A Brief History of Washington City
The Cotton Mission
Thousands of people left their homes to come to
Northern Utah to find a new life, and to live the religion of
their choice. Arriving exhausted and ill, having hastily buried
hundreds of loved ones along the way, they started their new lives.
From this weary group, Brigham Young asked thirty-eight (38) families,
all from the southern states, to travel to Southern Utah to grow
cotton. These southerners were from Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia,
Texas, Tennessee and the Carolinas. This was the Cotton Mission,
or sometimes called the Southern Mission. Washington City was
the first town established in the Virgin basin for the purpose
of colonizing the land so that cotton could be grown.
"Grow cotton," he challenged them, knowing that war
between the North and South would soon erupt. Cotton would not
be available for use by these Utah pioneers. This directive was
given to people who had left the fertile South to make their trek
to Utah. They knew how to grow cotton, or at least had seen it
These families were the forerunners of what would become known
as "Utah's Dixie"-- so named by these stalwart Southerners,
who were no doubt homesick for the lives they had left behind.
The name spread to the surrounding areas known as "Utah's
Washington City Established
Brigham Young wanted his people to be
self-sustaining and independent of others whom he called Gentiles.
Ten families, under the direction of Samuel Jefferson Adair, arrived
in the Washington area on April 15, 1857. They knew exactly where
they were going because John D. Lee had traveled this area in
1852 and reported to Brigham Young that the area had plenty of
water, and that there was flat, good agricultural land south of
the Virgin River. He also reported that many tropical plants and
fruits could be grown here, including cotton and sugar cane.
On May 5 or 6 twenty-eight (28) more southern families came under
the leadership of Robert D. Covington. He had actually been a
plantation foreman that grew cotton when slaves were the workers.
They met the Adair group at what is now called Adair Springs (122 N 200 E) And the next day they had a two-day conference
with President Isaac C. Haight from Cedar City. They laid out
the city and gave it the name of Washington after the first president
of our country. They formed a branch of the LDS Church and named
Covington as their leader. They also selected school trustees,
constables, justices of the peace, and other positions to make
the city function. The city must have been surveyed at this time
since the streets are straight, wide, and at right angles to each
The Starving Times
The first year in Washington many lived in wagon
boxes or dugouts that were dugouts on the hill on the east side
of second East, known then as adair Street. They paid a high price
to perform this service. Malaria was rampant, killing many and
making others almost useless to perform manual work. Dysentery
and typhoid fever were common, and more of the babies and youngsters
died than survived. "Ague" was the name used to cover
many an illness. Drinking water came fro the same ditches that
cattle rummaged in. Each morning between 6 am and 7 am water was
dipped from the irrigation ditches for use in their homes. It
was known as "dip" water. Food was scarce; they called
it "the starving times."
Workers were malnourished and could hardly work a full day. In
the midst of all this, men and boys dug ditches and canals. They
pushed themselves to create dams so that the precious water could
find its way to the fields they planted. "Surely," they
pleaded in their hearts, "our efforts will be blessed."
"The ones who remained were too poor to leave"
When floods came and destroyed the dams twice in
1857, twice more in 1858, three times in 1859 and at least once
each year until the building of Washington Fields Dam in 1891
that tamed the unruly Rio Virgin - they were always willing to
rebuild. And they did. After a few years of such trying times
many of the original pioneers left or were called to go to other
locations. It was laughingly said, "The ones who remained
were too poor to leave."
Shortage of food for the pioneers and their animals was severe.
The animals had to travel long distances to get something to eat,
which required herders, and the energy exerted by the animals
was great. Forage for the animals was not solved until quantities
of alfalfa, known to the pioneers as "lucern" was planted
and harvested. Doing all of this type of work by hand was difficult
and time consuming.
Fencing was also a problem. The early crops suffered because of
the lack of it. The animals were allowed to roam freely which
made it difficult to protect the growing crops. Rock, cedar posts,
and willows were used to build fences. There were miles of rock
fences in Washington until recently.
The Cotton Factory is built
The Cotton Mission needed help and Brigham Young
provided that help. He had them build the Cotton Factory in Washington,
starting in 1865. He called 309 families in 1861 to come and augment
the cities along the Virgin, stated the Tabernacle in 1863 and
the Temple in 1871. All were aids in making the missions here
Santa Clara grew small amounts of cotton in 1855 and 1856 to show
that cotton could be grown here. The newly grown cotton produced
a satisfactory lint. Cotton was successfully grown commercially,
and Washington produced the most cotton. To make the industry
complete Brigham Young had the Cotton Factory built to produce
cloth that could be used for clothing, etc. Without the Cotton
Factory, the Cotton Mission would not have endured.
Washington City Today
Today, Washington City is a thriving city, and
with the influx of retired people who have discovered it to be
a very attractive and warm place to spend winters, the city has
increased in size. It is one of the cities of Southern Utah that
has exploded with new population growth in the past decade.
Amenities have kept up with the growth. The City has a very challenging
professional golf course that draws players from all over the
West because of its design and difficulty. There are two beautiful
parks in the city, one recently finished, for the use of its citizens.
Other parks are on the drawing boards to insure the citizenry
there will be adequate parks for families to enjoy. A new city
office building has been designed to fit the decor to the old
city, and has recently been completed. A municipal swimming pool
and ballparks are part of the amenities of the city. Many new
homes have been constructed to supply the need for all persons.
There are several organizations that help to promote year round
activities. The Washington Chamber of Commerce, The Lions Club,
The Sons and Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, Churches, Schools
and others. The Washington City Historical Society functions in
helping others to preserve their legacy and to find and save the
history of the city and its early pioneers. Summing up as quoted
in the Washington City magazine 1998:
"More than 135 years ago Washington City was the birthplace
of the Southern Utah Cotton Mission. Today, Washington city continues
to enjoy its reputation as a leading city in Washington County
community were young families thrive, retired folks flourish and
visitors return again and again to enjoy the mild weather, the
friendly people, the awesome landscape and the peaceful lifestyle."
-Washington City Historical Society 15 April 1999 - Harold