Okay, show of hands. How many of you knew that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (better known as the Mormons) played a prominent role in the settlement of the Texas Hill Country?
Don’t feel bad; I had no idea, either, until I was assigned to write the entries on Gillespie County for the New Handbook of Texas almost thirty years ago. In fact, for more than a decade in the middle of the nineteenth century, a breakaway group of Mormons founded and then abandoned an astonishing number of settlements in Central Texas.
The Mormons are now well established in Utah, but that wasn’t always the case; their early history was, to put it mildly, peripatetic. Joseph Smith founded the movement in New York State in the 1820s, but he and his followers attracted violent opposition almost immediately. They moved to Ohio in 1831, intending eventually to settle in Independence, Missouri, but after bloody clashes with locals in both states, they moved again, to Illinois, where they founded the town of Nauvoo in 1840. A year later, Smith and the Nauvoo city council angered non-Mormons by destroying a printing press that had been used to print an exposé critical of Smith and the practice of polygamy; Smith was imprisoned in Carthage, Illinois, and died in a riot when a mob stormed the jailhouse.
Before his death, having concluded that Illinois was no more hospitable to the embryonic faith than New York, Ohio, or Missouri, Smith sent an envoy to negotiate with Sam Houston for the establishment of a Mormon settlement in the Republic of Texas. Lyman Wight, one of Smith’s favorites—he was ordained the first high priest of the church in 1831—had received Smith’s permission to lead a group to Texas, but Smith’s successor Brigham Young decided that Utah would be a more propitious site. While most of the Mormons followed Young to the Great Salt Lake Valley, about 150 to 200 dissenters (accounts vary) followed the renegade Wight, who felt compelled to honor Smith’s wishes, to Texas.
Wight seems to have had an incorrigible case of happy feet, even by Mormon standards, and a profound stubborn streak—hence the colorful nickname, “the Wild Ram of the Mountains,” bestowed on him by the New York Sun. (That’s John James Audubon’s ca. 1845 lithograph of Rocky Mountain sheep at the top of the page, by the way.) Wight was born in upstate New York in 1796 and subsequently lived in Canada, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and Wisconsin; he also refused to acknowledge Young as Smith’s legitimate successor.
Wight and his followers spent the winter of 1845–46 at an abandoned fort near Preston, in Grayson County, and arrived in Austin in June 1846. They settled in what is now Webberville, where they met the pioneer blacksmith and memoirist Noah Smithwick, in September 1846, and built a gristmill on the Colorado River which was destroyed by a flood.
By this time the Mormons must have been wondering if they would ever find a place to call home. In 1847, Wight asked John O. Meusebach for permission to found a colony on the Pedernales River; no doubt he hoped that the Germans, with their tradition of religious tolerance, would look more kindly on Mormon polygamy than had their Anglo neighbors. (Apparently the Germans considered the Mormons “lawless of religious practices,” but pragmatically figured the newcomers could teach them American agricultural and milling techniques.)
Wight and his followers founded the settlement of Zodiac, four miles southeast of Fredericksburg, in 1847. There they built a sawmill (the first in Gillespie County), a gristmill, a store, a school, and the first Mormon temple west of the Mississippi River; they became the principal suppliers of seed, flour, and lumber to their German fellow settlers, and also helped build Fort Martin Scott, established in 1848 on what was then the western frontier of settlement in Texas.
Wight himself refused several invitations from Young to come to Utah and was excommunicated by the Mormon church in 1849. In 1850 he lost the election for chief justice of Gillespie County to the German immigrant Johann Klingelhoefer, but was awarded the office after pointing out that Klingelhoefer was not an American citizen. By the following summer, however, Wight could apparently no longer be bothered to show up for court, so the county commissioners declared the office vacant and awarded it to Klingelhoefer, who had since become a citizen. (One historian has suggested that Wight was addicted to alcohol and opium, which may have contributed to his erratic behavior.)
Perhaps Wight had already sensed another move in the offing. In September 1851, after more devastating floods, he and his followers left Zodiac and moved to Burnet County, where they established a colony called Mormon Mill on Hamilton Creek—those Mormons were serious millers, weren’t they?—but in December 1853 Wight and his followers sold the property to their old friend Smithwick and moved on to Bandera, where they built a furniture factory. In the fall of 1856, however, they moved again, this time to a site on the Medina River below Bandera which came to be known as Mountain Valley or Mormon Camp. (The site is now covered by Medina Lake.)
If folks thought that Wight would settle down at last, they were sadly mistaken. In 1858, he had a premonition of the Civil War and decided to lead his followers—one can only imagine what they thought when he told them to pack up yet again—back to Missouri.
Apparently this was one move too many even for the indefatigable Wild Ram of the Mountains; he died on the second day of the journey, when the group was about eight miles from San Antonio, and was buried in his ceremonial temple robes in the Mormon cemetery at Zodiac, which no longer exists.
And what of his followers? Some remained in Texas, while others moved on to Iowa, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), or Utah. As of 2012, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints claimed 315,895 members in Texas, or about 5 percent of the national total of 6,321,416. Only four states—Utah (of course), California, Idaho, and Arizona—had more. I wonder how many of today’s Mormon Texans are descendants of Wight’s followers, followers who were secretly relieved not to have to uproot themselves yet again at the whim of the Wild Ram of the Mountains?
What we’re reading
Heather: Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
Martin: Rachel Hewitt, Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey