Mormons In Texas


All America remembers Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ, and his successor, Brigham Young. Few recall the Mormons who went to the Republic of Texas with Lyman Wight, then an apostle known as the "Wild Ram of the Mountains."

Born May 9, 1796, at Fairfield, Connecticut, Wight distinguished himself in the War of 1812 as a sixteen-year-old soldier in the Battle of Sackett's Harbor. Later he became a member of "The Quoroum of Twelve" which directed the Mormon Church.

Smith's murder in 1844 was followed by a scramble for power. Brigham Young, the new, high prophet, eventually set out for Salt Lake Valley, while Lyman Wight, contending that he was the true successor, began floating down the Mississippi River on March 28, 1845, with 150 men, women and children aboard four boats.

Wight and his followers first saw Sam Houston's Republic when they crossed the Red River on November 10, 1845, moving to an evacuated fort several miles northeast of the present site of Fort Worth. Here they remained for the winter, a winter which saw the annexation of Texas by the United States.

The Mormons broke camp on April 24, 1846, crossed the Trinity River near the small village of Dallas, and pushed on to the Colorado. Six miles north of Austin they established their first Texas camp of any real importance. Present-day residents of the capital city still refer to the saints' camp as "Mormon Springs," a site now covered by the waters of Lake Austin.

To this young village, the Mormons contributed a number of firsts. Furniture was built from hackberry trees on an organized basis. They were the first to build a community saw and gristmill. Appropriately enough, the first jail in Austin was constructed by the saints, who also established themselves as the first professional home builders.

Among Austin residents, Wight evidently was the only male in the colony regarded as a polygamist. Even today there are those who identify a structure fifteen miles east of Austin on the old Webberville Road as the place "The Wild Ram of the Mountains" lived with his three wives in a "general store and temple." Others will deny Wight practiced polygamy and would resent the description of him in the La Crosse Wisconsin Tribune as a "sinner of the most pronounced type, hardest swearer, freest drinker in the vicinity; a man who combined a love for wine, women and wassail with professions of temperance."

A rampaging Colorado River, which destroyed their mill, and a desire for greater privacy, prompted a search for a new colony site. The Pedernales River near Fredericksburg had plenty of good water and timber and was abounding with game and honey. Here the village of Zodiac was built in June, 1847, around a temple, a general store, a school, a cabinet shop and a gristmill. The concept of private property was not followed and the whole community held title to everything exceeding the actual needs of the individual.

The influence of Lyman Wight's colony apparently became felt among the Mormons who had followed Brigham Young to Salt Lake City, for in December 1848 it is recorded that two of Young's disciples came to Texas, seeking to bring Wight and his followers back into the fold. They reputedly threatened Wight with disfellowship should he refuse.

Wight is said to have replied that "nobody under the light of the sun except Joseph Smith or John Smith could call him from Texas to go to Salt Lake City," and that "he had as much authority to call them from Utah as they had to call him from Texas." Before a year went by, the threat was carried out and Wight was excommunicated for failing to join the regular church at Salt Lake.

In 1850, Lyman Wight was elected Chief Justice of Gillespie County. His tenure was brief. After falling out with his county commissioners, he was removed from office for refusing to attend sessions of the court.

The Texas Mormons, however, were helpful to their German immigrant neighbors, many of whom were intellectuals who had fled persecution at the hands of the German monarchy. Coming to Texas under the auspices of an organization known as Verein zum Schutze deutscher Edwinanderer, they were mostly a people who knew little about planting and harvesting of crops. In 1946, the Fredericksburg Standard in its Centennial Edition recounted, "...had it not been for these strange, kind people, many of the early (German) pioneers would have starved to death for it was the Mormons who showed them how to raise many of the things best suited for Texas soil and climate necessary for survival in this great wilderness...The Mormons were undoubtedly the first real pioneers in Gillespie County."

While the Mormons knew how to farm, they never found a way to cope with the flash-floods of Texas streams. When the stone burrs of the Zodiac gristmill were washed away, the saints retreated to a new location on Hamilton Creek.

Lyman Wight's son, Levi, described the move years later in an autobiography, "It was thought best by the community to seek other fields of labor and adventure, consequently we removed about fifty miles and located in Burnet County (and) built another mill on fine privileges.

