Wealth redistribution, taxes, government, and the poor in Winter Quarters

In our current election season, many issues have been debated about the economy, including wealth redistribution, social safety nets, economic recovery, the size of government, the poor and self-sufficiency. Brigham Young was faced with these same issues when building a winter settlement in Iowa as the Mormon pioneers headed west.

Winter Quarters, Christensen

After the Saints were forced to leave Nauvoo, Illinois, they travelled across Iowa and needed to build a winter settlement. With the entire group virtually homeless, the approaching subzero weather provided a potential crisis situation that required the formation of a productive economy that could produce homes, food, and fuel within a short amount of time. In a matter of weeks, Young successfully implemented a government structure that oversaw the development of an economy that produced a city.

Wilford Woodruff captured the seriousness of their situation when he recorded, “I have never seen the Latter Day Saints in any situation where they seemed to be passing through greater tribulations or wearing out faster than at the present time.” [1]

Young divided the settlement into wards and called 22 Bishops to oversee the needs of the people. Hosea Stout recorded Brigham Young’s proposition to the high council to address the situation.

“President B. Young … taught the council … to lay plans to take care of the poor & see that the Bishops also did the same and cause the poor to be put in a way to sustain themselves and not to make the rich hand out all they have.” [2]

The next day, the topic was revisited. Stout recorded:

“President Young moved that every able bodied man be taxed every tenth day to be devoted to geting [sic] wood and doing such other thing as is necessary for the poor and that it be paid in advance & that the Bishops … notify the people to commence next day to work out this tithing which was agreed to by the council[.] The men who did not work out his tithing is to pay an equivalent” [3]

The rich had been providing assistance to the poor and Young was concerned that all the resources of the wealthy would be drained. He proposed a tax couched in the religious terms of tithing that was to be required by all to help the poor and fund community projects. Those who did not pay the tax through manual labor were to pay in funds. The tax was to be paid/worked out “in advance” as it took priority over individual needs. [4]

As the economic plans developed, it was decided to tax “all personal property over certain amount” in the boundaries of the soon-to-be town. Later, the tax would be expanded to include property outside the town’s boundary (such as livestock).

Brigham required Bishops “to keep an account of what each man is doing,”[5] tax paid, labor donated, as well as those who were “delinquent.” This was to be reported to him weekly.[6] Leaders debated over whether tithing should be compulsory.

Some Bishops complained of being unable to collect enough tithing to build shelters for the poor.[7] Many were unhappy about the tax/tithing burden. Young noted that a common response from some of the saints was, “I will de damned if I will pay…”[8] He declared “all who were among us should both help support the poor and pay their tax … or leave the camp.”[9] Some left the body of the saints and moved south to Missouri where their stories of Brigham exacting money stirred up angry feelings among some Missourians. But by in large, relations remained cordial, probably in part due to economic benefit from trading.

Dwellings consisted of “mud, log, or slab house, or caves.”[10] Young would later encourage all to live in homes made of wood, feeling mud dwelling caused sickness. “[H]aving to go a great distance for timber & wood & get it out of deep ravenes and hollows” caused the building material and fuel to be at a premium value, and it became a medium of exchange and a common form of tithing.[11] By December 24th, 84 cords of wood had been collected for tithing. [12]

Apostle Willard Richards rented his uniquely built “round-house” for meetings, and was the paid historian for the church. He was compensated with wood collected from tithing, as well as a tax levied against the Saints’ property so as not to be “burthened with other cares.”

A second payment arrived from the Mormon Battalion to Brigham Young, providing additional resources. Young explained to the upset wives of the soldiers, “if it had not have been for the Twelve, who receive nothing for their trouble or expense in the first payment and now they [The Twelve] are going to help themselves [to the payment].”

Theft of wood and hay became a problem and a “police tax” was implemented to support a police force. The property of the saints was assessed at $105,000 and the police and tax collector were owed 3/4 percent of each person’s property producing pay of $.75 per policeman per shift.

It was also decided that money could be raised by taxing liquor.

