Fort Harmony day; uncovering the origins of Washington County settlement

Photos show corner markers at the Fort Harmony site constructed by the Utah Trails and Landmarks Association in 1936, New Harmony, Utah, June 6, 2019 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

FEATURE — The original focal point of the settlement of Washington County isn’t currently a very visible part of the landscape.

Corner marker at the Fort Harmony site constructed by the Utah Trails and Landmarks Association in 1936, New Harmony, Utah, June 6, 2019 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Today, one could drive by and miss the ruins of Fort Harmony, which is located 1.1 miles off the New Harmony freeway exit (Exit 42) on the highway that connects Interstate 15 to today’s town. The ruins of the short-lived Indian Mission headquarters is right next to the New Harmony Branch of the Washington County library.

In 1936, thanks to efforts by the Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association, rocks were stacked to mark the corners of the fort that provide an indication of how large the fort was, a square of about 200 feet on each side. The foundations of some of the fort’s walls are still visible, too. Near the middle of the former enclosure stands a monument also erected in 1936, and at the visitor entrance at the northeast corner stands an interpretive sign installed more recently by the Sons of Utah Pioneers. Without those bits of interpretation, most visitors wouldn’t know anything about the fort.

And many would not want to venture to see the older monument, especially if they’re wearing sandals, as the enclosure has been taken over by weeds. Burrs that stick to shoes and socks are inevitable for those who reach the thick, stone obelisk. 

Fort establishment

Before the first settlers arrived, the valley was a place where the Native Americans camped and gathered for winter trading, said Lyman Platt, one of the founders of the Fort Harmony Historical Society. That fact made it a prime location for an Indian Mission Headquarters for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was one of its main purposes when settlers did arrive.

In December 1852, a group of ten men including John D. Lee and Elisha Groves started building a fort along Ash Creek, near the site of today’s Ash Creek Reservoir, which they called Harmony in honor of Harmony, Pennsylvania, where much of the Book of Mormon was translated.

“The local settlers also liked the name because it suggested the harmony and united action the pioneers wanted to engender during their periods of trial and hardship,” the Washington County Historical Society web page about New Harmony suggests. 

Inevitably, there would be some disharmony in Harmony later on, however.

This first attempt at a fort would be wooden. Lumber for the fort came from Parowan. Even local Native Americans helped in its construction.

The Fort Harmony site boasts a picturesque backdrop of the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park, New Harmony, Utah, June 6, 2019 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

The fort included a room used as a school. It was considered a good military location, as it was near springs. The community’s purpose was to grow food to support the miners and millworkers of the newfound Iron Mission and as a headquarters for the Southern Indian Mission.

In April 1854, 23 young men who had been called to serve as “missionaries to the Indians,” under the direction of Rufus Allen, departed Salt Lake City for Fort Harmony. Their marching orders were to raise food, give it to the Native Americans, convert them and teach them how to live.

“President Young told us to travel among the Indians, learn their language, teach them to work, and if possible, teach them the gospel,” Thomas Brown, one of those missionaries who kept a regular diary, wrote. 

Once these missionaries arrived in May, Lee put them to work building fences, clearing land and raising crops to support the settlement for the upcoming winter.

John D. Lee was given charge of the effort to help the native people and distributed seeds and other supplies to help them farm. The missionaries even established a school with an initial class of 10 pupils.

Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball arrived during that same time period to visit the settlement and see how things were going. Kimball prophesied that if the missionaries labored faithfully, peace would abide there. He also predicted a future wagon road through Black Ridge and that a temple would be erected within the vicinity where the Native Americans could go to receive their endowments.

However, the group’s original efforts became a false start when Brigham Young advised them that there wasn’t adequate land to grow enough food to sustain the colony and that the location was too susceptible to flooding. In fact, the canal built from Ash Creek didn’t hold water very well because the dam kept getting washed out. Young and his entourage rode farther north onto broad table land and selected a better location on which to build the fort.

An artist’s illustration of what the fort might have looked like on a new monument more recently placed on the Fort Harmony site by the Sons of Utah Pioneers, New Harmony, Utah, June 6, 2019 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

The new location was 4 miles north where water from Kanarra and Harmony creeks could be harnessed to irrigate additional acreage. It seemed to be a promising site for settlement as grass was plentiful and the fertile farmland was relatively level, wrote Stephen L. Prince in his book “Gathering in Harmony.” 

Some of the earliest settlers, chief among them Brown, remarked how beautiful the surroundings were with superlatives such as “spires,” “turrets,” “bastions” and “ramparts” to describe what is now the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park to the east. To the west was a view of the Pine Valley Mountains as well as Black Ridge to the south.

None other than Truman O. Angell, church architect who designed the Salt Lake Temple and others, laid out the fort, Platt said.

