The Almost-Right Place: Joseph Smith and the Texas Republic

Russell Mormon 15 Comments

By the time my FHE activity was over, I had the counselor in the bishopric grumbling about how I was on the high road to excommunication (“like those historians at BYU”).  Why?  Because I suggested that Joseph Smith might have actually temporarily imagined a different “right place” besides the Rocky Mountains.  Where?  Texas.

Background: Back in my days frolicking around in the warm of fuzz of Provo’s Never-Never Land (which, for me, is code for “Never, Never Marry” land), I immersed myself in Church history.  Fret not, my kitsch-hating friends.  This was no immersion in obnoxious trinkets that only reaffirm old narratives.  I studied the good times. The bad times.  The awkward times.  The product of my research?  A masterpiece.  An imposing edifice to reason and intellect–a Mormon version of jeopardy for my FHE group.  The Texas bombshell proved to be of particular interest to our born-in-the-wool Utah counselor (whom I admire a great deal, for the record).

The relationship between the Church and the historic Texas Republic is a fascinating one.  Even to this day (so I hear from a missionary who served in McAllen, TX), members will insist that Texas is the real “right place.”  Texas had long held a place in the imagination of abolitionists and utopians alike. The Nauvoo press teemed with laudatory articles about Sam Houston’s bravery in the face of Mexican intrigue, even as he batted back the legislature’s calls for war.

The plans to consider settlement in the Texas Republic crystallized when Lyman Wight (who would be instrumental in spreading the “real right place” myth in Texas) sent Joseph a letter saying that the local Indian tribe of Menominees wanted assistance in moving down to Texas.  Well, ole’ Wight had an idear–Brother Joseph, maybe we could use Texas as a gathering point for Saints in the South as well as jump-off point to open up missionary work in Latin America.

Joseph seized on the idea.  In a secret meeting of the Council of Fity, Joseph directed that emissaries be sent to Houston to negotiate a treaty by which they could purchase the land between the Colorado and the Nueces Valley.  The plan was to become a buffer state between the Texas Republic and Mexico.

We know that Joseph was promoting the annexation of Texas as part of his campaign speeches.  Yet we also see evidence that the Saints were truly hoping for the annexation bid to fail–Brigham Young even saw the accidental death of Secretary of State Abel Upshur as divine intervention in opening up the path.  Ambassador Lucien Woodworth left for Texas to have secret negotiations with Houston.  Unfortunately, we have almost no documentation about their meeting available to us–in Houston’s papers or elsewhere.  It was an explosive time for the Texans and if anything leaked, it could have prompted an aggressive military action from Santa Anna to prevent the Mormons’ occupation plan. We only know that Joseph had entertained the notion of using the Nauvoo legion to protect whatever new settlement he was pursuing; this, one can speculate, would have been rather attractive to Houston with a buffer of over 5,000 man.  This was theological realpolitik at its finest.

The plan obviously dissolved when Joseph was killed; after all, we have no evidence to suggest that Joseph preferred moving an entire city thousands of miles away over winning the Presidency.  However, Lyman Wight led a break-off group to the Texas region and built what was arguably the first temple west of the Mississippi in Zodiac, Texas (esp. given his continued affiliation with the Church at the time of the Nauvoo exodus).  However, by 1847, Salt Lake was calling Wight to return to Utah.  He refused and was excommunicated the next year.
So where is “the right place”?  I am perfectly fine with calling Salt Lake City the spot God wanted to build his Church from, in spite of Joseph’s attempts to make contingency plans as his city is under siege.  But perhaps some Utah die-hards will feel a little disquiet over this.

Talk amongst yourselves.

P.S. Full disclosure: the above information came largely from Michael Van Wagenen, The Texas Republic and the Mormon Kingdom of God (Bryan, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2002).

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Comments 15

  1. Oh great. Now we have another reason for Texans to behave obnoxiously! They already act like Texas is God’s gift to man, and now you’re giving them even more ammo. (I had a companion from Texas, and I really got tired of hearing how great Texas is…. even if he was one of my favorite companions!) 😉

  2. You can find references to Texas in the journal Joseph Smith was keeping in 1844, which also served as a minute book for important meetings, which was kept by his scribe.

