Previous chapter Table of Contents Next chapter
THE TEXAS COLONY
Lyman wight, the apostle who had been chosen to fill the place of David Patten when he fell at Crooked River, had throughout his entire life cherished the ideal of "all things common." He had left the experiment of "The Family" in Kirtland to join the church. He went through the experiment of Independence in 1833, without disillusionment. His ideals were of the sort that die hard.
Cherishing these things in his heart, for to him these were the principles of "celestial law," he went about his extensive missionary work with his fellow apostles throughout the years the church was at Nauvoo until the middle of June, 1843; upon returning from an eastern missionary tour of nine and one-half months, during which time he had traveled three thousand miles, baptized over six hundred persons, and organized twenty-one branches, he was asked to go to Wisconsin in company with Bishop George Miller to take charge of the sawmills there. These had been purchased by the church at a cost of twelve thousand dollars for the purpose of cutting timber and making shingles and sawing lumber for the building operations in Nauvoo, particularly the temple and Nauvoo House.
A number of families, one hundred and fifty men, women, and children, went north with him. Doubtless the entire company received their living expenses, and allowed the price of their labor to go to the church. At least we know of one man, just home from a long mission, who went with the company "because he was back in his tithing." During their experiences together in this northern wilderness, Black River Falls, Wisconsin, those who comprised this colony became attached to one another and their intrepid leader and formed the nucleus of what has been wrongly termed "a faction" of the church.
The very isolation of the little group from all the rest of the world from the moment of their embarking on this enterprise helped induce that solidarity. The sharing of mutual dangers and meager supplies augmented that union. They left Nauvoo by steamer on July 22, leaving the boat near the mouth of the Black River at Prairie LaCrosse, finished the journey to Black Falls in keel boats. These keel boats were long and narrow, with a runway about twelve inches in width projecting out over the side of the boat and running the entire length, for the polemen to walk back and forth as they pushed the boat upstream, for these boats were propelled by poles. Three men on a side and one in front to steer manned each boat. Several days on these boats completed the ninety miles between Prairie La Crosse and Black River Falls.
Winter supplies for these people were to be furnished by the Temple Committee, but owing to some lack of knowledge of northern conditions, these supplies were not shipped in time to be brought up by boats. The snow was now deep, but the only teams in the settlement, just two, were set to hauling provisions the ninety miles from LaCrosse for one hundred people and their animals. Everyone went on rations, and by nobody satisfying his wants, the food was carefully apportioned to last until the teams returned. And then visitors came, starving Indians--they were so destitute they had eaten the hides they had dried for sale--and asked for food. Lyman Wight called the group together and put the question before them, "Shall we share our food, which now consists of one barrel of flour with these starving Indians, when we know we shall be without bread before our teams return?" The vote was unanimous in the affirmative, even the little children voting to divide what they had. The Indians were given half the barrel of flour and an ox; and were only asked to return when they had eaten, for they must hear a sermon. No Latter Day Saint elder would miss a chance to preach, especially to the Indians! Three days, without bread, the little company waited for the return of the teams with food. And no one complained, for all had shared in the sacrifice.1
These were the scenes that formed the bond between members of the old colony. In March, Lyman Wight was called to Nauvoo, taking his wife and three youngest children, leaving the rest to follow with rafts of lumber. The occasion of his return to Nauvoo was that he might present certain petitions to Congress, regarding the church lands in Missouri. He left home on May 21 for Washington, D. C., and while still upon this mission, for some reason he found it necessary to travel three times from Baltimore, Maryland, to Salem, Massachusetts, spending three weeks in Philadelphia, three in New York, and the same in Boston, traveling "most of the time upon the railroad cars."2
Wight tells the story of one day, "just in the midst of pleasure and satisfaction whilst riding along leisurely from Salem to Boston, a little boy threw a paper into the car, announcing the death, yes! announcing the death of my beloved friend, the Prophet."3
He hardly knew whether to believe the report or not, one moment it seemed true, the next he doubted it; but a few days later, a personal messenger confirmed the message and bade him return with all haste to meet with the rest of the Quorum of Twelve. He took a train immediately to Buffalo, crossed the Lakes to Chicago, thence to Galena by stage, and down the river on a steamboat to Nauvoo, thanks to modern transportation of the day, making the journey in what he considered a very brief time--by the 6th of August he was in Nauvoo!
