The Last Called Mormon Colonization

Polygamy, Kinship, and Wealth in Wyoming's Bighorn Basin

By John Gary Maxwell

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9781647690588 (hardback)
9781647690595 (paperback)
9781647690601 (ebook)

More than three hundred Latter-day Saint settlements were founded by LDS Church President Brigham Young. Colonization—often outside of Utah—continued under the next three LDS Church presidents, fueled by Utah’s overpopulation relative to its arable, productive land. In this book, John Gary Maxwell takes a detailed look at the Bighorn Basin colonization of 1900–1901, placing it in the political and socioeconomic climate of the time while examining whether the move to this out-of-the-way frontier was motivated in part by the desire to practice polygamy unnoticed.

The LDS Church officially abandoned polygamy in 1890, but evidence that the practice was still tolerated (if not officially sanctioned) by the church circulated widely, resulting in intense investigations by the U.S. Senate. In 1896 Abraham Owen Woodruff, a rising star in LDS leadership and an ardent believer in polygamy, was appointed to head the LDS Colonization Company. Maxwell explores whether under Woodruff’s leadership the Bighorn Basin colony was intended as a means to insure the secret survival of polygamy and if his untimely death in 1904, together with the excommunication of two equally dedicated proponents of polygamy—Apostles John Whitaker Taylor and Matthias Foss Cowley—led to its collapse.

Maxwell also details how Mormon settlers in Wyoming struggled with finance, irrigation, and farming and how they brought the same violence to indigenous peoples over land and other rights as did non-Mormons.

The 1900 Bighorn Basin colonization provides an early twentieth-century example of a Mormon syndicate operating at the intersection of religious conformity, polygamy, nepotism, kinship, corporate business ventures, wealth, and high priesthood status. Maxwell offers evidence that although in many ways the Bighorn Basin colonization failed, Owen Woodruff’s prophecy remains unbroken: “No year will ever pass, from now until the coming of the Savior, when children will not be born in plural marriage.”