Utah’s Seraph Young is being celebrated 150 years after she cast the first vote

(Photo courtesy Ron Fox) Seraph Young as she would have looked when she voted in 1870 in Salt Lake City, becoming the first woman in the country to vote under an equal suffrage law.

Russell Rice Jr. listened as a historian excitedly explained how he was related to the first woman to vote in Utah. But for Rice, the dates weren’t adding up.

“I’m sitting there … thinking the whole time, ‘This ain’t got nothing to do with me. They got the wrong person,'” said Rice, 69.

Then, the historian said a name that clicked: Cherry Ford White, Rice’s grandmother. “I just kind of went into shock,” Rice laughed.

Cherry Ford White was the daughter of Seraph Young, who became the first woman in the country to vote under an equal suffrage law when she cast a ballot Feb. 14, 1870, in a Salt Lake City municipal election.

While Seraph Young is known across Utah today, on the 150th anniversary of her historic vote, she faded from public memory pretty quickly after that first election, according to Katherine Kitterman, historical director for Better Days 2020. The nonprofit promotes Utah’s suffrage history.


Events scheduled Friday to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Seraph Young’s vote include:

Remembrance walk and gathering, 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. • The walk will head north on State Street at 12:15 p.m. from City Creek Park (175 N. State Street) for a short speech and exhibit viewing at Council Hall before ending at Memorial House in Memory Grove Park. Food, music, activities and a collaborative art project will be available beginning at 1 p.m. at Memorial House (375 N. Canyon Road).

Meet at City Creek Park to check in between 11:45 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. Participants are encouraged to wear the suffrage colors of purple, white or yellow. Organizers will provide pins and ribbons for people to wear with the name of a woman they would like to honor. In case of inclement weather, the event will start at noon at Memorial House. The event includes Better Days 2020, Preservation Utah, Voterise, the Utah Cultural Alliance, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and YWCA Utah.

Rally, 4 p.m. • The League of Women Voters of Salt Lake and Utah are holding a rally in front of the Capitol. Speakers include Deeda Seed, from the Center for Biological Diversity, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, former Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck and former Congresswoman Karen Shepherd, among others.

Short operas, 7 p.m. • Women of Notes, two short operas by and about women, will be presented at the Ladies’ Literary Clubhouse (850 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City). A social hour with light refreshments will be held at 7 p.m., followed by the concert at 8 p.m. Tickets, which are $25, are available at the door and at bit.ly/2Oub5cR. Better Days 2020 and Utah Opera are hosting.

“There’s not a thing in 1880 where they’re like, ‘Hey, it’s the 10-year anniversary of Seraph voting,’ or something like this,” Kitterman said. "But ... it’s a typical example in history, right? That normal people doing normal things make history, or change the course of history, without even meaning to sometimes.”

[Read more: First vote by Utah woman under equal suffrage law 150 years ago wasn’t big news in local newspapers]

Until just a few months ago, Kitterman thought there were no living descendants of Young. But then Ron Fox, a Utah historian and board member of Better Days 2020, tracked down Rice in Thurmont, Md.

Rice had never heard about Seraph Young before talking with Fox. And the fact Cherry Ford White adopted Rice’s mother may have made it trickier for historians to connect the two. Plus, Cherry died before Rice was born.

“That’s probably why we don’t know a lot about it,” Rice said.

Now that Rice does know about his family’s connection to history, though, he thinks it’s “pretty neat.” And he said he plans to dig in to learn more with his sister.

(Photo courtesy of Russell Rice Jr.) Russell Rice Jr. with Cynthia White, his sister. The two are great-grandchildren of Seraph Young, the first woman to vote in Utah, as well as the first woman to vote under an equal suffrage law in the country.

Life of Seraph Young

Seraph Young was born Nov. 6, 1846, in Nebraska and came to Salt Lake City a year later with her family and a pioneer company. She was the oldest of nine children and grandniece of Brigham Young, the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A 1920 issue of the faith’s Relief Society Magazine described her in her youth as “a beautiful, refined and cultured young woman.”

