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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Texas Mormons

by Clay Coppedge
If Lyman Wight could have had his way, Texas and not Utah might have become home to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the Mormon Church. Wight brought about 150 fellow Mormons across the Red River into Texas in November of 1845. They spent the winter in Grayson County and in the spring of 1846 migrated south to a spot near present-day Webberville.

They chose that site because Wight said the recently-slain Mormon leader Joseph Smith had told him to build a new colony there, on the Colorado River where Tom Miller Dam is today. They built a mill but it was soon washed away by a flood. That, combined with a generally cool reception from the people in Travis County, led Wight to move his group to the Pedernales River near Fredericksburg where they founded the town of Zodiac.


Zodiac

The Texas branch of the Mormons received a more favorable reception among the German settlers of Gillespie County, who respected the Mormons’ hard work and enterprise. The Mormons built the county’s first sawmill along with a new gristmill, temple, school and store – all within the first six months of arriving. Wight even managed to get along with the Comanche chief Buffalo Hump, thus helping to maintain an uneasy peace.

Wight had followed a rocky path to Texas. Along with Joseph Smith, he was among the nine Mormons who were tried for treason and other crimes against the state in Missouri. Their incarceration eventually turned into a political embarrassment and they were allowed to escape.

Wight was elected to the Quorum of 12 Apostles, which directs the activities of the LDS church. He ran a Wisconsin sawmill for a time and then traveled the country campaigning for Smith, who was running for President. After Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered by a mob in Illinois, Brigham Young was chosen to lead the church.

Wight was called “The Wild Ram of the Mountains” because of his generally rebellious nature and stubborn independence. That nature was evident in his reaction to Young’s leadership, which he refused to accept. He gathered his followers and took off to Texas, like he said Smith had told him to do.

The Zodiac community was unlike anything people in the Hill Country had seen before. While the other settlers appreciated the group’s strong work ethic, other peculiarities rankled them. Polygamy, which Wight and the Mormons preached and practiced, was particularly vexing.

Nor was Wight faring any better with those of his own faith. Brigham Young dispatched a couple of missionaries to Texas with the expressed purpose of bringing Wight back to Utah and into the Mormon fold but Wight refused. He was excommunicated.

Wight stayed at Zodiac, ran for Chief Justice of Gillespie County in 1850 and lost but took over the office after he pointed out that his opponent, Johann Jost Klingelhoefer, hadn’t yet been granted American citizenship. Klingelhoefer took over a short while later after Wight stopped attending county court sessions.


The Mormon Mill Colony and Mormon Camp

Wight’s group, which usually numbered about 175, moved to Burnet County after another flood destroyed the mill at Zodiac. The Mormon Mill Colony became as busy and productive as the previous settlements had been but, like those ventures, was not very profitable. The group conducted its business apart from the rest of the county, which increased resentment from other settlers. Also, the Comanche were still around so Wight led group to Bandera County. The site where they settled was called Mormon Camp and is covered now by the waters of Medina Lake.

Wight performed the first marriage ceremony in Bandera County when he did the honors for his son Levi Lamoni and Sophia Leyland. He determined to leave Texas because he suspected a war between north and south over the issue of slavery would soon take place.

Wight, who was passionate in his opposition to slavery, prepared to lead his followers back to Missouri but on the second day of the journey he suffered a heart attack and died. He was buried at the Mormon cemetery in Zodiac.

The majority of Texas Mormons went to Galland’s Grove, Iowa, which is considered a landmark move in the Reorganized Mormon Church. Some of them stayed behind. Three of Wight’s sons stayed and fought for the South in the Civil War.



© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" June 11, 2010 column

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