“Mississippi Mormons,” Ensign, June 1977, 46
The company that came with Brigham Young through Emigration Canyon was an exciting blend of races and nationalities; but among the Danes and the New Englanders and the Canadians was a small group of converts whose soft drawls and black servants marked them as Southerners.
I was amazed to discover two facts about these Southern converts: (1) They went West a full year before Brigham Young and his party; wintered at Pueblo, Colorado, while waiting for the rest of the Saints; joined them at Fort Laramie in June 1847; and entered the Valley with the first company; and (2) these Southern converts established the first Latter-day Saint settlement in the West after Salt Lake City—Cottonwood—and then, in response to a Church call, made up most of the mission that settled San Bernardino, California, in 1851.
These are historic firsts, both of them, but the group seems to have slipped into obscurity, probably because Southerners, according to Andrew Jenson, our assistant Church historian in the early twentieth century, only comprised 3 percent of the pioneers who came West. The first Mormon missionaries gazed on Southern soil in 1839. Like other outsiders, they soon learned that the warmth of Southern hospitality was matched only by the heat of Southern anger, and the Southern Mission soon acquired a reputation for tarrings and featherings, beatings, and even a few shootings. For the most part the doors of Southern homes opened to the missionaries in friendship—but also closed behind them, still in friendship, without yielding many baptisms.
Monroe County, Mississippi, however, was a little different. Monroe County had been settled, for the most part, by couples with young children who had emigrated to that good cotton country from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama in the late 1830s. As those children grew they intermarried, and practically the whole county was kin. When the missionaries arrived in 1843, the converts spread the gospel among their families, and within a year, a congregation of perhaps 150–200 Latter-day Saints was thriving, including black members as well as whites. It was called the Tombigbee Branch after the river where most of them settled. They were reasonably well-off, with livestock, homes, slaves, and good land.
After the martyrdom, Brigham Young began gathering the Saints as persecution thickened, and the man he sent south to Mississippi was John Brown, an extraordinarily gifted leader who had opened the mission in Monroe County. A Southerner himself from Tennessee, he had taught school in Illinois, hoping to earn enough money to continue his own education. A Mormon elder had obtained permission to preach in a field by the school to farm workers during noon hour. This went on for three days. Brown listened and was converted. The news shocked the community, and one night a mob burned his schoolhouse.1
So Brown headed for Nauvoo, arriving in October 1841, where he became acquainted with the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. His mission call came during April conference in 1843, and he traveled “without purse or scrip” in parts of Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi, coming eventually to Monroe County, where, in addition to his harvest of baptisms, he converted Elizabeth Crosby, daughter of a well-to-do Mississippi farmer, whom he married in May 1844.
After the martyrdom, in 1845, he and five others were recalled to Nauvoo. There he was one of “The Whittling and Whistling Club” that took the place of city police after the Illinois legislature had repealed the Nauvoo Charter and its constituted police force. He wrote, “We worked on the temple during the day and whittled and whistled through the streets at night, keeping everything in order, and guarding the city against mobs. There was no need of a curfew bell in those times; none were seen upon the streets, except those on duty.”2 In two months, he returned for his wife and brought her to Nauvoo, and had barely built a house when, amid thickening persecutions, he suffered from the enforced exodus of 1846.
John’s assignment was to return a third time to Mississippi and gather the Saints and join the main pioneer camp near the Platte River. In the snow and storms of January 1846, John left for Mississippi; he directed the hasty preparations and led forty-three persons in nineteen wagons out on 8 April 1846. He planned to return in the fall of 1846 for the rest.
These fourteen families chose William Crosby, John’s father-in-law, as their leader, and hurried their oxen the 640 miles to Independence, arriving less than two months later on May 26th. Independence was buzzing with the unfounded rumor that Mormons had murdered Governor Lilburn Boggs, author of the famous “extermination order.” Well-wishers warned the Crosby company to wait till the vengeful Mormons had passed. Under these circumstances, the little band thought it wise not to mention their own religious affiliation. When a six-wagon party of emigrants to Oregon accompanying them discovered that they were surrounded by Mormons, they hit on the excuse that the Mormons weren’t traveling fast enough and left one morning at a trot. The separation was short-lived. Keeping their same even pace, the Southerners passed them next day. By then, the emigrants had decided that they would rather take their chances with the Mormons than with the Indians, and timidly pulled their wagons in behind the Crosby group.
