Jesse Knight
Miner, Business Magnate, Board Leader &
Philanthropist

Jesse Knight - Philanthropist & Board Leader
Jesse Knight

Board of Trustees
1901 ~ 1921


Jesse Knight was one of relatively few Mormon mining magnates in the West.

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.

Knight is significant in western mining and entrepreneurial history because in several important ways he differed from the typical "robber baron" capitalists of the late-nineteenth-century Gilded Age.

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 Intermountain 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 his philanthropy was not unique for the period, his generous gifts to Brigham Young Academy and later, 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 Mormon Church and to many church-related projects, thereby revealing a kindly, religiously motivated disposition.

Furthermore, his comfortable but unostentatious 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.

Jesse Knight home in Provo

Nor did he seek high political office like mining kings George Hearst, James Fair, William Sharon, John P. Jones, Nathaniel Hill, Jerome 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 his 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." Few nabobs of the era would have been willing to make that statement.

Although he strayed from the Mormon 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 Gilded Age and the western mining industry.

Jesse Knight might not have been the only Mormon mining magnate in Utah, but he left a mark on his church and upon the educational and industrial development of the state.

In 1960 BYU honored Knight's memory by naming the business building (now the humanities building) after him.

The building's namesake possessed what former BYU administrator, Herald R. Clark, called a "magnificent obsession with helpfulness" (Gary Fuller Reese,"Uncle Jesse": The Story of Jesse Knight, Miner, Industrialist, Philanthropist[Provo: BYU master's thesis, 1961], p. 65).

In addition to his support for BYU, Knight also provided generous and much-needed financial support for the LDS Church.

Knight's early life had been punctuated by poverty. He was born in Nauvoo, Illinois on September 6, 1845, the sixth child of Newell and Lydia Knight. The Knights joined the western exodus in late 1846, but Newell made it only as far as Nebraska, where he died in January 1847. Lydia, pregnant with their seventh child, joined other pioneers at Winter Quarters. The family finally reached the Salt Lake Valley in 1850.

As a child, Knight gathered pigweed and sego lily roots to augment the family food supply. By age 11 he was hauling firewood with a team of oxen. Over the next dozen years, Knight held a range of jobs: teamster, logger, scout and guide, railroad worker, member of a cavalry, rancher, cattle buyer, trader, and miner. At some point during those years he lost interest in the LDS Church, although he married Amanda McEwan, an active Latter-day Saint, in 1869.

Then in 1887 an experience forever changed his commitment to the Church. A rat fell in the family well, died, and decomposed. Jennie, his youngest daughter, was the first to become ill from drinking the contaminated water.

Despite his professed lack of faith, Knight was finally persuaded to bring in elders to give her a blessing, and Jennie recovered, something he always considered miraculous.

His oldest daughter Minnie, however, died of the infection, and he remembered that 17 years earlier she had nearly died of diphtheria. At that time Knight had promised that he would not forget God if the Lord would spare Minnie's life. As he described it, "I had not kept that promise. . . . I prayed for forgiveness and help. My prayer was answered and I received a testimony" (J. William Knight, The Jesse Knight Family [Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1940], pp. 3536).

The family then lived in Payson, Utah, about 25 miles from the Tintic mining district. While visiting the district one day, Knight sat under a tree on Godiva Mountain and heard a voice that told him, "This country is here for the Mormons." He always thereafter remembered the voice and interpreted it to mean that the wealth of the land was meant to assist the Latter-day Saints.

Not long afterward, Knight staked his first mining claim, which he sold in 1890 for $14,000. This provided funds to move his family to Provo.

According to Diane L. Mangum, whose story about Jesse Knight appeared in the October 1993 Ensign, "Always generous, Jesse became even more open-handed with his newfound prosperity. He offered help to everyone who asked, and often cosigned on loans for them. More often than not, Jesse was left to repay the debts. His money and credit slipped away, and he even had to mortgage the home he had built in Provo."

