Chapter 11: Pioneering the Wilderness

"Chapter 11: Pioneering the Wilderness," Truth Restored, (2001)


Two hours after the arrival of the main body of pioneers, the first plowing in the Salt Lake Valley was undertaken. The ground, however, was so dry and hard that the plows were broken. Consequently, one of the canyon streams was diverted and the soil soaked. Thereafter the plowing was easier. On July 24 potatoes were planted and the ground watered. This was the beginning of irrigation by Anglo-Saxon people in the West, marking, in fact, the beginning of modern irrigation practice.

Although other seeds were also planted in addition to the potatoes, there was small chance that a crop of any consequence would mature. But it was hoped that at least enough of a crop would develop to provide seed for the following spring.

Brigham Young arrived on Saturday, and on the following day the people met for worship. There they received a statement of the policies that were to prevail in the new colony. President Young declared that no work should be done on Sunday. He promised that if it was, the offender would discover that he would lose five times as much as he gained. No one was to hunt on that day. No man was to try to buy land, but every man would have his land measured out to him for city and farming purposes. He could till it as he pleased, but he must be industrious and take care of it. There was to be no private ownership of streams of water, and wood and timber were to be regarded as common property. President Young also advised the Saints to use only dead timber for fuel in order to save the live timber for future use. He promised that if they would walk faithfully in the light of these laws they would be a prosperous people. 1

The First Winter

The next day everyone was busy exploring the surrounding country to learn of its resources. Though their faith was strong and their hopes high, the situation in which these people found themselves was anything but encouraging. They were a small group with scant provisions, located a thousand miles from the nearest settlement to the east and seven hundred miles from the Pacific Coast. They were unfamiliar with the resources of this strange new land, which was untried and different in its nature from that which they had left.

Yet they began preparations for an extensive city. Four days after their arrival in the valley, Brigham Young walked to a spot north of their camp and proclaimed, “Here is the [place] for the temple.” 2 The city was soon platted around this site, with streets 132 feet wide. Such width was considered foolish in those days, but the foresight in this action has become evident with the advent of modern traffic. The projected community was named Great Salt Lake City.

One thing that caught the fancy of the pioneers as they explored the valley was the similarity between this newfound Zion and the Holy Land. Twenty-five miles south of their camp was a beautiful freshwater lake with a river running from it to the Great Salt Lake, another Dead Sea. They named the river Jordan.

Once policies and plans had been decided, Brigham Young and others began the long journey back to Winter Quarters. Those remaining in the valley immediately com-menced construction of a fort in which to house themselves as well as the large company expected later in the summer. Most of the families spent the first winter in the fort, although there were a few who ventured to build homes of their own.

Fortunately, that first winter was unusually mild. Nevertheless, the colonists suffered. Food was poor and scarce, as was clothing. Sego roots were dug and thistle tops were boiled for food. In remembrance of the part it played in sustaining life, the sego lily is today Utah’s state flower.

No time was wasted in preparing for the future. All through the winter the task of fencing and clearing the land progressed. A common field of five thousand acres was plowed and planted. This was a tremendous accomplishment, considering the tools these people had.

The Coming of the Gulls

In the spring, wide fields of green grain appeared to be ample reward for the labors of the previous fall and winter. Now, these people thought, there would be plenty to eat, both for themselves and for the large number of immigrants expected that summer. Under irrigation, the crops flourished. The future looked bright.

Then one day it was noticed that large crickets were eating the grain. These had been seen by the first men to enter the valley, and the newcomers had noted that some of the natives used them for food. But they had expected nothing of this kind. Each day the situation grew worse. The insects came in myriads, devouring everything before them.

Terror struck into the hearts of the people as they saw their grain fall before the insects. With all their strength they fought them. They tried burning and drowning. They tried beating them with shovels and brooms. They tried every means they could devise to save their crops. Still the voracious insects came, eating every stalk of grain before them.

Exhausted and in desperation, the Saints turned to the Lord, pleading in prayer for preservation of bread for their children.

Then, to their amazement, they saw great flocks of white-winged seagulls flying from over the lake to the west and settling on the fields. At first the people thought they were coming to add to the devastation. But the gulls went after the crickets, devouring them, then flying away and disgorging, only to return for more.

The crops of 1848 were saved, and on Temple Square in Salt Lake City stands a monument to the seagull. In bronze it bears the inscription, “Erected in grateful remembrance of the mercy of God to the Mormon Pioneers.”

