Saints in the San Luis Valley The early Mormon settlements

Filed under: Living on the Earth |

by Mary Lowers

The Latter Day Saints or Mormons are one of the groups responsible for Anglo settlement in the American West.  As a young man, Joseph Smith, the founder of the denomination, had a series of visions in the western part of New York state know as the “burned over district” because of the large number of Christian revivals and revelations that came out of this region in the 1830s and 1840s. These spiritual fires ignited the American need for a “Mission from God”. Smith’s visions were mentored under the guidance of an angel called Moroni who showed him a book with leaves of golden plate buried in the woods. These plates comprised a book including the Judeo Christian history of an ancient American civilization. In 1830 Smith published some of his revelation in the Book of Mormon.

The revelations of Smith and other Mormon prophets were so powerful that they brought people from all over the globe to join the new church. At this time industrialization, technological advances, global population stresses, war, religious persecution and social unrest left many searching for an answer, if you will, a divine purpose in their lives. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) says social scientist Marvin A. Hill can be seen as a microcosm of America. “The Mormon commitment to build Zion in the west is a manifestation of the American Mission.” It was the desire of these early Mormons to find a fair and harmonious society as the Book of Mormon promised.

In trying to establish the Kingdom of Zion on Earth, Smith and his followers kept moving west. They were tarred and feathered, burned out of their homes and generally persecuted for their religious tenets, which included polygamy.  They even described themselves as a “peculiar people”. The revelations of Joseph Smith were regarded as scripture to his followers. Beginning in the mid-1830s and into the 1840s the Mormons came into conflict with the state governments of Illinois and Missouri In 1844 Joseph Smith was killed by a mob who stormed the Carthage, IL jail cell in which he was incarcerated.  This made Smith a martyr for his religion.

He left his followers with a teaching regarding government. Smith said, “Congress has no power to make a law that would abridge the rights of my religion.” As Justin Harold Flowers comments, “To avoid persecution Mormons began to trek west to create Zion seeking a place to implement communities where they were free to live their religious, political and social practices.” Brigham Young became the first President of the Mormon Church after the death of the founder. He led his people through many difficulties west to establish “Zion” in Utah. The persecution and the death of the Prophet, Joseph Smith, at the hands of Mormon-hating “Gentiles” as nonbelievers were called, solidified the Latter Day Saints. Mormon poetess Eliza Snow wrote “from the west side of the Mississippi” in 1846, while fleeing persecution the following verse:

The Camp, the Camp–its numbers swell

Shout! Shout! O Camp of Israel.

The King, the Lord of Hosts is near,

His armies guard our front and rear.

Though we fly from vile aggression,

We’ll maintain our pure profession,

Seek a peaceful possession

Far from Gentiles and oppression.

From its founding the Mormon Church had missionaries ready to bring the new revelations to new people. While the main temple of the congregation was in Salt Lake City, Utah, leaders did not establish Mormon communities there alone. In western North America the term “Mormon Corridor” refers to the areas settled by members of the Church of Christ of the Latter Day Saints. In the 1870s Mormons began to settle in the southern San Luis Valley (SLV) of Colorado, mostly in Conejos County. While mining was a source of employment for some of the new immigrants, most Mormons worked in agriculture.

The Mormons had a process of molding a group of people to their pattern of religious belief which was the root of their society. The church leaders had a fixed pattern of settlement for their followers to adhere to, including standardization of the methods and practices followed as closely as individual circumstances would allow. As President of the Church, Brigham Young viewed the establishment of Mormon colonies as a religious project and therefore exercised what Judson Harold Flowers in his article about Mormon settlement of the SLV called “paternal supervision” over the entire project. Authorities in the Mormon settlements were “Apostles of the Church” appointed by leaders in Salt Lake City.

Communities were carefully planned and members selected to give each new colony a variety of individual talents and abilities. As Judson Flowers says, “This system proved very effective, not only in helping to assure success of the settlement, but in caring for the absorption of the steady stream of immigrants flowing into Utah.” Church leaders were appointed in a hierarchical manner. Settlements were planned with the establishment of a community on the most promising site. From this hub other settlements would expand. Towns were placed at intervals of seven to ten miles. They were surveyed into large square blocks with lots for individual families. There was always common grazing land near the center of a Mormon town with a ditch or small stream running through it to water the animals. Farms covered as much land as was possible between towns.

As a rule, homes were not built on farmland and all the Saints lived in towns for defense, the establishment of local government, a greater opportunity for religious and spiritual growth, education and recreation. This setup kept the Mormons square in the middle of church activities. Judson Flowers notes, “Both religious and secular appointments required the sustaining approval of the popular membership of the area.” In Mormon communities religious and secular roles often crossed. There was little or no separation between church and state.

Settlements were encouraged to be as self-sustaining as possible. This policy allowed for a quicker development of local enterprises and industries. It also allowed Mormons to patronize local Mormon businesses. In the SLV settlers included Scandinavians, mostly Danish converts from Utah sent by the Church to help orient new converts from the Southern US Mission and newly converted Catawba Indians from North Carolina. As well as being relatively new converts themselves from their years farming in Utah, the Danes were expert dry land farmers. This skill proved valuable in the SLV.

The Town of Manassa was founded by Mormons in 1879 and became the biggest Mormon town in Colorado (Joe Lewis, the famous prize fighter known as the Manassa Mauler, was from Southern US Mission Mormon stock).  That was followed by the founding of Sanford six miles east of Manassa, then Ephraim, now a ghost town. In 1880 Richfield was established north of Manassa. By 1883 several settlements of Saints organized the San Luis Stake. A stake is an intermediate level in the organization of the Mormon Church including groups of settlements that are contiguous.

