Jesse Knight

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Mormon Businessman and Philantropist Jesse Knight
Jesse Knight (6 September 1845—14 March 1921) was one of relatively few Latter-day Saint mining magnates in nineteenth century. Raised by a widowed mother and poor throughout his youth, he was handsomely rewarded for his diligence as a prospector with the discovery of the famous Humbug Mine in the Tintic Mining District near Eureka, Utah, in 1886. As the Humbug proved profitable, he acquired other mines in the vicinity, including the Uncle Sam, Beck Tunnel, Iron Blossom, and Colorado mines. After making his fortune, Knight went on to found the settlement of Raymond, Alberta, Canada.

Knight was born in Nauvoo, Illinois, to prominent Mormons Newel and Lydia Knight. When Jesse was a one-year-old, his family was forced to flee Nauvoo. Jesse's father died in Nebraska on the Mormon Trail in January, 1847; his mother and eight siblings continued on, but were not able to reach their Salt Lake Valley destination until early 1850.

Knight is significant in Western American mining and entrepreneurial history, because in several important ways he differed from the typical "robber baron" capitalists of the late-nineteenth century. His success, like theirs, depended upon the skillful acquisition and management of such business variables as claims, labor, capital, technology, and government services, and also upon the development of cost-efficient integrated enterprises, such as the Knight Investment Company. However, he also owned more patented mining claims in the West than did his counterparts, and he was not inclined to engage in stock manipulation like many other mining entrepreneurs and railroad barons. Moreover, his business methods, especially when dealing with his working men, were far more paternalistic and benevolent than those of the typical big businessmen of the era. While other company town and mine owners often exploited their workers, Knight treated his workers very fairly in his company town of Knightville, Utah, which he equipped with a meetinghouse, amusement hall, and school instead of the usual hedonistic establishments of mining camp life.

Although Knight's philanthropy was not unique for the period, his generous gifts to Brigham Young University (an interest he shared with his wife, Amanda) earned him the reputation as the "patron saint" of BYU. He also gave freely to the church and to many church-related projects, thereby revealing a kindly, religiously-motivated disposition. Furthermore, his comfortable but relatively humble home in Provo, Utah, did not rival the extravagantly garish mansions built by big businessmen from San Francisco's Nob Hill to New York's Fifth Avenue. Nor did he seek high political office like mining kings George Hearst, James Fair, William Sharon, John P. Jones, Nathaniel Hill, Jerome B. Chaffee, Horace Tabor, William Clark, or Utah's Thomas Kearns—all of whom served in the "millionaire's club" of the United States Senate.

Essentially more sensitive and modest than most business leaders during this age of ruthless capitalism and conspicuous consumption, he probably deserved the endearing nickname of "Uncle Jesse"—a rich but giving uncle. In fact, he believed that his money was for the purpose of doing good and building up the Church; he regarded the matter as a "trusted stewardship." As he once said, "The earth is the Lord's bank, and no man has a right to take money out of that bank and use it extravagantly upon himself." Although he strayed from the LDS Church in his early years and briefly affiliated with the anti-Mormon Liberal Party in Utah, one must assume that his otherwise devout faith helped prevent him from falling prey to the capitalistic corruption and self-indulgent excesses so tempting and common to the business leaders of the western mining industry.

After making his fortune in mining, Knight went on to develop settlement and industry in what is today southern Alberta. In 1901, Knight purchased 30,000 acres of land in Canada's Northwest Territories for $2.50 per acre. On this property he established a ranch; Knight later went on to acquire another 226,000 acres of land near his ranch and established a town built around irrigation farming of sugar beets, which were then processed in a local sugar factory that Knight built. The settlement was named Raymond in honor of his son, Raymond Knight. Within five years, over 1,500 Latter-day Saints—mostly from Utah—had immigrated to Raymond. The town incorporated in 1903, and today Knight is honored as the founder of Raymond, Alberta.

Sources

Peterson, Richard H., Utah History Encyclopedia, http://www.media.utah.edu/UHE/k/KNIGHT,JESSE.html