The Salt Lake Tribune recently published an article called “Utah’s Dixie was steeped in slave culture, historians say.”1
The article used a single anecdote about two minor figures in the settlement of Washington County, Utah, known as “Dixie,” as well as an erroneous connection between the region and the Civil War to paint a shocking picture of racism and slavery.
However, the great majority of Washington County settlers were from the northeastern United States and Europe; none of the small group of Southerners in Utah’s Dixie are known to have taken slaves into the area; and neither of the central figures in the Salt Lake Tribune article, Robert D. Covington and Albert W. Collins, seemed to be notable anywhere but in their small town.
First, who were Covington and Collins and how important were they to the history of Utah and Washington County?
Robert Dockery Covington, a native of North Carolina, and Albert Washington Collins, a native of Georgia, both moved into Noxubee County, Mississippi, in the 1830s. The two men married sisters: Robert Covington married Elizabeth Thomas and Albert Collins married Susan Thomas Covington, the widow of Robert’s brother, John Thomas Covington.
Noxubee County, Mississippi, was a frontier community in the 1830s. The settlers who flooded into the former Choctaw lands went to work clearing the land and starting farms. They lived in log cabins and were just barely starting to build schools and churches when the Covington and Collins and many related families joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and crossed the plains to Utah. Some of these families took their slaves with them.2
After the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, Brigham Young began establishing settlements along the trade route to California, which stretched from the Salt Lake Valley down through the southwestern corner of the current state of Utah into California. That southwestern corner became Washington County.
In 1852, the first pioneers settled near the junction of the Santa Clara and Virgin Rivers. The pioneers had just enough agricultural success in the Santa Clara settlement for Brigham Young to call additional families and some unmarried men to begin another settlement in 1857. Many of these new settlers were from the South, but none of them are known to have had slaves in Utah.
The 1857 settlers divided into two small groups of families. Robert Covington led the second group into Washington County. The two groups of settlers founded the town of Washington, often called Washington City to distinguish it from Washington County. Robert Covington became bishop of Washington City, and served in that calling for about a decade, during which time the population increased from 200 to 450. During this decade, the Southerners in the town decreased from 44 percent of the population to 17 percent.3
Albert W. Collins is not listed among the original settlers of Washington City, so it is not known when he arrived in the area. He had been widowed shortly after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, as had Robert Covington, but they both remarried; Collins to another Thomas sister, Covington first to a widow from Kentucky, then to an English immigrant.
The next character in this story is George Armstrong Hicks. An Irish-Canadian with a literary bent and a talent for getting himself into scrapes with the authorities, he wrote a detailed autobiography that included an anecdote about Robert Covington and Albert Collins:
I shall now devote a page or two to giving a description of Washin[g]ton. The bishop, whose name was Covington, had been a Mississippi slave driver. He could scarcely read or write but was a strong Mormon and had two wives and a numerous family. He was a strong Rebel sympathizer and rejoiced when ever he heard of a Southern victory. His first councillor [sic] was called A.W. Collins. He had also been a Southern slave driver. He used to often entertain his hearers at places where people were gathered for public work, such as dam building or ditch making, by narrating acts of cruelty which he had committed in whipping slaves while on plantations in the South…4
The note about Robert Covington rejoicing at Southern victories could be partly explained by the fact that he had many family members remaining in the South. His brother, James, may have served as a soldier in the Civil War before he left the South and moved with his family to San Bernardino, California.
Was Covington notable in Washington City? Yes. He was important to the early settlers because of his efforts to hold the community together through those first difficult years when conditions were so harsh and almost half the households left within the first three years. After the larger Cotton Mission began in 1861 and St. George became the county seat, Washington City lost its place as the largest community in the region, so Covington may have been known throughout Dixie, but he would not have been widely influential. Except for a brief mission to the Southern States after the Civil War, he remained in the area until his death in 1902.5
Was Collins notable in Washington City? In those early days when every settler played a vital role, each able-bodied adult would have been important. When Collins died in 1872, his obituary said he “labored faithfully and diligently for the advancement of the Southern mission.” Even so, he is almost entirely absent from histories of the town. He does not show up in the book Pioneers and Prominent Men of Utah or in the materials collected by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers. Although Hicks said that Collins served as counselor to Bishop Covington, another source lists different counselors. However, Collins could have replaced one of the other counselors for a few years. His two daughters settled in Snowflake and Tuba City, Arizona, where they both died in their mid-40s, so there would have been few people to keep his memory alive.
