Utah History Encyclopedia
HOME ABOUT PREFACE

THE COTTON MISSION

By Georgene Cahoon Evans
When the Mormons entered the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young recognized the need of the pioneers for clothing as well as food. He resolved that the Latter-day Saints should be economically independent, and experiments in growing cotton in the Salt Lake Valley were implemented.

Early exploration in the 1850s confirmed that the Santa Clara and Virgin river basins, located 300 miles south of Salt Lake City at a lower altitude, had the potential to grow cotton, grapes, figs, flax, hemp, rice, sugar cane, tobacco, and other much-needed semitropical products. Following the Utah War of 1857-58 Brigham Young's drive for self-sufficiency was strengthened.

By this time Parowan, New Harmony, Pine Valley, Toquerville, and Santa Clara had been established. The mission of those sent to Santa Clara was to befriend the Indians. This had to be done before cotton could be planted. However, at Santa Clara three quarts of old cotton seed were procured, planted, harvested, and ginned. The cotton was then carded, spun, and woven into thirty yards of cloth. A sample was sent to Brigham Young.

Church members were called to go to Washington County to colonize, with the specific assignment to "grow cotton." They were told that the Cotton Mission should be considered as important to them as if they were called to preach the gospel among the nations. Settlements involved in the Cotton Mission, some now erased from memories and maps, were Washington, St. George, Heberville (Tonaquint), Parowan, Grafton, Hurricane, Santa Clara, Harrisburg, Duncan's Retreat, West Point, Rockville, Millersburg, Shunesburg, Northrop, Springdale, Gunlock, Harmony, Kanarra, Hebron, Middleton, Pine Valley, Pinto, Leeds, Bellevue (Pintura), Panada, Eagleville, Cedar City, and Toquerville. There were also those on Muddy Creek--St. Joseph, St. Thomas, and Overton. Some of these settlements involved just a few families.

Men were chosen for their skills and capital equipment. The first calls included: ten families under the leadership of Samuel Adair left Payson 3 March 1857; twenty-eight families were called at April 1857 conference and came under the direction of Robert Covington; fifty families arrived at Washington from San Bernardino. They had been told to return to Utah because of the Utah War in 1857. Most stayed for the winter and left in the spring for other locations in Dixie and elsewhere. Three hundred families were called in October 1861 conference. That year the Civil War cut off cotton supplies. Thirty families of Swiss converts were included in the call; and they were directed to settle in Santa Clara and provide supplies for the cotton farmers. In 1862 220 families were called. Fifty or sixty families were called in October 1864 to settle south of St. George on the Muddy River. At least 300 additional families (upwards of 1,000 persons) were called in the late 1860s and 1870s.

The Covington company arrived in May 1857. Isaac C. Haight, who was presiding over the Parowan Stake, organized the new settlement as a branch of the Harmony Ward. It was at this time that the name Washington was chosen for the new town. Civic and religious leaders were sustained. The pioneers prepared the ground for corn and went to work making dams and ditches. They lived in tents, wagons, or dugouts.

Many problems were encountered as they struggled with nature. Most of the early colonists were converts from the South and were familiar with cotton but were not familiar with irrigation. They had to cope with the alkali in the sandy soil. They had an unending battle with the Virgin River. Their dams, built on quicksand bottoms, were washed out yearly, sometimes several times. One year there was a drought, and grasshoppers and worms consumed their crops. They had night watches to protect their crops from hungry animals.

As cotton growers they were successful, but they quickly found that to survive they had to grow their own food and "make do." Many were beset with chills and fever and were unaware that they had contracted malaria from the mosquitoes that bred in the seeping springs and along the streams' edges. This robbed them of much productive energy.

Many quit the mission. By June 1861 only twenty families remained in Washington. Late that year, the community received quite a number of new settlers, most of them from Sanpete County. Their spirits rose. One historian said, "Just to have a few fresh arrivals to share their miseries must have made the burden lighter." In 1862 the arriving cotton missionaries settled in what is now St. George.

Most of the early ginning was on a home basis, but there was a problem processing and selling the "lint." One-tenth was sent to Salt Lake as tithing, and as much as possible was shipped east by freight. One year some was freighted to California. Brigham Young objected and arranged for the purchase of much of it.

Brigham Young then had machinery imported. Factories for processing cotton and wool were set up in Salt Lake City, Springville, and Parowan. When it was determined that the Cotton Mission had a deteriorating economy and needed support, Young had the equipment operating in Salt Lake City dismantled and shipped south in 1866. The cotton factory was built in Washington because of its adequate water supply and its central location for the cotton growers. The colonists were asked to contribute their labor and materials to help build the factory. More missionaries were called.

Indian troubles forced the colonists to neglect their crops; some homes and farms in the smaller settlements were abandoned. The end of the Civil War then caused the price of cotton to drop. The less hardy pulled up their stakes and left. The ruts in that trail were deepened as many fled to other settlements.

There was always an acute cash shortage. Most of the exchange was in goods or in paper money printed for temple and factory work, which was not acceptable for the purchase of materials and machinery outside the territory. Added to the factory was a section used for a store, a branch of ZCMI where miscellaneous items for everyday living could be purchased.

One thing that encouraged the poverty-plagued Dixie colonists to remain was the granting of subsidies out of tithing resources to construct a tabernacle and a temple in St. George. These were "public work" projects. Mines in Nevada and in Leeds, Utah, provided markets for the pioneer produce, which included grapes for wine. The emphasis was shifted from cotton. Young men fled to the mines to work for easier money.

The cotton factory began operating in 1869, the year the railroads were united, linking the East with the West. The settlers' problems multiplied. Supplies for the northern communities were now brought in by rail. New machinery was required at the factory for quality production; two additional stories were added. Skilled help was difficult to obtain. Dyes and supplies had to be obtained from the East. The growers organized a cooperative to better their marketing possibilities and increase their purchasing power in California. Their first purchasing agent was killed by Mojave Indians.

The colonies on the Muddy had furnished most of the cotton during the period from 1866 to 1870. An official survey revealed that their farms were located in Nevada, instead of Utah. Nevada then demanded back taxes in cash, which taxes had already been paid to Utah. Because of the tax situation, malaria, and poverty, Brigham Young advised the colonists to abandon their settlements in 1871.

The cotton industry was revived briefly from 1873 to 1876 and again from 1893 to 1896. The factory made a profit for only a brief period in the 1890s, under the direction of Thomas Judd; it ceased operation as a cotton mill in 1910.

See: Andrew Karl Larson, I Was Called to Dixie (1961) and Red Hills of November (1957); and Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom (1958).