    Here’s an excerpt of an entry from March 10, 1844:

    “Letter was read from Lyman Wight and others Dated Feb 15 1844 to B Young W Richards &c. &c. . . . Joseph asked, can this council keep what I say, not make it public, all held up their hands. [Joseph then proceeded to organize the Council of Fifty to oversee the settlement of Texas and eventually to rule over the political Kingdom of God on earth.]”

    Here’s one from March 14, 1844:

    “Lucien Woodworth sent out on a mission [to Texas to negotiate a treaty in behalf of the Council of Fifty].”

    Here’s one from May 3, 1844:

    “Lucien Woodworth gave a report of his [diplomatic] Mission [to the Council of Fifty]. Lyman Wight present.”

    And the last journal entry regarding Texas from May 6, 1844:

    “Voted Almon BAbbit go on a [diplomatic] mission to France. L Woodworth on a [diplomatic] mission to Texas and Sidney Rigdon be candidate for the Vice Presidency of the U States.

    “Had a warrant served on me from Circuit Court on complaint of F. M. Higbee.”

  3. I’m with MH on this one. Let’s not let this get out to the Texans.

    I have never heard of the “Menominees” tribe before; I’ll have to look them up. That reminds me of the Muppets song.

  4. I have never heard of the “Menominees” tribe before; I’ll have to look them up. That reminds me of the Muppets song.

    One of my HT sisters lives on Menominee Street. Let’s see – yes, I’ve visited her this month – whew! – had me panicked there for a minute.

  5. When I was on my mission in McAllen in 2000 there was a professional documentary film maker in the Brownsville ward who knew a lot about Josephs interest in the Republic of Texas. He said he had seen documents written in Joseph’s hand about it in the archives in the church caves.

  6. Russell,

    Excellent write-up.

    Another book that may be of interest is Melvin Johnson’s “Polygamy on the Pedernales: Lyman Wight’s Mormon Villages in Antebellum Texas 1845-1858”. Mel’s book is one of the best written books I have read and completely covers the subject.

  7. Cantinflas, that film maker is Michael (not Matthew!) Van Wagonen, the author of the book Russell based his post on, who is not only a film maker but also a historian. He’s finishing his dissertation at the University of Utah.

    Ditto on Joe’s recommendation of the Johnson book.

    Nice post, Russell. Steve Taysom has done some good work on the formation of Utah Mormon memory around the exodus and Joseph’s foreknowledge of the Saints settling in the West. This collective memory has worked to marginalize not only other plans, such as the Texas colony, but also the other Saints that did not go West. If JS “saw” the Saints in the Rocky Mountains, then obviously those that didn’t end up there were following the wrong guy. Trying to explain to ordinary Saints the constructed nature of this memory doesn’t go over very well, in my experience.

    But is Utah still “the place” today? It depends on what you mean, I suppose. The SL temple and the COB won’t be leaving the state anytime soon, so in a sense the SL valley remains the center of Utah Mormonism. But in terms of the gathering, church leaders now resort to explicitly telling new converts in other countries to stay away, so I don’t think we can still call Utah “the place” in terms of being the primary place of refuge (or Zion) in the last days. If Saints can be “safe” anywhere in the world, it starts to break down the binary between center and periphery that dominated Utah Mormon self-perceptions from the early period through the mid-20th century.

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  9. I did my own little amateur research and blog post on Lyman Wight and his influence here in Texas after driving by a historical marker with his name of it last year. I included some pictures from the area not too far from where he settled, in anyone is interested. I certainly found learning about this interesting…

    “A Mormon Maverick in the Texas Hill Country–Elder Lyman Wight”
    http://latterdayspence.blogspot.com/2008/07/mormon-maverick-in-texas-hill-country.html

  10. Michael Van Wagonen and I were missionary companions in Kerrville Texas about 20 miles west of Fredericksburg, the area settled by Lyman Wight and his party. Actually Michael was my greenie or I was his trainer. In Fredericksburg there is a monument to the Mormons of the Wight party for helping the German immigrants survive a bad growing season.

    Michael is a very bright man and his book is very well researched. We served in the Texas San Antonio Mission in the mid 1980’s. He also did a sunstone presentation on the subject. I think you can download the mp3 for free.

    I brought this subject up in Sunday school during a discussion. My comments were not well received. The Church, in official history, has portrayed the events in Nauvoo related to potential settlements west of the Mississippi differently then they actually occurred. I know Joseph also considered the Willamette Valley for potential settlement.

    I wish more members understood early Church history. Excellent post!

    Best,

    RRW

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