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Washakie LDS Ward Chapel

The Washakie LDS Ward Chapel, constructed in 1939, represents the zenith of the Washakie community, an American Indian farming settlement established in 1880 by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon church) for a group of about 200 Shoshoni Mormons. Washakie was both a religious and social experiment. The Mormon church, by providing farmland, training in agriculture, and religious instruction, hoped to bolster the faith and the economic self-sufficiency of this group of Northwestern Shoshoni. Implicit in this plan was their adoption of “white” ways. The Shoshoni viewed Washakie as a haven where they could live together and practice their adopted religion. Washakie provided them a lifestyle preferable to reservation life, ongoing conflict with whites, or assimilation with the larger society. Coinciding with the completion of this new chapel in January 1939 was the appointment by Mormon church leaders of an all-Native American bishopric to lead the Washakie Ward-the first in the history of the church. This was the culmination of almost 60 years of effort to help Washakie residents achieve ecclesiastical and economic self-sufficiency. For the Shoshoni, it also symbolized their acceptance as equals by their Anglo Mormon neighbors. Church officials and residents alike viewed the events of 1939 as the beginning of a new era for the community. The success was short-lived however. The onset of World War II in 1941 drew away many Washakie residents to jobs related to the war effort. By 1945 the Washakie Ward once again had a non-Indian bishop, and by the late 1960s, after years of out-migration and a shift of emphasis by the Mormon church, the congregation was discontinued, the community virtually abandoned, and the property sold.

On Sunday, January 22,1939, two significant events occurred in the small, northern Utah community of Washakie. First, the newly finished LDS ward chapel was dedicated by authorities from church headquarters in Salt Lake City. The older frame chapel it replaced was converted to a gymnasium (it has since been demolished). Construction of the new building had begun June 26,1937. Typical of the period, ward members with construction skills may have helped with some of the work. The completed building features “a commodious auditorium and class rooms for the holding of all Church services.” The residential-scale building is much smaller than typical ward houses, containing only 1,343 square feet of floor space. This is probably due to the small size of the potential congregation (approximately 125 at the time). The building was probably designed by Edward O. Anderson, who was listed as “Church engineer and architect” among the dignitaries at the dedication. George Albert Smith, a member of the church’s governing body the Council of the Twelve, was on hand to preside over the dedication services.

The second event that day was the appointment of four “full blood Indians” to the bishopric (leadership) of the ward (congregation). From 1880 to 1939, the ward had been led by non-Indian men. Under the reorganization, Moroni Timbimboo was named bishop, Nephi Perdash and Jim John Neaman were appointed counselors, and Henry Woonsook was sustained as ward clerk. The local newspaper noted,
“This was the first time in the [109-year] history of the L.D.S. church that an entire Indian bishopric will preside over a ward.” Bishop Timbimboo not only served as head of the ward, but was also responsible for keeping up the condition of the meeting house.

These events marked the culmination of over 90 years of Mormon/American Indian relations in Utah, and, more specifically, efforts by the Mormon church to convert American Indians and foster them in the faith. When members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon or LDS church) relocated to Utah in 1847 under the direction of church president Brigham Young, they found the territory inhabited by various Indian tribes: Ute, Shoshoni, Goshute, Paiute, and so forth. Brigham Young encouraged his followers to feed the Indians rather than fight them, though at the same time he directed the establishment of over 300 permanent settlements on land previously used or occupied by the local Indians.

The Northwestern Shoshoni have been residents of what is now northern Utah and southern Idaho since at least A.D. 1300. As hunter/gatherers, they moved around the area frequently, often favoring locations near the Bear River and its tributaries which flow from the north into the Great Salt Lake. The arrival of Mormon pioneers in 1847 brought the first permanent Anglo settlements to the area. Tens of thousands of other emigrants passed directly through Shoshoni country along the California and Oregon trails, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad north of the Great Salt Lake in 1869 attracted ever more people and enterprises.

Though the Mormons practiced their “feed rather than fight” policy, conflicts between the Shoshoni and both their Mormon and non-Mormon neighbors were inevitable. The most notable altercation occurred in January 1863, when U.S. Army troops led by Col. Patrick E. Connor attacked a band of Shoshoni camped along the Bear River just across the Utah/Idaho border. Approximately 200-250 Shoshoni were killed, including most of the male population of this particular band. The entire population of the Northwestern Shoshoni numbered only about 1,500 at the time, divided among ten bands, so the loss of life was especially devastating. Though Col. Connor and his troops from Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City received praise at the time, history has since deemed their attack an unwarranted massacre-one of the most severe in U.S. history.6 One of about 20 Shoshoni males to survive the Bear River massacre was Chief Sagwitch Timbimboo, who, in the 1870s, led the conversion of large numbers of Shoshoni to Mormonism. His grandson, Moroni Timbimboo, would become bishop of the Washakie Ward in 1939.

