SOUTHERN UTAH — In the spring of 1862, George and Betsy Hicks panicked when they received the news from Salt Lake City. The young family was living comfortably near Spanish Fork when they learned they were among those called to help settle Washington County.

George and Betsy Hicks with family and friends taken near Spanish Fork, Utah circa 1920 | Photo courtesy G.A. Anderson/L. Tom Perry Library at BYU, St. George News

Utah’s Dixie was on no one’s short list of places to be sent, as Hicks later wrote: “At one time England sent her convicts to Bondsman’s Land; Russia sends hers to Siberia, but in Utah the Church sends hers to the Cotton farm of Southern Utah.”

Many of those called to the Cotton Mission at the time concocted reasons to be excused, or simply refused to go. But despite their reservations, George and Betsy Hicks settled affairs in Utah County and made the long journey south to become cotton missionaries.

Their experience was not unique, and were it not for a song George Hicks composed about his experience few other than his descendants would remember him. But in 1864 he wrote a little ditty that became an instant hit among the new arrivals and endures to this day.

He called it “Once I Lived in Cottonwood” and set it to the tune of “The Georgia Volunteer.” In twelve stanzas (easily found on the internet) Hicks tells of his disappointment at the call and his frustration with life in Utah’s Dixie. Four stanzas pretty well sum it up:

George A. Hicks was among the early settlers called to the Cotton Mission. He was a storyteller with a talent for verse, some of which he put to music. His most famous tune was “Once I Lived in Cottonwood,” which in a humorous way tells of the trials of life in Utah’s Dixie, date unspecified | Photo courtesy George A. Hicks Memories in, St. George News

“Oh, once I lived in Cottonwood and owned a little farm; but I was called to Dixie, which gave me much alarm. To raise the cane and cotton I right away must go, but the reason why they sent  me, I’m sure I do not know… 

“And next we got to Washington, where we stayed a little while, to see if April showers would make the verdure smile. But Oh, I was mistaken, and so I went away; for the red hills of November looked just the same in May.

“I feel so sad and lonely now, there’s nothing here to cheer, except prophetic sermons, which we very often hear. They hand them out by dozens and prove them by the Book; but I’d rather have some roasting ears, to stay at home and cook.

“My wagon’s sold for sorghum seed, to make a little bread. And poor old Jim and Bally, long ago are dead. There’s only me and Betsy left to hoe the cotton tree; May heaven help the Dixieite wherever he may be.”

Some local leaders objected to the song, but Andrew Karl Larsen wrote that while they may have “feared the song would breed discontent among the hungry settlers of Dixie, they were mistaken. It gave them a chance to face their troubles and laugh at them.” In Larson’s view the poem was “good-humored, hilarious cynicism” and “good-natured raillery.”

George Hicks was one of those rare characters who was beloved of his peers but a thorn in the side of those in authority. An iconoclast and critic of hypocrisy and self-importance as he saw it, he was at the same time a dutiful Latter-day Saint who stuck with the church to the end of his life. In some respects he was like another colorful yet unconventional figure in LDS history, the “swearing elder” J. Golden Kimball.

Elizabeth (“Betsy”) Jolley married George Hicks when they were both teenagers. They raised a family of five boys, settling in Spanish Fork after living for a time in Washington, Fort Harmony and Mt. Carmel, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy Elizabeth Jolley Memories in, St. George News

Hicks was a gregarious storyteller who loved to write songs and verse. He came by it naturally, having been born into a family of Irish emigrants from County Fermanagh. His contrarian nature manifested itself early when as a young man he and a friend rescued his 13-year-old sister Caroline from an arranged polygamist marriage to the local bishop, a man nearly three times her age.

This was during the Mormon Reformation of 1856-57, a revival movement Hicks described as “the cause of a great deal of evil and no doubt some little good.” 

The rescue occurred by prior arrangement with Caroline locking herself in an upstairs bedroom soon after the wedding. Hicks and his friend secreted her out the bedroom window, down a ladder, and safely into the arms of the boy whom she really loved and later married.

This episode, and his outspoken criticism of plural marriage throughout his life, did not endear him to local authorities, which he blamed in part for his call to the Cotton Mission.

While in his late teens he married his sweetheart Betsy Jolley and was among those who fought in the Blackhawk War. George and Betsy raised a family of five boys. They were in their mid-20s when they left for Southern Utah. They settled at first in Washington, then later at Fort Harmony — now New Harmony.

Consistent with his nature, Hicks quickly got sideways with John D. Lee, the leader of the little settlement. Hicks considered Lee “a good farmer and stock raiser” and an eloquent speaker, but a hypocrite for not owning up to his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Hicks’ public criticism of Lee caused one of Lee’s wives to call Hicks “a poor sneaking, pusillanimous pup [who was] always meddling in other men’s matters” and who should keep out of her path or she “would put a load of salt in his backside.”

The lyrics and music for Hick’s most famous tune, “Once I Lived in Cottonwood” from George A. Hicks Memories in The tune and lyrics are available in numerous collections and easily accessible on-line | Photo by Fred Esplin, St. George News

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Hicks moved his family to Mt. Carmel for a time then eventually back to Spanish Fork in 1876. The family fared better there than they had in Southern Utah but Hicks could still not restrain himself from offering unsolicited advice to church leaders.

With the passage of the anti-polygamy Edwards Act of 1882 many LDS men were in hiding or in prison for practicing plural marriage. Remembering his sister’s plight from years before, and questioning the divine origin of plural marriage, Hicks wrote a letter to his bishop declaring that the church should give up polygamy.

In response, the bishop cut him off from the church. Undeterred, Hicks went public with his opposition in a play he wrote entitled “Celestial Marriage,” in which he quoted an epigram by Thomas Moore: “Faith, fanatic faith, once wedded fast to some dear falsehood, hugs it to the last.”

Despite his contrariness, Hicks was well liked by his neighbors. As the new century dawned, Hicks, now an old man, became revered as one of the early pioneers who had known Joseph Smith in Nauvoo and been part of the hard days of the early settlement of Utah.

The old Washington Cotton Factory has been restored and is now home to Star Nursery, April 5, 2023 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

He was appointed postmaster, justice of the peace and a school trustee. He was also a schoolteacher, a poet, a musician, and a storyteller with a remarkable memory who was invited to lecture on the early days of Utah at both BYU and the University of Utah. 

In 1923, Reed Smoot, who was both an LDS Apostle and one of Utah’s two senators at the time, reinstated Hicks in the church, an act seen by many as both charitable and fitting for a man who despite his doubts and criticisms had rendered decades of service to the settlement of Utah. Hicks died three years later at 91 and was buried in the Spanish Fork City Cemetery beside his beloved wife Betsy.

Editor’s note: Sources for this article were George Armstrong Hicks’ Autobiography in Memories in and “’I’d Rather Have Some Roasting Ears’: The Peregrinations of George Armstrong Hicks,” by Davis Bitton, Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 68, Number 3, 2000.

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