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peoplebutton.gif (1940 bytes)The Mormon Pioneers

dusty.jpg (8509 bytes)The Mormon settlers were the first Americans of northern European descent to develop agricultural practices that were adapted to the arid West. Their resourcefulness in making the Great Basin desert around Salt Lake "blossom as a rose" is the stuff of legend, although historians have questioned both the degree to which they actually advanced the arts of irrigation and the degree to which their techniques could be effectively applied to other regions of the West. In fact, the abundance of small streams emanating from the Wasatch Range meant that early settlers needed only to construct relatively short canals in order to irrigate their fields. No attempts were made to build large reservoirs for water storage in the area until the 1870s.

The dramatic Mormon success in bringing semi-arid lands into successful agricultural production resulted at least as much from the hierarchical structure of Mormon societies as from their contributions to irrigation agriculture, as well as to the great attention paid by church leaders to an ambitious 19th century effort to colonize the American West.

Mormon Schoolhouse
Schoolhouse in early Virgin River pioneer town of Grafton, Utah (now a ghost town). Photo © 1999 Ray Wheeler.

The Mormons established a multitude of successful farming and ranching communities on the Colorado Plateau. William Abruzzi’s extensive research and writings on the more than two dozen Mormon agricultural settlements founded in the Little Colorado River Basin in northeastern Arizona starting in the late 1870s are instructive from both a sociological and a land-use perspective. Abruzzi’s research emphasizes the ultimate ecological basis of the success or failure of these communities. According to Abruzzi, it was the region’s numerous widely separated and structurally distinct local habitats that offered potential for widespread agricultural productivity. For example, a particularly wet 1890 agricultural season caused crops to rot at Alpine and led to the loss of dams at Snowflake, Taylor, Woodruff, and St. Joseph, but increased production at most other locations.

The particular genius that the Mormons brought to this region, as well as to others, was the development of a cooperative resource redistribution system that economically integrated the different farms and villages in the basin and enabled them to withstand otherwise devastating crop failures and dam losses. This took the form of a series of productive enterprises jointly operated by the early United Order towns in the lower valleys of the Little Colorado River, and a second system operated through the collection and distribution of the tithing resources among settlements dispersed throughout the river basin.

Abruzzi concludes that the creation and central redistribution of local surpluses, combined with the availability of additional subsidies from external Mormon sources, contributed substantially to the success of Mormon settlement in this basin. He believes that it is for this reason that successful colonization of not only the Little Colorado River and the Colorado Plateau, but much of the American West, was largely a Mormon achievement.


The social and ecological consequences of early cattle ranching in the Little Colorado River Basin, Arizona. Examines the early development of cattle ranching in the Little Colorado River Basin, the various factors which contributed to overgrazing in the region, and the pervasive effects that early commercial cattle ranching had on the local environment. Adapted from a published journal article by Dr. William S. Abruzzi.

Ecology and Mormon colonization in the Little Colorado River Basin, Arizona. The successful agricultural settlement by Mormon pioneers of the arid and climatically variable Colorado Plateau was eventually achieved by a system of tithing redistribution. An original land-use essay for CP-LUHNA by Dr. William S. Abruzzi.

Resources and References:

Abruzzi, W. S. 1985. Water and community development in the Little Colorado River basin. Human Ecology 12: 241-269.

Abruzzi, W. S. 1987. Ecological stability and community diversity during Mormon colonization of the Little Colorado River basin. Human Ecology 15: 317-338.

Abruzzi, W. S. 1989. Ecology, resource redistribution and Mormon settlement in northeastern Arizona. American Anthropologist 91: 642-655.

Abruzzi, W. S. 1993. Dam That River! Ecology and Mormon Settlement in the Little Colorado River Basin. University Press of America, Lanham, MD.

Abruzzi, W. S. 1993. Ecological concepts in anthropological human ecology: Illustrations from Mormon settlement in northeastern Arizona. Pp. 255-271 In: Wright, S., Deitz, T., Borden, R., Young, G. and Guagnano, G., editors. Human Ecology: Crossing Boundaries. Society for Human Ecology, Fort Collins, CO.

Abruzzi, W. S. 1995. The social and ecological consequences of early cattle ranching in northeastern Arizona. Human Ecology 23: 75-98.

Arrington, L. J. and May, D. 1975. "A Different Mode of Life": Irrigation and society in nineteenth-century Utah. Agricultural History 49.

Arrington, L. J. 1993 (orig. pub. 1958). Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1830-1900. University of Utah Press: Tanner Trust Fund, Salt Lake City, 534 pp.

Belshaw, M. 1978. High, dry and lonesome: the Arizona strip and its people. The Journal of Arizona History 19: 359-378.

Christy, H. A. 1978. Open hand and mailed fist: Mormon-Indian relations in Utah, 1847-52. Utah Historical Quarterly 46.

Colton, H. S. 1937. Some notes on the original condition of the Little Colorado River: A side light on the problem of erosion. Museum Notes of the Museum of Northern Arizona 10: 17-20.

Cox, N. J. and Russell, H. B. 1972. Footprints on the Arizona Strip (with accent on "Bundyville"). Horizon Publishers, Bountiful, UT.

Daniels, H. E. 1960. Mormon colonization of northern Arizona. M.S. Thesis. University of Arizona, Tucson.

Freeman, J. 1998-1999. In their own words: The diaries of Lucy Flake, Rachel Lee, and Emma Sykes. Plateau Journal 2: 35-48.

Hull, A. C., Jr. 1976. Rangeland use and management in the Mormon West. Symposium on agriculture, food and man--a century of progress. Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.

Jackson, R. H. and Layton, R. L. 1976. The Mormon village: Analysis of a settlement type. The Professional Geographer 28: 136-141.

Meinig, D. W. 1965. The Mormon culture region: Strategies and patterns in the geography of the American West, 1847-1964. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 55: 191-220.

Norton, W. 1998. Mormon identity and landscape in the rural Intermountain West. Journal of the West 37: 33-42.

Peterson, C. S. 1970. A portrait of Lot Smith--Mormon frontiersman. The Western Historical Quarterly 1: 393-414.

Peterson, C. S. 1973. Take up your mission: Mormon colonizing along the Little Colorado River 1870-1900. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Spencer, J. E. 1940. The development of agricultural villages in southern Utah. Agricultural History 14: 181-189.

Wilkinson, C. F. 1999. Fire on the Plateau: Confict and Endurance in the American Southwest. Island Press/Shearwater Books, Washington, D.C., 402 pp.