Exactly 150 years ago today, 120 men, 31 women, and 18 children ended a 260-mile trek in bitterly cold weather from Salt Lake Valley to camp on Center Creek at the mouth of Parowan Canyon. Picked more from exhaustion than planning, the site became southern Utah's first white settlement.
Plans to establish a way station in southern Utah on the road to California had been brewing since Mormon Battalion veterans blazed the wagon trail in 1848. The Latter-day Saints had expansive plans in 1850. Their leaders envisioned a string of settlements reaching to the Pacific that would let them ship English converts to Zion over a route that was cheaper and shorter than the Mormon Trail from the Missouri River.
In the fall of 1849, an exploring party under Apostle Parley P. Pratt discovered rich deposits of iron ore and the coal in the valley of the Little Salt Lake. (This now-vanished landlocked lake gave the local geography a passing resemblance to its counterpart in the north.) On Jan. 8, 1850, Pratt raised a liberty pole above Heap's Spring, across the creek from the emigrants' first camp, and dedicated the future site of "The City of Little Salt Lake."
In July 1850 the LDS newspaper, Deseret News, called for men of skill and experience to open up the mines. The article did not meet with a resounding response, and Brigham Young had to resort to "calling" capable men and women to found what was called the "Iron Mission."
The Mormon leader was determined to make his Zion in the Rocky Mountains self-sufficient and independent. That policy dictated the need for an iron industry.
Apostle George A. Smith received his formal call to lead the colonizing expedition on Sunday, Nov. 3, 1850. That evening President Smith met with the Quorum of Seventies to recruit volunteers. Not many people were eager to abandon comfortable Salt Lake City-area homes to start over in a spot 200 miles from the nearest town. With no volunteers in sight, Brigham Young went calling.
The prophet's adopted son, John D. Lee, offered $2,000 if he could stay in Cottonwood. Lee said he was willing to do anything the Lord wanted, "but to go to the Little Salt Lake was revolting to his feelings." Brigham Young said the Iron Mission "was one of the most important things now in contemplation." Lee had to go.
The canny Mormon leader seldom passed up free money, and he may have wanted to put 250 miles between himself and the aggravation of a trouble-making zealot like Lee. At least, Young let pioneer Ezra T. Clark stay in Salt Lake for 400 bushels of seed wheat.
Apostle Smith and the company started south from Provo on Dec. 15, 1850. They had 101 wagons, 100 horses, 1,001 rounds of ammunition, plus 14 dogs, 18 cats and 121 chickens. The party included one African-American, John Burton, and Paul Royls, "a Frenchman." Smith and Lee had the only two carriages, both equipped with stoves.
For protection against Indians, the party dragged along "the Old Sow," a cannon that had come across the plains with the 1847 pioneers.
The march was no picnic. At the Sevier River they found four inches of snow. The thermometer bottomed out at 16 degrees below zero. The pioneers had to stop to bridge the streams so Brigham Young "would not have them to swim" when he came to visit in the spring. Today, even historians are puzzled as to why devoted Latter-day Saints were consistently sent to establish settlements in the dead of winter. This perplexing policy acknowledged the hard facts of pioneering early Utah. Farmers had little else to do during bad weather, and if they did not get in a crop at their new homes by spring, they would starve to death the following winter.
When the last wagons made it over the Black Mountains, artillery Captain Jacob Hoffeins fired off a three-gun salute from "Old Sow" to celebrate their arrival in Little Salt Lake Valley. The lead party, some 15 miles away, heard the roar and sent men back to rescue Apostle Smith from a presumed Indian attack, while as one chronicler put it, "the wandering red man wondered what had happened." (The Paiutes soon dubbed it "pe-up-carabine" meaning "big gun.")
Brigham Young expected them to settle on Center Creek, so the exhausted men and women trudged on. At 1 p.m. on Jan. 13, 1851, the pioneers circled their wagons at the mouth of Parowan Canyon and George A. Smith declared himself well satisfied with what he had seen.
Latter-day Saints were not the first to appreciate Parowan's beautiful natural location. Its springs and marshes had supported large bands of Southern Paiutes for some 500 years, and it was a popular camping spot on the Spanish Trail. But the site was 5,970 feet above sea level--almost 2,000 feet higher than Salt Lake City--and the red soil hardly looked promising.
Not everyone in the party was as excited about the location as Smith. The day they arrived, clerk Henry Lunt noted that the experienced farmers had pronounced the "upland in this valley worthless." Chronicler Joseph Fish reported that the "Big Bugs," prosperous farmers like Anson Call and David Brinton, soon returned to the black soil of northern Utah.
To take shelter from the bitter wind at the canyon's mouth, the settlers moved to the red hills at Heap's Spring where Pratt had raised his liberty pole. They immediately set about surveying the town, laying out a fort and blazing a road up the canyon to get timber.
On Jan. 16, they organized Iron County and unanimously elected Capt. Jefferson Hunt, who happened to be passing by, to represent them in the legislature of the State of Deseret. That evening, with the thermometer at 9 above zero, the community held a thanksgiving around a bonfire.
The settlement needed a name, and no one liked "Little Salt Lake City." Instead, they called it Fort Louisa, a salute to Louisa Beaman, who, as historian Juanita Brooks noted, was thought to be "the first woman to enter into the order of celestial marriage in this dispensation." (Actually, she was probably Joseph Smith's fourth wife and Brigham Young's seventh. She bore Young two sets of twins, who died in infancy, before she died of cancer in 1850.)
The Ute leader Wakara, the King of the Mountains, visited in March and enjoyed a feast of squash, turnips, pumpkin, bread and meat. He explained local geography and introduced the Mormons to the Indian name for the local lake and Paiute band, Paragoon, which meant both "vile water" and "marsh people."
In April, some 500 settlers on their way to establish San Bernardino passed through the new settlement. By the time Brigham Young arrived in May to a salute from "Old Sow," the pioneers had hauled 1,500 logs from the canyon and raised a council house. For years it served as the community's church, schoolhouse, theater and dance hall.
For reasons not entirely clear--perhaps to avoid having to explain " Who's Louisa? " to nosy outsiders--Young renamed the town, anglicizing Wakara's word to Parowan.
Settlers soon moved south to found Johnson Fort, now Enoch, and Coal Creek, today's Cedar City.
Parowan became known as the "Mother Town of the Southwest" for launching colonizing expeditions that founded Snowflake, Ariz., and the epic "Hole in the Wall" march to southeastern Utah, besides towns in Nevada, Colorado, and even Wyoming.
The 19th century iron industry in southern Utah was pretty much a bust. Parowan remains a sleepy Mormon village with a population just over 2,000. It is blessed with beautiful historic homes and a charming sense of place.
A classic yellow sandstone chapel, the Old Rock Church, graces the expansive town square. Built between 1861 and 1867, the Daughters of Utah Pioneers and the federal government's WPA program restored the structure in 1939. It houses an astonishing collection of pioneer portraits, furniture, farm implements and handicrafts. The Old Rock Church may well be the most fascinating "relic house" in Utah.
The city dedicated Parowan Heritage Park on its birthday in 1996. The site now includes a park, amphitheater, pond and a grotto sheltering Heap's Spring.
There is also a statue of the portly apostle, George A. Smith, happily firing "Old Sow."
Western historian and Salt Lake Tribune columnist Will Bagley is a great-great grandson of David Brinton, a founder of Parowan.