Before he had gone to Washington, he had obtained permission from the President of the church, Joseph Smith, to plant a colony "between the head of the Red River, the Little Colorado River, and the Cordilleras Mountains."4 This mission seemed sacred to him, comprising as he said, "the instructions given by Brother Joseph the last conversation I ever had with him."4 This "instruction was given me by Brother Joseph with great zeal, setting forth the necessity for such a mission, for the good of the cause of bringing the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth, paving the way for the redemption of Zion and building the temple in Jackson County, and giving our posterity inheritances in a land where Gentile foot has never trod . . . for the last fourteen hundred years."4
After several violent differences with President Young, during which time Wight's plan for a mission to Texas could not be shaken, he took his family and those of his friends who would go, including nearly all the Black Falls Pine Company and went back to Prairie LaCrosse for the winter, as he found so many of his family and others sick of chills and fever in the "marshlands" of Illinois, after being used to the "pure waters of the pine country." He thought it necessary for them to "regain their health" before starting on the trip westward.
Texas was to him a veritable land of dreams. Here he intended to bring up his children in a wilderness which would "never be defiled" by the "customs and practices of the world"; there these children would have their inheritance and build a righteous city. True he expected to receive his inheritance in Jackson County, when Zion was redeemed, but he hoped to see the day "when I can travel from the city in Jackson County to a city that shall be built by my posterity...when there shall not be a day's journey between cities, from one place to the other."4
He had hoped to have provisions on hand for the trip, but that winter the men had only work enough to provide a scanty living from day to day. Spring found them penniless, with the exception of three boats. What was to be done? The question was put up to the whole group, as it had been done when they fed the starving Indians. Should they "scatter to the four winds" and "live like the rest of the world," or "fill the covenant of this church made at its rise, which was to stand by each other even until death"?
They decided to do the latter, and one by one came forward and laid all they had above actual necessities, of clothing and all else, in one pile to be sold for their maintenance on the trip. All went aboard the three boats on the evening of March 27, 1845, singing, "Let Zion in Her Beauty Rise." At twenty minutes after eleven on the 28th, the old keel boats were loosed from their moorings and propelled by poles and aided by currents, started down the Mississippi River. Each boat had a row of rude berths on each side, and a space left through the center for luggage, stoves, and cooking utensils. A raft of lumber followed the three as far as Prairie du Chien, where it and its load were sold to pay the debts of the company contracted during the winter.
About two p.m., April 13, a final landing was made at Duck Creek, a few miles above Davenport, Iowa. Here a months delay occurred while the boats were sold and oxen, tents, and wagons purchased. They made many friends in Davenport, some accompanied them on their journey; others gathered to see them off. The move on May 12 was only twenty miles west to obtain feed for the animals, but on May 26, "at the sound of the horn," a well organized company moved off, eight wagons and one cart, all drawn by oxen, and eighty-two head of cattle, including the teams. The course was southwesterly across the open prairie, many walking. The next day they stopped at Tipton, Iowa, and fitted up four more teams and wagons.
Without following the details of that journey, we find these weary pilgrims on Sunday, November 16, just crossing the Red River, near Preston, Texas, into the land of their destination. Four miles south they stopped, camped, and looked for a location. They had accomplished this long journey in seven months and eighteen days, mostly by ox team, sometimes without roads or landmarks, fording and swimming rivers or building their own ferries. Nine of the number had been laid in unmarked graves by the way. And these people started on this migration, without a single penny in cash!
Lyman Wight himself with one companion went as scout to select a winter's location. They soon found a deserted fort in Grayson County, near Georgetown, and here they moved on the 19th of November, 1845, and waited out the winter, the men finding what work they could.
