fethers, an Australian descendant who has lived in San Francisco for seven years. “Joseph Jr. is my family, which is more important to me than the church he founded. While talking to my cousins after the monument dedication, I learned a lot that I didn’t know. It helped connect some dots that had puzzled me over the years.”
Of the nine children born to or adopted by Joseph and Emma, only three have living descendants, for a total of 1,937 living and 2,318 total descendants. By contrast, 22,030 descendants of Hyrum Smith are now living. Brother Kennedy has worked hard over the years to reconnect his distant cousins.
“Members of our extended family came to the monument dedication to recognize Josephine Donna Smith/Ina Coolbrith and to honor her life and the legacy she left to the world: her own poetry and the works of the young writers she mentored,” Brother Kennedy said.