The Old Pioneer Fort’s First and Second Years

Salt Lake West Side Stories: Post Six
by Brad Westwood

Above photo caption: Kirk Henrichsen’s bird’s eye sketch of the Fort on the Great Salt Lake, circa 1849, extending from 300 to 400 West and 250 to 600 South. Henrichsen’s drawings included log and adobe cabins, gateways, hundreds of wagons used for cooking and sleeping (inside, under, and around), the flagpole, and the animal corrals. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In the fall of 1847 and the summer of 1848, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (hereafter LDS Church and also known as “Mormons”) leadership decided to expand the perimeter of the Pioneer Fort to accommodate a flood of immigrants from “the states” and from across the British Isles and Europe.

The plans for the expansion of the fort were both partially orderly and haphazard. Amid the Jordan River low grasslands, the Mormons built something of an island. The fort consisted of hundreds of cabins (an estimated 450 by late 1848) and thousands of corralled livestock. It was surrounded by newly cleared, irrigated, and cultivated fields that would cover 2,000 acres across the valley in the spring of 1848. Later in its history, many artists depicted the fort ordered and symmetrical, lacking lived-in wagons, scattered provisions, adjacent cultivated fields or the numerous animal corrals. What a scene it must have been – this grand gathering of religious refugees which numbered about 2,000 individuals by late winter 1848!  

The arrival of Mormon colonizers to the Salt Lake Valley must have perplexed, and perhaps even alarmed, the Native Americans who lived in the area. Utah’s American Indian nations were used to interacting with white trappers and explorers who had moved through their lands and established trading posts. These European migrants rarely stayed in one area for long. However, the arrival of Mormon colonists, along with the construction of the fort, was different. Native groups watched as thousands of colonists (eventually they were called “Mormonee” by Native Americans) began plowing, building, exploring, and laying out what was both a near instant and permanent Euro-American city. In general, the Native Americans reticently accepted or tolerated the new settlers, under a presumption that they would allow them to live their lives as before. Within two years, the fort grew from its original ten acres to some forty or forty-five acres. This continued expansion by Mormon settlers exacerbated tensions between white settlers and Native American peoples who still claimed the area as their homelands. 

During their first two years living at the fort, Mormon Pioneers battled continuously with wildlife as they worked to establish their new home. On a daily basis, they faced an influx of wolves, foxes, cougars, and field mice, whose rangeland the pioneers had colonized. Mice were exceptionally troublesome as they burrowed or tunneled under their cabin’s dirt floors or often fell through their earthen or rough-hewed board ceilings making it difficult to sleep.

During their first two years living at the fort, Mormon Pioneers battled continuously with wildlife as they worked to establish their new home. On a daily basis, they faced an influx of wolves, foxes, cougars, and field mice, whose rangeland the pioneers had colonized. Mice were exceptionally troublesome as they burrowed or tunneled under their cabin’s dirt floors or often fell through their earthen or roughhewed board ceilings making it difficult to sleep. Some settlers reported killing up to fifty to sixty mice daily. The howling, growling, and nocturnal hunting of wolves, foxes, and cougars (also called catamounts) was also an unsettling nightly event.  

Residents of the fort organized their populations into “wards” and “stakes” based on geographic boundaries, which are similar to the Catholic Church’s use of parishes and dioceses. They then formed a high council, and appointed bishops to govern the fort’s geographical wards. Mormon pioneers also constructed schools and a bowery made of logs, brush, and tree limbs, used for all public gatherings. Settlers participated in elections and voted for candidates pre-selected by LDS Church leaders. In fact, after the Mexican-American War resulted in the incorporation of the Great Basin into the United States, it was from within the fort that Mormon settlers petitioned the United States government for statehood, or at least the establishment of a territorial government, with boundaries extending across the greater Intermountain region and beyond. 

On a raised mound one block east of the Pioneer Fort, residents established Salt Lake City’s first cemetery (now approximately Block 49, Plat A, 1847). Here they buried thirty-three individuals in three rows during the settlement’s earliest years. The first to be buried was three-year-old Milton Threlkel, who drowned in City Creek on August 11, 1847, only twenty days after the pioneers first arrived in the valley. Notably, Mormon settlers chose to bury their dead over burial grounds previously used by the Fremont culture people. These ancient burial grounds dated back 700 to 1200 years. The cemetery became a resting spot for peoples representing multiple centuries who made their lives on and around City Creek. On May 30, 1987, the Block 49 Committee placed a marker on the site entitled, “Utah’s First Burial Site,” on the corner of 300 West and 300 South.  

The Old Fort, Great Salt Lake City, Utah, 1848, taken from Hubert Howe Bancroft’s History of Utah, 1889. Photo courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society.

