The Virgin River Doused Cotton Mission Settlers’ Hopes

W. Paul Reeve
History Blazer, October 1995

In 1861, Mormon church President Brigham Young called hundreds of families to relocate to southwestern Utah to help establish a Cotton Mission. The principle objective was to produce enough cotton to supply church members’ needs and thereby end reliance upon eastern markets for that product. The influx of settlers strengthened existing communities in the Virgin River Basin and gave rise to new ones such as St. George, the mission’s capital.

In the southern region’s cruel environment, however, the Cotton Mission never really flourished, and as the century wore on the settlers turned more toward eking out an existence for their individual families than to communal cotton production. In fact, throughout the nineteenth century life in Utah’s Dixie was challenging, and many settlers gave up and moved elsewhere. Colonizers who located in the eastern half of the Cotton Mission along the banks of the upper Virgin River found daily living particularly difficult. Specifically, the early settlers of Virgin City, Grafton, Rockville, Springdale, Duncan’s Retreat, and Shunesburg quickly learned that the Virgin was generally untamable. They needed water, yet it often betrayed them with angry tantrums that left their dams, ditches, and crops in chaos. The farmlands in these small villages lay in very narrow strips along either side of the Virgin River and its tributaries and were highly susceptible to erosion from flooding. Families inhabited “tiny plots of soil” and struggled to farm small garden spots called “dinner baskets.” In the end, half of the upper basin communities lost the battle with the river and became ghost towns.

Thomas Burgess and his extended family arrived along the Virgin River around December 1, 1861, and camped between the new towns of Duncan and Grafton while they waited for a draw of land. A tremendous rain began to drench the area. The Virgin River and its tributaries all ran high floods that obliterated the first colonizing attempt at Grafton and swept away much of the land at Virgin City and Rockville. Houses, furniture, clothing, and other property from Grafton floated down the river. The Nathan Tenney family was camped at Grafton in a wagon box where Nathan’s wife was in labor. To make matters worse the wagon was dangerously close to the surging river. In an effort to keep her and the wagon from being swept into the river, the men of the town lifted the entire box, Mrs. Tenney included, to higher ground. Fortunately, despite all the commotion, she had a successful delivery, and the proud parents named their son Marvelous Flood Tenney.

Even though the first settlers of Duncan’s Retreat did not face nearly the excitement the Tenneys had, the flood still proved too great a challenge; they sold their claims to the Burgess family and nine others. The ensuing years did not prove untroubled for them either, as the river continued to take its toll. One Duncan’s Retreat resident described their difficulties: “At the present time, 1866, there is not more than one half the bottom land left that was here when we, came, but we have been told…to hold our positions as long as possible.”

In addition to the unpredictable river, residents also experienced difficulties with Indians during the Black Hawk War (1865–68). In 1866, James Jepson recalled local leaders declared martial law and ordered the people in Virgin to move into forts at Rockville and Toquerville. Jepson’s father tore down their house and moved it to Rockville. But the very day that they finished reconstructing it two men rode into town and announced that a fort would be built at Virgin City and those who wished to return could. Jepson remembered: “Father and I tore the house down again and hauled it back to Virgin, where we rebuilt it and lived in it for two years.”

These challenges aside, life on the upper Virgin River was not all bad. Residents gathered on Sundays for worship services and often met during the week for religious or social activities. Jepson described some of the joys of growing up in the region, including swimming, horseback riding, picnics, peach cutting (for drying) bees, husking bees, melon busts, May Day, Fourth of July, and “big Christmas tree parties.” Leone Russell McMullin recalled “corn and chicken roasts at a pile of drift wood along the river bed during the summer evenings, and…candy making and popping corn in winter” at Grafton.

Still the Virgin River continued to make life difficult. In 1868, following yet another devastating rampage by the river, a number of families deserted. When the local church hierarchy went into the area to boost morale and reinforce the Saints’ religious conviction, the report described the residents of Virgin City, Duncan’s Retreat, and Rockville, as “a little cast down over the loss of their farms” and then noted that many of them “stampeded last winter.” By 1900 residents of Duncan’s Retreat and Shunesburg had completely abandoned their communities and moved elsewhere–many to Arizona and Millard County, Utah.

Even after the turn of the century when most Utah settlements were fairly stabilized, the Virgin River continued to take its toll on the upper basin denizens. The floods of 1909 were particularly devastating. The Washington County News report from Virgin City of that year’s flood described the record high water that came down the gorge and “carried away much valuable land,” including “the lower city lots” and “all bottomlands.” In Rockville even “land that was thought to be safe was swept away in the surging waters.” Fencing, farm implements, milk cows, two stacks of hay, fourteen hives of bees, chickens, melons, squashes, and other valuables were also carried downstream. The article concluded that some residents of Rockville were “feeling very discouraged.” Grafton was also hit hard by the 1909 flood. By 1920 Grafton’s population had dwindled to three families, and by 1930 the river had completely won–it became a ghost town. Virgin City, Rockville, and Springdale, however, all managed to survive. Today they are sleepy little tourist towns that travelers pass through on their way to Zion National Park.

Sources: A. Karl Larson, I Was Called to Dixie (Salt Lake City, 1961); Stephen L. Carr, The Historical Guide to Utah Ghost Towns (Salt Lake City, 1971); Leone R. McMullin, “Grafton, Ghost Town: A Short General and Personal History of Grafton, Utah,” typescript, Special Collections, Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo; James Jepson, Jr., Memories and Experiences of James Jepson, Jr., ed. Eta H. Spendlove (n.p., 1944); W. Paul Reeve, “‘A Little Oasis in the Desert’: Community Building in Hurricane, Utah, 1860–1930” (Master’s thesis, BYU, 1994).