Arriving on the Platte River, the Mississippians were disappointed not to see the curling smoke of Brigham Young’s campfires. No word awaited them. The non-Mormons left with another group going to Oregon; and after a lonely night and day on the riverbank, the men hunkered in a circle to discuss their situation. Although some objected strongly, the majority concluded that the Saints must surely be traveling ahead of them up the north side of the river. They packed up their pans and unburned buffalo chips and pressed the oxen for speed. The exhausting days that followed were punctuated by frightening events—the threat of a Pawnee raid, stampeding horses and cattle, the first buffalo hunt, a midnight gale that uprooted tents and overturned small wagons, and a nighttime visit by Indians that left the travelers missing a mare and two colts before the Mississippians discovered the shadowy thieves.
Worst of all was the news from returning California travelers that there were no Mormons on the trail ahead of them. Distressed, they decided to winter at the first suitable place. Past Chimney Rock they met up with a leathery-skinned old French trapper dressed in Indian leggings and fringe, with hair down to his shoulders. John Richards (pronounced Reshaw) traded a few furs with the company and then invited them to winter in Pueblo with him. They accepted his kind offer and left for Pueblo, Colorado, on July 10th.3
Mr. Richards introduced them to friendly Indians in the next few days, one of whom fancied a young married woman in the company. He offered her husband five horses and was quite insulted when the offer was refused. He insisted. He would treat her well; he was not poor. Other Indians began to gather around and nod in agreement, and Richards sensed an imminent fight. So he explained to them that the Americans, like Indians, did not like to sell their squaws to strangers. He himself had been among other Indians for five years before they suggested selling him a wife. With a few grumbles, the Indians conceded and walked away.
Finally, on the seventh of August, the wagon train entered Pueblo, a fort occupied only by six or eight mountain men and their Spanish or Indian wives. A few meager corn patches and small vegetable gardens promised potential food supply, but equally important was the reassurance that the main body of Saints was wintering along the Missouri River, delayed by the formation of the five hundred-man Mormon Battalion. John Brown wrote of the company, “They were much disappointed at this turn of affairs, as we had expected to unite with the main body of the Church in the Rocky Mountains.”4
He set them to work preparing for the winter. Francis Parkman, famous western traveler and writer, recorded in his The Oregon Trail: “After half an hour’s riding we saw the white wagons of the Mormons drawn up among the trees [in the wide and well-timbered bottom of the Arkansas]. Axes were sounding, trees were falling, and log huts going up along the edge of the woods and upon the adjoining meadow.” He adds a familiar note: “As we came up the Mormons left their work and seated themselves on the timber around us, when they began earnestly to discuss points of theology.”5 George Ruxton, whose Life in the Far West is a basic source on the West in the early 1840s, said that the Mississippians were “a far better class than the generality of Mormons, and comprised many wealthy and respectable farmers.”6 In addition to their hunting, they planted a turnip patch and also some pumpkins, beans, and melons, and worked for the trappers, who paid them in corn. The near-year they spent in Pueblo made them the first group to establish a religious colony in the West since Father Junipero Serra and his associates founded Catholic missions in 1769. They also thus founded the first of more than five hundred Latter-day Saint communities in the Far West in the years that followed. The first white births in Colorado were to these Mississippi women at Pueblo.7
They also built a log church house for meetings, preaching, and socials. Ruxton notes that the mountain men joined these festivities, attracted by the “many really beautiful [Mississippi] girls who sported their tall, graceful figures at the frequent fandangoes.” He notes, slyly, that “a party of mountaineers,” arriving “at the temple” for a dance, were rather taken aback by finding themselves in for a sermon, which one of the elders delivered preparatory to the “physical exercises.”8
Meanwhile John Brown led a small party back South for the rest of their families, traveling part way with some government teamsters headed back from Santa Fe. They reached the main body of the Mormons at Winter Quarters in October.