“Voted all ardent spirits that now, or shall be hereafter, brought into this camp shall be taken to the bishops, they to sell it, and the profits go to support the poor, the persons to receive a remuneration for their spirits from the bishops. Voted that all persons who have ardent spirits for sale be notified of the vote of council, and if he refuses to obey the resolution, that he forfeit all his stock on hand. Voted that the marshall [sic] set the price of the spirits rescinded. … A unanimous vote was given by all present, Twelve, council, bishops and visitors of their approval of these spirit votes tonight.” [13]

A liquor transportation tax was also implemented.

A number of community projects were undertaken, such as care for livestock, a council house and a central store. Items sold there included a sales tax.[14] The largest project was building a water-powered mill. “Bishops were required to have the people turn out and work on the mill race so as for one third of the city may work in a day for three days in succession.”[15] Four weeks later, 561 man days had been put into building the mill.[16] Later, men were paid to work on the mill with Brigham Young paying nearly out nearly $2,500.[17] The mill went into operation at winter’s end.

By the end of 1846, a combination of methods had emerged to raise funds, including a tithing tax, a police tax, cattle tax, property tax, sales tax, a wagon tax and liquor tax. These funds were used to support community projects and care for the poor. The enterprise proved to be successful. By the end of 1846 Hosea Stout observed “[t]he brethren have mostly got into their houses. … The poor are uncommonly well seen & attended to,” and Willard Richards noted “a greater spirit of love, peace, and union prevails, and prosperity attends the labors of the Saints.”

On January 6, 1847, Brigham Young wrote fellow apostles Orson Hyde. John Taylor and Parley P. Pratt:

“… we have upwards of 700 houses in our miniature city … no one suffers for food or raiment unless it be through their own fault, that is, in not asking for it, or being well and too lazy to work; but the fact of so many houses having been built in so short a time, is a proof of the general industry of the people, which will bear comparison with the history of all the nations of the earth, and in all periods of time ….”

“Since our buildings were completed many of the Saints have turned their attention to the manufacture of willow baskets, hundreds of dollars worth have already been completed, and there is a prospect of quite an income from this source in the spring-other articles are also commencing, such as wash boards, half bushels, &c. …” [18]

While poor diet, disease and cold weather took its toll, Brigham Young and the saints never-the-less pulled off a major accomplishment in a short period of time, averting a potentially devastating disaster.

Issues and solutions faced by Mormon pioneers have some parallels in society today. Their economic crisis occurred on the frontier as thousands of homeless families faced the oncoming winter on the remote frontier. Questions of taxation, wealth redistribution, personal and government responsibility for the poor, the size of government, etc … were questions faced by Brigham Young and the saints, and questions we face today.

Sources. Note, these, and other primary sources covering this period are being posted at Mormon-Church-History.

[1] Wilford Woodruff journal, Nov 17, 1846

[2] Hosea Stout journal, Nov 23, 1846

[3] Stout, Nov 24, 1846

[4] Stout, Dec 2, 1846

[5] Woodruff. Dec 15, 1846

[6] Willard Richards journal, Dec 15, 1846

[7] Richards, Jan 10, 1847

[8] Woodruff, December 20, 1846

[9]  Stout, Dec 20, 1846

[10] Richards, Dec 24, 1846

[11] Woodruff, Nov 17, 1846

[12] Stout, Dec 24, 1846

[13] Richards, Dec 24, 1846

[14] Richards, Jan 10, 1847

[15] Stout, Nov 29, 1846

[16] Stout, Dec 24, 1846

[17] Richards, Feb 28, 1846

[18] Letter to Elders Hyde, Pratt and Taylor (Millenial Star, April 1, 1847, Vol IX., Jan 6, 1847)


Wealth redistribution, taxes, government, and the poor in Winter Quarters — 3 Comments

  1. Very interesting, Clair. I knew Brigham had practiced some redistribution, of course, but I didn’t know about the similarity to our modern tax system.

    This sort of communal sharing during hard times is fairly typical of pre-modern and peasant societies. It’s opposite of what one would expect in an Ayn Randian universe, but it seems to work. Of course, there’s also something to be said for doing this at the local level rather than at the national level, since local leaders are better at identifying needs and mobilizing participation. In that respect, Brigham’s Winter Quarters efforts were more traditionally Republican (the party of localism).