The Pioneers of 1847 were not the only migrants to call the fort home. Those who arrived in 1848 also established their first homes within the fort’s boundaries. Essentially, the fort was the initial base camp for the first settlements established across the Wasatch Front by members of the LDS Church. From this humble setting at Pioneer Square, some 70,000 LDS Church members migrated (representing dozens of nationalities) throughout the West, from Mexico to Canada, settling and resettling across what is now called the “Mormon Culture Region.” Pioneer Park represents the first large scale Euro-American settlement in the Great Basin. This is no small historical statement.

This near-instant Euro-American city was described on July 18, 1849 (nearly two years from the initial settlement) in a letter written by James E. Squire (Rochester Daily Advertiser, Rochester, New York, October 10, 1849) who stayed temporarily in “Great Salt Lake City,” before traveling to the California goldfields. The Fort at the Great Lake was not mentioned by Squire, as the well-planned Mormon city had, in the prior eighteen months, exploded into existence:

“My dear friend—I have been laying at this famous city nearly two days, and although I have thought of you yet I have had too much on hand to write….

[Describing the city:] There is a kind of table land or bank about three miles in width, sloping from the base of the mountains to the valley. The city is situated immediately under this bank, and extends three miles west towards the Utah outlet [Jordan River], and is three miles north and south. The city is entirely fenced around, and is laid out in ten acre blocks, which are subdivided into lots of 1½ [actually 1 ¼] acres each. These lots are not all built upon, but the land is entirely cultivated. There are probably 500 houses, one story high, and small, and either built of logs or adobes. In looking over it from the mountains, it resembles a settlement of Irishmen around some public works—however, everyone is neat, comfortable, and in perfect order. 

The citizens are orderly, well disposed, civil and intelligent. The streets are good, wide, and have generally a stream of water running down each side, coming from their irrigating works. The whole of the improved land is irrigated by the water coming from these caverns in the mountains. There is, I presume, 20 miles of ditch around and in the city for this purpose. The water is very pure, and conducted to every acre of ground in the city. They are just cutting wheat; it is a tolerable crop, pretty short straw but well filled. There are farms some distance [designated five and ten acre lots] from here that are said to raise from 30 to 36 bushels to the acre. Vegetation of all kinds is very thrifty and luxuriant, but still they cannot raise anything here without irrigation.”

James E. Squire

The quote below is another July 1849 description that aptly expresses the instant city that was the “Great Salt Lake City.” Settlers had begun to move out of the pioneer fort in earnest only a year before this account. The below except of a letter from an unnamed correspondent (which suggests the original letter may have been revised with other materials added) came from editor Horace Greely in The Tribune, New-York Daily Tribute (V. 9, No. 155: July 8, 1849) titled “From the Great Salt Lake City.” Greeley, a journalist, politician, and public intellectual together with his colleague, McElrath, a lawyer and business partner, wrote and published content that spoke of America’s developing nationhood and grand continent-wide enterprises. Their business, “Greeley & McElrath,” published books and newspapers that informed hundreds of thousands of easterners about the American West, among other subjects, the so-called “strange” Mormons. Listen for communal socialism and for the “anti-states” rhetoric relayed by the correspondents. Italics are used to clue the most important statements.

“Perhaps a few lines from a stranger in a strange land, and among us still more strange people, will be judged sufficiently interesting to find a place in your columns.

The company of gold-diggers which I have the honor to command, right here on the 3d inst. and judge our feelings when, after some twelve hundred miles of travel through an uncultivated desert, and the last hundred miles of the distance through and among lofty mountains and narrow and difficult ravines, we found ourselves suddenly and almost unexpectedly in a comparative Paradise.

We descended the last mountain by a passage excessively steep and abrupt, and continued our gradual descent through a narrow canyon for five or six miles, when, suddenly emerging from the pass, and extensive and cultivated valley opened before us, at the same instant that we caught a glimpse of the distant bosom of the Great Salt Lake, which lay expanded before us to the westward, at the distance of some twenty miles.

Descending the table-land which bordered the valley, extensive herds of cattle, horses and sheep were grazing in every direction, reminding us of that home and civilization from which we had so widely departed—for as yet the fields and houses were in a distance. Passing over some miles of pasture-land, we at length found ourselves in a broad and fenced street, extending westward in a straight line for several miles [likely confused with Salt Lake City’s north-south streets such as East Temple or later Main Street]. Houses of wood or sun-dried brick were thickly clustered in the vale before us, some thousands in number, and occupying a spot about as large as the City of New York [absent of Central Park and with the 1811 Commission Plan of gridded streets creeping northward, 1850 Manhattan was 20 square miles]. They were mostly small, one story high, and perhaps not more than one occupying an acre of land [lots where 1.25 acre in size]. The whole space for miles, excepting the streets and the houses, was in a high state of cultivation. Fields of yellow wheat stood waiting for the harvest, and Indian corn, potatoes, oats, flax and all kinds of garden vegetables, were growing in perfusion, and seemed about in the same state of forwardness as in the same latitude in the States.