Gold in California

Brigham Young returned to Winter Quarters on October 31, 1847. On the following December 5, he was sustained as President of the Church. From the time of Joseph Smith’s death, Brigham had led the Church in his capacity as President of the Council of the Twelve Apostles. He named as his counselors in the First Presidency Heber C. Kimball, who had come into the Church with him, and Dr. Willard Richards.

On May 26, 1848, he left Winter Quarters, never again to return to the East. While he now knew the way, this second journey was more difficult than had been the pioneer trip. The company of which he was leader included 397 wagons with 1229 souls, 74 horses, 19 mules, 1275 oxen, 699 cows, 184 cattle, 411 sheep, 141 pigs, 605 chickens, 37 cats, 82 dogs, 3 goats, 10 geese, 2 beehives, and 8 doves. 3 It was no small task to shepherd such a caravan over a thousand miles of prairie and mountains. They reached the valley on September 20, 116 days after their departure from Winter Quarters.

Earlier in 1848, something happened in California that fired the hearts of the adventurous the world over and that was to have its effect on Church members. After the Mormon Battalion had been mustered out in California, some of the Battalion men stopped at Sutter’s Fort in the Sacramento Valley to work and earn a little money before crossing the mountains to rejoin their families. Six of them, with Sutter’s foreman, James W. Marshall, and some Indians, undertook the construction of a sawmill on the south fork of the American River. There, on January 24, 1848, Marshall picked some gold out of the sand in the mill race. Henry Bigler, one of the Battalion men, wrote in his journal that night: “This day some kind of metal was found in the tail race that looks like gold.” 4

This historic entry is the only original documentation of the discovery that sent men rushing over land and sea to California.

But while others were rushing to the American River, the Battalion men completed their contract with Sutter, gathered together what possessions they had, and made their way east over the mountains to the semi-arid valley of the Great Salt Lake, there to undertake with their friends the painful labor of subduing the wilderness.

Meanwhile, the gold fever had infected some of those in the valley who had just passed through a difficult winter. Speaking of this, Brigham Young said:

“Some have asked me about going. I have told them that God has appointed this place for the gathering of his Saints, and you will do better right here than you will by going to the gold mines. … Those who stop here and are faithful to God and his people will make more money and get richer than you that run after the god of this world; and I promise you in the name of the Lord that many of you that go thinking you will get rich and come back, will wish you had never gone away from here, and will long to come back, but will not be able to do so. Some of you will come back, but your friends who remain here will have to help you; and the rest of you who are spared to return will not make as much money as your brethren do who stay here and help build up the Church and Kingdom of God; they will prosper and be able to buy you twice over. Here is the place God has appointed for his people. …

“… As the Saints gather here and get strong enough to possess the land, God will temper the climate, and we shall build a city and a temple to the Most High God in this place. We will extend [our cities and] our settlements to the east and west, to the north and to the south, and we will build towns and cities by the hundreds, and thousands of the Saints will gather in from the nations of the earth. This will become the great highway of the nations. Kings and emperors and the noble and wise of the earth will visit us here, while the wicked and ungodly will envy us our comfortable homes and possessions. Take courage, brethren. … Plow your land and sow wheat, plant your potatoes. … The worst fear that I have about this people is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and his people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty, and all manner of persecution, and be true. But my greater fear for them is that they cannot stand wealth; and yet they have to be tried with riches, for they will become the richest people on this earth.” 5

Before the close of the year 1848 the population of the valley had reached five thousand. This heavy influx of immigrants seriously taxed the resources of the community. Hunger and hardship were common that winter, and these circumstances added to the discouragement of many. In the midst of these trying conditions, Heber C. Kimball, speaking before the people in one of their meetings, prophesied that in less than one year there would be plenty of clothing and other needed articles sold on the streets of Salt Lake City for less than in New York or St. Louis. 6

Such a situation was incredible, but the fulfillment of that prophecy came about, and in remarkable fashion.

Thinking to get rich with the sale of goods in California, eastern merchants had loaded great wagon trains with clothing, tools, and other items for which there would be demand at the gold diggings. But on reaching Salt Lake City they learned that competitors had beaten them by shipping around the Cape.

Their only interest then was to unload what they had for what price they could get and go on to California as quickly as possible. Auctions were held from their wagons on the streets of Salt Lake City. Cloth and clothing sold for less than they could be bought for in New York. Badly needed tools could be had for less than in St. Louis. Fine teams, jaded from the long journey, were eagerly traded for the fatter but less valuable stock of the Mormons. Good, heavy wagons, in great demand in the mountain colony, were traded for lighter vehicles in which the gold seekers could make better time.