"We now experienced frequent visits by the Indians of the western wilds of Texas. As their visits became more frequent, they began to give some trouble which increased to a rapid rate until several times they took all our horses, killed our milch cows, and drove our oxen to such a distance that it took us sometimes several days to recover them. They finally took and re-took our horses until we saw them no more. Of our neighbors, the men were often killed, women and children carried off to suffer torture worse than death...."

The stone burrs of the new grist mill, roughly cut from marble excavated in the general vicinity, proved to be unsatisfactory. Time after time the mill broke down.

One morning Wight called his followers together and announced that through a divine revelation he knew the location of the sorely needed stone burrs lost on the Pedernales. If the angel "Moroni" could give Joseph Smith the source for the Book of Mormon, then surely Wight, the successor High Priest in the minds of his followers, could locate the lost mill stones!

Noah Smithwick in his book, The Evolution of State, describes the incident: "Straight he bore as one in a dream, his divining rod in his hand; his awestruck disciples following in silence. Pausing at last in the middle of a sand bar deposited by the flood, he struck down his rod. 'Dig right here,' he commanded. His followers never doubting, set to work, and upon removing a few feet of sand, lo and behold, there were revealed the buried mill stones. Wight said he saw them in a vision and his followers believed it.

"...if there were any polygamous families, I did not know them....All titles of respect were discarded, men and women universally (were) called by their first names....The proselytes were permitted to retain their Gentile names....But those (male) children born in the fold received their baptismal names from the Book of Mormon--Luami, Albinandi, Romali, Cornoman....There was (not) anything objectionable in the Mormons as neighbors....Some of them were honest and industrious, others were shiftless and unreliable; and this must ever prove the potent argument against community holdings...the thriftless get just as much as the thrifty."

By December, 1853, Lyman Wight and his followers were on the move again, this time through the counties of Llano, Mason, Gillespie, Kerr and Bandera. Wight's son-in-law, Spencer Smith, noted in his diary, "29th, Monday (March, 1854), We have concluded to move across the river to take village lots in a new place called Bandera City. We have chosen our lots and commenced a school house today." Here the saints remained for the spring and summer, moving in the early fall some twelve miles down the Medina River to a new camp called Mountain Valley.

There they returned to their old trade of manufacturing furniture and cypress shingles.

Indian attacks began to mount. Repeated requests to the military for protection were ignored. Wight and nineteen others on March 18, 1855, wrote Major Robert S. Neighbors, Indian Agent at San Antonio, "...It seems very curious to us that troops are raised and sent five or six hundred miles from where an Indian ever roamed and leave our frontiers without protection....Who has lost horses in the White Mountains? It must be the Rangers if anybody as they are the only ones in all probability that was ever there....While Congress is spending six or eight months to find out whether it is best to reinforce the army or not, 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."

A week later Neighbors replied to the saints, making a scathing denunciation of the U.S. Army but offering no help: "The Indian Agents have done all in their power to quiet the Indians: but so long as the military branch of the government continues to harass the friendly Indians and make indiscriminate war on them we must expect a continuance of Indian depredations....It is impossible for the Indian Agents to make peace, or quiet the Indians until the troops stop making war....

"It will also be impossible for me to make any progress in settling down and quieting the Indians until the troops are brought out of the Indian country...they are now in the Comanches' hunting ground and the Comanches are compelled to live in or near our settlements where there is no troop to harass them....So you may thank General Smith for the presence of the Commanches in your homes."

Despite the lack of help from the Army and the Texas Rangers, the Mormons managed to defend themselves against the Indians, but their small commercial ventures met with repeated failures.

Financial reverses coupled with the threat of the Civil War finally brought defeat. A foe of slavery and loyal to the Union, Wight decided to return North, but hardly had the migration started when he died unexpectedly March 31, 1858, about eight miles out of San Antonio. His body was returned to Zodiac and interred in the Mormon cemetery, not far from a road which now leads to Vice President Lyndon Johnson's ranch.

After that, the saints scattered to the winds. Some went to Shelby County, Iowa. Others went to Mexico, California and Salt Lake City. Three of Wight's sons remained in Texas and became soldiers in the Confederate Army.

Not long after the old prophet's death, the Galveston News wrote an epilogue to the early Texas Mormons:

"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....These Mormons have proved themselves to be most excellent citizens of our State, and we are 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 our 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."

Maury Maverick, Jr., Frontier Times, April, 1963

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