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Pioneer Settlements in Arizona

by Charles S. Peterson

Mormon pioneering in Arizona began in the mid-1800s and continued until well after 1900, and was especially active from 1873 until 1890. Latter-day Saints first came to Arizona in 1846, with the March of the Mormon Battalion from Santa Fe to southern California. Later missionaries such as Alfred Billings, Jacob Hamblin, Ira Hatch, and Thales Haskell explored the territory in the 1850s and 1860s. By 1870 interest in transportation on the Colorado River, in grazing, in border control, and in the desert as a refuge led to the establishment of Callsville and Lees Ferry on the Colorado River and Pipe Spring on the Arizona Strip.

In 1873 colonization began in earnest. Brigham Young, with Thomas L. Kane, planned a colonizing thrust that would eventually extend from Salt Lake City to a Mormon seaport at Guaymas, Mexico. A party of scouts under Lorenzo Roundy examined the San Francisco Mountains and the Little Colorado River drainages for town sites. Brigham Young called 200 colonizing and Indian missionaries who, without adequate preparation, hurried south in the winter and spring of 1873. This mission foundered in the desert country north of the Little Colorado, and the missionaries retreated to Utah. Only John D. Lee and a few others held on at Lees Ferry and Moenkopi.

The southward movement lay dormant for two years. When it revived, plans focused on United Order settlements and Indian missions. Missionaries James S. Brown and Daniel W. Jones led expeditions south, and four colonizing companies were dispatched under Lot Smith, a tough Mormon Battalion veteran known for his exploits against the Utah expedition. During 1876 these colonists established United Order towns at Sunset, Brigham City, Obed, and Joseph City on the lower Little Colorado. By 1878 Latter-day Saints had settled farther upstream, at Snowflake, Taylor, St. Johns, Concho, and Eagar, as well as at several sites in western New Mexico. Colonists also moved farther south into the Salt River Valley, where several towns were established, including Mesa and Lehi. Others settled at Pima, Thatcher, and Safford in the Gila River country, and at St. David on the San Pedro River.

The intense United Order impulse of the earliest companies soon diminished, and towns established after 1877 were organized on a less communal basis. Even the strongest orders at Sunset and Joseph City gave up communal organization by 1886. The proselytization of Indians also lapsed as economic competition created tensions between Native Americans and whites. Although irrigation was a continuing struggle, prosperous agricultural villages soon flourished in all the Mormon districts. Led by John W. Young, Arizona Latter-day Saints became a major force in building the Santa Fe railroad and in ranching on the Arizona Strip and near Flagstaff. Establishing a branch of Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI), they also engaged in commerce, freighting, and banking.

At first Latter-day Saints found political life in Arizona difficult. In Apache County, friction among Mexicans, ranchers, and traders escalated into fierce struggles by 1880. In 1884 David K. Udall and a few others were imprisoned for practicing plural marriage; many fled to Mexico. But after the manifesto was issued in 1890, two-party politics were embraced and Church members found a place in Arizona's political institutions.

The 1890 federal census counted 6,500 Latter-day Saints in Arizona. Although Church settlement continued well into the twentieth century, the pioneer period ended by 1900. By that time Latter-day Saints, firmly established Arizonans both in their own minds and in the eyes of others, comprised a distinctive cultural element in Arizona.

The erection of a temple at Mesa, dedicated in 1927, reflected the significance of Arizona to the Church, and provided Native American members and other Church members in Mexico with closer access to temple ordinances. Among twentieth-century Church leaders with Arizona roots was Spencer W. Kimball, President of the Church from 1973 to 1985. By 1990 there were 236,000 Latter-day Saints in Arizona, most of them residing in urban areas.

(See Basic Beliefs home page; Church Organization and Priesthood Authority home page; The World Wide Church home page)


Fish, Joseph. The Life and Times of Joseph Fish, Mormon Pioneer. Danville, Ill., 1970.

McClintock, James H. Mormon Settlement in Arizona: Record of Peaceful Conquest of the Desert. Phoenix, Ariz., 1921.

Peterson, Charles S. Take Up Your Mission: Mormon Colonizing Along the Little Colorado River 1870-1900. Tucson, Ariz., 1973.

Smith, Jesse N. Journal of Jesse Nathaniel Smith. Salt Lake City, 1953.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Arizona, Pioneer Settlements in

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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