Leaving aside all questions about the accuracy of the Hicks account, another more important question arises: why should Covington and Collins stand in for the entire population of early Washington County in the Salt Lake Tribune article? Historian David Hackett Fischer calls this technique “the fallacy of the lonely fact.” A small sample becomes the basis for a sweeping generalization.6
Second, is the article correct that the use of the term “Dixie” meant more than a reference to climate and cotton farming, and specifically did it have anything to do with the Confederacy?
The term “Dixie” appears in print at least as early as January 1860, before the Confederacy, before the Civil War. Brigham Young said: “Why, instead of being merchants, instead of going to St. Louis to buy goods, we can go down to our Dixie land, the southern part of our Territory, and raise cotton and manufacture goods for ourselves. These are circumstances we are creating with which to surround our children, and to form the foundation of the future prosperity of this community.”7
Other early references to “the region we call our ‘Dixie’”8 were also in regards to cotton farming and the fact that the area is south of the main Mormon settlements. A Deseret News article joked that the 1861 pioneers to Dixie were “Going South, But Not Seceding. ”9
The people of early Washington County used the term without reference to the American South or the Confederacy: the local newspaper advertised Dixie Wine, and Englishwoman Ann Prior Jarvis wrote in her autobiography that her family received a call to the Cotton Mission, “so for Dixeys land we started.”
When the settlers began using the term “Dixie,” it was not politically or racially charged like it is now. This is illustrated by an anecdote about the song “Dixie.”
In 1909 the New York Times quoted Abraham Lincoln saying:
There is a song or a tune which I used to hear with great pleasure before the war, but our friends across the river have appropriated it to their use during the last four years. It is the tune called “Dixie.” But I think we have captured it. At any rate, I conferred with the Attorney General this morning, and he expressed the opinion that “Dixie” may fairly be regarded as captured property. So I shall be glad to hear “Dixie” by the band.
The article continues:
Ever since then, “Dixie” has been regarded as a National air beloved by the people of the North and South. The tune…was composed by Dan Emmett, a Northern man, who wrote the words and music. For years before the war it was sung at the North and at the South, and will remain for all time a truly National song, made so by the good-natured humor of Abraham Lincoln.10
So a good fifty years after the Utah pioneers began referring to their southern cotton-growing region as “Dixie,” the New York Times gave no indication that it found the term “Dixie” controversial.
Third, were there “brutal realities connected with the cotton industry in southern Utah”?
Yes, but although there were brutal realities associated with life in early southern Utah, they were not the ones implied in the article. The settlers dealt with malaria, scurvy, starvation, floods, severe weather, difficulties with the Native Americans, and backbreaking labor.11
Robert Covington, mentioned in the Salt Lake Tribune article, was described by a friend in 1861:
Here we found some of our old neighbors who received us very kindly. We found Robert D. Covington, The Mangums, and Adams Rickey, and others who had been sent on that mission, some years before. The appearance of these brethren and their wives and children was rather discouraging. Nearly all of them had fever and ague or chills as they are called…. They had worked hard in the country and had worn out their clothes, and had replaced them from the cotton they had raised on their own lots and farms. Their clothes and their faces were all of a color, being blue with chills. This tried me harder than anything I had seen in all my Mormon experiences. Thinking my wives and children from the nature of the climate would have to look as sickly as those now surrounding me, but I said, “We will trust in God and go ahead.”12
Fourth, was the “whole purpose [of the Cotton Mission]… to capitalize on the Civil War by raising cotton in southern Utah and ship it across the Great Plains, and make money off a nation’s suffering”?
No. Growing cotton in Southern Utah was discussed as early as 1852 when John D. Lee wrote to Brigham Young, enthusiastic about the possibilities of growing “cotton, flax, hemp, grapes, figs, sweet potatoes, fruits of almost every kind.” The first cotton was grown in Santa Clara in 1854. Time and time again when Brigham Young discussed cotton, it was in the context of home industry and territorial self-sufficiency. After the Civil War started, he said:
It is necessary for us to sustain ourselves, or we will be left in poverty, nakedness, and distress, as a consequence of war…If, instead of our wives and daughters passing their hours in idleness, folding their hands, and rocking themselves in their easy chairs, they would spin a little wool, and a little cotton from our Dixie…and make some good warm clothing … they could with propriety be called wise women in Israel.13
When the price of cotton soared during the Civil War and the farmers in Washington County ended up with more cotton than could be processed into cloth in the territory, several tons of cotton were sold in California and in the Eastern United States. These out-of-territory sales ended as soon as manufacturing facilities were set up in Salt Lake City, Springville, Parowan, and Washington City.14
Fifth, was Washington County “steeped in slave culture” as claimed in the Salt Lake Tribune article?
