As St. George prepares for 158th birthday celebration, historians reflect on city’s handpicked founders

Historic downtown St. George, date not specified | Photo courtesy city of St, George, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, pioneers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began their journey south to establish townships in places like St. George, Santa Clara, Toquerville and the city of Washington.

This year St. George turns 158, and while the official birthday is Jan. 17, the city will be hosting various free events around town Saturday as part of Heritage Day, celebrating the establishment of communities that began in the 1860s.

Stacking the deck for success

Settlers to the area came south to grow cotton and other crops, to spread the word of Jesus Christ to the Southern Paiute Nation and to answer the call of their religious leader, Brigham Young.

Because it wasn’t easy to establish a foothold in such an isolated part of the country, Young realized that he needed to stack the deck for success by sending pioneers who possessed specific professional skills into what is now Washington County and St. George.

The call went out for bakers, carpenters, stonemasons, doctors, teachers and musicians to establish what quickly would become a readymade town. It wasn’t that random settlers arrived in Southern Utah — they were handpicked by Young and other church leaders to stand the best chance of long-term survival.

More than 150 years later, those decisions proved right.

St. George’s historic home on 100 South, date not specified | Photo courtesy city of St. George, St. George News

Author Lyman Hafen’s Swiss ancestors were among the first 309 hearty souls to venture into Southern Utah.

“To me, it’s really interesting to look at the context of the early years,” Hafen said. “Folks like Jacob Hamblin and his group came to Santa Clara with the mission to establish a good relationship with the Southern Paiute and other indigenous people.”

The early native American inhabitants of the St. George area included members of the Virgin River Anasazi.

The first Euro-American visitors to the area were members of the Domingues-Escalante party in 1776, followed by fur trappers such as Jedediah Smith and later government surveyors.

In 1854, the LDS church had established its congregation in Santa Clara, and three years later it started planing experimental cotton farms.

‘It was a matter of just surviving’

In the first years, Hafen said it was a matter of survival. The diverse group of people that came to Southern Utah fought against Mother Nature and the struggle to find water to survive.

The pioneers included LDS church members from Great Britain, Scandinavia and settlers from Western Europe.

“They came to be resourceful, but for several years, it was a matter of just surviving from one year to the next,” Hafen said.

St. George’s historic Dixie Academy, date not specified | Photo courtesy city of St. George, St. George News

By 1861, Brigham Young predicted and mandated the settling of Southern Utah.

“From the strategic standpoint, Brigham Young knew they could grow cotton here because of the climate, which he took advantage of,” Hafen said. “He wanted the members of the church to be as self-sufficient as possible, and with the Civil War taking place on the East Coast, this helped that goal.”

Adding cotton and other agricultural resources, the Latter-day Saints in the early years of the Civil War era created a tenuous economy throughout Washington County.

“The idea of self-sufficiency had a lot to do with the creation of these towns, but there really wasn’t anyone interested in coming here during that time,” Hafen said. “In fact, the 309 families who came here only did because they had faith in their leader, Brigham Young. Otherwise, they would have stayed in the Salt Lake Valley and the greener pastures of Northern Utah.”

Regardless of their motivation, the early settlers, also known as the Cotton Mission, had to be made of sterner stuff to survive than the average person living in the metropolitan cities of Chicago, St. Louis and New York.

Although settlers in Southern Utah came from other countries, many setting up homesteads came from the United States’ South, bringing with them a phrase that is still widely circulated today to describe the area as Utah’s Dixie.

Hafen said daily life in isolated cities like St. George during 1861-62 presented its own unique battles.

“During the first 10 years, life would have been just dire poverty,” Hafen added. “The fact they survived is really miraculous. They endured flooding, they endured drought and everything else that made it almost impossible to survive here.”

Overcoming adversity, Hafen said, the earlier settlers in Washington County had no choice but to thrive.

“It took several years to get to this point,” he said. “They lived in dugouts, worked their tails off to dig ditches to divert water and grow the crops they could grow. To come to a place like this with nothing and survive was truly a miracle.”

During the late nineteenth-century the American and Indian wars raged across the county, but not in Southern Utah. Early accounts said the relationship was largely symbiotic.

“There was a lot of effort from people like Jacob Hamblin early on to do his best to establish trust with Native Americans,” Hafen said. “It’s not to say there weren’t issues, but compared to many other places it was fairly peaceful.”

Though life among the Southern Paiutes might have been largely cordial, standing up against the wrath of Mother Nature was altogether something different.

Historic St. George, date not specified | Photo courtesy city of St. George, St. George News

Late November 1861, when the first 309 settlers were just getting established living in wagons and dugout shelters, historical accounts say it began raining during the Christmas holiday. The rain lasted for 40 days into the new year and February 1862.

Mother Nature then sent a flood descending into Southern Utah, which devastated homesteads and crops across the region.

“With the snowpack and the way things were, it was the perfect storm,” Hafen said. “This caused the Santa Clara and the Virgin rivers to flood in an amazing way.”

During the first few decades, it not only was surviving too much water but having not enough.

Newspaper reports during the early days pointed to periods of drought as having “disastrous effects” on Washington County’s population. One account said everyone was “praying for rain to save their crops and to save their lives.”

Perseverance at this time can best describe the settlers of Washington County and St. George, Hafen said.

“The 309 families that came in late 1861 were really the founders of St. George where it sits now,” he said. “They were all called to come during the October general conference in Salt Lake City by church leaders, and by the end of November, the families started showed up in the St. George valley.”

They came, Hafen said, not because they truly wanted to, but because their leader had asked for the leap of faith to establish the towns that still survive to this day.

“Most of them were really not interested in giving up what they had in Salt Lake and other cities to the north, but a lot of the names on that roster who did come you will find still living in St. George,” Hafen said.

Historic St. George, date not specified | Photo courtesy city of St. George, St. George News

Although a booming secular city now, in its early days Brigham Young wanted to limit the imprint and influence of non-LDS church members in St. George, historical writer for St. George News Reuben Wadsworth said.

“Young was actually one of the first stockholders in the Union Pacific Railroad, so in a way, he could block gentile nonmembers of the church to have a link to Southern Utah,” Wadsworth said. “This is actually what caused St. George being isolated for so long.”

The logjam breaking the isolation to the area happened in the 1970s when Interstate 15 cut through the city, Wadsworth added.

At the time of the city’s founding, the electric telegraph was not yet a quarter-century old. Photography was in its infancy. The first major Union victory during the American Civil War was still a month away. It was 1862, the year a barren wasteland where St. George was settled.

Fast forward 158 years

This Saturday, Mayor Jon Pike and members of the City Council will commemorate the city’s birthday by preparing free root beer floats and cookies during the Heritage Day celebration from noon to 2 p.m. at the Social Hall Parlor, 47 E. 200 North.

Heritage Day will include several freebies: all-day free admission to the Sand Hollow Aquatic Center, St. George Recreation Center, St. George Art Museum and free rides all day on SunTran buses as well as the Thunder Junction train.

Musical entertainment at the downtown Social Hall will be provided while root beer floats and cookies are served.

What promises to be a day filled with fun and fellowship stands in contrast to the country’s status in 1862. The United States was a nation divided, nine months into what would be a four-year Civil War.

During Monday’s swearing-in of new council members Danielle Larkin and Gregg McArthur, and incumbent Jimmie Hughes, Pike said he was excited about the Heritage Day celebration and the chance to serve up sweet treats to town’s residents.

Event details

  • What: Heritage Day Celebration.
  • When: Saturday, Jan. 11, noon to 2 p.m.
  • Where: Social Hall Parlor, 47 E. 200 North, St. George.
  • Cost: Free.

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