On Monday, April 24, 1846, the whole camp moved southward, with the Colorado River in mind, crossing the Trinity River above Dallas on the 30th. May 14 their cattle swam the Brazos, while the wagons were taken apart and ferried across in one small canoe. They arrived June 6 and 7 at the spot chosen as their destination, and immediately went to work to build a mill, pushing the work as rapidly as possible, doing all the iron, stone, and woodwork themselves. They were on the east bank of the Colorado, four miles above Austin. On July 30 the mill started grinding, a real novelty in the community. They made money rapidly, and started at once to construct a sawmill, houses, and shops. But they were not satisfied. In October four scouts, Spencer Smith, John Taylor, and Meachim and William Curtis, were sent on an exploring tour and came back reporting a beautiful country on the Perdinales River. Accordingly a colony was appointed to go there and make location, business being carried on as usual near Austin. In January the Perdinales Colony was recalled, but the project was renewed the following March and several families went there. On May first, a mill site was selected four miles below Fredericksburg, now the county seat of Gillespie County and about seventy miles southwest of Austin. Here houses were built, shops erected, and in exactly six weeks from the day the site was selected, a sawmill was in full operation. The mill on the Colorado meantime was grinding large quantities of meal which was transported by team to Austin, New Braunfels, Brownsville, and Fredericksburg, and sold at good prices. The new settlement was named Zodiac.5
Soon a stone fort was added to the other buildings, but there were no Indian troubles. Along the banks of the Little Perdinales River stretched a broad road of their building, back from the road lay a series of irrigated farms, separated by stone fences. In December two delegates from Brigham Young appeared in Zodiac, threatening Wight and his followers with excommunication if they stayed out of the fold, and Wight made a "Texas-flavored" answer saying, "nobody under the light of heaven, except Joseph Smith, could call me from Texas to go to Salt Lake City!" Joseph Smith had sent him on a mission to Texas, and the fact that Joseph Smith was dead could not change the fact that he was the one man who could tell Lyman Wight what to do; therefore to Texas he had gone, and in Texas he would stay until he felt that he had successfully filled the mission of the one man whom he loved with his whole heart.
On August 9, 1847, the mill on the Colorado was sold at a substantial profit, and all of the colony moved to the Perdinales, leaving only a few men to finish the new county jail in Austin, which the colony had contracted to build for two thousand dollars. The jail was finished on November 16 and on the 17th was accepted by the jail commissioners. The workers then joined the rest of the colony. A new gristmill had already been erected and many new houses.6
The colony carried on a flourishing business with its neighbors. Milling, both grist and sawmill, was now flourishing, blacksmithing and furniture making helped to add to the wealth of the little community, which meticulously held their property in common, calling naught that they had their own. Rumors began to go around that Wight had in some mysterious way taken "the bulk of the Mormon wealth" to Texas.
They stood well in their community. Old settlers say that Lyman Wight was often asked to address the senate when he came to Austin, and was always well received by the governor and senators. "He was of very commanding appearance, over six feet, about 200 pounds, and very handsome; wore a beard that he kept in perfect condition ... his hair long, dressed in a Prince Albert coat, wore finely polished boots ... carried two six shooters and a bowie knife, drove two to four mules to a fine carriage, with glittering harness, trimmed with brass and silver."7 How much of this description is true, we can, only conjecture.
But the Perdinales was subject to freshets, and in July, 1850, the mill was swept away, and the houses were flooded. The second flood in 1851 drove the colony to a new location on the Colorado. Here they encountered the open warfare of the Indians, new mills were erected, ground broken. The members of the colony began to make and sell furniture. Their venture was profitable, but Lyman Wight was a true type of the restless pioneersman. In 1853 he sold his rights in the settlement to Noah Smithwick and moved on.8
The wanderings of the colony took them to Medina,9 where twelve miles below Bandera they founded the community of Mountain Valley, a pioneer outpost in a country that was almost uninhabited save by hostile Indians. Wight petitioned the state and the National Government to send troops to enable his colony to survive. "While Congress is spending six or eight months to find out whether it is best to reinforce the Army or not," he wrote, "the Indians are killing men, women, and children, and driving off large quantities of stock, and nothing to hinder. We make this one more appeal to the Government, and if this fails, we have but one alternative, and that is to abandon the frontiers altogether."
Lyman Wight was an insatiable pioneer. When death overtook him, still on the trail, he was planning to preach the gospel to the Indians in Mexico and Central America. He died suddenly near San Antonio, Texas, on March 30, 1858. His followers procured a metallic casket in San Antonio and carried him to the old city of Zodiac, not far from Fredericksburg, to bury him in the colony cemetery there.
On the occasion of his death the Galveston News said:
We believe we have omitted to notice the death of Mr. Lyman Wight, who for some thirteen years past has been the leader of a small and independent Mormon settlement in Texas. As far as we have been able to learn, these Mormons have proved themselves to be most excellent citizens of our State, and we are no doubt greatly indebted to the deceased leader for the orderly conduct, sobriety, industry and enterprise of his colony. Mr. Wight first came to Texas in November, 1845, and has been with his colony on the extreme frontier ever since, moving still farther west as settlements formed around him, thus always being the pioneer of advancing civilization, affording protection against the Indians. He has been the first to settle five new counties and prepare the way for others. He has at different times built three extensive saw and gristmills.
