The Early Years of Davis County

The Early Years of Davis County

The Early Years of Davis County

This article originally appeared in Vol.65, No.2 (2018) of Pioneer Magazine.

by Glen M. Leonard

One of Brigham Young’s first actions upon arriving in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake was to send out exploring expeditions to the north, south, and west to assess regional potential for settlement. On August 9, 1847, Jesse C. Little led a group of men northward on horseback, traveling east of the Great Salt Lake through the lowlands that would become Davis County. The horsemen visited at his home on the , rode on to the , made a circuit of Cache Valley, and then returned to the pioneer camp in the Salt Lake Valley. Little’s report on the area between the Weber River and the mouth of the Jordan River was positive. It would be a fine place for farmers and cattlemen, he said. Although there was a limited amount of easily accessible timber, the area featured rich soil and a plentiful supply of water.1

While Young wanted to be prepared to establish settlements outside the Valley as soon as the time was right, he had other priorities in August 1847. He knew that nearly 1,500 Saints were then making their way toward Salt Lake. Their five separate companies would arrive between late September and early October, and they would need food and shelter. Young had earlier instructed the men and boys in his small vanguard company to plow land and plant seeds. Many of those were now assigned to irrigate and tend to the rows of carrots, parsnips, com, and other crops. The rest of the available laborers were instructed to begin building temporary two-room houses of the adobe bricks that the company’s women and girls were assisting to make. Constructed immediately next to one another and sharing adjoining walls, the houses themselves would comprise the bulwarks of three connected forts. Later immigrants were expected to assist in the work as soon as they arrived.

Before Young and other leaders left for Iowa in the fall of 1847 to organize the migration of 2,400 more Saints from Winter Quarters the following summer, they created the Great Salt Lake Stake of Zion and named Joseph Smith’s uncle, John Smith, as president Smith and members of the high council comprised a temporary civil and religious government. Among their duties was the management of local resources, including grasslands, timberlands, and water.2

In the fall of 1847 the Great Salt Lake Stake of Zion authorized (l to r) , , and to establish winter herding grounds as a business undertaking, where cattle owners paid the herders per-head fees to winter their animals.

The high council authorized four of their own number—Daniel Spencer, Ira Eldredge, Thomas Grover, and Shadrach Roundy—to winter cattle on the northern grasslands scouted by Jesse Little. These four men recruited others, including and Hector Haight and together established winter herding grounds as a business undertaking, where cattle owners paid the herders per-head fees to winter their animals.

The following spring, Sessions, Grover, and Haight moved their families into log homes on the separate herding pastures that became, respectively, Bountiful, Centerville, and Farmington. When Brigham Young returned to the Salt Lake Valley in the fall of 1848, he convened a special conference to open the northern grasslands to settlers. Many other families soon joined the herdsmen’s families. Unlike most other early Mormon settlements, the first Davis County communities were not the result of thoughtful planning or carefully surveyed plat maps. Instead, the first settlers chose locations far their homes and farms near spring water or one of nineteen creeks.3

By the winter of 1848-49 most of the Davis County settlers were clustered in three areas: the Sessions settlement (later Bountiful), the Cherry Creek settlement (later Centerville), and the North Cottonwood settlement (later Farmington). Religious and civic boundaries soon separated the region into thirds, each third with one of these settlements at its center. In February 1849, a committee headed by Presiding Bishop Newel K. Whitney defined nineteen “tithing wards” in Salt Lake City and eight other wards outside city limits. Residents of the Sessions and Cherry Creek settlements were members of the Ward (soon shortened to “North Canyon Ward”), and those living between Cherry Creek and the Weber River were members of the North Cottonwood Ward.4

The provisional State of Deseret mirrored ward boundaries (and names) in creating civic precincts governed by “magistrates,” and in virtually every case, the current bishop was named magistrate of his precinct. Precinct boundaries changed dining the first ten months of 1850 as the General Assembly of Deseret created the five Wasatch Front counties, including Davis, and added new precincts.5 Davis County was named for Daniel Coon Davis, captain of Company E in the Mormon Battalion and commander of Battalion volunteers who re-enlisted for six months of additional service in California. In 1849, Davis built a home for his family in south Farmington on what became known as Davis Creek. A year later, following his father’s death, he headed East to take care of family business. Sadly, he died en route on June 1, 1850, forty miles west of Fort Kearney, Nebraska, and four months before Davis County was created.6

In January 1851, die two LDS wards in Davis County became four. Those living along Deuel Parris, and Stoddard creeks in the Cherry Creek settlement became members of the new Centerville Ward. A new ward at Haight’s Grove—soon nicknamed “Kay’s Ward” after the surname of its bishop, William Kay—included everyone living north of Haight Creek,7 During Davis County’s early years, die local bishops of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provided a continuity of leadership. After a rapid turnover in bishoprics during die first few years of the county’s existence, each of die subsequent bishops called in Bountiful, Centerville, and Farmington served their respective congregations for more than twenty years. The longest-serving bishop in Kaysville remained in his calling for fifteen years.

Until the Davis Stake was created in 1877, all wards in Davis County were part of die Salt Lake Stake and were led by its president and high council. In actuality, the original Davis County wards received instruction directly from Brigham Young, his counselors, and members of die Quorum of die Twelve. Communication between Salt Lake and the Davis communities occurred via mail, formal visits of Davis leadership to homes and offices in Salt Lake, or informal visits of general authorities to Davis wards or leaders. Also, assigned Church leaders held three or four conferences in die county each year, moving from one town to the next for separate meetings or sessions of each conference.8

County government in early Utah operated with a panel of two selectmen and a chief justice. Together they functioned as die county court, where court signified a managing board. A county probate judge handled wills and estates along with civil and criminal cases. Territorial law allowed the county’s chief justice to serve simultaneously as die probate judge, and that is what happened in early Davis County. In addition, because no chartered cities existed in the county until very late in the nineteenth century, the first county officers took on many functions usually handled by city governments.9

The county’s first chief justice and probate judge was Joseph Holbrook of Bountiful The selectmen, Truman Leonard of Farmington and Daniel Carter of Bountiful served staggered terms. Farmington’s James Leithead was court clerk. The court opened in March 1852, and its first business included appointing a water-master for each creek, dividing the county into electoral precincts, and creating school and highway districts. As needs arose, the court would later appoint a county clerk, a treasurer, a surveyor, a tax assessor, and a tax collector.10

Among the court’s powers was the right to construct public buildings. In August 1853, voters approved a proposal to build what became Utah’s first courthouse. The two-story adobe structure in Farmington measured thirty- five by forty-five feet Construction began in the spring of 1854; the building opened far business late the following year. The courtroom occupied most of the upper floor.

The main floor included three offices and three jury rooms divided by a central hallway. In 1867 the southeast jury room was remodeled as a small jail, and prisoners were confined with the help of court-purchased handcuffs and ball-and-chain restraints. Security was later upgraded when an iron cage was placed in the jail room,11

Funding for the $6,000 courthouse came from various sources. Some money came from a quarter-percent property tax levied for two years. Additional cash came from building subscriptions. The LDS Farmington Ward gained partial ownership of the courthouse when it purchased $920 in shares, acquiring access to the upper floor when it was not needed for county business. Weekly LDS Sunday services were held there, as were town dances, band practices, and other social gatherings. In 1864, when the ward finished its rock church, the bishop assigned the ward’s shares to the local school district, and rooms in the courthouse were used by district schools when court wasn’t in session. Five years later the district sold its shares to the county for $450.12

While the courthouse was the physical heart of Davis County’s civil government, most county services were managed by precinct and district organizations. For example, the county probate judge handled county judicial matters, but law and order were maintained by local precinct officers—the justice of the peace, constable, pound keeper, and fence viewer(s). The precinct justice and constable dealt with everything from cattle theft and fraudulent trading to mischief and fighting among boys. The pound keeper maintained the enclosure where stray livestock were kept and helped settle disputes regarding ownership; the fence viewer inspected new fences to insure their integrity and helped settle disputes arising from a trespassing animal after it escaped an enclosure. Sometimes local civil officers consulted with the local LDS bishop, given that early civil and religious officers didn’t always agree on who should assume jurisdiction of a particular case. Early oral narratives suggest that secular officers had a tendency to punish, while religious leaders extracted apologies and encouraged reconciliation. Depending on the seriousness of the offense, civil courts levied fines or imposed prison sentences, while LDS religious councils expelled members through excommunication and sometimes ordered the transgressor to leave town. Bishops resolved many local issues, often delivering only the most difficult cases to precinct officers or civil courts.13