October was the month for reunions. Some 154 sick Mormon Battalion members were detached from the main body about fifty miles below Pueblo and went to winter at Pueblo, boosting the Mormon population there to 275 persons. Their captain, James Brown of North Carolina, who had also been in Mississippi as a missionary, supervised the construction of eighteen additional log cabins for the soldiers.9
Meanwhile John Brown’s party arrived in Mississippi in January 1847 to prepare for the thousand-mile trip to Winter Quarters. But Brigham Young sent word to leave the main party in Mississippi for another year and handpick a few able-bodied men to join the advance company. Faithfully, John Brown arrived at Winter Quarters with four white men and two black servants, two other servants having died on the arduous journey. Chosen to lead the hunting parties en route, John set out with two wagons, three mules, four oxen, two cows, and two black men named Oscar and Mark. Since another Southerner, James Flake, sent a black member, Green, with the same company, these three blacks were with the advance company that arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in July of 1847. That company consisted of 143 men, three women, and two children.10
The advance company left Winter Quarters on April 8 and reached Laramie on June 3, where they were welcomed by seventeen of the Pueblo Saints, Mississippians and Battalionists who had been awaiting their arrival for two weeks. Brigham Young sent Amasa Lyman of the Council of the Twelve down to lead the rest of the Pueblo group to Salt Lake Valley.
Thus, some Mississippi Mormons were in the advance party that arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 22, and had planted potatoes, beans, and buckwheat by the time Brigham Young entered the valley on July 24th. True to Southern tradition, the Mississippians had also mowed the grass and planted a turnip patch.
The Mississippians helped the settlement put down roots; then a party left for Mississippi On 26 August 1847. John Brown was among them, traveling with Brigham Young to Winter Quarters and arriving in Mississippi in December. Ready to cross the plains for the fifth time, he led the remainder of the Mississippi Mormons toward St. Louis on 10 March 1848. The thirteen families—fifty-six white persons and thirty-four black—arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in October 1848; there were now about two hundred white Southerners in the valley and thirty-seven blacks.
Under the unofficial direction of Amasa Lyman, the majority of the Southerners built a row of cabins nine miles southeast of the original Salt Lake fort, the first town in Utah outside Salt Lake City.11 Then called Cottonwood or Mississippi Ward, it is now called Holladay, after John D. Holladay, a corpulent Mississippian who was one of the early bishops of the ward. By 1849, this community consisted of about seventy families, most of whom migrated to Southern California in March 1851 with Charles C. Rich and Amasa M. Lyman of the Quorum of the Twelve. Here, with others, they founded San Bernardino. They built a road to the nearby mountains to bring down timber, with which they built sawmills, gristmills, and then raised fields of grain. John Holladay later harvested 110 bushels from the single bushel of Taos (New Mexico) hard red wheat he had planted.12
They remained in San Bernardino until 1858, when the majority of them obeyed Brigham Young’s call to return to Utah during the so-called “Utah War.” Most of these returnees settled in southern Utah, then, in the 1870s, packed up again to colonize Arizona, where they established Mormon settlements along the Little Colorado and Gila rivers. Many of their descendants are among the leading families in Arizona today.13
These Southerners, particularly those who went to Utah in 1847 and 1848 and settled in San Bernardino in 1851, brought to Southern California their courtly manners, their independent ways, and their spirit of enterprise. Marvelous frontiersmen, resourceful colonizers, and shrewd traders, most of them were ultimately called to lead Mormon colonies to other areas of the West. Nearly all of them were sent out to newly established communities to set up sawmills, gristmills, tanneries, textile mills, and other community enterprises. They and their wives also introduced a certain chivalry and elegance into the social life of their communities, and added dignity to the political and business life of Utah, California, and Arizona.