No. Most of the settlers arrived in Washington County in 1861 as part of the Cotton Mission and were met by a mixed group of Southerners and Northerners who had been there for several years growing cotton and other crops. In the early days, they all grew cotton: Southerners, Northerners, Europeans, South Africans, Australians, and native Utahns.
Many of the Southern converts who ended up in Washington County had been slave owners including families such as the Perkinses, Churches, Crosbys, Lays, and Thomases, but none of them are known to have taken slaves into Washington County. No blacks show up in the area in the 1860 United States Census.15 The former slave owners either left their slaves in the South, lost them to escape or death, or lost them to emancipation when they joined the San Bernardino settlement (1851-1857) in the free state of California.16
The influence of the original Southern families was greatly reduced when the 1850 settlements were supplemented by 800 families in the early 1860s and 300 additional families in the late 1860s and 1870s.17 In 1860, the percentage of Dixie settlers born in the American South was 19 percent; by 1870, that figure had dropped to 6 percent.18
The Salt Lake Tribune article quotes teacher and historian Andrew Karl Larson as saying that the people of Washington County were “steeped in the lore of cotton culture.” This is true. They all grew cotton. However, very few of the Dixie pioneers would have participated in the Southern slave-holding culture or even heard about it from those who had.
Is it possible that Andrew Karl Larson could have over-emphasized the role the Southerners played in early Washington County? Yes. He was from the small town of Washington, which had been founded by Southerners, but even Washington City dropped from 44 to 17 percent Southern-born in the decade from 1860 to 1870. By the time Larson was born in 1899, just a handful of the original Southern settlers of Washington City were still alive.
Sixth, to quote the Tribune: “We need to step up and acknowledge what really happened. It’s not pretty and it’s not inspirational, but it’s what really happened….”19
So what really happened?
The thousands of pioneers who settled Washington County in the 1850s and 1860s came from the Northeastern United States, the Southeastern United States, Europe, South Africa, and Australia. They struggled to establish irrigation systems and grow cotton, grain, fruit, alfalfa, and other crops in order to help make Utah Territory a self-sufficient economy.
An early settler, George Hicks, claimed that two of these thousands of pioneers, Robert Covington and Albert Collins had Southern sympathies or had connections to the brutal history of slaveholding in the American South.
There was a certainly an important group of Southern settlers in the early days before the Cotton Mission, and many of them had been slave owners, but although some of the Southerners may have had Confederate sympathies, no historical records connect the original use of the term “Dixie” with the Confederate States of America or with slaveholding practices. The early settlers were a diverse group from many states and nations, and all indications point to the fact that to them, “Dixie” meant the temperate region south of the main Mormon settlements, an area they and their descendants grew to consider their home, a home in the desert that they had carved out under severe and exacting circumstances.
* * *
And now, here’s a personal note. I don’t normally read the Utah newspapers, so it was a funny coincidence that I happened to see the Salt Lake Tribune article in the sidebar of a news aggregator. I found it curious since it ties into two of my current projects: The Eminent Women of the St. George Temple, and the history of the black slaves and slaveholding families of Utah. It’s taken awhile to write a response and I greatly appreciate those who have provided assistance including Ardis, of course, for agreeing to post the response and for sending some information; Paul Reeve, author of a number of pertinent books and articles including the upcoming Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness; Mark Butler, who has an intimidating grasp of military and United States history; and Todd Compton who recently wrote about one of the earliest Mormon settlers of Washington County, Mary Minerva Dart Judd.
Of course, I take full responsibility for this response and I’d be happy to see any replies. (Well, as long as they adhere to the normal standards of discussion on Keepapitchinin.) Any questions about sources — many of which are not listed here for brevity’s sake — can be addressed in the comments. In addition, I’d be happy to see any further information about Dixie and the Cotton Mission, particularly any documented uses of the term “Dixie” before January 1860. Finally, if anyone has any ties to Utah’s Dixie, please do share your memories.