The Wight Colony always lived in communistic style, according to the "Celestial Law," as they termed it. In a letter, written in 1855 from Medina to an old friend, Sanford Porter, whom he had "found in Illinois" evidently on an early mission, and "lived a near neighbor to" in Jackson County, Missouri, Wight describes their manner of life:
I will give you a short description of our country. We live in a pleasant country. We seldom feed any of our stock in the winter unless it is some that we work, and sometimes we get along very well without feeding anything. As for snow, I have not seen enough in ten years all together to make four inches. It is a fine place to raise stock. It is mountainous and healthy, good for corn and garden vegetables. Wheat does well in many parts. There is no scarcity of either cattle or oxen throughout the State, although they are rather higher this year in consequence of the many wars and rumors of war. Oxen are worth fifty dollars a yoke, good four-year-old steers, well broke, from thirty-five to forty-five dollars, according to size, stock cows from eight to ten dollars, good milk cows from twelve to eighteen dollars, and store goods are remarkably low. Horses average with everything else. We have no trouble getting a good living in this country. The most difficulty we find is in keeping close enough to the commandments of God. When one has enough, all have the same. Our houses are as near alike as they can well be. Mine was built first. It is one hundred feet one way (with the exception of eighty-six feet) and lacks only thirty-eight feet of being fifty feet the other way. We have a good door in front and an old quilt neatly hung for the back door. We have fine, beautiful sand for floors. Our houses average from seven to eight feet between the sand and the joists, some being lower and some higher as the case may be. We (not I) have a large stock of cattle, plenty of teams, and we carry on a great many branches of mechanical operations besides our farming. And as we believe the time is not far distant when those who remain and are pure in heart shall return to Jackson County, they and their children singing songs of everlasting joy, we cannot dismiss the subject without giving Brother Porter and his family an invitation to come and go with us and see that goodly land once more.
There is one significant thing about Lyman Wight's community efforts, which deserves attention because of its extreme rarity in Utopian experiments. Wight, as acknowledged leader, never desired or sought temporal or spiritual advantage over his fellows. When he received letters from Strang, "King James I, president of the church"; from Brigham Young, telling of ecclesiastical honors acquired since the death of Joseph, and Thompson with his many titles, he was wont to sign his answer with profound sarcasm, "Lyman Wight, and nothing else." In scathing denunciation of those who he thought were acquiring wealth at the expense of their brethren, he wrote of the Melchisedec priesthood:
But those who aspire after this priesthood, and seek to obtain it while rolling in luxuries, and seeking the applause of men, I would simply ask them these questions, Have you drunk of the cup whereof Christ drank, and have you been baptized with the baptism wherewith he was baptized? Have you followed the commandment that he gave to the young man and sold all that thou hadst, and give it to the poor? Have you sold the last coat you had, and traveled in your shirt sleeves sooner than you would see the poor left to the ravages of a ruthless mob? Have you traveled on foot hundreds and hundreds of miles and sought a place for the Saints to camp at, night after night, that they might seclude themselves from the hands of wicked and evil designing men, and then roll yourself in a blanket, and lay yourself in an open prairie, under the open canopy of heaven, in the cold night dews? If you have not done all these, you have not yet fulfilled the saying of the Saviour where he says, If you would be greatest you must first become the least and servant of all....I again ask, when did the church flourish? When the Nephites that dwelt upon this land did not call "aught they possessed their own; but it all belonged to the Lord." When did the people mourn and lament, and howl and weep? I answer, when their priests were lifted up in the pride of their hearts, to the wearing of fine apparel and oppressing the poor and the hireling in his wages, riding in fine carriages, with cushioned seats, bristled carpets, leaving the poor to work out their own salvation among those who are their vital enemies; while the rich and opulent were permitted to increase in opulence by tithing and wringing from the hands of the peasant his hard-earnings.10
Fearless, honest, unassuming, and absolutely independent, Lyman Wight called no man his master save one, Joseph Smith, his great friend, and to him alone he had looked for guidance. Even from him, he differed occasionally and took no pains to conceal it. "I would rather go to hell of my own accord than be forced into heaven," he was wont characteristically to say. Curiously, in a movement where the majority of group leaders met violent opposition, Lyman Wight, to whom the applause of the world meant nothing, never lacked for it, and that too, in spite of social anachronisms that were blamed for the unpopularity of other factions. Contemptuous of individual wealth, Lyman Wight's communal experiment flourished financially, in spite of frequent transplantings due to his restless leadership.