But Knight had a natural instinct about land. He returned to Godiva Mountain, located some promising limestone outcrops, and decided to stake a mining claim there. He then visited his brother-in-law Jared Roundy and offered him a share in the stake. But Roundy declined, calling the claim a "damned old humbug."

Knight secured a loan and dubbed the mine "Humbug." It turned out to be one of the richest lead-silver deposits ever found in the West.

Jesse Knight formed his first mining company in 1892. It took him four years to strike a mother lode. A niece retold this story like this: one day he was prospecting "all by himself" on the east side of Godiva Mountain. Stopping to rest under a pine tree, he heard a voice say, "This country is here for the Mormons." This convinced Knight the claim was valuable and that whatever wealth it produced should be distributed--a principle he instilled in all his children.

Knight's technique was to study the limestone in which known ore deposits had formed using this as a guide for estimating the placement of other veins. A 150-foot tunnel had already been dug during this property's assessment, so Knight brought in three associates.

They worked to extend the tunnel using jackhammers, drills, and blasting powder. They worked 24 hours a day in 8-hour shifts with Jesse himself hauling the dirt by wheelbarrow to the mouth of the mine.

In August 1896 they struck lead ore. The three associates were ecstatic, but Jesse remained calm, having expected this all along.

Jesse hauled the first diggings into the sunlight, dumped them on the ground, and said, "I have done the last day's [manual] work that I ever expect to. I expect to give employment and make work from now on for other people."

Another famous Knight bonanza was the Mammoth. In 1874 surface outcroppings of this lode had been discovered but exhausted. Knight discovered the vein below surface. Other famous Knight mines were the Opex Standard, Dragon Consolidated, Iron Blossom, and Gemini.

Some Tintic mines in the 1890s had a copper content as high as 48 percent, and their waste was so rich in gold and silver that small concentrators were built right on site. It is said a single 1907 carload of Tintic ore was valued at $107,000.

Knight eventually created an enormous amount of employment. The primary focus of his 65 companies was copper, iron, and coal mining, with gold, silver, and other precious metals as secondary products.

Besides the Tintic mines, Knight acquired the Emma at Alta, a West Mountain operation in Bingham Canyon, and Miller Hill at the head of American Fork Canyon. He also held important claims in several Nevada districts plus mining property in Arizona, Colorado, and Missouri.

His papers outline many other ventures, including an ore-sampling company, the Utah-Pacific Railroad, and a grain and elevator company, all serving the Tintic mining camps.

He also acquired sugar, canning, and woolen mills. He owned a large stock ranch near Richfield, the Springdell Resort in Provo Canyon, and the Provo Opera House. His wife, Amanda Newell Knight, was director of the Opera House -- it was later sold to the state.

It wasn't long before his wealth was used to aid Brigham Young Academy. Although not well educated himself, Knight had sent several of his children to BYA and had observed firsthand the school's financial struggles. In 1901 Knight accepted an invitation to join the board of Brigham Young Academy, and he later became a member of the executive committee.

For the next 20 years, he donated land, bonds, irrigation shares, and money to assist the school. The Knight family funded half of the $130,000 needed to build the Karl G. Maeser Building, and when more money was needed Knight bought back, for $20,000, the Blue Bench Irrigation bonds he had donated to the school.

It is sometimes said that Jesse Knight received a promise, which he had not requested, that all of his descendants who wished might attend Brigham Young Academy without paying any tuition, in perpetuity. We have not been able to confirm whether this is legend or fact, but BYU has not sought to promote any program to honor this commitment, if it was in fact made.

In later years, the Jesse Knight Endowment funded the construction of Amanda Knight Hall and Allen Hall. The Knight-Mangum Building was named for Knight's daughter and daughter-in-law, who followed his example of generosity to BYU.


Jesse Knight, BYA~BYU Board of Trustees

Jesse Knight was born on September 6, 1845, in Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois. His parents were Newel Knight and Lydia Goldthwaite Knight. He married Amanda Melvina McEwan on January 18, 1869, in Salt Lake City, Utah. He died on March 14, 1921 in Provo, Utah.


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