The fort was built on 3-foot wide stone footings with gates on the north and south ends. The team of first settlers fashioned the walls using thousands of adobe bricks. However, the bricks were made without straw or horse hair to bind them together and make them stronger. 

One of the sides of the fort became the homes of its inhabitants. The outside walls were 3-feet thick and the inside walls were 18 inches thick. The rooms were 15 square feet. The basement included the kitchen and cellars, while the upstairs rooms were the living quarters.

Platt’s own great grandparents, Benjamin and Mary Greaves Platt, lived at the fort.

“According to Young, it was the best of its kind in the territory,” Prince wrote of the fort.

They dug a 100-foot deep well in the fort’s center, which today can be seen as a sunken impression in the ground directly west of the monument. The fort also had indoor plumbing, a kiln inside it and a metal work shop nearby, Platt said.

In addition to water received from Kanarra and Harmony creeks, the settlers dug ditches from Ash Creek to the west to bring down more irrigation water.

The lack of water, though, convinced some early settlers to decide to move elsewhere.

“The ditch, however, was as porous as a sieve, and the settlers soon discovered that the watershed in this place, so close to the rim of the Great Basin, was insufficient to sustain much of a settlement, so some of the missionaries settled on the Santa Clara,” Prince wrote. “For the next two years both groups labored among the Indians, struggling at times to overcome discord that was related to the strong personality of John D. Lee.”

In addition to struggling with their labors among the Indians, the settlers had a hard time eking out a decent living.

“As new communities were settled, many Saints had become preoccupied with the struggle to survive on the frontier and had often neglected individual spiritual matters, including attendance at church,” Prince wrote. “Drought and a grasshopper plague in 1855, along with rapid immigration into Utah, combined to threaten economic stability.”

This photo shows the wooden floor supports uncovered in one of the archaeological digs at the Fort Harmony site, New Harmony, Utah, 2007 or 2011 | Photo courtesy of the Fort Harmony Historical Society, St. George News

Such events, which were also happening elsewhere in the territory, prompted church leadership to visit the struggling communities and preach reform, leading to a spiritual recommitment and for some, re-baptism.

Of this reformation and re-baptism, Rachel Lee, one of John D. Lee’s wives, wrote in her diary that there had never been such a “feelings of penitence and contrition and joy and thankfulness to God for his mercies and loving kindness.”

In 1856, Fort Harmony became the Washington County seat and Lee was appointed probate judge and assessor. With his wives, Lee established a business providing lodging, meals and provisions to wagon trains passing through on their way to California, according to Prince’s volume.

He was also headed the battalion of the local militia as major, and it was in that role that led to his involvement in the Mountain Meadows Massacre in September 1857. Other residents of the fort refused to get involved, Platt said. In December 1861, despite his role in that infamous and tragic event, he was chosen as presiding elder of the newly formed branch of the church there.

Despite Fort Harmony being considered one of the best forts in Utah, during an earthquake on January 20, 1860, the fort wall cracked and some wall sections had to be torn down and rebuilt. 

In early January 1862, heavy flooding caused the fort’s walls to crumble, partly due to its lack of binding material, prompting the families living there to move into their wagons. By Jan. 18, all of the families except for Lee’s wife, Sarah and her children, had vacated the fort. On Feb. 7, 1862, as Sarah was preparing to leave the fort, a gust of wind blew down a wall, which broke through to the lower floor where they were staying, killing two of their children, George and Margaret.

Needless to say, the fort was abandoned, and in the spring of 1862, some of the settlers moved five miles west to establish New Harmony where it stands today. Others moved north and west to found Kanarraville.

New Harmony townsite

The third location utilized in the establishment of New Harmony proved to be the charm after the disastrous flood leveled the fort.

At the new townsite, the first houses were small, crowded dugouts on creek banks. Prince wrote that Lemuel Redd, one of its early settlers, used rocks and adobe bricks from the old fort to build the chimney of his home in the new settlement.

The epicenter of town activity was John D. Lee’s farm, where he built a great hall used for early town functions, including church meetings, dances and parties. A log schoolhouse was established in 1863. The first desks at the school were boards placed on stumps with log seats. The school also served as a church and amusement hall until a one-room church was built in 1875.

Lee’s former farm, now known as Pace Farm, includes an early pioneer cemetery where his children who died in the flood and others are buried.

Also in 1863, new settlers moved the fledgling settlement. One family, that of James H. Imlay, arrived from Middleton, located between St. George and Washington City, attracted by the cooler temperatures, good grazing and closer access to timber. Other families came from Kaysville and elsewhere.

Some of these additional residents were not as sympathetic as earlier settlers and looked down on Lee for his involvement in Mountain Meadows. They were especially unhappy that he remained president of the branch, Prince wrote.

