Settlement and Exploration

Thomas G. Alexander
Utah, The Right Place

Some judgments can be made on the valley from Fremont’s descriptions, from the experience of the Mormon pioneers, and from later explorations such as those by Howard Stansbury and John Wesley Powell. The deposits dropped by Lake Bonneville and by mountain streams provided fertile soil for Euro-mountain streams provided fertile soil for Euro-American agriculture, and the growing season proved ample for temperate region crops. Abundant native grasses provided feed for herds of cattle and horses. Clay beds supplied adobe for their early building, and sufficient trees grew in the mountains and canyons to provide lumber for later construction. The nearby mountains also husbanded sufficient water for agricultural, manufacturing, domestic, and commercial activities. The people found ample supplies of minerals such as salt and coal. In addition, because the Utah settlements were at the crossroads of the principal overland routes to California, the Wasatch and Oasis Fronts became an increasingly attractive commercial location.

However, contrary to another bit of folklore, the Mormons did not tame an uninhabited or unexplored wilderness. Since the time of Rivera, Dominguez, and Escalante, the Spanish and Mexicans had explored and traded in the region. The Mountain Men’s rendezvous had been held here even before forts were built by Robidoux and the Taos Trappers. Fremont and others had described the region. Miles Goodyear had settled Fort Buenaventura at Ogden, probably the first continuously occupied site in the Great Basin.

On July 26, a group of pioneers exploring in southern Salt Lake Valley met a mounted party of about twenty Utes who wanted to trade with them. Shoshonis from the north and Gosiutes from the south and west also frequented the Salt Lake Valley. In the fall, the pioneer party that remained in the valley found that the Gosiutes loved to bathe in the mineral waters of warm springs north of the city. Moreover, the Gosiutes taught John Taylor and other Mormons to harvest sego lily and other roots and sunflower seeds and to make a meal and cakes of ground crickets mixed with honey. The instruction in harvesting roots came in handy during the winter and early spring of 1848 when food was scarce, but the cricket cakes never seem to have tempted the palates of Euro-Americans.

Though the Mormons traded with and learned from the Indians, they also disrupted Native American life. They affixed their permanent settlements to Native American lands and carried diseases against which the Indians had little immunity. The Gosiutes who came to warm springs in the fall suffered from measles, and other Indians died from smallpox. Even though the Indians already inhabited the region, the Mormons did not recognize their title to the land. Brigham Young told the settlers that they must neither buy nor sell land, insisting that the land belonged to the Lord and that it could only be distributed by the priesthood and then only on principles of stewardship. Since The Book of Mormon tells the Mormons that the Indians belong to the House of Israel, they expected the Native Americans to convert to Mormonism and join them as stewards in building God’s kingdom.

As they went about the task of building their new kingdom, the pioneers essentially faced three problems: first, they had to establish a base settlement for growing crops and building homes for themselves and those who followed; second, they wanted to find other sites for towns for the thousands who would follow; and third, they needed to make arrangements to guide the remaining Saints from Winter Quarters and Kanesville to Utah.

Understanding the task ahead of them, they immediately began to plow and irrigate farms, cut timber and make adobes, and build temporary housing. Even before Young had entered the valley, Orson Pratt and his party had begun plowing and planting in the easily worked sandy loam, and they dammed City Creek and began to irrigate the newly planted fields. Mormon missionaries had seen irrigation in Italy and the Middle East, and members of the Mormon Battalion had watched the Mexicans and Pueblos irrigate in New Mexico and California, so they understood how to dam streams and channel water in ditches to irrigate the crops. Even though they had started very late in the season, the Mormons continued planting crops throughout the remainder of July and into August. Crews built a road up City Creek Canyon to reach trees to supply lumber for homes, barns, and fences. Establishing a fort for protection against the Indians at the site of Pioneer Park near Third South and Third West, they constructed twenty-nine log cabins. Since trees were scarce and expensive to harvest, they located deposits of clay, opened pits, and manufactured adobes from which they build most of their homes.

Shortly after Young arrived, the Saints began to lay out Salt Lake City, using a pattern that they would follow in subsequent settlements. Commencing at the southeast corner of Temple Square—currently South Temple and Main Street—where Orson Pratt established the base line and principal meridian for subsequent surveys in most of Utah, the pioneers marked out the city in ten-acre blocks. Brigham Young said that he wanted to be able to turn a span of oxen around without backing them up, so they left room for streets to be forty-four yards wide.

Since they planned a community for Saints rather than a subdivision for speculators, they subdivided the blocks into one-and-a-quarter-acre town lots. The leaders followed Joseph Smith’s plat of the City of Zion rather loosely and invested Salt Lake City with a suburban character. Each resident owned a town lot, and using the New England and European pattern, they situated the large farms outside the city. On their lots in the city, the people built barns, sheds, wallows, and coops for domestic animals, and they planted vegetable, fruit, and flower gardens. They dug ditches to coax the mountain streams down each side of the street so the people could divert water for irrigation and household use.

To add to the information they already had about this region, the Mormons sent out several exploring parties. Brigham Young led a party on a circuit around the Salt Lake Valley in late July; Albert Carrington took two others to the Point of the Mountain in southern Salt Lake Valley, near the present site of the Utah state prison; and Jesse C. Little, Samuel Brannan, and James Brown led a contingent northward along the valleys near the Great Salt Lake into the Bear River Valley. Brannan and Brown then turned west to California while Little threaded his way through the Bear River gorge into Cache Valley in northern Utah. Later in the year, Parley P. Pratt led a party south into Utah Valley, westward across the divide into Cedar Valley, southwestward into Rush Valley, and northward to Tooele Valley before returning around the north end of the Oquirrhs to Salt Lake City.

In late August, Brigham Young and a large party consisting of all the Twelve, except Parley P. Pratt and John Taylor, who had not yet reached the valley, left for Council Bluffs to prepare for the succeeding season of immigration. Young chose John Smith, the uncle of Joseph Smith, as stake president to govern the settlement in his absence. Smith exercised both ecclesiastical and civil authority with two counselors and a high council of twelve. In general, all those in the valley, including Pratt and Taylor after they arrived, recognized the authority of Smith and his colleagues in civil affairs.

Settlers continued to pour into the valley throughout the summer and fall of 1847. By winter, nearly 2,000 persons had reached Salt Lake City. Some 16,000 remained in Kanesville and Winter Quarters, but most of them joined the others in Utah by 1853.