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ResearchEcology and Mormon Colonization in the Little Colorado River Basin, Arizona

Author: William S. Abruzzi. An original land-use history essay for CP-LUHNA.


Little Colorado River Basin

Mormon settlements in the Little Colorado River Basin.

In an effort to limit non-Mormon immigration into its newly claimed territory, the Mormon Church undertook an aggressive regional colonization program. Through this program, the Mormon Church established more than 500 agricultural settlements between 1847 and 1900, including some two-dozen towns founded in the Little Colorado River Basin in east-central Arizona between 1876 and 1880.

Early Mormon pioneers along the Little Colorado experienced considerable hardship trying to establish farming settlements in this arid and climatically variable region. Crop losses were common, and dam failures occurred with frustrating regularity. So variable were local environmental conditions that individual settlements frequently lost crops to both drought and floods during the same agricultural season. Early pioneers also had to contend with insects, hailstorms, high winds and early frosts, all of which threatened their harvests. As a result, agricultural productivity remained limited and highly variable throughout the region.

One community (Sunset) produced nearly 7000 bushels of wheat in 1879, but failed to achieve anywhere near that harvest during the next three years combined and eventually had to be abandoned. But Sunset was not the only town to experience such difficulties: despite valiant efforts, Mormon towns throughout the basin suffered either poor harvests or general crop failures during more than half the years between 1880 and 1900. In addition, two devastating droughts killed thousands of head of cattle during the 1890's. Despite tremendous difficulties, the general colonization effort succeeded and most individual Mormon communities survived. Their success was due in large part to the fact that the early Little Colorado Mormon pioneers developed a system of tithing redistribution that compensated for the negative consequences of local environmental instability (see Abruzzi 1993). This system of tithing redistribution worked because it successfully used the region’s physical diversity to offset it local variability.

The Little Colorado River Basin

The Little Colorado River Basin forms an undulating plain sloping to the north and northeast, with elevation rising from 500' near St. Joseph (Joseph City) to about 8500' along the Mogollon Rim, a steep escarpment 75 miles to the south (see map). Climate is arid to semi-arid throughout the region, with annual precipitation ranging from 9" near St. Joseph and Woodruff to over 25" in parts of the southern highlands. This has yielded a more or less clear plant community gradient throughout the basin. Northern Desert vegetation predominates along the lower valley of the Little Colorado River and is succeeded southwards at increasingly higher elevations by grassland, pinyon-juniper woodland and montane forest communities. However, while precipitation increases with elevation, the length of the growing season decreases with elevation, and the mean annual number of frost-free days ranges from 179 days along the lower Little Colorado River to only 87 days at Alpine. In addition, growing season variability also increases with elevation, yielding increasingly unreliable growing seasons at successively higher elevations. It was, therefore, impossible for individual farming communities to maximize both temperature and precipitation simultaneously.

streamflow.gif (4555 bytes)

Average monthly runoff - Little Colorado River at Holbrook.

Water is a critical limiting resource throughout the American West, and the availability of suitable water for irrigation was, not surprisingly, the single most important factor influencing the success and survival of individual Mormon farming settlements in the region. The extreme variation associated with local precipitation made all early Mormon settlements in the region necessarily dependent on surface water for irrigation. However, since streams throughout the basin flow largely in direct response to precipitation, surface water availability follows an annual cycle that is directly linked to that of precipitation. It is, therefore, highly variable and largely incompatible with local agricultural requirements (see chart): as much as 45% of annual irrigation needs must be applied to fields during the dry months of April, May and June when there is generally little or no rain and when stream flow is at its minimum (see U.S. Geological Survey 1975: 40-43).

Surface water flow is also subject to pronounced short-term fluctuations, and it is not uncommon for dry streambeds to be transformed within hours into dangerously swollen rivers destroying all man-made obstacles in their path, most notably the highly vulnerable earthen dams constructed by early Mormon pioneers. The greatest streamflow variability in the region is displayed by the Little Colorado River at lower elevations, and this is where the maximum number of early pioneer dams were destroyed. St. Joseph and Woodruff lost 13 and 10 dams respectively between 1876 and 1900, compared with only two dams at St. Johns, three dams at Snowflake and Taylor (which shared the same irrigation system), one dam at Showlow and no dams at either Eagar or Alpine.

