Paul Bunyan and the Mormons

On Wednesday, we left the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum[fn1] in Eau Claire, WI, and drove to the Goose Island Campground[fn2] in La Crosse, where we were going to spend the night. As we followed the GPS to our campsite, it suddenly gave us this direction:

Evidence that Google didn’t lie to us about the road’s name.

My wife and I debated (briefly) whether there could have been a non-Mormon reason for naming the road “Mormon Coulee,” but couldn’t think of any. So we tried to think of any Coulees (whether or not their first name was “Mormon”). Nothing lept out.

That night, a little Google research told me that coulee isn’t a name; it’s a geographic description. Specifically, a coulee is a ravine.

But what made this particular La Crosse ravine so Mormon? A little more Google searching brought me to Melvin C. Johnson’s “Wightites in Wisconsin: The Formation of a Dissenting Latter Day Community.” The underlying story’s fascinating, and I’m not going to try to relate the whole thing, but a couple highlights.

Lyman Wight was involved in many of the important first-decade milestones of the church. In 1841, he was ordained a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. Three years later he became a member of the Council of Fifty.

As Nauvoo started growing, it faced a significant problem: it needed lumber to build the Nauvoo House and the temple, among other things. Shortly after his ordination to the Q12, Wight, with a few other church leaders, started a “logging mission” in Wisconsin (which makes it doubly appropriate that we had just come from the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum). It turns out that a logging mission in Wisconsin in the early 1840s, made up of people without experience with logging or with Wisconsin winters, was pretty miserable; the first winter, they lived on half-rations, and the second they almost starved.

After Wight moved to the mission in 1843, they began to have some success. And they managed to create a very Mormon community, adopting the communitarian economics Mormons had established in Ohio, as well as Nauvoo’s polygamy.[fn3] (According to the Johnson article, marriages among these Wisconsin Mormons were fairly insular, and the marriages and geography divided the logging mission from the bulk of Nauvoo Mormonism.)

In 1844, shortly before Joseph Smith’s death, Smith coach Wight on going to the Republic of Texas to see if the Mormons could move there. In the aftermath of Smith’s death, Wight broke with Brigham Young and the Q12, partly over Texas vs. the Rocky Mountains, and partly because Wight and the Wisconsin Mormons believed that Young had cheated them, not paying what he owed them for the timber.

By 1845, Wight and many of the La Crosse Mormons had left Wisconsin for Texas, and it doesn’t appear that they ever went back to Wisconsin. They left a name, though, that is still there today. And while their logging exploits may not match Paul Bunyan’s,[fn4] they mark a fascinating chapter in Mormon history, and one that I, at least, was entirely unfamiliar with.

[fn1] (which is, frankly, pretty cool—if you’re ever passing through, you should give it an hour or so)

[fn2] The campground is on the backwaters of the Mississippi, which means two things: first, it is gorgeous. Like, absolutely beautiful. Second, mosquitoes. Tons of mosquitoes; more than I’ve ever seen anywhere. That, plus a thunderstorm at 2 a.m. made it slightly less fun camping than it might have otherwise been.

[fn3] Yes, I know polygamy predated Nauvoo. But it appears to be at Nauvoo that Wight learned about polygamy.

[fn4] Btw, Paul Bunyan tall tales are way cooler than the Paul Bunyan log chute ride at the Mall of America—though the ride is pretty cool—or the Disney cartoon I grew up with. We bought Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of Paul Bunyan at the gift shop. I haven’t read the book proper yet, but the appendix reproduces Paul Bunyan stories collected in the nineteen-teens, largely from loggers, and they are amazing.


  1. This is a very cool story. Not only the Wightites (say that ten times fast), but also the Strangites did a lot of recruiting in WI. A comprehensive history of the logging missions in what are now the states of WI and MN is long overdue.

    Oddly, there are some small towns in Wisconsin that use that Utah-style coordinate street numbering system like you find in (old-town) Mormon towns – 600 N 250 West, and so on. I still wonder whether that was a Wisconsin pioneer thing that some logging-camp Saints brought west, or a Utah thing that some Wisconsin towns thought was useful, or just a parallel, unconnected development. Does anyone know?

    There were small islands of Saints left behind in the logging country, by their own choice or by circumstance, at the time of the Exodus. Many of them were later picked off by the Reorganized Church after the Civil War. Not directly connected with the logging, there is a Cutlerite chapel in a remote little town in northern MN still owned by one of the Cutlerite remnants.

    If you or your family are coming through Minnesota again, Sam, please let me know. I would be honored to host you, or at least buy you dinner. :)

  2. Thanks, New Iconoclast! I totally agree—I would love to know more about the logging missions and the history of the WI and MN Saints.

    In fact, for all you Mormon history people: if you take requests (or need a topic for next year’s MHA or JWHA conference, or a thesis, dissertation, or term paper), consider this mine: I totally want a good study of Mormon logging in the Midwest!

