On April 12, 1861, guns announced the opening of the American Civil War. A war that would disrupt the cotton industry of the nation. This prospect led Brigham Young to feel that the time was right for colonization along the Virgin River, where there were only 79 total families scattered throughout Washington County.
Plans were made for an immediate call of settlers to colonize the Southern or Cotton Mission. Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made a very careful survey of the entire Church; a family here and another there. Much care was taken, the new colony must not only have men of dependability, but it must have men skilled in the tasks of daily life. The skills must be balanced, not having an oversupply of workmen in one field and impoverished in another. The list included artisans from more than 45 occupations, such as blacksmiths, carpenters, printer, doctors, lawyers, school teachers, surveyors, musicians, and others.
On October 6, 1861, at the semi-annual General Conference something dramatic occurred. The call was issued. It consisted of reading the names of those selected to establish a new colony. Many of those called were not aware of the fact that they had been selected until they heard their names read in Conference, or until some friend told them that their names were on the list.
Before the first wagon left Salt Lake City, the new town had been named, a postmaster appointed, a choir leader selected, and plans for lighting the streets were given consideration.
What was it like on January 17, 1862?
Beginning November 30, after three weeks of travel over uncharted territory, 309 families began arriving from the north. The wagons stopped on the east side of the valley where Dixie State University is now, just east of the current Gardner Center. Here William Carter plowed a ditch, diverting water from the East Spring. On either side of this ditch, the wagons lined up facing each other.
This location is now the Encampment Mall, consisting of three grass fields with a monument to those first pioneers who camped there when they arrived in St. George.
It is fitting that Dixie State University is built on this site, as one of the first things they did after setting up camp was to establish a place for education to begin. Children were gathered around and taught reading, writing and arithmetic.
Those settlers looked around and saw only red rock, cactus, basalt, sand, mesquite. There was not a single home, store, or road. It was all up to them to create a home and to grow cotton. Yet they couldn’t even plant a single seed until the soil was prepared and because they were still waiting for their lot assignments. The city had to be surveyed. A government had to be established.
There was much work for all.
A search began for farmland to begin planting. There were no trees in the valley, but enough brush and willows were found for fuel.
Because it was already December, and Christmas was close, a wonderful celebration was planned for the first Christmas in the valley. A dance for all the children was held in the afternoon, and another one for the adults in the evening.
Early in the evening, rain began to fall and continued with such force that the party had to be abandoned. But this storm wasn’t an ordinary one for it continued day after day with almost no let-up for 40 days until the campground was a sticky, bottomless quagmire, and streams became raging torrents. The flood played such havoc that wagons, animals, and farm lands were swept away throughout the southwest.
On January 15, 1862, Israel Ivins began the survey of the new city, and on January 17, the Territorial Legislature assembled at Salt Lake City where the City of St George was approved for incorporation. This act provided for the election of a Mayor. Erastus Snow was serving as the interim mayor.
By January 23, 1862, the survey was far enough completed that the people began moving onto their lots that had been selected in the usual pioneer style. In order to give each man a square deal, numbers of the lots were placed in a hat, while the names of the men were placed in another one. A slip was drawn from each hat and handed to the man whose name was drawn.
As soon as the people were more or less settled on their lots, they began planning for their city government. The election was scheduled for March 17, 1862, but because everyone was so busy planting gardens and building homes, it was not until April 7 that the election was held. Angus M. Cannon became the first mayor.
The city streets received names at this time, today, Main Street is the only one that has remained unchanged.
Over the years, there wasn’t much change in St. George. The population was only 4,562 in the 1950s; 7,000 in the 1970s. Then golf was introduced in 1965, air conditioning became available in the 70s and Interstate 15 was completed in 1973. Now its population is over 95,000.
It is difficult to image that sleepy little town of 1862 and its humble beginnings fraught with challenges from unpredictable water, extreme heat, and total isolation.
Charles L. Walker, a poet of these early days, wrote:
O what a desert place was this when first the Mormons found it,
They said no white man could live here, and Indians prowled around it.
They said the land it was no good, and the water was no ‘gooder’
And the bare idea of living here was enough to make one shudder.
Mesquite, brush, soap root, prickly pears and briars but –
St. George ere long will be a place that everyone admires.
His words have proven true.