The Treaty of Box Elder in July 1863 brought an end to Shoshoni warfare, but did little to help them establish a stable lifestyle. Government assistance was inadequate, and without land of their own they became a “lost tribe,” wandering the Utah/Idaho border and relying heavily on Mormon communities in
the area for their subsistence.

The Mormon church felt a special affinity toward American Indians, viewing them as a lost and benighted branch of the biblical “Twelve Tribes of Israel.” According to Mormon scripture, The Book of Mormon, American Indians are descended from Israelites who fled the Old World and settled in the Americas beginning around 600 B.C. Internecine warfare wiped out the last of the “believers” around 400 A.D., leaving only the non-believers-the ancestors of the American Indian–on the American continents.

One method used by the Mormon church in working with American Indians was to teach them “white” agriculture techniques and try to convert them to Mormonism. The church established “Indian farms” at various locations in Utah and assigned missionaries to help teach the Indians to farm, raise livestock, construct buildings, and so forth. In 1873, the church assigned missionaries to the Northwestern Shoshoni for this dual purpose.7 After moving the location of the farm a couple of times, they finally settled on a site in 1880 in northern Utah near the Idaho border for a group of over 200 members of the Shoshoni tribe. The farm community was called Washakie, in honor of a respected Shoshoni chief.

Within a few years the community seemed well on its way to fulfilling the church’s long-range program of helping the Shoshoni become self-sustaining members of Mormon and American society. The 1,800 acre farm boasted 1,500 sheep, 150 acres of irrigated land, 450 acres of dry farm, a cooperative store, a school, a church, and a 14-mile canal to provide water to the farms. In addition, some of the Indians started filing homestead claims for themselves. A newspaper correspondent in 1886 noted that the 250 Indians at Washakie owned their property in common, stayed on their farms year around, and were “a temperate and industrious people.” Over 25 years later, the community was still receiving positive reviews. A 1912 report filed by an agent with the federal government’s Office of Indian Affairs noted that the Washakie residents were “indeed well off” in comparison with groups at other locations in Utah.

However, “All was not perfect in the little Zion,” notes historian Brigham D. Madsen. “The missionaries met a lot of frustrations in their attempt to make the Indians into carbon copies of themselves.” Indian agents were also concerned that the Washakie Shoshoni were not performing entirely as they saw fit. Problems noted by the Indian agents during the 1920s and ’30s included the lack of tribal organization (church organization had taken precedence), the need for home management training to the women,
inadequate school facilities, and the need for local courts to take responsibility “to preserve proper order in this community.” Despite these minor problems, Washakie continued to prosper.

By the 1920s, the population of Washakie had stabilized at about 125, less than half the number that had started with the community 40 years earlier. In addition to attrition from death, some had moved to the reservation at Fort Hall, Idaho, and some had merged into the white culture. Those who remained were, with few exceptions, active Mormons.

As the twentieth century progressed, the Mormon church continued to direct the community. It still assigned a non-Indian bishop to head the ward, though by at least 1923 two Indian counselors (Moroni
Timbimboo and Quegembitch) were assisting him. In 1935, two Indian men were called to serve as short-term missionaries to the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana to gain converts. The church also continued to own the 1,800 acres of farmland and the community itself. The issue of property ownership would become a substantial problem after the 1940s, when families who thought they owned their homes were displaced. Most of the homesteads (29 of 40)filed on surrounding land by Washakie residents were lost either because of nonpayment of taxes or “through fraud or other irregular means” to white men. This left the community almost entirely dependent on the church-owned lands.

Beginning in the late 1930s, the church renewed its efforts to improve the viability of the Washakie farm so it would better fulfill the needs of the town’s residents. They improved the irrigation system, purchased new machinery, upgraded and expanded the livestock herd, and experimented with various crops to find the most productive use of the land. For example, raising wheat proved quite profitable around World war II. According to one ecclesiastical leader at the time, these efforts “proved to be very beneficial and very helpful for the whole of the property.”

The completion of the new brick ward house and appointment of the all-Indian bishopric in 1939 were a
culmination of these renewed efforts at Washakie. They also marked “the beginning of a new era for these Indians,” according to the Mormon-church published Deseret News. The community had apparently reached a point of religious self-sufficiency, having already achieved a level of economic stability. The occasion also launched the beginning of a new initiative in the community: the improvement of living and sanitary conditions. The newspaper noted that “this Indian community has made great forward strides intellectually and spiritually, but their temporal advancement, noted by their homes and living conditions, has not kept in step.

The Washakie Project Committee, comprised, ironically, entirely of non-Indian Mormon men, was appointed by church leaders to direct the effort. By 1942, improvements were already being noted:
“Many things have been accomplished in the past two years. Electricity has been brought to the homes. The new chapel has been built. Three new homes were constructed…. A large barn has been rebuilt and fences erected….” While the Washakie project “presents many varied problems and discouragements,” the article noted that it “gives promise of a happy completion in the years to come.”

