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 grown. 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 Dixie" today.
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 workeers. 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 other.
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 success. 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 Cahoon