Possessed of a sparkling sense of fun, they preserved a delightful incident in their records of an early school in San Bernardino that pinpoints one of the differences between the Southern pupils and their Yankee schoolteacher. A first-grader asked the teacher how to spell “rat.” Somewhat impatiently the teacher spelled it for him, “R-A-T.” Fixing her with a look of scorn he replied: “I don’t mean mousey rat. Anybody knows how to spell dat. What I mean is like in ‘Do it rat now.’”14
Intelligent and resourceful, those Southern women accomplished miracles in establishing homes and rearing their families. One San Bernardino sister helped build her house, doing all the work on the fireplace and chimney. She took in washing, cut wild hay along the river bottoms, and stacked it for the cows for the winter; she grubbed the brush, hauled manure on the land, sheared the sheep, plowed, planted, helped make the irrigating ditches, and spun and wove cloth. Another sister reports that she arose one morning and found the wood box empty. Not wanting to coddle her children, she says she peeled the potatoes, sliced the ham, made biscuits, and broke the eggs, then called the boys. One glance at the raw food was a strong enough hint to them. One of the negligent boys said, “Well, I’ll be darned,” and ran to the woodpile.15
Another sister heard that a young man who was leaving in a week to go on a mission had no suit to wear. The San Bernardino sisters promptly went to work, “with the result that one Sunday the wool was on the sheep’s back, but by the next Sunday, it had been clipped, washed, corded, spun, woven, and made into a splendid suit and was on the back of the missionary as he delivered his farewell address in the little church house the next Sunday.”16
The women were also the midwives, doctors, and druggists of the community. One woman noted in her diary that a young girl had accidentally ignited a gunpowder can. The explosion burned her face “until her skin hung in blisters and rages.” Paulina Phelps Lyman, the wife of Amasa Lyman, applied first linseed oil, then a mask, then a coat of varnish! The girl’s face, according to a later report, healed without a scar.17
One black woman, Alice Rowan, the daughter of two of the servants who came to California with their families, became a schoolteacher and taught white children at Riverside. She may very well have been the first black to teach at a white school in the United States.
A fine record of these Southerners’ activities in San Bernardino was kept by Richard Hopkins, the clerk. With a touch of humor, he describes a duststorm soon after they arrived:
“The storm of yesterday [26 November 1851] amounted to a tornado during last night and has continued all day with violence. Many of the houses of our settlement were unroofed during the night. Wagons were overturned and every hole and corner that it was possible for dust to penetrate was filled. In many of the houses the dust was an inch thick in everything that presented a surface for it to rest upon, and the faces and forms of everyone that is visible today look as if a requisition upon the waters of San Bernardino was indispensably necessary.”18
The next year, 1852, saw them celebrating their bountiful harvest in September:
“After our first crop this year we had a kind of Thanksgiving Feast in our Tabernacle. Every person upon the place, white, black and red, was invited and fed. Numerous specimens of the vegetable kingdom were exhibited. 1 stalk of corn measuring 16 feet; a beet weighing 25 pounds; a cabbage weighing 40 pounds; melons weighing as much as 38 pounds; mammoth pumpkins; 4 onions weighing 9 pounds. After dinner, the dance was kept up until 9 oclock.”19 By then they had 2,000 acres under cultivation. Another 2,000 were added in 1853. By 1853, more than 50,000 grape vines had been planted.
Another sister took trees when the call came to return to Utah: twelve walnut trees, twelve almond trees, two figs, twelve quinces, and a large number of grape vines. These were the first of those trees planted in Utah, and family tradition identifies five of the same walnut trees still standing on the family homestead in Centerville.20
Mostly small landowners, stockmen, and frontiersmen, these Southerners had already demonstrated in Mississippi their courage, love of freedom, independence, and frontier resourcefulness. Because of their prior frontier experience and because of their hardiness, they became Brigham Young’s trusted associates in managing men and resources for the development of Mormon settlements. Although they became Westerners, they retained their mellow Southern drawl and exhibited the hospitality for which Southerners have always been famed. And they showed the same fondness for rhetoric which Southerners have always displayed. By their ingenuity, faithfulness, determination, and physical toughness, they became stalwarts in helping make the Western desert blossom like the rose.21