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Charles Ora Card, 1839-1906.

Founder, Cardston Alberta.

Charles Ora Card of Cardston, Alberta, ca. 1890-1906.

Born in New York in November 1839 to Cyrus Card and Sarah Tuttle, Charles Ora Card spent much of his youth working on the family farm in upstate New York. When the family joined the Mormon Church in 1856, they moved across the country, by wagon, to Salt Lake City. In 1860, Charles Card moved to Logan, where he and his father farmed and ran a sawmill. During his time in Logan, Card gained knowledge in road and canal building. He took several years away to obtain a business degree but returned to Logan where he became increasingly active in the community - teaching at the local school, working for the local church, and acting as superintendent of the Logan Tabernacle and the Logan Temple.

The Mormon Church had introduced polygamy in 1852 along with a number of other theological and social codes of living. When the United States Congress passed The Edmunds Bill in 1882, it effectively made the practice of plural marriage illegal. At that time, Charles Card already had two wives, Sarah Jane Birdneau (m. 1867) and Sarah Jane Painter (m. 1876). The new law imposed heavy fines on polygamists, declared all children from such relations illegitimate, and dissolved the Mormon Church as a corporate entity, sending over one thousand practicing Mormons to jail. Shortly after Charles Card married his third and fourth wives, Zina Presendia Young (m. 1884, daughter of Brigham Young) and Lavinia Clark Rigby (m. 1885) he was arrested for polygamy. Card managed to escape custody and was planning to head south to Mexico to escape persecution when he was persuaded by his elders to go to Canada. In the fall of 1886 Card traveled north and eventually chose a new home in southwestern Alberta, a region that he thought possessed everything necessary for successful settlement: an abundant water supply for irrigation, accessible timber, and a rich reserve of coal. What further attracted Card to that particular spot was its close proximity to the Blood Indian Reserve, where he hoped his Mormon Brethren could carry out missionary work. Content in his stake, Card returned to Utah and organized a small group of settlers he would lead back to what is now known as Cardston, Alberta.

By 1891 there were just under 400 Mormons settled and living in Cardston and surrounding area. While the Mormon community continued to travel north in search of a religious refuge, their presence in southern Alberta was, at times, a controversial one. Card and his early Mormon settlers faced fierce opposition not only from the local press, but many politicians as well. Public opinion had been galvanized largely by reports of conflict between the Mormon Church and government south of the border. The Mormons proved to be very adept settlers, however, skilled in farming and irrigation techniques. As a result, the new Mormon community enjoyed the support of the federal government in Ottawa on the condition that the practice of polygamy be discontinued. In 1888 Mormon leaders, including Card himself, traveled east to Ottawa to seek permission to bring their plural families to Canada, but their request was denied. In 1890, the Mormon Church officially abandoned polygamy and tensions were eased somewhat for the new Mormon community.

John A.Woolf, Henry L. Hinman and Charles Ora Card of Cardston, Alberta, ca. 1900.

Charles Card arrived in Canada seeking temporary refuge for himself and his fellow Mormons, fully expecting to return to Utah once relations between the Mormon Church and the federal government had settled down. However, in 1890 the Mormon settlement in southwestern Alberta had become so successful that Church leaders asked Card to remain there indefinitely. In 1895, the Alberta Stake was created and Card was made its first president, serving as spiritual advisor and head of colonization. The new president was known for his practical as well as his spiritual insights, and his weekly sermons were often filled with references to the care of livestock, business, and the proper management of dairy herds and crops. During his seven years as stake president, he provided both temporal and spiritual leadership to thousands of Saints scattered over a large area.

Card also proved to be an astute entrepreneur. By the time of the second wave of Mormon Immigration in the late 1890s, he had organized the Cardston Company Ltd., a joint-stock enterprise aimed at gathering enough capital to stimulate economic growth and business in the Cardston region. The new company helped to establish a flour-mill, cheese-factory, steam-threshing outfit and sawmill. Card's next enterprise was partnering the Church with the Alberta Irrigation Company out of Lethbridge to build an irrigation system which would bring water from a point near the United States border at the St. Mary's River and carry it through to the dry lands around Lethbridge. Not only was Card responsible for fulfilling the Church's part of the agreement, he played a major role in enticing American Mormons to come to southern Alberta to farm the lands now being irrigated by the new canal. Many, in fact, accepted land in partial payment for their work on the canal. The project was completed in 1900 and, by that time, the continuing influx of Mormon settlers from the United States, enticed by Card's spiritual and economic guidance, meant that new settlements would need to be established outside of Cardston. As a result, several new towns were founded, including Magrath, Stirling and Raymond.

View of Cardston, Alberta in 1904.

By 1911, the Mormon community in southern Alberta was comprised of 18 communities, and had nearly 10,000 church members.

Card not only initiated cooperative economic enterprise and helped to develop a sophisticated irrigation system that allowed for increased cultivation, he also created a distinct Mormon presence on the prairies by inspiring strong cultural, social and religious ties amongst his Brethren. In 1902, his health began to deteriorate and he was relieved of his administrative duties by the Church. Shortly thereafter he returned to Logan, Utah where he remained until his death in 1906.

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  • Heritage Trail: Cardston - Learn about the history of some of the first Mormon settlers in Alberta who settled in what is now Cardston.
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            For more on the history of settlement in Alberta, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.