I am at a stage in life when I think a lot about place. After a decade or so of moving every 1 to 3 years, our family has arrived on the banks of the James and there is a very good chance that this is where my children will grow up. My interest in place is heightened of course that I live a mile from the site of Jamestown — first English settlement in America — and work in Williamsburg — colonial capital of Virginia and, as one acquaintance put it to me “Disney Land for history major.” We live in a part of the world that takes its sense of place very seriously.
One of the ways that I have of thinking through and becoming acquainted with a place is by learning local history. I acquired the habit, I think, from my father who was forever telling me the stories — almost invariably Mormon — of this or that place in Salt Lake City or Utah: the place where the only tree in the valley grew when the settlers arrived, where the old walls of Salt Lake stood, which parks are built over the sites of old forts, where Brigham Young’s houses were, and so on. I think that one of the reasons why I always feel so at home in Salt Lake is the way in which my consciousness of the place extends in four dimensions.
There is this odd way in which I feel detached from the history of Virginia. It is not mine in the same way that the history of Utah or even Massachusetts (where my ancestors came from) is mine. One of the ways that I am trying to overcome this sense of alienation is by learning the history of Mormonism in Virginia. Here’s what I’ve found so far.
The first Mormon missionary to come to Virginia in the time of Joseph Smith was Jedediah M. Grant (my children’s great, great, great grandfather). Like most of the early missionary efforts in Virginia, he came into the Old Dominion from the south and the west, coming from Tennessee into the southern Shenandoah Valley. By the mid-1840s there were 7 branches in the southwest corner of the state. At that point, my research runs out.
I next find material on Mormons in Virginia in the 1880s. The Southern States Mission at the height of the anti-polygamy crusade was a none too friendly place for Mormons. The missionaries travelled without purse or script and seem to have kept to the back country. The mission was based in Chattanooga Tennessee, and southwestern Virginia seems to have been on the periphery of the mission. In those days elders tramping the back roads of the Blue Ridge, Appalachian, Shenandoah, and western Piedmont were regularly run out of the county by posses of local citizens intent on protecting their women from the polygamist fiends from Utah. In addition, between 1887-1890 problems with immigration authorities in New York led church agents to reroute Mormon immigrants through Norfolk, Virginia and during a three year period some 5,000 Latter-day Saints made their way through the Old Dominion on the way to Utah.
Now I run into even larger gaps. There have always been Mormons in Washington, D.C. During the early part of the twentieth century Mormons met in the home of Reed Smoot, and a chapel was eventually built in Arlington Virginia, which is still used by the Arlington Ward and claims to be the oldest LDS building the South. (I am skeptical as to whether this claim is actually true.) Andrew Jensen reported in 1930 that there were branches of the church in Richmond, Petersburg, and Norfolk, which is the first mention that I have been able to run across of church units in my part of the state, i.e. the southeastern Tidewater.
Which leads me to my bleg for all you Mormon history nerds. Can anyone point me toward sources on the history of Mormonism in Viriginia.