Young was working as a teacher at the University of Deseret’s model school, a primary school, when she cast her historic vote at the age of 23, according to Kitterman. The acting governor had signed a bill just two days before giving Utah women the right to vote.

Historians know that Young was the first to vote based on newspaper reports from the time, Kitterman said. None of the other 25 or so women who are thought to have voted with her was named in articles, though. Kitterman said she wonders whether, if newspapers had better recognized the historic significance of those votes at the time, “we would have the names of all of the women who voted. We would have their journal entries.”

Young went on to live a life “typical for a woman of her time,” Kitterman said. In 1872, she married Seth Leland Ford, who worked as a printer, and they had three children, two of whom survived to adulthood.

But in other ways, Young’s life was also “atypical,” Kitterman said. “They faced so many financial difficulties later in their life. Like, she dies as a renter. She’s selling off property. She’s always listed in the delinquent tax rolls in Maryland later in her life,” she said.

Seth Ford, a Civil War veteran who fought for the Union Army, was disabled with “blindness and spinal disease,” according to Kitterman. The family moved east in the 1870s, probably to be close to family (Ford was from New York) or to get him care. In the early 1880s, Ford was in a veterans home in New York, she said. The couple eventually moved to Maryland to be near their two daughters.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Depicting women gaining the right to vote in the Utah Territory in 1870, the Seraph Young Votes mural is seen above the House Chamber at the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020.

A Deseret Evening News article in the early 1900s said that Young had been unable to visit Utah for years because her husband’s condition “has required all her time to care for him; her unselfish devotion is well known by all her friends.” But Kitterman said there are records of a couple of times when prominent Utah women, such as Emmeline B. Wells, went east and were able to visit with Young.

Fox tracked down an image of Young, showing what she would have looked like around the time she voted, in a 1902 issue of the Deseret News.

“A generation ago she was one of the belles of Salt Lake," according to the newspaper. “Like her sisters, now living in California, she was noted for her comely face and a graceful form, attractions inherited from a mother widely noted for her charm and beauty.”

But now, the newspaper states, Young is “almost forgotten.”

‘Footnote that’s been forgotten’

When Rice and his sister were growing up, one of their chores was to dust the paintings hanging on the walls throughout the house. Many of those paintings were made by Cherry Ford White, who, Rice learned, was an artist.

Rice isn’t sure where those paintings have ended up over the years. But after learning about his connection to Seraph Young, he was able to track down a couple of Cherry’s paintings — a landscape and a portrait — through his town’s historical society. “It’s a pretty decent portrait,” Rice said.

“It’s fascinating because we have little bits and pieces of our families’ stories sometimes, but we don’t always know the whole picture,” Kitterman said.

History is “trying to piece those things together,” and that’s what Kitterman is working on with “the stories of women in Utah.” Sometimes she wonders “how many other stories are out there that we don’t know about that are still yet to be uncovered.”

Kitterman and Fox still have some work to do with Young’s story. Right now, they’re working on correcting her gravestone.

Young was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with her husband, after she died in 1938 at the age of 91. While her death certificate is correct, her grave marker spells her first name “Serath” instead of “Seraph." To Kitterman, this mistake again shows “how she’s kind of a footnote that’s been forgotten. And we’re hopeful that that will be changed.”

With the 150th anniversary of Young’s vote this year, and the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Kitterman said she thinks it would be great if people visit Young’s grave on Election Day, like some did with Susan B. Anthony in November 2016 when Hillary Clinton ran for president.

“I would love it if people would go and stick ‘I voted’ stickers on her gravestone,” Kitterman said.

(Photo courtesy of Katherine Kitterman) The grave marker for Seraph Young, who is buried with her husband at Arlington National Cemetery, is misspelled.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.