Could’ve been Texas; Forthcoming book: Mormon Church nearly settled here

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 29B

SALT LAKE CITY – When Brigham Young entered the Great Salt Lake Basin, legend has it he had but four words to say:

“This is the place.”

But if history had unfolded slightly differently, “the place” might have been Corpus Christi. In 1844, Mormon leaders were in serious discussions with Sam Houston about moving their flock to Texas, not Utah. Houston, anxious to put some sort of barrier between its boundaries and Mexico, came close to selling the southern tip of his young Republic to the church, which wanted to turn it into an independent theocracy the Mormons called the Kingdom of God.

When an untimely murder stopped those plans, the church’s flirtation with Texas was quickly forgotten. A few scholars have known pieces of the tale for decades. But as the world focuses on Salt Lake City for the Winter Olympics, a new book to be published this summer by a Brownsville historian describes just how close Texas came to being Mormon country.

“They were dead serious about coming to Texas. They were ready to go,” said Michael Scott Van Wagenen, author of The Texas Republic and the Mormon Kingdom of God and a lecturer at UT-Brownsville.

Converts and opponents

The central figure of the story is Joseph Smith, the man who turned a series of visions into a new religion that took hold of the nation’s imagination. According to Smith, an angel named Moroni appeared to him in 1823 and showed him ancient scriptural documents buried in a hill in upstate New York. Smith said that over the next seven years, he read and translated the documents and published them as the Book of Mormon, which he viewed as a supplement to the Bible.

Smith started telling others of his visions and soon gained a small cluster of converts. And almost as quickly, he gained opponents. Voting as a bloc, church members could achieve considerable power locally. Rumors swirled about odd sexual practices such as polygamy. People frightened or threatened by the church harassed, and in some cases, took up arms against it. In the 1830s, the Mormons were chased from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois.

In 1839, Smith bought up a tiny Illinois village on the Mississippi called Commerce. He changed its name to Nauvoo and set about building it into a home for his followers. Within a few years, it rivaled Chicago as Illinois’ largest city. But the familiar cycle began again: As the Mormons grew in strength, neighbors grew to fear their power.

Smith built a 5,000-man militia called the Nauvoo Legion to defend his followers. But as Illinois leaders turned against him, Smith believed it would be necessary to move again. And this time, he wanted to go somewhere where he wouldn’t be bothered.

“Joseph Smith’s attitude was, ‘We’ve got to go somewhere where nobody else is, we’ve got to be the first,'” said Glen Leonard, director of the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City.

Hundreds of miles south and west, Sam Houston and the Republic of Texas were also having problems with troublesome neighbors. Mexico was eager to reclaim the lands lost with the Republic’s creation.

Of particular concern was the area between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River, which reaches the Gulf of Mexico at Corpus Christi. Texas and Mexico both claimed the area, and because there were few settlers there, Houston knew it would be difficult to defend.

“Houston had almost no control of anything south of the Nueces,” Van Wagenen said. “Houston knew it was only a matter of time before Santa Anna attacked.”

Houston hoped Texas could be annexed into the United States where it would have the protection of the U.S. Army. But concerns over slavery meant annexation efforts were going nowhere in Washington. So Houston had to consider other options.

As recently as 1840, Texas contemplated giving the Nueces Strip over for the formation of a new country. The Republic had supported the creation of the Republic of the Rio Grande, which included parts of northern Mexico and Texas land up to the Nueces. Texas leaders thought the new nation could provide a buffer between Texas and Mexico, but it only survived a few months before Mexico took back its land.

In other words, the needs of Texas and the needs of the Mormons coincided. Joseph Smith was looking for a piece of empty land to move his followers to. Sam Houston was looking for settlers and had been proven willing to give up a slice of Texas in exchange for added security.

Turning to Texas

The idea of a Texas move reached Smith on March 10, 1844 in a letter from Lyman Wight, one of the 12 church “apostles” who served directly under Smith. Smith was considering other options, including a move to the Oregon Territory, but Wight’s letter prompted him to take action. He called a meeting of the Council of 50, a governing body of the church.

Smith wrote in his journal:

Letter was read from Lyman Wight … about removing to the table lands of Saxet … Joseph asked, can this council keep what I say, not make it public, all held up their hands … if Notsuoh will embrace the gospel … can amend that constitution and make it the voice of Jehovah and shame the US.

Smith wrote in a simple reverse code in his journal: Saxet was Texas, Notsuoh was Sam Houston. Smith wanted to buy up the majority of the Texas Republic and turn it into an independent Mormon kingdom. Other documents from the period disclose the land the Mormons wanted: all of the Nueces Strip, plus nearly the entire Republic west of Austin.