As noted earlier, early Church leaders were concerned with the appropriate management of natural resources, especially in a high-desert region where water and vegetation were limited. Many early farming and ranching endeavors were cooperative. For example, the earliest settlers in Davis County followed the herding-ground pattern established by Graver, Roundy, Spencer, and Eldredge during the Saints’ first winter in Utah: they formed a cooperative herd and hired young men as herdsmen. At first, cattle and other animals were wintered on grasslands in northern Davis County, then later in western Weber County and northern Box Elder County.14

Natural pastures in Davis County existed in the lowlands near the Great Salt Lake. Fertile croplands could be found on higher ground at the base of bench lands.  The benches themselves were ideal sites for fruit orchards. Captain Howard Stansbury of the Corps of Topographical Engineers and a surveying party who mapped the Great Salt Lake in 1849 and 1850 noticed distinct ancient shorelines—terraces along the face of the mountain created by an ancient lake that Grove Karl Gilbert named Lake Bonneville. Gilbert’s US Geological Survey report also named the most prominent of the terraces.15 Lake Bonneville had other profound influences on the regions physical landscape. The lake’s deposits provided rich loam, enhanced by vegetative matter on the valley floor, and its deltas furnished sand and gravel for construction.16

With few exceptions, Church leaders in Salt Lake did not tell Davis County’s first Mormon settlers where to live. Even when leaders began calling settlers to the area, the settlers themselves apparently decided which community to join. Sometimes after talking with others, including relatives or friends, they staked out suitable unclaimed property and then hired a surveyor to make ownership legal.

Over time, prime land became harder to find. Sometimes a bishop stepped in to monitor the distribution of secondary land or to limit the size of family farms. After the county’s best land for farming had been claimed, many second-generation farmers pioneered land in western Weber County and then northern Box Elder County and southwestern Idaho.

The first settlers managed access to and harvesting of timber in the canyons. Along with water, timber was considered community property, and mountain forests were managed for the common good. Church leaders appointed individuals to develop canyon roads for community use and often gave road developers the first rights to build sawmills and gristmills on canyon streams. Sawmill operators were reminded that, because timber was community property, “every mill in the Territory is legally bound to give one tenth of all they saw to the tithing office.” This corporate timber tithe was used for public buildings or for homes for the poor, or was traded by the Church for needed goods.17

Initially, Church leaders granted individual stewardships over canyons and their resources. Rights to major canyons in the first areas of settlement were assigned to members of the Quorum of the Twelve. Heber C. Kimball held the rights to North Mill Creek Canyon in Bountiful and Willard Richards had the rights to North Cottonwood Canyon in Farmington. Kimball and Richards hired men to build canyon roads, recovering their costs by charging residents a toll of twenty-five cents per wagonload of logs or firewood removed from the canyon. Kimball and Richards also exercised their exclusive right to build mills on canyon streams.18

In February 1851, the Territorial Legislature assumed responsibility for all property rights, authorizing county judges to grant timber, mill, and water rights for the remaining canyons. Over the next two years, most remaining canyons with useable resources were assigned to small groups of business partners. Partners acted quickly to cut roads into “their” canyon and build timber, grist, and molasses mills. In 1855 the county court authorized bishops to issue and monitor additional rights to canyons within their ward boundaries and, more especially, to supervise the use and distribution of water flowing from these canyons.19 Canyon streams in Davis County served three main purposes. First lumber, grain, and sorghum mill operators needed water to power their machinery. Second, farmers quickly learned that crops grown in Utah’s arid climate needed frequent irrigation. Third, streams also provided culinary water, at least initially. All three of these purposes were essential to survival—to the provision of housing, food, and drink. In later years, culinary water was accessed through wells.

The first Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley began irrigating the soil on the day of their arrival—July 23, 1847. They diverted City Creek by blocking the stream with clumps of sod and digging diversion ditches. Later Davis County formers employed cooperative efforts to create similar systems of dams and diversion ditches. In each settlement, the first canals, laterals, and ditches delivered water to expansive community crop lands known as the Big Field. Each canal or lateral was made by hitching oxen to a plow, marking out a channel, and then widening and deepening the ditch with scrapers and shovels. For some crops, fields were flooded; for row crops, furrows were used to control the moistening of the soil. Within a few years a network of distribution ditches had spread out across the foothills and along the borders of the farmlands to disperse the water to individual forms.20