Whatever momentum the Washakie Ward and community had gained during this new era was lost during World War II. Better-paying war related jobs in nearby Brigham City and in the Ogden and Salt Lake City areas drew away many. In addition, a number of young men who returned from the war decided to take advantage of the schooling they were entitled to through their military service. According to Samuel Hendricks, stake president at the time, “It seemed that the things that we were trying to do [at Washakie] was in competition with the government and with the schools.” Eventually, Hendricks noted, “it got so the old ladies, the young folks’ grandmothers or somebody who were taking care of babies was about all that was left in Washakie.” By 1945 a white man was once again bishop of the Washakie Ward. The ward was downgraded to a branch in 1960, and in 1966 was discontinued. The few remaining members were transferred to the ward in the nearby town of Portage.

At some point during this decline, the LDS church apparently decided to abandon the Washakie project. According to property records, the church was the owner of all the property; the residents of the town were simply tenants. Clearing the land for other purposes became the church’s new priority. Accordingly, many of the vacant homes were burned, much to the shock and chagrin of their former occupants when they returned. Some received compensation from the church for personal property that had been destroyed. Those who refused to leave their houses received eviction notices. The church helped relocate some of those who remained, but it was a sad and confusing time for many. Some felt betrayed by the church. Though most of the residents had moved elsewhere, their roots and sentiments were in Washakie. The identity of the band was also tied to the community. Eventually 184 acres of property, including their burial site located west of town, were returned to the tribe by the church. The remainder of the property was sold to a private party and is currently operated as a ranch.

Washakie’s success was mixed. Its longevity, over 80 years of existence, indicates the community achieved a substantial measure of stability and viability. This is countered by the dwindling population into the 20th century and, of course, the eventual demise of the town. Samuel Hendricks, offering his opinion as a white Mormon church official on Washakie’s success, observed that “there were times when it was good and times when it wasn’t.” While the community enjoyed some success as a segregated Indian community, he felt “that the integration and the mixing in and the training for the amalgamation process [with the larger society] is the way to go…, but I think you have got to give a certain amount of respect for their history, for their culture and their beliefs, their ideals…. We haven’t done too good a job on that.”

The small brick chapel is the most notable of the few structures remaining from Washakie’s historic period. The Craftsman bungalow style school, located south of the church, is still standing, but has been altered on the exterior. At least one of the c.1940 concrete-block houses is also extant; it is located on the north side of the road into town. A canal, apparently the historic canal, is located directly west of the church property. Other historic features of the community probably exist as well, including cultural landscape features (fields, ditches, cemetery, etc.). These features may be dealt with in the future as part of a more comprehensive study, but for now only the church is being considered for National Register designation.

Constructed in 1939, the Washakie LDS Ward Chapel is a one-story brick church with a concrete foundation and modest Colonial Revival stylistic features. It is located on a fenced lot in the heart of the small, unincorporated, mostly abandoned northern Utah town of Washakie. Though currently vacant and in disrepair, the building retains its historic integrity.

The primary façade of the building faces east, despite the fact that the road runs to the north. The east façade is dominated by a gable end wall with a tall, narrow, round-arched panel centered under the gable. The panel is slightly recessed and features a basket-weave brick pattern. The double-door entrance is set to the side of the gable under a lean-to like extension of the roof. It is slightly recessed from the plane of the gable end wall, allowing for clear definition of the south corner of the symmetrical gable end wall.

The brick exterior walls are laid in a common bond pattern, with every seventh course being a header course. A row of soldier bricks accents the bottom of the walls. Colonial Revival style features include multi-pane windows, symmetrical placement of windows, and a flared cornice effect on the gable ends
created by corbeled brickwork. The roof consists of an east/west running gable over the chapel area on the north, intersected by a cross-gable that extends south over the classroom section.

The interior features a central hallway with a rectangular chapel area to the right and three classrooms/offices and a closet to the left (see enclosed floor plan sketch). At the west end of the hall
is a steep stairway down to the furnace room in the basement. Most of the stairs in that stairway have
been removed. The walls and ceiling appear to be plaster over metal lath (visible in deteriorated sections). The original stained wood trim and doors are still in place. The floors are covered primarily with what appears to be asbestos tile. Carpet (a later installation) covers the front (east) of the chapel and the raised platform or “stand” where church leaders conducted services. Leaks in the roof have caused water damage to several parts of the building, evidenced by stains, peeling paint, and even holes in a few areas of the ceiling.

The building sits near the middle of a large, fenced lot, and is accessed by a concrete sidewalk from the road on the north. Behind the church (to the west) is a grove of trees arranged in rows approximately 18 trees aligned in three rows. There are no other structures on the property.