As Dana Rae Echohawk states in her Master’s Degree Thesis, “Upward mobility on the American ladder of progress for common people attracted Southerners, Scandinavians, and Catawbas who came to the SLV who generally were not well-to-do in their places of origin.” The Southern Mission of the Latter Day Saints was headed up by Civil War Vet John Morgan, who upon receiving instructions from the leaders in Salt Lake City led a group of settlers from near Rome, GA and settlers from Alabama to the SLV. Morgan described the people emigrating as “broken in feeling and fortune.”

Southerners chose to move west with their new religion for several reasons. First of all some were convinced by the arguments of the Mormon missionaries that it was their task to establish a holy kingdom, a Zion in the wilderness. Their desire was to find the just and harmonious society found in the Book of Mormon. Secondly, Christian southerners who were unaffiliated with other denominations saw that the zeal and commitment of the Mormon missionaries continued through persecution and therefore, must be true. The third reason is simple fear of persecution.  As Morgan put it, “The irritation with the behavior of local elites with their night riding minions (KKK) may have helped compel some of the southern plain folk to convert.” Reconstruction after the end of the Civil War caused population upheaval, particularly in the south, and many moved west to start anew. Edward R. Crowther, writing in the SLV Historian about the so-called “Southern Saints” said, “Retaliation and murder, at least in part, spawned the desire of southern converts to immigrate to the west.”

The first official Mormon mission was the Lamanite or American Indian Mission. Begun in 1830 this mission reemerged after the Civil War. The Mormon doctrine teaches that some Native Americans or Lamanites belong to a group of Israelites many know as the “lost tribes of Israel” who left Jerusalem at the time of the Babylonian captivity and eventually crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a ship that landed in North America. In the Book of Mormon it is envisioned that converted Native American Lamanites would assist in building a “new Jerusalem” in North America.

In 1883 Mormon missionaries came to the Catawba Tribe of the Carolinas. This native nation is now located on a six hundred forty acre homeland at Rock Hill, York County, SC. When the first explorers from Spain met the Catawba (Cofitachiqui on Spanish documents) people, their lands covered most of what are now SC, central NC, and north into VA.  By 1847 there were so few Catawbas left that Governor David Johnson of SC declared them extinct. It was under this state of extreme stress that Mormon missionaries found the Catawbas in 1883.

Once again John Morgan of the Southern States Mission acted as an agent for the tribe and made arrangements to bring Catawba converts to “Zion in Colorado.” Morgan wrote, “Among those that the Elders have come in contact with are a remnant of the powerful Catawba Tribe of Indians now numbering only ninety three souls. They live on a reservation consisting of six hundred . . . acres and receiving an annuity of $800 per annum from the State of SC. About two thirds of the tribe embraced the Gospel with very fair prospects of all or nearly all being baptized. They seem earnest and zealous and are endeavoring to make good Later-Day-Saints.” Five families making up a large part of the Catawbas moved to the SLV as Mormon settlers between 1886 and 1890. Descendants of Catawba people in the SLV refer to themselves as Western Catawba. The Federal government does not recognize this group as a native nation.

A group of Scandinavians, mostly Danes, were dispatched to the SLV at the direction of Mormon leaders from the Sanpete Stake in Utah. Most had come to the Mormon faith in Denmark in the 1850s. Danish government statistics from 1904 show that one out of every twenty-two Danish immigrants to the US became a Mormon convert.  Hans Jensen, leader of the eighteen Scandinavian settlers who came to the SLV from Utah, was made the first Mormon Bishop in CO.

As Crowder says in the SLV Historian, “there was a utopian element to the Mormon immigration. Often it was kin-based migration, a trek of family and friends looking for a new life.” New to the SLV, Mormon settlers were helped by local Noreteño families who came with provisions, shelter, and land acquisitions. Echohawk writes, “Most residents in the region had not previously met Mormons and hostilities leveled at them in the American South and Scandinavia had not preceded them to the Valley.” The SLV Courier in 1889 wrote about the immigrants, “A great many of the better class of Mormons are leaving Utah and settling in this Valley, mostly in the vicinity of Manassa. These people are a valuable addition to the country as they understand thoroughly the problem of farming by irrigation.”

The Mormons tried to get along with their new neighbors. Some plural wives were hidden out in the SLV as widows from Utah. Brigham H. Roberts, a Mormon Church official visiting Conejos County at this time, wrote to the Denver Tribune, “Our settlements in the state have no political significance. We come to obtain homes, to make the wilderness glad of our toil and the desert blossom as the rose, rather than dabble in sly games of politics.” Care was taken to assure community success. Each new Mormon settlement had a variety of individual talents and abilities needed to help a new community to succeed. Each settlement was designed to be as self-sufficient as possible.

The new denomination was not on entirely easy footing in the SLV. Judson Flowers comments, “Life was hard here. Persecution even followed them to their new home. They tell of sitting in a church and having a dead chicken thrown in the window and having a hand reach in to pull their beards. They struck out to what must have seemed the distant west, to a land they knew nothing about.” Coloradoans like other Americans at the time saw the Mormons as a “peculiar people” with beliefs and customs they did not understand. In fact Mormons were in the 1860s and 1870s the most despised religious minority in the US. On top of this, as Crowder points out, besides their new Mormon religion “the manufacturing of a Mormon Community was not without hardship and required a sufficient degree of melding among peoples with Southern, Scandinavian and Yankee predilections.”

But despite all persecution and hardship the mission to the SLV was a success. Their descendants still populate the southern part of the SLV. Manassa and Sanford stand as a testimony to the Mormon presence. Marvin S. Hill, in talking about Mormonism and the Mormon experience, points out, “The power of early Mormonism was the millennial hope, the vision of Zion soon to arise upon the Earth.”

 

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