This past June, Mormon president Gordon B. Hinckley announced his decision to build the 125th Mormon temple in San Antonio. It may seem strange that there’s such a demand for Mormon worship facilities in Texas, more commonly known today as a building block of the Bible Belt, a Baptist and Catholic stronghold. But in reality, the Mormon faith—formally the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—has been in Texas since the state was a republic, and Mormon settlers played an important role in the establishment of some of the state’s leading cities.
Lyman Wight, the leader of these early Mormon settlers, agreed with Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, that the believers should move to Texas in order to escape religious intolerance, to seek a “new Zion” where they could live in peace. But when a mob killed Smith in Illinois on June 27, 1844, his successor, Brigham Young, refused Wight’s request to continue with the Texas plan, even though emissaries had already completed successful negotiations with Sam Houston. Young threatened to excommunicate Wight if he continued his quest for Texas, but in spite of the risk, Wight broke away and led a group of two hundred settlers to Texas. After spending the winter in Grayson County in North Texas, the settlers arrived at a selected site, about four miles north of Austin, on June 6, 1846.
The Mormons soon became a vital part of Austin’s development. They constructed the city jail, worked as carpenters, and built mills on the Colorado River. Wight, though, sought out a more stable existence for his settlers. He believed the Fredericksburg area might be a good location for a permanent Mormon settlement because of the Germans’ open attitudes regarding religion and politics. He discussed the matter with John O. Meusebach, the founder of Fredericksburg, who agreed with Wight and allowed the Mormons to search for a location for their new colony. Six weeks after Wight’s scouts selected a site, the Mormon settlers’ rapidly built gristmill was in operation. The location, four miles east of Fredericksburg on the Pedernales River, had “plenty of water and timber, and abounding with good game and honey,” according to the scouts’ report. Wight named the settlement Zodiac, and the approximately twenty families who followed him built their homes there. They also constructed a temple, a school, and a store.
Once the town of Zodiac was built, the Mormons began selling seeds, lumber, shingles, and furniture to Fredericksburg residents. Although Brigham Young finally excommunicated Wight in 1849, Wight remained Zodiac’s dictator and religious prophet. He ruled the town as a “Community of Interest,” and mandated communal farms and communal property, alleging that he based his practices on the Apostles’ activities. Wight also began missionary efforts among the Comanches of the area. William Leyland, who kept Wight’s journal, recorded March 4, 1850, that Wight met with Buffalo Hump, the Comanche chief, and that “Lyman talked with them concerning the Book of Mormon, etc., and they seemed very much pleased.”
Everything changed in 1851 when the Pedernales River flooded and destroyed the Zodiac mill. Forced to reestablish their community around a new source of income, the Mormon settlers moved to Burnet County to set up a new mill on Hamilton Creek. They couldn’t afford new millstones, however, and consequently searched for the old ones lost in the flood to reinstall in the new mill. Wight somehow managed to resolve the situation. Noah Smithwick, a Wight follower, wrote that “after wrestling alone with the spirits for some little time, he [Wight] arose one morning with joy in his heart, and summoning his people, announced to them that he had had a revelation . . . his divining rod in his hand . . . Pausing at last in the middle of a sandbar, he struck his rod down. Dig here,’ he commanded . . . lo, and behold, there was revealed the buried millstones.”
Regardless of the authenticity of this story, it’s clear that Wight possessed some combination of charisma and leadership that inspired the Mormon settlers to follow him unquestioningly through excommunication, financial ruin, and social intolerance. The colony stayed in Burnet County for a few years, but soon hit the road again, wandering through Llano, Gillespie, Kerr, and Bandera counties before settling on the Medina River in the winter of 1854. The settlers encountered persistent difficulties with the Native Americans of the area, however, despite their friendly contact in Zodiac. The Mormons’ horses were repeatedly stolen, the milk cows killed, and the oxen stampeded, so they chose to continue moving. Their migrant lifestyle continued until March 1858, when Wight died suddenly in Dexter, about eight miles from San Antonio. Wight’s followers carried his body back to what remained of Zodiac and buried him in their old cemetery there. His obituary, printed in the Galveston News, noted that “these Mormons have proved themselves to be most excellent citizens of our State, and we are no doubt greatly indebted to the deceased leader for the orderly conduct, sobriety, industry, and enterprise of his colony . . . He has been the first to settle five new counties and prepare the way for others.”
Wight’s original group of settlers dissipated after his death, and many of the colonists moved to Utah, Iowa, or the Indian Territory. Although missionary activity still took place in Texas, most of the resulting converts moved to Utah or worshiped in their homes, so actual Mormon congregations were few and far between. In 1896, only 64 Mormons were counted in Texas. Yet Austin and Fredericksburg flourished, and the counties first explored and settled by the Mormons became centers of Texas population and industry. After the turn of the century, Jim and John Edgar, Mormon converts from Alabama, settled in Kelsey. Their arrival brought a new surge of Mormon activity in the state, and by 1906, more than 400 Mormons lived in Kelsey. Many Mormons moved to other settlements in Texas around the same time, and missionary efforts further increased the Mormon population. Some 211,000 Mormons now call Texas home, composing 441 Texas congregations—a large number in need of temples like the one in San Antonio, which is scheduled to be completed two years after a building site is chosen. So, although Zodiac may be a ghost town today, the Mormon pioneers’ legacy in Texas lives on.