The Making of Utah’s Dixie

This article originally appeared in Vol.54, No.4 (2007) of Pioneer Magazine.

by Colleen Whitley

Given the persecutions and extremities the Latter-day Saints had suffered in Missouri, Illinois, and crossing what was then called “The Great American Desert,” it was only natural that they did not want to be dependent on “outsiders” any more than was absolutely necessary. Consequently, they looked hard for ways to provide not only their own food and housing, but their metals, tools, and clothing as well.

Cotton was especially needed for clothing, and it was raised in Northern Utah as early as 1851, but the lower elevations and warmer climate of the Santa Clara and Virgin river basins provided the potential to grow semitropical crops like cotton much better. Between 1854 and 1858, 700 Saints were called to go to the area as part of the “Cotton Mission.” Nancy Pace Anderson, a Southerner by her origins, gave a quart of cotton seed to Jacob Hamblin, and it was planted in the Santa Clara valley. The subsequent crop allowed Caroline Beck Knight, Maria Woodbury Haskell, and Lyman Curds to gin, spin, and weave 30 yards of cloth.

The cotton industry was underway, but the area presented a range of difficulties. The soil was alkaline, foreign to those used to the soils of the Midwest and South; the summers were hot, creating great discomfort and breeding insects in swarms; and the water either came in torrents or dried up, and it usually carried the alkali taste. One pioneer was reported to have described the rivers in the area as “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.” More than half of the settlers called to the area were sufficiently unhappy that they left.

Then in 1861, with the outbreak of the Civil War, access to materials became even more acute. At the semi-annual conference of the LDS Church on October 6, 1861, called 300 families, many of them originally from the Southern States, to go south and establish a new community to be named for his counselor, George A. Smith. They would double the existing population and establish the largest city in the region. They would also give the region a new name: “Utah’s Dixie.”

The new families set out in November 1861, led by apostles and Erastus Snow. Their story is well known, in part because James G. Bleak was appointed to keep a journal, a calling he took very seriously For the next 40 years Bleak served as the community’s clerk and kept copious notes and reports on business, church, government—essentially the entire life of the community.

Soon after the company’s arrival, Erastus Snow appointed a committee to propose a site for the town and another to plan canals to provide water for homes and irrigation. Like all the settlers in that area, the new citizens of St. George were plagued by extreme heat in the summer, fierce rainstorms producing sudden floods, and shortages of clean drinking water. Nonetheless, they persisted, and the town grew. When a census of the city was taken in 1862, 245 of those original 300 families called to St. George remained in the city. It is not clear whether those who were missing simply did not move south or whether they had come, but moved back to the north or on to other settlements. Nonetheless, 82 percent of those called stayed, a high percentage by any count, but particularly significant given the drastic level of the exodus of earlier settlers.

Two years later, in 1863, St. George was named the county seat for Washington County, and construction began on a tabernacle to serve the area. The tabernacle was completed in 1875 and became the scene of one of the most touching moments in Utah’s religious history: In the mid-1870s, silver was discovered west of St. George, in Silver Reef, drawing large numbers of miners from Europe, many of whom were members of the Roman Catholic Church, and Father Lawrence Scanlan took a special interest in them. Scanlan was the missionary rector and eventually archbishop of the Salt Lake Diocese, the largest diocese in the area in the Catholic Church in America, covering virtually all of what is now Utah and Nevada. Scanlan came to the Silver Reef and St, George area to help raise funds to build several important structures, including St. John’s Church and a hospital and school, both staffed by Sisters of the Holy Cross.

During his visits to the area, Father Scanlan became friends with John Macfarlane, a Mormon surveyor who often worked in mining. When Macfarlane learned that Scanlan wanted to hold a High Mass in the area but had neither a choir nor a place large enough for all who would want to attend, Macfarlane approached Erastus Snow. Erastus had remained in St, George to oversee LDS Church interests in the area. He offered to let Scanlan and his parishioners use the St. George Tabernacle, Having found a venue for the mass, Macfarlane turned next to the problem of . In 1868 he had organized a local choir that had earned a high reputation for their performances. The choir members set to work to learn all the music for the High Mass in Latin, practicing every night for six weeks.

On Sunday, May 18, 1879, Father Scanlan conducted the service before a large congregation of both faithful Catholics and curious Mormons. He is reported to have said, “I think you are wrong, and you think I am wrong, but this should not prevent us from treating each other with due consideration and respect.” Both the consideration and the respect were evident among those in attendance.

While Erastus Snow continued to represent the LDS Church in the area, other Mormon leaders, including Brigham Young, came to the area frequently, staying with the people they visited. By the mid-1860s, however, the years of hard work and stress began to take their toll on the aging prophet. He was crippled with rheumatism, making it more difficult and painful to travel every year. Consequently, in late 1866, he sent word to the St. George leaders that he would like to winter in the warmer climate and take care of Church needs from that area. He hoped Southern Utah’s mild winters and the skillful care of two of his wives would relieve his suffering so he could continue his many duties as a spiritual leader- He began to make arrangements for a home in St. George.

On November 25, 1870, Brigham Young headed south from Salt Lake City to spend the winter in St. George, thus becoming one of Utah’s first snowbirds. With him were two of his wives, Lucy Bigelow and Eliza Burgess.

Brigham obtained a home for Lucy from Joseph Birch on the southwest corner of 100 North and 100 West and Elizas, just a block down the street on the northwest corner of 100 North and 200 West.

In early 1870 Brigham purchased the Chesney residence, at 100 West 200 North. Building on the house had begun the year before, but Young wanted to remodel it into a larger home to serve, like the Beehive and Gardo Houses in Salt Lake City, as a reception center and office for the Church in the St. George area. His youngest wife, Amelia Folsom, would live there.

What made it possible for Brigham Young to spend so much time away from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, where the rapidly developing methods of communication. The Transcontinental Telegraph, authorized by Congress in October 1861, passed through Ogden along with the railroad. Within a few years, telegraph lines extended south from Ogden for over 500 miles. In 1873, Brigham added a small one-room adobe brick office to Amelia Folsom’s house and in-eluded a direct connection to the telegraph line. When he was in St. George, he could remain in touch with other church leaders in Salt Lake City.

Since work on the Salt Lake Temple was stalled by assorted federal interferences, including threatened confiscations under the Edmunds-Tucker acts, President Young decided to have a temple built far from the center of conflict, and St. George was about as far away as possible. In 1877, the St. George Temple became the first dedicated in Utah and the only temple completed before Brigham Young’s death on August 29th of that same year. (See “The Brigham Young Winter Home? Pioneer magazine [Winter 2000]: 16-19.) □


Sources: Douglas F. Adler and Karl F. Brooks, A History of Washington County: From Isolation to Destination; Leonard Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom and Brigham Young: American Moses; Sister M. Georgia (Costin), “Sister M. Augusta (Anderson): Doing What Needs Doing,” in Worth Their Salt: Notable but Unnoted Women of Utah, ed. Colleen Whitley; Allan Kent Powell, The Utah Guide; Paul Reeve, “Silver Reef and Utah’s Shifting Frontier,” in From the Ground Up: The History of Mining in Utah, ed. Colleen Whitley; Orson E Whitney Popular History of Utah: Brigham Young’s Homes, ed. Colleen Whitley; Worth Their Salt, ed. Colleen Whitley; Utah History Encyclopedia, ed. Allan Kent Powell; Powell, “The Cotton Mission,” and “St. George

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