Washington was settled by the first missionaries to the Cotton Mission in 1857. The growing and processing of cotton were the major reasons for its settlement and existence until the turn of the century. Ten families under the leadership of Samuel Adair and twenty-eight families led by Robert Covington arrived in May 1857. The settlement in this raw, barren valley in Utah Territory was organized as a branch of the Harmony Ward by Isaac C. Haight, who presided over the Parowan LDS Stake. At this time, the name Washington was chosen in honor of the nation's first president, and civic and religious leaders were sustained.
The pioneers prepared the ground for corn and went to work making dams and ditches while they lived in tents, wagons, or dugouts. Most of the settlers were Mormon converts who had formerly lived in the South where cotton was the chief crop. Their call was to grow cotton to ensure the independence and self sufficiency of Zion.
The story of Washington parallels the history of the Cotton Mission. There was more cotton acreage planted in Washington than the other settlements. The settlers struggled with nature: floods washed out their dams built on quicksand bottoms year after year; and they suffered from chills and fever (malaria spread by the mosquitoes which hatched in the springs and along the edges of creeks), drought, grasshoppers and animals at night. They also soon realized that man does not live by cotton alone. They learned they would have to grow their own food and supply their own goods to survive. Many quit the mission; by June 1861 only twenty families remained in Washington. More calls were made by the church leaders in Salt Lake City to serve in the mission, and by 1964 there were 85 families with 413 people.
The colonists were beset by poverty from the beginning. They succeeded in growing cotton, but being far removed from the market, they could not dispose of their lint. They tried freighting to California and to Omaha, Nebraska. They sold some to Brigham Young in Salt Lake City. These measures were temporary, however, and Brigham Young determined that a factory was needed closer to the produce. He had a factory dismantled in Salt Lake City and shipped to Washington where the supply of water was dependable year round. The colonists provided the labor and material and completed the one-story factory in 1866. They began operations January 1867 and added two more stories in 1868. Labor at that time was two dollars a day. Most employees received pay in factory goods, produce and factory scrip. A store was operated in conjunction with the factory, which served as a clearing house for most of the products of the area.
The cotton factory was a symbol of unity and gave hope and encouragement to the Saints. It was the life-line of the settlers in southern Utah, although as a business enterprise it was not a success. In 1871 Brigham Young sold the factory to the colonists. The local people purchased stock and the Rio Virgin Manufacturing Company was formed. However, factory problems were constant: a scarcity of cash, shipments of supplies indispensable to the operation of the factory (particularly dyestuffs and lubricating oil) delayed or lost, inefficient employees were hired and more cotton was carded and spun than could be woven.
The local farmers could make more money raising grapes to make wine sold to the mining camps or working in the mines, so many abandoned the cotton fields. With the advent of the railroad, the cotton industry was dealt a death blow. There followed years when the factory ran very little or was closed. In addition, the mines at Silver Reef ran out of ore and closed, so the outlet for produce was halted. Half of the people moved from Washington and the remainder suffered for sources of income.
In 1873 Brigham Young called on the saints to organize themselves into the United Order, communal living; but the attempt survived only for a year. A silk raising project, under the direction of the Women's Relief Society, was begun and the ladies of Washington participated. The first worms were raised in 1874. In 1896 a state silk commission was formed and they sent instructors to towns to teach the business of reeling silk from cocoons. The success of the project was marginal at best and the endeavor was discontinued.
In the late 1880s, because of the Edmunds-Tucker Act which targeted plural marriages, many men came to southern Utah to avoid federal authorities. Some were given work in the cotton factory. When polygamist raids reached into Washington, the supervisor of the mill had to flee and go into hiding.
From 1890 to 1893 the Washington Fields Dam was built; it solved the irrigation problem created by the annual flooding and destruction to the dams. By 1910 the cotton factory closed its doors to milling. Various uses of the building after the cotton mill ceased operations included the manufacture of juicing machines, turkey processing. Much town property had passed into the hands of "outsiders." Many of the town lots stood uncultivated and homes were unoccupied. For years the population hovered around 500.
After seventy-five years of culinary water having to be dipped from irrigation ditches, a water system was installed. In 1913 the first telephone was installed; in 1923 a gymnasium was added to the school. In 1931 electricity was available; in 1938 Washington had its first street lighting. State highway 91 linked Washington with the rest of the state, and later Interstate 15 was constructed through Washington.
Washington began to experience the population boom the whole county enjoyed beginning in the 1960s. A new elementary school was built in 1976, with additions in 1978 and 1980. Junior high and high school students attend schools located in St. George. By 1983 the city had added a city hall, a park, swimming pool; the cemetery also had been improved. In 1985 the cotton factory was restored by Norma Cannizzaro for public use. The city bonded $4.1 million for the 18-hole Green Springs golf course in 1988.
Approximately 90 percent of the population is Mormon. Washington County has become a mecca for "snowbirds," people who come south for the winter and people who move here from California, northern Utah, and other areas to retire and escape the smog and traffic. There are presently three recreation vehicle parks in Washington. Adjacent to the more industrialized St. George, Washington City still maintains its small-town flavor.