Jesse Knight was one of relatively few Mormon mining magnates in the West. Poor throughout his youth, he was handsomely rewarded for his diligence as a prospector with the discovery of the famous Humbug mine in the Tintic Mining District near Eureka, Utah, in 1886. As the Humbug proved profitable, he acquired other mines in the vicinity, including the Uncle Sam, Beck Tunnel, Iron Blossom, and Colorado.
Knight is significant in western mining and entrepreneurial history because in several important ways he differed from the typical "robber baron" capitalists of the late-nineteenth-century Gilded Age. His success, like theirs, depended upon the skillful acquisition and management of such business variables as claims, labor, capital, technology, and government services, and also upon the development of cost-efficient integrated enterprises, such as the Knight Investment Company. However, he also owned more patented mining claims in the Intermountain West than did his Gentile counterparts, and he was not inclined to engage in stock manipulation like many other mining entrepreneurs and railroad barons. Moreover, his business methods, especially when dealing with his working men, were far more paternalistic and benevolent than those of the typical big businessmen of the era. While other company town and mine owners often exploited their workers, Knight treated his workers very fairly in his company town of Knightville, Utah, which he equipped with a meetinghouse, amusement hall, and school instead of the usual hedonistic establishments of mining camp life.
Although his philanthropy was not unique for the period, his generous gifts to Brigham Young University (an interest he shared with his wife, Amanda) earned him the reputation as the "patron saint" of BYU. He also gave freely to the Mormon Church and to many church-related projects, thereby revealing a kindly, religiously motivated disposition. Furthermore, his comfortable but unostentatious home in Provo, Utah, did not rival the extravagantly garish mansions built by big businessmen from San Francisco's Nob Hill to New York's Fifth Avenue. Nor did he seek high political office like mining kings George Hearst, James Fair, William Sharon, John P. Jones, Nathaniel Hill, Jerome Chaffee, Horace Tabor, William Clark, or Utah's Thomas Kearns--all of whom served in the "millionaire's club" of the United States Senate.
Essentially more sensitive and modest than most business leaders during this age of ruthless capitalism and conspicuous consumption, he probably deserved the endearing nickname of "Uncle Jesse"--a rich but giving uncle. In fact, he believed that his money was for the purpose of doing good and building up his church; he regarded the matter as a "trusted stewardship." As he once said, "The earth is the Lord's bank, and no man has a right to take money out of that bank and use it extravagantly upon himself." Few nabobs of the era would have been willing to make that statement. Although he strayed from the Mormon Church in his early years and briefly affiliated with the anti-Mormon Liberal party in Utah, one must assume that his otherwise devout faith helped prevent him from falling prey to the capitalistic corruption and self-indulgent excesses so tempting and common to the business leaders of the Gilded Age and the western mining industry. Jesse Knight might not have been the only Mormon mining magnate in Utah, but he left a mark on his church and upon the educational and industrial development of the state.
Richard H. Peterson