On March 14, a church leader named Lucien Woodworth left for Austin to negotiate a deal. George Miller, a member of the Council of 50, recorded what happened on May 2, when Woodworth returned to Nauvoo:

The council convened to hear his report. It was altogether as we could wish it. On the part of the church there was commissioners appointed to meet the Texas Congress, to sanction or ratify the said treaty, partly entered into by our minister and the Texas Cabinet.

A preliminary deal had been struck. Details are not known, but Van Wagenen considers it unlikely that Houston would have agreed to the initial Mormon offer. Houston had dreams of expanding “Greater Texas” all the way to the Pacific, and selling all of West Texas to the Mormons would have prevented that.

Two later Mormon documents from 1847 give clues that the negotiated area was the Nueces Strip. One directly mentions “the Church removing to Texas, to the country lying between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers.”

Orson Hyde, a top church official, wrote to Smith, asking if he would “write to President Houston and ask him what encouragement he could give us if we would commence an immediate emigration there, and supply him with 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 thousand soldiers to help fight the battle.”

The Council of 50 named Lucien Woodworth, George Miller and a third man to head back to Austin and finalize the deal. Assuming negotiations would be successful, Smith also named Miller and Lyman Wight to be the pioneers who would settle the territory and prepare it for an influx of Mormons.

‘I shall die innocent’

Smith never got a chance to complete any of his Texas plans. A month after Woodworth’s return, anti-Mormon forces were growing more aggressive. The governor of Illinois accused Smith of treason and issued a warrant for his arrest. Smith decided to surrender to authorities.

A mob broke into Smith’s jail cell on June 27, 1844. Smith was shot and killed.

Smith had not publicly chosen a successor, so the newly leaderless church was unsure how to proceed with Texas. Miller wrote later that he wanted to “get the authorities together and clothe ourselves with the necessary papers, and proceed to meet the Texan Congress, as before Joseph’s death agreed upon … so that we would be able to complete the unfinished negotiation of the treaty for the territory mentioned in my former letters.”

But Miller quickly found that the man who was taking over Smith’s leadership role, Brigham Young, didn’t share his enthusiasm for Texas. Rumors were swirling around Nauvoo that some members of the mob that killed Smith were going to Texas to hide. And Young may have thought better of moving the Mormons, in their weakened state, to land immediately between two warring nations.

And, in retrospect, it was probably a smart call. The Mexican War broke out in the proposed “Kingdom of God” just two years after Smith’s death.

But Lyman Wight, the man who had first proposed Texas to Smith, wasn’t very interested in Young’s thoughts. The two men were rivals, and Wight considered his mission from Smith – to lead an advance party into Texas – still binding.

Wight announced he was going to take a band of Mormons on his own from Wisconsin into Texas. In September 1845, Wight and his party left for Texas. They spent the winter in Grayson County before traveling south through Dallas, passing on Preston Road, and making it to Austin.

Austin had only 500 residents at the time, so the 150 new Mormons in town quickly became integral to Austin life. They became regionally famous for their furniture manufacturing, and they built Austin’s first jail.

But Wight’s efforts were cursed from the start. Floods and economic hardship forced them to move four times in 11 years. In 1858, in the midst of another move, Wight died. His followers dispersed around the country. Some joined the rest of the Mormons, who by then had reached Utah; others stayed in Texas and blended into the population.

“Their descendants still live in Texas,” said Van Wagenen, who is Mormon. “I bet if you went up to them and told them about their Mormon ancestors, they’d have no idea what you’re talking about.”

North Texas interest

Van Wagenen acknowledges there was no guarantee the Mormons would have moved to Texas if Joseph Smith had lived.

In fact, there is evidence that, in the last month of his life, Smith may have been changing his target from South Texas to North Texas. Just before his death, he was contacted separately by two Texas land speculators, one of whom tried to sell him a piece of land north of Dallas, on the Red River. One wrote to Smith:

In Texas you will find no dense population to contend with, no bigots to oppress, no overwhelming power to crush you in your infancy, but a new field open to the enterprising pioneer.

Van Wagenen suggests that these communications with private land speculators might mean that Smith was souring on the idea of forming an independent nation, and shifting his goal to living peacefully within Texas, on the superior land in the Republic’s north.

Traditional Mormon history has virtually ignored Smith’s dalliance with Texas, or considered it as something Joseph Smith considered only cursorily.

Leonard, for example, said he believes Smith considered Texas primarily as one of several “gathering places” for Mormons around the country, and that Smith was not interested in moving the greater part of the faith to Texas. “Texas was never seen as a headquarters,” he said.

But D. Michael Quinn, a Mormon historian whose controversial research has gotten him excommunicated from the church, said that the historical record supports the Texas thesis.

“It’s very common for historians to view history from hindsight,” Quinn said. “They’re not looking at it from the point of view of 1844 and what the church’s options were then. … I think Texas was far more serious an option in 1844 than anything involving Utah.”