Henry Nebeker & Ann Van Wagoner

On the Muddy Mission, in Nevada


In 1865 among many other “missions” Brigham Young directed that a group of saints be called to establish a new settlement at the confluence of the Muddy River and the Virgin River.  The site was selected as the valley along the Muddy River was viewed to be fertile enough for growing warm crops like cotton, and also because steam-powered boats could ascend the Colorado River as far as this location.  It would also provide a stop-over location on the road from Salt Lake to Los Angeles.

Anson Call was asked to lead this group and several small settlements were strung out along the Muddy River forming at least three named towns but all known collectively as “The Muddy Mission”. 

Henry and Ann VanWagoner Nebeker were living in Payson, Utah at this time and were “called” in 1867 along with many others to relocate there to strengthen this mission.  Obediently, they packed up their goods and made the long and arduous trek across the desert sands in their heavy wagon.

This mission struggled from the earliest days, but still the Nebekers continued to persist to help make it successful.  At one point, Henry Nebeker was sent back to northern Utah to procure a cotton gin for the mission.  This was a relatively new piece of machinery but early versions were large and heavy and it was not an easy task to convey this machine across the mountains and desert.  The task required many teams to pull this all the way down to the Nevada border.

The settlement turned out to be an unsatisfactory location for farming.  This, along with other disputes and problems, prompted Brigham Young to close the mission in 1871, after six long years of struggle.  At that time the settlers were allowed to either return to their prior homes, or to select another area for resettlement.  Henry and Ann, and their young family, returned to their former home in Payson, Utah.

The following article, found on the Internet, is helpful in better understanding the background and the difficulties experienced in this mission.

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The Muddy Mission

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After Mormon missionaries established a way station between Utah and California at Las Vegas in 1855, they received a directive from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to scout more town sites just north of the area along the Muddy River. Not everyone approved, but Church officials authorized new Muddy settlements anyway. Before long, the Muddy missionaries discovered why no one else had settled there before them.


Europeans discovered the Muddy River Valley when Spaniards in New Mexico began searching for a route to California. Spanish explorers sought a more northern trail when they concluded that Native Americans in Arizona were hostile. As desert stretched far and wide along this path, the confluence of the Muddy and Virgin Rivers northeast of Las Vegas appeared as an oasis for the weary travelers.


Various EuroAmerican parties also noted this alluring watering site as they moved through Southern Nevada in the early nineteenth century. Traders, trappers, and government scouts all paused along the Muddy River's welcoming banks to rejuvenate before venturing on into the parched wilderness. But not until Mormon settlers arrived in the 1850s did anyone seriously consider settling the area because the Vegas and Muddy Valleys were inundated with salts.


A number of factors lay behind the Latter-day Saints' decision. First was their general goal of achieving localized, economic self-sufficiency. Having fled from persecution in the Midwest, Mormon leaders hoped to completely cut ties with the gentile–as Mormons called non-Mormons–world. Yet when they discovered that the Salt Lake Valley was too arid to provide enough food and raw materials for a large and growing population, Church officials began looking to expand into the wider Great Basin, and south into the Mohave Desert.


To accomplish this, Church President Brigham Young established Mormon colonies across diverse ecological zones. Settlers in each area produced one or two resources and deposited surpluses in the form of tithing in central repositories, to be distributed as needed–for example, Cedar City, Utah, was the "iron mission," providing that ore to other Mormon communities. Mormon leaders viewed the Muddy River Valley as an ideal spot for growing and then sharing warm-climate crops.


Over time, Mormon leaders realized they would have to import some goods, at least for the short term. This, then, became the second factor driving them to settle the Muddy River Valley. It was an ideal resting spot for travelers hauling in merchandise, and the confluence with the Virgin River connected the Muddy to a port site selected to receive commodities brought up the Colorado River by steamboat.


Mormons arrived at the Muddy in January 1865 and established St. Thomas; six months later a second group founded St. Joseph nine miles to the north. Both discovered ample evidence that local Paiutes were growing crops along the Muddy River, yet the settlers saw nothing wrong with expropriating the Native Americans' property. It was the Paiute practice to plant corn, beans, squash, and wheat before migrating to the cooler uplands for gathering and hunting. They returned every fall to harvest surviving crops. Needless to say, their 1865 return was an unhappy one.


Not surprisingly, "Indian troubles" soon became a problem for the Muddy Valley settlements. Anger over losing their farm land as well as their belief in sharing resources prompted some Paiutes to appropriate Mormon animals and foodstuffs. Unwilling to admit they had pushed members of the tribe into food destitution, the Mormons called the Paiutes' behavior "theft" and "beggary," often responding by punishing "offenders." The Paiutes sometimes reciprocated with violence.  


In addition to difficulties with Native Americans, the Muddy Valley Mormons faced severe environmental and climatic conditions. As the Muddy's source was a mineral spring, it was salty and unsuitable for large-scale irrigation agriculture. Searing heat in the summer and frequent bouts of drought tested the settlers. Man-made disasters also posed challenges. On August 18, 1868, the second St. Joseph burned down after two young boys lost control of a fire while roasting potatoes.


Many Mormon families simply could not endure the Muddy Mission's extreme hardships and left. To determine whether the settlements could survive, Brigham Young visited in March 1870. He was not hopeful. That fall, a flood wiped out the new Muddy village of West Point.


The final straw, however, came during a fight over taxes. In 1870, a new boundary survey confirmed that the Muddy settlements were in Nevada, not in Utah or Arizona. Both of those territories had accepted taxes in the form of goods, but Nevada officials wanted back taxes paid in gold or silver. Few settlers could afford this, so in early 1871 all but one Mormon family left the Muddy Mission for good. The community remained largely abandoned, and in the early 1930s the Boulder Canyon Project led to the creation of Lake Mead, which washed over the Muddy Mission.

Suggested Reading:

Carolyn E. Grattan,
New St. Joseph, Nevada: A Reexamination of the Mormon Experience on the Muddy River [Unpublished master's thesis] (University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 1982).

Monique E. Kimball,
A Matter of Faith: A Study of the Muddy Mission [Unpublished master's thesis] (University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 1988).

Leonard J. Arrington,
Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900 (University of Illinois Press, 2004, New edition).

Sondra Cosgrove

Last Updated: 2007-07-08 17:48:50

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