Woodruff canal

Remains of Woodruff canals

Woodruff Dam
Woodruff Dam

The greater vulnerability of irrigation systems in the lower valley was due to the fact that the Little Colorado River drained a greater portion of the entire basin at lower elevations, as well as to the inherent weakness of the dams constructed in this sub-region. Owing to the deep alluvial composition of the lower Little Colorado River bed, lower valley settlements were unable to build their dams upon firm foundations, despite in one case anchoring their dam to pilings driven more than 20’ into the riverbed (see Abruzzi 1993: 123-131). In addition, when sharp increases in stream flow caused dams at higher elevations to collapse, chain reactions generally resulted in dam failures downstream as well.

The quality of the streamflow available to early Mormon farmers also deteriorated downstream. Sediment load increased sharply as water flowed through high silt-bearing formations. As would be expected, this most negatively affected early Mormon settlements at lower elevations. Their situation was further aggravated by the fact that, since there were no suitable sites for the construction of storage reservoirs at lower elevations, the early lower valley settlements had to rely on surface water as it became available. This was precisely when, due to increased stream velocity, local streams contained the highest sediment concentrations.

The Physical Environment and Community Development

For purposes of understanding the success of Mormon colonization in this region, the Little Colorado River Basin may be divided into three broad sub-regions: (1) the lower valley of the Little Colorado River, (2) the southern highlands and (3) intermediate locales. Each of these sub-regions contains distinct environmental conditions that resulted in characteristically different patterns of community development among the early Mormon settlements. In general, Mormon settlements in the southern highlands endured growing season that were frequently too short and too variable to allow consistently adequate harvests. They, therefore, remained the least agriculturally productive Mormon communities in the basin. The lower valley settlements, by contrast, enjoyed more than adequate growing seasons. However, they suffered from high summer temperatures, dust storms and an annual spring dry season that frequently threatened their harvests. In addition, the lower valley settlements were forced to irrigate relatively infertile soils with the poorest quality, least reliable surface water in the entire region.Moreover, since they could not build storage reservoirs, they remained highly vulnerable to the variability and poor quality of their water supply, both of which increased with time due to activities upstream (see Abruzzi 1995). Economically, they were only marginally more successful than the towns at higher elevations.

The settlements at intermediate locals, on the other hand, all enjoyed an average growing season in excess of 120 days. They also were all located in proximity to perennial streams and suitable reservoir sites that spared them from the degree of surface water variability that plagued the settlements in the lower valley. The four intermediate settlements--Snowflake, Taylor, St. Johns and Eagar--were also situated in the largest and most fertile valleys and were able to irrigate those valleys with relatively abundant, reliable and silt-free water. Of all the Mormon towns in the region, it was the intermediate settlements, in particular Snowflake and St. Johns, that most closely approached the nineteenth century Mormon ideal of stable, diversified agricultural villages independent of surrounding non-Mormon communities and containing the full complement of church institutions. It was also, significantly, the reliable surpluses of these towns that sustained the colonization effort.

Tithing Redistribution

Environmental variability clearly imposed an enduring strain on the early Mormon pioneers in this region and ultimately threatened their entire colonization effort. It not only resulted in highly variable harvests, frequent crop failures, and devastating dam losses, it also produced communities that either failed outright or that remained economically marginal throughout most of their existence. However, the colonization effort did succeed, and tithing redistribution was the key to that success.

Tithing, most of which was paid in kind, was collected and stored in local church warehouses and redistributed throughout the basin to individuals and communities in need. Through tithing redistribution, those Mormon towns that experienced a poor harvests or a dam failure gained access to the agricultural surpluses produced elsewhere in the basin. In addition, since the Church credited individuals for the labor they spent on dam construction as part of their annual tithing obligation, communities such as Woodruff and St. Joseph received repeated assistance from other towns in the frequent rebuilding of their dams. Tithing redistribution thus transformed an otherwise dormant agricultural surplus and pool of spare labor into a flow of resources that could be used to subsidized communities in need.