Glad Tidings to the World

While eager men were traveling over land and sea to search for gold, the Church also sent eager men over land and sea—in search of souls. Missionaries were sent to the eastern states, to Canada, and to the British Isles. In spite of the prejudices that moved before them, they made substantial headway with the baptism of thousands of souls.

Missionary work in France and Italy was not so fruitful, although some converts were made at first. In the Scandinavian countries, the elders were mobbed and jailed, but a spirit of tolerance gradually developed, and thousands of converts were made in those lands.

These preachers, traveling without purse or scrip, went to Malta, to India, to Chile, and to the islands of the Pacific. Almost everywhere they encountered hatred and the cries of the mob. But in all of these lands they found a few who were receptive to their message.

Once baptized, these converts desired almost invariably to “gather” with others of their faith in the valleys of the Rockies—Zion, they called it. And once there, differences of language and customs were soon lost sight of as men and women from many lands worked together in the building of a commonwealth.

Zion Spreads Her Branches

It was inevitable that the boundaries of the Church should extend beyond the valley of the Salt Lake. With thousands of converts coming from the nations, other settlements were founded. At first these were rather close to the mother colony, but soon wagon trains were moving north and south toward the distant valleys. By the close of the third year, settlements extended two hundred miles to the south. By the end of the fourth year, colonies were found over a distance of three hundred miles. Then, in 1851, five hundred of the Saints were called to go to southern California to plant a colony. They there laid the foundations of San Bernardino.

In nearly every case this pioneering entailed great sacrifice. Families were often called to leave their comfortable homes and cultivated fields and go into the wilderness to begin over again. But through their efforts hundreds of colonies were planted over a vast section of the West. Of the extent of this colonization, James H. McClintock, Arizona state historian, wrote:

“It is a fact little appreciated that the Mormons have been first in agricultural colonization of nearly all the intermountain States of today. … Not drawn by visions of wealth, unless they looked forward to celestial mansions, they sought, par-ticularly, valleys wherein peace and plenty could be secured by labor. …

“First of the faith on the western slopes of the continent was the settlement at San Francisco by Mormons from the ship Brooklyn. They landed July 31, 1846, to found the first English speaking community of the Golden State, theretofore Mexican. These Mormons established the farming community of New Helvetia, in the San Joaquin Valley, the same fall, while men from the Mormon Battalion, January 24, 1848, participated in the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Fort. Mormons also were pioneers in Southern California, where, in 1851, several hundred families of the faith settled at San Bernardino.

“The first Anglo-Saxon settlement within the boundaries of the present State of Colorado was at Pueblo, November 15, 1846, by Capt. James Brown and about 150 Mormon men and women who had been sent back from New Mexico, into which they had gone, a part of the Mormon Battalion that marched on to the Pacific Coast.

“The first American settlement in Nevada was one of Mormons in the Carson Valley, at Genoa, in 1851.

“In Wyoming, as early as 1854, was a Mormon settlement at Green River, near Fort Bridger, known as Fort Supply.

“In Idaho, too, preeminence is claimed by virtue of a Mormon settlement at Fort Lemhi, on the Salmon River, in 1855, and at Franklin, in Cache Valley, in 1860. …

“In honorable place in point of seniority [in the settlement of Arizona] are to be noted the Mormon settlements on the Muddy and the Virgin.” 7

Speaking of the quality of their pioneering, F. S. Dellenbaugh, great student of the settlement of the West, wrote:

“It must be acknowledged that the Mormons were wilderness breakers of high quality. They not only broke it, but they kept it broken; and instead of the gin mill and the gambling hall, as cornerstones of their progress … they planted orchards, gardens, farms, schoolhouses and peaceful homes.” 8

Show References

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    1. See Journal History, 25 July 1847.

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    2. Diary of Wilford Woodruff, 28 July 1847.

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    3. CHC 3:319.

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    4. CHC 3:362.

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    5. In Preston Nibley, Brigham Young: The Man and His Work (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1936), pp. 127–28.

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    6. CHC 3:349–53.

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    7.  Mormon Settlement in Arizona (Phoenix: James H. McClintock, 1921), pp. 4–6.

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    8.  Mormon Settlement in Arizona, p. 6.