At first sight of all these signs of cultivation in the wilderness, we were transported with wonder and pleasure. Some wept, some gave three cheers, and some laughed, and some ran and fairly danced for joy – while all felt inexpressibly happy to find themselves once more amid scenes which mark the progress of advancing civilization. We passed on amid scenes like these, expecting every moment to come to some commercial center, some business point in the Great Metropolis of the mountains; but we were disappointed. No hotels, sign-posts, cake and beer shop, barber-pole, market house, grocery, provision, dry goods or hardware stores distinguished one part of the town from another, not even a bakery or a merchant’s sign was anywhere discernible.

Here, then, with something new: an entire people reduced to a level, and all living by their labors all cultivating the earth or following some branch of physical industry. At first I thought it was an experiment and order of things established purposely to carry out the principles of “Socialism, “or “Mormonism.” In short, I thought it was very much like Owenism [utopian socialist philosophy of nineteenth century social reformer Robert Owen] personified. However, on inquiry, I found that a combination of seemingly unavoidable circumstances had produced this singular state of affairs. There were no hotels, because there had been no travel; no barbers shop because everyone chose to shave himself, and no one had time to shave his neighbor; no stores, because they had no goods to sell nor time to traffic; no center of business, because all were too busy to make a center.

There was an abundance of mechanic shops, of dress makers, milliners and tailors, etc. – but they needed no sign, nor had the time to paint or erect one, for they were crowded with business. Besides there’s several trades, all must cultivate the land or die; for the country was new, and no cultivation but they’re own within a thousand miles. Everyone had his lot, and built on it; everyone cultivated it, and perhaps a small farm in the distance.

And the strangest of all was that this great city extended over several square miles, had been erected, and every house and fence made, within nine or 10 months of the time of our arrival – while at the same time good bridges were erected over the principal streams, and the country settlements extended nearly one hundred miles up and down the valley. 

This Territory, State, or as some term it ‘Mormon Empire,’ may justly be considered one of the greatest prodigies of the age, and in comparison, with its age, only in its second year since the first seed cultivation was planted, or the first civilized habitation commenced. If these people were such thieves and robbers as their enemies represented them in the States, I must think they have greatly reformed in terms of industry since coming to the mountains.”

Mormon pioneers chose the Salt Lake’s west side as their home location during their initial years of settlement. They accredited their move to the West as a rejection by the United States and intentionally decided to cross what most nineteenth century citizens considered “Indian Country” to settle in the borderlands of Mexico. Following their conscience and to prepare quickly for an anticipated Second Coming of Christ, they moved to the Great Basin. They also believed that if they were to enter back into the Union, they would do so using popular sovereignty and self-determination. Their goal was to find a location that gave them the physical and religious space to establish their own unique theocratic government.  

After the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, Mormon settlers found themselves once again on American soil. Most United States citizens and government leaders considered the Mormon lifestyle – particularly in the practice of the “peculiar institution” of polygamy – as the antithesis of nineteenth century American culture. Generally, only those who were white, Protestant, monogamist, democratic, individualist, and interested in an open economy generally qualified to be “American.” The Mormons, who were defiantly theocratic, polygamists, and espoused collectivist ideals (placing the theocratic good over the welfare of the individual), endured nearly 50 years of the United States’ rejection before Congress granted Utah statehood. Only after many applications and denials, and a long process of adaptation and doctrinal accommodation, were Utahns granted statehood.  

Utah’s population, due to industrial development, also became more diverse when statehood was finally granted. In many ways, members of the LDS Church never got over being treated so poorly by the United States – this from the 1830s in Upstate New York to the 1890s in the Great Basin – leaving an enduring legacy of resentment and conflict with the federal government. Join us in our next Salt Lake West Side Story post where we will analyze the fort’s enduring legacy.

Do you want to read the next post (Post 7)? The Legacy of Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Fort

Click here to return to the complete list of posts.

Related Activities: Seek out and read the pioneer cemetery monument entitled “Utah’s First Pioneer Burial Site,” located on the southwest corner of 200 West and 300 South.

Do you want to know more about—in a brief chronological format—the story behind Utah’s fifty-year statehood setback? Read History to Go “Struggle for Statehood Chronology.”

Finally, if you want to read firsthand accounts describing the Great Salt Lake City as of 1849, some two years after the pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley, see:

Contributors: A special thanks to W. Randall Dixon, Kirk Henrichsen, Val Parrish, and Jenny Lund 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:

Shane A Baker, “At Rest in Zion, The Archaeology of Salt Lake City’s First Pioneer Cemetery,” Occasional Paper #14, Joel Janetski, ed. Museum of Peoples and Cultures, Brigham Young University, 2011.

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

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

Julie Osborne, “From Pioneer Fort to Pioneer Park,” Beehive History 22 – The Spirit of Pioneering, 1996, 16-20 (in History To Go, republished April 20, 2016).

Fred E. Woods, “The Arrival of Nineteenth-Century Mormon Emigrants in Salt Lake City,” Brigham Young University Religious Study Center.

The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, Volume XXVI, History of Utah, 1540 to 1886 (San Francisco: The History Company, 1889), 252-305, 276-280.

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