Utah History to Go
In Another Time
The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
Insatiable Curiosity About Mormons Lured Explorer To Salt Lake
Hal Schindler
Published: 11/20/1994 Category: Features Page: K1

British adventurer Captain Richard F. Burton visited Great Salt Lake City in 1860. No one like him--before or since--has penetrated what he called the last of the "Holy Cities." He died in 1890 as Sir Richard Francis Burton, soldier, explorer, author, linguist, discoverer of Lake Tanganyika and Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George. He also was an ethnologist, archaeologist, poet, translator, amateur physician, botanist, zoologist, geologist and a superb swordsman. Driven by a seemingly insatiable curiosity for the exotic, erotic and demonic; Burton was a restless, inveterate traveler as well as a prolific and controversial writer.

Preceded by a formidable reputation as an explorer of immense courage who had disguised himself and infiltrated the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina forbidden to infidels, Burton had written in detail of his experiences. His visit to America, although brief, was to fulfill his desire to see Mormonism at first hand. Before his Western tour ended, he had an audience with Brigham Young and spent an evening over a jug of Valley Tan whiskey, trading anecdotes with the redoubtable Orrin Porter Rockwell, a Mormon rough-and-ready who gave him advice on how to stay alive on the road to California.

As was his custom, Burton wrote in depth about his American adventure in The City of the Saints and Across the Rocky Mountains to California, published in 1861. "I had long determined to add the last new name to the list of 'Holy Cities;' to visit the young rival of Memphis, Benares, Jerusalem, Rome, Mecca--of seeing Utah as it is, not as it is said to be" he explained. Always the professional soldier, Burton confessed that "mingled with the wish of prospecting the City of the Great Salt Lake [from] a spiritual point of view," he also looked forward to "enjoying a little skirmishing with the savages." And because he had heard of the "White Indians," paleface renegades who terrorized travelers and shifted blame to the tribes, Burton set about properly outfitting himself for his foray across the Plains.

His obsession for detail has provided his readers a fascinating account of what the well-caparisoned traveler required for a comfortable excursion along the frontier of 1860 America. "For weapons, I carried two revolvers, from the moment of leaving St. Jo[seph] to the time of reaching Sacramento," and the Bowie knife. His experience as an explorer made him cautious to an extreme, for he also armed himself with a Hawken rifle for hunting buffalo and antelope, a Maynard shotgun "loaded as fully as it can bear with slugs" and "an air-gun to astonish the natives" plus a bag of various ammunition. When it came to mentioning brand names and accoutrements, he made novelist Ian Fleming's fetish for minutiae in his James Bond thrillers ("A vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.") pale in comparison.

Burton prepared for his trip by reading books by fellow soldier-authors John C. Fremont, John W. Gunnison and Howard Stansbury, whom he called the "great guns of western exploration." From Burton that description was the ultimate compliment. To balance his understanding of the territory he was about to enter, the intrepid Briton also consulted a selection of the most violent Mormon and anti-Mormon polemicals. Here was a traveler fully prepared to record what he observed, with knowledge to support his remarks.

Utah and the western Plains probably will never again be a host to a visitor so formidably armed--literally and intellectually. This swashbuckling explorer-scholar was in all respects one of a kind. In his lifetime he wrote forty-three volumes of exploration and travel; translated the sixteen volumes of The Arabian Nights from the original, translated several volumes of Portuguese, two volumes of Latin poetry and four volumes of folklore.

One of the three or four great linguists of his day, he boasted he could "break the back" of any language in two months and be fluent in two more. He has been described as taking to languages in India as other men to liquor. Eventually he mastered twenty-nine languages and enough dialects to add to more than forty.

For note-taking, he provided himself with "pocketbooks" with five-inch pages, which would serve both as "diary and sketchbook" and a tourist's writing case with but one alteration--a snap lock, to obviate the use of "that barbarous invention called a key." To understand--Burton as a genuine man of the world, a restless wanderer and an adventurer of the first magnitude with astonishing fortitude, it is important to know that in the 1850s he was severely wounded in Somaliland when a Berber tribesman hurled a spear through his jaw. One of his companions was killed, the others wounded. Burton, despite excruciating pain, the javelin having pierced both sides of his face and jaw, escaped.

As a British intelligence officer in the Indian Army, he earned a reputation as a master swordsman, a drinker, brawler and raconteur. Above all he was adept at disguise, and used his skill to penetrate the holy cities and to mingle with natives to study their language and customs. It was this extraordinary behavior that created enemies among his fellow officers, and cloaked him in notoriety. A bachelor until he was forty, Burton was the kind of man mothers warned their daughters to avoid at all costs. Of course, this attracted them as bees to honey.

Still it was a surprise when he married Isabel Arundel, a member of the Roman Catholic aristocracy, a beauty in her youth but criticized as a snob who made a bonfire of her husband's forty-year accumulation of notes, manuscripts and diaries after his death, to protect "his" reputation from his preoccupation with erotic literature.