The success of Mormon tithing redistribution as a mechanism of environmental regulation was due to the fact that the system effectively used the region's spatial diversity to offset its temporal variability. Because the various Mormon towns were situated in widely dispersed river valleys, they generally experienced distinct schedules of variability; that is, while they all suffered the vagaries of environmental instability, they did not all experience the same instabilities simultaneously. Due to local differences in elevation, precipitation, temperature, growing season, soil quality and surface water availability, droughts, floods and other catastrophes occurred at different times and places. In addition, regional developments affected individual communities differently. For example, while higher temperatures threatened crops at Woodruff and St. Joseph by increasing evapotransporation rates throughout the lower valley, they raised the probability of a good harvest at Showlow and Alpine in the southern highlands by increasing the length of the growing season. Similarly, while cooler temperatures increased the likelihood of destructive early frosts in the southern highlands, they reduced the heat stress on crops at lower elevations and increased the prospects of a good harvest among the town in this sub-region.

A central feature of the tithing redistribution system, and one that contributed significantly to its success, were the quarterly stake conferences attended by representatives of the various local wards throughout the basin. (The ward and stake are two organizational units within the administrative organization of the Mormon Church and may be roughly compared to the parish and diocese respectively within the Roman Catholic Church). Although these conferences were held for ostensibly religious purposes, they also provided recurring opportunities for the dissemination of critical information regarding individual towns. Held at critical junctures in the seasonal agricultural cycle, they facilitated a rapid exchange of accurate information on local conditions and a judicious regional response to local needs, enhancing the effectiveness of tithing redistribution.

Mormon pioneer home

Mormon pioneer home

The efficacy of tithing redistribution as an adaptive response to environmental variability in the Little Colorado River Basin is illustrated by comparing it to a system of resource redistribution tried previously in the basin that did not succeed. Early Mormon settlements in the lower valley initially tried to overcome the environmental limitations of farming along the Little Colorado by developing several jointly managed enterprises at higher elevations to the south, including a dairy, a grist mill, a saw mill and a tannery. These enterprises were successful at first and provided these early towns with cheese, butter, meat, lumber and other products to supplement the wheat, corn, barley, sorghum and garden produce raised along the Little Colorado. However, in time, these conjoint enterprises failed, victims of the very environmental variability they had been established to overcome. These various operations all failed because they were supplementary activities that could only be pursued to the extent that environmental conditions in the lower valley permitted. As St. Joseph, Woodruff and the other towns in this sub-region struggled and suffered under the cumulative effect of floods, poor harvests and recurring dam failures, they could no longer continue to contribute the manpower needed to maintain supplementary operations located 75 miles away in the southern highlands. Moreover, because the lower valley communities were all located in the same sub-region and experienced the same schedule of environmental variation, they all experienced simultaneous drains on their meager resources. When one town was unable to spare the manpower needed to maintain the various conjoint enterprises, so were all the others.

In conclusion, as immigration into the basin increased and numerous additional settlements became established throughout the river basin, the Little Colorado Mormon communities developed the system of tithing redistribution that eventually enabled the colonization effort to succeed in this arid and climatically variable region. This latter system succeeded for the same reasons that the earlier system failed: rather than depending on the labor and resources of a restricted set of communities situated in the same highly variable sub-region, tithing redistribution encompassed every Mormon settlement in the region. It thus comprised settlements that were located in a variety of distinct local habitats scattered throughout a 5,000 square mile region and that were, therefore, not subject to the same environmental conditions. Not insignificantly, the success of this latter system was enhanced by the fact that all of these local communities were united into a single centralized administrative organization that directed both the production and distribution of surplus resources within the basin. In addition, because the system of tithing redistribution that operated among the Little Colorado communities was connected to the larger redistributive network of the Mormon Church, the Little Colorado Mormon communities were able to acquire surplus resources from Mormon towns located outside the basin. However, just as the Little Colorado Mormon towns could receive resources from other towns throughout the Church’s vast domain, so too could other towns acquire surplus resources from the Little Colorado communities when they were in need. Tithing redistribution was thus not just a principal factor underlying successful Mormon colonization of the Little Colorado River Basin, but also a key element in understanding the remarkable success of Mormon settlement in the challenging agricultural conditions of the American West's Colorado Plateau.

References and Resources:

Abruzzi, W. S. 1985. Water and community development in the Little Colorado River basin. Human Ecology 12:2 241-269.

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. 1995. The social and ecological consequences of early cattle ranching in the Little Colorado River Basin. Human Ecology 23: 75-98.

Hereford, R. 1884. Climate and ephemeral-stream processes: Twentieth-century geomorphology and alluvial stratigraphy of the Little Colorado River, Arizona. Geological Society of America Bulletin 95: 654-668.