art by Maynard Dixon

In the 1860s and 1870s, cooperation was the byword of Davis County’s commerce and manufacturing as well as its agriculture. Cooperative stores operated in every town. Encouraged by Brigham Young, some communities launched cooperative manufacturing projects—tanneries, shoe shops, and broom shops. As a rule, however, such efforts did not reach their potential and were short-lived. The feet was that locally produced shoes—for example—could not match the quality of factory-made shoes sold by commercial stores. Brigham Young’s 1874 economic program—known as the —anticipated an all-inclusive communal economy, a cooperatively-owned economic system. But the United Order also ended within a few years, and most Utah communities returned to private commerce.21 An important reason for Utah’s turning to the outside world was the coming of the railroad, which simplified the importing of manufactured goods and the travel of Mormon immigrants. In this sense, completion of the transcontinental railway marked the end of the pioneer period in Utah history.


  1. Erastus Snow, Journal, 2 and 9 Aug 1847, quoted In Utah Humanities Review 2 (Jul 1948): 281-2; Wilford Woodruff Journals, 256,14 Aug 1847, Church History Library,
  2. Thomas Bullock, The Pioneer Camp of the Saints: The 1846 and 1847 Mormon Trail Journal of Thomas Bullock, ed. Will Bagley (1997), 263 (entry for 22 Aug 1847);’An epistle of the Council of the Twelve Apostles to the Saints In the Great Salt Lake City”9 Sep 1847, Brigham Young Office files, General Epistles, 1841-1868, Church History Library,
  3. Daniel A. Miller, Journal, Church History Library; Glen M. Leonard,’ A History of Farmington, Utah, to 1890,” MA thesis, Department of History, University of Utah, June 1966,18-22,Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter JH), 13,14,16,22 Feb 1849, Church History Library,
  4. In January 1850 the General Assembly of Deseret created four counties along the Wasatch Front: Salt Lake, Utah, Weber, and Tooele. The Bountiful area was Included In Salt Lake County as the North Canyon Precinct The Centerville, Farmington, and Kaysville areas became the Sandy Precinct In Weber County, Everything north of Kays Creek (or Sandy Creek), a largely unsettled area, was Included In Weber County’s Ogden City Precinct. In October 1850 the General Assembly created Davis County; In December, two counties further south were established, San Pete and Utde Salt Lake (later Iron). See Constitution and Laws, 1848-50of the State of Deseret (Salt Lake City, 1850), 28-30; Deseret News, 10 Oct 1850.
  5. Deseret News, 26 Jul 1850,1; Carr 22-4,
  6. JH, 12 Mar 1849; Deseret News, 8 Feb 1851.
  7. JH, 16 Feb 1849; 4,12 Mar 1849; Leslie T, Foy, The City Bountiful: Utah’s Second Settlement from Pioneers to Present (1975), 63,307; Annie Call Carr, ed, fast of Antelope Island: History of the First Fifty Years of Davis County, 2 ed, (1961), 66, 108-9; Leonard 39-42.
  8. Laws and Ordinances of the General Assembly (1851), 16 Jan 1851; Richard D. Poll et al, eds, Utah’s History (1978), 163-4.
  9. Carr 358-9.
  10. Davis County Court Minutes, Davis County Clerk’s Office, 1:12-13,24, 27,38,108,110,163; 2:84,90; Deseret News, 21 Dec 1854.
  11. Davis County Court Minutes, Utah State Archives, 12,22,24,31,42,48, 55,74-75,109-10; 230,35; Leonard 94-5; Minutes of the Ward Teachers Meeting of the Farmington Ward, 1862-88, v, 2,11 Jul 1869, Church History Library,
  12. Leonard 78-80.
  13. Leonard 117-21.
  14. David E. Miller, Great Salt Lake, Past and Present, 2 ed, (1977), 44; Don R. Murphy, “Lake Bonneville,” In Deon C. Greer, et al, eds. Atlas of Utah (1981), 44-5.
  15. Miller 44-5.
  16. Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900 {1958), 50-4; Deseret News, 13 May 1853.
  17. Laws and Ordinances of the General Assembly, 8 and 15 Jan 1851,4 Feb 1851.
  18. JH, 8 Jan 1851. Typical grants appear In Davis County Court Minutes, 15 Sep 1853,8 Jan 1851, and ‘June term ‘1855.
  19. Arrington 41,53; Carr 108,158-9, 173.
  20. A county-wide summary of cooperative commerce and manufacturing Is In Glen M. Leonard, A History of Davis County (1999), 149-66.

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