From Pioneer Vanguard to Pioneer Fort

Salt Lake West Side Stories: Post Five
by Brad Westwood

Above Illustration: “Fort on the Great Salt Lake,” researched and rendered by Kirk Henrichsen, circa 1995; used with permission of the artist.

In 1847, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) decided to organize an exodus to the West in search of a new homeland where they believed they could live their religion free from persecution.

Initially, LDS Church leaders considered settlement in Texas, then an independent republic; California, which at that time was on the northwestern fringes of the Mexican Empire; and Oregon, a territory that Great Britain and the United States jointly occupied. Instead, the Mormon pioneers chose to settle in the homelands of the Ute and Shoshone peoples, in the Salt Lake Valley. 

Immigrants’ first view of the Salt Lake Valley, traveling down Emigration Canyon; William Henry Jackson (1843-1942), artist. Courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society.

Shortly after Brigham Young and his expedition entered the Salt Lake Valley, they began to survey the area to locate the ideal site for a “city.” Included in the original plans, created by Young and a clutch of other church leaders, were several ten-acre blocks, which they intended to be preserved for open spaces or public squares. Early Mormon settlers also decided to build a protective fort to shelter their community from the upcoming winter. They chose one of these public squares, block 48 (Plat A), located in the southwest section of the city, to build the fort. The land included access to a water source and a nearby clay deposit that they used to make adobe bricks for cabins and the fort’s walls. Later, the Denver & Rio Grande Western built its depot on top of the clay deposit.  

The Pioneer Fort’s location was just a block west of the City Creek alluvial fan. The branches of City Creek were a quarter mile north and east of the fort near the floodplain that fed the Jordan River and the creeks flowing into it from the Wasatch canyons. Besides sitting on the edge of the alluvial fan, the Pioneer Fort area was covered in grasslands partially surrounded by the remains of dry marshlands. There was a spring kitty-corner from the fort, in what is now the site of the LaFrance Apartments and Greek Orthodox Church (279 South 300 West). Euro-American colonizers plowed, irrigated, and planted their first farm plot in the Salt Lake Valley just four blocks east of Pioneer Park. They chose the location because it was on the banks of the yet-to-be channeled City Creek. In 1931, the Utah Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution installed a marker for the first farm plowing at 111 East and 300 South to honor the endeavor.

The Pioneer Fort’s location was just a block west of the City Creek’s alluvial fan.

On August 1, 1847, Pioneer vanguard diarist William Clayton recounted a quote given by Elder Heber C. Kimball about the future of a fort in the area. According to Clayton, Kimball proposed that the LDS Church erect houses to form “a stockade or fort to keep out the Indians that our women and children be not abused, and that we let Ute Indians alone.” The near-ten-acre fort described in Clayton’s letter was initially located on what is now Pioneer Park and built of adobe walls on three sides. The east side of the fort consisted of log cabins. After the arrival of additional immigrants during the fall of 1847, the Saints enlarged the fort by pushing the boundaries two additional blocks to the south and the north. The new borders of the fort covered what is now 600 South and between 300 and 200 South to the North to what is now 600 South.

Early Mormon immigrants found that what is now the “west side” offered a secure and viable location to begin a settlement in the Salt Lake Valley. Ignoring the fact that Native Americans already laid claim to the area, Mormon pioneer immigrants began to transform the land by first constructing a fort, building temporary dwellings, tilling the soil and planting crops. Their fort would eventually become what is now known as Pioneer Park, but in the late 1840s, this space served as a toehold, and as a jumping off place, for the expansion and habitation of the Salt Lake Valley.

We hope you join us for our next Salt Lake West Side Stories post where we will discuss the “Fort on the Great Salt Lake.”

Would you like to read the next post (Post 6)? THE OLD PIONEER FORT’S FIRST AND SECOND YEARS

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Related Activity: Walk the perimeter of the current Pioneer Park. As you walk, look south to north and try to imagine the vast spaces that made up the once three and a quarter block fort. Also, take note of the recent park improvements that include a large central lawn, a walkway, a sports field, and lighting. If you want to learn more about the park’s recent or future transformations, read more at the Pioneer Park Coalition (PPC). The PPC’s mission is to serve the Pioneer Park neighborhood through advocacy and, in a broad coalition revitalize the Pioneer Park, and find solutions to social issues, including addressing Salt Lake City’s homeless community.  

Contributors: A special thanks to W. Randall Dixon (historian, retired archivist, and initial author of the first treatment for this series, formerly from LDS Church History Department), Kirk Hendrickson (former curator and exhibition designer, LDS Church History Department), Val Parrish (chapter president, Salt Lake Pioneer Chapter, Sons of Utah Pioneers) and Jenny Lund (director, Church Historic Sites, LDS Church History Department) for contributing to the contents of this post.

This post was researched and written by Brad Westwood with a whole lot of help from friends. Thanks to our sound engineer and recording engineer Jason T. Powers, and to his supervisor Lisa Nelson, both at the Utah State Library’s Reading for the Blind program. Thanks also to yours truly, David Toranto, for narrating this post.

Selected Readings:

Eugene E. Campbell, Establishing Zion: The Mormon Church in the American West, 1847-1869 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988), 1-40.

Thomas G. Alexander, “Settlement and Exploration” chapter, originally from the book Utah, The Right Place (Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2003).

Craig D. Galli, “Building Zion: The Latter-day Saint Legacy of Urban Planning,” BYU Studies Quarterly 44, 1 (Jan 2005): 1-26.

Julie Osborn, “From Pioneer Fort to Pioneer Park,” Beehive History: The Spirit of Pioneering 22 (1996): 16-20.

Fred E. Woods, “The Arrival of Nineteenth-Century Mormon Emigrants in Salt Lake City,” in Salt Lake City: The Place Which God Prepared, ed. Scott C. Esplin and Kenneth L. Alford (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 203–230.

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