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Sam, at some point you should go meet our Mormon cousins in southeastern Wisconsin, the Strangites (who also had an origin from the Wisconsin logging missions).

  4. I went to that meeting! The Strangites were awesome hosts, and absolutely lovely people. They speak well for the Wisconsinite Mormons.

  5. Mark B. says:

    I’m just dam glad you figured out what a coulee is.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    I remember as a kid (and unaware of the history), double taking as we drove by Lamoni, IA. Now that one is easier to situate for sure. Similar thing happened at Mormon Island, NE.

  7. One of the big islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is called Mormon Island. I’d assume that this is related in some way to the group that came to San Francisco with Sam Brannan and made its way inland.

  8. This took me back to my mission days where as a Canadian from the prairies I had no idea my companions didn’t know what I was talking about when I talked about coulees. Or that Kraft Dinner = Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. Or touque = knitted cap. Good times.

    Bickertonites get my vote as most interesting Mormon offshoot as it is the church of Alice Cooper’s youth.

  9. Bickertonites get my vote as most interesting Mormon offshoot as it is the church of Alice Cooper’s youth.

    I’ll be damned, I thought he was a Strangite. Wackiness either way!

  10. Aussie Mormon says:

    Well I’d much rather a possessed giant Paul Bunyan statue make it into a Stephen King novel (IT), than a possessed giant statute of a former member of the Q12.

  11. Some years ago my wife and I drove through Blanchardville, in southeast Wisconsin. We passed a small historical sign that had “Zarahemla” in large letters on it. According to the sign, the town was settled by Mormons and originally was called Zarahemla, but did not go into much more detail. I assume it was a splinter group that eventually dissolved.

  12. Serendipity seems to work best when you decide to answer your own, “what’s that?”

    More than 30 years ago I was behind the wheel in South Pass, having been a passenger there many, many times. I’d seen signs for Atlantic City and South Pass city before but now had the chance to actually see them and satisfy my curiosity. In the midst of this detour we spotted a little 5×7 black metal sign saying “Mormon Handcart Site 10.1 miles.” What’s that?

    A short while later we found ourselves at Rock Creek Hollow where the Willie Company were finally rescued. It was posted No Trespassing and a cow camp was located where the graves are but even so for a moment it was just us, the hollow, and the wind.

    Of course the Church later bought the site and added rest rooms and missionaries but for we had our own moment of discovery because we followed up to find what’s that. I didn’t talk with any one afterwards who even knew it existed. Even today it’s my preferred church history site in the area because you have the best chance of there being just you, the hollow, and the wind.

  13. STW has a point.

    Years ago, I was traveling through Missouri on my way home from a Civil War event in Arkansas, and I did the Mormon History tour. I got to Haun’s Mill, then a remote, deserted, poorly-marked site owned by the CoC, late in the afternoon and knowing that there wasn’t going to be anything nearby in the way of motels, decided to take a risk and spent the night there on an air mattress in the back of my pickup truck. (I happened to be passing the time with the audiobook version of the volume of The Work and the Glory covering Haun’s Mill, which enhanced the experience.) Waking up in the morning to mist on the banks of Shoal Creek, on the site of the old town, was a great experience – to paraphrase STW, just me, the creek, the breeze, and the ghosts.

    As I left that morning, I followed a series of cryptic signs to something called, IIRC, the “Far West Historical Center” or something like that, which was a trailer home at the site of the Charles C. Rich log home south of Far West – the only surviving Mormon-era structure in Caldwell County. I was met there by a very nice gentleman whose name I didn’t catch, who gave me a very detailed tour of the cabin, discussed its history, let me take a boatload of pictures, and sold me the marvelous biography of JS III, Pragmatic Prophet, by Roger Launius. I believe that operation is no longer in existence, and I have no idea who owns the Rich cabin now.

    As STW also alludes to, now that the LDS Church owns the Haun’s Mill site, I’m sure that there will be sidewalks, restrooms, mowed lawns, possibly a visitors center, and (heaven forbid) a Multimedia Experience (TM), which will completely destroy the ambience of the site, disturb any possibility of archeological work, and drive away any whispers of those who have gone before. The last time I was there, a couple of years ago, there were new roads bulldozed in and it was such a mudhole that my little Prius couldn’t make it through.

    I also have a bunch of pictures of the Cutlerite sites in Clitherall, Minnesota – not much left there, not even live Cutlerites, but a few original buildings are there and one well-preserved chapel.

  14. I found just what I was needed, and it was entrgtainine!

  15. No time to look now, but I recall in the History of the Church (problematic source, I know), Joseph Smith speculates that the Saints might move up to Wisconsin after Nauvoo. I recall finding that as a missionary, serving in Wisconsin, which thrilled me a bit back then. Cool post, Sam.

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