- The author, Brian Maffly, made some revisions to the article after it was printed since the first version misidentified the subject of the included story as Robert Dockery Covington (1815-1902) rather than Albert Washington Collins (1814-1873). [↩]
- A Covington descendant claims that Robert took one or more slaves to Utah. (“But my brother, John, living in Idaho by chance met a colored man who said that his father came west with Robert D. Covington and they later settled in Idaho.”) However, neither the Winter Quarters records nor the 1850 Census show proof of any slaves accompanying the Covington family. Other slaves did show up in the Winter Quarters records and the 1850 Census including Green Flake, owned by the James Madison Flake family and a member of the original 1847 Brigham Young pioneer company. The Collins and Covington and Flake families all lived in the Seventh Ward in Winter Quarters, a neighborhood group of about twenty families. It’s possible that John Covington met Abraham Flake, the son of Green Flake, in Idaho, and the family confused the characters in the pioneer story. [↩]
- Washington City population figures throughout this article are taken from the 1860 and 1870 United States Census. In 1860, the census listed 196 residents, with 85 of them from the South (44 percent). The Southerners were from Alabama, Arkansas, Carolina (North and South Carolina were only specified in the 1870 census), Cherokee Nation, Georgia, Indiana (when in a family of Southerners), Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri (when in a family of Southerners), Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. In Ancestry, one page of Washington City is listed with Toquerville. The 1860 Census shows a startling number of unoccupied homes: out of 66 total homes in the community, 31 were unoccupied, which means that almost half of the community had moved elsewhere just three years after Washington City was founded. The 1870 Census shows a population of 463 with 80 people from the South, down five people from 1860, which resulted in a much smaller percentage (17 percent). In 1870 the population included immigrants from Canada, Denmark, England, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, and Wales. [↩]
- Hicks related some disturbing stories about Collins which I did not include here. The account can be found in Polly Aird, Jeff Nichols, and Will Bagley, ed., Playing with Shadows: Voices of Dissent in the Mormon West Norman, Oklahoma: Arthur H. Clark Co., 2011, 172-173. [↩]
- See an editorial by Gregory A. Prince in response to the original December 10 Tribune article. He noted about Covington, “In all the time I have spent in St. George, I have never heard his name…” Gregory A. Prince “Keep it Dixie.” Salt Lake Tribune, January 1, 2013. [↩]
- David Hackett Fischer. Historians’ Fallacies; Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. New York: Harper & Row, 1970, 109-110. Fischer gives an example of the fallacy of the lonely fact: “There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a scientist who published an astonishing and improbable generalization about the behavior of rats. An incredulous colleague came to his laboratory and politely asked to see the records of the experiments on which the generalization was based. ‘Here they are,’ said the scientist, dragging a notebook from a pile of papers on his desk. And pointing to a cage in the corner, he added, ‘there’s the rat.’” [↩]
- The rest of Brigham Young’s quote:
We might have gone to Vancouver’s Island; and if we had, we should probably have been driven away or used up before this time. But here we are in the valleys of the mountains, where the Lord directed me to lead the people. The brethren who are in foreign countries desire to gather to the gathering place of the Saints, and they have for the present to come to Great Salt Lake City. They cannot help that. Why did we not go to San Francisco? Because the Lord told me not: “For there are lions in the way, and they will devour the lambs, if you take them there.” What now can we do? Why, instead of being merchants, instead of going to St. Louis to buy goods, we can go down to our Dixie land, the southern part of our Territory, and raise cotton and manufacture goods for ourselves. These are circumstances we are creating with which to surround our children, and to form the foundation of the future prosperity of this community. They will be more or less governed by the circumstances we create for them. They will make their own bonnets, ribbons, hats, coats, and dresses of every kind. While we are governed and controlled by circumstances over which we have no power, still we possess ability and power in our different spheres of action to call into existence circumstances to surround ourselves and our children, which will more or less control them; and, if they are planned in righteousness, will tend to lead us and our children to heaven.
I have power to call upon the brethren to go south and raise cotton and indigo, the olive, and the grape. I have done it. In doing this, it throws them under the influence of new surroundings and new circumstances. They in their turn can, by perseverance and faithfulness, under the dictations of the Spirit of truth, bring forth a train of happy circumstances to bless them, to bless their wives, to bless their children, and to bless the kingdom of God.
