Alright guys, so in the last episode, we covered the pioneer trek along the Mormon Trail to what would later be known as Utah. The first advance company set eyes on the Salt Lake Valley on July 21st, 1847. A very sick Brigham Young and the rest of the first company came rolling in on July 24th. In this episode, we’re going to look at what these first settlers did during these first few crucial years after arriving. Let’s do it.
Within about a week after arrival, the Saints accomplished a lot: They made camp near City Creek, near modern-day Washington Square; they organized themselves and planted a garden where this Ken Garff building now stands. Exploration parties went north, south, and west. It was during this short expedition that Brigham Young and the northern team first scaled the famous Ensign Peak. Trade with Native Americans commenced, largely with the Ute and Shoshone tribes. Brigham and other leaders outlined a city plan centered around a patch of ground where Brigham had stuck his cane in the dirt and declared, “Here shall stand the temple of our God.”
Salt Lake City is known in part for its very wide streets. I remember as a kid hearing the old joke that that was because Brigham Young wanted enough room to walk down the street next to all of his wives. The real reason was reportedly so that ox teams could turn around without having to back up.
By the end of July, 53 acres of land had been plowed and planted, with more on the way, and the population of the settlement had grown to about 400. The first structure built in the Valley was an open-air bowery similar to this one, used for public gatherings and meetings. The Saints were soon busy constructing a fort (where modern-day Pioneer Park now is) and rudimentary homes made from logs and/or adobe bricks.
Many of the incoming pioneers in these early years, including Brigham Young and other leaders, renewed their baptismal covenants by being re-baptized. There was nothing wrong with their original baptism — this was just a way to re-dedicate themselves to the Lord as they began to rebuild their lives in the Valley.
But remember that while all of this was happening in the Valley, there were about 1,500 Saints still crossing the plains, with thousands more still around Winter Quarters, prepping to leave. Many of the men in the advance party had family that still needed to make the trip. Thus, on August 26th, only about a month after arriving, Brigham Young, all of the available apostles, and more than 150 others turned around, left their “promised land,” and set out on the 1,000-mile journey back to Winter Quarters, to help more of the Saints get across the plains.
With Brigham and the apostles on the road again, the leadership of the Salt Lake settlement fell to the high council of the newly formed Salt Lake Stake, led by Joseph Smith’s uncle, John Smith. “As Stake President, John oversaw city planning, land distribution, and public building projects.” Later, the Council of Fifty (which we’ve done an episode on) would be put in charge.
By the end of 1847, over 2,000 pioneers had arrived in the Valley, but there were hard times ahead. Throughout their first winter, the Saints dealt with a food shortage, leaky roofs, packs of wolves pestering the livestock outside the fort, and plenty of mice and bugs pestering the settlers inside the fort. But it was the spring and summer season of 1848 that brought conditions from bad to worse. There was a late frost extending into May of 1848, followed by a drought and legions of crickets that went to work on the Saints’ crops. Nonetheless, with some good old-fashioned perseverance, aid from California, and the help of some hungry seagulls, the Saints scraped by.
After the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in 1844, it actually wasn’t until December of 1847, in Kanesville, Iowa, that the First Presidency was finally officially reorganized, with Brigham Young as president and Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards as his counselors. In May 1848, Brigham Young and other leaders once again set out with another wave of pioneers—much larger this time—towards the Valley.
It’s also worth noting that in 1848, the Mexican-American War ended with the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which meant that the territory the Saints had settled in, which previously belonged to Mexico, now belonged to the United States. In September 1850, the government would officially recognize Utah as a territory of the United States. Brigham Young and his pioneer train arrived once again in the valley in the fall of 1848. By the end of the year, there were between four and five thousand settlers in the area.1848 & 1849 brought with them the California Gold Rush, sparking a huge exodus from the eastern United States to California. Salt Lake was a pit stop for a lot of these travelers, who brought with them valuable trading opportunities. The Saints also constructed roads, bridges, a bathhouse, etc. The Saints were finally starting to get their feet under them. They were finally moving past “survival mode” and into a time of relative prosperity.
“After the Saints began moving out of the fort and building homes in the city, Church leaders organized them into twenty-three wards (or congregations), each presided over by a bishop. New Settlements also began to dot the Salt Lake Valley and the valleys to the north and south, and many Saints started constructing shops, mills, and factories.”
Now, there’s sooo much more we could talk about. Relations with the Native Americans, relations with the U.S. government, city planning, missionary work — did you know missionaries were sent to California to dig for gold? Yeah, it was a thing. Anyway, if you want to dive deeper into these first few years in the valley, check out the resources in the YouTube description— especially the books, if you can. In the meantime, watch some of our other videos while you’re here, and have a great day!
- History of Utah, Vol. 1, by Orson K Whitney (1892)
- No Unhallowed Hand, Saints, Vol 2.
- Brigham Young and the Expansion of Mormon Faith, by Thomas Alexander
- The Story of the Latter-day Saints, by James Allen & Glen Leonard
- ‘Salt Lake City” via Encyclopedia Britannica: https://bit.ly/3Ngff3I
- “Winter Quarters: Church Headquarters, 1846–1848” via the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3l9g3vn
- “Establishing a Refuse in Deseret,” via the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3N4w01Y
- “What life was like for the Mormon pioneers after entering the Salt Lake Valley” via Deseret News: https://bit.ly/3weIoXH
- William Clayton’s journal: https://bit.ly/3syYt88
- “Council of Fifty” via the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3wj5KLN