As a result, Lee resigned as branch president and was replaced by Imlay. Eventually, Lee left New Harmony and in 1874 established Lee’s Ferry, a key Colorado River Crossing in Arizona, partly to move to a more remote area as a hiding place from federal marshals.

Platt said after that New Harmony was a close-knit community engaged in farming and raising sheep and cattle. They had large sheep herds and were instrumental in developing church lands in southern Utah, he explained.

Military activities

In June 1866, church leaders began preaching the need for forts as “Indian depredations” were being committed almost daily, Prince wrote.

A marker at the site of military drills that took place on Harmony Flat in the summer of 1867, New Harmony, Utah, June 6, 2019 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

In August 1866, Apostle and Brigadier General of the Utah Militia, Erastus Snow, visited New Harmony and called 65 men “to reconnoiter the country in search of ‘hostile Indians,’” Prince wrote. The company rode approximately 440 miles to the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. One detachment of the group was ambushed by Indians and one was killed. The soldiers pursued the them but were successful in only recovering a few stolen horses. After 26 days, the expedition was completed. 

New Harmony, however, in the summer of 1867, would be the site of military training activities on a flat area northeast of the present town. The military training camp was established for the Iron County Division of the Utah Militia, which consisted of approximately 500 men who lived in the counties south of Beaver. Drills started in St. George but moved to New Harmony for its cooler temperatures.

The group were under the command of Brigadier General Erastus Snow and Capt. James Andrus.

“The Harmony Flat was covered with tents as the men took part in spirited sham battles, accompanied by lively tunes played by a military band from St. George,” Prince wrote. “What began as a military exercise became a major event as three thousand people from throughout southern Utah attended a three-day celebration honoring the troops.”

Prince reported that there were people camped in tents and wagons all over the flat, and part of the celebration included a parade and horse parade.

An historical marker detailing these activities stands outside of town near the cemetery.

Fort excavation

In 2005-2006, Washington County decided to build a New Harmony Branch right next to the location of the old fort. Prisoners from the county correctional facility were doing some of the work and started excavating the fort site. Platt and his wife, Karen, who lived in New Harmony at the time, noticed this driving by and put a stop to it.

The prisoners had dug down 8 feet on the west end and had destroyed some of the foundational bricks, Lyman Platt said. That destruction had a positive outcome, though. It was the impetus for the establishment of the Fort Harmony Historical Society, founded by the Platts. That resulted in excavations by trained archaeologists from Brigham Young University.

Lyman Platt said it took a while to raise the money for the archaeological digs, but they managed it. Thankfully, he said the owners of the land were very helpful in allowing the excavation to take place, one in 2007 and one in 2011.

This photo shows the pattern in a shard of porcelain china found at the site during one of its excavations, New Harmony, Utah, circa 2007-2011 | Photo courtesy of the Fort Harmony Historical Society, St. George News

A team found many treasures, hints as to what happened in the fort’s past, during the dig that took place in the summer of 2011 led by BYU archaeologist Richard Talbot.

For instance, in a northwest room, “the team found a possible dwelling buried under a collapsed wall section, a circular oven on a lower floor, possibly a kitchen, a fireplace with hearth, a ladies hair pin, bits of porcelain dishes, clay pots, nails and leather,” Steve Gibby wrote in an article for the Deseret News on Aug. 6, 2011.

In other rooms, they found bones, glass, nails as well as bits of charcoal, glass and mortar in the old well. Between the two digs, more than 40 porcelain dish patterns were discovered at the fort.

“This is a rare opportunity to look back at the original settlement, find the details of the lives of the same pioneers who traveled across oceans and plains to reach Utah, then southward to this area,” Talbot is quoted by Gibby’s article. 

Talbot, according to Gibby, was impressed at the amount of help given by Southern Utah residents during the excavations.

“What has impressed me is the caring of southern Utahns by pitching in to help, providing support and wanting to see this fort preserved,” Talbot said. “It’s been very inspiring to say the least.”

During the digs, the archaeologists were impressed by its construction quality, noticing it had rooms with wooden flooring and dual fireplaces, Platt said.

The dig also uncovered part of the skull of Margaret Lee, one of the children killed when the fort’s wall collapsed in February 1862. Her and her brother’s remains are still at the fort while there is a headstone remembering both children at the former family cemetery on the former Lee farm.

Karen Platt, who devoted many hours organizing the research and support of the fort, died in 2015, and since then the historical society has not been active, but Roger Simister still maintains its website. While she was alive, the group did monthly clean-ups of the site, but that has since ceased as one visiting the site today can attest.

“We still have the framework but don’t have the people,” Lyman Platt remarked about the historical society.

Lyman Platt still does some speaking about the fort and two theatrical productions about the fort have been performed in recent years, he said.

For more information about Fort Harmony, visit the historical society website.

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About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah, inviting readers to explore these aspects of the region on a day trip.

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