Brigham Young, “Sufferings of the Saints—Overcoming Evil With Good, &c.” Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, January 5, 1860. Reported by G. D. Watt. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 9, 105. [↩]
- “The first cotton we raised in the region we call our ‘Dixie’ cost us about $3.65 a pound; we proved that cotton could be raised there. The next season it cost $1.84, and the next season about 70 cents, and that is the way we proved to the people that we could raise cotton. The experiment cost us thousands of dollars, but now we have cotton.” Brigham Young. “Love for the Things of God—The Temporal Nature of the Kingdom—The Proper Use of Grain—The Love of God Should Rule in Every Heart, Etc.” Synopsis of Instructions by President Brigham Young, during his visit to Davis, Weber, Box Elder, and Cache counties, June 22-29, 1864. Reported by E. L. Sloan. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 10, 334. [↩]
- Deseret News, “Going South, But Not Seceding,” October 23, 1861, 4. Additionally, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Southerners in Utah’s Dixie were not all politically inclined to the Confederate cause. Washington City resident Annie Eldridge Hinkle Chidester, was born in North Carolina and lived in Missouri before she traveled west. Two of her sons and one son-in-law fought for the Union. [↩]
- New York Times, “Lincoln Called for ‘Dixie.’ Had It Played After Richmond’s Fall Because He Liked It,” February 7, 1909. [↩]
- About the heavy labor required of the early settlers, it was said of Daniel Monroe Thomas, a man whose mother was a Covington and who had married into the large Crosby-Lay-Bankhead family, many of whom joined the Church and moved to join the Mormon settlements, “Having been a southern gentleman with negro servants to do all the physical labor it was hard for him to take care of the large vineyards on his land.” But this is a misrepresentation of his earlier life in the South; he may not have owned any slaves before his marriage to Ann Crosby, and the couple may have owned two or three slaves at the most. The 1850 United States Census mentions two, Philemon and Tennessee, and the Daughter of Utah Pioneers mention another one, Toby. Daniel and Ann Thomas did not have any slaves by the time they settled in Washington County. [↩]
- Robert Gardner, “Excerpts from the diaries of Robert Gardner,” in Roberta Blake Barnum, “St. George Pioneer Journal Entries.” Inside St. George, Fall 2011. Southwest Publishing: City of St. George, 5. [↩]
- The entire quote reads as follows:
My doctrine is to put every dollar to usury for building up the kingdom of God, whether it be much or little. I want the brethren to man out their teams, and send down three hundred this season, and four or five hundred when required. And then I want to see the brethren join together their teams and money and send for machinery, besides sending teams for the poor; and thus we will fill the Territory with the necessary articles of machinery for a self-sustaining people. It is necessary for us to sustain ourselves, or we will be left in poverty, nakedness, and distress, as a consequence of war and the breaking up of the general government. We now meet men who seemingly have very little clothing—they wear patch upon patch. I would not by this remark have it understood that clothing ought not to be neatly and somewhat extensively mended, but I have seen men wear pantaloons so patched that it would puzzle you to place your finger upon a piece of the original. They have wives and daughters, but they do not spin. In Exodus we read, “And all the women that were wise hearted did spin with their hands.” If, instead of our wives and daughters passing their hours in idleness, folding their hands, and rocking themselves in their easy chairs, they would spin a little wool, and a little cotton from our Dixie, or that grown in their own gardens and fields, and make some good warm clothing for the men and boys, and some linsey frocks for the women and girls, they could with propriety be called wise women in Israel. If you happen to be in a party where I am and wearing dresses made with your own hands, I shall take pleasure in dancing with you in preference to the lady dressed in silks and satins. We can do this, but we need to be taught day after day, month after month, and year after year.
Brigham Young, “Call for Teams to Go to the Frontiers—Encouragement of Home Manufactures,” Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, February 2, 1862. Reported by G. D. Watt. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 9, 190. [↩]
- See Chapter 9, “The Problem of Marketing Cotton,” in Ivan J. Barrett, “History of the Cotton Mission and Cotton Culture in Utah,” Thesis, Brigham Young University, May 1947, 221-232. [↩]
- University of Utah professor Paul Reeve notes that there were “four blacks in Southern Utah in 1870, one in 1880, and two in 1900.” Paul Reeve. “From Cotton to Cosmopolitan: Local, National, and Global Transformations in Utah’s Dixie,” Opening Plenary Session, Mormon History Association Conference, St. George, Utah, May 2011. [↩]
- Christopher Rich has made a convincing case that Utah’s 1852 Act in Regard to Service set up a system of indentured servitude in Utah Territory, not slavery. See a discussion of his Utah Historical Quarterly article here and here. In any case, any remaining slaves were freed in 1862 when slavery was outlawed in the United States territories. [↩]
- The statistics are from Paul Reeve. See also Leonard J. Arrington, “The Mormon Cotton Mission in Southern Utah.” The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 25, No. 3, August 1956, 221-238. [↩]
- The total population was 691 in 1860 and 3064 in 1870. These statistics are also from Paul Reeve. These early Washington County census statistics were reflected in a comment to the original Salt Lake Tribune article: “Born,and raised there. I am older than dirt. Everyone I knew was from England, Denmark, Wales, Norway, and many were Dutch. Of my 4 Grandpas that were called there by Brigham Young, One was from Wales.One from Norway,and 2 from England. None of them ever lived in the South.” [↩]
- This quote is from the original Salt Lake Tribune article. [↩]