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What life was like for the Mormon pioneers after entering the Salt Lake Valley

By Ben Tullis

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, July 24 2014 8:14 p.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, July 24 2014 8:14 p.m. MDT

This Is the Place Monument scene depicting the arrival and celebratory hosannas of Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow.

Deseret News archives

On June 28, 1847, Brigham Young met with Jim Bridger, famed frontiersman and owner of Fort Bridger. The two men discussed the merits of settling the Salt Lake Valley. Bridger expressed his opinion that growing grain would be difficult in the area, making it unsuitable to sustain a large population.

President Young responded, according to LDS Church News: “Wait a little and we will show you.”

Less than a month later, President Young, sick with tick fever, looked down at the Salt Lake Valley from Emigration Canyon on July 24. Wilford Woodruff later wrote, “While gazing upon the scene before us, he (Brigham Young) was enwrapped in vision for several minutes. He had seen the valley before in vision, and upon this occasion he saw the future glory of Zion and Israel, as they would be, planted in the valleys of these mountains. When the vision had passed, he said, ‘It is enough. This is the right place. Drive on,’ ” according to the Gospel Doctrine manual "Church History in the Fulness of Times."

Three days prior, Orson Pratt, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Erastus Snow, a future apostle, had proceeded down Emigration Canyon and ascended a hill near the entrance of the valley. Pratt recorded: “(We) beheld … such an extensive scenery open before us (that) we could not refrain from a shout of joy which almost involuntarily escaped from our lips the moment this glad and lovely scenery was within our view.” Elder Pratt’s words are recorded on the This Is the Place Heritage Park monument.

Within 10 years, Great Salt Lake City, as it would be known until 1868, was filled with homes, shops and places of worship that the people built to establish a city where they could find peace — but where hardship found them nonetheless.

One of the myths that has prevailed through the years is that the Salt Lake Valley was an arid, barely habitable desert. While the land wasn’t an ideal place to settle, it wasn’t a wild desert, according to Steve Olsen, senior curator at the LDS Church History Library.

“Some of the early pioneers were very impressed by how luxuriant it was, how well watered it was, how much grass was growing here," Olsen said. "That’s not to say they didn’t have to dam up the creeks and create networks for irrigation, but it wasn’t the kind of arid landscape that we often think about.”

“The valley in many ways was pretty much the same (as today) as far as the topography and the geology and (the way) the land form goes,” said Brian Westover, trades coordinator at This Is the Place Heritage Park. “The big difference, of course, is the features that we’ve added since we got down in the valley. One thing, for example, is water. A lot of people don’t realize this, but every one of these canyons that (surrounds) the valley — from City Creek, Millcreek, Red Butte, Emigration, all the way down — had a stream running down it that went into the Jordan River. And all those streams are still there, but they’ve been sent underground in conduits and pipes for the most part.”

The Saints did not have much time to take in the scenery, however. There was a lot of work to do to establish Great Salt Lake City.

“They were starting from scratch,” Olsen said. “If they were going to establish a community here, they had to establish it from the ground up. Hardly any of these people had any experience in doing that. … So they had to build roads, and they had to build irrigation systems and transportation systems and communication systems, and they had to build social institutions and they had to build all these elements … with relatively few resources and with relatively little background experience.”

The first priority after the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived in the valley was planting crops.

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