During the journey that brought him to Great Salt Lake City in late August 1860, after nineteen days on the road, covering 1,136 miles, Burton filled notebooks with comments on Plains Indians, frontiersmen, mountaineers, outlaws and the history of Mormonism gleaned from his small library. He spent twenty-four days at the "headquarters of the church" observing and questioning, and, he remarked, "there is hardly one anti-Mormon publication, however untruthful, violent or scandalous which I did not find in Gt. S. L. City." Burton was certain these books and tracts would be forbidden in Zion.

He asked for and--during the second week of his visit--was granted an interview with Brigham Young, "President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints all over the World." Young made it a rule in those tumultuous days--the Utah War was still fresh in everyone's memory--to be especially wary in meeting strangers. Burton recognized it was not only for Young's personal safety, "but also to defend his dignity from the rude and unfeeling remarks of visitors, who seem to think themselves entitled, in the case of a Mormon to transgress every rule of civility."

So, with several church officials in the room as well as Albert O. Carrington, editor of the Deseret News and former assistant to Captain Howard Stansbury during the 1849-1850 topographical survey of the Great Salt Lake, Burton took a moment to look Brigham Young over. He later devoted three full pages to what he saw; still one of the best vignettes on written record, Burton's remarks are astonishing in detail and clarity, demonstrating his remarkable powers of observation. Here, in part, is how the Mormon prophet struck him: "[His dress] was neat and plain as a Quaker's, all grey homespun, except the cravat and waistcoat. His coat was of antique cut, and, like the pantaloons, baggy, and the buttons were black. A necktie of dark silk, with a large bow, was loosely passed around a starchless collar, which turned down of its own accord. The waistcoat of black satin--once an article of almost national dress--single-breasted and buttoned nearly to the neck, and a plain gold chain was passed into the pocket. The boots were Wellingtons, apparently of American make."

Burton went on, "He shows no signs of dogmatism, bigotry or fanaticism, and never once entered--with me at least--upon the subject of religion. He often reproves his erring followers in purposely violent language, making the terrors of a scolding the punishment in lieu of hanging for a stolen horse or cow." At the close of the hour's conversation, a curious incident occurred in which Young asked Burton "the line of my last African exploration, and whether it was the same country traversed by Dr. Livingstone."

Burton replied, "It was about 10 degrees north of the Zambesi." Carrington rose to point out the spot on a map that hung against the wall, and placed his finger too near the equator. "Mr. Brigham Young said, A little lower down.'" A cynic might well argue with some just cause, that the scene had been rehearsed for Burton's benefit. Brigham, though he had a reputation for being worldly, could not be considered adept at African geography, he left that to others. But Burton clearly was impressed. "There are many educated men in England," he wrote, "who could not have corrected the mistake as well." The meeting over, they shook hands, and the explorer made note that "the Prophet is no common man, and that he has none of the weaknesses and vanity that characterize the common uncommon man."

Nearly a fortnight later, as the Briton prepared to take his leave of the city, he had the opportunity to visit Timpanogos Canyon and its cataracts with a couple of Army officers from Camp Floyd. They chanced to meet Orrin Porter Rockwell at American Fork. Burton had heard of Rockwell and his reputation as "an old Danite," one of a secret group that doled out church justice to apostates and unbelievers. Again, Burton was in his element. He was naturally attracted to adventure and derring-do. Porter Rockwell was right down his line of sight. Two "hombres" who spoke the same language.

"Porter Rockwell was a man about fifty, tall and strong, with ample leather leggings overhanging his huge spurs, and the saw-handles of two revolvers peeping from his blouse. His forehead was already a little bald, and he wore his long grizzled locks after the ancient fashion of the U.S., plaited and gathered up at the nape of the neck; his brow puckered with frowning wrinkles contrasted curiously with his cool determined grey eye, jolly red face, well touched with 'paint,' and his laughing good-humored mouth. He had the manner of a jovial, reckless, devil-may-care English ruffian. The officers called him Porter, and preferred him to the 'slimy villains' who will drink with a man and then murder him."

Rockwell, after a bit of business about a stolen horse, pulled out a dollar and sent to "the neighboring distillery for a bottle of Valley Tan." Burton writes, "We were asked to join him in a 'squar' drink,' which means spirits without water. Of these, we had at least four, which, however, did not shake Mr. Rockwell's nerve, and then he sent out for more, meanwhile telling us of his last adventure.

When he heard I was preparing for California, he gave me abundant good advice--to carry a double-barreled gun loaded with buckshot; to keep my eyes skinned,' especially in canyons and ravines; to make at times a dark camp--that is to say, unhitching for supper and then hitching up and turning a few miles off the road--ever to be ready for attack when the animals were being inspanned and outspanned, and never to trust to appearances in an Indian country."

Then Rockwell added the clincher: "For the purpose of avoiding 'White Indians,' the worst of their kind, he advised me to shun the direct route, which he represented to be about as fit for traveling as is h-ll for a powder magazine." They parted with a handshake and a "here's how." Burton later would send the "old Mormon Danite" a bottle of brandy for his kindness to a passing stranger and for his excellent trail advice.

The explorer, returning to England, married Isabel and embarked on a stormy career over the discovery of the source of the Nile, and do his greatest writing and translations. There could be only one Sir Richard F. Burton; the City of the Saints would never see his like again.

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