It's pioneer month in Utah, time once again to salute the Mormon settlers who 159 years ago made the unprecedented decision to not keep going to California.

Talk about the road less traveled. In 1847, even the Indian tribes tended to just pass through the mostly unwelcoming Great Salt Lake Valley. When Brigham Young said "This is the place," he sure didn't have to pay any Realtor fees.

So it's only understandable, given the valley's start-from-scratch circumstances, that a number of myths would succeed in outdistancing even the prodigious accomplishments of the early pioneers. These myths have managed to endure and expand for 159 years.

First myth: There was just one tree in the entire valley when the pioneers arrived.

This myth is legitimized in a plaque near the intersection of present day 600 East and 300 South.

Titled "Lone Cedar Tree," the plaque was placed by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, stating, "Although willows grew along the banks of the streams, a lone cedar tree near this spot became Utah's first famous landmark."

Numerous historians, however, have effectively disproved the lone tree legend by citing any number of pioneer diaries that describe the valley as arid and dry in 1847 but definitely with its share of thirsty trees.

Second myth: The Mormon pioneers were the first to use irrigation in America.

This myth is legitimized in a plaque near the intersection of present day State Street and 300 South.

Titled "Commemorating the Beginning in America of Modern Irrigation," the plaque was placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution, stating, "In this vicinity on July 23 and 24, 1847" Mormon pioneers plowed furrows in the dirt and diverted water from City Creek to their potato crops.

Nothing wrong with that claim, other than being off by about 6,000 years.

Not only have archaeologists found evidence of the use of extensive irrigation by the earlier inhabitants of South and North America, including canals in the Andes Mountains in Peru dating back to the fourth millennium B.C., but it's a well-known fact that Spanish colonists regularly irrigated crops at their string of missions along the El Camino Real in the 1760s, nearly a century before the Mormons arrived in the Great Salt Lake Valley, which, at the time, was part of Mexico.

Third myth: The Mormon Battalion was a valuable military enterprise.

This myth is legitimized in a monument at the State Capitol, as well as at plaques in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and San Diego

that dot the 2,000-mile march undertaken by the Mormon Battalion.

The battalion was made up of Mormon men who were among the thousands fleeing persecution in Illinois by heading west in the summer of 1846.

At that point in the exodus, none of the pioneers knew where they were going, they only knew where they'd been. In exchange for permission from the U.S. government for the rest of the emigrant pioneers to camp on Indian lands west of Iowa, and for $12 a day in military wages, some 543 men joined the U.S. Army, which at the time was involved in a war with Mexico that had been declared just two months earlier.

The men had no horses and ended up walking all the way from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Diego over the next six months. They didn't fight a single Mexican; the most action came one night in what is now Arizona when they were attacked by a herd of wild bulls along the San Pedro River and suffered two fatalities.

After attrition due to health and other problems, 360 members of the battalion staggered into San Diego on Jan. 29, 1847. Most of them made their way to Utah after that, making the unprecedented decision to leave California.

They were courageous men, and certainly great walkers, and they definitely helped the cause of their fellow pioneers who first wound up in the Salt Lake Valley. But like that cedar tree and the water diverted to the first potatoes planted in the Salt Lake Valley, over the years their reputation has greatly exceeded reality.


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.