Lyman Wight never claimed the right to lead this colony as a divinely appointed head. His teachings were always as Strang put it in the Gospel Herald, published at Voree, Wisconsin, August 31, 1848:
Lyman Wight seems to cherish the idea that is ignorantly held out by some others that Joseph, the Prophet's son, will yet come up and take his father's original place in the church.11
In his journal, he wrote what he considered should have been the procedure at the death of Joseph Smith:
The fifties assembled should have called on all the authorities of the church down to the lay members from all the face of the earth, as much as was convenient and after having taken sweet counsel together, in prayer and supplication before God, acknowledged our sins and transgressions which had caused our head to be taken from our midst: and then have called on Young Joseph, and held him up before the congregation of Israel to take his father's place in the flesh.12
In the little pamphlet published by Wight in 1848, a copy of which has only recently come to light, he said:
I have no notice of this blessing (Doctrine and Covenants 43:2) having been transferred to any person or persons, save it be to the posterity of him who standeth at the helm of [in] life. And I remain firm in the belief, that we who have been organized into the well established and organized body of the kingdom on earth, should go forth abroad into the earth, and come up to Mount Zion, and build up the city of the living God, even on the spot of ground pointed out by the finger of the Almighty Jehovah, and dedicated by his servant, the Prophet. . . .
Many struggles have been made, and many more may be made to build temples unto the Most High God, yet God in his infinite wisdom, will most assuredly build upon that spot which he has pointed out with his own finger. Unto this spot of ground I invite all nations, kindreds and tongues and peoples; they to consecrate all they have and are, for the express purpose of building up the temple of the most High God and enlarging the borders of Zion, and making the stakes strong.
And this end I pray, that God in his infinite wisdom may hasten the day, and speed the time, that Joseph's voice may be heard from the heavens unto his posterity, even as David's of old, saying, my son, build ye an house unto the Most High God.13
In an old letter bookl4 of Lyman Wight, still extant, one may read in dimming letters written over a century ago (1855) these words:
Now Mr Editor if you been present when Joseph called on me shortly after came out of jail to lay hands with him on the head of a youth and heard him cry aloud you are my successor when I depart and heard the blessings pored on the head I say had you heard all this and seen the tears streaming from his eyes you would not have been led by blind fanaticism or a zeal without knowledge.
Lyman Wight did not live to see Young Joseph "held up before the congregation of Israel to take his father's place," but his sons saw it, and his sons' sons, and today the children and grandchildren of his children dwell in peace upon that "goodly land," from which he wandered for a quarter of a century, ever longing for the time when he might return and claim an inheritance there. Most of the Texas colony joined the Reorganization, a few went to Utah, and several drifted out of the church altogether.
1 "Reminiscences," by George Montague, Autumn Leaves, Volume
9, page 385.
2 "An Address by Way of an Abridged Account and Journal of My Life from February, 1844, up to April, 1848, with an Appeal to the Latter Day Saints," by Lyman Wight, page 5.
3 An Address by Way of an Abridged Account and Journal of My Life from April, 1848," etc.
4 "An Address by Way of an Abridged Account of My Life from April, 1848," etc.
5 Here the author's father, Heman C. Smith, was born on September 27, 1850.
6 See "A Pioneer Colony," by Heman C. Smith; Autumn Leaves, Volume 8, page 529, seq.
7 A letter from C. C. Booth, 2021 Bennett Avenue, Dallas, Texas, to Rufus K. Hardy of Salt Lake City, under date of December 9, 1930. Booth names his grandfather, one Josiah Clifton, as his informant.
8 Hamilton's Creek on the east side of the Colorado River almost twelve miles South Of where Burnet, county seat of Burnet County stands. Their mill still stood there as late as 1881 and was called "Mormon Mill."
9 Birthplace of Hyrum O. Smith.
10 An Address by Way of an Abridged Account and Journal of My Life from February, 1844, to April, 1848," by Lyman Wight, 1848, pages 14 and 15.
11 "Prophetic Controversy No. 2," page 17, Voree, Herald.
12 Lyman Wight's Journal, under date of December, 1851, as published in Church History Volume 2, page 791.
13 "Address by Way of an Abridged Account of My Life," etc.
14 Original letter book of Lyman Wight-Heman C. Smith collection.
Previous chapter Table of Contents Next chapter