What life was like for the Mormon pioneers after entering the Salt Lake Valley
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.
“They were very concerned about food,” Westover said. “Back in pioneer days, there was a saying: ‘If you want to have a harvest for winter, corn should be knee high by the Fourth of July.’ And, of course, arriving on the 24th and corn not even in the ground yet, they were very concerned about getting food crops into the fall and winter.”
As it was still summer when the pioneers arrived in the valley, building homes was not as much of a concern, according to Westover.
“One of the first buildings built was a bowery — just basically a shade structure," Westover said. "And they used it for school, for church, for public and civic meetings. For the most part (the pioneers) just stayed in their tents in the beginning or the wagon boxes until they could start building the initial homes and dugouts. Initially there was a fort at Pioneer Park (now located at 300 South and 300 West), and it had a bunch of small cabins in it.”
The Mormon pioneers were between two American Indian tribes, and it was not clear at first how they would react to the presence of the Saints.
“The whole area had been occupied by a number of different Indian tribes — the Shoshones to the north and the Utes to the south — and the Salt Lake Valley was kind of a no-man’s land," said Olsen. "It was a kind of shared space that neither claimed for their own. So the Mormons began settling here and it was somewhat fortuitous in that regard because it wasn’t challenging either of the (Native American) settlement areas. That’s one of the reasons why there was relative peace to begin with.”
By July 28, President Young designated the lot where the temple would stand. That spot would be the center point of the city, with every structure, road and private property laid out evenly, perfectly square and radiating from that point.
President Young and other leaders of the LDS Church remained in the Salt Lake Valley a little less than a month before heading back East on Aug. 16 to prepare their families to come to the valley the next year.
After President Young left, Charles C. Rich and John Young organized a municipal high council that directed the building of 450 log cabins and a fence to control the livestock. They also supervised the construction of an adobe wall around the fort as well as a number of roads and bridges, according to “Church History in the Fulness of Times.”
The Saints persevered through provision shortages and damaged crops their first year in the valley. President Young returned in September 1848, and by the end of the year, almost 3,000 Saints had arrived in the valley. President Young wrote to those still on the trail that the Saints had found “a haven of rest, a place for our souls, a place where we may dwell in safety,” according to "Church History in the Fulness of Times."
By 1850, houses and buildings had been constructed and a public works had been established.
“They (created) what we would call public utilities, that is, people who were responsible for damming the water and creating irrigation systems that would water the gardens and the orchards and the farms,” Olsen said. “They would soon create utilities for logging lumber so the access to lumber wasn’t just on a case-by-case basis or was favored to the rich. Someone would have a use right to control and have access to these resources, but for the purpose of building up the community and not for the sake of becoming personally enriched.”
Two of the more important buildings for the Saints were constructed in the 1850s. The Great Salt Lake Social Hall, built in 1853, was a place where the Saints gathered for concerts and dances. The Deseret Dramatic Association was organized in 1853 and held many plays in the building. The Social Hall was also where the territorial legislature met for a few sessions, according to information on a marker at This Is the Place Heritage Park, where a replica of the Social Hall can be found. Remnants of the original foundation can be seen at the Social Hall Heritage Museum at 51 S. State St.in Salt Lake City.
The second building was the Deseret News building, constructed in 1850. The publication allowed LDS Church leaders to communicate with Saints who had settled other parts of Utah and the surrounding states.
“Very soon after the Saints were established here, they created the Deseret News, (and) that was as important as any other network or system or institution that was established here,” Olsen said. “If you’re building the kingdom of God, and the members of the kingdom of God are spread out in a variety of different places, you have to have ways of keeping in touch with everybody. And the newspaper was, in part, for that purpose. It was as a communications network for the kingdom of God.”
“(The pioneers) were isolated here in the community, so there were two functions of (the newspaper),” said Bob Folkman, a printer at the replicated Deseret News building at This Is the Place Heritage Park and president of the Sons of Utah Pioneers. “(The first was) local communications between the leaders, whether the government leaders or the church leaders — which were initially the same. And the other is just that there was no other reliable source of news in the community. There was some need to have a connection to what was going on in the world other than just word of mouth.”
While other pioneers traveled and settled areas in California and Oregon, the LDS pioneers were different in that their motivation was building the kingdom of God on the earth.
“When you’re with people you’re committed to by covenant you can’t discount the value of religion bringing this thing together,” Olsen said. “So, there was just this amazing commitment they had to one another, even though often they didn’t share the same language (or) the same background. But they did share the same religion, so that was the glue that held them together and encouraged them to collaborate and share and sacrifice and do all those things that actually enabled them to succeed here where other people would not have.”
In only 10 years, the pioneers, through hard work and determination, had built a growing city with homes, shops, churches, farms and schools, and an area where they thought the Saints could live free from persecution and interference.
But in May 1857, U.S. President James Buchanan, after believing reports from anti-Mormon politicians, ordered federal troops to march to Great Salt Lake City to put down a supposed Mormon insurrection. After months of delay, the troops marched through Great Salt Lake City on June 26, 1858.
One of the soldiers marching with the troops, John Rozsa — who later joined the LDS Church — wrote, “The city lies in a very nice place at the foot of a hill (and) is quite big and is built in good style. The houses are built of dobies and there was nice gardens around them but nevertheless they look just like a dead city. On arriving in the city we found only a few (men). The houses were locked and the windows nailed up, and all the people had fled south.”
The Saints had abandoned their city in case of problems with the soldiers. The few men left in the city when the troops marched through held torches and were prepared to burn the entire city to the ground if the troops did not abide by an agreement not to disturb the property.
The troops did abide by their agreement, and the Saints were able to return to the city they had founded almost 11 years earlier.
Ben Tullis is a Deseret News intern and a freelance writer and copy editor. He graduated from Utah Valley University in April 2014 with a bachelor's degree in English. He lives in Pleasant Grove with his wife and 2-year-old son.
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